Learn How to Make a Half-Smoke From the Person Who Made Them DC-Famous
Ben and Virginia Ali served their first version of the sausage-meets-chili-dog at Ben's Chili Bowl back in 1958
“Well, we opened on August 22, 1958.”
When Virginia Ali and her husband Ben first started brainstorming about the dream of opening their own little restaurant, the first thing they had to do was decide what kind. A full-service ordeal was off the table for them, and Virginia says that hamburger places were a dime a dozen: “We thought we could try the old American hot dog.”
One of the many elements that has continued to distinguish Ben’s Chili Bowl over the past 60-some-odd years is Ben’s special chili recipe, of course. Virginia says that it was Ben who first came up with the idea to make their own play on the concept of the half-smoke, a special local breakfast-sausage-turned sandwich. “He was the one who came up with the idea of a breakfast sausage going into a nice steamed hotdog bun, cutting it and dressing it with mustard, onions and homemade chili sauce,” says Virginia.
The rest was history, literally. Since they first opened their doors on 1213 U Street, Ben’s Chili Bowl has served customers including Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. — all while playing an integral part of the history of the city and serving as a community pillar of DC for decades. Ben died in 2009 at the age of 82, a passing mourned by the city at large, with Mayor Adrian Fenty celebrating “the soul of a neighborhood and the pride of our city.”
Virginia tells InsideHook that when she and her husband were scouting for the perfect location, Washington was a segregated city. That meant, as a young Black couple, they were only able to consider certain parts of the city for their opening, and Virginia’s first choice was finding a venue on what was once called “Black Broadway.” They did — and opened Ben’s in what was built originally a silent movie theater that was being operated as a pool hall.
From the start, it was obvious Ben’s would become a welcomed part of the community, as Virginia proudly shares how she and her husband enlisted everyone from the architect and cabinet maker to the plumber and electrician right there in the neighborhood. They opened with a small menu — just half-smokes, hot dogs, burgers and milkshakes. Their introduction to the neighborhood was also embraced thanks to now-notoriously long operating hours — in those days, opening at 11 in the morning and closing up shop at 3 or 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. “DC was a kind of nightclub town, with theater and jazz clubs always going on,” Virginia says.
She also remembers history playing out through the decades from inside the Chili Bowl, including the night it was announced that one of her regulars, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot.
“People were in tears, just openly crying in the restaurant,” she says, “and then that sadness turned to frustration and the frustration turned to anger, and an uprising began and lasted three, four nights. A curfew was put in place, and Ben’s was the only place that was allowed to remain open during those three nights. We were not touched, but the community was literally destroyed.”
After those heavy nights, many of the businesses that had been destroyed did not reopen. People began to move away from the area following the end of segregation, and Black Broadway was no more. Virginia says the area took a turn for the worst. The turning point came in 1988 with the construction of the green-line subway system. By the time the station opened there were only three remaining businesses on the entire street, including Ben’s.
“That’s when the neighborhood began to grow again, and of course, now that neighborhood is a fabulous one,” she says.
A new kind of civil rights movement
Virginia was happy to reminisce about the days Dr. King would come into Ben’s Chili Bowl — and even remembers when he came in to discuss plans for his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. That history has given her a unique perspective on more recent cultural movements, like the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year.
“The difference for me was that back then we had these strong leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King, Philip Randolph, John Lewis. In today’s movement, we have young people just coming out on their very own,” she says. “They didn’t need a leader to realize that injustice was taking place. They came out on their own, from all backgrounds, all races, all cultures … and I thought that was pretty tremendous.”
When the coronavirus pandemic first struck in March 2020, Virginia says she tried to stay home because her children, who’d inherited some of the day-to-day running of the business, didn’t want her going out. “Well, after two or three weeks of that I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. She went right back to work at the Chili Bowl, helping to prepare and pass out hundreds of sandwiches, chili dogs and hamburgers to both demonstrators and hospital workers on the front lines.
Virginia, now 87, attributes her vitality to staying on her feet and loving what she does each and every day. She’s also proud of the culinary legacy Ben’s has created with their simple fare, helping to put the chili-laden half-smoke on our national menu.
Below, she shares her famous recipe.
The Ben’s Chili Bowl Half-Smoke
“It’s the DC signature dish,” Virginia says. “I think we kind of popularized it with that mustard, onions and homemade spicy chili sauce on it. It’s thrilling, it’s satisfying, it’s delicious.”
What makes it special, she says, is that it’s the kind of dish you could eat in the afternoon or into the wee hours of the night — for anyone who’s been dancing and drinking cocktails, Virginia maintains that a good sandwich is necessary before you tuck into bed. We wholeheartedly agree.
What you need:
- A pack of half-smokes sausages, which fortunately is sold nationwide by Ben’s
- Yellow mustard of your choice
- Raw white onion, chopped
- Your favorite chili recipe, or Ben’s secret recipe chili, which can be purchased con carne or vegan
- A pack of soft split-top hot dog buns
How to half-smoke:
Heat your grill or grill pan over high heat.
Grab your half-smokes and butterfly cut them, splitting them in half but leaving a seam that connects those two halves. Ben’s prefers to keep theirs whole, so you can do so too if you’d like.
Grill your half-smokes until they’re cooked through with a good brown on them. In the meantime, gently warm your hot dog buns up and get your condiments ready.
Lay your sausage, seam side down, onto the hot dog bun, then top with mustard and a generous scoop of chili, finishing off with a sprinkling of raw onion for some bite.
Best served with a cold beverage and a side of potato chips.
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