Signature Dishes You Must Eat When in Washington, D.C.

Bens Chili Bowl diner in Washington DC, home of the half-smoke
Ben's Chili Bowl diner in Washington DC, home of the half-smoke | © Wim Wiskerke / Alamy
Summer Whitford

From avocado toast to Chesapeake blue crabs via Thai pumpkin curry and hangover-blasting old-school burgers from the Tune Inn, Washington, DC draws from a myriad of cuisines to fill your belly with waist-expanding goodness – let Culture Trip be your guide. While Washington, D.C. doesn’t have any glaring claim to historic dishes of its own, cooks, restaurants and cafes have, over the decades, incorporated ingredients, techniques and dishes from myriad cities, cultures, regions, countries and cuisines. Gradually, these have evolved into signature dishes, becoming part of the local lore. We’ve rounded up the more popular culinary creations, along with the places where you can find them.

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Avocado Toast

Rye toast with avocado

Don’t let the hype fool you – avocado toast is not an overrated brunch fave. If anything, this superfood spread on bread should be a staple of your breakfast plate. While there is no quintessential avocado toast, as each customer tends to put their own spin on the plate, Unconventional Diner, in D.C.’s Mt. Vernon Square, is the perfect place to indulge in the award-winning Upscale Brunch of the Year. Using other ingredients from south of the border including limes and fresno chilies, the avocado toast at Unconventional Diner pairs well with their other modern comfort foods.

Saganaki

Traditional Greek fried cheese (saganaki) with tomato sauce, selective focus

Say “yes please” to the Greek cheese dish saganaki, fried in a pan. Bite into the crunchy exterior and your tongue will zing to its warm, melted deliciousness. Cava Mezze, on Capitol Hill, fries the Kefalograviera cheese right at your table, with a little lemon. This casual neighborhood haunt serves up traditional Greek foods with a modern twist, made by the descendants of Greek immigrants. Any resident will sing their praises but if you need more proof of their hard-earned reputation, just head into a Whole Foods Market or another organic shop in the country, where Cava’s spreads and dips are proudly on display.

Pumpkin Curry

Thai-style dinner with pumpkin curry and rice

Pumpkin curry will forever change the way you perceive your favorite Halloween fruit. Trade the pie for a Thai dish next time you’re in D.C. and pull up a seat at Thai X-ing Restaurant, pronounced “Thai Crossing”. Traditional family recipes dominate the menu. Its pumpkin in red curry is a best-seller – understandably so. A vegan dish served with veggies, papaya salad and rice, the pumpkin in red curry is a spicy selection that you must scribble at the top of your D.C. dining list.

Mezze rigatoni

Even the staunchest of pasta aficionados can be confounded by the diverse shapes and varieties out there. Mezze rigatoni is simply a small version of the tube-shaped original, created with ridges that help the sauce adhere. Venture out to the historic Bloomingdale district and you’ll discover The Red Hen, a sister restaurant to the Jersey-style pizza joint All-Purpose. The Red Hen stirs up no-frills Mezze Rigatoni, simmering the pasta in a pot full of tomato, pork fennel sausage ragu and pecorino romano. No fancy business here, just a classic Italian dish that will transport you to Tuscany the moment it hits your mouth.

Super grilled cheese

Try the Super Grilled Cheese at Stoney’s in Logan Circle

Forget those small sandwiches Momma used to make – this is a cheesy beast that packs a punch between the bread slices. Stoney’s in Washington, DC has been in business since 1968 and its Super Grilled Cheese commandeers your taste buds with bacon, tomato and onion. Think you can take a grilled cheese to truly heroic levels on your own? GCDC is a grilled cheese bar where you can build your own jaw-dislocating Super Grilled Cheese with your choice of breads, meats, cheese, veggies, and spreads.

Avgolemono Soup

Hungry Washingtonians have been packing into the small space that is The Greek Deli for more than 30 years now. Why? For starters, its avgolemono soup is to die for. This slurp-worthy dish is a Greek chicken lemon soup, often made with the addition of egg or rice. Even though its roots are traced back to Greece, avgolemono soup is a broader southern European staple, and has been found for centuries on Spanish, Turkish, and Italian tables. The Greek Deli is a D.C. landmark, ready to package up avgolemono soup and a classic Greek sandwich to-go.

Banh Mi

Full up to here with pho? A single bite and banh mi will be instantly your new favorite Vietnamese dish. Translating simply as “bread” in Vietnamese, banh mi is a baguette traditionally filled with meat, veggies, mayo and spices. The eponymous dish at Banh Mi DC Sandwich is done just right, using fresh French baguettes made daily. Stuffed inside are pickled radishes, hot peppers, cilantro, cucumber, pate and mayonnaise to give you an exhilarating taste of Saigon right around the corner from the Smithsonian.

Cure a hangover with D.C.’s best greasy burgers

Barflies, congressmen, locals, hungry tourists and disheveled night owls blinking in the sunlight head to the Tune Inn on Capitol Hill, as they have done since 1947, for cheap, strong drinks, early hours (beer served from 10am) and irresistible burgers. Crispy on the outside, made with 100 percent beef, they’re as old school as it gets, washed down with a cold soda or beer. Devotees overlook the dusty assortment of doodads, taxidermy, political memorabilia and pop culture whatnots that cover every square inch of wall space; the burgers are just that good.

Chesapeake blue crabs

The Chesapeake blue crab is a Maryland specialty and a city signature. June through September, traditionalists mass to Captain White’s at the Maine Avenue waterfront in Southwest D.C. to buy them by the bushel; steamed and coated in Old Bay Seasoning is the only way to go. Then there are soft shell crabs, a delicacy enjoyed from May to September; and Maryland crab cakes, which are menu perennials. Look for those that stick to the traditional recipe: large lump crab, a little onion, crumbled saltines for a binder, a touch of mayonnaise to keep things moist during cooking, and naturally, a dash of Old Bay Seasoning.

Korean fried chicken

Unlike Kansas City, Nashville or Memphis, Washington has no history with fried chicken, but people here know a good thing when they taste it, and the city has embraced KFC. (Korean fried chicken). Unlike Southern fried chicken, KFC has a batter that’s lighter, with a finely textured, crunchy, paper-thin crust oozing chicken essence. Bul Korean restaurant in Adams Morgan is the apex of Korean food in D.C. Go with friends and share the KFC three ways: plain (to taste KFC in its purest form), in tangy, spicy hot chili sauce, and in the soy, garlic, and ginger sauce – umami at critical mass.

Mumbo sauce

Mumbo sauce is a reddish-orange sauce normally made of ketchup with a dash of barbecue (plus some sweet and sour) sauce. Tangy and sweet, it can also feel the heat from added chili spice. Washingtonians proclaim it a specialty, and yet it was born in Chicago in the 1950s. As Lehia Franklin Acox, a spokeswoman for Select Brands, which owns the Chicago-based sauce company, said during a court ruling in 2013: “D.C. has fiercely claimed mumbo sauce as cultural property, but it actually has a clear history and basis and origin in Chicago.” So how to get your hands on the stuff? You head to Yum’s, place your order for wings or fried chicken and order the mumbo sauce. It’s still part of the local culture no matter who owns the name.

D.C.’s iconic half-smoke

Ben’s Chili Bowl is known for half-smokes

Combining coarsely ground pork and beef with a touch of hot pepper, the half-smoke has an ace up its sleeve in the hog casings, which give the sausage a sharp snap when you bite into it; in the seasonings, too, which are secret. Some people eat their half-smokes grilled with just spicy mustard on a bun with onions. Others smother theirs in chili with cheese and yellow mustard, like the ones at DCity Smokehouse. Or trust to the pros at Ben’s Chile Bowl (est 1958) or the Weenie Beenie take-out grill, probably the first to sell half-smokes in the area (they got going in 1954). You’ll be so happy you came.

Peruvian pollo a la brasa

This chicken dish took off in the Peruvian capital, Lima in the 1950s, and its full name is pollo a la brasa al carbon, an important distinction because al carbon means cooked over coal and fire. This method gives the chicken rich, smoky flavors from the secret spice blend (possibly cumin, garlic and Spanish paprika) rubbed in prior to cooking in a coal and fire rotisserie oven. The taste also most likely comes from a paste made with huacatay, a Peruvian black mint that’s a staple in Andean and Peruvian cooking. One of the best locations in the DMV is Crisp & Juicy. This is flavorful, juicy chicken with crispy skin and a unique pink hot sauce that’s like crack for foodies, mixed with black beans and rice.

Chesapeake oysters

Other than Maryland blue crab, no native food defines the Chesapeake region like Crassostrea virginica, the eastern oyster from Chesapeake Bay. For centuries they grew large, plump and sweet – a vital source of protein and commerce – but with over-harvesting and pollution, there are none left in the wild, and the best come from aquaculture operations in Virginia. Like wine, the flavor of an oyster reflects its terroir, tasting different from one appellation to the next. They include Bogues Bay, James River, Chincoteague, Olde Salt, Paramour, Rappahannock River, York River and Stingray. And the best raw bars at which to sample them? Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Eat the Rich, and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.

Salvadoran pupusas

Pupusas are tortilla-like pancakes made with corn flour, usually filled with Salvadoran quesillo cheese, chicharron, crispy pork skin rinds or cracklings, and refried beans. Tradition dictates a side of curtido cabbage slaw made with grated carrots, onions, a bit of hot pepper sauce, Mexican oregano, and apple cider vinegar. Made correctly, a pupusa is a lump-free, corn-imbued pancake. When the disc goes on a griddle, any quesillo filling should ooze out just enough to tattoo the slightly crisp surface with tasty bits of browned cheese. With several branches including two in DC, La Casita Pupuseria makes 10 varieties. For your first foray, start with a classic, say revueltas, made with ground pork chicharron and cheese. And tell them Culture Trip sent you.

The “G-Man” subs at Mangialardo’s

New York, Boston, Philly and Chicago have (or had) ethnic neighborhoods, and all have a tradition of no-frills Italian mom-and-pop places selling inexpensive Italian-American favorites. D.C., not so much – and the few pizza and sub shops that existed are virtually gone, except for Mangialardo’s on Capitol Hill. Take-out only, it serves subs, hot or cold, off a menu that hasn’t changed since things began 60 years ago,. Ready to order? Get a number, choose from the 16 hot or cold menu options, select toppings (hot or sweet peppers, lettuce and so on), pay and wait to collect. The D.C. signature classic, the “G-Man”, features ham, salami, mortadella, pepperoni, fontina cheese, provolone cheese, and oregano. At $9.75, for D.C. that’s a steal.

U.S. Senate Bean Soup

Served in the Senate dining room every day since around 1903, this ubiquitous dish, like other iconic foods, has an apocryphal origin that most swear by. Two senators, Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho and Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota, are credited with either requesting the soup or providing the recipe, but their recipes differ slightly. The base includes navy beans, water, smoked ham hocks and onions, but Dubois’s version includes mashed potatoes. While this is a satisfying, hearty soup, what makes it truly remarkable is that people are still talking about it.

Nick Dauk contributed additional reporting to this article.

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