City Paper is not for tourists
Yesterday, readers of the Young & Hungry newsletter (hint, hint: sign up at right) got first word on who won the D.C. Dish Hall of Fame. Today, we tell everyone the results of our debut contest, which we launched back in October with the idea of sussing out the dishes that best define the D.C. metro area.
From the very beginning, voters were clear on their favorite. It’s the same one that Bill Cosby loves. The same one that puzzled future president Barack Obama. The same one made in Baltimore but rich in D.C. history.
Yep, you know it as the chili half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The famous link in the natural casing, topped with the joint’s dark signature meat gravy, beat the nearest competitor, the falafel from Amsterdam Falafelshop, by more than 100 votes. In terms of this contest, that’s a landslide.
It’s a landslide particularly when you consider that Ben’s, unlike Amsterdam, did not solicit customers to vote for its dish. Nizam Ali, the youngest son of founders Virginia and the late Ben Ali, says he didn’t even know about the Hall of Fame voting until late last week. At that point, he told a handful of friends about it, and even voted himself, but didn’t promote the contest at the Bowl.
Who did Nizam Ali vote for? “I voted for us, of course,” says Ali, who now runs Ben’s with older brother Kamal. “I voted for Horace & Dickie’s fried fish and what was the other one? I can’t remember now.”
“Oh, I think it was 2Amys,” he says about the pizzeria’s Margherita pie.
Many of the 1,238 voters agreed with Ali’s choices. More than 500 of them voted for the chili half-smoke, followed by the falafel at Amsterdam (395 votes), the hamburger at Five Guys (259), the Peruvian chicken at El Pollo Rico (193), and the Margherita pizza at 2Amys (186). These five dishes make up the inaugural class of the D.C. Dish Hall of Fame.
“It is only because of the loyal following of our customers that we could have achieved something like this, and we are honored beyond belief to be included with the likes of true landmarks like Ben’s, and true culinary delights like 2Amys,” writes Arianne Bennett, co-owner of Amsterdam Falafelshop with husband, Scott.
Bennett’s not kidding about the loyal following. Their customers are so loyal, they take orders. Bennett admits that Amsterdam added a note to the bottom of the shop’s receipts, urging customers to vote; she also alerted the vegetarian community in an effort to solicit more votes for the only veggie option in the competition. Maybe as a result, many of the comments we received about Amsterdam’s falafel were nothing less than gushing.
A sample: “Amsterdam has the Best Falefel ever, I adore them and wish there was one right next to my house!”
Then again, Ben’s earned its praise without any prodding from the restaurant. Consider this reader comment: “As much as I enjoy a nice dinner at Central or Cafe Atlantico, nothing beats a half-smoke. And no half-smoke beats one from Ben’s. I just moved away from DC after 22 years this fall, and the idea that I won’t ever be able to eat a half-smoke unless I’m visiting my parents kills me.”
Or consider what chefs think about Ben’s half-smoke, despite the fact that it’s a commercial sausage produced by Manger Packing Corp. in Baltimore. “I have had the half smoke with chili. I have had the half smoke with a fried egg. I think it’s good,” says chef R.J. Cooper of Vidalia, where he’s been known to make his own sausages. “Is it the quintessential Washington, D.C. food? If anything is it, that would have to be it.”
The interesting thing is that both Ben’s and Amsterdam — one an institution, the other a budding one — are still formulating or thinking about franchising plans. Could either one (or both) become the next Five Guys, a once (and always) beloved local institution that has spread its seed all over the country?
The question is rather loaded, especially for Nizam Ali and family. Ali said he had read Y&H’s recent blog item, in which I wondered whether Five Guys’ burger was still Hall of Fame worthy given that the chain’s aggressive franchising has (sometimes) hurt the quality of its product (not to mention managers’ ability to make sure cooks know how to griddle those patties properly).
“I thought to myself, Hey, if and when or somewhere down the line if the Chili Bowl franchises, would that knock the half-smoke or Ben’s out of the running[for a place among D.C.’s iconic dishes]?” Nizam Ali says. “It’s an interesting question.”
It’s an interesting question for the Alis because, for 51 years now, they have prided themselves on their personal touch at Ben’s. They’ve prided themselves on the history that the U Street institution oozes. They’ve prided themselves, in short, on being a family-run business.
“Because of the history and legacy of the family, we really want to do it our way and kind of want to keep control of it,” Nizam Ali says. “The Chili Bowl has been all about family, and we want to keep our family intact. So if I’m running around selling franchises and my brother’s running and going to the openings and checking the quality, then we’re both divorced…You know what I mean? So what’s more important? The running around and opening thousands of stores or making sure that your home life is happy and all that stuff. That’s kind of more important to us.”
At the same time, the Alis have not ruled out franchising altogether. It’s probably impossible to rule out franchising when the family constantly receives calls about it. But here’s hoping that Ben’s never becomes another Five Guys, no matter how much money they could make from it.
As a final note, I want to thank all of you who participated in our very first D.C. Dish Hall of Fame contest. If you have some thoughts about the results, please e-mail them to me, and I’ll publish the best on the blog.
In the meantime, go out and congratulate the winners by visiting their restaurants.
The inaugural class of the D.C. Dish Hall of Fame:
Half-smoke with chili at Ben’s Chili Bowl, 502 votes
Falafel at Amsterdam Falafelshop, 395
Hamburger at Five Guys, 259
Peruvian chicken at El Pollo Rico, 193
Margherita pizza at 2Amys, 186