Why DC Should Be a Food Destination

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Photo by Terrence Henry

Last month I wrote that I would add Washington, D.C. to my personal list of great food cities (but not without a fair amount of effort), which prompted Tim Carman, food reporter and critic for The Washington City Paper, to respond that we're not quite there yet:

D.C. doesn't measure up, at least not in the street food category. But I also think a great food city has one other feature that Henry didn't mention: Tourists come to town just to eat. I have no data to back up my opinion, but I don't think D.C. has approached that watermark yet. We unquestionably have first-class restaurants and first-class chefs; people actively seek them out once they arrive here. But I suspect that the vast, vast majority of tourists come to D.C. for reasons other than food. I, however, would fly to San Fran, Chicago, New York, Seattle, and a number of other American cities just to eat.

Tim Carman is a great food writer, part-reporter and part-critic. I loved his profile of one of my favorite chefs, Frank Ruta, where we learned that one of his secrets to consistency is measuring everything in his recipes, even salt. The D.C. food scene is lucky to have him. But it's a bit of a shame one of our own critics wouldn't fly to D.C. just to eat. I know I would (and recently have, in a way, which I'll be writing about soon). Yet sadly, he's also right that the Capital isn't considered a food destination.

I dare the good people at the Michelin Guide to come here and tell us we're not on par with New York, San Francisco, L.A., and Las Vegas.

But it should be. Here's why:

Street Food. For so long, our city was known for little more than dirty water hot dogs sold next to knockoff CIA t-shirts along the mall and jumbo slices of pizza that were to be eaten "in case of severe inebriation only." But look at what's happening now: the absurd moratorium the city had for new carts has been lifted, and there are now joints selling Korean bulgogi, shwarma, and those crazy Fojol brothers pimping curry on the weekends. And if you include the DC metro area in your definition of Washington, DC (which I do, and suspect most would), you've already got some killer street food on the books like El Pollo Rico, Pupatella Pizza Cart, Eamonn's Dublin Chipper, Ravi Kabob, 9th Street Italian Subs and countless taco trucks in Maryland and Virginia. No, we're not Portland yet, but there's no reason we couldn't be. (And I know that places like Ravi and Pollo Rico aren't technically on the street, but they serve street food, over a counter, without table service. Just as the steamed chicken buns from Out the Door and prosciutto cones from Boccalone at the Ferry Building in San Francisco are technically under a roof, they still qualify as street food in my book.)

Pizza Wars. I don't know how or why it happened, but at some point relatively recently the DC area became a hotspot for great pizza-making of all varieties. 2 Amy's for Neopolitan, Comet Ping Pong for New Haven style, American Flatbread for something more American and locavore-focused, the aforementioned Pupatella. There are so many: A La Lucia, Cafe Pizzaiolo, Red Rocks, Pete's Apizza, Radius, and others I'm sure to be forgetting. One could spend a week here just trying to get a handle on the pizza scene.

Ethnicity and Variety. From Annandale's Koreatown, to Little Mexico in Bladensburg and the Vietnamese Eden Center in Falls Church, there are so many amazing places to eat great traditional food here--the spicy roasted fish at Sichuan stars like Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church or at China Star in Fairfax, the spiced pumpkin at the Afghan restaurant Bamian. How about Indian? You could have the onion bhaji at Bombay Curry Company in Del Ray, the tandoori wings at Delhi Club in Arlington, or the more modern takes on Indian at places like Rasika (try the fried spinach) and Indique in the District. Again, you could spend a week alone eating your way through a neighborhood like Koreatown.

Heavy Hitters. There are restaurants here that are certainly worth a flight or a cab ride and can hold their own against the big stars elsewhere in the culinary firmament. The experiences on offer at places like Komi, The Tasting Room at Restaurant Eve, Palena and Minibar by Jose Andres are, in a word, remarkable. (And perhaps we should take some pride in the fact that Minibar's new sibling in LA, Bazaar by Jose Andres, is one of the hottest tables in that town, with a four-star review from the LA Times, but we've been enjoying his cotton candy foie gras and magic mojitos for years now.)

Every Budget Welcome. In addition to the low end of street food and ethnic eating and the high end of our destination restaurants, we have a great mid-range scene: restaurants like Corduroy, Ray's the Steaks Vidalia, Dino, wherever Gillian Clark happens to be cooking at any given moment, and some relative newcomers I have yet to visit (but hear great things about) like Commonwealth and Brabo, both from longstanding culinary natives.

Locavorism. Sorry to use a buzzword, but we have a noteworthy connection between producers and consumers here. There are the farm-to-table restaurants like Blue Duck Tavern (where our own Ezekiel J. Emanuel shared an amusing meal with Larry David), Restaurant Eve, Vermilion, and others. We are home to great farmers markets in Dupont Circle and Arlington, and fortunate to have vendors like Eco Friendly Foods and Westmoreland Berry Farm. One of the hallmarks of sustainability in the States currently, and a star player in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Polyface Farms, is just a few hours away (their chicken is the secret ingredient of Eamonn's magnificent "chicken bites," which will have you swearing off McDonald's for good). There is a great amount of support for local farming--a few years ago, when one of the suppliers for Restaurant Eve, Davon Crest Farms, a small outfit in Maryland, faced financial trouble and had to relocate, Cathal Armstrong, Eve's chef, called on his customers to go help him move it. And they did. Now if only we had the weather of the West Coast...

Specialty Shops. If your schedule doesn't allow you to make it to a farmer's market for some reason (there is one every day of the week somewhere in the area, however), there are numerous specialty shops where you can stock up on local and artisanal goods. Butcher shops like Let's Meat on the Avenue, The Organic Butcher, and Robert Wiedmaer's (of Marcel's and Brasserie Beck fame) new Butcher's Block. Cheese shops like Cheesetique and Cowgirl Creamery (the latter an import from California, to be fair, but a welcome one). Wine and spirits shops like Schneider's of Capitol Hill and Ace Beverages where the staff will really take their time making sure you find what you're looking for. And perhaps my favorite newcomer, a combination wine and coffee shop in Alexandria, Grape & Bean, where the proprietor David Gwathmey will help you pick out the perfect wine to pair with some Cherry Glen goat cheese (from Boyds, Maryland), all while you sip on a well-sourced and expertly-roasted cup of coffee, brewed by the "magic" Clover machine.

Burger Me. D.C. is home to some of the best burgers in existence--Frank Ruta's masterpiece at Palena Cafe, Michael Landrum's perfect specimen at Ray's Hell Burgers, Michel Richard's ode to America at Central, and when you can find it, the Hog's Head Burger at the bar (or on the tasting menu) at Restaurant Eve. I also hear Vidalia has a worthy contender, and need to try it soon. (And why Anthony Bourdain's producers chose Chadwick's of all places for his burger in D.C. will mystify me for some time.)

I could go on -- our great bar scene, both for wining and dining; numerous French bistros that get it right; robust coverage of the food scene by paid critics and everyday citizens alike; places where a beer lover can have their needs met with cask ales and extensive menus of craft beers; an intriguing mixologist scene; the recent proliferation of cupcakes and fro-yo.

So why is D.C. not considered a food destination? The problem, as I see it, is that we're a city that gets attention mostly for what happens inside and out of the halls of power, and not in the kitchens of our great chefs and restaurants. Sure, you'll need a car, and a fair amount of research beforehand (start here, here, here and here), but what a rewarding place to dine. I dare the good people at theMichelin Guide to come here and tell us we're not on par with New York, San Francisco, L.A., and Las Vegas. There is so much good eating to be had here, it's all too apparent that D.C. has become a world-class food city. Here's hoping the news gets out.