Maybe you’ve already seen blue catfish this spring at the fish counter in your grocery store, nestled on ice, and wondered: “That’s catfish?” Because blue catfish doesn’t look like catfish. For one thing, it’s actually pretty.
Blue catfish is a newcomer to Washington stores and restaurants, it’s sustainably caught in the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s probably tastier than any catfish you’ve ever had. That’s because unlike the farmed variety, which eat a diet of corn-and-soy feed, blue cats feed on medium-size fish like menhaden and white perch. Which is good for developing the fish’s flavor but bad for the bay’s delicate ecosystem.
Happy Thursday, food truck followers. Dine on chicken stuffed avocado for lunch from El Fuego in L'Enfant Plaza, or head to Farragut Square for falafel from Kabob Square. Follow up around Union Station for blueberry ice cream from Captain Cookie.
The New York Times has come out with yet another Washington travel guide—or misguide, at least when it comes to our restaurants. The same publication that “discovered” DC’s neighborhood haunts and called our coffee “meh” has taken another swing-and-a-miss, this time when it comes to eating cheap. Frugal Traveler columnist Seth Kugel set out to spend a $100 weekend in Washington, total—every single Metro ride and Capital Bikeshare counted. To be fair, his cultural picks are great: a free Millennium Stage concert at the Kennedy Center, a self-guided Heritage Trail tour, the National Postal Museum (which is wonderful, despite the name). And also to be fair, Kugel’s dining recommendations aren't hits--they're personal and location-based, found through people he stayed with for free (it’s tough to fit hotels in such a tight budget) or nearby places of interest.
Still, if the purpose of a travel guide is to tell visitors about the best ways to experience a new city, the Frugal Traveler fails in Washington. You can follow his basic path and find tastier, more only-in-Washington experiences than, say, a $21 burger and beer at Farmers Fishers Bakers, or a $13.50 pizza and kale salad at Rustik Tavern. It's not that these dishes are bad--they just don’t speak to the city.
Start on Friday evening, when he eats at Farmers Fishers Bakers before taking the Metro to his brother’s home in Silver Spring. A better idea: skip the overpriced Georgetown Waterfront and head straight to Silver Spring, where many wonderful, inexpensive restaurants await. Lucy, a quick walk from the train, offers one of the best tastes of Washington’s vibrant Ethiopian community. For what Kugel spent on a bacon cheeseburger and brew in DC, he could have ordered flaky sambusa (stuffed pastries), spicy red wine-marinated lamb tibs, and a cold St. George beer while listening to live African music.
And what about that Rustik pizza? He's faced with a dinnertime challenge: find a shareable meal and drinks for $25 in Shaw/Bloomingdale. Accepted: DCity Smokehouse, home to the best chili-cheese half-smokes on the market ($7), not to mention sublimely smoky, meaty ribs ($15; half-rack), or a chopped pork sandwich topped with crispy onions ($9.25). Kudos to Kugel for picking Boundary Stone for a beer, though—no changes needed there.
The toughest part of the NYT piece, at least from a local eater’s perspective, is on Sunday. Kugel makes an hour-plus trek (maybe two) from Falls Church, riding trains and buses for an $11 meal at La Mexicana Bakery & Taqueria in Alexandria. The only “real Mexican food” worthy of that long pilgrimage is Taqueria El Mexicano in Hyattsville, which, unfortunately, isn’t accessible by public transit. That said, Washington isn't exactly known for its selection of good Mexican eateries—Kugel should have stayed in Falls Church and visited the Eden Center. The Vietnamese shopping/dining mall is filled with dirt cheap-yet-delicious options, like a shredded pork bánh mì at Nhu Lan ($4), or Hai Duong's “house special” pho heaped with bright herbs ($9.50). Eden Center may not scream “Nation’s Capital” the way the Washington Monument does, but it’s a true Washington experience all the same.
One could easily devote an entire $100 weekend to eating in the city’s inexpensive gems without following Kugel's geographic itinerary. The many destination-worthy Korean, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Ethiopian, and other ethnic eateries could fill a travel article, or magazine, as you’ll see when our annual Cheap Eats issue hits stands in late May. Perhaps the New York Times will catch on, and you'll find some of the area’s best discoveries in a future story. Though given the Grey Lady's track record, don't count on it.
CityCenterDC diners will have another option as of June 1, when Centrolina opens to the public. The Italian market/restaurant concept from chef Amy Brandwein will initially debut for lunch in the osteria, and shopping in the mercato; dinner service will follow.
The market portion will begin to roll out first, beginning on Tuesday, May 26. Though small, it’ll be the closest the mixed-use development has to a grocery. Shoppers can stop in for pantry items like dried pastas and olive oils, cheeses and salumi, fresh local produce, seafood, and meats. Brandwein also plans for ready-made items like pasta sauces, as well as grab-and-go breakfast pastries, paninis at lunch, a coffee bar, and fried-to-order bomboloni (Italian doughnuts). The adjoining restaurant will serve a concise menu of antipasti, pastas, and wood-roasted dishes such as whole branzino with market vegetables or oregano-garlic chicken.
Reservations are currently being taken for lunch in the osteria for those who want a first taste. Otherwise stop by the mercato beginning at 8 AM on the 26th.
Just in time for a lovely 90-degree spring day: free ice cream. Häagen-Dazs takes a page from the Ben & Jerry’s playbook, offering complimentary cones at all five Washington locations on Tuesday from 4 to 8 as part of their national Free Cone Day special.
The fine print: servings are “kiddie size,” which is great if you have children in tow, and a little skimpy for adults, but hey, free ice cream. Guests can choose any flavor in a cup, sugar cone, or cake cone. And of course, there’s a limit of one per customer. See the full list of Washington Häagen-Dazs locations below, and start dreaming about that cooling scoop of mint chip.
Häagen-Dazs Locations in Washington:
7237 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda
703 Seventh St., NW
3120 M St., NW
Pentagon City Food Court
1100 South Hayes St., Arlington
Union Station (Lower level food court)
50 Massachusetts Ave., NE
Ham it up: Birch & Barley/ChurchKey celebrate MayHam, Tuesday through Sunday. Diners can pick between various ham boards ($22), laden with four smoked and/or cured pork products like Benton’s hams or a house prosciutto, plus pickles, mustard, and a Parker House loaf.
Sushi party: Join fellow sushi lovers at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday from 6 to 8:30. Learn how the delicacy made its way from Japan to the United States, watch demonstrations on how to craft nigiri and maki rolls, and try other Japanese dishes, sakes, and beers. Objects from the museum’s collection will also be on display. Tickets ($40) are available online.
ZooFari: Go wild at the National Zoo on Thursday from 6:30 to 9:30 during ZooFari, an annual food and drink-filled benefit that supports the zoo’s conservation programs. Over 100 Washington restaurants serve bites, washed down with beers from three “mega-bars” and wines from a global variety of wineries. A silent auction will also be held. Tickets ($200 for general public; $160 for FONZ members) are available online.
District brewing history: Author Garrett Peck speaks about his recent book, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, DC on Thursday from 7:30 to 8:30 at Cathedral Commons. The book chronicles the city’s rising craft beer revival. Take home a signed copy, and sample several brews. Admission is free.
Truckeroo: The monthly gathering of food trucks returns to the Fairgrounds outside Nationals Park on Friday from 11 to 11, offering a full day of street eats, live music, and cold beer. Some of Washingtonian’s top 25 food trucks will be in attendance, including Feelin' Crabby, Cole’s Palette, Peruvian Brothers, and Red Hook Lobster Pound. Admission is free.
Dine out for good: Nepalese chefs from Art and Soul and the Willard InterContinental team up for a fundraising dinner at Mess Hall on Friday; 100 percent of proceeds benefit Nepal earthquake relief efforts. Guests can pick between two seatings, 6 to 8 and 8:30 to 10:30, for a family-style meal of lamb and chicken curries, vegetable dishes, and freshly-baked naan ($50 per person). Tickets are available online.
Cocktail symposium: Learn about the history of imbibing in America before colonization during a cocktail seminar lead by M. Carrie Allen on Saturday at 3. A panel of speakers, including Derek Brown and David Suro-Piñera, discuss topics like distillation before the arrival of Spanish settlers, and how sherry came to the United States. Tickets ($45) are available online.
Libation festival: The Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s talented beverage directors for beer, wine, and spirits are behind the ABV Libation Festival, going down on Saturday from 3 to 8 in Canal Park near Navy Yard. The curated list of drinks includes seven craft cocktails and rare tequilas, gins, and other spirits; 35 crafts beers, both local and global; and 20 wines, including lesser-known varietals and hard-to-find bubbles. Drink-friendly foods like smoked pork shoulder sliders, wings, and steamed buns pad the stomach. Tickets start at $20 for general admission (which includes one drink sample), and go up to $85 for VIP.
Lamb celebration: The American Lamb Jam comes to town on Saturday and Sunday, and it’s going to be a baa-last. The festivities start at the Occidental with a grilling party from 6 to 9 on Saturday. Then on Sunday, sixteen DC chefs from restaurants like Zaytinya, BLT Steak, and the Partisan whip up lamb dishes for a grand tasting at Union Market, where guests can sip beer and wines, and watch butchery demos. Tickets for both events are available online.
Restaurateurs often seek out old, unique spaces for their businesses, but unusual ones can be hard to find—especially given the recent restaurant boom. That’s why a Civil War-era carriage house on the Hill Center's grounds caught chef David Guas’s attention when he passed by the structure over two years ago. Now the building—part of the Old Naval Hospital commissioned by Abraham Lincoln—is home to a second Bayou Bakery, a spinoff of Guas’s Louisiana-inspired eatery in Arlington. The new location debuts early this week with a limited menu and abbreviated hours for the first few days; eventually the 90-seat spot will be open from early morning through dinner, and serve weekend brunch.
The lineup of freshly-baked pastries, specialty coffees and teas, sandwiches, and other Louisiana eats is similar to the Arlington branch. Morning diners can grab warm beignets, croissants, and buttermilk biscuits with cream cheese and pepper jelly—as well as gluten-free pastry options—and fuel up with Counter Culture coffees or an “Iced NOLA” chicory brew; more potent versions are available later in the day, like a bourbon-spiked Cajun latte with cayenne and cinnamon. The coffee bar (sample menu) greets guests as they walk through the entrance, and is where all food and drink orders are placed throughout the day and evening. Servers then ferry meals to tables in a glass-walled dining room, 40-seat patio, or the most unusual space—the stable’s former feed room, where the original hay bails and grain shoots remain intact alongside a big leather sofa and armchairs, more practical for human dining.
The concept is casual and the food unfussy—there’s a roast beef po’ boy aptly named the Arm Drip—but Guas still has what he calls the “fine dining curse” when it comes to cooking (sample menu). An array of baked goods and confections are made daily from-scratch; he began his career as a pastry chef before the recent days of hosting the Travel Channel’s American Grilled. Both sweet and savory ingredients are sourced from small producers, like Viriginia Belmont Peanuts, which show up in Benton's bacon-studded "PorKorn," or local Stachowski’s smoked andouille that’s slathered with mustard and onion marmalade on a potato roll. The DC kitchen is larger than Arlington’s, and could turn out new additions to the menu like a crispy catfish po’ boy or summer corn hushpuppies. A lineup of evening entree specials varies by week, and includes the likes of New Orleans barbecue shrimp.
Though a place with “bakery” in the name doesn’t necessarily sound like a drinker’s paradise, guests can grab a cold Abita, glass of wine, or mason jar cocktail to go along with a “muff-a-lotta” sandwich or plate of red beans and rice. Bayou won't keep late bar hours, however. Asked if he ever considered a more formal concept for the space—one could easily envision a speakeasy or hip tasting room—Guas says he prefers the home-style vibe.
“There’s something appealing about walking up to a counter and having a conversation,” says Guas. “There are gas stations in New Orleans that serve amazing boudin. I want this to be the same—a treasure, tucked away. From there you can only go up.”
Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery (Capitol Hill). 901 Pennsylvania Ave., SE. Full hours (starting soon): Monday through Thursday, 6:30 AM to 10 PM; Friday 6:30 AM to 11 PM; Saturday 7:30 AM to 11 PM; Sunday 7:30 AM to 8 PM.