Restaurant Review: Overcomplicating a Classic

HalfSmoke: 651 Florida Ave. NW | Cuisine: Casual American

HalfSmoke, Washington D.C.-native chef Andre McCain’s sausage-centered eatery, was established in the Shaw neighborhood during the summer of 2016 in celebration of a beloved local delicacy. The half-smoke sausage is a type of food distinct to the D.C. area. Served like a hot dog, the sausage strays from the usual fare in that it is half pork and half beef, larger, spicier and smoked — as the name suggests.

The tradition is said to have originated in the District as early as the 1930s, and half-smoke sausages continue to be sold today throughout the city, mostly at hotdog carts, at the infamous Ben’s Chili Bowl and even at the Nationals Park.
McCain’s goal was to create a restaurant that was accessible to everyone in terms of both price and taste. As its neighborhood is gentrifying rapidly, HalfSmoke soon bridged the racially, economically and generationally diverse communities that live in the area.

McCain’s 100-seat restaurant has succeeding in establishing itself as much more than a glorified hot dog stand. Its signature sausage is just a starting point, as the menu also includes vegetarian and vegan options alongside more exotic offerings that include a lobster-topped dog. The restaurant also has a full bar, an attempt to make the restaurant a social hub.

This desire to integrate diverse communities is obvious as one enters the restaurant. The contradictions in the decor are striking: A cozy feeling is interrupted by millennial-focused entertainment, including board games, sports on TV, photo booths and, perhaps most importantly, free Wi-Fi.

Renowned chef Bob Kinkead consulted with McCain on the menu, and the famous Kinkead also collaborated on restaurants like Kinkead’s, Paisiano’s Pizza, Chez Billy as well as several others. However, the wide range of toppings and styles quickly turns into a confusing set of decisions. My experience seemed to be taking hold of those around me, as the line crept slowly despite there being only five people.

Referred to by some food critics as the “Chipotle of sausage,” HalfSmoke provides a menu modeled on a familiar format. However, HalfSmoke diverges from this point of reference in the eccentric presentation of its unnecessarily extensive set of optional toppings.

After starting with a bun, wild rice, flatbread or salad, there follows a choice of exotic meats for the core of your dish. For sausage selections, choices include half-smoke, vegan falafel, lamb, Italian pork, Thai chicken and beef bratwurst.

The number of possible toppings exceeds 30 and ranges from meat chili to marinated artichokes to rosemary aioli. To find some reassuring simplicity among the exotic flavors of the meat, one ought to pick a few familiar side dishes. Choices range from tater tots and mac-n-cheese bites to street corn.

The drinks menu offers a similarly extensive set of options including milkshakes, local craft beers, wines, cocktails and organic juices. In spite of the overwhelming number of choices, the food failed to exceed average quality. This is perhaps because of the sheer number of choices.

At HalfSmoke, McCain has created an atmosphere and a menu aimed at pleasing everyone, a tall order that may, after some practice, become attainable. For now, the new Shaw restaurant may work well for only one group of individuals: Those whose perfect hotdog includes more than the three toppings allotted at most establishments.

To those who just want to experiment with that authentic D.C. dog, you are better off walking a couple of blocks to Ben’s Chili Bowl where a delicious meal can be as little as $6. If it is good enough for the president, it is good enough for me.

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