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I was visiting my brothers recently and after a tour of Ford's Theater we jumped in a cab and went to the original U Street NW location of Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. We're always looking for neighborhood places to eat in, to find good, local food to try. Of course we'd heard about President Obama dropping in there occasionally for a chili dog or bowl of chili, but the Ethiopian cab driver told us you won't often hear these days about it being Bill Cosby's favorite place too. (I really don't want to hear about much of anything that's the guy considers his favorite, but let's not go there right now.)

 

We arrived after 1 PM on a Saturday but managed to get a booth anyway. My older brother ordered a bowl of chili with onions, and an original half-smoke with chips. My younger brother and I ordered original half-smokes with fries. Everything came with raw onions and I'd wanted to have them held on mine, but somehow they didn't materialize anyway- a lucky omission. I like raw onions, but they don't like me.

 

As we waited for our order, the patrons streamed in and out. Many left with Ben's distinctive carry-out bags, some ate seated on stools at the counter or at the tables and booths. I saw 20-somethings in running tights; elders in overcoats and snap-brim hats; hipsters glued to their phones, all waiting in this culinary equalizer.

 

Instead of calling us to the counter to pick up our order, the food was brought to our tables, which we hadn't expected. I happen to like ketchup and yellow mustard mixed together for my fries, so I asked for some yellow mustard to be brought to the table as there wasn't any there, and was assured it would come right away (it did). 

 

The chili on the half-smoke sausage was different from any I'd tasted, and delicious. It had a smoky richness, although I thought it needed a bit of salt. Not to worry, as the salt in the sausage married with the chili just right. The bun was a soft, white roll that immediately surrendered to the wet sauce, making it hard to pick up the sandwich. Oh well- this wasn't a place for daintiness. The fries were good and hot, with crisp outsides and creamy insides. Just right.

 

My brother Hoovered up the chili before I could taste it, but he said it was worth the trip from Florida. I know him to have a picky palate, so I'll trust his judgement. After all, he found me a good bowl of pho in a Mexican karaoke joint once, and you have to respect someone with intuition like that. 

 

Ben's has at least one other location, but the U Street NW location is worth navigating the Washington labyrinth. Better yet, find yourself an astute Ethiopian cab driver (he'll also give you the lowdown on the REAL Ethiopian restaurants, where the Ethiopian homeboys and girls eat) and get yourself to the original location. You won't regret it. But if you're like me, tuck an extra Prilosec in your pocket and don't look back.

 

 

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