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D.C. only has steakhouses. D.C. doesn’t have a late-night scene. D.C. doesn’t have a food culture.
Has D.C.’s food scene been weighed down by myths? Our friends at Dish City think so.
Ruth Tam and Patrick Fort are the co-hosts of WAMU’s new podcast that tells stories of city change through D.C.’s iconic foods. They sit down with Kojo and three local industry pros to talk about these myths and how they came to be.
Produced by Cydney Grannan with assistance from Laura Spitalniak
- Ruth Tam Co-host of Dish City; @ruthetam; @DishCity
- Patrick Fort Co-host of Dish City; @PatrickBFort; @DishCity
- Derek Brown Expert on spirits and cocktails; Owner of Columbia Room; Author of "Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World"; @ideasimprove
- Christopher Roberson D.C. Chef; Head lunch lady at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School
- Seng Luangrath Chef and owner of Thip Khao, Padaek, Hanumanh and Sen Khao; @ChefSeng
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. How do you respond when you hear this? D.C. has no food culture. Well, that might make you a little angry. What about half smokes, mumbo sauce, Ethiopian cuisine and, yes, pupusas and jumbo slice? Today we're talking about myths and misconceptions about D.C.'s food. And joining me to debunk these myths and to introduce us to their new broadcast -- the musical theme of which you just heard in the background are Ruth Tam and Patrick Fort. They are co-hosts of the podcast called Dish City that originates from WAMU. Ruth Tam, welcome.
RUTH TAMThat's so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIPatrick Fort, welcome.
NNAMDIRuth and Patrick are both fugitives from The Kojo Nnamdi Show. At this point we're glad we were able to corral them back on to the show again. Dish City your new podcast produced here explores D.C. through its food. Tell us about the podcast and why you wanted to look at the District through its food.
FORTYeah. Well, the show has always been about learning about D.C. and the region by talking about food. And I think the reason we wanted to approach it that way is because there are a lot of parts that Ruth and I think -- I feel like we identify in terms of like capital "F," foodie culture, but I think that is also kind of like a surface level way to think about food. It's very food focused obviously, but it's kind of about what's on the plate and that's it. And while there's, you know, a lot of national media that might do a story or two that's kind of about the cultural things that relate to food. And a few local writers here in D.C. like Tim Carman and Laura Hayes, who write things like that, we kind of saw an opportunity to do that in radio.
TAMRight. Yeah, we also thought that food was a great way to talk about the things that we are already reporting on, but just in a different context. On a more micro level we can use food and restaurant culture to talk about the demographic shifts happening in D.C. or the neighborhood change that you see from block to block. But on this macro level you see that you can talk about all sorts of things like history, tradition, power in Washington all through the lens of food. And that's what we wanted to do.
NNAMDIPatrick, both you and Ruth moved to D.C. in the last 10 years. What were you excited to try when you moved here and what did not live up to your expectations?
FORTI don't know if anything didn't live up to my expectations, because I think quite frankly I didn't really have any. I didn't know what I was getting into. Before I moved here I was living in Colorado, and I think when I came out here I had this idea that living in D.C. it was going to be this like east coast cosmopolitan thing. And I remember the first thing that I wanted to try when I came out here was Shake Shack, because that was like east coast and I was going to be cool and like that's what I was going to try. And then obviously I found out that there was a lot more here than that. But I just didn't know about it.
NNAMDIHow about you, Ruth?
TAMI think for me -- whenever I go to a new city within the U.S. I'm really interested in trying whatever Chinese food is available there and specifically going to the Chinatown. And when I got to D.C. it was pretty apparent very early on that the D.C. Chinatown doesn't look like the one I grew up with in Chicago. It doesn't like the one in San Francisco, New York, even in Boston where I went to school.
NNAMDIDoesn't look like Chinatown anywhere.
TAMYeah, yeah. It's a generous term for the neighborhood. And my --
NNAMDIIt used to look like Chinatown. Go ahead.
TAMRight. And I knew that -- I didn't know at the time. But there's a reason why D.C.'s Chinatown looks the way it does. There's a history there. Again, you know, there's neighborhood change and being aware of that or growing aware that was helpful, and I just needed to go deeper to look into the suburbs and find Chinese food or other Asian food up in Rockville or in Falls Church. And it just made the trek to find the food I wanted more interesting.
NNAMDIWell, you should know that Ruth and Patrick have brought along three of their favorite Dish City guests. They're also favorite guests of ours here on the show. Derek Brown, he's an expert on spirits and cocktails. He's the Owner of Columbia Room and author of "Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World." He's also the creator of the now famous Kojo Cocktail. Derek Brown, good to see you again.
DEREK BROWNGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIChristopher Roberson is a D.C. Chef and Head lunch lady at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School. Chris, thank you for joining us.
CHRISTOPHER ROBERSONYes. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe will talk about the lunch lady title a little later on. And Seng Luangrath is the chef and owner of Thip Kaho, Padaek, Hanumanh and Sen Khao. Seng, good to see you again.
SENG LUANGRATHGood to see you. Thank you so much.
NNAMDISo let's start with myth number one. Derek, D.C. has no food culture. How do you respond when you hear that?
BROWNOh, well, I almost want to use a phrase that our president used in a tweet recently. I think it's completely false, you know. And I think that the fact is that we have a really vibrant culture and we really always have, which is something that I think people are especially unaware of. That it didn't just start maybe nine years ago or with the recent sort of growth of restaurants and bars. It's something that's been here for a long time.
LUANGRATHYeah, I really think it's totally wrong when people are saying that. I really -- yeah, it's a growing city. It's been like this for many many years that a lot of people haven't even explored yet.
ROBERSONThey don't know what they're talking about. They need to shut their mouths when grown folks are talking. No, they may have come to the city as a tourist and, you know, done those things. But they never really came to the District to see the people.
NNAMDIDerek, where do you think this myth comes from that D.C. doesn't have a good food scene?
BROWNWell, I think that there are two things. One there is something called parachute journalism, right? They are people who kind of come in. They might try sort of the hippest newest or the most well-known places. But they don't really go very deep into what the food scene is and they don't talk to the real experts about it. And I also think that another side of that is we do have people who come in and out of the city every four to eight years. And they spend a lot of time going in a triangle from work to the bar that they like to, you know, home and then back to work. And they don't spend time going into neighborhoods and really adventuring into what is some of the best places to go.
FORTYeah. And I think another thing about that too is that when we think about other cities that have these iconic foods we kind of forget how rare it is to kind of have that large or big of an export. The way maybe like pizza for New York is like that's just on a whole different scale and that doesn't mean we don't have our own foods that are special. It's just they're still our own.
BROWNWell, the other thing is that we are a city of about 700,000 people, right? And, you know, New York is a city of seven million people. There's a different scale there. But we have always punched above our weight class.
NNAMDIOkay. Here's another myth. D.C.'s food scene is only steakhouses, true or false?
BROWNOh, that is incredibly false. I mean, we have steakhouses, yeah. And people go to them. Some of them are very good. But there is so much more than that. And I think the people sitting here prove that.
FORTIt really makes me scratch my head when I hear that. I'm like, what steakhouses?
NNAMDIYou've never been to one, right?
FORTOh, there are places. Right, no, I don't go. What am I going there for?
NNAMDIHow about you Seng? Steakhouses?
LUANGRATHNo. I have never been to a steakhouse in D.C. That is something that I didn't look forward to when I came to D.C.
NNAMDIActually that's a back in the day kind of thing. Here is Marcus in Washington. Marcus, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARCUSHi. I'd like to say that being a Washingtonian, since I was the age of four that D.C. had a food culture that was representative of when it was chocolate city. To me it was a city of comfort foods and steam bars and soul comfort foods. And with the addition of the seafood that from our proximity to the Chesapeake and our sister state beside us Maryland with Maryland crab cakes has had that comfort food kind of feel, macaroni and cheeses, collard greens, fried fish on Sundays. You see most churches having that.
MARCUSAnd I would say also I think you hit a point where both New York and the transient nature of Washington D.C. where we don't necessarily have a group of immigrants that have an influx on the food scene, we really did kind of have a unique African American based food scene, which I really think was rooted in comfort foods.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Ruth and Patrick, in your explorations around Dish City did you find that the fact that the city has a lot of -- as our caller called them transients have an effect on our food culture at all?
TAMYeah. I think that's a common narrative that people like to say about D.C. And we could explore that line of thinking. But we did really want to get at the Washington that Marcus is talking about, the chocolate city based cuisines. That comfort food that people know from back in the day. It is more in some ways of a food history podcast than a food podcast since we want to look at where everything is growing from. If our food culture now is catering to trends, plans and people, who didn't grow up here then what is it growing from? And so we wanted to give a context for that and the basis for that. And lucky for you, Marcus, we do have a southern comfort food episode coming down the pike. So we'll definitely be looking at that.
NNAMDII'll start with you on this one, Derek, because you're the drink historian here. How do you respond when somebody says that D.C. does not have a good late night scene or that we don't have much of a bar culture at all?
BROWNWell, I mean, we have incredible bars. So, yeah, that's completely wrong. And you can walk into so many where you can get great cocktails. And you can get different types of bars whether you're talking to tiki bars or sports bars or cocktail bars or just dive bars. I mean, we have a wide range of places and they're open very late. So it's wrong. I don't know where they get it from, apparently they're going to sleep too early.
NNAMDITell us about the drinks that were created here.
BROWNYeah. Well, we've created so many drinks. In fact, only two cities in the whole world have an official cocktail. And one of them is Washington D.C. and that's The Rickey.
NNAMDIThe Gin Rickey. And it was created here. And the daiquiri first came to the U.S. by way of D.C.
BROWNThat's right. The Gin Rickey was created in the 1880s. The daiquiri first came to the U.S. in 1909. And it was introduced here by Admiral Lucius Johnson. And since then it's been one of the most popular drinks in the whole world honestly.
NNAMDISeng, how do your respond when somebody says we don't have a good late night scene and what do you plan on doing about that?
LUANGRATHWell, I'm not a bar goer so I don't agree with that. D.C. has a great bar scene, for example, Room 11 and also with Columbia Room. Not only a good bar scene, there's quite a few late night bar food as well.
ROBERSONI don't know. Going to New York you go outside and you can go anywhere and find something really quickly. You just stumble into it. In D.C. you have to kind of know where they are or you can be in like a blackout zone where everyone's fled back to the burbs from work and you just give up. You're like, no, I'm good. I'm going to go home. I'm going to go to the hotel. Have a shorty out of the fridge and call it a night.
NNAMDIHere now is Jen in Arlington, Virginia. Jen, your turn.
JENHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a local native Arlingtonian and I just didn't realize how lucky I was with the different ethnic foods and the quality of food here until I actually went away to school at Penn State in central Pennsylvania. And the lack of ethnic food and different offerings and it mainly being, you know, chain restaurants. I realized how lucky I was. And in fact, my brother and I both of our spouses we met at school. And noticed the main factors of getting them to move back to this area was how great the food was.
NNAMDIIt's probably what brought Martin Austermuhle here too. He went to Penn State. He probably couldn't stand the food. Ruth Tam.
TAMYeah. Martin is our great WAMU reporter in the newsroom. And yeah, I would agree that D.C. has a lot of great foods from other cultures. And, Kojo, you were just asking about how transplants affect the culture of local food. And, you know, immigrants are transplants as well. And so what you have here is a really diverse array of food that is connected to other cultures other countries. And it's just normal here. You know, we have our second episode about Ethiopian cuisine, a food that I didn't get very familiar with until I moved here. There's a bunch of Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores in the region too. And that plays a big role here and you can't find that in other cities in the U.S.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back we will continue this conversation about the food myths about Washington D.C. and what kind of food culture we have here. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about D.C. or Washington's food culture with two people who are fast becoming experts, Ruth Tam and Patrick Fort. They're the co-hosts of "Dish City," a podcast from WAMU. Also joining us in studio are some of their favorite "Dish City" guests. Derek Brown, he's an expert on spirits and cocktails, owner of the Columbia Room and author of "Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World." Christopher Roberson is a D.C. chef and head lunch lady at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School. And Seng Luangrath is the chef and owner of Thip, Khao, Padaek, Hanumanh and Sen Khao.
NNAMDIAs we were going into that break, Ruth, we heard this music about Jumbo Slice. You and Patrick are now experts in Jumbo Slice. Many people considered Jumbo Slice to be a late night ritual after usually a night of drinking. Is that the case universally?
TAMWell, you know, it is by and large, I think thought of as either a late night and or drunk food. That's true. Some people refuse to eat it unless they are inebriated. I am not in that category. I have definitely had Jumbo Slice sober and that's put me in a very specific group of people. Shout out to all my Jumbo Slice super fans out there including Vitamin Tramp, the musician that gave us that song for the episode.
FORTThat wonderful song.
TAMBut not everybody thinks of Jumbo Slice as this food that you would only eat under the most extreme of circumstances. Our Jumbo Slice episode opened with Brian and Heidi a couple that we met at Pizza Mart, who they reconnected at Pizza Mart after working together for a summer, you know, in the 90s. And they got married and they've been together ever since. And it's because of Jumbo Slice and they had it supposedly sober.
NNAMDIPatrick and Ruth have an ongoing argument about whether or not Jumbo Slices is good pizza. I'd like to turn to our professionals on the D.C. scene starting with you, Chris. What do you think? Do you prefer other late night food options?
ROBERSONI would love some other late night food options. Adams Morgan was the spot I would go to working in the restaurant industry. In the city, you get off work and there's nowhere to go. And then you jump over there because that's where the clubs are and spots like Jumbo Slice. You can get something inexpensive. I went to I think it was called Soki at the time. And I tried to get in and they looked at me. The guy looked me up and down and he was like, you can't come in here. And I was like, I just got some tennis shoes and a t-shirt. I just want to get food. I'm not trying to club. I just want to eat.
NNAMDISeng, are you a Jumbo Slice aficionado?
LUANGRATHNo. I'm not. I'm not at all. I can hardly finish a Jumbo Slice. So I'm not a pizza fan as well. I'm very Asian, sorry.
NNAMDIHow about you, Derek?
BROWNI love it. I do think it's best under specific circumstances. I agree with that. It's wonderful for being greasy and what -- 1500, 2000 calories in one slice.
FORTIt fights depression.
BROWNYeah. It fights depression. It fights a lot of things. I'm actually seen lots of fights over pizza in Adams Morgan. But I think it's wonderful, honestly, for what it is. But is it Gourmand? I don't think so.
NNAMDIHere is Carl in Arlington. Carl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLHey, Kojo. Good afternoon everyone. I love your show. Big fan of your show. And I'm calling in to disagree with the person that said -- that made the comment about not easily finding these -- you know, a place to hang out at and a place to go in and dine or grab a drink in the D.C. area. I'm a native New Yorker so I was born and bred there. And I moved to Arlington approximately 18 years ago. And I have to say this. The D.C. area as whole is one of the very few places where you can say, you know what? I'm going to choose to go out tonight. And that night could be a Friday night. Let's choose the worst night of them all for a place like New York City, where if you want to go to an exclusive place, you're likely not going to get in unless you know someone or unless you made reservations well in advance.
CARLIn D.C. -- in the D.C. Metro area, Bethesda, Crystal City, Arlington
NNAMDIAll those places, yes.
CARLAll those places, you don't have to do that. Not only do you not have to do that and you can end up at a very high end lounge. But you don't even have to fight for parking, which is something that New York City can definitely not boast about. And then the last comment I'll make is, you know, as far as the Jumbo Slices go I'm sorry guys. I can't do it.
BROWNOne of us.
CARLI mean, look it's an abomination of the Italian (unintelligible).
ROBERSON(overlapping) Maybe Totino's pizzas rolls.
CARLI mean, look, you know, what do they say, everything looks better when you're drunk. And that's perhaps the case, but there is no --
NNAMDI(overlapping) It's clear that you are not a -- clear you're not a Jumbo Slice guy, Carl. Thank you very much for calling. We got Mike from southeast who emailed, way back in the 1980s we occasionally heard about Senate Bean soup. Not these days. Derek, you started as a server and then a bartender in Adams Morgan back in about 2000. How have you seen both the late night food options and the night life scene change here?
BROWNI have seen that grown a lot. I mean, I think I agree with Chris that Adams Morgan used to be sort of the hub of that and you can get Julio's empanadas and you could get Jumbo Slice. And in fact, you know, I feel really embarrassed I didn't mention this on "Dish City." But there's something called the Adams Morgan taco. Do you know what that is? That's when you put the Julio's empanada in the Jumbo Slice and roll them together. And oh, my God.
FORTAnd there's the U Street taco also, which is the half smoke wrapped in a piece of Jumbo Slice.
BROWNSo you have these creative options and more now. And, you know, it's moved to U Street and it's moved throughout the city, a lot more late night options. A falafel place was a great addition. You know, different Middle Eastern food that's come out. Has been a wonderful additional. I think it's just spread and spread, but there's always been something there and it's just growing.
NNAMDIChris, here's another myth for you. But before you answer that myth because I don't want to run out of time and not have you respond to how you became the head lunch lady at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School.
ROBERSONYou interview. You get the position and there you are. Well, you know, I kind of used that. I was making my email signature and I was like, okay. What am I putting here? And it was kind of to be on the nose of people that come out of restaurants and fine dining and stuff like that. And they're like, oh, you work at a school or you work at, I don't know, a grocery store or something like. Oh, you've kind of given up on the hope of the white tablecloths and $200 checks. And for me it was more of like a badge of honor in the sense that there's these women that kind of really fed our children for so long scratch cooking. And over the past decades we've gone far away from that into a lot of corporate interest in school food.
NNAMDISo you're appropriating a noble tradition here is what you're doing.
ROBERSONYeah, instead of like being the police person or the flight attendant, I'm the lunch lady. I want to like flip it the other way to help raise up the women that have been doing this work and still do it.
NNAMDIHere's another myth for you. D.C. diners are obsessed with small plates and small plates imply fancy or upscale food. What do you think?
ROBERSONAt a time. I think it's kind of fading out a little bit. People are falling in love with like street food or quote on quote authentic food, which is so nasty when it comes out of your mouth to say that. But, yeah, I think at a time it was the case, but not as much anymore.
NNAMDISeng, you and Chris have both cooked food for diners who may or may not be familiar with the cuisine. In your case, Seng, it's been Lao food. For you, Chris, it was Ethiopian. Do you think D.C. diners prefer food that feels familiar to them or are we somewhat more adventurous?
LUANGRATHNo. There is some people that wants to food that is familiar to them. But majority based on my experiences they want to explore other than they want comforting with. So they're pretty much really looking forward for something new something that's not unfamiliar, so I think it's more adventurous, pretty open city.
NNAMDIAre we adventurous?
ROBERSONOh, yeah, of course, I think I have to agree 100 percent with Seng.
LUANGRATHYeah, we are.
ROBERSONLike people really want to go out and try new things whenever something pops up. But at the same you do want to go to your spot that you like as reliable consistent that you know you're going to get exactly what you're craving when you go there and get satisfied.
NNAMDISeng, at Thip Khao you have two menus. You have a traditional Lao menu and a jungle menu. You actually separate the more adventurous dishes from the more approachable ones. Why did you decide to do that? And can you give us some examples of the dishes that are on both of those menus?
LUANGRATHYes. We have two menus. So the first menu is very approachable. It's traditional Lao. And the second one is the jungle menu. Actually I was recommended by one of the D.C. diners. It's actually not one. A group of D.C. diners recommended me to bring something more adventurous than they're comfortable with. So we have, for example, like we have like chicken hearts. We have ant eggs on the menu and seasonal. And we also have like beef tongue, snake head, things like that on the menu. It's quite popular.
ROBERSONYeah, the snake head is really good. I've enjoyed that. Always get it. There are not many places that serve it.
NNAMDIDerek, you used to have a sherry and ham bar in Shaw. How was that received that people want to go to a bar themed around a less approachable liquor?
BROWNYou know what? It didn't do so great. It did okay. And, actually Washingtonians, did come out for it, but they only came out about once, (laugh) and that doesn't help. So, I think that people really did find it exciting and cool, but is it their everyday drink? No. And I think that some of the bars that do most successful, it's a lesson for me, are the ones that have a real range of options, and, you know, something like the Columbia Room, which is very specific. It is classic cocktails and creative cocktails. We also offer something for just about everybody.
NNAMDIRuth and Patrick, Nattie tweets: D.C. may not have a real Chinatown anymore but I'd stack the Asian food scene in Rockville against anywhere in the U.S.
FORTAll right. Anywhere.
TAMI mean, no, I think Rockville has a great food scene, and it's really been eye-opening for me to try different kinds of Chinese food. You know, China is a huge country. There are many regions with a very specific cuisine that I have -- like, it's essentially a new cuisine to me, even though I'm Chinese American. I grew up with Cantonese food, and so a lot of the Chinese food in Rockville and in this area is not stuff that I grew up with. So, I would say that it's really interesting to me, and I would say that anyone can try it.
NNAMDIHere is Rori, in Alexandria. Rori, you're on the air, looking for a fight. Go ahead, please.
RORIWell, I'm not looking for a fight. (laugh) I'm underwhelmed with the food scene in Alexandria...
RORI...or in the entire D.C. area.
RORII moved here from Houston, Texas, and I find the food in D.C. exceptionally expensive. I was able to take my entire family out, first off, for like $35 or $40. And that's for a family of five. A breakfast taco costs 10 bucks. I mean, an egg costs three or four cents, a tortilla, three cents, a quarter of a potato. How much does that cost? Good luck finding a breakfast taco for under five bucks. My experience with Asian food, Cantonese food is that it's a bunch of small, takeout places that have primarily oily, you know, standard fare food. And...
NNAMDIHave you been to Rockville?
RORI...you know, I'm just spoiled by Houston, Texas, but I'm here to tell you, it's underwhelming.
NNAMDII'm glad you raised the issue of affordability, because Derek, Chris and Seng, some people think that D.C. restaurants are expensive, as clearly does our last caller. And finding an affordable meal -- say, under 10 or $15 -- is hard, if not impossible to do. What do you think?
BROWNI mean, it's kind of like the rent is too damn high. (laugh)
ROBERSONYeah, it's expensive when you live in a city, but can you find food for a reasonable price? Absolutely. I mean, there's lots of small lunch places. There's lots of breakfast places. Maybe you won't find a breakfast burrito. I think maybe Texas is more apt to find any kind of burrito than D.C. But you can find wonderful meals for under $15 for your family. I think you've got to try harder, buddy.
BROWNYeah. And that rent in Houston's a lot cheaper. (laugh)
NNAMDIWhat did you find at Dish City?
FORTYeah, I mean, I think that's -- talking about the rent, there's a lot more that goes into the pricing a restaurant than, you know, just the food that you're making. You know, we're talking about higher real estate prices. We're talking about people who have to be competitive in a really expensive market.
TAMOh, yeah. I would say, like, you're right. Like, it is expensive in D.C. We definitely want to acknowledge that. And Houston is a great food city. I'm not trying to discount that at all. But, yeah, I think that there's a lot of things that go into the food process here in D.C. in terms of trying to have certain kinds of business practices that are fair to the workers here. That costs money, and that's what you're paying for, sometimes. It's not just the food, but the labor practices.
LUANGRATHI mean, for me, based on my experiences, it's also finding ingredients. It's one of the things that we have to, you know, work with. Finding ingredients and also cost of labor, as well.
NNAMDIChris, you've worked at various restaurants, the last one being at Tete, where you served your take on Ethiopian cuisine. What are some misconceptions that folk have about Ethiopian food or ideas about what Ethiopian food should be?
ROBERSONThere's some really crazy and, like, hateful people when it comes to this city, about Ethiopian. (laugh) We had a review that said, like, I didn't know Ethiopians had food. I thought they were, like, you're projecting this image of what they see on television late at night, with flies on kids' faces and think that's everything, on the whole continent, not just Ethiopia. But I think people think it's all the same. It's all spicy, and it's funky.
NNAMDIBut you have had people who came up to you, thinking that you were Ethiopian, and that you were not perpetuating the culture properly.
ROBERSONYeah, people thought I was Ethiopian, and people often think I'm Ethiopian. I had a guy argue with me and say that I should be ashamed of myself for denying... (laugh)
NNAMDIYour Ethiopian roots, even as you were serving Ethiopian cuisine.
ROBERSONYes, yelling at me. I was, like, man no, I just -- you know, I kind of look like that, you know. To me, Ethiopians look like other black people that I know in my family. They're just, like, in the city.
NNAMDIRuth Tam, you did an episode on Ethiopian cuisine, where you asked some of these questions. What's at stake when restaurants put new spins on dishes that are centuries old? What did you find?
TAMYeah, I think that we found that when we looked at a place like Tete, and we looked at Chris' food -- which I loved, by the way -- that when chefs tried to put their own spin on traditional foods, that people are going to call that food's authenticity into question. And we explore on the episode -- it's our second episode -- that all authentic really means is what people grew up with. It's what's true to them.
TAMAnd chefs in this region have to -- if they have to cater to every person's idea of what's authentic, then you're really putting them in a bind. And do you really want to be eating food that's constricted by all these different ideas of what can or can't be authentic? You want to eat food that is coming from a place of love and passion and, you know, a place of art.
FORTAnd to add to that, like the idea of the authentic and, to the last caller's point about expensive food, you know, one of the most popular dishes was the vegetarian platter. And these are dishes and recipes that I learned from the matriarch that taught me. And, like, new women that have come into the family don't have these recipes. I'm, like, special. I'm super-special. I feel great. But that dish is $20. A lot of people felt it was overpriced, and we had a little bit over 30 seats in there, and our rent's $12,000 a month. So, like, how are you going to -- how many times do you have to turn those tables over with a $20 plate in order just to pay your rent?
NNAMDIJordan sent a message on Facebook: I would say the culture of our food in D.C. is also shaped by those who make the food, the diversity of chefs as representative of the social strata, from immigrants to international diplomats. Here, now, is Duane who is calling from Tennessee, but who identifies as a native of this region. Duane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DUANHi, Kojo. It's actually Duan, but that's okay. (laugh)
NNAMDIHi, Duan. Thank you for correcting me.
DUANSo, my husband and I are both from the DMV. We love your show, and we're streaming it on our road trip in Tennessee at the moment. We wanted to hear some more discussion regarding the ethnic food that's available in Maryland and Northern Virginia, more specifically like Rockville Pike and, you know, in, like, Fairfax Counties. As children growing up, for Chinese food, we would go up to Rockville Pike, and for Vietnamese food, we would go to Fairfax. And I'm wondering if the Dish City podcast kind of speaks to those, as well.
TAMThat's something that I can relate to. When I go out to eat, I have to admit that I -- you now, I eat a lot for the podcast in D.C., but when it's on my own time and, you know, it's the weekend and I'm just relaxing, I go out to Rockville Pike. I go to Columbia Pike. Like, I'm going outside of the District for food that I see more of a variety of outside of D.C. That includes all the different kinds of Chinese food, all the varieties of Korean and Vietnamese food. And that's just what I gravitate to. So, I get that.
TAMAnd we would love to explore that more, but we did have to -- for this first season, at least -- draw a line around the District and say, okay, we're going to have this tighter focus around D.C. We need to have a certain number of episodes, if we wanted to focus on one specific place. And so if we wanted to discuss the immigrant food that exists in great quantities outside of D.C., we'll have to look to potentially future seasons to do that. But we would love to, and it's something that is definitely worth exploring.
NNAMDISeng, you started serving Lao cuisine at Bangkok Golden in Virginia, then you opened Thip Khao in D.C. Now, of course, you own four different restaurants focused on Lao food. What misconceptions did diners have about Lao cuisine when you first opened Thip Khao?
LUANGRATHPeople thought it was Thai food (laugh) or Vietnamese food. That's a misconception about us. And, yeah, so that's when we first started. But now people get better understanding what Lao food is about. So, it's getting easier and easier.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about Washington cuisine. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Washington's food culture with Ruth Tam and Patrick Fort. They are the co-hosts of Dish City, a podcast that emanates here from WAMU. Derek Brown is an expert on spirits and cocktails. He's owner of the Columbia Room and author of "Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World." Christopher Roberson is a D.C. chef and head lunch lady at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School. And Seng Luangrath is the chef and owner of Thip Khao, Padaek, Hamumanh and Sen Khao.
NNAMDIMarie Josephine tweeted: not hearing the representation from the guest who can address the level of comfort and welcoming nature of the various cool spots they're speaking of. The city food scene is whitewashed. The smaller, ethnic restaurants are the food and bar scene. Seng, some people assume that, quote-unquote, "ethnic" restaurants are less expensive than American or assimilated cuisines like Italian. What would you tell those diners?
LUANGRATHYeah, it is less expensive. That's what people are expecting to come to our restaurants, they're less expensive. But nowadays, it's kind of changed, because, you know, the food scene has been increasingly accepting with that ethnic term. It's been kind of, for me, based on what I had serving and pricing at Thip Khao, it's been changing people's mind a little bit about the ethnic pricing.
NNAMDIOkay. Here, now, is Perisa in D.C. Perisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PERISAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I think that I just, first of all, found this so fascinating, as a recent transplant from New York City. I would say, for years, coming to D.C. I found the food to be excellent, and I'm really excited to be a resident now, and exploring actually all the places that you guys mentioned. I'm dying to try the Jumbo Slice. (laugh) Maybe after a night out at the Columbia Room (all talking at once).
PERISABut one other thing is, you know, I happen to be Persian. So, I'm Iranian, born there. And I have a large Iranian family, and many of them are here. I have friends here. And I would say the Persian restaurant scene in D.C. is just something else, as well. So, that's in the city, but also in Northern Virginia. And it's just been, frankly, a real refreshing -- and cheaper, actually -- jaunt than New York City has been. So, I'm just one for the D.C. column, I guess.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Let's talk about fast casual places. Is it just me or are they popping up all over the place?
FORTYeah, they really are. And I think that that's part of the affordable options in D.C. -- which is great about it -- has been at the forefront of that. Honestly, we have so many great places -- whether it's Sweet Green or Five Guys, or what have you -- that have been not only expanding here, but expanding throughout the whole country.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Chris?
ROBERSONI think it's right on par. I think as a city that's like 700,000 people that kind of swells to over a million, you've got to be fast casual to capture that dollar while it's in the city and get those people back on their commute. It's a really good idea, and it's a great proving ground for it here, in some ways. In other ways, no.
NNAMDIIs fast casuals in Dish City's future?
TAMThat's definitely something that we wanted to explore.
FORTWe talked about it.
TAMI think it was going to be -- we're going to talk about it at the start of our Ethiopian episode. And we kind of did, because that episode starts off with fast casual Ethiopian food. I think one thing that we might not think about much is that even though there are different interpretations of what is often considered traditional immigrant food, fast casual restaurants can often be the opener to different cuisines for a lot of people.
FORTYeah, an introduction.
TAMSo, yeah, if you're new to D.C. and you haven't had a chance to try things that weren't available wherever you came from, fast casual's a way to do that. And it might be different than what other people are used to, but it's a way to do it. It's an option.
NNAMDIDerek, what do you think about the idea that D.C.'s food scene only started developing in the last five or 10 years, and then I'll go around the table on that.
BROWNYeah, I mean, (laugh) it ignores the fact that we have been cutting edge for a long time. I mean, when we see -- especially in the terms of some of the higher-end chefs, whether it's Nora Pouillon, who really was at the forefront of organic local cooking. I mean, that's one of our wonderful chefs. We obviously have the great restaurant from the Watergate, Jean-Louis, who was one of the top chefs in Europe who came here and developed a scene here. Not just through his cooking, but all of the people who work there, and now work throughout D.C.'s restaurants.
BROWNWe've had a lot here, and we've had a lot for a long time. And wonderful places that have been, you know, cooking not just the high-end cuisine, but some of the more approachable stuff, too.
NNAMDISeng, what do you think about the notion that it just started, the change in D.C.'s food scene?
LUANGRATHOh, the change in D.C. It's been wonderful. I have seen so many growing chefs that have been cooking wonderful different kinds of cuisine. It's -- yeah.
NNAMDIHow about you, Chris?
ROBERSONYeah, I think it's nice to see it growing, but at the same time, if you don't know the District and the way I kind of laid out earlier, not the tourist stuff, you don't know that there's been places here, not just the high-end chefs or the white table cloths, the neighborhood restaurants, Salvadorian cuisine, Ethiopian cuisine that's been here, pumping out that food.
ROBERSONAnd I think that social media has definitely helped to elevate those voices in those communities that are mostly catering directly to themselves and the people that live there, that it's just becoming more aware in the social consciousness of folks around. But then it's flourishing a little bit more, too. So...
NNAMDIGot a tweet from Food Nomad: Can you talk about whether or not Michelin properly captures the best food in D.C.? Ruth, Michelin released its annual list of starred restaurants in D.C. this Tuesday. How much of the local D.C. food culture is shaped by Michelin stars and Bib Gourmand, or other lists like Bon Appétit's annual Best New Restaurant list?
TAMYeah, I think, like a lot of people, I pay attention to those lists, and they kind of shape how I think of some of the future of D.C.'s food scene. And I think any attention to D.C., at this level, is good. Hopefully, it leads to more resources and more attention to people who are doing great things and making D.C. a great place to live and work. But, personally, I really view local food culture as defined by things that are tried and true, places that people go to all the time and throughout their lifetimes here in D.C., as opposed to saving up and spending a ton of money to try the fancy, new fashionable place, like, for one special occasion.
TAMAnd so while, you know, the Michelin stars and the Bon Appétit lists shine a light on D.C. and make D.C. exciting to live in, I think the places that you would see on the Bib Gourmand, the places that are considered more affordable and that people go to multiple times, people can develop a relationship with a place that they go to repeatedly. And that informs your experience living here.
FORTI couldn't agree with you more.
NNAMDIIn terms of Food Nomad's particular tweet, can you talk about whether or not Michelin properly captures the best food in D.C.? Anyone care to comment on that?
BROWNI think it absolutely captures good food, but it's just a very small part of it. You know, it's a very specific way to categorize what is good and what, you know, is a quality restaurant.
FORTYeah, you know, it's an outsider's view. If you look at, like -- you know, I studied anthropology in school, and you talk about the insider view and the outsider view. And the outsider view might look at a culture or an area or subculture and say it's one thing. But to the insiders, it's totally different. All 18 restaurants on the Michelin, that got starred, are awesome restaurants, you know. And a lot of the ones in the Bib Gourmand, as well. There were certainly ones that were missed out. I think everybody probably agrees the Bad Saint should've been on that list. What the hell happened there? I don't know. (laugh) But, certainly, you know, there are other places that should be recognized that will never make that list.
BROWNI think it's like a yes/and situation.
TAMYeah, I think also like, you know, a place like Rose's Luxury can be a neighborhood restaurant. And I think they try really hard to be in and of the community. But it is for a specific type of Washingtonian. And there's places that I love like, El Tamarindo, which might not crack -- you know, they're not going to make a Michelin star list, but they define what it means for me to live in Adams Morgan.
FORTHorace and Dickie's?
NNAMDII was about to say our next caller will make a reference that will remind us of Horace and Dickie's. Dave is probably in Tacoma Park by now. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVEHi, all. I just wanted to add the seafood scene in D.C. My feeling is that the natives of this town have a real love affair with the proger (sounds like) sandwich and the trout sandwich.
NNAMDIHorace and Dickie's.
DAVEYou go the Marina, and everybody, you know, the crabs are there, the oysters are there. There's a huge local, local group of people in this town that love to take advantage of the Potomac and the Chesapeake. And that was my comment.
NNAMDIYou are exactly right.
BROWNAnd there's all the -- you know, one of the great things is that there's actually high-end and low-end or, you know, Horace and Dickie's, it's more affordable. And it's fried fish, but it's awesome. And you can go to, like, Rappahannock River Oysters and get, you know, oysters and maybe something that you hadn't tried before. Especially the crab cakes there, are unbelievable.
NNAMDIChris, you work as the head lunch lady at the D.C. bilingual public charter school. When I think kids, I think picky eaters. But is that a myth?
ROBERSONI think it's what you're exposed to. If you're not eating different things at home, then you're just going to be comfortable with that. And getting outside that comfort zone is a thing. We do a lot of garden education there and cooking classes. So, kids get to try new ingredients. We do a Try-It Tuesday. We're doing Ethiopian cuisine for International Day this month. We did Indian British with chicken tikka masala last month.
ROBERSONSo, the kids there have a really great experience with food, just because we are exposing it to them. It's a diverse group, as well. And we also try to cater towards what they're familiar with, and branch out from there. I think it's the best way to go. Just try it.
NNAMDICan I enroll in that school? (laugh)
ROBERSONNot really. Yeah, a little late.
NNAMDIPatrick, the Dish City episode released today is about mumbo sauce. Some would say that it's the District's most iconic condiment. But are there any misconceptions about it?
FORTYes. (laugh) All of them.
NNAMDIYou mean that it originated here?
FORTThat is the biggest one, and I don't want to spoil it too much. But, yeah, I think there's a lot of mystery about where the sauce's origins are. And I think there are a lot of stories about, you know, maybe it was invented in a carryout, or maybe it was invented in, you know, a Washington, black-owned business back in the '50. Or maybe it's a sauce from Chicago or maybe it's from Buffalo, New York. But, yeah, I think it's an interesting sauce, and there's lots of layers. And I suggest you listen to it. It's my favorite.
ROBERSONIt's out today?
ROBERSONOh, I got to listen to it.
NNAMDIChris, in Washington -- this one's for you Derek Brown. Chris, go ahead, please.
CHRISHi, just had a question regarding the bar scene here. How come there's no, like, healthy alternatives for sugar-free tonics or other drinks that could be offered?
ROBERSONI don't think I understand, because it depends where you go. There's certain places that, you know, have a wider range of healthy options, just like in food. You can go to places that are focused more and have, you know, less healthy options or more healthy options. I mean, if you go to any high-end bar in D.C., I think you're going to find tonics that are low sugar. You can find people who are making drinks that are like that, too, or healthy.
ROBERSONThere's a big movement towards nonalcoholic drinks, which is fantastic. You even have people making switchel in D.C. and different beverages that are healthy and delicious. I think that you just have to maybe try some new bars. You know, Dos Mommies or Columbia Room or Mini Bar or, you know, Jack Rose. There are all kinds of places that have a real range of cocktails that you can try.
NNAMDIRuth, before we let you go, you are hosting Side Dish meetups every Tuesday night to talk about your episodes. For folks who have listened to today's episodes on mumbo sauce or just want to meet you, where will the next one be, and when?
TAMYeah. So, we host weekly meetups on Tuesdays to discuss our most recent episodes. We always drop episodes, they're in your podcast seats (sounds like) on Thursdays. And the Tuesday following, we want to meet up with listeners to talk about it. So, we go around to different locally owned bars across the District. We're trying to hit up a bunch of different neighborhoods. Next Tuesday, we're going to be at Smith Commons on H Street, from 6:00 to 8:30. We'll be talking about our mumbo sauce episode, but you can also talk to us about anything and everything. We want to get to know you.
NNAMDIRuth Tam and Patrick Fort are the co-hosts of Dish City, a podcast from WAMU. They're both fugitives from this broadcast. Fact of the matter is, this show staff, half the station at this point, (laugh) but that's a whole other story. Derek Brown, so good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
ROBERSONYeah, it's nice to see you. Thank you for including me.
NNAMDISeng Luangrath, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
LUANGRATHThank you. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIChris, thank you for joining us.
ROBERSONKojo, it's always a pleasure.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow on the Politics Hour, Montgomery County Councilmember Gabe Albornoz will join us to talk about vaping, the county's new police chief, and 5G cell towers. Plus, Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson has high hopes for the upcoming elections in the Commonwealth. It all starts tomorrow on the Politics Hour, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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