The evolution of the half-smoke
While Ben's U Street location, with its famed mural, is a hot spot for DC half-smokes, you can now eat them at all kinds of local establishments. You can have it cheap, from a stand along the National Mall or a Chinese carryout. You can have it dressed up in a brioche bun and topped with fried onions and beer cheese at HalfSmoke, a millennial-centric eatery in Shaw.
Ana Marin, co-owner of Meats and Foods on Florida Avenue, sells half-smokes that her husband Scott McIntosh makes in-house. His sausages are the most popular item on their menu by far. Marin, a San Francisco native, moved to DC two decades ago. While she can’t remember her first half-smoke, she’s certain she had it at Ben’s, which she considers a classic. “We tried to make what tastes good, instead of trying to adhere to the canon,” she says.
Like Ben’s, Meats and Foods traffics in nostalgia. But while Ben’s has black-and-white photos of politicians and entertainers on its walls, Meats and Foods has action figures from the ’80s and a whole lot of Garfield-themed art. The generational divide has perhaps resulted in a distinct approach to the half-smoke itself. McIntosh’s version is smokier than those sold at Ben’s.
When it comes to comparing their sausage, Marin demurs, saying she and McIntosh never wanted to stake out any kind of ownership over the half-smoke. “We would never say we have DC’s number one half-smoke,” Marin says. “It’s just a flavor of sausage we make that we put the same amount of effort into as we put in for all our other sausages.” The decision not to highlight the half-smoke on their menu seems like an act of respect to Ben’s, which is nine blocks west of Meats and Foods.
But it’s also an acknowledgement that, despite Ben’s close ties to the sausage, no one owns it. If the half-smoke has no set recipe, there’s room for innovation. Perhaps one day we’ll see a half-smoke that is kosher or halal. Even Ben Ali, the godfather of the half-smoke, never ate one because the sausage had pork, which went against his Muslim dietary restrictions. In an age of meatless fast-food burgers, might we see an Impossible Half-Smoke? Maybe, although the official stance from National Hot Dog & Sausage Council is pretty clear. “I haven’t heard of [a half-smoke] that’s not a pork and beef mixture,” Mittenthal says. “If it doesn't contain meat, it’s not a sausage by government definition.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl celebrated its 61st anniversary this year, and it now has six locations -- from Northern Virginia to inside Nationals Park. As the restaurant continues to earn clout from residents and tourists, the half-smoke itself further cements its place into local history. And the more popular half-smokes get, the more license people like Marin have to make it their own and, certainly, the prouder DC residents feel about this iconic food.
Presidents have come and gone, and housing prices have dipped and spiked, but a sausage has stood the test of time. Here are the best places to eat a half-smoke in Washington DC.