During a short trip to the nation’s capital last month, I had four dining experiences that represented very distinct cultures and approaches to food.
I developed a love for Ethiopian food in Los Angeles, of all places. My friend Olivia used to live there, and I would fly down fairly regularly to visit her on weekends. Usually the last meal we would have before I returned to Seattle would be at an Ethiopian restaurant.
Olivia has since relocated to Washington, D.C. and I was staying with her during my business trip. Since D.C. is home to the largest Ethiopian immigrant population in the United States, I thought it was only fitting that we go out for an Ethiopian dinner.
We went to Meskerem in the Adams Morgan neighborhood.
The Ethiopian restaurants that I go to in Seattle are fairly small and low-key. Meskerem was like a palace compared to them. It had three levels and could easily hold at least 100 people. We were seated on the upper level at a low table with small cushioned stools.
Olivia and I decided to have the veggie combo and the special Meskerem tibbs, which are pieces of lamb sauteed in onion, butter and spices.
In the photo above, the tibbs were in the center of the injera, the thin, spongy sourdough bread that serves as both serving platter and main starch of the meal. The lamb tibbs were incredibly flavorful and better than any I’d had in Seattle. By the time I took this photo, they were almost all gone.
The veggie combo was also excellent and included yellow split peas, spicy lentils and collard greens. It also had two dishes that both Olivia and I found very confusing. One appeared to be green lentils that tasted like pickle relish and then there was potato salad. I have never encountered this before in an Ethiopian restaurant. Is potato salad traditional? In any case, neither of us cared for it and would have preferred more of the delicious tibbs instead.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
The sign outside Ben’s Chili Bowl says “A Washington Landmark Since 1958.” I’m always a little suspicious of these kinds of institutions. I always wonder if the restaurant is beloved because it serves excellent food or because of nostalgia?
No need to worry about Ben’s. It’s been around for so long because the food is damn good, and because of the passionate belief of its owners, Ben and Virgina Ali, in their community. (Ben sadly passed away last year.) Ben’s Chili Bowl is located on U Street in Washington, D.C. Once dubbed “Black Broadway,” the neighborhood was a vibrant cultural center, and notable performers such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis could be in found in U Street clubs and at Ben’s.
During the 1968 riots in Washington, D.C., large numbers of businesses were destroyed. Ben’s Chili Bowl remained untouched.
Unfortunately, as times changed, U Street became a drug-infested corridor, but Ben’s Chili Bowl remained. In recent years, U Street has transformed itself and now even more people are flocking to Ben’s. When Olivia and I were there, a bus stopped in front of Ben’s and a stream of tourists poured into the restaurant’s back room.
Olivia and I split a half-smoke with Ben’s famous chili and cheese fries. I had thought that this was all that Ben’s served, but it actually has a very extensive menu with breakfast, lunch and dinner. I loved the combination of beef and pork in the sausage, which was only further enhanced by the smokiness.
The same night we went to Ben’s Chili Bowl, we decided to have dinner at Zaytinya. Yes, a half-smoke and cheese fries was a snack! But no worries, we walked about 13 blocks from Ben’s to the Jose Andres Mediterranean tapas restaurant. We were also meeting my colleague, Albert, there so we had an extra person to share the food.
Good thing he was there. We ordered a bunch of the elegant small plates, and our table was crowded with various seafood, zucchini pancakes, eggplant, mushrooms and flatbread. The standout dishes for me were the grilled octopus and the seared scallops in yogurt-dill sauce.
Side note #1: we saw former Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella at work in the kitchen.
Side note #2: Zaytinya is located by Washington, D.C’s sorry excuse for a Chinatown. The main thing that makes it “ethnic” is that all of the signs in the area are written in Chinese. However, the majority of stores in D.C.’s Chinatown are major chains. So you’ll see a sign for “Bed Bath and Beyond” and then its name in Chinese characters below the English. What the hell?!
I thought this sign was particularly odious.
Farmers and Fishers
The last meal I ate in Washington, D.C. was lunch at Farmers and Fishers on the Georgetown waterfront. The restaurant is committed to sustainable agriculture and sources most of its food from family farmers and fishers of the sea.
I had a Angus chuck burger with sweet cream butter and havarti cheese and delicious coleslaw. I really enjoyed the pickles on my burger and asked our server what kind they were. I was expecting them to be a special house recipe, and I did feel more than a little sheepish when she said they were Heinz pickles.
My colleague Dan had a monstrous sandwich, which was a hamburger between two grilled cheese sandwiches. He gave me a piece to try, and I said, “This is good, but you know what would make this better? Bacon.” Pure gluttony! And an appropriate all-American ending to my visit to Washington, D.C.