Rarely do I include food choices in my evaluation of a ballpark, because in the past I usually just bought a hot dog, which is pretty hard to screw up (although Miller Park, in Milwaukee of all places, managed it). Nowadays you have a full menu at nearly every park, which means you should be able to find something good anywhere.
But after grubbing tough on a Ben’s Chili Bowl Half-Smoke at Nationals Park in Washington, I may have to revise that particular long-held worldview. After tasting one of these, a hot dog seems sadly inadequate. (Although I’ll get over that when it’s time to try a Fenway Frank.)
Ben’s Chili Bowl is a D.C. institution that has survived some hard times in the area. Its founder, Ben Ali, started his own businesses following his inability to finish dental school after falling down a broken elevator shaft. Eventually he turned a pool hall into Ben’s Chili, developed his outstanding spicy chili recipe, and the rest is history.
Ali passed away in October of 2009, but of course his recipe for hole in the wall greatness lives on. The Chili Half-Smoke “All The Way” is a sausage that is like a kielbasa (but beefier and spicier), topped with Ben’s famous spicy chili, cheese, onions and mustard. At Nats Park, at least, they are very generous with the chili, and you need a lot of napkins and a spoon, which they did not provide. Fortunately Gifford’s ice cream stand let me steal one.
I’m not exactly a connoisseur of ballpark cuisine, although I’m working on it. But I can say that to this point, the Ben’s half-smoke is the tastiest thing I have ever eaten at a ballpark.
The Ben’s stands get crowded, but they do have four locations in the park now (behind Sections 109 and 140 on the lower level and 301 and 315 on the upper level), so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to get one these days. The Nationals claim they are sold at the Taste of the Majors stands, but I didn’t see them.
I’d even say the All The Way pushes Nationals Park up a notch or two on my favorite ballparks list. I already think it’s a great venue, almost as nice as the new Yankee Stadium and certainly cheaper. I don’t know where I’d rank it overall on my favorites list, but a half-smoke from Ben’s will put me in a good enough mood to maybe rank it higher than I might have, before my ballpark-judgment foundations were shaken by a world-class chili dog. Ben’s is uniquely D.C., and uniquely Nationals Park.
They even sell the half-smokes and chili online. It’s a good thing Nats Park has some other cool things going for it.
Ben’s Chili Bowl Website: www.benschilibowl.com