There's a place called Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in Washington D.C. that's been the talk of the town since 1958. Ben's half-smokes and chili sauce — a riff on the traditional chili dog — has been raved over by the rich and famous and showcased on any number of popular cable food programs. I've always wanted to visit. Now I don't have to.
There is a website called Goldbely.com that everyone who's spent any time watching the Food Network or the Cooking Channel should either bookmark or avoid at all cost. They specialize in making legendary local food available all over the country. My wife and I, enthusiastic eaters, had planned a trip around the country to visit many of the restaurants, bakeries and ice cream shops that Goldbely services. In a way, the site has crushed one of our dreams. Way to go.
But now I have a huge list of items I might have never gotten around to tasting otherwise, just waiting for my order, and on top of that list — Ben's Chili Bowl's half-smokes and chili sauce.
I would go into the history of Ben's Chili Bowl at great length, but the great Anthony Bourdain has already taken care of that for me. He is one of my heroes, and so I give this one to him.
Ben's signature item is the half-smoke and chili sauce. A half-smoke is a sausage that's half beef and half pork. Eaten alone, it tastes a lot like your sweeter breakfast sausages — kielbasa comes to mind. After eating Ben's configuration, however, you'll never want to eat one alone again.
Now comes the tricky bit. In order to eat these, I had to cook them, which technically goes against the very idea of snacking. Snacking is grabbing something pre-prepared and eating it — at most adding condiments. This was actual cooking.
I struggled with this for some time, until coming to the following conclusion: it was either this, or drive to D.C., and I'd much rather tear at the fundamentals of my science than do that.
As you can see in the video above and the picture below, there is a reason I stick to baking.
It looked rather unpleasant when I got done with it, but my version of Ben's Chili Bowl's half-smoke and chili sauce was good enough that we never actually got around to eating them on camera.
So let me lay it out for you. You've got a very sweet sausage, the kind that you can't stop eating even though you know the gas is going to get you back later. Mustard and onions do want they do, adding a pleasant tang and a mild crunch. So far, so good.
Then you add the chili, and the magic happens.
Ben's chili sauce is hot and somewhat bitter — it's not the sort of thing I would go out of my way to eat on its own. It's a strong taste that needs to be cut, and damn if those half-smokes don't do the job right.
The bitter chili and sweet sausage balance each other perfectly. I worried about which buns to use for these, but in the end it didn't really matter — the sausage and chili were the stars here, overpowering any bit of bread they blessed with their combined might.
And keep in mind this is just my rendition of the classic. I'm pretty sure I cooked the sausages poorly, the onions were chopped with divorce-inducing ineptitude, and the mustard was a bit of a jerk, if you must know.
(Wife's note: "Geeze, I didn't know I was cutting onions for some sort of Top Chef thing, you f**k.")
Then there's the fact that any regional food is better when consumed in the region famous for producing it. I could make a Philly cheese steak using the same exact ingredients and preparation of this little place called Wally's down the street from where I grew up in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, and it wouldn't taste as good. Something about the atmosphere.
So maybe our trip across the country, stopping at the various eateries that make America taste so damn good isn't cancelled due to Goldbely — it's just not quite as urgent.
If you ever find yourself in the D.C. area, be sure to hunt down Ben's Chili Bowl. Tell them Michael Fahey from Kotaku sent you. I assure you they'll have no idea what you're talking about.
Snacktaku is Kotaku's take on the wild and wonderful world of eating things, but not eating meals. Eating meals is for those with too much time on their hands. Past critiques can be found at the Snacktaku review archive.
Video Music: "Five Fishermen" by Superpoze.