Meet the Guy Who Created Virginia’s Hit Food Hall

Arturo Mei is the brains behind the Block.

Arturo Mei, creator of the Block. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Eat Great Cheap 2019

About Eat Great Cheap 2019

This article is a part of Washingtonian’s Eat Great Cheap feature, our annual list of where to eat (and not break the bank) right now. Our food editors put together the best new restaurants around DC where you can find Detroit-style pizza, Japanese egg-salad sandwiches, chicken-nugget-filled tacos, and more—for $25 or less per person.

Food halls are among the hottest dining trends of 2019. In addition to the recent debuts of Quarter Market in Ballston and the Spot in Rockville, at least half a dozen more are coming to the region just this year. Arturo Mei cofounded one of the first to arrive—the Block in Annandale—and will soon open spinoffs in downtown DC and North Bethesda. Here he talks about changing careers, Instagram food, and his poke preferences.

You used to be an accountant. How did you end up operating food halls?

My parents and grandparents had Chinese restaurants before, so when I was younger, I was like, “I don’t want to do Chinese restaurants.” I went into the corporate world, did all the finance and accounting stuff, and then didn’t like the work/life balance. I always had a drive for eating and trying a lot of different food, so that’s when I decided to move back and start my own business [Taiwanese-inspired ice-cream purveyor SnoCream Company].

Why open a food hall instead of a restaurant?

I see a lot of restaurants not maintain their competitiveness after a couple of years. They get kind of old and stale. With a food hall, we can always change vendors, keep up with modern times.

How do you decide what vendors you want in your food halls?

I don’t want to bring a hamburger that everyone has. I check out a lot of new restaurants, up-and-coming food trucks, or the farmers market. If I see something new and unique, I’ll say, “Hey, we have this spot. Do you want to do a pop-up?” If they do well, then we’ll go, “Hey, you want a spot?”

Why do you think food halls are so trendy right now?

They’re offering a lot of unique eats at one location. It also gives the mom-and-pops and younger chefs the chance to come in and open something quickly. They don’t have to save $300,000 or $400,000 to open a restaurant. And the permitting is a lot faster.

What’s been the biggest Instagram hit at the Block?

Balo Kitchen has been cranking out a lot of yummy dishes, especially the short-rib pho dip. It’s a big short rib still on the bone; then you put it on the baguette and pull the meat right off it and dip it in the soup.

Are you a poke-bowl guy or a poke-burrito guy?

I would say more the bowl. But every two bowls, I’ll have a burrito.

This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.