Epic monuments, nation-defining history…there’s little mystery as to what attracts some 20 million annual visitors to Washington D.C. Yet the city’s cultural charms are often understated, and chief among them is food. With a long history of immigration and a rich multicultural heritage, D.C. is one of the unsung cuisine capitals of America. You’ll find:
D.C. and surrounds is home to around 200,000 people of Ethiopian descent, the largest population outside of Africa. Many students from the country came to study in the United States in the 1960s, with many more fleeing in the aftermath of the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, accelerated by decades of famine and brutality.
The diaspora is firmly ingrained in the fabric of the city. In the suburb of Adams Morgan and around the U Street corridor, it’s difficult to go more than a block without coming across the earthy scents of Ethiopian cuisine.
“There’s only one way we make our food, it doesn’t matter where we are in the world,” one local restaurateur says. You’ll find that menus look almost identical from restaurant to restaurant – as is the distinct way of enjoying Ethiopian food.
Meals are served on large circular plates laid with injera, a traditional spongy bread made with teff flour that is also your cutlery. East African cuisine largely consists of legume stews, such as chickpeas and lentils, as well as copious amounts of meat and fish. The best way to experience it is by way of a sampler plate (the injera soaked with various flavours at the end is particularly delightful if you have room.) Sip through the spice with traditional honey wine, which tastes as wonderful as it sounds.
Diverse Asian influences
Any truly cosmopolitan city has a decent Chinatown, and downtown D.C. happily gives itself over to its Asian heritage in recognition of a long history of migration from the continent. Located close to the major landmarks and museums, Chinatown is a great place to replenish after a long day on foot.
A Chinese migration to the area began in the 1930s, although many left the city following the 1968 riots. Recent decades have seen a new wave of Asian migration to D.C., particularly from Vietnam and Korea, growing almost four-fold since 1980.
Once you step under the Friendship Archway (corner of H & 7th Streets NW), you’ll find dozens of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese restaurants – from holes in the wall to high-end affairs. With plenty of competition around town, you’ll be hard-pressed to find food that isn’t authentic and flavoursome.
The last year has also seen an explosion in poke joints and food trucks across the city. These Japanese-infused bowls of diced fish used to be a staple of Hawaiian fishermen, and make for a healthy lunch option.
Central American cuisines
The last few decades has seen a large wave of migration from Central America’s ‘Northern Triangle’, formed by El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
“Our food is like our blood,” waiter Oscar tells me in one of the many pupuserias in the Columbia Heights district. While Central American menus are often complemented with Mexican favourites, skip those for true staples like pupuseras – a plump cornflour sandwich filled with combinations of meats, beans, and salads (usually $2-$3) and plantains, a banana-like fruit that is fried and served savoury with refried beans, or most sublimely as a dessert topped with cream and other goodies.
The ubiquitous sandwich
It doesn’t take long to see that everyone in D.C. is busy, and visitors are all the better for it due to a roaring sandwich trade influenced by just about every culture in town. Jewish delis like Stachowski’s Market in Georgetown make pastrami and mortadella sandwiches that would make even the most hardened New Yorker smile, while the Dupont Circle area is the place to go for classic rubens.
Downtown is home of the food truck, particularly around Franklin Park and Farragut Square on weekdays where you can find quality lunchtime fare that you can enjoy on a park bench. For those venturing late into the night, the Amsterdam Felafelshop – found in three locations around the city – are famous for their crispy falafels and smorgasbord of toppings, perfect for a DIY feed until four in the morning.
While parts of Washington project a northern, big city vibe, D.C. actually sits between the southern states of Maryland and Virginia. Around half the city’s population is African American, and there’s lots of southern soul food going around.
The original Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street has been a city landmark since its opening in 1958, and its owner was heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Expanding out to another three locations around the city, its simple menu of dogs, burgers, and chili is so satisfying that you’ll soon appreciate the House of Cards cliché of queueing between high flying political types and tradesmen on their lunch breaks (Barack Obama even ate here soon after he came into office in 2009.)
Stick around the U Street corridor – once known as ‘Black Broadway’ thanks to the many jazz greats performing in clubs and on the streets in the 1950s and 1960s – for an array of dive bars, pizza shops, and fried chicken joints to soothe your soul.
Feature image c/o Elvert Barnes, Flickr.
Keen to explore Washington D.C.? Jump on an Intrepid small group adventure through the USA, or check out our Urban Adventures day tours in the nation’s capital.