A Washington DC Food Tour with a difference
If there is one kind of tour you’ll never have to twist my arm to get me on, it’s a food crawl.
To my mind, there are few better ways to get to understand a city’s culture than by eating the foods that the locals created.
During my five week Great US Road Trip, I was lucky enough to take part in two food crawls: one uncovering the quirkier side of Austin’s renowned food scene and one unearthing the history (and hidden flavours) of Washington DC.
My Washington DC food tour, arranged by Carpe DC tours, was an intriguing mixture of delicious flavours and uncovering the less well-documented side of the American capital’s history.
Far from the Capitol and the monuments, we explored the U Street and Shaw neighbourhood to learn about DC’s rich African-American history.
The highlight of any food tour is obviously going to be the food, and the U Street & Shaw Food Tour with Carpe DC covered its bases there with a range of flavours from home and abroad.
Reflecting the city’s multicultural past and present, our meals included everything from American favourites to Ethiopian delicacies to enchanting fusions of different cuisines.
In all our tour featured six wildly different stops:
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Our starting point was something of a DC icon, with Ben’s Chili Bowl being part of the neighbourhood throughout its often turbulent history.
Opened in the 50s, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been there for many of the leaps forward (and sad steps back) made in the fight for African-American equality, and today stands at the heart of a bustling, rapidly gentrifying part of the city.
Our meal here was a delicious half-smoked chili & cheese washed down with a locally brewed DC Brau Public Pale Ale.
Our next stop was a newer player on the local food scene, with Matchbox being an even more recent addition to the food tour.
Best known for its pizza, we instead stopped by for the kind of cinnamon bun that would have made Louis CK proud. With just two of us on the tour, we got to eat our fill of sweet, moist deliciousness.
We washed this sweet treat down with a distinctly DC spin on the Bloody Mary, a ‘Bloody Beer’ made with Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Combining the quality of a gourmet feed and the speed of a fast food joint, Fast Gourmet certainly doesn’t look like much at first glance.
What it lacks in airs and graces, though, it makes up for in an intriguing menu that combines flavours from all over the world. I saw everything from Thai to Mexican to Indian to English traditions exemplified on their menu.
We sampled some of their Hispanic foods, with humitas empanadas and some fried plantains. I hadn’t had an empanada before (or since), but I’m reliably assured by our guide that these are some of the best empanadas he’s ever had.
By the time we reached Etete, we were rapidly approaching ‘pleasantly full’.
While our tour had so far seen us do a decent amount of walking, talking, and listening, Etete brought us to the limit of what we could eat without feeling uncomfortably full. Our guide tells us that he’s designed the tour this way, and it works – both of us are feeling that perfect combination of satiated and just a little sleepy.
Etete, exemplifying the Ethiopian population in the area, offers up the cuisine of this unique corner of Africa, and it’s a real treat to finish off a heaping helping of tej washed down with yemisir wat.
Etete was arguably our favourite stop on the tour. The staff were warm and welcoming, the food was fantastic, and it was a great place to sit and people watch while we digested.
The food part of our DC food crawl might have been over, but we still had two more stops along the way.
Compass Coffee is another local institution and a sure sign of DC’s gentrification, offering up coffees from around the world served in a delightfully hipster corner of the city.
With the weather quite warm, I treated myself to a cold brew nitro pour of their cardinal blend. Hit the spot!
Our last stop was another quirky one – making it six for six when it comes to places I’d never have expected to find in the US capital.
Calabash specialises in tea and herbal brews, and we finished off our day sitting in its perfumed interior with a Love Potion #10 Chai and a monstrous (and aptly named) Monster Cookie.
Looking at the above, you’d think it was a packed itinerary with no time for anything but food, but that would be patently wrong.
What made Carpe DC stand out was the overarching theme of our day’s exploration: the culture of Washington DC and, specifically, the U Street & Shaw area in which we conducted our exploration.
Our guide, Stefan, isn’t just passionate about African-American history, it’s what he does. Doing his phD in archaeology with a view towards unearthing more of a sadly incomplete history of African America, Stefan is a veritable font of knowledge as we pick our way through the neighbourhood.
We stop off at places that many novices of American history might not be familiar with, but it’s all explained in a way that makes the relevance immediately apparent. From the first ‘black Broadway’ to the abundance of brightly coloured street art to the charter schools, we’re painted a rich picture of DC that goes well beyond the bureaucracy and the pomp of monuments.
It’s a side to DC I had no idea existed, but am truly glad to have been exposed to.
Carpe DC Tours really took me by surprise.
I don’t think I’ve ever taken a food tour that disappointed me. I love food and it’s not hard to make me happy if you’re pointing me in the direction of good food.
What surprised me was how richly informative the tour was, and how I didn’t just feel like I was eating my way through a city. I was digesting the rich flavours of its food while also digesting its history and its culture.
That, to me, is the mark of a truly great tour – be it a food tour, a segway tour, or something more zany. It should engage you with the place you’re visiting, and Carpe DC’s U Street and Shaw tour accomplished that.
Other DC Deliciousness
Our DC food tour inspired us to be a bit more adventurous in our own eating, and so we also ventured beyond our usual road trip staples of Subway and pizza to try a few other popular local spots.
A popular brunch spot quite close to our dual hotels at One Washington Circle and Avenue Suites, Founding Farmers won our business by the sole virtue of being open when the other 3-4 brunch places we’d walked by weren’t opening until 11.
Serving up brunch staples such as pancakes, bacon & eggs, and French toast – Founding Farmers is made unique by the fact it is a farm to table establishment owned jointly by more than 40,000 farmers.
You’re not only getting a hearty brunch spread, but you’re supporting local farmers while you do it. Not bad!
Mr. Yogato gets made points for just how insanely offbeat it is.
Patrons can get a discount on their frozen yogurt (with obligatory toppings) by performing a number of tasks including (but not limited to) answering trivia questions, ordering in a particular accent, or participating in some kind of challenge.
I saved 35 cents on my delicious dessert by ordering in my best Queen Elizabeth accent after naming eight countries that start and end with a different vowel.
Anybody can do dessert, and Lord knows I ate plenty of desserts on the road, but Mr. Yogato stuck out.
I last saw these two jet-setting foodies when they introduced Nomadic American and I to Butter is Better in Chiang Mai, so it was a treat to have them show me something new (and delicious) on the other side of the world.
We ate our fill of humus, lebnah, kofte, and felafel as our farewell to DC.
DC surprised me with the sheer variety of cuisines that could be found and enjoyed there.
Have you got any favourite spots in the US capital?
Have you ever taken a food tour that had a different twist that made it really stand out?
Disclaimer: My tour with Carpe DC was provided on a complimentary basis. All opinions are my own.