My usual approach for getting to DC involves simply flying to DCA (the now cumbersomely-named “Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport”) since it’s generally pretty affordable, on the Metro, and walking distance from Crystal City. But for this trip I had a bunch of Southwest points to burn, so we booked our travel through BWI. BWI is reasonably good for trips to DC, although there’s a bit of “planes, trains, and automobiles” involved, with taking a bus to the train station, following by taking an Amtrak or MARC train to Union Station. But one notable feature of this trip is that you get to visit Union Station. Originally one of the more majestic train stations in the US, like most major train stations by the 1950s it was in massive disrepair, although a major effort in the 1980s resulted in a restoration (I’ll spare you much of the history here, and simply refer you to Wikipedia). Part of that restoration involved converting part of the old baggage handling level into a large food court to go along with the other retail in the station, so the bottom level of Union Station has almost 20 restaurants crammed in. Now, like the food court at your local mall, most of these places aren’t really any great shakes, since most of these are places like Burger King, Subway, and The Great Steak and Potato Company. But hidden amongst those food court stalwarts are a few local small business gems. One of them that caught my eye was Sunrise Caribbean Cuisine.
Since I end up going to the DC area at least twice every year (usually for work), I’ve been able to see a lot of minor changes as they happen on the food scene. One of the bigger changes is that the area is finally starting to embrace the food truck. A few years ago, there were surprisingly few modern food trucks, with the mobile food scene in DC still dominated by hot dog vendors and the people selling random snack food on the Mall. Indeed, it was just 2011 when one had to go to odd neighborhoods to find a place like El Chilango (who have since spun off a brick and mortar joint in the District, as is often the case with the better food trucks). In any case, there are now food trucks aplenty: 12th Street and 14th Street on the Mall are repleat with them, and the central business areas in downtown and Arlington now sport plenty of food truck options, as do most of the major tourist areas. Indeed, Connecticut Ave on the west end of the National Zoo has quite a selection, and, as we discovered this trip, some of them, like Crêpes Parfait, are actually quite good.
As far as I am concerned, a proper pastrami sandwich (or the close cousin, the Quebec “smoked meat” sandwich)is the pinnacle of a good sandwich: moist, seasoned beef that’s been brined and smoked, the resulting meat being carved to order, with a few nice slabs being served up on some good rye bread with some mustard, and maybe some kraut. As you bite into each slice, you get a little bit of meat, a little bit of fat, and, most importantly, a little bit of the salty, spicy, and smoky crust. It’s a bit like going to get some really good smoked brisket at a good Texas BBQ joint. There’s just one problem: the vast majority of places serving up pastrami sandwiches just don’t do that: they usually just slap some sort of pre-made deli meat (like Boars Head) onto some rye bread, and call it good. That’s not a bad sandwich, but it’s missing entirely too much of what makes pastrami sandwiches great. There are some places out there that are that good, and, indeed, a few of them I’ve even written up here, like Guild Fine Meats or the famous Schwartz’s. Or the ones I haven’t, like the famous Katz’s in New York City (I haven’t written up Katz’s? What the Hell is wrong with me? I’ll have to fix that…). But, hidden away on P Street in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood is a nice little gem of a deli that is doing it’s part to offer a good and proper pastrami sandwich.
Every year we do a “Death March” in which we visit a large city, and hike our way through it visiting different tourist sites, and checking out the local food options, usually with around 20 miles of hiking. This April, the destination was Washington, DC. But we arrived two days before the March, pulling into Union Station at 8pm. Being hungry, we decided to check out the area around Union Station for dinner. While I’ve been to Chinatown several times, I was looking for something a bit different, and it wasn’t very far from Union Station that we found Art and Soul.
Well, my travels to the DC area are always a good excuse for getting together with several of my friends in the area. So when I had a free evening on my visit earlier this month, I called up some friends, and Steve, Allie, Leslie, and I all met up at Rasika in DC’s Penn Quarter. Rasika has been on my hit list for a few years, since it’s a perennial top finisher in most of the local restaurant review guides, getting particularly good marks from Eater DC and the Washington Post. It has a reputation of having the area’s best Indian food, with an emphasis on modern and vibrant interpretations of classic Indian dishes. It’s also been on a lot of other people’s hit lists, since I was completely unable to actually get reservations for our group of four… but they also like to keep a good number of tables available for the walk-in crowd. They very happily gave us a nice table for four in their odd little front room (at some point they expanded into the space next door, and there are two tables sitting in what used to be the entry vestibule for that suite) with the promise that we had to be done and out the door by 7.
Sometimes, you just want a burger. If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, burgers are one of my passions, and something I spend a lot of time seeking out. And there are a lot of burger places getting press these days. This time, a trip to Washington, DC, was a good opportunity to knock another burger joint off of the list. So I sent out an invite to some of my DC area friends. Spike Mendelsohn’s (we all remember him, the hat-wearing “culinary boner” guy from Top Chef season 4) Good Stuff Eatery was about 15 minutes’ walk from my hotel, right down the street from Tune Inn (which I’d also write up, but it’s been about five years since I’ve been there).
One of the things that amazes me about Washington, DC, is that several of the tourist trap food spots seem to have remained almost unchanged since my earliest visits to DC as a child back around the Bicentennial. There are still the food carts next to the American History museum and the Air and Space museum hawking some really dubious looking egg rolls. The exit of the Federal Triangle Metro station still seems to have one of the worst, and most expensive, hot dog stands in the district. Tony Cheng’s in Chinatown is still churning out dubious “Mongolian” food. And the block across the street from Ford’s Theater is chock full of touristy t-shirt shops, souvenir stands, and odd restaurants. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was only April 15, 1865 when the first entrepreneur set up a souvenir stand. But, for as long as I can remember, there’s always been a Waffle Shop across the street from Ford’s Theater.
As I’ve mentioned here several times before, I have a soft spot for one of the DC area’s unique food items. Indeed, you can read my previous treatise on DC’s most notable item, the half-smoke. But, after reading that and some of the comments I received from both my readers here and on flickr, I realized I’ve been amiss in visiting the mother of all half-smoke joints: Ben’s Chili Bowl.
One of my simple guilty pleasures that I indulge in on every trip to the DC metro area: A “Half Smoke” hot dog , with mustard and “cooked onion” sauce. Many of you that aren’t from broader Washington, DC metropolitan area are probably asking, “what the heck is a half-smoke?” Like many areas (Chicago and Rochester being particularly good examples), Washington, DC has it’s own particular variant of the hot dog, the half-smoke. A half-smoke is a close cousin to the hot dog, but is a slightly larger and spicier sausage, with a level of seasoning halfway between a typical smoked sausage and a hot dog, hence the name. Interestingly, however, the sausage itself isn’t smoked (halfway or otherwise).