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washington, d.c. redux: so many food trucks, so little time
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: don’t drive in DC if it’s not absolutely necessary! Park your car at your hotel and avail yourself of the wonderful and increasingly extensive metro system.
DC Food Trucks:
Where do I start? Gone are the infamous “roach coaches” of the past. Today’s food trucks are licensed and regulated (sometimes, alas, over-zealously) by health departments and municipalities. Their food is surprisingly varied, and it’s often excellent. You’ll occasionally find a food truck by itself, but the food trucks in DC usually congregate at one of several areas close to a metro station and/or office buildings, so you’ll find them at places such as Farragut Square (17th and I Streets, NW) or L’Enfant Plaza (6th Street and Maryland Ave., SW) or Navy Yard
(First and M Streets, SE). These trucks are favorites of DC professionals, who know that they’ll get a good meal for a fair price and that the long lines associated with some trucks usually move quickly. Food trucks tend to change locations every weekday. These businesses frequently tweet their projected locations on a daily basis, and their websites often list planned stops for the week, though these can be upset by lack of parking space or mechanical issues. Many trucks do not operate on weekends, or will operate only on one weekend day. Most, if not all, can be hired to do catering or for a special event (I’m waiting for someone to have a wedding reception catered by food trucks, though for all I know it’s already been done). The magazine “Washingtonian” (www.washingtonian.com) conveniently lists food truck stops on each weekday.
Generally, the trucks start serving a little before 11:30 am, and they’ll keep going for about three hours or until they run out of food (often, the latter comes first). My advice? Eat an early lunch if you want the best choice. And keep trying different trucks. Food offerings range across a broad spectrum, from pizza and sandwiches to gyros and kebabs to sate and tacos…and don’t forget the trucks devoted to snacks and desserts! Food trucks I most wanted to try but couldn’t: Chupacabra (tacos), Captain Cookie and the Milk Man, Basil Thyme! (I did find them, but they had just sold out of their last serving of lasagna), CapMac (macaroni and cheese), and That Cheesecake Truck.
During warmer weather, a monthly Truckeroo Festival is held, an all-day affair with twenty or so food trucks, picnic tables, shade, cold drinks, games, and live music. For more information on this, go to www.truckeroodc.com. Food trucks also show up on weekends at other festivals across DC and in some parts of VA and MD (note that some food trucks are licensed to operate only in VA and MD, so this can become a little confusing).
Below are trucks I tried and liked:
Red Hook Lobster Pound, www.redhooklobsterdc.com. A brilliant, pristinely fresh Maine Lobster Roll with big chunks of lobster meat and homemade lemon mayonnaise was my choice here. I devoured it in a shamefully short time and nearly went back for a second before I recalled I’d be having dinner with friends that evening. Two styles of both lobster rolls and shrimp rolls, Maine Root Sodas, Cape Cod Chips, lemonade, iced tea, and locally-made whoopie pies. Three words, folks: Find. This. Truck.
ChefDrivenDC, http://chefdrivendc.com. The first time I encountered ChefDrivenDC, I only got a salad—but what a salad it was! Fresh, crisp Bibb lettuce; spinach; thinly-sliced radishes; oven-roasted grape tomatoes; haricots verts; and very thinly shaved crisped prosciutto. Had it been possible, I would have ordered a plateful of the risotto croquette accompaniment. Even the dressing was just right, and I very seldom put dressing on my salad. Next time, I got a grilled Goat Cheese Panini, complete with roasted red pepper, arugula, roasted shallots, and sunflower seeds, accompanied by a peppery cucumber “slaw”. Absolutely delicious! The slogan here is “champagne taste on a sasparilla budget”, and the people behind this business use first-rate ingredients and know just what to do with them. Worth a special effort to locate.
Popped! Republic, www.poppedrepublic.com. Very good white cheddar popcorn. Weekly special flavors as well as standards like caramel corn, plain, kettle corn, and a mix or two. The popcorns all have political names, fitting for DC.
Feelin’ Crabby, http://feelincrabby.com. “Welcome Crabivores”, proclaims the website. If you have any affection for good shellfish, track down these folks. My crab salad, with jumbo lump crab meat, red pepper, lettuce, and tomato, was a pleasure to eat. The crab was well-picked-over, so there wasn’t any cartilage. All of the ingredients were fresh, and the whole salad was simple but had been put together with care. Also on offer are crabwiches (crab sandwiches, of course), various drinks, including iced tea, lemonade, and sodas, and potato chips in a number of flavors, including, naturally, crab chips. Check ‘em out!
Rolling Ficelle, www.rollingficelle.com. A “ficelle”, if you don’t know the term, is similar to a baguette, but it’s thinner. Rolling Ficelle offers sandwiches, and very good ones at that. I selected a Rothko Panini, filled with prosciutto, provolone, lettuce, tomato, and herb butter on a ficelle. As I’d already eaten lunch, I stuck the Rothko (in its paper bag) into a cooler, took it back to my hotel room, put it in the fridge, and left it there for six hours, until dinnertime. You know it’s a good sandwich when it sits in the fridge for six hours and still tastes great!
Stella’s Popkern, http://stellaspopkern.com. The day I showed up at this truck, it was having generator issues, yet the young lady running it managed to keep her cool and be polite and gracious to waiting customers. I had the Persian lime with sea salt and cracked pepper, which was very tasty. I like the approach here, as some of the flavors are a little different, such as the Zesty White Cheddar sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning or the Clarified Butter with Brazilian Sea Salt.
Surfside, www.surfsidetruckdc.com. Some food trucks are extensions of bricks-and-mortar restaurants, and Surfside is one of these (the restaurant is in Glover Park, DC). I was hard-pressed to choose between the fish tacos and the pork carnitas, but a recommendation from one of the guys running the truck made it easy to select the fish tacos. Four small, soft tortillas with two decent-sized portions of a mild-flavored white fish, accompanied by black beans, corn, guacamole, and lime sour cream. Although the accompanying yellow rice was not great, I didn’t leave a crumb of the fish tacos themselves.
In 2011, I tried to find excellent cupcakes. This year, I tried again, but results were even more discouraging. Last year’s favorite cupcake spot, Bakeshop in Arlington, VA, couldn’t deliver this year. The chocolate cupcakes had a solid chocolate flavor and weren’t dry, but neither cake nor frosting was anything special. And the Pistachio Cupcake was a rather dry yellow cake with a few soggy pistachio chunks, decent vanilla frosting, and some soggy pistachio chunks atop. I also tried cupcakes from Curbside Cupcakes (a food truck), Buzz, Baked & Wired, Red Velvet Cupcakery (the best frosting, but the cupcakes weren’t very good), and Sweetbites (another food truck). Sweetbites produced the best cupcake I had, a Pina Colada (I believe this was a special and don’t think they’re offered daily). This was a delightfully moist pineapple-coconut cupcake with a rum buttercream frosting. Unhappily, the rest of their cupcakes didn’t even come close.
Given enough time and a metro pass, you could get to a Farmers’ Market six days a week in the DC area. I still haven’t made it to the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market (it’s on Sunday morning, the first day of my trade show), but it’s one of the larger Farmers’ Markets locally. On Wednesdays, you can head to the Foggy Bottom Farmers’ Market (I Street between New Hampshire Ave. and 24th St. NW) from 3 to 7 pm. You’ll find Pleasant Pops (try a fruit flavor), bison snack sticks from Gunpowder Bison Trading Company, a whole range of empanadas ready to heat and serve (try the great chard variety), beautiful produce, and more. On Thursdays, there’s a Market by the White House, 810 Vermont Ave. NW (between H St. NW and I St. NW) from 11 am to 2:30 pm. While there, try a pulled pork sandwich from Three Little Pigs Charcuterie and Salumi, a fish burger from Fish Scale, popcorn, produce, or a sausage from Red Apron Butchery. Caution: get here early! I arrived at about 11:45 am and the line for Red Apron was stretching down the block. Alternatively, also on Thursdays, you can visit the Penn Quarter Farmers’ Market from 3 to 7 pm, North end of 8th St. NW, between D and E Sts. NW. This market is larger than the other two and offers fine gelato from Dolcezza, pizza from The Red Zebra, cheese and milk from Clear Spring Creamery, gorgeous flowers from Floradise Orchids, bread from the Bread Ovens at Quail Creek, and more. Great fun! Be aware that the Farmer’s Markets are seasonal, with the exception of the market at Dupont Circle, which is year-round.
Restaurants, Patisseries, and More:
Macaron Bee, www.macaronbee.com. The macaron craze has hit DC hard. Macaron Bee is a tiny shop on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown devoted entirely to these delicate French treats. Go for the Bitter Chocolate, which isn’t bitter at all. Rather, it has a deep chocolate flavor and isn’t too sweet, a nice change from the mostly overly-sweet, bland “chocolate” macarons I’ve tried elsewhere. Equally good are the Coconut, with creamy filling, and the Gianduja.
Patisserie Poupon, www.patisseriepoupon.net. This is a two-store “chain”, with one location in Baltimore and one in DC. I visited the DC located, on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. There’s a pastry case/sandwich case up front, a tiny coffee bar in back, and a handful of tables and chairs inside and on a little patio outside. This is a neighborhood hangout; I was there at 10:30 on a weekday morning, and customers who were obviously regulars popped in and out or sat on the patio to read after ordering a coffee and a pastry. I had a chocolate-hazelnut pastry, with multiple layers of biscuit, feuilletine, mousse, and goodness knows what else, topped with a half-dipped macaron. It was served refrigerator-cold, of course, but once it had warmed up slightly, the rich flavors came through and it wasn’t too sweet. The coconut macarons with a tart apricot filling are also very pleasant.
Sugar Magnolia, http://rippledc.com. This petite storefront is attached to the restaurant Ripple, in the Cleveland Park section of DC. The Valrhona chocolate brownie is of the cake-style school; while I prefer fudgy brownies, this was still nicely executed. In the ice cream sandwich department, go for The Classic, with two chocolate chip cookies sandwiching vanilla ice cream. The waffle ice cream sandwich has excellent maple bacon ice cream, but the soggy waffles on the exterior have little flavor.
Ristorante Tosca, www.toscadc.com. Five friends and I descended upon Tosca on a Saturday evening. Almost three hours later, we all left satisfied and happy. This is not a place to grab a quick bite; it’s a restaurant where you go to enjoy good food and (hopefully) good company. It’s also not cheap, and it shouldn’t be. Good food can only come from good ingredients, and good ingredients are employed here. If Deep-Fried Squash Blossoms are on the menu when you visit, order them. Mine were filled with crab, burrata, and ramps and rested on a yellow bell pepper puree, garnished with microgreens. They were delightful—not at all greasy or heavy, perfectly blended flavors. Half-portions of the pastas can be ordered, and two of my friends started with a half-portion of a special, Fettuccine with Bolognese Sauce. It takes time and care to produce a good Bolognese, and this one was just about perfect, with complex flavor and great consistency. While three others at my table had a special of grilled char for their main course, I enjoyed the Cappellacci, round, ravioli-like pasta, filled in this case with sheeps’ milk ricotta and stinging nettles and served with ramps, morels, and peas. While the peas were slightly underdone, the earthy morels and ramps worked beautifully with the pasta filling. A friend and I shared a Modernized Tiramisu for dessert. Presented in a martini glass, it was topped with a warm coffee zabaglione and chocolate “pearls”. I’m not usually a fan of temperature contrasts in one food, and I’d have been happier if the zabaglione had been cold, but overall the tiramisu had good flavors. Two of my party ordered the Banana Tart Tatin with crème fraiche ice cream and Nutella sauce, and both pronounced the crème fraiche ice cream the best part of the dessert, though they noted that the banana tart itself was also good. Service was polite and professional, with a relaxed pace. Nice for a special meal.