I was so sad to learn, via DCist, that Ben Ali (of Ben’s Chili Bowl) died yesterday at the age of 82. His business was a large part of the revitalization of U Street, an icon in DC. And of course he brought love, chili, and half smokes to all. Just a year ago Ben’s celebrated its 50th anniversary. There’s not much else to say, RIP Ben.

Finally, Uncle Brutha's!

Finally, Uncle Brutha's!

I had noticed that Ben’s Next Door served my favorite hot sauce, by Uncle Brutha’s, which immediately earned the restaurant credibility in my book. However, when I recently ran out of my supply, I beleaguered the fact that I couldn’t find another hot sauce that stood up to it, and was having trouble locating the stuff since their store closed at Eastern Market. Then I saw PoP’s post on Uncle Brutha’s, saying they’d opened a temporary store in Adams Morgan. Great! However, I walked over there and it turns out the temporary store has closed. Sizing up my options and considering buying on the Internet, I saw that Uncle Brutha’s website had been updated to tell me that Next Door not only serves their hot sauce, they sell it as well.

Score!

I went in after work today, to stock up on my Uncle Brutha’s. I don’t think anyone else had come in to buy it, but they were helpful and courteous as they got the sauce and wrung me up. So hot sauce fiends, here’s a tip: buy your Uncle Brutha’s at Next Door.

Ben's amended sign

Ben's amended sign

Not sure if you’ve noticed, but Ben’s has amended its sign regarding who eats for free.

Fabulous crab cake from Next Door

Fabulous crab cake from Next Door

Last night I was able to eat dinner at Ben’s Next Door. If you remember, I was skeptical about the “celebrity” chef they had brought in. But man, I was proven wrong. This was southern soul food done well. Nothing too fussy or fancy, just good.

First, they have their full menu available now. I’m not certain when this happened, but it’s good to see that the kitchen is in full swing. Here’s a taste of the menu (pictures of it after the jump) – appetizers range from $6 to $13, with spicy buffalo wings, crab cakes, soup, salad, and Savannah dry rubbed ribs. Entrees are a bit pricey, from $17 to $24, with fried chicken, duck fricasse, and braised beef short ribs. Sides are $5 to $8 and include fries and mac and cheese.

My two companions and I ordered an assortment of everything: spicy buffalo wings, crab cakes, roast tomato soup, mac and cheese, and fried chicken. The spicy buffalo wings were very good: spicy, but also complex, I swear I tasted some teriyaki in there. Man, the crab cake (as there was only one for $13) was out of this world. Very good, nearly all crab, I didn’t see any filler. Well cooked, at least an inch thick, it was good. The table of women next to us, who admitted to being a little drunk, said that the crab cake was the best they’d ever had in their lives. I might agree with that statement.

The roast tomato soup was fine, but nothing that blew me out of the water. The mac and cheese was very good, creamy and cheesy. The fried chicken was also great, but the “perfect” mashed potatoes they came with were not my standard of perfect, it didn’t seem like any cream or butter had been added to them, and they were a little bland. A down note on a good dinner.

For dessert the options were apple caramel pie, chocolate coconut pecan pie, and coconut cake, all for $8. We wanted the coconut cake, but were informed they were all out, so we split an apple caramel pie and a chocolate coconut pecan pie. The apple pie was good, the chocolate coconut pecan pie was too sweet for my taste.

The service was fine, though it did seem like our waitress had a waitress in training following her around, which was a little odd. We got seated right away at 8 on a Saturday night, which was great, the restaurant was full but there didn’t seem to be a wait.

I was very impressed with the food and will totally be back. One note though: the Ben’s inspired food – you can only order it at the bar.

More photos after the jump. (more…)

Line out the door at Ben's 1/20, courtesy of Andrew Bossi (Flickr)

Line out the door at Ben's 1/20, courtesy of Andrew Bossi (Flickr)

After a year and a half of living around the corner from Ben’s Chili Bowl, I’ve only seen a line out the door and in the alley a handful of times. The first time was their 50th anniversary celebration in August of 2008, and all of the subsequent times have been in the past week. It’s insane. In a given day, I walk by Ben’s a few times getting to and from where I need to go, and nearly every time I’ve walked by since last Saturday, there’s been a line out the door. I thought it had finally gotten less busy on Friday when around 8 pm there was no line out the door, but today when I walked by around 2 pm there was a freakin’ line out the door AGAIN.

What gives? I know that Barack Obama’s visit has risen the profile of Ben’s, but surely all of the inauguration tourists have headed home by now. And it’s not like Ben’s was unbusy before President Obama visited, but you could go in at say, 5 pm on a Tuesday and have 2 people in line in front of you instead of 300. I don’t really understand where all of these people are coming from, did people who live in the area decide it’d been too long since they’d been and all head out at the same time? I don’t know.

I just hope that these long lines will dissipate and that people from the ‘hood like me can still go without waiting for 2 hours on a random afternoon. I’m glad Ben’s is doing great business (can you imagine how much money they’ve made in the last week?) but I do hope it dies down a bit so when I have a hankering for a half smoke or chili cheese fries I don’t have to wait outside in the cold for hours to get it.

Ben's Next Door's new sign

Ben's Next Door's new sign

Just yesterday, Ben’s Next Door got it’s own sweet new sign. I also noticed that while it wasn’t lit up last night, it is lit up now. I dig it a lot.

Ben's Next Door, open

Ben's Next Door, open

After hearing from my roommate that she’d spent part of New Year’s Eve at Ben’s Next Door (and being incredibly jealous) I had to check it out and see if it was open. It is, sort of: it’s had its soft opening; there is a full bar and some small plates from the chef as well as Ben’s classics re-thought. A full menu will be available in a week or so. I also learned from friendly Rob that there is a possibility of them serving BRUNCH on the weekends. That got me very excited.

The place was relatively crowded for a bar that hadn’t even opened yet. I have a feeling it will be packed on weekends. There were a few glitches to be expected from a place that had just opened: I sat at a high table near the bar with a companion and it wasn’t quite clear if we were supposed to order from the bar or if a server would attend to us. The management staff though was very attentive, stopping by often to see how our experience was.

The menu itself is small for now – small plates from the chef (who was also walking around and introducing himself to diners, as well as giving autographs) and a few classics from Ben’s, but more upscale. The beer menu is extensive (prices ranged from $5 for a Bud to $10 for Chimay), and well priced: Delirium, on tap, was $7. Wine is available by the glass ($6 to $14), and champagne by the bottle as well as glass.

I wish I hadn’t eaten dinner before I went or I would have more room to taste some of the dishes. I plan to be back real soon to offer a more detailed report. More pictures from Next Door after the jump. (more…)