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Just three days after Barack Obama‘s surprise and symbolic visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl—-part “man of the people” statement, part embrace of D.C.’s historic black culture—-the U Street institution has become overrun with gawkers and media gurus. I arrived at 11:20 a.m. on a Tuesday, just 20 minutes after Ben’s starts serving its full menu, and practically every seat and stool in the place was already occupied, with more waiting in line. A gaggle of young professionals was scampering across the street with their to-go bags and colas. Inside the place, two different crews were pointing their cameras at everything in sight—-the sausages sweating away on the griddle, the burgers sizzling on the secondary grill, the diners trying to eat their lunch in peace. Obama’s stamp of approval, it would seem, has more pull than any food critic’s.
The future president may not know what a half-smoke is, but he had the good sense to order one. Ben’s gets its sausages custom-made from Manger in Baltimore, and they are these spicy, thick, ultra-meaty links griddled until the casings are charred and snappy. If our local street vendors, many of whom foist off Polish sausages as half-smokes, have lulled you into complacency about D.C.’s signature snack, all you need to do is visit Ben’s for a refresher course on the real thing. I’d suggest you order it with onions, mustard, and chili, even though I find Ben’s dark, uniform chili too tame. But like a good sauce, the chili serves as the perfect complement to this hot link, providing a slightly sweet, slighty piquant topping to the city’s best dog, hands down. Given the increase in traffic and attention that Obama has brought to Ben’s, is it any wonder that the Manger Packing Corp. truck was rumbling down Ben Ali Way during my visit, bringing in more links for the joint’s new (and old) fans?
Image by Flickr user dbking.