The Metro’s Green and Yellow lines travel through one of the most interesting areas of the District: the Northwest neighborhoods of Shaw, the U Street Corridor, and Columbia Heights. When we want to really immerse ourselves in DC culture and sample some the best new restaurants, this is where we go.
These neighborhoods thrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the center of the city’s African American community. In the early 1900’s, the expansion of the streetcars helped make Columbia Heights the upscale neighborhood of choice for DC’s wealthy. It was home to Duke Ellington, who grew up nearby in Shaw at the turn of the century, and Marvin Gaye went to Cardozo high school on 13th St. in the 50’s.
Like many of the surrounding neighborhoods, the area suffered a drastic downturn after the 1968 riots in reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and remained depressed until revitalization efforts began in the 1990’s. The U Street and Shaw Metro stations opened in 1991 and Columbia Heights opened in 1999, leading to a surge of nearby construction. The area has long been known for its music scene with numerous live music venues, and is more recently experiencing a boom in the restaurant scene. Here is a list of 22 new restaurants scheduled for Shaw in 2015-16.
These three Metro stations are pretty close together and could have been covered by walking, but this area is still going through transition and safety is a concern. We stuck to the Metro and made sure to do our crawl in the afternoon. These spots are better in the daylight anyway. There are lots of options for outdoor dining, making this a great warm weather food crawl.
Four blocks from the Columbia Heights Metro station on 11th Street, Jackie Greenbaum opened El Chucho – Cocina Superior in 2012. The Mexican street food theme is based on the cooking of Diana Davila-Boldin, the Mexican chef at Jackie’s Silver Spring restaurant at that time. The quirky colorful décor that is typical of Jackie’s other restaurants is well suited to the vibe of tacos, margaritas and ears of corn on a stick.
There is a sunny little patio with just a few tables out front and a larger roof deck that looked inviting, but was steamy on this hot DC summer day. We loved the feel of the cool concrete bar downstairs and the adjacent indoor/outdoor open window bar seating. With a little imagination, we could’ve been sitting at a taco stand on the coast of Mexico. Hey…is that sand beneath my flip-flops? If only.
Now for that street food – the Flautas de Pollo con Huitlacoche were crispy rolled tortillas filled with chicken and lush huitlacoche flavor, which is a rare find. If you’ve never tasted it, huitlacoche (sounds so much better than corn smut) is a natural corn fungus with intense flavor comparable to mushroom or truffle that is a delicacy in Mexico. The Pescado fish tacos with battered, fried catfish and the Calabacita tacos with a fried wedge of zucchini and squash blossoms were both nicely done, especially at the price of $5 for two tacos.
The Pasilla Rellena De Pansa was not your typical chile relleno, but shredded pork belly stuffed into a dried pasilla chile pepper. The dried pepper added fruity notes and a touch of smokiness to the relleno. Of all of the dishes we’ve tried, this was the most surprising and greatly exceeded our expectation.
They have an extensive list of tequilas and mezcals, as well as some unique margaritas. However, the El Codo margarita, which is served on draft for a mere $5, was simple, refreshing and food friendly. The chile salted rim added a spark of spice.
El Chucho – Cocina Superior opens at 11:00 a.m. on weekends with a brunch menu of breakfast items, but you can also order from the regular menu like we did.
Back on the Metro, we bypassed U Street and continued to Shaw-Howard U. Two blocks south down 7th Street, on the right, a little oasis is tucked into an unexpected spot. Co-owners Ilya Alter and Dmitri Chekaldin, both from Russia, opened the Dacha Beer Garden in the fall of 2013 as a pop up outdoor beer garden with portable toilets. When they reopened this spring, they sported an expanded beer garden with a kitchen and full indoor bathrooms, including—from what I’ve been told—very special fixtures in the men’s room. I haven’t seen them for myself, but I finally caught a glimpse in this Washington Post article.
The shared tables in the garden are overlooked by a 50-foot tall mural of Elizabeth Taylor. Why? In honor of her contribution to DC as an HIV/AIDS activist and fundraiser. This stunning mural, by artist Byron Peck and Ivo Koytchev, was dedicated in 2013 in an event hosted by Ilya and Dmitri.
Dacha makes good use of the new kitchen. We sampled two of their bratwursts: a smoked pork brat and a spicy thuringer. Both were served on pretzel rolls and condiments were available, but we had ours “neat” so that we could really taste the sausage. They also have a brunch menu on weekends and the platters of food coming out of the kitchen look pretty amazing. If only we had more room.
To wash down the brats, there are 17 beers on tap. They have seven beers from Weihenstephaner, which is a favorite of ours. When there’s Weihenstephaner Vitus on tap, we’re having it.
We walked our beer-laden bellies back up the street, one block past the Metro to a stretch of 7th street dominated by Derek Brown establishments. 2013 was a big year for Brown. He opened three restaurants that year: Mockingbird Hill in June, Eat the Rich in October, and Southern Efficiency in December. They are lined up next to each other creating the perfect situation for the popular Derek Brown bar crawl.
On this day, we were dedicated to Mockingbird Hill. Brown and his wife, mixologist Chantal Tseng, were inspired to open this ham and sherry bar by bars that they visited in Madrid. The space is small and cozy, with lots of bar and counter seating. The décor is minimal, accentuating the collection of bottles behind the bar and the leg of ham next to the kitchen as focal points.
They specialize in sherry, the fortified wines from the Jerez region of Spain that are experiencing a renewed popularity. If you don’t know much about sherry, this is a great place to learn. Mockingbird Hill lists over 90 sherries, many at reasonable prices for a generous pour. There are also flights available and the bartenders are knowledgeable and helpful.
Sherry styles range from crisp, dry finos and manzanillas to the syrupy sweet pedro ximenez. In fact, most sherries are dry and pair amazingly well with food. We selected an oloroso and a palo cortado, both of which were dry, nutty and complex. I like that they put the bottle right up on the bar in front of you after pouring, so that you can see what you’re drinking and examine the label.
Sherry and cured ham were meant to be together. There is a selection of Spanish and American cured hams, cheeses, and other sherry friendly snacks. We had two of the toasted breads – one with lomo, white bean puree and garlic, and one with boquerones (white anchovies), tomato and garlic.
When we visited in July, Mockingbird Hill was open early on the weekends. However, sometime in the last few weeks they changed their hours and now open at 5 p.m. every day, throwing a cumbersome wrench into any future day drinking plans here. On the other hand, Eat the Rich and Southern Efficiency still open at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays, so we may have to come back for that Derek Brown bar crawl after all.
We wanted to end our summer evening outdoors, so we got back on the Metro and went one stop to U Street. We intentionally saved this for last so that we could take advantage of one of our favorite wine-focused happy hours.
Vinoteca Wine Bar and Bistro, the creation of local Washingtonian Paul Carlson, has been here since 2007. There is a patio in front of the seemingly ordinary brick row house, but the activity is in the back. The plaza has a long outdoor bar, a gravel bocce court, and a grill where they fire up snacks like hotdogs, burgers, and really tasty grilled calamari. It’s like hanging out in someone’s backyard—in Spain.
They serve brunch on weekends with bottomless mimosas until 3 p.m. There is an unfortunate food void between 3 and 5 p.m., so beware when arriving during this time. The place fills up for happy hour with a list of over a dozen $5 wines by the glass and food specials from 5–7 p.m. every day.
This is a great spot to while away the last bits of sunlight as the summer days get shorter and shorter. We finished up our day with a glass of sparkling wine because…well, any time is a good time for sparkling.
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