A Bit of Nature Within the City: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Washington, DC is a surprisingly good spot for green spaces.  From Rock Creek Park to the Capital Crescent Trail, our city has many natural havens.  But one of the best and least known of these spots is hidden in Anacostia—Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.

Kenilworth, located on the banks of the Anacostia River, is a 14-acre set of gardens adjacent to 77 acres of marshland.  The park is best known for its unique water lilies, lotuses, and other flowering plants on the garden ponds.

It also has a restored tidal marsh, one of the city’s last tidal wetlands.  A boardwalk out into the marsh provides a glimpse into the unique habitat—on my visit, I saw an osprey with a large fish in its talons alight on a branch across the marsh.

Kenilworth in managed by the National Park Service and therefore has excellent visitor outreach such as a small visitor’s center and binoculars available for loan.  It also provides garden tours and opens early every morning at 7am for birders.  And you’ll be sure to see some interesting avians—I caught a glimpse of a brilliant orchard oriole on my walk.

The history of the gardens dates back to 1882, when Civil War veteran W.B. Shaw decided to use his farmland to create a series of water ponds and gardens.  After his death in 1921, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers threatened to dredge the gardens to deal with the silt that had filled the Anacostia River, but Shaw’s daughter formed a citizen’s activist group that saved the site. She also convinced Congress to buy the gardens for $15,000, which the National Park Service acquired in 1938.  Since then, it has been essentially unchanged.

Kenilworth has different attractions for the different seasons.  As its website says:  “Spring is the best season for wildflowers in the marsh that borders the athletic fields and gardens.  Summer is the season for the Aquatic Gardens.  Winter, when leaves are off the trees, is the best time for birding at any of the sites. “

One of the best things about Kenilworth is that it is metro accessible.  From the Deanwood metro station, it’s about a 10 minute walk to the park entrance.  It’s a special place in our city that is definitely worth losing yourself in for a few hours.  Bring your horticulture knowledge and a birding guide and you’ll forget that the city and highway 295 are less than a mile away.

To visit:  1550 Anacostia Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20019.  Hours are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.  Metro accessible via the Deanwood station.  The park is also accessible from the back on the river with a canoe or kayak.  Free to visit.

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Teeing Up At The Miniature Golf Course On Hains Point

I’m often surprised by some of the amenities that DC doesn’t have, like cheap bowling (although luckily that can be found just across the pond at Ft. Myer).  Add to that list lots of mini-golf—there are only two spots in the city to get your putt-putt on:  the indoor course at the H Street Country Club and the outdoor course on Hains Point near the Mall.

The East Potomac Golf Course is known best for its nice public golf course, one of three in DC.  But on its grounds is also an 18-hole mini golf course for those of us who prefer putting to driving.  The course opened in 1930, making it one of the oldest courses in the nation.  In addition, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places as the “oldest continuing operating miniature golf course in the country.”

Other than the history, there’s not too much to say about this mini golf, which is fairly standard.  It’s quite old, seen for example in the fact that some of the carpet is warped, some of the features are broken, and there is debris like leaves and sticks on the ground.  But, it all adds to the charm.  And hey, it’s the only place you can play outdoor mini golf in our fine city!

Prices are $6.50 for adults, $5 for kids, and $5.50 for groups of 20 or more.  There was not a crowd when we visited in May, although staff told me that it gets busier later in the summer.  The course is able to host kids’ birthdays and other such functions.

Also on site are a pro shop and a snack bar that serves beer.  After an exhausting game of mini golf, there’s nothing like sitting and cooling off in the afternoon shade with a cold one.

To visit: 972 Ohio Drive SW, (202) 554-7660.  Open April-October, only on weekends during the spring and fall, times vary (see here) but are generally 11am-7pm.  About a half hour walk from the Smithsonian and Waterfront Metro stations.  A car or bike are the easiest options.

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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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Ground-Breaking Performing Arts at the GALA Hispanic Theater

Our city is awash with the performing arts, from the classic to the fringe.  But a very unique and exciting component of our bustling arts scene is the Spanish-language plays, readings, concerts, and readings hosted by the GALA Hispanic Theater, “the theatre with a different accent.”  It is considered by some to be one of the country’s leading Spanish-language theaters, and along with Teatro de la Luna in Arlington, is one of the two in the national capital area.

Image: GALA Hispanic Theatre

GALA makes its home at the restored Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights, a Washington, DC institution.  Before coming GALA’s permanent home in 2005, the Tivoli opened in 1924 as a elegant movie theater, but was shuttered in 1976 and fell into disrepair.

GALA stands for “Groupo de Artistas LatinoAmericanos”, and is a full-blown theater company.  Established 34 years ago, it has staged over 165 productions (see the impressive list here).  When I visited, the mainstage performance was a play called “Ana en el trópico,” a translation of the 2003 Pulitzer award-winning and Tony nominee “Anna in the Tropics.”

Nearly all the performances at GALA are in Spanish with English subtitles, and the playbill and other pieces of information are bilingual.  There’s something mesmerizing about watching a play in another language, and realizing how much of acting and the emotions of the stage are communicated by means other than language.  It is incredibly impressive it is to see actors in action who are masters of their craft in more than one language.

GALA’s theater company stages its own productions, but the theater also hosts guest artists such as musicians, dancers, DJs, and poets.  The company is committed to outreach:  the “Galita” program provides bilingual theater for kids, the Paso Nuevo program is a theater workshop for teens, and art exhibitions decorate the walls of the theater lobby.

GALA is an excellent and essential part of the DC community—visite pronto!

To visit:  3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC.  (202) 234-7174.  Columbia Heights Metro or many buses.  Prices depend on show.

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A Moment of Remembrance at the Pentagon Memorial

Washington, D.C. has many memorials, to commemorate both the large and the small moments in history.  One of the most touching of these is the Pentagon Memorial, a tribute to the men and women who died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the structure on September 11, 2001.

What makes this memorial particularly special is how moving it is, due both to its design and what it represents.  It is comprised of 184 stone benches, arranged in order of the birth years of the passengers and Pentagon staff who were killed.  The first bench that visitors come upon is that of Dana Falkenberg, born in 1998 and thus just three years old when she died.  Three of the benches are for children, a fact which becomes starker when seeing the physical divide between the three benches and that of the next oldest passenger, who was born in 1979.

Brochures at the memorial give more information about the subtle features that the architects included in the design. For example, the words “SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 9:37 AM” at the entrance are etched into a piece of limestone recovered from the wreckage.  And, the benches are positioned so that for those who died at the Pentagon, both the victim’s name and the building are in full view, whereas for those who were passengers on the plane, the name and direction of the plane’s approach are both in view.

The design of the Pentagon Memorial was conceived by Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, and selected from 1,100 submissions.  The memorial was dedicated on September 11, 2008.

Located on the on the southwest side of the Pentagon’s sprawling complex, the memorial is a 5-10 minute walk from the Pentagon Metro stop.  It can also be accessed by car, though see here for details on driving.

To get there:  Pentagon Metro or many buses from Arlington.  Open 24 hours. Free.

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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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