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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.

crabs

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).

mate

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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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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That Sweet Smell of Roasted Beans: Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony at Sidamo

There are few things more pleasant than sitting in a small, delightfully cramped coffee shop on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  But Sidamo Coffee and Tea, on 4th and H NE, offers an improved take on your weekend leisure by adding a traditional coffee ceremony and tasting to the mix.

Sidamo, meaning both a type of light-bodied coffee and the Ethiopian province that is from, is owned and operated by a delightful Ethiopian family who seem to recognize every person that walks in the door.  Husband and wife team Kenfe Bellay and Yalemzwed Desta started the business in 2006 and haven’t looked back, even opening another location in suburban Maryland.

As you probably suspected, Sidamo is all about the coffee.  All beans brewed and sold in the store are shade grown, fair-trade, and certified organic.  And, all are roasted on-site in a gigantic coffee roaster that sits inside and pumps delicious-smelling fumes out onto H St. in the early mornings.

But perhaps Sidamo’s best nod to its namesake is its coffee ceremony that occurs every Sunday at 2pm.  Traditionally an Ethiopian coffee ceremony is held for only friends and family, and may take several hours.  Sidamo’s ceremony begins with a female employee, dressed in a traditional cotton dress and head scarf, lighting incense to set the mood.  The next step is roasting the beans in a small pot over a kerosene stove.  The beans start to crackle and snap, turning from green to black and filling the air with a pugent, slightly burnt aroma.  The pot is brought around so you can see and smell the freshly-roasted beans up close.  The beans are then ground and added to water in a fancy coffee pot known as a “jebana.”  After 15 minutes or so of cooking on the stove, the hot, unfiltered coffee is slowly poured into small china cups for patrons to taste and savor.  A warning—this coffee is not for the weak of palate!  It is strong and bitter, and while it will make a coffee snob swoon, it’s not for those of us who prefer the less hardcore lattes.

Sidamo is best known for its coffee, but I can’t miss this opportunity to mention its bagels—they are some of the best I’ve had in DC.  Upon further research I discovered that there is indeed a small community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, but…well… I don’t think that’s the cause of Sidamo’s success in this arena!

Coffee is integral to Ethiopian lifestyle, but also to the country’s economy—it exported half a billion dollars worth of it last year.  As Washington, DC has one of the largest Ethiopian populations in the US, it’s exciting that Sidamo provides us a more personal insight into this country’s culture and traditions.

To visit:  417 H St. NE, (202)-548-0081.  Free ceremony at 2pm on Sundays, though it may start late!  Union Station Metro or 90s or X2 buses.

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Pay It Forward—With Indian Food—at Karma Kitchen

Do you ever wish that a stranger would anonymously gift you a delicious, vegetarian Indian meal?  And does that urge to brighten someone’s day with a delicious, vegetarian Indian meal ever overtake you?  Luckily, Karma Kitchen in Dupont Circle will allow you to partake in just such an “experiment in generosity,” and fill both your belly and soul for the day.

Located in what is normally Dalchinni Indian restaurant, Karma Kitchen exists only on Sundays from 12-3pm.  Everything on the menu costs $0.00, because the idea is that the attendees of last week’s brunch have already paid for your meal.  You have the option of contributing any sum—including nothing—for the brunch in an envelope at the end of the meal.  The folks at Karma Kitchen are quick to point out that the food isn’t free—it is a gift, and philosophically there is a big difference.

The mouth-watering, all-you-can-eat menu changes every week, but is always vegetarian and once a month is vegan.  The food when I attended consisted of mango lassis, chai tea, saag paneer, sweet potatoes and peas, chana peshawir, and kheer to top it off.  All servers and hosts are volunteers from around the entire metro area, and the food is made by Dalchinni employees (the restaurant receives an undisclosed amount at the end of each Sunday afternoon to cover food costs and labor).

Where else could something like this have started than Berkeley, California?!  The Karma Kitchen in Berkeley provided the capital for the DC location to begin, which then paid for the Chicago location.  Karma Kitchen founders are currently in talks about new locations, perhaps New York City and perhaps international.

My favorite part of the experience was when our host made everyone in the whole restaurant get up for a dance break.  He blasted bhangra music from a small boom box, and we all swayed to the Indian beats, cracking up but getting groovy by the end!  This sort of hippie-dippie love-fest happens all too rarely in our city, and made my heart swell just a little bit bigger.  Or was that full feeling just all of the Indian food I had ingested?  Whatever it was, I walked away from Karma Kitchen feeling recharged, optimistic, and ready to take on life’s challenges, I expect that even a cynic would have a hard time not cracking a smile!

To visit:  1736 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC.  202-483-8705.  Sundays 12-3pm.  Red line Metro, 42 or L2 bus lines.

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