10 Signature Dishes You Must Eat When in D.C.

Virginia Chesapeake oysters | © Virginia Sea Grant Flickr
Virginia Chesapeake oysters | © Virginia Sea Grant Flickr
Photo of Summer Whitford
8 March 2017

Authentic is a word that gets bandied about a lot by chefs and food writers, but it’s hard to define. There are no laws that regulate recipes, so if a chef follows the spirit of the recipe but not the letter, does that make it any less authentic? A good cook can evoke a place, indigenous ingredients, and culture by creating flavor blends. What matters is how a dish tastes and if the ingredients are fresh – isn’t that enough?

Who’s to say what’s authentic? Is Italian-American food what they serve in Italy? No, but who doesn’t love a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs now and then. Lacking its own culinary identity or local cuisine, Washington, D.C.‘s cooks, restaurants, and eateries have, over the decades, incorporated ingredients, techniques, and dishes from other cities, cultures, regions, countries, and cuisines. With time, these imports have evolved, been turned into signature dishes, and have become part of the local lore, albeit, often with dubious ancestry.

A dish with a questionable culinary DNA can lead to conflict between two cities over who invented what first, and the food culture in D.C. is prone to imitation and copycat trends. Without taking sides or playing favorites, here are some of the more famous signature dishes or foods you will encounter, along with the places where you can find them.

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

Bar, Fast Food, Pub Grub, American
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Tune Inn Capitol Hill
Tune Inn Capitol Hill | © Dave Newman / Flickr

Barflies, congressmen, locals, hungry tourists and disheveled night owls trying to cope from the sins of the day before are making a beeline for the Tune Inn on Capitol Hill as they’ve done since 1947. Many go for the cheap, strong drinks, early hours (they start serving beer at 10:00 a.m.), but most are really in search of this dive bar’s signature hangover cure: the shamelessly irresistible greasy burgers.

Cooked until crispy on the outside and made with 100% beef, this is as old school as it gets. The meaty taste of the burgers washed down with an ice-cold soda, or foamy glass of beer, is pure hedonism even if you do stare into the blank eyes of a large deer head mounted to the wall. Loyal customers 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

Fishmonger, Market, Seafood, American
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Chesapeake blue crab
Chesapeake blue crab | © bigbirdz / Flickr

D.C.’s affection for Callinectes sapidus (which means “beautiful swimmer” in Latin), better known as the Chesapeake blue crab, is, of course, a Maryland specialty, but blue crab is a D.C. signature dish. For traditionalists, steamed crab coated in Old Bay Seasoning is the only way to go. They relish whacking away at the buggers with little wooden mallets to extract paltry sums of sweet, tender crab meat. June through September, traditionalists migrate to Captain White at the Maine Avenue waterfront in Southwest D.C. to buy crabs by the bushel.

However, if the “fun” of this messy ritual alludes you, consider soft shell crabs, a delicacy enjoyed from May to September, or Maryland crab cakes, which you can enjoy year-round. The former is usually in scarce supply, so order it when you see it on a menu, and crab cakes are easy to find on menus since picked, lump and bulk crab meat is readily available fresh, canned, or frozen. Look for crab cakes that don’t stray far from the traditional recipe made with large lump crab, a bit of onion, some crumbled saltines for a binder, and a touch of mayonnaise to keep the cake moist when it cooks, and naturally, a dash of Old Bay Seasoning.

Korean fried chicken

Restaurant, Korean, Street Food
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Unlike Kansas City, Nashville, or Memphis, Washington doesn’t have a history with fried chicken, but they know a good thing when they taste it, and the city has enthusiastically embraced K.F.C. (Korean fried chicken).

Unlike Southern fried chicken, K.F.C.’s batter is lighter and has a finely textured, crunchy, paper-thin crust that explodes with chicken essence from the first bite. Bul Korean restaurant in Adams Morgan is unequivocally the apex of Korean food in D.C. When you go, go with friends and share the K.F.C. three ways: plain so that you can taste K.F.C. in its purest form, in tangy, spicy hot chili sauce, and in the soy, garlic, and ginger sauce – it’s umami at critical mass.

Mumbo sauce

Cafe, Restaurant, Chinese, French, BBQ
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BBQ chicken wings with mumbo sauce
BBQ chicken wings with mumbo sauce | © Alpha / Flickr

Mention chicken wings and mumbo sauce (also spelled mambo and mombo) to most Washingtonians and they have no idea what you are talking about unless they grew up in one of the historically African-American areas of the city. Chicken and mumbo sauce are typically sold by tiny questionable-looking carry-out Chinese-American shops that sell everything from beef with broccoli to chicken wings, fried chicken, French fries, fried fish, and pizza.

Some people may call it barbecue sauce, but mumbo sauce is a thin almost neon bright reddish orange, sometimes reddish brown, sauce that’s most likely a hybrid made by combining ketchup with a dash of barbecue sauce and some sweet-and-sour sauce. It’s usually tangy and sweet but can also have some heat from added chili spice, and Washingtonians proudly proclaim it a hometown specialty.

Except that it’s not. It’s originally from Chicago where it was created on the South Side in the 1950s. There have been strong campaigns to prove the sauce is from Washington and legal battles over the use of the name, but in 2013, a trademark court’s decision finally resolved the conflict. The court ruled against the D.C. plaintiff, Arsha Jones, the owner of Capital City Mumbo Sauce who initially brought the suit. As Lehia Franklin Acox, a spokeswoman for Select Brands, which owns the Chicago-based sauce company said at the time, “D.C. has fiercely claimed mumbo sauce as cultural property, but it actually has a clear history and basis and origin in Chicago.” Yikes!

So what do you do if you want to order the stuff now? 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

Butcher, Restaurant, American, $$$
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Half-smokes on the griddle
Half-smokes on the griddle | © T.Tseng / Flickr

It doesn’t take much to start a debate in Washington – just bring up politics or ask who makes the best half-smoke or try to determine the origins of this D.C. archetype. In a city famous for copycat food, this is one signature dish that’s a D.C. original. Granted, it’s a fusion of sausage styles from more than one cuisine, and many of the versions sold here come from two producers in Baltimore (Briggs and Mangers), but boy, is it terrific when you get the right one.

Made with a combination of coarsely ground pork and beef with a touch of hot pepper, the secret to the half-smoke lies in the hog casings, which give the sausage a sharp snap when you bite into it, and the seasonings, which are, of course, secret. Sometimes smoked and sometimes not, some people eat their half-smoke grilled with just spicy mustard on a bun with onions, while others smother theirs in chili with cheese and yellow mustard, like the ones at DCity Smokehouse. If you want to cook the sausages at home, buy them at a great old butcher, Harvey’s at Union Market, or leave the cooking to the pros at Weenie Beenie take-out grill, probably the first guys to sell half-smokes in the area (they sold them starting in 1954), or DCity Smokehouse. Fans of the “Q” know they can trust these guys to handle their smoked meat whether it’s pulled pork or a half-smoke, and they never disappoint.

Peruvian polla a la brasa

Restaurant, Peruvian, American, $$$
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Crisp and juicy Peruvian chicken
Crisp and juicy Peruvian chicken | © Kevin Tao / Flickr

We should thank Peru for their remarkable culinary contributions every day. If not for Peru, we would not have the potato and the mouthwatering pollo a la brasa, or rotisserie chicken that is one of the best meals you will find in D.C. It tastes like a million bucks and is just a few dollars more than the depressing chicken sold at fast-food joints.

This style of chicken got its start in Lima, Peru 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 dark, rich, smoky flavors that can only come from the secret spice blend that’s rubbed over the whole bird before it slowly cooks in a coal and fire rotisserie oven.

No one will divulge what spices they use, but an educated guess is that cumin, garlic, and Spanish paprika are on the list, and the elusive and unidentifiable flavor that makes this chicken so hard to resist most likely comes from a paste made with huacatay, also called Peruvian black mint. This herb is a staple in Andean and Peruvian cooking, and it grows throughout the Andes Mountains region in South America. So where do you go to get this delicious, moist bird? There are a few places that do a good job, but one of the oldest (they opened in 1989) and best locations in the DMV is Crisp & Juicy.

It’s hard to go anyplace else once you taste their flavorful, juicy chicken with the crispy skin and the unique pink hot sauce that’s like crack for foodies. Since it opened, the food quality has never wavered; they do only a few things but do them well, consistently. Just be sure to buy lots of hot sauce and mix it in with the black beans and rice and dip the yucca in it.

Chesapeake oysters

Bar, Market, American, Pub Grub, Seafood, $$$
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Other than the Maryland blue crab, no other native food defines the Chesapeake region like Crassostrea virginica, the native eastern oyster found in the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the country. When the first Europeans arrived in the 1600s, the bay supported billions of oysters, and the oyster reefs were so plentiful that they broke the surface of the water and defined tributary river channels for the Choptank, James, and other rivers in Maryland and Virginia.

For centuries, the oysters were large, plump, sweet, and a vital source of protein and commerce. Unfortunately, over-harvesting, pollution, and other threats have destroyed the once pristine natural reefs and killed the oysters. Now there are essentially no wild oysters left to harvest, and the best Chesapeake oysters come from aquaculture operations in Virginia, with Maryland coming in a distant second place regarding production.

Like wine, the flavor of each oyster reflects its terroir and tastes different from one appellation or location to the next. These appellations include Bogues Bay, James River, Chincoteague, Olde Salt, Paramour, Rappahannock River, York River, and Stingray, and the best raw bars to find them are Rappahannock Oyster Bar, Eat the Rich, and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.

Salvadoran pupusas

Market, Restaurant, Salvadorian, Central American
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Salvadoran pupusas
Salvadoran pupusas | © René Mayorga / Flickr

If the James Beard Foundation gave an award for best pupusas – and Salvadoran food – La Casita Pupuseria & Market would win. Not just because the food is flavorful but because it’s always delicious and prepared by people who are passionate about giving diners a window into Salvadoran cuisine and culture. The chefs and owners have raised the bar on pupusas in the DMV.

For those unfamiliar with Salvadoran food, pupusas are tortilla-like pancakes, usually about 1/4-inch thick, made with masa harina, or corn flour, and filled with a variety of fillings, most often Salvadoran quesillo cheese, chicharron, crispy pork skin rinds or cracklings, and refried beans. They are traditionally served with a side of curtido cabbage slaw made with grated carrots, onions, a bit of hot pepper sauce, Mexican oregano, and apple cider vinegar. It’s the perfect acidic yin to pupusa’s creamy, slightly sweet yang.

When the pupusa is made correctly, it is a smooth, lump-free, corn-imbued pancake that almost melts in your mouth. Not too thin or too thick, it should never be heavy, and the filling should be evenly distributed so that the pancake-to-filling ratio is balanced. Once shaped into a disk, the pupusa goes on a griddle, and if there’s a quesillo filling, the cheese should melt evenly and ooze out just enough to tattoo the slightly crisp surface with tasty bits of browned cheese.

Las Casita makes 10 different kinds of pupusas, and every one is handmade and cooked to order. For your first foray, start with classics like revueltas made with ground pork chicharron and cheese, the vegetarian frijol y queso with refried beans and cheese, or loroco con queso, prepared using ground loroco flower buds and cheese. And tell them Culture Trip sent you.

Mangialardo's, Washington

Sandwich Shop, Fast Food, American, Italian, $$$
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New York, Boston, Philly, and Chicago all have or had ethnic neighborhoods, and they all have a long tradition of Italian mom-and-pop places selling fantastic, inexpensive Italian-American favorites in pared-down no-frills eateries and carry-out shops; D.C., not so much. There are a few quasi-ethnic enclaves in the District, but no significant Italian neighborhoods ever existed, and the few old-school mom-and-pop pizza and sub shops that did are virtually all gone, except for Mangialardo’s on Capitol Hill.

This tiny sub shop is take-out only, is only open from 8AM–3PM, always has long lines, and serves one thing: subs, your choice of hot or cold. For 60 years, Mangialardo’s has been selling subs to D.C.’s nearby workers, working class and blue collar crowds, and the people in the Hill East neighborhood. The menu hasn’t changed since it started and third-generation owner Tony Mangialardo says, “We don’t change anything, you know. I make the subs the same way my dad started doing it. … I take care of the customers.”

The menu and ordering process is simple. First, you get a number, order a sub on either a hard or soft roll, choose from the 16 hot or cold subs on the menu, select toppings like oil and vinegar, hot or sweet peppers, lettuce, etc., pay, and then wait for your sandwich. While the menu includes classics like meatball, Italian, and pastrami subs, go for the D.C. signature classic called the “G-Man.” It’s made with ham, salami, mortadella, pepperoni, fontina cheese, provolone cheese, and oregano and sells for $8.50, which in D.C., is a steal.

U.S. Senate Bean Soup

Restaurant, Soup, American
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Is it rude to say that maybe all that hot air coming out of the U.S. Senate is due to loquacious politicians’ intake of the famous Senate Bean Soup? Served in the Senate dining room every day since around 1903, this ubiquitous dish, like other iconic foods, has an origin myth that’s indisputable. According to the myths, 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 recipe includes navy beans, water, smoked ham hocks, and onions, but Dubois’s version includes mashed potatoes. While this is a satisfying, hearty soup, the only thing that makes it remarkable is that people are still talking about it.