Category Archives: Local Food

Getaway to Tangier Island: Crabs, History, and the Mighty Chesapeake

Our region is in large part defined by the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Although we in D.C. live a bit inland from the Bay itself, we still benefit from its bounty, such as blue crab feasts, seafood at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, and excursions along the shore.

But while you live in the area, it’s worth getting a total immersion into the richness and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.  To do so, take a weekend and head down to Tangier Island, located 12 miles into the middle of the Bay.  In order to get to Tangier, you must take a 1.5 hour ferry ride from either Reedville, VA or Crisfield, MD (each about 3 hours away from D.C.).  While there are day trips to the island, that option gives you only about two hours until the ferry turns around and comes back, so I’d highly recommend spending at least one night to really get a feel for the place.

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The island is comprised of about a thousand acres, only about a hundred of which are actually inhabited (the rest being marsh).  About 500 people live on Tangier, and since no cars are allowed bikes and golf carts are the main forms of transportation.

Tangier has an important place in American history.  Pocomoke Indians inhabited the island for many years before Europeans including John Smith arrived.  It is also historically significant because it served as the staging ground for British troops during the War of 1812.  And interestingly, to this day, residents speak in a dialect that linguists believe is very similar to the English that European settlers spoke when they first arrived in America.

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The best part of Tangier Island is the crabs and observing the economy and culture that has been built up around them.  According to locals, about 75 percent of our country’s soft shell crabs (those that have just molted out of their old shells and are soft and squishy all over) come from the area every year, and it also provides a significant amount of hard crabs, oysters, and even eels that are sold to markets in New York and other places around the country.  Because the economy is built around the crabbing, it has a feeling very similar to a New England fishing or lobster town, with little changed over the last century.

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One of the must-do activities during your visit is to take a tour of a “crab shanty,” the structures on the water around the edge of the island where watermen tend to and harvest soft shell crabs.  Because the crabs harden again within a few hours of molting, the watermen must immediately ready them for packaging and shipping, meaning that they work around the clock.

The island is not much built up for tourism quite yet, which is part of its appeal.  There are three bed and breakfasts (I stayed at the Bay View Inn, which was lovely), a couple of ice cream/sandwich places, and a few gift shops.  The three restaurants which are open for dinner (one of which has a last seating at 5pm) sell mostly an array of crab-based fare, including crab cakes, soft-shell crab sandwiches, and crab bisques.  It’s worth mentioning that the island is dry, so bring your own alcohol and be discreet about it.

crab roll

Other activities to do on the island include taking in the small yet chock-full Tangier History Museum, kayaking in the marshes to see the myriad of shorebirds (including glossy ibis and black skimmers), and biking to the beach to see a sunset.

Tangier Island is truly a step back in time, and a glimpse of how and why the Chesapeake Bay is so important to our region and its economy, ecology, and shared history.

To visit:  Ferry once daily from Reedville, VA (May-October) or Crisfield, MD.  Various bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation rentals.  Go during the summer, as very little is open during the winter.

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Appreciating Argentinian Cuisine in Rockville

We’ve got a lot of great Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants in DC, but not nearly as many South American hotspots.  Before you go pointing me to Fogo de Chao, let me specify—I mean non-chain, family-owned, feel-like-you’re-actually-in-Buenos-Aires type places.  (And I will say we are home to some great Peruvian restaurants).

El Patio

Nevertheless, I was excited to discover El Patio, a great Argentinian restaurant, café, and small market in Rockville.  Unassumingly located in a strip mall, El Patio serves up a wide variety of the country’s finest foods, like traditional barbeque (parrillada), carne salteada, and milanesas (friend or breaded meats).  The café in the back is the perfect place to snack on empandas, Spanish tortillas, and other baked goods.  And don’t forget a glass of malbec!

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El Patio also hosts a small market featuring foods and wines from Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay. Looking for yerba mate, alfajores, or chimcurri sauce?  This is your spot.  You can even buy a guampa and bombilla for drinking the mate (the gourd and straw, for those not in the know).

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One of the best things about visiting El Patio is observing and interacting with its local South American crowd.  On the Sunday afternoon when I visited, my group was one of the very few speaking English rather than Spanish.  This is what I like so much about Rockville, Centreville, Annandale, and other suburbs teeming with ethnic restaurants:  not only is the food great, but because they are located in cultural neighborhood centers, you really do feel like you’ve taken a step into a different city, even if just for a short time.

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To visit:  5240 Randolph Rd Rockville Maryland, Loehmanns Plaza Shopping Center‎, (301) 231-9225.  M-Th 9am-9pm, F-Sat 9am-10pm, Sun 9am-8pm.  About a mile walk from the White Flint metro stop on the red line.

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Savoring Senegal and the Flavors of West Africa

Our town is a veritable mecca for Ethiopian food, and I suspect many a resident has introduced family and friends to the delights of injeera and wat.  But D.C. is also home to a number of other exceptional African restaurants, including one of the few West African joints in the area, Chez Aunty Libe.

Located north of the Petworth neighborhood, Chez Aunty Libe offers “Senegambian” food, which includes influences from many West African countries like Senegal, The Gambia and Cote D’Ivoire.  Both the ambience and food are, as one reviewer put it, “straight out of Dakar.”

Dishes you may sample generally consist of stews of meat and vegetables like cassava, carrots, and cabbage.  Examples include thieboudienne (fish in a tomato-based stew), maffe (peanut or groundnut sauce), and yassa (marinated fish or meat).

Another items worth trying is the bissap, a juice made from hibiscus flowers that reminded me very much of Mexico’s “jugo de jamaica.”  And although I didn’t sample it myself, many reviews recommend the thiakry, a couscous pudding for dessert.

One of the best parts of a visit to Chez Aunty Libe is the opportunity to chat with Aunty Libe herself, also known as Liberte Ehemba.  Originally from Senegal, she arrived in the U.S. more than 20 years ago and has made her business a hub for members of the West African community in D.C.  This fact was clear early on—Libe is extraordinarily friendly, knew nearly every person who walked in the door, and had long conversations in French (and perhaps other languages) with each restaurant goers.

It isn’t often that we get the opportunity to feel like we’re on the other side of the world while still in our city, so savor it when it happens!

To visit:  6115 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-531-2561, Sunday–Thursday 11:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m. and Friday- Saturday 24 hours.  One mile from the Takoma Park metro stop, or 2 miles from Georgia Ave.-Petworth.  The 70 and 71 bus stop very close by.

 

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Tasting A Little Bit of Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Local Goodness

DC’s local food scene is spreading like wildfire, from the do-it-yourselfers at Grey DC to the homey classiness of Seasonal Pantry.  But nobody does it quite like Smucker Farms of Lancaster County, a haven devoted to all things (but especially the food) from slice of the state that is famous for its Amish and Mennonite residents and traditions.

Smucker Farms was founded to bring the products of agrarian Lancaster County to the bustling market of Washington, DC.  Almost the entire store is stocked with products from the county, with the exceptions of some farms and vendors in southeast Pennsylvania that are not within the county line, as well as a handful of local DC products (such as Gordy’s pickles).

The variety of goods is impressive—you can get everything from spices to breads to meat to produce to tomato and other sauces to condiments.  And, of course, the apple butter and shoofly pie for which Amish country is known.  I also liked some of the out-of-the-ordinary products like shrub, a beverage with colonial roots that is “created when fruit is preserved in vinegar, sweetened with sugar and then mixed with water or spirits.”   The store also has soaps and lotions, wooden furniture and kids’ toys, and even a few seasonal cookbooks.

Lancaster Farms works with a farmer’s cooperative to ensure that there are no hiccups in the sourcing and distribution process, and also to provide a CSA that can be picked up at the store.  The cooperative, Oasis at Bird-in-Hand, is run by the quintessentially Amish trio of Dale Stoltzfus, Elmer Lapp, and Leroy Miller.

Technically, all goods from Lancaster County are local, considering that the county seat is approximately 120 miles from DC and the southern tip of the county is even closer.  If you’re looking for local food and products that come from a community that values traditional farming, this is the place for you.

To visit:  2118 14th St. NW, 202-986-7332.  Open every day 9am-9pm.  U Street Metro or many buses.

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Bahn Mi Bliss at the Eden Center

Every city has its neighborhood cultural hubs, from Little Italy in Boston to Koreatown in New York.  One of D.C.’s best ethnic hotspots is Eden Center, located in Falls Church, Virginia.  This large indoor and outdoor mall complex is home to approximately 120 Vietnamese stores, ranging from restaurants to groceries to souvenirs to salons.  As its website says, it is “the heart and soul of the Vietnamese-American Community for the entire East Coast.”

Because there’s so much going on at Eden Center, especially on weekends, it’s a bit overwhelming to visit and pick a restaurant.  Let me suggest Song Que (“song whey”), a delightful bahn mi shop that also features various grocery/deli items like finger foods to go, hard-to-find fruits, and snacks.

Bahn mi is best described as a French-influenced Vietnamese sandwich, featuring meats, tofu, and pickled vegetables on a baguette.  Options include ground pork, lemongrass beef, and Vietnamese meatballs.  Song Que is somewhat unique in terms of bahn mi at Eden Center and elsewhere in that it has a great vegetarian option—the caramelized tofu skin sandwich.

Also worth tasting are the bubble teas that come in all sorts of flavors, like mango, yellow bean, and jackfruit.  Song Que is nice in that it has table and seats in the back, which many of the other takeout food options at Eden Center do not.

After your sandwich, stroll around the mall, and especially go to the grocery store, called the Eden Supermarket.  It’s a treasure trove of many different ingredients for Asian cooking at amazing prices.  Other great restaurant choices at Eden Center included pho, seafood dishes, and soups.  Here’s a listing of all of the options.

Eden Center, formally the Plaza Seven Shopping Center, started reaching its height when thousands of immigrants settled in the area in the 1970s after the Vietnam War.  Indeed, the clock tower at the Eden Center is an exact replica of that in Saigon.  It’s a great place to step out of America for a couple of hours, and experience the delights and flavors of a different culture.

To visit:  6751 Wilson Blvd, Falls Church, VA (Song Que is located at 6769 Wilson Boulevard), hours vary by store—call for details.  About a one mile walk from the East Falls Church metro, or 1A/1B/1E/1F bus west from the Ballston metro).

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Santa Fe Cafe: Savoring the Flavors of the Land of Enchantment

Your faithful blogger just returned from a delightful holiday vacation in Taos, New Mexico.  Feeling a desperate need for green chile after having consumed it three times a day for a week, she scoured the DC food blogs for a reminder of the 47th state.

 

And that’s how she found the Santa Fe Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, one of the only New Mexican restaurants in the DC metro area (the Anita’s chain is another option for the Virginians out there).  The place was founded in 1988 by Kip Laramie, who was quick to plead modesty by stating that he was “cautious about saying it’s authentic” due to the distinct differences in food and flavors within the state itself.

New Mexican food is best known by the importance placed on both red and green chile sauces.  While other ingredients like posole, blue corn, and sopapillas also make New Mexican cuisine unique, the chile is the star ingredient.  (The fact that a Chile Pepper Institute exists at New Mexico State University should give you a clue as to how devoted New Mexicans are to their prima donna).

Santa Fe Cafe obliges spicy die-hards with entrees featuring either Hatch green chiles or Chimayo red chile sauce, like rellenos, enchiladas, and burritos.  Or, if something else on the menus entices you, a bowl of the soupy mixture comes on the side for just $1 extra.  Vegetarians will be relieved to know that both the green and red chile are meat-free, unlike many establishments that include beef or pork.  Unfortunately, no New Mexican beers are offered at Santa Fe Cafe, but a number of good microbrews and Mexican beers make up the drink list.

It’s good to know that many a native New Mexican has found the place legit—a wall in the entryway features signed headshots of famous New Mexican leaders like Governor Bill Richardson, Senators Tom Udall and Pete Domenici, and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan.  Lujan’s authograph states that the café’s food is “just like mom’s cooking.”

Another great aspect of the restaurant is its emphasis on décor.  Traditional New Mexican ornaments like pottery, ristas (strings of chiles hung to dry), images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and gorgeous rugs line the walls.  San Pasquale, the patron saint of cooking, is also featured prominently.  In particular I appreciated the stuffed armadillo that hangs perilously from an old speaker high above an unsuspecting booth.

DC is a haven for out-of-towners, but sometimes you just need a taste of your home state.  Luckily, Santa Fe Café is here to satisfy the needs of our very own New Mexican diaspora—or at least those of us who hope to return soon.

To visit:  1500 Wilson Ave., Arlington, VA.  703-276-0361. A few blocks from the Rosslyn Metro, Dupont/Georgetown circulator, and 38B bus.  Closed Sundays, and no breakfast/lunch on Saturdays.

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“Fermentation Without Representation”: Touring DC’s First Brewery In 50 Years

Much to many a beer snob’s dismay, Washington, D.C. has never really been a beer town—according to the Kojo Nnamdi show, “It’s been more than 50 years since a production brewery operated inside D.C.”   Sure, there are plenty of beer bars and a smashing Beer Week, but we haven’t had beer to call our own in most DC residents’ lifetimes.  Until now.  In the past several months, both Chocolate City Beer (opened in August) and DC Brau Brewing Company (opened in April) have started up within the District, and DC Brau has opened its doors to tours, a tasting room, and the chance to meet the brewmasters.

 

I should note here that there are some great breweries very close to DC, such as Port City Brewing in Alexandria and Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick.  Also, there are some excellent brewpubs in the area, like Franklin’s brewery and restaurant in Hyattsville (which we covered previously) and Capitol City and Gordon Biersch with various locations.  These are restaurants and brewpubs rather than production facilities.

DC Brau is located off of Bladensburg Road in northeast DC.  It is in tucked away in an unassuming strip mall, and the unlabeled entrance is approached from the back.  The doors enter into a small tasting room, with tables, couches, and plenty of beer-related schwag.  When I toured, three beers were on tap to sample and fill grolwers—a pale ale, a stout, and a Belgian white.  Currently only 6-packs of the pale ale are being sold, but the staff told me they hope to expand that selection by the end of the year.

Tours, which are held only on select Saturdays, last approximately 20 minutes and are led by one of the handful of DC Brau employees.  This means that you’ll get a true first-hand take at what running a brewery looks like on a day-to-day basis.  Our tour guide literally went through his day, starting at 9am, showing us exactly what he does every hour.

On the tour you will see machines for heating up water and beer, adding hops and other ingredients, and cooling down the beer once it has boiled.  Also interesting is the canning machine—DC Brau is using cans for its 6-packs rather than glass bottles for environmental, fiscal, and quality of taste reasons.  If you’re lucky, the staffer giving your tour will show new experiments that the brewmasters are undertaking, such as a bourbon stout fermenting in wine barrels.

Touring DC Brau was great fun, and felt very personal.  It’s places like this that make DC feel small, and that you are very much a part of something new and exciting.

To visit:  3178-B Bladensburg Rd. NE, 202-621-8890.  Open most Saturdays 1-4pm, tours at 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30.  Best with a car or maneuver the B2, B8, B9, or H6 buses.

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