accompaniment: “A cold beer goes
real good with a pit beef,” he says.
“It’s a special thing.”
Many a visitor to the nation’s capital
has puzzled over the mysterious,
block-lettered “half-smoke” sign
on a street vendor’s cart. Are they
selling some kind of barbecue?
Cigarettes? Nope, it’s a spicy smoked
sausage usually made with both beef
and pork—considered the District’s
signature dish and perhaps its only
“It’s something you can’t get just
any where,” says Travis Hackney,
manager of Arlington, Va.’s, Weenie
Beenie, about why they’ve been
busy grilling up half-smokes at the
iconic roadside stand for more than
The sausage first made its mark
as a popular midcentury breakfast
item. In 1958, Ben Ali and his wife,
Virginia, changed things up a bit,
opening Ben’s Chili Bowl on… U
Street in the District.
“Dad’s idea was to take the breakfast sausage and put it on a bun, and
it was a hit,” says son Nizam Ali, who
today runs the restaurant with his
Their chili half-smoke is what
helped make Ben’s a landmark on
“Black Broadway,” the city’s center
of black culture. Duke Ellington
and Martin Luther King Jr. hung out
there, and Bill Cosby has been a fan
since the early days—he even held a
press conference there in 1985 to celebrate the success of The Cosby Show.
No one really knows why they’re
called half-smokes, but theories
abound. Maybe because they’re often
served sliced in half on a hinge, or
perhaps because of the fifty-fifty beef-pork makeup. What’s important is that
the locals know what they’re getting.
Says Hackney, “We don’t advertise, so our customers are 90 to 100
Beginning this year, the half-smoke will have a whole new audience. The Alis have opened a Ben’s
outpost in the new Nationals Park.
According to Kamal Ali, “It should be
a win-win—a nice statement for the
fans and the city.”
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