Quintessentially DC: The "half-smoke"

Chicago has deep dish pizzas, Philadelphia has cheesesteaks, New Orleans has po’boys, and Washington, DC, has half-smokes. “Half-smoke?” you may be thinking. “What’s that?” To the untrained eye, they may appear to be any other hot dog, but that is just selling the sausage short.

So, what is it?

A half-smoke can generally be categorized as a sausage that is half beef and half pork, seasoned with spices and sporting a bit of heat. Some chefs describe it as a jumbo hot dog/kielbasa hybrid while others compare them to chorizo because of the spices. Regardless of opinion, everyone agrees that one ingredient is necessary to half-smokes:  red pepper flakes for heat.

Another signature characteristic is the half-smoke “snap”. Not as delicate as a regular hot dog, the half-smoke’s casing makes a pronounced snapping noise when broken into.

 Ben's chili bowl - chili half smoke + chili cheese fries (photo courtesy ben's chili bowl facebook)

Ben's chili bowl - chili half smoke + chili cheese fries (photo courtesy ben's chili bowl facebook)

Why is it called a half-smoke?

Again, there are varying theories. Some people say it is because of the half-pork/half-beef sausage, while others say it is because the sausage is smoked before being grilled for the bun.  Others still attribute it to the sausage (sometimes) being sliced in half lengthwise. The only thing that’s clear is we won’t be the ones to make that call.

Where to Find it

Although you can find a half-smoke everywhere from street side hot dog carts to more upscale restaurants, here are my six picks for the best places to get one:

1.       Ben’s Chili Bowl

There is no better known name for a half-smoke in DC than Ben’s Chili Bowl. Open on U Street since 1958, Ben’s has been serving half-smokes smothered in their signature chili sauce to everyone from locals and  tourists, to President Obama (who did not know what a half-smoke was when he first went to Ben’s). Ben’s iteration of the half-smoke is probably the most quintessential–a charred, spicy sausage topped with homemade chili (more saucy, less chunky), mustard, and onions served in a hot dog bun.The restaurant is a DC landmark, being one of the only establishments that survived the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. You can’t go wrong with Ben’s, as the long line of locals at 3:00 a.m. will attest! Make sure you have cash though: they don’t take cards. 

 ben's chili bowl on u street, dc (photo courtesy facebook)

ben's chili bowl on u street, dc (photo courtesy facebook)

2.       Weenie Beenie

This roadside food stand in Virginia is the home of the original half-smoke and has been serving them up since 1954 – four years before Ben’s came along. Weenie Beenie splits the sausage down the middle, which is then grilled facedown and dressed with chili sauce, mustard, onions, and relish. They also have a breakfast style half-smoke with a fried egg and American cheese.

 weenie beenie - home of the original half-smoke (photo courtesy facebook)

weenie beenie - home of the original half-smoke (photo courtesy facebook)

3.       Boundary Stone

This more-refined version of the sandwich comes with house-made chili and aged Vermont cheddar. The sausage here is made by Meats and Foods, and the chili is all meat, no beans. Wash it down with a cold beer or a shot of whiskey: the bar offers more than 100 different whiskeys! This is a low-key spot in the up and coming Bloomingdale neighborhood, and the half-smoke keeps me coming back!

4.       Churchkey

Of course, with any signature food, there have to be a few variations. At this beer and meat mecca the half-smoke comes without chili, nestled in a poppy seed bun. But fear not, it’s still delicious. The sausage is made in-house, as are the pickles and the accompanying pork rinds. A cold beer is the perfect accompaniment to the half-smoke, and luckily Churchkey has one of the best beer selections in the city.

5.       Meats and Foods

This no-frills sausage shop serves great sandwiches and a delicious half-smoke. The owners make their own half-smokes, and  supply to other restaurants (such as Boundary Stone). While you can get it traditional style with chili,mustard, and onions, they also have the option for additional toppings like grilled peppers and onions. Bacon makes everything better, right?

 meats and foods (photo courtesy meats and foods)

meats and foods (photo courtesy meats and foods)

6.       DCity Smokehouse

A half-smoke with barbecue is combining the best of both worlds! At DCity smokehouse, the half-smoke comes with a smoky brisket chili, jack and cheddar cheeses, onions, and mustard, on a potato hot dog roll. Although the location is a bit off the beaten path, it is completely worth it. The smoky brisket chili really brings it all together, making the DCity smokehouse half-smoke one of the best you will eat!

If you’re wondering, can I make an entire trip out of tasting these sassy smoked sausages? You’re in luck. The Madera is within walking distance to many of the half-smokes, and provides complimentary rental bikes for guests. You can get your party on at The Dupont Circle Hotel and sample some smokes  If you want to taste without entrenching yourself in the city, try The Normandy for something quieter.  

 Note: This post was done in collaboration with Hipmunk as part of the #HipmunkCityLove project. Story and opinions are my own, however. 

Below is an easy to use map with all the spots listed. Use this to add to your DC itinerary on Travelabulous! 

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