Like the famed mumbo sauce doused on chicken wings and fries across the nation’s capital, the half-smoked — a cross between a traditional hot dog and kielbasa sausage — remains a regional delicacy. And while the market on half-smoke had been claimed by the family-owned Ben’s Chili Bowl, it’s recently become the new kid on the block — six streets away.
After visiting HalfSmoke, the environment proved to be vibrant and youthful as plates of falafel on a bun, served alongside chicken and funnel cake entrees, added a new twist on an old favorite. Meanwhile, customers who packed the more eclectic eatery said the vibe and menu fit their millennial taste buds to a tee.
Jurnee Williams, a Howard University graduate student, said that she loves the ambiance of HalfSmoke and the meatless options on the menu, adding “Ben’s cannot be beat.”
“I know there may be a bit of soft competition between the two establishments but there is room enough for both. I have made room for both,” Williams said between bites of a half-smoke topped with crunch onion straws. “The market is good in this area for both and my friends and I have found something in both places to keep us coming back.”
HalfSmoke is also great for kicking the fun up a notch.
In addition to the “design your own sausage dish,” HalfSmoke, which opened in 2016, has revamped the way patrons eat half-smokes by offering dishes where it’s served atop wild rice, on top of mixed greens, or substituted for falafel.
Visitors to the 100-seat dining room order from cartooned menus with slogans like, “Don’t grow up, it’s a trap” with meals served meals in a metal cartoon lunch box, rather than on a traditional plate.
It quickly becomes apparent that as the District demographics shift to younger, more upwardly mobile residents, so too, have their tastes. Whether it’s the presentation of food or the atmosphere of the space, many restaurants like Ben’s Chili Bowl must now compete with newer, more trendy restaurants.
But for traditionalists, the walls lined with D.C. notables and international celebrities, the kind approachability of the Ali family, who stop to chat with diners, and the original lunch counter-style décor, are as much a part of the Ben’s dining experience as their famed half-smoke.
“Coming to Ben’s is like stepping onto the pages of a history book. You want to provide that experience in a city that is quickly losing its identity,” retired musician Percy Malcom said. “There is civil rights and D.C. history right here and loads of people who serve you the good, old fashioned way — with a smile.”
“My grandkids hang out down the street — and that’s okay because they need their space to do their thing. I’ve had HalfSmoke and the food is dynamite but they know to meet ‘Pop-Pop’ at Ben’s in the back on Thursday afternoons.”
Since the first Ben’s Chili Bowl’s opening in 1958, the franchise has expanded to four locations throughout the DMV, as well as Ben’s Next Door restaurant and bar next to the original Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street and Ben’s Upstairs on H Street which features Southern cuisine with a tropical accent. This year, Ben’s celebrates its 60th anniversary of the place that was “first to take the half-smoke and put it on a bun,” said restaurant spokesperson Vida Ali, daughter-in-law of the founders, Ben and Virginia.
Still, one question remains: Is there room in the city for both restaurants?
Both Ben’s Ali, and Sade Sydney, HalfSmoke’s service manager, concur that each restaurant’s function is to “serve the community, so it’s never about competition.”
“As long as both are around, I’ll gladly eat from both. There’s no need for competition when both hit the mark,” Williams concluded.