For all the fancy food available in Washington, D.C., these days, the city’s iconic local dish is a humble sausage. Though you could start a fight trying to define the half-smoke, most folks agree that it’s a smoked sausage made with a blend of beef, pork, and spices. (If you’ve got some time on your hands, check out Davie Jamieson’s 2007 epic history of the half-smoke in the Washington City Paper.)
At its best, a half-smoke almost startles you with its snappy casing. The charred smell of the grill and the slap of mustard waft up your nose as you chew. A pillowy bun is best for absorbing whatever juices escape.
You can buy half-smoke links to cook at home at older delis and butcher counters, like Canales Delicatessen and Union Meat Company in Eastern Market and at Harvey’s at Union Market. Vendors that dot the National Mall have long sold them from street carts.
Of all the old-school spots, Ben’s Chili Bowl is the undisputed spiritual home of the half-smoke. When most locals think of the half-smoke, what they’re really thinking of is the Ben’s chili half-smoke—grilled on a flattop, and served in a bun with chili, mustard, and diced white onions.
Founded on U Street NW in 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been family-owned and operated for 58 years, throughout the city’s waves of cultural flowering, economic hardship, and social upheaval. It is a restaurant, a museum, and a community shrine, which you can see in the dining room with its original chrome barstools, backlit menu lettering, and signage.
“So many people had their first dates here, dated here, courted their wives or their husbands here,” says Nazim Ali, who has succeeded his father, Ben, at the helm of Ben’s Chili Bowl. “It’s really important to keep the place the way it is for everyone to relive those memories.”
As gentrification and development rapidly transform the cityscape and its population, the half-smoke is a crossover hit that bridges old D.C. and new.
Now, you can also find half-smokes in the meat section of specialty grocery stores like Yes! Organic Market. Stachowski’s Market in Georgetown, headed up by the meat and charcuterie mastermind Jamie Stachowski, sells its own housemade version. Half-smokes are even on the menu at the Sweet Home Café in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (made by the same company that does a custom half-smoke blend for Ben’s Chili Bowl).
And Ben’s is thriving amid the changes in the city, serving half-smokes to the masses at new outposts on H Street NE, at the Nationals Stadium, FedEx Field, and National Airport.
My favorite place for a half-smoke is Meats & Foods. From a sunny storefront in Bloomingdale, Ana Marin and Scott McIntosh make handmade sausages and sandwiches. Though the owners aren’t native Washingtonians, the Meats & Foods half-smoke pays homage to the sausage’s deep roots here.
For Washingtonians, the half-smoke is our gastronomic shibboleth. Where do you go to eat half smokes? Do you order them split or whole? With chili, mustard, and onions or without? The answers to these questions can reveal how long you’ve been here, where you socialize, and what you know about the city.
“We make a half smoke because we are a sausage place in D.C., and it would be silly not to,” says Marin. “Ben’s half smoke is still the standard bearer,” she adds. “They will be forever.”
Did we leave off your favorite half-smoke spot? Tell us in the comments.