Thrillist: DC’s Politicians, Celebrities & Random Dudes on the Street Reminisce on the Half Smoke
“DC is a melting pot, so it’s no wonder that we have a bit of an identity crisis on our hands when it comes to food culture. The city boasts great versions of practically every style of cuisine, from Laotian to Yemeni, but there are very few things that are quintessentially DC. Except, of course, the half smoke. While the status of the half smoke as DC’s signature street food may not be up for debate, the origin of the sausage definitely is.
Many before us have tried to uncover the creation story of the half smoke, but haven’t reached an entirely definitive answer. It’s thought that Briggs and Co. meatpackers were the ones who first created DC’s own sausage, but now nearly everyone has a slightly different version. Ben’s Chili Bowl serves what is arguably the most iconic half smoke, but many insist that the true half smoke OGs are the folks at the roadside Weenie Beenie in Shirlington.
The name is a source of even more confusion. Some will tell you that the half smoke’s moniker is derived from its ingredients: half beef and half pork. Others add that the sausage must be half smoked — that is, smoked at a specific temperature for a shorter time, a technique used to prevent the link from drying out. And a few believe that the name comes from the way the sausage is often served: split in half, right down the middle.
But no matter where you land in this greasy debate, chances are, you have some sort of opinion about the half smoke. We asked members of our community — and a few out-of-towners — to share their memories about the Ben’s Chili Bowl half smoke. This is what a wide variety of folks, including regular diners, chefs, bartenders, politicians, local business owners, and even a few celebrities, had to say:
Kitchens across the city have paid homage to the link in their own ways
“Hot dogs were really the gateway charcuterie for me, and when you live in DC and you’re talking hot dogs, you have to pay respects to the half smoke. My favorite part of creating half smokes is that there’s no set recipe, no real version. It’s always been half beef and half pork, and it’s always half smoked. We had to figure out our version at Red Apron through trial and error, and then put our own spin on it.” — Nathan Anda, Chef and Butcher,Red Apron
“Personally, the half smoke, or ‘glizzies,’ as it’s more affectionately known, has always been a curious item. No one in the DMV seems to know what it really is, but the half smoke we have at DCity Smokehouse is exactly like the spicy Texas links I grew up eating… a few years ago, a friend of mine from Virginia set out to recreate the half smoke his grandfather used to get at the butcher. He and I did the usual Google searches to start, then we bought up any half smokes we could find. The whole time, I kept thinking they tasted so familiar, but I wasn’t from DC, and didn’t have childhood memories of getting half smokes from a street vendor. One of the last half smokes we tasted was from Manger, which I believe was originally a German meat processing company. That’s when it clicked: half smokes to me were Texas sausages. I do have memories growing up getting sausages at the Texas State Fair and local barbecue spots, like Spring Creek Barbeque. In comparison to our Texas briskets, sausages are barely smoked and mild in heat. After that realization, the mystery is not what it is, but where the name comes from.” — Andrew Chiou, Director of Operations, DCity Smokehouse
“Wagshal’s was established in 1925, and my family took over in 1990. We came across an old recipe for kielbasa when cleaning out some storage, and realized that the recipe was very similar to the half smoke. With some tweaks and testing (copious amounts of half smokes were eaten), we developed an awesome half smoke. Today we sell over 13,000 a year.” — Brian Fuchs, Principal, Wagshal’s
It’s the stuff of legends
“A few years back, Dimitri from Paris played an open-to-close set at the club. His manager wrote me in advance of the show: “Dimitri said, tell Will to take me to Ben’s Chili Bowl.” I said, happy to oblige. The date came and I was texting with him before his six-hour set: “Are you sure you want to go before your set? They’re open late, so we can drop by after for a half smoke.” He said, no, I have a stomach of steel. Let’s go beforehand. So we went and he downs a chili half smoke with chili cheese fries and a Coke. I’m thinking, there’s no way he’s going to be able to DJ for six hours after eating that. We get to the club, and I ask him if he wants anything before he goes on, hinting like, you might wanna hit the john before you start. He says, “Just a large coffee from 7-11.” He downs the whole thing, and never even takes a pee break the entire night. To this day it’s legendary at the club. A real feat. I took a photo, in case no one believed me.” — Will Eastman, Owner,U Street Music Hall
Chefs and bartenders agree it’s the true king of late night
“Back when we used to go to punk rock shows in the ’90s, we would often top off the evening with a couple of half smokes at Ben’s. They were one of the pioneers of late night eats in DC, and the memories we have from that will always be some of my most delicious.” — Nathan Beauchamp, Chef, The Fainting Goat
“Whether it’s at a ball game or on the street late-night, half smokes are a DC staple you’ve gotta try at least once! But pro tip: when going for the late-night option, skip the chili and cheese… and thank me in the morning.” — Benny Hurwitz, Head Bartender, Jack Rose Dining Saloon
The Ali family of Ben’s Chili Bowl have fond memories
“If we were going on a picnic, or to Kings Dominion, or on a road trip, they were perfect. Some people will ask me, ‘Vida, I want to get some, but I’m traveling to Baltimore, is it okay if I put it all together?’ I’ll say, ‘I can’t tell you, because it’s a personal preference, but to me, the messier it gets as it travels, the better it’ll be when you open it.'” — Vida Ali, Family Member, Ben’s Chili Bowl
“I enjoy eating everything, but the half smokes are very, very good. They really are good… I don’t have half smokes often. I’m 82! I’m 82, so I’m cutting back on meat.” — Virginia Ali, Matriarch, Ben’s Chili Bowl“
Click HERE to continue reading the story to see what Mayor Muriel Bowser, Celebrity Chef Carla Hall, and Scandal’s Guillermo Díaz have to say!