Ben’s Chili Bowl Will Host Its First-Ever Pop-Up With Kwame Onwuachi

The former Kith and Kin chef will add Trinidadian flavor to the classic half-smoke

Bens Chili Bowl. Photograph by Evy Mages

The Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smoke is one of those sacred DC staples embraced for its comforting consistency. But the U Street institution will switch up the iconic dish for its first-ever pop-up featuring former Kith and Kin chef Kwame Onwuachi.

The collaboration is part of Resy’s “Classics Remix” series, which pairs top chefs with local institutions across eight cities.  At the encouragement of Ben’s owner Virginia Ali, Onwuachi is adding some Trinidadian flavor (Ben himself was from Trinidad), while still trying to honor what people love about the 62-year-old restaurant. His version of the half-smoke is topped with jerk chili, cheese, and avocado mustard. It will be paired with geera (cumin) fries with Scotch bonnet aioli as well as banana pudding pie with speculoos cookies. The package meal—$30—will be available from Oct. 16-18. The public can reserve meals beginning Thursday, Sept. 24 at 10 AM. (American Express cardholders get access two days earlier.)

“Ben’s Chili Bowl for me, that was DC. When I first got there—yes, there were many great restaurants—but I was really, really excited to have a chili cheese dog,” Onwuachi says of the landmark restaurant, which has served presidents and racial justice leaders and famously survived the 1968 riots. “They have fed movements. They’re still continuing to feed movements and helping aid the liberation of Black people. So it was an easy decision for me.”

Since leaving Kith and Kin in early July, the rising star chef has been racking up all kinds of sponsorship deals. He’s partnered with KitchenAid and Rémy Martin Cognac, while collaborating on a salad special with Sweetgreen with proceeds going to the Independent Restaurant Coalition. He’s also been working on a cookbook and providing feedback on the movie script inspired by his memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef. (The screenwriter shadowed him over a couple visits pre-pandemic, but the filming got pushed back because of Covid.)

One thing he’s not busy with, however, is opening another restaurant. While he’d like eventually own his own place—maybe in DC, maybe elsewhere—he’s not interested in rushing into anything, especially in the middle of an industry crisis.

“I’ve got to see what the climate looks like. The election is a big part of that as well. A vaccine. When restrictions are lessened, then we can talk,” Onwuachi says. “I can’t wait to get back into a restaurant honestly—when it feels like a restaurant though… I want to hug my guests again. When I can do that, that’s when I’ll open a restaurant.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.