Sky Full of Bacon

My Trip to DC: Beyond Ben’s Chili Bowl

Top Chef would have us believe that Washington, D.C. is a great restaurant town, but foodies I know have some doubts on that score when it comes to high end dining, and my own suspicion is that it’s the kind of city full of people who pay little attention to what they’re shoveling in, though being seen in the right places to do so may matter a lot to them.

Step down from the high end, though, and I fully believe it’s one of the best food metro areas in the country, simply because it’s an immigrant magnet— and that’s the D.C. I explored over part of the last couple of weeks. I had some help from LTHers including Dominic Armato (whose Skillet Doux is the Top Chef blog, speaking of that, and who though now in Phoenix, spent a few years in Baltimore wisely exploring the food in the region every chance he had); nothing I checked out was terribly new to folks in the area, in fact most of them had enough Washingtonian and City Paper clippings on the wall to start a Five Guys franchise. But it was new to me, and their help, and the occasional Road Food or Chowhound post, guided me well, mostly, on where to go and what to have there. The following covers most of what we ate in DC itself, though I’ll have at least two other posts on other parts of the trip.

One thing for which I certainly needed little convincing was that I should finally try Ethiopian food in D.C. Five years ago I’d walked past the Ethiopian restaurant row on Utah going between my first lunch at Florida Avenue Grill and a second one at Ben’s Chili Bowl, but it wasn’t the right time for it– it’s not something easily ordered solo, but my kids wouldn’t have tolerated it then. Since then, though, they’ve eaten Ethiopian in Chicago– they dig ripping up the injera bread and eating it, or sometimes, making things out of it, as Cousin Olivia did:

So one morning we did the Natural History Museum on the mall (not as good as the Field, but it has two ace attractions, the Hope Diamond and an Easter Island head) and then headed up for Ethiopian at Dom’s suggestion of Queen Makeda.

We were directed immediately to a kind of salon on the first floor where, this being Washington, C-Span hearings on gulf shrimp droned in the background. That aside, the service was tremendously warm and welcoming, and the food was, indeed, the best and brightest Ethiopian food I’ve had. I wouldn’t say it altered my perceptions of things, since most of it simply tasted like really good Indian food, bright curries, except for the doro wat in the middle, which was more like a Mexican mole in its dark richness and complexity. But it was a terrific meal, and has encouraged me to give African (one of my own dark continents when it comes to ethnic cuisines) more of a try.

Queen Makeda
1917 9th St
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 232-5665

Afterwards, we went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This has a nice collection of American folk art, Elvis icons, religious art made of tin cans, etc., but amidst it all there is one magnificent work that jumps out at you like a deer on a highway:

The wall tag refers a bit condescendingly to the amateurish perspective. Well, amateurish in the same way that all pre-Renaissance Italian painting is, say. But that only adds to the intensity of this portrait, which throbs with a kind of neurotic energy in every brushstroke. It’s called Stag at Echo Rock, and it instantly became one of my favorite American paintings— and no one knows who painted it, nor has any other work by the same hand apparently been identified.

There was also a special show of Norman Rockwell paintings, from the collections of a Mr. Lucas and a Mr. Spielberg, and I finally got to answer a question I’ve always wondered about. In Rockwell’s painting of the man standing in front of the Jackson Pollock-type drip painting, did he do a Pollock-type drip painting himself— or did he fake it, carefully outlining and filling in each blob? The answer is, he dripped the Pollock (you can see the three-dimensional drippings), and painted the Rockwell part (masked off before or after the dripping was done).

On the way back we spotted a gelato place. Not just any gelato place, but NPR-approved gelato! Pitango gelato makes organic free-range cruelty-free gelato, or some such, there were various magazine articles and such on the walls about the farms the stuff comes from. All I really cared, though, was that the flavors were very fresh and very tasty (oh, and cold and wet, which matters in DC in August). I had mojito with flecks of mint, and I think white grapefruit with it, and it was first-rate.

413 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Speaking of curry-like things, another place we tried was an Afghan kabob joint in Crystal City (Arlington), Kabob Palace. By sheer dumb luck, we happened to arrive five minutes before the sun went down on a night in Ramadan, so we got tables (there were nine of us) before it filled up and got to partake of the various Ramadan freebies being set out as we waited for our food.

These guys know which side an Afghan restaurant whose delivery area includes the Pentagon’s naan is buttered on.

We got all kinds of kabobs, goat chops, etc. as well as some vegetable sides, and all of it was of very high quality, fresh spices and well-grilled. We stuffed nine people for less than $50. No wonder this place is as busy as an Afghan bazaar (once the sun goes down). There are actually two places of this name in the same block, I think the other one is a slightly nicer, more upscale version, but the action is at the brightly-lit, 24-hour one we went to.

Kabob Palace
2315 S Eads St
Arlington, VA 22202

Finally, several people mentioned Eden Center, a mostly Vietnamese strip mall in Falls Church. By myself, I might have eaten my way down one side and across the other, but with a party of nine, I settled on Huong Viet based on the recommendations for dishes I could find online— and except for one caramelized fish dish which weirded my sister and brother-in-law out, overall it was a fine meal, as good as any Vietnamese meal I’ve had here; a tamarind soup with canteloupe and other sweet notes in it was especially fine and novel to me. We wandered a few of the shops afterwards but they were all closing up kind of early; we just had time to freak the kids out a little with durian candy and the likes, and to buy them chocolate pockys to keep them sugared up.

Huong Viet
6785 Wilson Blvd
Falls Church, VA 22044
(703) 538-7110

So I would call it a successful venture into the mostly ethnic side of the DC area. Posts about Baltimore, crabs, country ham and North Carolina barbecue to follow.

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