There are certain places you grow up with that become frozen in time and space as favorites — even if they no longer deserve it. I found this out the hard way when my aunts came to visit me a few years ago in California. They arrived after dinner time and were hungry, but not in the mood for a meal. I knew just the place to take them.
Ask anyone who grew up in Berkeley the abbreviated question, “Blondie’s or Fat Slice?” and they should, if they’re legit, answer you immediately. For me, it was always Blondie’s so I drove my aunts to Telegraph Avenue – and met the cliche, “My how the mighty have fallen.” Telegraph at 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight was empty and forbidding. When did it become so ratty? There was an active disagreement in progress between Berkeley Police and a homeless man on the sidewalk outside of Blondie’s, but we went in anyway and ordered our slices. I saw everything through the eyes of a visitor, one who hadn’t grown up here, hadn’t taken the bus here with high school friends on a Saturday night when being out of the house was exciting and the collective energy was pumped up. I’m sure my aunts were wondering why on earth I would bring them to this place as their entree to California’s sparkling reputation as all things vibrant and cool. It was a grim experience.
Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., consistently makes the list of must-eats for D.C. but I have never gone. Travel all the way to D.C. for a hot dog stand? I love hot dogs, but I don’t consider them a main event. Hot dogs are the kind of things you eat when you’ve been at a barbecue all day and are peckish but not hungry enough for another hamburger. I wondered if Ben’s was to D.C. what Blondie’s was to the East Bay — just a nostalgic memory suspended in time. But, they DO keep making the Must-Eat lists, so…let’s give it a whirl.
I trekked out the the NW (D.C. addresses are divided into quadrants) on a beautiful September day to experience this hot dog mecca. And it was good. I had the Original Chili Half-Smoke, Bill Cosby’s favorite, and an order of the Chili-Cheese Fries (I swear I wouldn’t normally order these both in one sitting, but I wasn’t driving all the way back out there just for chili fries so I took one for the (blog) team and thought about the long, heart-healthy treadmill session I’d be doing to make up for it).
There was a long line (which boded well) but the good thing about that is that I had plenty of time to stare at the the hot dog griddle, which was lovely.
My half-smoke was quite tasty, as were the chili-cheese fries, and if I were in the area I would definitely go back for some good grub. Plus, I have to say the employees were SUPER nice. I think that might have impressed me most of all, actually — they were so polite and professional even though the place is very casual and was crazy crowded. The manager even came by our table to see how things were going! Nicely done, Ben’s.
I can see why Ben’s holds onto its place in the hearts of D.C. locals. There’s nothing like a hot dog to make you feel young again. I still think of them as street snack food, like when you grab one from a street cart in Manhattan, but when a chili dog is done right it really hits the spot. Makes me want to check out this local place I’ve driven by for years but never gone to…here I come, Ann’s Dari-Creme… I hear they do a mean fried hot dog.