Ben’s Chili Bowl: Where hot dogs and politics come together

By Edith Leung

Nothing says “America” like a hot dog, and that’s more true at Ben’s Chili Bowl than anywhere else.  The Washington establishment, which has 54 years of history, is as famous for its American politics and celebrities as it is for its hot dogs.

The restaurant, at 1213 U Street, is well-known for its chili dogs, half-smokes and milkshakes. It has been an integral part of the neighborhood since its founding in 1958. The restaurant is in a historically African-American neighborhood, a stone’s throw away from Howard University. Inside, the walls are covered with photos of celebrities including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and comedian Bill Cosby (who took his future wife to Ben’s when they  were dating).

President Obama has also visited the restaurant, which is known to attract Obama supporters.

So how did this eatery become such a popular hangout for political buffs?

In 2009, 10 days before Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, he made a surprise visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl as a part of his welcome to the city and everyone cheered. And what did Obama order?

“President Obama ordered the chili half-smoke when he came in. He shook everyone’s hand and kissed the babies…It was just a great experience for us,” said Kamal Ben Ali, the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Kamal Ben Ali, the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, sits where Obama sat when he visited the restaurant.

After the inauguration, customers flocked to Ben’s Chili Bowl to order the chili half-smoke. The signature hot dog is one-quarter-pound half-pork and half-beef smoked sausage on a warm steamed bun topped with mustard, onions and spicy homemade chili sauce.

All of a sudden, the Ben’s Original—Chili Half-Smoke went viral and Ali decided to name it the “Obama Choice.”

Not surprisingly Ali is an Obama supporter.

As an African-American, he thinks that Obama has done a great job under tough times including a lackluster economy, which he believes was inherited from the previous administration. He said Obama will “build the country up from the bottom and restore the U.S. economic position”.

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