Dirt Cheap Eats 2009: Street Snacks
The new food carts serve up everything from jerk-chicken wraps to falafel and include a merry band of curry-hawking pranksters.
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Ali Baba Falafel (7155 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-520-4030). “Dee-licious,” a scruffy twentysomething says. A middle-aged mom exclaims: “Even better than last time!” The accolades are aimed at Mohamed Elrafai, who owns this blue street cart next to the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market. Elrafai specializes in Egyptian-style falafel, fried rounds speckled with fava beans and tightly bound in a pita (small $4.95, large $6.95). Dressings such as banana peppers, red cabbage, tomato, and tahini sauce make the roll-up taste great. On the side come crisp, lightly spiced fries ($2.50). There’s good hummus ($4.95), too, but more interesting is a spicy fava-bean dip rich with tahini ($4.95).
Open daily 10:30 to 8.
Bulgogi Cart (14th and L sts., NW; 703-209-5415). If there are too many downtown-DC lunch decisions to make, this yellow cart is for you. Here there are just two decisions: spicy or mild, chicken or beef—the makings of bul goki, or Korean barbecue. An order ($7) includes thinly sliced beef or hunks of chicken over white rice along with a salty version of kimchee—the fermented-cabbage salad that’s a staple of Korean meals. Any permutation of heat and meat is available, and they’re all good, though we’re partial to the spicy beef—hot enough to feel but not an uncomfortable singe. A version with a fried egg on it is called bibim bap.
Open Monday through Friday 10 to 2.
Fojol Bros. of Merlindia (DC locations and hours change; visit fojol.com for details). Follow them on Twitter, and a Fojol Bros. tweet might read something like this: “dingo is feeling energized and kipoto feels like it is a franklin square day.” It’s cryptic, but it contains the essential info for fans of this zany traveling street cart’s Indian eats. Once you know the when and where, you’ll find a silvery truck blaring Louis Armstrong or MGMT, with some combo of the four owners—dressed in turbans and handlebar moustaches—dancing and dishing out a rotating lineup of offerings.
That could include spicy cauliflower and potatoes, a not-too-sweet pumpkin purée, and a wonderful chicken masala with hints of roasted red and green peppers. Meals come with basmati rice and cost $9 for a choice of three dishes, $6 for a choice of two, and $2 for a taste. Refreshing frozen lassi pops ($2 each) come in exotic flavors of ginger, mango, rose water, and coconut.
Food Chain (M St. between Connecticut Ave. and 17th St., NW; 14th St. and New York Ave., NW; North Capitol and E sts., NW). One of downtown DC’s best lunch values comes out of these three hot-dog trucks—and it’s not a half-smoke. Jerk-chicken wraps ($5) and tacos ($2.50) feature peppery meat and mango salsa.
It’s rare that vegans can order from a street cart, but the Caribbean bean taco ($2.50), spilling beans and salsa and topped with a sprinkling of coconut, is as good as its chicken counterpart. For an extra kick, ask for the fire sauce; the smoke sauce is milder. Items can sell out quickly—get updates at twitter.com/foodchaindc—but look for the outfit to expand into more carts with more cuisines.
Open Monday through Friday 10 to 4.
Pedro & Vinny’s (15th and K sts.; NW). Regulars know the deal: Proprietor John Rider calls down the line asking a dozen customers at a time for their tortilla and cheese choices. He then readies the orders and puts them in a steamer. When you get to the front, the wrap is warm and ready to be filled with black-bean chili, pinto beans, or the popular Black-and-Tan, a combination of the two. There are loads of hot sauces, but we go for the Goose, a heavenly habañero-mango concoction made by Rider and stored in a Grey Goose vodka bottle.
Small burritos ($4 without cheese, $4.25 with) don’t come with rice; medium and large burritos are $5 to $6.25 and come with rice and beans; guacamole, sour cream, and a flavored tortilla cost extra. Rider, who recently resurrected his cart after a hiatus, mans the K Street cart; daughter Kristin will helm a second to open soon. The lines usually move quickly, but customers can e-mail by 10 am (email@example.com) to have burritos ready for pickup. Another part of the drill: Customers calculate their tabs and change.
Open Monday through Friday 11 to 2; visit pedroandvinnys.com to check for weather closures.
Spy Diner (Seventh and F sts., NW). Zola, the upscale American restaurant in Penn Quarter, and its more casual neighbor, Spy City Café, have a new little brother—Spy Diner. The chrome cart across the street turns out sliders for $4 to $6 a pair. The lamb meatballs, topped with a romaine-and-red-pepper slaw and goat-cheese aïoli, are the stars, and the sweet and smoky barbecue-pork sliders served with slaw on a salt-and-pepper bun shouldn’t be missed.
There’s also a decent all-American burger and a roast-beef melt with Emmentaler-cheese sauce and caramelized onions. All $4 pairs can be mixed and matched—you’re not confined to two of a kind. Breakfast sandwiches, house-made coffeecake, bagels, and coffee are available before 11.
Open Monday through Friday 8:30 to 5:30; Saturday and Sunday 11 to 6.
Windy City Red Hots (19413 Smith Cir., Ashburn; 703-505-6934). When Chicago native Angel Miranda moved to Virginia 12 years ago, he missed the Windy City’s many street carts. So he channeled his cravings into this white truck stationed in a nursery parking lot, where he offers sausage-stuffed pizza puffs ($3.75), shaved Italian beef ($7.75), cheese fries ($2.25), and Italian sausage with hot peppers ($3.75).
The cart’s eponymous offering, the Windy City Red Hot ($2.93), is the standout. Miranda imports all ingredients—from the Vienna Beef dog to the poppy-seed bun—from Illinois. Garnished with the requisite Chicago toppings—mustard, relish, onions, tomato, pickle, sport peppers, and celery salt—the hot dog could have come straight from the Magnificent Mile.
Open Tuesday through Saturday 11 to 5, Sunday noon to 4.
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