Posts Tagged ‘Ben’s Chili Bowl’

The Other Ben Ali Mural

Baltimore has crab cakes.  Chicago has Deep Dish Pizza.  And whether you prefer Pat’s or Geno’s, Philadelphia has the Philly Cheesesteak.  Here in D.C. we have the half-smoke – a half beef, half pork coarsely-ground sausage that is smoked before it’s grilled.  But in D.C., when it comes to this city’s signature food, there is no rivalry or controversy.  The best place to get a half-smoke is the original Ben’s Chili Bowl.

All week I have had a craving for a half-smoke, split and grilled, and served on a warm steamed bun with onions and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce, and a side of onion rings and a Cherry Coke.  So to end the week, on today’s bike ride I rode to Ben’s Chili Bowl for lunch.

As I was leaving after my delicious and satisfying lunch, I stopped and spent some time taking in the mural in the alley on the east side of the restaurant’s building.  Over the years the various murals that have graced the west side of the building, in the alley officially recognized by the city as “Ben Ali Way,” have gotten considerable attention from the press.  But the other, less-famous mural, is equally intriguing to me.  It is dedicated to the owners and founders of Ben’s Chili Bowl – Ben and Virginia Ali.  So I decided to find out more about the couple who founded the restaurant where I have eaten so many times.

Mahaboob Ali, commonly known Ben here in D.C., was born on June 13, 1927, in British Trinidad and Tobago.  He was the firstborn of seven children in a Muslim family, and was raised in the town of San Juan, which is located east of the capital city of Port of Spain.  Ben moved to the United States in 1945 as a student, where he enrolled at the University of Nebraska.  At that time he was planning on becoming a medical doctor.  But as the result of a fall down an elevator shaft while at the school he suffered a broken back.  He spent months recovering from the accident. Following his recovery, Ben attended four separate schools before earning his bachelor’s degree from Howard University here in D.C.

Virginia Ali grew up on a farm in rural Virginia and moved to D.C. looking for a job and new opportunities in the big city.  She went to work for one of D.C.’s heralded institutions — as a teller at Industrial Bank, the first African-American-owned bank in D.C.  It was at the bank that she met Ben, the man with whom she fell in love, married, and became lifelong business partners with.

In 1958, newlyweds Ben and Virginia began renovating the building at 1213 U Street.  Built in 1910, the building first housed a silent movie house called the Minnehaha Theater.  Later, Harry Beckley, one of D.C.’s first black police detectives, converted it into a pool hall.   The Ali’s simply wanted to own a business that would give them the means to raise their children.  Ben had worked at a restaurant in college, and they decided to open up their own.  They had no idea it would become such a huge success.  Today, Ben’s has spawned locations all over the local area.  It employs approximately 170 people and has about $8 million in revenue.

Ben passed away in October of 2009 at the age of  82.  Virginia, who was only 24 years old when she and her husband started the restaurant, is now 85, and can still be found working at the U Street location most days – greeting customers and keeping tabs on the business that is now run be her family.  Her three sons Kamal, Nizam and Haidar as well as her two daughters-in-law now run the day-to-day operations.

In August Ben’s will celebrate it’s 61st anniversary.  Over those years people have changed.  I certainly have.  The restaurant, however, has not.  The counter, booths and stools are all original.  And the half-smokes are just as delicious as they’ve always been.  Since the first time I ate there decades ago, I’ve known how good the food is.  And now, I know a little more about the people too.

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Trivia Fact: Due to Islamic prohibitions against consuming pork, Ben Ali never consumed some of his own restaurant’s popular offerings.

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Mamie “Peanut” Johnson Mural

Mamie Johnson got her nickname from a trash-talking third baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs named Hank Bayliss.  Although that was not his intention.  Standing at the plate opposite the 5-foot-3, 115-pound right-handed pitcher, Bayliss took a hard strike, after which he stepped out of the batter’s box and said, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her.”  But it would take more than trash talking when facing off against her.  She proceeded to strike him out.  After that, Johnson decided to turn the jab into her nickname.  And from then on the first female pitcher to play in the Negro Leagues was affectionately known as “Peanut.”

Peanut was born Mamie Lee Belton in Ridgeway, South Carolina on September 27, 1935, to Della Belton Havelow and Gentry Harrison.  In 1944 her family moved, eventually settling down here in D.C.  In 1952, when she was still just 17 years old, she and another young woman went to a tryout in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.  This was the same league portrayed in the film “A League of Their Own.”  But despite Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB) five years earlier, the women’s league remained segregated, and she was turned away.  Years later she was quoted as saying, “They looked at us like we were crazy.  They wouldn’t even let us try out, and that’s the same discrimination that some of the other black ballplayers had before Mr. Robinson broke the barrier. I never really knew what prejudice was until then.”

She would later recall her rejection by the women’s league, however, was a blessing in disguise.  Because the later that year a scout saw Johnson dominate a lineup of men while playing for a team sponsored by St. Cyprian’s Catholic Church in D.C.  The scout invited her to try out for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, the same team that launched the career of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.  She would go on to play three seasons with the Clowns, from 1953 through 1955.

At the plate the right-handed batter had a respectable batting average in the range of .262 to .284.  But with a career 33–8 win-loss record, she was not as good a batter as she was a pitcher.  A right-handed pitcher with a deceptively hard fastball, Peanut also threw a slider, circle changeup, screwball, knuckleball, and curveball, a pitch she received pointers on from Satchel Paige.  Of Paige, she said, “Tell you the truth, I didn’t know of his greatness that much. He was just another ballplayer to me at that particular time.  Later on, I found out exactly who he was.”

Peanut’s brief professional baseball career ended before her 20th birthday, but in that time she amassed a lifetime of interesting stories about a bygone era of playing baseball in a league born of segregation.  After retiring, she earned a nursing degree from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and established a 30-year career in the field, working at Sibley Memorial Hospital back here in D.C.  She later operated a Negro Leagues memorabilia shop in nearby Capitol Heights, Maryland.

Peanut eventually received recognition for her career in the Negro Leagues.  In 1999, she was a guest of The White House.  And in 2008, Peanut and other living players from the Negro Leagues ere were drafted by major league franchises prior to the 2008 MLB First year Draft.  Peanut was selected by the Washington Nationals.  Peanut also spoke at an event entitled Baseball Americana 2009, which was organized by The Library of Congress.  And in 2015, a Little League named for her was formed in D.C.

Among these and many other accolades is a mural featuring Peanut, along with Josh Gibson, another prominent Negro League player from D.C. who was also known as the “black Babe Ruth”, and played for the Homestead Grays, who played home games at D.C.’s Griffith Stadium.  The mural was created last year here in D.C.  It is located in the alley off of U Street (MAP) between Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theater in northwest D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, and was the destination of this lunchtime bike ride.  Today is opening day for MLB and the Washington Nationals.  And normally I would ride by Nationals Park on Opening Day.  But since I couldn’t go to the game this afternoon, I decided to go see this baseball-themed mural during today’s lunchtime bike ride.

The colorful mural was painted by D.C. artist Aniekan Udofia, and is directly across the alley from his mural featuring the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, Prince and Muhammad Ali on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl.  The mural was conceived and orchestrated by MLB to kick off the weeklong festivities leading up to last fall’s MLB All-Star Game at Nationals Park.  At the unveiling ceremony, a speaker stated that one of the goals of the mural was to “inspire others to learn about Johnson, Gibson and the Negro Leagues.”  And today I did just that.

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Two of the most well known murals in the city are located on either side of the iconic restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl, located in northwest D.C.’s Shaw/Uptown neighborhood, next to The Lincoln Theatre, in an historic building at 1213 U Street (MAP).  The one on the east side of the building, entitled “Alchemy of Ben Ali,” depicts the restaurant founders, Ben and Virginia Ali.  But it is the other one that became controversial, leading to its removal.

In 2012, the Ali family commissioned its first mural with backing from the city’s graffiti prevention initiative, MuralsDC.  A few years later, however, public pressure to redo it started to grow as sexual assault allegations began to accumulate against one of the prominently featured people depicted in the mural – comedian Bill Cosby, who was accused and has subsequently been convicted of sexual assault.  Last year, the mural was first whitewashed, and eventually replaced.

The old mural featured local disc jockey Donnie Simpson, D.C.’s Chuck Brown – the Godfather of Go-Go, President Barack Obama, and Cosby.  Three of those men returned on the replacement mural.  Cosby, who had been a longtime friend of Ben’s, did not.

The newer mural, entitled “The Torch,” painted by D.C. muralist Aniekan Udofia, who also painted the original mural, celebrates D.C. history and black culture.  The mural depicts abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman holding a lantern that spreads light onto the other figures in the mural.  In addition to the three holdovers from the previous mural, those figures, who were chosen through a public voting process on the restaurant’s web site, are:  boxer and activist Muhammad Ali; former D.C. mayor-for-life Marion Barry; comedian and D.C. native Dave Chappelle; singer Roberta Flack;  comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory; actress and singer Taraji P. Henson; D.C.’s non-voting Delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton; the late singer Prince; longtime local newscaster Jim Vance; D.C. rapper Wale; local radio disc jockey Russ Parr, and; former First Lady Michelle Obama, who now accompanies her husband.

But Virginia Ali, Ben’s widow, says the decision to repaint was based on the state of the mural alone, which she contended had become so soiled, damaged and weather-beaten.  Which means, years from now the mural may need to again be replaced.  So despite not making the cut for the current mural, I still have a chance.  I’ll just have to be patient and wait.

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Original Mural

The Whitewash

The Torch

         

         

         

         

         
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

UnionRow02

Union Row

As with most large cities, there are a lot of alleys throughout D.C.  But some alleys are better than others, and they can vary as drastically as the neighborhoods of the city where they are located.  I often ride through alleys when I’m riding my bike.  But the alleys are usually there to simply to provide a narrow passageway between or behind buildings, or for off-street parking and storage space for trash cans.  But on this bike ride I happened upon an alley which had recently been renovated into some trendy living spaces.  And being able to imagine myself living there quickly made it one of my favorite alleys in the city.  Located at the corner of 14th Street and V Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s U Street corridor in the Shaw/Uptown neighborhood, the residences are known as The Warehouses at Union Row.

Union Row is a contemporary housing and business complex developed in 2007 by the P.N. Hoffman real estate development firm.  The Warehouses at Union Row were previously used for car storage, but were transformed into modern, industrial-looking three-level town homes that feature open floor plans with high ceilings and oversize windows to maximize natural light, and include private terraces on two sides of the home.  European kitchens with stainless appliances and granite countertops flow into spacious living and dining areas.  Additional amenities include a concierge, elevators, a courtyard, community meeting and party rooms, and off-street parking for cars (or bicycles).

The Warehouses at Union Row are within walking distance of the U Street Metro Station, and is conveniently located near a number of neighborhood cultural attractions.  These include the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, the Howard and Lincoln Theaters, Meridian Hill Park, as well as some of the city’s best jazz clubs and dance halls, the 14th & U Streets Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings, and a wide variety of shops and restaurants, including Busboys and Poets across the street, and the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl.

As I wrote earlier, I could easily imagine myself living in one of town homes that make up the Warehouses at Union Row.  However, for two reasons I am fairly certain that changing my address to Union Row will not be happening anytime soon.  First, there are no units available at the present time.  And the other reason is because units can sell in the half a million to million dollar range.  So absent winning the Powerball lottery, I think there are a lot of other alleys I could wind up living in before I become a resident of Union Row.

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Ben's Chili Bowl

Ben’s Chili Bowl

September’s end-of-the-month restaurant review is of Ben’s Chili Bowl. A D.C. landmark restaurant, it is located in northwest D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, next to The Lincoln Theatre, in an historic building at 1213 U Street (MAP).  Built in 1910, the building originally housed the city’s first silent movie house, named The Minnehaha Theater. Later, Harry Beckley, one of D.C.’s first Black police detectives, converted it into a pool hall.  A family-run business, Ben’s Chili Bowl was originally opened by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian-born immigrant who had studied dentistry at nearby Howard University, and his fiancee, Virginian-born Virginia Rollins. They were married seven weeks after opening the restaurant.  Today it is run by their sons, Kamal and Nizam.

From the unrest of the late 1960’s race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the tough economic times in the 1970’s and 1980’s that resulted from the destruction of much of the neighborhood’s businesses during the riots, and finally to the revitalization and gentrification of the U Street Corridor beginning in the 1990’s, Ben’s has survived and seen it all. Over 50 years later, Ben’s remains as it has always been, right down to the red booths and bar stools and Formica counters, which are the original ones from when the restaurant first opened. Even Ben’s large neon “Home of the Famous Chili Dog” hearkens back to an earlier time.

Locals and tourists, as well as celebrities including Bill Cosby, Chris Tucker and Bono, and politicians such as President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have flocked to Ben’s Chili Bowl for decades for its rich history, friendly atmosphere and delicious food.  A sign at the restaurant, however, notifies patrons that only Mr. Cosby and the Obama family eat for free.

The menu at Ben’s includes the traditional hot dogs and hamburgers and fries, as well as more recently added healthier choices such as turkey dogs and vegetarian burgers. But I must confess that I have not tried any of these offerings. It seems almost wrong to go to Ben’s and not have what they are most famous for.

Ben’s namesake chili is still made according to the original recipe, and comes complete with chunks of ground beef, green peppers and onions, and is filled with spices to tantalize your taste buds. The chili is available by the bowl, as well as how I prefer it – as a condiment for the hot dogs, French fries, and just about anything else on the menu. But my recommendation is to try “Bill Cosby’s Original Chili Half-smoke.” Originally made famous by Ben’s in 1958 and a favorite of Mr. Cosby’s since the early 1960s, it is a mouth-watering and juicy half-pork and half-beef smoked sausage, topped with their spicy chili, on a warm steamed bun. It is considered not only Ben’s, but D.C.’s signature dish.

Recently, Ben’s Chili Bowl has also expanded by opening a new restaurant and bar called Ben’s Next Door, in addition to outposts at Nationals Park and FedEx Field, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and across the river in Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. And although the food is the same, there is something about the original location that makes everything just a little bit better.  But don’t take my word for it.  You don’t even have to believe the prestigious James Beard Foundation, which named Ben’s one of the “down-home eateries that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape.”  I recommend that you stop by and try it for yourself.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]