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Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud

27 November 2008 2,208 views 4 Comments

BensChiliBowlYesterday I met Steve at Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C. This U Street institution celebrated their 50th Anniversary in August. I knew I couldn’t show my face back in Austin without visiting Ben’s on this trip. Now that I’m a “food blogger” there are certain expectations I must uphold.

Ben’s is located at 1213 U Street and I walked from 9th and E so that I could burn some calories before taking on an artery-clogging lunch. Steve and I had agreed ahead of time to share a half-smoke with chili and mustard, cheese fries, and a chocolate milkshake. Due to their size, they are often mistaken for the Polish sausage kielbasa.

The etymology of of “half-smoke” is unclear as the sausage is not smoked. One possible explanation is that many places cut the sausage in half when grilling, or that many half-smokes are 50/50 beef and pork (though 100% beef half-Jodismokes are common).

The U Street corridor and Ben’s have a really interesting history. The area was affected by the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. During the riots black activist Stokely Carmichael asked the owners to stay open past curfew. They did and served the police and rioters alike.

SteveThe building was Washington’s first silent movie house, which was established in 1911. In the 50′s, many jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole stopped by the restaurant when they performed at U Street clubs.

The most famous regular is Bill Cosby — who courted his wife their in the 1960s and held a press conference at the restaurant in the 1980s to celebrate the success of “The Cosby Show.” For a long time, there was a sign posted naming Bill Cosby as the only person who eats for free at the restaurant. On Nov. 3, 2008 — the sign was amended to add “The Obama Family.”

I asked the cashier if the Obama’s had been in yet and he said, “Not yet, but it won’t be long.”

As mentioned, I visited Ben’s for the good of the blog — cheese fries and chili dogs aren’t normally my thing. I have to say that the half-smoke was delicious though.

The cheese fries were pretty good at first but after a few minutes, the cheese turned plasticky and dry and I couldn’t eat any more. The chocolate milkshake was thick and delicious — perfect to wash down this type of meal.

The juke box is awesome as well — filled with soul music and as we left, the staff were singing along.

When we left Ben’s, Steve took me to see some of the other U Street sites now that it has been gentrified. I’m glad I popped


into Busboys & Poets bookstore, a wonderful progressive bookstore operated by “Teaching for Change” where I bought a book for baby Rachel LeVine. It seemed fitting that there was a mural of President-Elect Obama on a wall as I walked between Ben’s and the bookstore/coffee shop.

On the way home, I picked up cupcakes from CakeLove to bring to Renee and baby Rachel. I sampled their carrot cake and it was really carroty, cream-cheesy, and delicious. But the cupcakes I brought back to Renee’s (pumpkin and mojito) were too heavy and not moist enough. The icing is pretty good though.

If I moved back to D.C., I think the U Street corridor would be high on my list of areas to live. I’m not leaving Austin any time soon though.

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  • rachf

    What fun! And, those pics are fab. Warms my heart to see ya’ll exploring the city together. Too bad I had to work!

  • Brandon

    And just when I think there’s no way some one can make eating a chili dog, adorable.

  • Anonymous

    Ben’s Chili bowl is a great spot. You have made it to the top of DC’s best by eating there. You surely know how to explore a city, sweetie. Love, Mom

  • Anonymous

    Way to work the hat!!!

    Welcome home!