Ben’s is a landmark, a tourist attraction, and a place former President Obama was known to go when Michelle wasn’t looking. We hold none of that against what is, in fact, a terrific chili-dog parlor in the nation’s capital.
When you stroll in, you will see a griddle on the right, lined up with hot dogs and half-smoke sausages, sizzling hot and ready to be bunned, dressed, and topped with chili. We recommend both the regular chili dog and the chili smoke, the latter made with the half-smoke sausage that is unique to the area around DC. It is a taut-skinned smoky link bigger than most hot dogs, firm-fleshed with an unbelievably luscious character. It is especially good blanketed with Ben’s chili, which is thick, peppery, full-flavored and positively addictive. The whole package – sausage, mustard and onions, and a heap of chili all piled into a tender bun – is extremely unwieldy, impossible to eat without lots of spillage; but that’s ok. Dripping and licking is part of the dining experience.
The regular hot dog has plenty of character too. No bland tube steak here; it is hot and spicy and a fine balance for the chili. As for dessert, there are fine cakes, served in thick layered slices with plenty of frosting. We love the sweet potato cake, which is moist and spicy.
As for Ben’s history, there’s a whole fact sheet on the counter to take and read (or the historical information is available at Ben’s web site). The basic story is that U Street was once known as Black Broadway for all the musical talent that used to perform in clubs along the way. Since its founding in 1958, Ben’s has survived the neighborhood’s ups and downs, and in 2001, its founders, Ben and Virginia Ali, were inducted into the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame. (Mr. Ali passed away in October, 2009.)