On U Street, the half-smoke sausage is the quintessential D.C. dish that to this day reigns supreme.
Beloved by locals and tourists, this half-pork, half-beef sausage comes topped with chili and cheese. It rose to fame at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the legendary restaurant that’s been serving chili-and cheese-topped links for decades.
But these days, there’s some stiff competition in the tubed meat department. Restaurants like historic diner Florida Avenue Grill, the aptly-named Half Smoke, and barbecue joint Sloppy Mama’s all have a half-smoke sausage on the menu, which makes this neighborhood the perfect place for an epic crawl—a sausage fest, if you will.
In the interest of public service journalism, your trusted Eater correspondent (me) and photographer Rey Lopez—are here to guide you, yet again, on a tour that dares to defy the stomach—we tried all four half-smoke options on U Street in just two hours.
Now, before the comment trolls get their sausage links in a twisted bunch — we should say that there are many other restaurants where half-smokes exist. Three years ago, I went on the record with The Washington Post (neither democracy nor half-smoke sausages die in darkness) to say that Meats & Foods offers D.C.’s best.
That may still be true today, but a short detour (a 10-minute walk east on Florida Avenue) to LeDroit Park would be necessary to confirm. For this crawl, which really is a taste test, we gave ourselves geographical boundaries, focusing only on the U Street corridor, which is the undisputed home of the half-smoke.
We tried four different options to see which helping of half-smoke and grease outshines them all. Sausages were rated on a scale of one to four meat casings... four casings being the best DC has to offer.
These opinions, of course, are 100 percent subjective—substantive comments and opinions can be posted in the comment thread below. Each half-smoke was tried only once — while we aim for accuracy here, our personal health matters too.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Ranking: 3 out of 4 meat casings
What’s not to love about Ben’s Chili Bowl? When you walk in the door to this diner-esque restaurant, you’re immediately transported back in time. The price for a half-smoke here is very reasonable—the original half-smoke is $5.95 and comes topped with diced onions and chili. Really the only way to eat this half-smoke is by loading it up with toppings. I add an optional helping of shredded cheddar cheese (.99 cents extra) and mustard, and within minutes, the half-smoke is ready for feasting. The sausage is crisp, plump, and packed with juicy flavor. My only beef is with the beef chili, which has an indirect heat. ”It hits you in the back with some spice,” Rey says. While my love for Ben’s stretches back for decades, the beef chili topping falls short today. Sure, it’s got plenty of heat, but it’s dull and devoid of flavor—maybe add some spices, garlic, paprika, oregano, anything please. Chili aside, Ben’s is a timeless tradition, and our first taste into the crawl is a solid start — 3 out of 4 casings.
Florida Avenue Grill
1100 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20009
Ranking: 2 out of 4 meat casings
Florida Avenue Grill, I love you, but your half-smoke sausage (if you can even call it that) needs help. Rey and I agree it tastes more like a store-bought kielbasa. But I do give Florida Avenue Grill kudos for its half-smoke ingenuity. They think outside the bun and serve a half-smoke for breakfast, with your choice of two eggs (we pick sunny-side-up) plus a complimentary corn muffin. The half-smoke is simple: cut open-faced and grilled to perfection. When mixed with the runny egg yolk, it makes for a savory and protein-packed start to the day. We leave with our stomachs feeling full, but we have questions about the half-smoke sausage. What really is in that half-smoke? Rating: 2 out of 4 casings.
651 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
Ranking: 2 out of 4 meat casings
With a name like Half Smoke, you better bring the heat. This place does, thanks to a wood-fired grill, which adds a subtle smoky flavor to its namesake sausage. But what you can’t overlook, or forgive, are the little extras that add up to too many fussy ingredients on a bun. This place also is just...a little too millennial. Take the menu: Our waitress hands us two Trapper Keepers. Inside is a brunch menu (mind you, it’s Friday) featuring overpriced bowls of cereal and milk: $5 for Cinnamon Toast Crunch and $4 for Fruity Pebbles. Cue our eye-rolls.
Then, Rey has an epiphany. “Wow, this crawl is kind of like the perfect commentary on dining,” he says in a deeply philosophical tone that’s likely induced by some meat sweats. “It’s like, we started back in time at Ben’s, and now this ... this is what modern dining today has come to.” Rey isn’t wrong. If industrial--strength chili and Ziploc bags of shredded cheddar cheese makes Ben’s half-smoke great, then Half Smoke prides itself on wood-fired, locally sourced sausages served on (what else) an IPA-infused brioche bun.
By the way, we haven’t even considered those fussy toppings yet. Our half-smoke has homemade mustard slaw, beer-infused cheese (aka beer cheese), bacon bits, and flash-fried onions. All of these extras are trying too hard — what a millennial might call #extra. Double extra — the half-smoke comes served in a Snoopy 80s-themed lunch box. Enough already.
Verdict: An oversized brioche bun is a terrible complement to the juiciness of a half-smoke. The bread and toppings fall apart as soon as you sink your teeth in for the first bite. While the sausage is top-notch, it’s hard to overlook the extras that make for a half-smoke mess — 2 out of 4 casings.
1942 11th St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Ranking: 4 out of 4 meat casings
Like many a good story, we finish right near where our journey began. Just within eye shot of Ben’s Chili Bowl sits a barbecue joint with the bravado to say their half-smoke is the best in DC. Well, Rey and I will be the judge of that.
OK, actually this is the best half-smoke, at least on U Street, and here’s why. Sloppy Mama puts care into making its own half-smoked sausages from scratch. It’s packed full of fresh pork and beef, and it’s the largest sausage links we’ve tried so far. Sloppy Mama’s even uses a soft hoagie roll to accommodate the extra-long link. We also rave about the toppings, mainly a Detroit-style chili that’s marinated with bits of smoked brisket and spiced with nutmeg, oregano, and slight sweetness and spice. The dish comes with a side of pickles, potato salad, or coleslaw, too. So while the $12 price tag is the most expensive of the four we’ve tried, you simply can’t beat this half-smoke either on quality, taste, or portion size. Sloppy Mama’s sticks the landing like a young Kerri Strug. We give it perfect marks — 4 out of 4 casings.