Classic American flavor, fave of President Obama: DC’s Ben’s Chili Bowl [classic article]

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Tamar Alexia Fleishman, Esq.

On a beautiful sunny afternoon in Washington, D.C., I walked from my hotel room at The Jefferson to the historic Black neighborhood: U St./Shaw. There, I loaded up on the tasty fare at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local institution since 1958

Ben’s Chili Bowl has always been open late — today on weekend, ’til 4 am — as a way to support and revitalize the neighborhood. The place was popular with such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King Jr., Donny Hathaway, Roy Ayers and Bill Cosby.

After Dr. King was assassinated, there were riots in the nation’s capital. According to the restaurant’s history notes, Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), located across the street, obtained special police permission to allow Ben’s to stay open after curfew to provide food and shelter for activists, firefighters and public servants “desperately trying to restore order”.

They’re very proud at the restaurant that President Obama patronized the restaurant days before his inauguration. He really likes it!

So, how is the food? Well, first, I made the decision to take my order back to my hotel room. I was with my dog, for one and secondly, I know myself: I drip stuff very easily. After stripping down to my skivvies, I dived in. Of course, I had to order their signature dish, the “Bill Cosby’s Original Chili Half-Smoke”. It’s made with 1/4lb. half pork and beef smoked sausage on a warm steamed bun and topped with mustard, onions and their spicy homemade chili sauce. You can get it split and grilled on request. It’s very flavorful! This isn’t fancy food, but it’s satisfying as all get-out. I had some other chili-oriented dishes, as well.

So, here’s the funny part: this was just supposed to be a snack. Portions are generous and chili is filling! So, I don’t know how many people get dessert . . . I guess enough, because they get it in freshly baked every day. I was contemplating between various traditional Southern desserts, like pie and red velvet cake, when one of the gals behind the counter whispered that what I really wanted was the pineapple-coconut cake. Oh ho ho! That is some good stuff! Tender, fruity, fluffy cake is addictive.

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