After eating, we headed to the street, where the city had transformed into something like the glorious, unpolished, lovingly cheesy “Yub Nub” ending of Return of the Jedi.
The crowds had already edited the campaign's familiar chant ("yes we can") to the triumphal, definitive "yes we did!" People joyously banged on cars and buses as they passed; their drivers, just as happy, honked frenetically in approval. It was a surreal experience. The taste of beans, garlic, cumin, and charred half smokes will always evoke the magnanimity and goodwill I felt that night.
These days, the District's food scene is rife with on-trend restaurants and big-time names from out of town. Hell, momofuku just opened there! It's starting to feel a bit like NYC, with its obsessive food hype, rapid restaurant turnover, and constant construction. Don't get me wrong -- I'll ride or die for any joint Erik Bruner-Yang opens (word to Maketto and Toki Underground). But in 2008, all that was in its infancy. That's what I really miss most: when DC still felt small.
For decades, Ben's had been both a bulwark against growing gentrification and a testament to the power of community. That night felt like a celebration of all the things for which Ben's had stood and still does. Eating half smokes and watching a longtime dream materialize from inside the Washington landmark made us feel like anything was possible in our city. That night, the District’s 68.3 square miles felt downright huge.
And for the record, Obama did end up going to Ben’s Chili Bowl before his 2009 inauguration. Despite the Ali family’s standing discount, he paid.
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Jian DeLeon is a writer & editor who lives and works in NYC. Follow him on Twitter.