Over a decade ago, the last time I was in the nation’s capitol, I took a couple of days to take part two of the foreign service exam. I had been teaching for over a decade, and was looking for a different challenge.
I just missed passing by two tenths of a point. Had I passed, who knows how I would feel now working for the current administration. Failing that test closed a door, but opened up a path to move to another industry. I assessed my skills and interests, and the intersection pointed towards a career in food and wine. My whole life I have been experiencing new places through food and culture, and figured that this was an obvious calling.
I must have been so preoccupied with the exam test results that I failed to plan a proper exploration of the food scene while in DC. In fairness, I didn’t plan too much time in town, and didn’t have the urge to celebrate nor drink my disappointment away.
When the opportunity to spend a weekend in DC came up, I was anxious to fill in the blanks and see what DC was all about, and check out a few monuments and historical buildings along the way.
A bonus in the timing of the trip was the blooming of cherry blossoms, which DC has in abundance.
What I hadn’t planned on was another senseless fatal shooting, the Parkland tragedy, and the simultaneous scheduling of the March for Our Lives demonstration.
My first thought was that DC would be too crowded and difficult to get around due to the planned march. When I returned to my senses, I realized it was an opportunity to be part of the solution, and with enough advanced planning, would be able to eat and drink too.
Of course it snowed on Wednesday and Thursday, causing the airport to shut down service. Undeterred, I switched the flight to Friday and stayed through to late Monday instead.
The first place my wife and I visited was Chercher, a casual Ethiopian spot, that for under twenty bucks, put out a veggie plate for two that we could barely finish. Extra servings of the spongy injera bread were necessary.
We hit the museums and monuments running, worried that it would be difficult on Saturday due to the crowds and blocked streets for the march.
I scored tickets for the African American Museum, (offered on line at 6:30 am every weekday) and was overwhelmed by the content and interactive media. The experience is intense. So much to see, feel, and learn. It requires patience, focus, and planning. This is a must visit several times over. We were still too stuffed to eat at the soul food café in the museum. I would like to return just to sample the goods.
Time for cocktails, so first up, The Sheppard, near Federal Circle, a classic looking speakeasy, velvety and quiet, with happy hour drinks that hit the spot. We ended up at All Purpose, a new pizza joint near the hotel. We shared a bottle of Etna Bianco. Wine list was short, but well curated. And we really appreciated the classic Italian Rainbow Cookie. Pizza was good, but I regret not having gone to a more ethnic place, which is what DC is known for.
The March was well organized and well attended. We were unable to get close to the stage, but used the Smithsonian Art Gallery to witness much of the rally. The windows were situated just outside the main stage. It was a perfect vantage point with fewer than a dozen people. After several speeches and performances, we felt the collective energy of progress through peaceful protest. So many Americans do care about the controversial issue of gun control. Hopefully change is a coming.
Using the metro to get around, we headed to Florida Avenue Grill, an old soul food establishment that did not disappoint. History meets people meets great soul food. The fried chicken was proper. Mac-n-cheese, candied yams, pancakes, and scrapple were also on point. Finished with a sweet potato pie and sweet tea so sweet my eyes filled with sugar crystals. The only miss was the biscuit, which just wasn’t up to the standard of the rest of the food. It is always nice to dine in history.
Over on U street there are a great many bars and youthful energy. After a little shopping, we hit the tiki lounge Archipelago first, which satisfied my umbrella portion of the program. Then we found Service Bar, a fried chicken cocktail concept that serves up a mean happy hour for seven dollar drinks. Great hip hop and a what the cluck deal, a bucket of fried chicken and a bottle of Krug for $250. When I am rolling in it in the future, I am definitely returning for that special.
For dinner we chose Maydan, a new Mediterranean restaurant with open hearth and loud music, that seemed even more popular as a bar. We sampled lamb kebabs and lebneh, hummus, carrots and eggplant. Items from the open hearth were charred and smoky and best. The pita was passable, but not on the same level. The wine list lacked imagination and was disappointing.
We met a relative for Sunday brunch at the Federalist Pig, a utopia for barbecue, with a proud, efficient staff serving very good barbecue. The pulled pork and brisket were excellent, and the brussel sprouts and mac-n-cheese also good.
Sunday night we headed over to Thip Khao, a Laotian restaurant that specializes in very specific regional cooking resulting in an acid driven, spicy, tasty combination of flavors.
Grilled chicken hearts in lime, fermented chili fish sauce pig ears with tamarind salt are just some of the standouts. The laab salad is a perfect blend of galangal, chili, cilantro, mint and other spices dancing a happy jig. It was too warm out for the soup, but every table around us seemed to be enjoying it. The aromatics alone almost changed our strategy. There are curries and goat stews, fermented fried rices and pork bellies, catfish and sesame jerky. This is a to be continued DC resto for us.
It turns out that on Mondays, many of DC’s finest are closed for lunch. We respect that, but here is where we would have been better off flying in on a Thursday instead.
Luckily for us, a surprisingly great lunch was served up by Duke’s, near Federal Circle. Duke’s came to the rescue. Duke’s is just a great little café that puts a lot of thought into their menu, both wine, beer and food. The kind of place I wish we had back home on the Upper West Side. Some of the items on hand for a Monday were elote style local corn, a luxurious acorn squash soup, braised oxtail mash, truffle mac-n-cheese – it is too difficult not to want to skip the flight, stay the day and eat. The sandwich section alone would keep me as a regular most days. The vibe was chill, with Prince on the airwaves and daytime happy hour to boot. Nice sendoff for us indeed. Thank you Duke’s.
A quick meringue at Un Je Ne Sais Quoi, and off to Regan Airport via metro, quite seamless really.
We left DC reflecting on the rights of Americans to peacefully protest for change. DC seemed to be well integrated with like- minded people who care about their community and the nation at large, a place for many immigrants to settle down and showcase their culinary best. The cherry blossoms were blooming at the right time for the march. You could find them all over town, reminding us of the beauty and fragility of life.