Eating D.C.: Dining Dispatches from the Capital

As of this writing, I am still comfortably ensconced in the Hotel Palomar in our nation's capital. There is a Negroni at my side, compliments of the hotel, which was waiting for me in the room after I returned from walking off a Shake Shack burger at lunch. That's service.

Both the Shake Shack and the hotel are located in the vibrant Dupont Circle part of town, where everyone walks and rides bikes despite the heat and frequents food carts on the street and eats at adorable restaurants in cozy brownstone basements. It's an area which I quickly fell in love with before learning via Craigslist that it costs roughly $3,000 a month for a 400-square-foot studio. And then I remembered one of the many reasons Houston isn't so bad after all.

I'm here for the annual Association of Food Journalists conference, three short days which have been as exciting as the food in D.C. itself. I've taken a tour of the not-yet-opened FOOD (yes, all caps) exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and viewed Julia Child's kitchen with all the wonder of a small child -- and felt like one, too, peering over her extra-tall counters.

I've listened to Barry Estabrook talk about the years of investigative journalism that went into the writing of Tomatoland, the book which unveiled the disgusting slave trade that goes into the production of your winter tomatoes in Florida. I've had punch and oysters with Nadia Arumugam from Forbes and Slate, whose British-accented advice on food history writing and consumer reporting I let wash over me while I learned all about the trouble with expiration dates and the growing wheat problem in Japan.

I've toured the White House gardens with executive chef Cristeta Comerford and pastry chef Bill Yosses, who let us eat lemon verbena and tomatoes off the vine. I went to a ritzy State Department soiree where the brand-new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership was launched in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation and saw first-hand just how important food is to the current White House administration.

I laughed along with my other food writers while Ann Hodgman led a panel on humor's place in food. I listened enraptured as Robert Sietsema and Tom Sietsema -- fifth cousins who are the food critics for the Village Voice and the Washington Post, respectively -- explained how they both accidentally fell into food writing. And I found out that other food critics often feel as insane and frazzled as I do, perhaps the most welcome lesson of all this week.

Equally importantly, I ate. A lot.

Wednesday night found a group of us -- including Hanna Raskin from the Seattle Weekly, Greg Morago from the Houston Chronicle and Joe Yonan (on leave) from the Washington Post -- at acclaimed Northern Thai restaurant Little Serow. Along with Houston's own Oxheart, it was named one of the nation's 10 best new restaurants in the most recent issue of Bon Appetit.

Little Serow doesn't have a sign, and it doesn't take reservations, but it will text you when your table is ready. I spent that hour with friends at Hank's Oyster Bar washing down terribly briny East Coast oysters with habanero-and-blueberry accented punch served straight out of a bowl on our table. (Everyone turned their nose up when I proclaimed that buttery Gulf oysters were still superior, an assertion dampened considerably by our recent red tide issues.)

An hour later, we were seated at a tiny table in the completely unadorned dining room of Little Serow, which was once a subterranean Dunkin Donuts. It's been stripped bare and painted teal, and simple menus at each table announce the night's $45 prix fixe dinner.

I reveled in dish after dish of searingly hot Thai dishes served by excitable young hipster lasses in uniforms I can only describe as Pentecostal chic. We ate som tam with corn instead of green papaya, catfish tom kha hopped up with galangal and kaffir lime, and a fresh chile-laced khao tod with a slow burn that was so spicy, I admitted defeat after only three bites. Despite that, I was captivated by the way Little Serow's chefs managed to fit so much flavor into something so scorchingly hot -- the two don't usually go hand-in-hand.

I enjoyed beautiful anchovies in dishes from Pesce -- a wonderfully authentic Caesar salad, complete with crunchy romaine ribs, which accompanied a perfectly cooked piece of crispy-skinned salmon with fava beans and beet puree -- and Pizza Paradiso, where an anchovy-topped garden salad was the prelude to the kind of effortlessly above-average pizza you just can't find here in Houston, and which is everywhere in D.C. It both exhausts and delights.

Equally exhausting and delightful was the sheer abundance of craft beer everywhere we looked: We found it in dive bars like The Big Hunt. In local chains like Pizza Paradiso or Rustico (which, to be fair, is owned by D.C.'s head beer nerd: Greg Engert of ChurchKey and Birch & Barley). In city corner stores and in suburban markets like the compact but stunningly well-stocked Westover Supermarket in Arlington, complete with its own biergarten that occasionally hosts pig roasts.

And, of course, we found it in ChurchKey -- that temple of craft beer with a bottle list that runs 500 deep and requires patient study beforehand, so as not to clog up the long bar with your indecision.

Far easier, I found, was working my way down the two-page draft beer list, where you can sample anything in a 4-ounce pour for between $2 and $5. Doing so allowed me to taste beers I'd never otherwise find in Texas: Haand Kreklingol, a Norwegian fruit beer made with crowberries picked north of the Arctic Circle; a five-year-old aged barleywine from Smuttynose; Embers of the Deceased, a very peculiar smoked kellerbier (made with oak-smoked wheat malt) from DC Brau; and too many more to mention.

Oddly, though, I also found a few things I was less than impressed with. Dukem, one of Little Ethiopia's most popular restaurants, served its doro wot and tibs cold and in miserly portions.

Ethiopian food at our own Blue Nile is far better (and a bit cheaper, to boot).

Shake Shack's burgers were good (and its cheese fries excellent), but not the nirvana-inducing food that New Yorkers would have you believe. There's a cult built up around Shake Shack in the northeast just as we've built one around Whataburger in Texas and Californians have done with In-N-Out Burger.

None of those cult favorites really stand up to the hype, in my experience. Which is why I stick with taquitos at Whataburger and head to homegrown places like The Burger Guys when I want burgers that come with a side of ecstasy.

Most importantly, I found a city that's thrumming with a vibrant food culture that's even more invigorated by the political atmosphere that permeates everyday life in D.C.

Food is important to the Obama administration. It shows in everything from the White House garden first planted by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2005 to the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership that has created a chef corp to both promote diplomacy through food and our own American food products to the world. It's hard to be a city that's not excited about food when the White House itself is leading by example.

At the State Department that Friday night, I met a food critic from Saudi Arabia who was on assignment for her paper, the Arab Times. Rima Al-Mukhtar was less giddy than I was to spot Rick Bayless and Jose Andres in attendance -- mostly because, in her tenure at Saudi Arabia's largest newspaper, she's interviewed plenty of celebrities. But she was excited to be in Washington D.C.

"I only have three days here," Al-Mukhtar told me, sighing. Only three days to work her way through restaurants as diverse as Fiola and Toki Underground -- much less sightsee.

"Three days isn't enough," said Al-Mukhtar. I knew exactly what she meant.

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