This is how your seven-course meal begins at Little Serow, with pig skin, fish dip, and a giant basket of local herbs and crudite.
Most New Yorkers find themselves in D.C. from time to time for business reasons, to visit friends, or as patriotic sightseers. I found myself in the nation’s capital last week for the first time in a couple of years to receive an award on behalf of Fork in the Road at the Association of Food Journalists. I shouldn’t have waited so long to visit.
Who could resist a place that looks like this late at night?
I hit the ground running on Wednesday and, apart from some convention-related events, never stopped eating till I boarded the Bolt Bus ($13 down, $17 back!) on Saturday afternoon, eating more than a dozen restaurant meals in the process.
I found a new energy to the food scene there and almost didn’t have a single bad bite. In fact, Washington, with its eclectic mix of eateries in all price ranges, beats New York in a few categories, though it pains me to admit it.
Washington hasn’t always enjoyed a reputation as a great food town. Years ago, I traveled there on behalf of Gourmet to seek out West African restaurants, of which D.C. has a greater range than New York. Even before that, I’d gone to Washington and surrounding areas to eat Vietnamese and Ethiopian food — the city has always been unsurpassed in these categories on the Eastern seaboard.
And don’t miss the ML King National Memorial, best viewed at night.
But oftentimes, I found the food lackluster there. Adams Morgan, known for its multiplicity of ethnic restaurants, had few really good ones, and the prices were elevated, and while the lettered streets north of the White House had plenty of places aimed at lobbyists, legislators, and visiting business people, most of these — with the exception of a Jose Andres place or two like Minibar — were rather unmemorable and more expensive than they should have been. Sadly, other restaurants were branches of places headquartered in other cities. And much of Washington was simply too poor to have many restaurants of any sort. (I’ve seen the same thing other places: Jackson, Mississippi, for example.)
But this visit, I tweeted requests for recommendations, consulted with friends and colleagues, and assembled a list of places that turned out to be rather amazing. Here are my suggestions for what to eat in D.C. right now.
The Metro is asset number one in getting around — though so deep underground, it takes forever to get to the platform.
1. Little Serow — This new spot is like a Thai answer to our own Mission Chinese, a place founded by cooks who are Siamese culinary scholars become obsessed with Isaan food and, instead of creating pallid examples using so-so ingredients, raided the farmers’ markets here for fresh herbs and crudite, and created a menu with verve and heat that manages to achieve authenticity by being true to its model in a new way. Expect lots of fish sauce, heat, nuts, and things that look like heaped salads on the set seven-course meal ($45), which includes way more than you can eat. Highlights of my meal: pork laab with lemongrass and sawtooth basil, the wonderfully named “phat fuk thong” (pumpkin, egg, and holy basil), and the pork ribs cooked to melting tenderness in Mekhong whiskey (above). 1511 17th Street NW, http://www.littleserow.com/
2. Fast Gourmet — This wacky sandwich shop located in a gas station is open 24 hours and staffed by Uruguayans. Already got your mouth watering, right? Among many lunatic sandwich choices, the thing everyone raves about is the chivito, a pressed hot hero sandwich served with fries that’s piled high with beefsteak, ham, bacon, green olives, eggs, and a vegetable escabeche. You won’t be able to walk back to your hotel after that. 1400 W Street NW, 202-448-9217, http://www.fast-gourmet.com/
3. Stachowski’s — The owner is Buffalo native Jamie Stachowski, who worked as a line cook in the kitchen of Jean-Louis Paladin, at one time the most revered French chef in the nation, and one who extolled local sourcing in the days when most French chefs got their raw materials from France. Now his disciple is installed in a homely corner deli in Georgetown, were he makes his own sausages, cured meats, and other charcuterie, some of it off-the-wall bizarre. Most memorable were his versions of mortadella, cappy ham, and beef navel — which is a sort of beef bacon, sublime eaten raw. The homemade pastrami (below), sliced thick and put on dark rye with mustard, is similarly incredible. 1425 28th Street NW, 202-506-3125
4. Ben’s Chili Bowl — This venerable old-timer is a late-night zoo of types from every walk of life, who come to chow down in the colorful and brightly lit interior on chili-cheese fries (below) and “half-smokes” (above) — something like a Polish sausage dressed with more of the strange, almost chalky and slightly bitter chili. Throw in chopped raw onions and “cheese” sauce, and it somehow works, and any reservations you might have about how good the food actually is vanish once you take a bite. We sat at Obama’s table (no, he wasn’t there right then) one night after a cocktail-hopping spree, and Ben’s was the perfect antidote. 1213 U Street NW, 202-667-0909
5. Toki Underground — Paradoxically located above a bar in a pleasantly cramped space that makes you feel instantly at home, Toki avoids the pretentiousness that pervades many contemporary hipster noodle parlors. It’s located on a stretch of H Street in the Northeast quadrant of the city that feels a little like Williamsburg with its mix of bars, coffee shops, and cafés. The tonsoku (pig-foot broth) is superb, deeper and denser and more brownish red than the straitlaced and doctrinaire Japanese versions here. What’s more, there’s a Taiwanese tinge to the menu that also makes the place unique. Great dumplings (below) round out the picture. 1234 H Street NE, 202-388-3086, http://tokiunderground.com/
6. Wagshal’s — Located in a Colonial-style strip mall on the northwestern outskirts of Washington in a pleasant residential neighborhood, Wagshal’s is a maverick Jewish delicatessen that seems to have invented its formula in the absence of any New York influence. Think you know Jewish delis completely? Drop in to Wagshal’s. First and foremost is a bodacious pastrami sandwich. Oops, did I say pastrami? It’s called smoked brisket and owes more to Schwartz’s in Montreal and Mile End in New York than to pastrami. The flesh is ruby colored and shot with fat, and they don’t care whether you like that fact or not. The sandwich is absolutely scrumptious, and the baked goods are good, too. At $7.99, the sandwich is as big as Katz’s, and half the price. 4855 Massachusetts Avenue, 202-363-5698, http://wagshals.com
Three other places I’ve visited and loved before this visit and continue to recommend, even though I didn’t re-check them on this trip: Eden Center, a Vietnamese food mall in Falls Church, VA; Dukem, an Ethiopian place on Avenue U; and Minibar, one of the country’s foremost temples of molecular gastronomy.
Follow me on Twitter — @robertsietsema