Thursday, May 28, 2009

Our Town

When I was a kid, Washington, DC was not a foodie town. Sure, we had our regional favorites, but there was little in the way of a food scene. What little semblance of quality food there was could usually be found in close proximity to a power lunch on the Hill in the form of a steak or whatever crazy meat they were experimenting with at The Palm. But these days our nation's capital has blossomed into a city worthy of a visit from not only a patriot and every American, but also a serious foodie. While star chefs have not quite invaded the city, the food all around town has been elevated to a much higher level. Although I did part-take in some haute cuisine while I was there, I have to say that some of my old standbys came close to outshining the newfangled stars. So, if like me, you have about 36 hours to spend (eating) in DC, here are a few affordable and palate pleasing ways to eat your way through the town.

No trip to the DC metro area in complete without Maryland blue crab, and there's no better (or fresher) way to get them than by visiting the Maine Street Pier. This fisherman's wharf has been around for years and is one of the best memories I have of growing up in the area. Every summer weekend was filled with trips to the pier for bushels of live crabs, Old Bay shrimp and spicy crawfish. No visit was complete without a pit-stop at Jesse's for some oysters or clams on the half shell and a cup of crab soup for the less adventurous, before loading up the car with a stinky pile of wriggling crabs. During this visit we ordered a dozen cooked crabs (half male, half female) to stay and covered in spice (Old Bay). They were dropped in a brown paper bag, given a quick shake and thrown in a steamer. Five minutes later we were elbow deep in salty juices, our lips pink and flushed from the heat of the Old Bay. This is a can't miss experience that even the faint of heart can enjoy--just plug up your nose, order a crab cake, chug an iced tea and stare out at the river. And if that's not enough, keep an eye out for Marine One, President Obama's helicopter, which flew right over head as we feasted.

One thing that DC has never lacked is authentic ethnic and regional foods. If you want great Salvadoran, Ethiopian, or Spanish food, DC is the town for it, having hosted a number of immigrants and refugees since the late 60's. But one thing that's better than ever is down home, southern cooking. It's always been good, but getting it has been difficult or required a trip to certain neighborhoods that I for one, was not permitted to visit as a child. While gentrification makes me sad for what's gone (like our once awesome Chinatown and its fancy dim sum), great food has become accessible in some neighborhoods that once were not. The U-Street corridor has always been home to some DC classics, but now boasts a wonderful brunch spot with lines out the door. While that line doesn't always mean that what's inside is authentic or delicious, in this case it's an indicator of both.

Generally wary of all things reminiscent of southern cooking while in New York, I long to eat the southern fried goodies of my childhood when I'm home. Creme, an inconspicuous spot just a block from the metro and down the street from the area's most famous establishment, finally made me believe (and it wasn't just the bottomless bloody Mary's). The shrimp and grits we ordered were superb. The delicious mote of sauce surrounding the soft mound of milky grits was clearly made with a rich shrimp stock and butter instead of the tomato paste that some spots attempt to pass off as authentic. There were spicy rounds of andouille sausage and plump, perfectly cooked shrimp scattered about, rounding out the flavor perfectly. The balance was exceptional, and the dish was all that shrimp and grits should be.

The chicken and waffles was another big fat winner of a dish. A typical late night joint kind of a meal that's mostly given the silver platter treatment these days, Creme's version was somewhere in between. The chicken was moist and juicy on the inside, with a crunchy, perfectly seasoned and not at all greasy skin. The large Belgian-style waffle was light and soft with a thin outer layer that provided the slightest bit of crunch before folding onto a pillowy soft interior. With a few drizzles of syrup and a swipe of butter, it went extremely well with the savory chicken, sprinkled lightly with powdered sugar. I've rarely been impressed with this dish outside of the aforementioned late night snack joints, but I came very close to saying that this was my all-time favorite on several occasions this weekend.

And just down the street is a DC staple, Ben's Chili Bowl, home to the half smoke, DC's native hot dog. It's similar to a grilled bratwurst and topped with chili and raw onions. Cheese is optional, but always delicious and extra messy. Each half-smoke comes in a paper lined red basket with crinkled potato chips and plenty of napkins, which you'd be a fool to believe are too many. There's no messing around at Ben's, where orders are taken swiftly and you're quickly ushered out of the line and into a stool. And if you thought you'd get a dog on the house, think again. For over 40 years, Ben's has had a strict policy that one person, and one person alone can eat free at Ben's: Bill Cosby. But, the winds of change have blown through DC (trust me, you can feel it), and with them another name has been added to the list. The Obama family are now more than welcome to indulge in free treats at Ben's, although if you read the very fine print, the sign makes it clear that despite the free pass, during his visit, President Obama paid for his meal.

DC is one of those places that very few people are actually from, but many call home, and I have yet to meet someone who has visited in recent years and not been impressed. It's a small enough city to tackle on foot or with limited public transportation, it's cleaner than most, and the Metro looks like the Batcave, which is pretty awesome too. But best of all for me, the food is only getting better. People are craving a greater variety of food, there are more and more farmer's markets, and better restaurants are opening. So if you find yourself with a little time and a teeny bit of extra cash for a weekend trip, give DC a try, and I promise at the very least, you won't leave hungry.


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