Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ben's Chili Bowl Food Review

1/2 lb. Gourmet Burger

Ben's Chili Bowl turned 55 last year: In DC years, that's like 233 (don't quote me.) Needless to say, there's an awful lot of history here... Bill Cosby, Bono, President Obama... even Martin Luther King has paid a visit to this DC institution, and unofficial anchor of the U Street Corridor. Me too, although my last visit was almost 20 years ago. Time for another trip.

If you've never been (and shame on you, if you haven't) to the "Bowl," you simply have to. It's not much to look at, but it oozes charm and history. It's also alive, for lack of a better word. 6:00 AM for breakfast, or 3:30 AM on a Friday night/Saturday morning... Ben's is always hoppin'. We stopped by on a Sunday evening just before 9:30; and took our place in line. Often out the door, the line moves relatively quick (save for the occasional newbie who stands in awe at the colorful menu boards, that line the length of the front counter.) Most folks come for the chili (my guest ordered a Veggie Dog and Veggie Chili Fries with a Strawberry Shake) but I chose a plainer direction... 1/2 lb. Gourmet Burger, French Fries, Homemade Cole Slaw and a Strawberry Shake of my very own.

French Fries

It's cash only (I can't help but admire places that get away with this) and I handed over $32.89 for the whole lot (+ a $5 tip later.) That's a great price for so much food. The cashier told us it would take 12 minutes to complete our order (they have time down to a science here) so we grabbed a table in the back (Ben's has three layers, so to speak... the last, complete with a TV/projection screen.) Lucky for me, the 49ers & Seahawks were knee-deep in an exciting finish to the NFC Championship (Burgers and football? How lucky can one guy get?)

Food trickled out, ladies first - Her dog & fries, and both of our shakes. A few minutes later, my slaw arrived (smaller than expected) then my burger (with potato chips) and finally a large basket of hot fries (a steal at $2.90.) Ignore the Bowl's mystique for a moment, and keep in mind... it's grills and fryers behind the counter: Don't expect any miracles with the food.

Homemade Cole Slaw
The slaw had great texture (Southern, dixie style) but none of the sweetness, one hopes for. The aforementioned portion size was disappointing as well, but not necessarily a "rip-off" at $2.60. The burger was well-done, and well-sized (1/2 lb.) and a fair value for $6.95 (with chips.) It comes with loads of lettuce, and is plenty filling; but the taste can best be described as uninspired.

I enjoyed my shake quite a bit (it scored a B- in our For Shake's Sake post) but the highlight of the evening was my order of fries. Piping hot and plentiful, they could fill you up - all on their own. Almost perfectly cooked too (oil change test = successful.) Covered in ketchup, they more than made up for an otherwise subpar meal. That's not to say I didn't enjoy my dinner... I did; but one doesn't come to Ben's for just the food. Drink in the intangibles; and odds are you'll like it as much as (maybe more than) me.

Atmosphere: B+ (Few places come close to matching the ambiance at Ben's. Period.)
Burger: C- (Overdone, and little to no flavor. Good size though, and filling.)
Fries: B (Hot and fresh, and lots of 'em.)
Service: B (They run a tight ship; but still have time to share a smile.)
Value: B (Anyone who says Ben's Chili Bowl is expensive is crazy. So long as you don't expect miracles from the food, you won't walk away disappointed.)
Overall: B (I'm factoring in atmosphere more than usual; but 55 years counts as a lot in my book.)