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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.