Growing up in Washington, D.C., Andre McCain says, half-smoke sausages were a part of life: family cookouts and birthdays. Indeed, the half-smoke has become the signature dish in our nation’s capital, sold everywhere from street corners to the Smithsonian cafe.
McCain is betting that Baltimoreans, too, will develop a taste for his hometown’s favorite food. This month, he opened a restaurant in Canton’s Can Company, kicking off with a soft opening attended by invited politicians including the city’s comptroller and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott.
On the menu: a half-smoke topped with bacon, onion crisps and slaw ($12).
For all its power and wealth, Washington has long come up short in the “signature regional cuisine” department. The city’s shortage of such foods can reflect a knock on it: that it’s a transient place, lacking a core identity and authenticity.
“Honestly, I thought the quintessential D.C. item came from a different part of the bull,” quipped Baltimore comptroller Bill Henry, who came Thursday to place to-go dinner orders for his family. (For the record, the ingredients are beef and pork.)
Conversely, Baltimore’s regional food is a source of pride sprinkled with a dash of defensiveness. Other cities might have more money, better public transportation and synchronized traffic lights, but we’ve got Old Bay, lake trout and better crab cakes than you’ll find anywhere.
Could the arrival of a restaurant selling Washington’s signature item cause a culinary rivalry between the two cities?
“There is no rivalry,” Scott said, standing inside the restaurant, which was formerly home to Alma Cocina Latina. Instead, he thinks Baltimore is the clear winner. “D.C.’s food scene does not compete with Baltimore,” Scott said.
Former Baltimore housing commissioner and Harbor East resident Dan Henson says he developed a taste for the half-smoke while visiting Washington on business. While working on building affordable housing in the District, he’d wait at the city’s most famous casual haunt, Ben’s Chili Bowl.
“My hangout place was Ben’s on U Street,” he said. “You never knew who was going to walk in the door.” Since opening, Ben’s on U Street has drawn visitors from comedian Dave Chappelle to President Barack Obama. Disgraced entertainer Bill Cosby, too, was a regular; a mural of his face even graced the side of the building until 2017.
Ben’s calls itself home of the original half-smoke.
“We definitely made the half-smoke Washington’s signature dish,” said Virginia Ali, who opened the eatery on U Street in 1958 with her husband, Ben. Though the half-smoke was originally a breakfast sausage, Ali said, ”Ben decided it would be just wonderful … with nice, spicy homemade chili sauce.”
“Everything was going so beautifully,” when the Horseshoe Casino location first opened, Ali said. “The pandemic shut it down for a while. The pandemic has shut down everything.”
Of the ups and downs Ben’s has faced, the pandemic, Ali said, “has been the most difficult.”
The need to support restaurants, and Black-owned businesses in particular, was part of why Scott said he wanted to visit HalfSmoke before its official opening Friday. “We know how tough it is to run a business, especially during a pandemic,” he said. To McCain, he said: “I look forward to seeing you thrive in Baltimore.”
So how exactly do you define a half-smoke?
“Good question,” says Alvin Manger, of Manger Packing Corp.
The West Baltimore plant, which opened on Franklintown Road in the 1860s, sells half-smoke sausages to famous outlets like Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Sweet Home Cafe at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Like many regional dishes (hello, lake trout) the origins of the name are murky. “A lot of people think it’s half beef, half pork,” Manger said. He doesn’t think that’s right: The link is part beef and mostly pork. Manger’s hunch: The original recipe, developed by Washington’s Briggs and Co. meatpackers, may have only been smoked halfway. The preparation changed, but the name stuck.
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While the half-smoke is most popular in D.C., Manger said word has been getting out about the sausage. Lately, Manger has been fielding calls from California, Colorado and Texas. “They must have had it on the television,” he said.
Generally speaking, “Baltimore doesn’t know what they are. It’s a D.C. thing.”
That seems likely to change.
McCain, a 34-year-old former investment banker, left his previous career a few years ago to follow his passion for restaurants, taking a job at McDonald’s to learn the industry. He opened the first HalfSmoke in Washington in 2016.
He praised Baltimore’s approachability and “small-town appeal,” which he thinks make it a good fit for his restaurant, where walls are lined with board games, entrees are served in tin lunchboxes, and checks delivered in old VHS boxes. “In some ways, even better than D.C.,” he said.
With its modern décor and mood lighting, Canton’s HalfSmoke is “slicker” than a place like Ben’s, where a classic half-smoke is roughly half the price. Even still, Henson expects Charm City residents will be receptive to their signature item. “Smoked sausage is not new to us,” he said.