hotdogsSo, I’m not a Washingtonian. I was born there and lived there for three short years before we took off for points middle-west, but I’m clearly no Beltway insider. Naturally, I didn’t know what a “half-smoke” was until I saw the discussion surrounding it and Obama’s trip to Ben’s Chili Bowl on Meet the Press with video reposted at Serious Eats.

Wasn’t I just talking about how obsessed we all are with every little move Obama makes, including where and what he eats?

After David Gregory played the clip of Obama in Ben’s asking, “What’s a half-smoke?” Cosby reacted to this question with a humorously exaggerated eye-roll, just as though Theo had asked if he could borrow the family car to take Charmaine on a date while wearing a crazy yellow shirt that Denise made for him just before Rudy ran down the stairs and lip-synced to a comically low-pitched song.

This is the thing — I like that Obama asked that question. I like that he’s come to D.C. and, with that question, pretty much said, “Hey, I know I’m not from around here. I’m from the lands of Portuguese sausage and of Polish sausage. I’m not going to jam a Yankees cap on my head and pretend as if I’ve always lived among you, I’m asking you to teach me your ways and your customs.”

It’s humble, it’s curious. It’s Obama.

So, what IS a half-smoke? As I understand it from Wikipedia, a half-smoke is “similar to a regular hot dog, but slightly larger, spicier and with more coarsely ground meat; it is usually grilled but can be found steamed.” It’s usually made from a combo of beef and pork and there’s some question about what “half” or “smoke” even means in the name. Quite frankly, it sounds like pot jargon to me.

There’s a repulsive little photo accompanying the entry, but from the sound of it’s I’m guessing it has to taste way better than it photographs.

The half-smoke revelation sort of begs the question: does every metropolis have their own hot dog? Here’s a very loose analysis of my answer to that question: D.C. has the half-smoke, Chicago has Polish sausage, Hawaii has Portuguese sausage, Boston has hot dogs in those split rolls that do double-duty for lobster rolls, Philly has…cheese steaks (it’s not a dog, per se, but it’s still meat in a long bun), New York has Nathan’s Famous Franks at Coney Island and maybe Grey’s Papaya, and New Jersey has whatever New York has.

So, what sort of dog does San Francisco have? The easy and dated joke would zing “tofu dog,” but really, we can do better than that, can’t we? We’ve definitely got Rosamunde’s, but maybe the quintessential San Francisco hot dog would be made from half Marin Sun Farms beef and half Fatted Calf pork on a sourdough and black olive bun, topped with diced Happy Girl Dilly Beans and Spicy Carrots.

Yeah, um, I’d really appreciate it if someone would go invent that right now.

Obama and the Half-Smoke 11 January,2009Stephanie Lucianovic

  • Bill McCann

    Thank you, Stephanie.

    Wonderful writing!

  • Thanks, Bill! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  • Doug Scott

    How about the hot dog served from a cart in golden Gate Park that has kimchii relish with a squirt of japanese style mayo? The cart’s name is buddha belly.

  • Liz

    Ooooh, a half-smoke is a hot dog that gives you heart burn. And it doesn’t taste any more appetizing than it looks in the pictures —

    Liz, who spent 8 years living in DC and learned her lesson with the half-smokes

  • Dad

    Stephie, In your nation-wide recitation of meat in a bun, you forgot the myriad varieties of “brats” (and beer) in Wisconsin and Minneeesotah! Nice piece. Dad

  • Um, Liz, I’m going to have to SERIOUSLY disagree with you on this. I mean, yes, eaten in the right quantities, a half-smoke can give a person a case of the heartburn. But they are one thing I bitterly miss about DC — I used to pretty regularly get one from various hot dog carts around the city (always with mustard and kraut), but the ones at Ben’s Chili Bowl are OUTRAGEOUS. Split, grilled, topped with chili, onions and mustard…oh my God…that place is heaven. I’m thrilled that Obama is already getting introduced to the ways of Ben’s. And that is the restaurant I most miss from DC. Hands down. All because of the half-smokes. Le-gen-dary.

  • Karen Aguiar

    Casper’s Hot dogs!! Yum. I remember them from my childhood. The snap of the skin!!
    My Dad’s (Mike Aguiar) childhood friends, the Mueller Brothers from Oakland, were butchers and used to make the ‘dogs for Casper’s. It was always a family treat to get them.

  • Great post, Stephanie!

    For San Francisco, how about the dogs at the Let’s Be Frank hot dog cart located outside of Giants Stadium in front of ACME? Fantastic dogs, with an ultra-taut snap to the skin (I blogged about them here, if you are interested). They are known for their homemade dogs made from 100% grass fed beef and no fillers, served with homemade pickles, but they also have serve brats. I love their dogs!!


    ~ Paula


Stephanie Lucianovic

A former picky eater, Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a writer, editor, and lapsed cheesemonger in the San Francisco Bay Area. A culinary school grad with an English lit degree, she has written for,, Popular Science, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. Additionally, she has been writing for KQED’s Bay Area Bites since its inception and is the website editor for KQED’s Emmy-award winning show “Check, Please! Bay Area.”

Stephanie was an original recapper at Television Without Pity and worked on a line of cookbooks for William-Sonoma as well as in the back kitchen of a Jacques Pépin cooking show. Her first book, SUFFERING SUCCOTASH: A Picky Eater’s Quest To Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate (Perigee Books, 2012) is a non-fiction narrative and a heartfelt and humorous exposé on the inner lives of picky eaters that Scientific American called “hilarious” and “the perfect popular science book for a reader that doesn’t think he or she wants to read a popular science book.”

Stephanie lives in Menlo Park with her husband, three-year-old son, assorted cats, and has been blogging at The Grub Report for over a decade.

Follow her on Twitter at @grubreport

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