The U Street neighborhood around Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909) may be evolving, but many elements of the historic eatery remain the same. A line forms at noon for chili-drenched half-smokes; you might find anyone, from presidents to construction workers, sitting at the counter; and Bernadette “Peaches” Halton still makes the chili after 37 years. We caught up with the veteran cook responsible for Ben’s most famous dish after her shift—which starts at midnight and ends at 11 am—to talk about her career and her favorite comfort foods.
How did you start making the chili?
I started as a counter person after high school. One day, in ’79, the original owner [Ben Ali] asked me to mix the chili up and put the pot on the stove. I was pregnant with my son—the pots are very heavy, about five gallons. And since then I’ve been making the chili.
Do you have any favorite dishes you like to eat at Ben’s?
No! After 37 years? Well, if I do, my coworker Mary and I have some country bacon or sausage. Though if we were cooking crabs, I could eat them all the time. I love Mike’s Crab House near Annapolis for Buffalo shrimp, clams, and steamed crabs. I’ll also go down to Captain White on the Southwest waterfront and cook my own.
How have you kept the recipe a secret so long?
You just don’t tell anybody! Tell them it’s made with love.
Since you have breakfast at 11 in the morning after your shift, what’s your favorite thing to eat?
A salad or some Ethiopian food, injera. My coworker makes me a house salad with lettuce, tomato, green peppers, and onions, sometimes avocado, and a dressing with hot sauce and lemon.
Celebrity photos line the walls at Ben’s. Who were the best to meet?
I’m really not big on celebrities, but I did meet Eddie Levert, Gerry Levert’s father. Also Mary J. Blige, Wendy Williams, Tyrese. I’d just left [when President Obama visited], but they called me and told me and I was like, “Tell him I say, ‘What’s up?’ ”
Sweet-Potato Fries at Mussel Bar & Grille
7262 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-215-7817; 800 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington, 703-841-2337
Sweet-potato fries are notoriously hard to keep crisp—Robert Wiedmaier’s version ($5), served with a trio of aïolis, is the exception.
Trio of Fries at Bourbon Steak
2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-944-2026
The seasonings and dips for these skinny wonders ($7) change—the current lineup includes herbed fries with pickle ketchup and spicy fries with Creole mustard—and we’ve never met a match we didn’t love.
Eggplant Fries at Fast Gourmet
1400 W St., NW; 202-448-9217
This gas-station sandwich counter nails it with thick slabs of beer-battered eggplant ($4), which sport crispy exteriors and wonderfully creamy centers. Bonus: You can get them till 5 am Friday and Saturday.
Onion Rings at Family Meal
880 N. East St., Frederick; 301-378-2895
The spectacular heap ($5.99) that hits the table at Bryan Voltaggio’s diner tastes as good as it looks, thanks to a batter spiked with malt vinegar, a coating of cornflakes, and a side of bacon-horseradish dipping sauce.
Sweetly flavored and colorful, these are the most versatile root vegetable. For vibrant cocktails, we like infusing a liter of gin or vodka for two to three days with raw beets or, for hummus, blending roasted bulbs with tahini, garlic, and spices. The greens make a bold side dish stir-fried with fish sauce, garlic, and chilies.
Whether Swiss or rainbow chard, this green is versatile—and can be swapped into recipes that call for kale or spinach. We love using it to amp up egg dishes, whether sautéing the leaves with garlic and chili flakes to layer on toast with a poached egg or scrambling them with eggs, onion, and chorizo to stuff inside tortillas. Purée the stalks with garlic and tahini for a Mediterranean dip.
Why serve a side of summer corn when it can be the main event? Try sautéing kernels in butter alongside garlic, cherry tomatoes, basil, and zucchini ribbons for a market-fresh pasta. Or, make a sauce by blending raw corn with equal parts milk and cream, then cooking it on the stove till slightly thickened; it tastes wonderful tossed with cheese ravioli and bacon or spooned over grilled fish.
Think outside the salad bowl when it comes to fresh greens. Stir-fry heartier varieties like romaine and escarole with chicken or tofu, fresh vegetables, and a soy-based sauce—or try Korean-style green-leaf lettuce wraps filled with grilled steak, rice, and kimchee. Spicier greens such as arugula and watercress can add kick to pesto.
Roasted root vegetables can get as old as winter. Try perking up this hearty staple by pickling slices in vinegar with garlic and mustard seeds to serve alongside charcuterie, or give in to cold-weather comfort dishes: Bake sliced turnips with cream, garlic, Parmesan, and thyme, then top with bread crumbs for a gratin, or fold turnip purée into creamy mac and cheese.
This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Beer, like many institutions, suffers from gender disparity: Teri Fahrendorf, president of the Pink Boots Society, an association of women in the beer industry, estimates that fewer than 1 percent of professional brewers are female—a switch from more than 5,000 years ago, when the first brews were likely fermented by Sumerian women in their homes, and from present-day Washington, where the thriving craft-beer scene has a growing number of breweries where women rule.
Kristi Griner, brewmaster at Capitol City, was bartending at Hops in Alexandria in 2007 when she convinced the brewmaster to give her lessons. A professional cook for six years, Griner says, “I approach beer like food.” She worked on a doppelbock with hints of chocolate and caramel malt that went on tap March 1.
“The industry is dominated by men, so it’s marketed to men,” says Emily Bruno, the owner of Denizens Brewing Co., opening in Silver Spring this summer (with brother-in-law Jeff Ramirez as head brewer). “We want to create a place that’s accessible to anyone.”
The Robert Portner Brewing Company was Alexandria’s largest employer until Virginia went dry in 1916. Nearly a century later, Portner’s great-great-granddaughters, Catherine and Margaret Portner, are brewing up old family recipes ahead of their plan to open a new pub in Alexandria.
This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
James Beard Award-winning chef RJ Cooper has a reputation for pushing boundaries: At his Rogue 24 in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, diners choose between 16- and 24-course tasting menus. Next up: Gypsy Soul, a casual ode to regional dining in Merrifield with a sprawling rooftop grill. We caught up over raw carrots—Cooper is currently dieting—and talked about tattoos, bourbon, and his pet corgi.
Energy source: “It used to be Red Bull with chocolate. Now it’s coffee.”
Bourbon: “Black Maple Hill from Kentucky. It’s not Pappy Van Winkle, so it’s affordable, and it’s just as good.”
Restaurant: “My favorite super-fine dining is the Inn at Little Washington. It’s a very magical, Disney World place. Also magical: Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit.”
Takeout: “I have a soft spot for really bad Chinese food—greasy, starchy almond chicken from any place I can find on my phone.”
Currently craving . . . “I’m on a diet. I haven’t had chocolate in seven weeks. The kitchen crew used to eat a two-pound bag of almond M&M’s every day.”
Ice-cream flavor: “Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby, man—c’mon.”
Day trip: “A motorcycle trip through the George Washington National Forest.”
Tattoo: “I have so many! My Rogue tattoo means a lot to me because I got it three days before my open-heart surgery.”
Always in the home fridge: “Soy milk, so many berries, and a bunch of protein drinks.”
Pet: “Rebecca the Corgi Princess of McLean. She’s 11.”
Breakfast dish: “I haven’t eaten it since I started my diet, but I really like the quiche at Baked & Wired in Georgetown.”
Healthy snack: “A protein shake and raw carrots.”
Fast food: “Wendy’s triple burger with lettuce, tomato, onions, bacon, and fried onion rings on top, all crushed down.”
Four people I’d like to invite to dinner: “Brad Pitt, Woody Harrelson, Jerry Garcia, and Jerry Seinfeld. I’d serve pot brownies. “
Condiment: “If I’m at Daikaya, I like togarashi spice on everything. If it’s a burger, Thousand Island dressing. For French fries, mayonnaise.”
Restaurant music: “When we’re working, it’s whoever gets to the radio first. I’m a big jam-band guy and will put on the Dead, and everyone else is like, ‘Arrrrrrgh.’ ”
Restaurant I’d like to open: “The first chef-driven biker bar. It would have rock ’n’ roll, stripper poles, Miller High Life, and lots of smoked meats.”
Artists: “Warhol. I love the depth and energy, the wackiness. I love Dalí, and I really want to know what drugs he was on.”
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Get the lamb brains.
I know, I know: There’s got to be a more enticing way to share my enthusiasm for Khan Kabob, one of the very best—maybe the very best—of a slew of kebab houses dotting Northern Virginia.
But it’s true. You may not eat anything all year that’s as exciting, as satisfying, or certainly as interesting, as the lamb-brain karahi ($23.99—enough to feed two), a three-times-a-week special.
Karahi describes both the food and its cooking vessel, a handleless wok of hammered metal into which a cook tosses garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and cilantro. Think of it as the zesty Eastern answer to sofrito, the base for a good bit of Latin American cooking.
Of course, it’s what a cook does with those ingredients that matters, and the crew at Khan Kabob achieves a concentration of flavor unrivaled by the competition, not to mention a smokiness that lends a subtle and seldom-seen perfume. Every bite is a whirlwind of heat, pungency, and heady aromatics.
I haven’t talked about the brains themselves yet, have I? Well, look: I doubt you’d even recognize them as brains. They disappear so completely into the sauce that to stare into the large pot, you might guess you were looking at curds. I like to think of them as a source of creamy richness, the way I do sweetbreads.
Still not sold? You can order the dish with chicken ($21.99) or minced beef ($23.99), and both are terrific, too.
Ladle the stew over the accompanying bowl of steamed rice (which is excellent) or even better, scoop it with bread. Khan makes one of the best rounds of naan ($1.50) you’ll find. The dimpled surface is unexpectedly crunchy—yielding to a soft, chewy interior—and sprinkled generously with sesame seeds.
I also like to tear off pieces and use them to swaddle bites of kebab, drizzling hunks of charred chicken and lamb with the yogurt-cilantro sauce.
Not that the meats need any help.
Owner Tariq Khan commanded the kitchen for more than a decade at Ravi Kabob, the grande dame of Washington’s kebab houses, developing its recipes and refining its techniques. Khan declines to divulge his secrets but does allow that he marinates his meats at least 24 hours. The complex flavor of the finished product isn’t hard to identify, at least in part: garlic, onion, coriander, red chili, black pepper. The juiciness is the great wonder, given that nothing here is ever cooked rare or medium-rare.
Go for the bone-in chicken kebab ($10.49), which has more succulence than the breast-meat alternative; the seekh kebab ($9.99), aggressively spiced minced beef molded around a metal skewer; or the champ tandoori ($15.50), whose three foil-tipped lamb chops—cooked perfectly, despite their relative thinness—will leave your lips tingling from the spices rubbed into the meat before grilling.
If I’m looking for a spice rush, though, it’s the karahi I want.
Khan says the lamb brains are available on a limited basis because of how often he’s able to procure them from his source—also because the supply itself isn’t large. Most people, particularly Americans, aren’t often tempted to try a dish made with brains.
Which just makes this sometime special that much more special.
Khan Kabob. 4229 Lafayette Center Dr., Chantilly; 703-817-1200. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
A gyro, in the usual sense, means a kind of grayish-brown mystery meat shaved from a conical spit, stuffed into a dry pita, and folded into a sandwich. It’s often serviceable, but hardly more than that. Certainly not something you’d crave returning for, like the marvelous pork gyro ($10) at YiaYia’s Kitchen in Beltsville.
Pork is the meat of choice in Greece, rather than the typical lamb/beef blend you see in the States. At YiaYia’s, you can spot it immediately among the three upright spits. It’s the one that looks charred beyond recognition.
Not to worry. The black amounts to a kind of bark, not unlike what you’d find atop a properly tended rack of ribs, and has much more going for it than smoke. The cooks rub the meat with oregano, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, and paprika, among other seasonings, before setting it on its rotating spindle, where it slow-roasts at an almost glacial pace, for five or six hours. The finished product summons memories of the best dry-rub barbecue, lip-smacking and luscious. For the gyro, the sliced meat is nestled in a warm, griddled pita, along with tangy tzatziki and a dice of onions and tomatoes. For an extra $3, you can add another detail from the Greeks—a fistful of hot, hand-cut French fries.
This is an order-at-the-counter operation with a sit-down aesthetic. Owner Michael Harrison was previously a general manager at the Rockville and Clarendon locations of Cava Mezze, and before that he ran the floor at his father’s Parthenon Restaurant in Chevy Chase DC. Harrison’s aim was to come up with a place that could service the grab-and-go needs of his audience—YiaYia’s sits almost at the nexus of busy Route 1 and the Beltway—while functioning as a sort of latter-day Greek diner.
The fluorescent lights and cold, open room are not selling points, nor are the black plastic plates, but the food has more than enough rustic warmth—and finesse—to make you want to pull up a chair and stay. The spanakopita ($6), far from the sodden mass that so many versions end up as, is all lightness, flake, and crunch, despite its generous allotment of spinach and feta. The avgolemono ($5), a Greek version of chicken-and-rice soup (with a generous spike of lemon juice), has the roughly chopped carrots and celery that usually signal a grandmother’s homey efforts. (Yia yia means grandma; Harrison named the place in honor of his own, who passed away not long ago.) The Bolognese ($9) is a massive mound of well-cooked macaroni drenched in a cinnamon-spiced tomato-and-meat sauce.
The night I ordered them, the pork chops ($15) were a touch overcooked and the green beans alongside them had an institutional look. As it turned out, the beans were excellent, the dull green color a result of having been simmered slowly in a good sauce of tomatoes, onions, chicken stock, and dill.
The green beans also arrived one night on a plate with pastitsio ($10), a dish that often invites comparison to lasagna. The huge, dense square of ground beef and macaroni is topped with béchamel and haloumi cheese. Nothing subtle or fancy—just good, simple cooking at a reasonable price. The kind we can never have too much of.
YiaYia’s Kitchen. 10413 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-595-1855. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.
Combined-in-advance mixers have long been the secret to fast service at high-volume bars, but only recently have we begun to see premade cocktails poured from a tap.
“Kegging” a batch of a restaurant’s specialty drinks ensures consistency—the only skill that the on-duty bartender needs is the ability to pour—and the draft cocktails often cost a few dollars less than their à la minute counterparts.
Here, five of our favorites.
El Codo Margarita from El Chucho
3313 11th St., NW; 202- 290-3313
Five bucks—four during the weekday happy hour (4 to 6:30 and all night Monday)—buys you an excellent on-tap house margarita at this Columbia Heights Mexican spot. Made with silver tequila, Triple Sec, and lime juice, it’s refreshing and balanced—just right with the menu’s unfussy tacos and tortas.
A Draft of Route 74 from Jackson 20
480 King St., Alexandria; 703-842-2790
Head bartender Dean Feddaoui will serve you an $11 refresher of watermelon water, lime, and orgeat (almond syrup with orange-flower water) poured from a tap crowned with a bobblehead of Andrew Jackson, for whom the restaurant is named. Feddaoui adds vodka and orange liqueur just before serving, but customers are also welcome to sip the concoction booze-free for $7.
Lemonade Punch from Kapnos
2201 14th St., NW; 202-234-5000
Taha Ismail developed three draft punches ($11) for Mike Isabella’s new Greek restaurant. Skinos, a floral Greek liqueur, forms the basis of a cocktail with watermelon, tarragon, and lemon. The gin ade—with Batavia Arrack, honey, thyme, and soda—gets a hint of smoke from a grilled lemon. Rum plus lemon-verbena tea, lemon, cane syrup, and angostura bitters make up the elegant third option, our favorite of the lot.
Sage-and-Green-Apple Gin and Tonic from Mockingbird Hill and Red Apron Butcher
Mockingbird Hill, 1843 Seventh St., NW, 202-316-9396; Red Apron Butcher, 1309 Fifth St., NE, 202-524-6807
Sage and tart apple complement the locally made Green Hat gin’s fennel notes in this effervescent debut from Brigade—a collaboration between Passenger/Columbia Room owner Derek Brown, bartender J.P. Fetherston, and a few of their friends. Find it for $9 at Brown’s new sherry bar, Mockingbird Hill, and for $9 at the Union Market location of the charcuterie shop Red Apron Butcher.
On-Tap Sangría from Hogo
1017 Seventh St., NW; 202-393-1313
At the easygoing tiki bar Hogo—run by Passenger co-owner Tom Brown—general manager Julia Ebell developed this slightly fizzy, island-inspired red-wine mixer with ginger, hibiscus, and lime juice ($8). Ebell’s drink is less intense than the typical tropical cocktail, but she sneaks in those citrus and spice notes to winning effect.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
Chef at Rasika and Rasika West End
Instrument: Tabla, an Indian-style pair of drums.
His learning process: “If I hear something often enough, I can play it.”
Tip for tabla mastery: “You play with your hands, so you have to have skillful fingers.”
Influences: Indian tabla maestros Zakir Hussain and Alla Rakha.
Where he plays now: “I have a tabla set and a drum kit at home, so I definitely keep the neighbors up.”
What he listens to in the kitchen: Pop, rock, Bollywood tunes, Hindi music.
Chef at Cedar
First restaurant job: Playing violin during Sunday brunch at the Gandy Dancer in Ann Arbor as a teenager.
Pay at the time: $100 an hour.
Training: At McCloud’s peak, he was practicing up to ten hours a day and spending summers at Michigan’s Interlochen Center.
How performing informed his cooking philosophy: “A lot of chefs have this idea that they cook for themselves. If guests like it, that’s great; if not, screw ’em. I’m the opposite because I cook for other people.”
Career high: Taking a class with violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman.
Uncle Brutha's Allsauce No. 9
District native Brennan "Uncle Brutha" Proctor blends serrano chilies, ginger, and cilantro for his smoky twist ($8) on Mexican salsa verde. All the ingredients are natural and gluten-free.
Best for: Eggs and fish or pork tacos.
Where to find it: Order online at unclebrutha.com.
Woodberry Kitchen Snake Oil
Chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen uses fish peppers for this searing sauce ($12). The chili shows up on his menu in everything from deviled eggs to Bloody Marys.
Best for: Dashing on rich seafood dishes.
Where to find it: Salt & Sundry in Union Market, 1309 Fifth St., NE; 202-556-1866.
Apinya Thai Chili Sauce
Love Sriracha? Try this similarly flavored Thai sauce ($6) out of Herndon. It delivers a bigger hit of ginger plus hints of garlic and roasted bell peppers.
Best for: Marinades, Asian noodles, and grilled meats.
Where to find it: Order online at apinya.co.
Capital City Sweet Hot Mumbo Sauce
The District's iconic condiment ($5)—a flavor mash-up of barbecue and sweet-and-sour sauces—gets extra punch from cayenne and habanero peppers.
Best for: Eggs and fish or pork tacos.
Where to find it: Order online at capitalcitymumbosauce.com.
Small Small Red Pepper Sauce
Aromatic berbere—a spice mix that's a key ingredient in Ethiopia's long-simmered stews—is the basis for this complex and fragrant sauce ($9).
Best for: Marinating meats and vegetables or substituting for awaze, a hot-pepper paste.
Where to find it: Order online at buysmallsmall.com.
Photographs by Jeff Elkins.
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.