“Holy moly! This place is popular!” says the guy behind me outside the new-in-March Ben’s Chili Bowl in Arlington. He cocks his head in the entrance, spots the more than 20 customers in line before him and opts out. It’s high noon on a recent weekday, and I’m sticking around to see how the offshoot of the beloved Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW compares.
No surprise, the new spot looks shinier, with a gleaming jukebox near the door and mustard-colored trim running the length of the joint. Even the ceiling fans are more animated here in Northern Virginia than in Northwest D.C.
Whereas the scruffy original is plastered with fading photographs of celebs who have dropped in over its 56 years, the new Ben’s devotes an entire wall of its dining room to a collage that traces the evolution of Ben’s from a former silent-movie house to a place where performers on “Black Broadway” could refuel to the recipient of an America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation in 2004. The visual, which includes bits both serious (from the civil rights era) and amusing (fan Bill Cosby has eaten six half-smokes at a time), makes the wait to reach the counter feel less long.
The menu at both locations reads the same. Headliners include pork-and-beef half-smokes and chili dogs nestled in steamed buns and doled out in ketchup-red plastic baskets with crinkly potato chips. (Never have I seen anyone order from the “healthy” side of the roster, home to turkey burgers, tuna subs and a rice bowl. )
Frankly, and no matter where you try it, Ben’s dark chili sauce is akin to Hormel’s, only thinner and zestier. I much prefer some of the sides to the main attractions. Both the minced coleslaw and the chunky potato salad taste homey, as though they came from a church social. A banana milkshake, in contrast, smacks of artificial flavoring.
“Everybody Loves Ben’s!” reads a sign in the Arlington outpost. Everybody might, but not necessarily for the links that made the institution, next poised to fly into Reagan National Airport, famous. Some of us prefer Ben’s for its historical flavor.
1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-649-5255. www.benschilibowl.com. House specialties, $4.40 to $8.55.