Posts Tagged ‘Nizam Ali’

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.

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]