The half-smoke is a venerable DC institution, dating back to the 1930s when Briggs & Company Meatpackers combined equal mixtures of coarsely ground beef and pork. Locals and tourists alike flock to Ben’s Chili Bowl and various cart vendors around the Mall to experience this glorious bit of Washingtonian foodstuff.
As a big fan of sausage in general, and half-smokes in particular, it was with great joy that I made my way to Domaso in Arlington for the first annual Top Dog Half-Smoke Challenge. Eleven chefs were invited to put their own spin on the half-smoke in an effort to raise money for the DC charity Brainfood: Victor Albisu (BLT Steak), Nathan Anda (Red Apron Butchery), Danny Bortnick (Firefly), John Critchley (Urbana), Scott Drewno, (The Source by Wolfgang Puck), Liam LaCivita (Liberty Tavern/Lyon Hall), Dennis Marron (Jackson 20/The Grille at Morrison House), Peter Smith (PS 7s), Chris Watson (BRABO by Robert Wiedmaier), and Ed Witt (701 Restaurant).
Brainfood, a nonprofit youth development organization that uses food and cooking as tools to teach life skills and healthy living to teenagers in a safe, healthy and positive environment, has locations in Columbia Heights and Chinatown. Local high school students participate in activities that include hands-on cooking classes, lectures, field trips and community service projects. Brainfood graduates are equipped with practical cooking skills, an introduction to the food industry, a framework for nutritious eating, and leadership and life experiences that prepare them to make a difference in their communities.
After getting stuffed with meat for two hours, I was impressed with both the width of the offerings being presented and the amount of creativity the chefs displayed in creating their half-smokes. One of the most creative takes was BLT Steak’s half-smoke crostini – a thin slice of half-smoke on a crostini with chimichurri sauce, charred onions, and pickled peppers. My vote for the boldest half-smoke creation was Red Apron’s triple meat half-smoke. Stacked three slices high, Red Apron’s combination of three half-smoke variants (one pickled), took up most of the toothpick holding it together and filled my mouth with meaty goodness – and none of that silly bread distraction. The most decedent option of the afternoon was Urbana: a smoked pork and foie gras sausage, served on a salt bun, with charred onion relish and cognac mustard.
The creations were judged by a panel of experts, including Mike Isabella (Chef/Owner Graffiato and Runner-up on Top Chef All-Stars), Robert Rollins (Ben’s Chili Bowl and Ben’s Next Door), Tim Carman (The Washington Post) and Nycci Nellis (TheListAreYouOnIt.com). Votes were also cast by the event’s several hundred attendees. The judges selected Firefly – a fennel sausage smothered in half-smoke chili, topped with ramps, and served on a challa roll; the people, apparently also enamored with chili dogs, chose PS 7s – a true half-smoke topped with white veal chili and Midnight Moon cheese (all local ingredients).
All told, there were really no losers on the day. Everyone who braved the rainy afternoon was treated to a wonderful sampling of creative half-smoke options from a variety of local chefs. And the lowly sausage was elevated to the spotlight (and hopefully just for more than the day – I would love to see some of these creations as menu offerings). The event raised over $7,800 for Brainfood.