Image courtesy Roadfood.com.
Erin has been kindly feeding my obsession about looking for a new city’s local delicacy and making a quest to sample it. Perhaps it’s to help feed my growing love of travel, or perhaps she’s just responding to how I responded (salivating) to the PBS special Sandwiches You Will Love. Either way, we both enjoy the joy of discovering that special dish that can be found nowhere else, and adding it to our list of experiences.
Washington DC proved to be a bit of a challenge, however. The city is such a melting pot, not just in terms of being a destination for immigrants, but in terms of the city being a destination for people coming from across America to work in the nation’s capital. There are numerous good restaurants you can eat at, from any number of cuisines, but very few can be said to be truly representative of DC.
But Erin did some research and came up with Ben’s Chili Bowl, at 1213 U Street SW, directly across from the U Street station on the Green Line Metro, in the heart of an area that used to be known as “the Black Broadway”.
Ben’s Chili Bowl is a diner steeped in history, set up by a young couple in 1958 and holding out as the neighbourhood fell into disrepair and rose again to prominence. Bill Cosby was a loyal customer, and gave the diner a shot of national attention in the mid 1980s when he held a celebratory news conference there to announce that his Cosby Show was now the number one rated show on television.
The dish that the restaurant is most famous for is its Chile Smoke with cheese — essentially a chili-smothered hot dog using a special “half smoked” sausage, which as this review says, is “a taut-skinned smoky link unique to the D.C. area, it is bigger than most hot dogs, well-browned on the griddle. It is firm-fleshed with an unbelievably luscious character”.
Just like Arthur Bryant’s famous barbecue grill in Kansas City, atmosphere and presentation were not the primary considerations of the restaurant, although the bar and seats are charming, and original to the diner’s 1958 appearance. Our chili half smoke was served on wax paper in a red plastic bucket with a side of potato chips. The cheese sauce on top of the chili was velveta and the only other condiments were mustard and onions. But as with Arthur Bryant’s barbecue grill, the food was the important thing.
Erin doesn’t typically like hot dogs or chili dogs, but she liked this. The sausage was rich and the chili phenomenal. The spices stand out boldly and mix well with the meaty sausage. Even Vivian liked it, though it was hot chili too. The whole thing had to be eaten with a knife and fork (plastic, of course) and the experience was unforgettable.
The restaurant retains its popularity. It’s currently run by the sons of the original owners, and the place was nearly full when we got there (and a good cross-section of Washington life, too). While we were eating, the staff and the patrons were all watching Georgetown University beat North Carolina at basketball to enter the final four, and we felt like we were observers at a unique local event.
During this trip, I also had the privilege of checking out Washington’s Metro system, and I must say that it is impressive. We were able to leave the car behind at the southern end of the Blue Line and take the train into town all weekend. DC itself is quite walkable thanks to the subway, which was obviously a significant achievement.
That said, I did notice some freying around the edges. I was surprised at how dim the downtown stations were. Most of the lighting was designed to be indirect, bouncing off the concrete arch ceilings in order to illuminate the space. Unfortunately, thanks to deferred maintenance, bulbs are blown, or their coverings dirty, and the result is stations which appear somewhat dank and a little less than safe. Marguerite tells me that there are plans afoot to replace the lighting with brighter LEDs, and that should help. The concrete arch ceilings were still impressive, but this was a motif that seemed to have been repeated in every single underground station in the network. Unlike the artistic stations of Montreal, this got boring after a while. Even Toronto, which relies on spartan tiles to alter the appearance of individual stations, offered more interest and variety to me.
But I couldn’t argue with how effectively the Metro covered Washington, or the speed of the service, or its frequencies. I was impressed by the smart card fare system, even though paying to leave (really the only way to implement a proper fare-by-distance scheme; Toronto take note) was often a surprise and sometimes a bother to this Torontonian, although Washington’s turnstiles were easy to use and a dream to move through (as compared to Chicago where you can identify a tourist by the amount of frustration he has using their smart cards in the CTA’s turnstiles).