A weekend of Firsts
For most kids growing up in the New York City area, Washington, D.C. is their 8th grade trip. For this New York kid, it took all of thirty-something years to visit DC for the first time. I’d had my eye on a Caribbean trip for MLK Weekend, but couldn’t justify spending that much money on a last minute jaunt. After pricing trips to other US cities, D.C. it was.
This was also another first for me: after realizing I could fly to continental Europe for roughly the same amount (I wish I were kidding), I decided against taking Amtrak and bought a bus ticket on Greyhound. I’d been as far south by land as Philly (well, technically Delaware) and knew I could cover a decent amount of D.C. in a weekend.
There I was at the crack of dawn at Port Authority. I’ve all but given up my practice of descending on a new city with no planned lodging. However, my style is more go with the flow than a concrete plan. I’d done a fair amount of research using Yelp and Google Reviews, so at least I had my food and drink options on lock. The rest would be up to chance.
Arriving Into Town
Despite it being only a couple of hours south of New York, I only had the vaguest sense of what D.C. was like outside of the museums and government buildings. I had a friend who settled in D.C. as a young adult and a cousin who went to college there but never left. Up until this point, it never interested me much to visit. This sentiment would be a harbinger of things to come.
We pulled into Union Station about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Realizing the hotel was less than a mile away, we walked. I was immediately struck by how empty the streets appeared. Every New Yorker has had that moment ending up in the Financial District after hours and it being a ghost town. This was even more so.
The architecture reminded me of something not quite New York, yet reminiscent of parts of Williamsburg or Long Island City: modern glass and metal buildings, sterile with no personality. Some blocks looked oddly mismatched: old, rundown buildings housing nail salons and liquor stores sandwiched between taller, overbearing “luxury” condos.
DC Pod Hotel
At last, we turned onto H Street when we saw the Chinese arch. We stayed at the Pod DC Hotel, which markets itself as being a centrally located hotel with all the things you want and none of what you don’t at a moderate price. You can check-in the traditional way or by using their digital check-in kiosk, which I opted for. In minutes, we were settled into the room and ready to hit the road again.
By pod, I knew that the rooms weren’t going to be large: it was roughly the size of a dorm room. However, it had everything I needed at an arm’s reach (literally): a place to charge the phone, shelves and hooks to hang up your jacket and clothing, and even shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. I never made it to their Crimson Diner, which is on the ground floor, or their signature rooftop whiskey bar (though, my cousin recommends it.) I suppose you could say that this hotel has everything that a millennial could want or need under one roof (I’m technically a millennial, though Stefan might disagree.)
It was cold and we were hungry. In my research, I soon realized that what was considered a cheap meal in New York was a delicacy in D.C. Seriously. If you’ve read my blog, you know that my husband is of Trinidadian descent. In parts of Brooklyn and Queens, Trini street foods, like doubles and pholourie, can be had for pocket change.
I knew D.C. was a different animal when I stumbled upon a restaurant that sells doubles for $6 (!!!) and pholourie for $5. New York is expensive, but I saw menu items in some restaurants going for sometimes $10 or more than I’d pay at home. I understand they have to make money, but finding something on a menu that I’d pay $10-13 dollars going for over $20 was off-putting.
Eventually, we settled on a quick meal at Arepa Zone’s 14th Street NW location. I’m very familiar with arepas and Venezuelan fare (shout out to Arepa Café in Astoria!) I debated between a pabellón arepa and the pabellón bowl, a dish featuring black beans topped with grated white cheese, rice, sweet plaintains, and shredded beef. I went with the bowl. Stefan got the perníl arepa (shredded seasoned pork.)
The atmosphere was corporate, like a large Chipotle or Starbuck’s, and nondescript. While I devoured my meal, as I was starving by that point, it was just all right. The meat was pretty dry, and lacked that savory taste and aroma that is pabellón’s signature. The pork in Stefan’s arepa fared a bit better. While it wasn’t great, they earn points for selling containers of guayanés cheese, a soft, salty cheese not dissimilar to mozzarella or Oaxaca.
Mi Cuba Café
We continued to walk north of 14th Street NW. It wasn’t freezing, but the rain and wind made it unpleasant. One of my buddy’s spends sometime in the DMV area and suggested that I head to the Adams Morgan/Columbia Heights area. It seemed like the further north we walked, the more interesting it became. Still, it was apparent that gentrification had devoured entire blocks. Turn of the century rowhouses and lively storefronts give way to bleak, generic apartment complexes and commercial spaces.
One of my friend’s recommendations was Mi Cuba Café. Full disclosure: I didn’t actually eat anything here except the complimentary garlic bread they gave us (Cuban-style pressed garlic bread is a must, if you haven’t had it.) Mostly, we sipped on mojitos and Cuba Libres while listening to the sounds of Celia Cruz, Fania, and classic Cuban music. The walls are painted in rich citrus hues and I could tell many of the customers were regulars. I still wish I’d tried the food. Oh, well, there’s next time.
I wasn’t looking for it especially. Before leaving Mi Café Cuba, I took a glance at Yelp to see what else was around. The weather sucked, so walking around aimlessly was out of the question. At this point, what’s another round of drinks? Karribean Kitchen caught my eye. At just a few blocks, it seemed like a good place to set up shop for an hour or so before deciding on dinner plans.
Karribean Kitchen looks like a small, nondescript restaurant from the outside. On the inside, it’s all music and no nonsense. I really wasn’t hungry yet, but the thought of listening to some 90s Reggae and a rum punch sounded awfully good. The vibe was casual and unpretentious. We sat down at the bar and ordered some rum punches. As soon as I saw the Wray & Nephew Overproof make an appearance, I knew they weren’t fooling around. The finished product was a perfect balance of strong and sweet, the sugarcane aroma of the Wray coming through.
I should add that while there is an abundance of West Indian (and especially Jamaican restaurants) in New York City, a lot are only take-out and even fewer have a full service bar. It’s always a treat to find one with a bar. I really liked the vibe and could have stayed there for hours. Alas, all good things must come to an end. We ordered a Lyft and headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner.
Chercher Ethiopian Restaurant
I go out of my way to try new foods and I’d heard that DC had a huge Ethiopian population. East African cuisine was a whole new ballgame for me. I deferred to Yelp and found Chercher on 9th Street NW. When we got there, it seemed a lot of others had the same idea for Saturday night. The restaurant is situated in what looks like a rowhouse. You walk up the stairs to the main floor and there’s also a basement level.
Though bi-level, the space was intimate. Inside, it felt like a good mix of East Africans and people of other backgrounds who were there for the same reason we were. We were seated downstairs next to a group of older Ethiopian men and promptly given menus. I ordered the doro wat and Stefan, the beef tibs. Doro wat is basically a stewed, spicy meat (in this case, lamb) served with a side of yogurt.
I’m a big fan of arepas, roti, and naan, so I was really curious about the Ethiopian equivalent: injera. I’d never seen one before. It tasted like it was made of whole wheat and was served room temperature. It’s a brownish-grey color and has a stretchy, chewy texture that I can’t really compare to anything. Much thicker than a dhal puri or paratha, for comparison. I saw some of the other diners ordering it with small portions of different veggies and sauces on top, kind of like a thali platter but actually on the injera.
I would soon learn that forks aren’t really a think if you order a meal with injera, as you use it to scoop up the food. It’s spongy texture held up well against the lamb. I was trying to draw a comparison to things I’d eaten before, but really couldn’t. It had almost a smoked, barbeque flavor to it. I have to admit, I wasn’t crazy about it. The beef tibs were good. I don’t think doro wat is my thing. However, the service was very friendly. I’d be curious about trying one of the dishes with various sauces and vegetables.
National Mall and United States Botanical Garden
Luckily, Sunday morning was a tad warmer and sunny, so we were able to get out and about to explore. Stef made it a point to get up at the crack of dawn to run around the National Mall. Once he came back, we looked for breakfast and ended up at Lincoln’s Waffle House, a diner with an old timey feel to it, which seemed popular with tourists. Very simple and to the point. Being a New Yorker, I appreciated their efficiency.
After breakfast, we took a walk to the National Mall. We realized that most of the museums in the area were free. However, it was such a sunny day and I prefer the city streets as my museum. Don’t judge me. I’ll always make an exception for botanical gardens, which I make it a point to seek out. (Oh, in case you do want to visit the museums, here’s a list.) I all but rushed over.
The world renowned New York Botanical Garden is practically (in) my backyard, so any garden I visit has a tough act to follow. United States Botanical Garden is an impeccably manicured, though much smaller place. I love gardens that feature collections by climate. Nothing like experiencing the humidity of the Amazon and Hawaii on a 40 degree day!
From there, we made our way to Eastern Market, where we were meeting my cousin and her husband. Capitol Hill felt much more like a small town than a bustling city center. I was expecting a large, frenetic market similar to something I’d see in New York. In reality, it reminded me of a mini version of Montreal’s Jean Talon Market. It was pleasant to be in a neighborhood that felt residential instead of the sterile empty streets of Downtown DC.
Blue Jacket Brewery
I was most excited about getting down to Blue Jacket Brewery. For not having a car, it’s rare that I get to go outside of the city, where most of the breweries are. Blue Jacket is a huge repurposed warehouse in DC’s Navy Yard neighborhood.
I love a good stout or porter, so went with ordering the Mexican Radio, a chocolaty milk stout with vanilla beans, cacao, cinnamon, and ancho chillies. It gave the finish a tiny bit of heat to it. I ordered two. Along with the stout, all the beers I tried were quality with some imagination (sorry, nondescript IPAs.)
Philz and GEORGETOWN
The sun was out and it was warmer than it had been. We decided to check out and leave our bags with the front desk to get a few more hours, the in hopped on Metro to Dupont Circle in search of breakfast. We ended up at a coffee chain I’d never heard of, Philz. The two coffees and pastries (a croissant, in my case) were good, better than Starbucks, but not good enough to justify the nearly $20 price tag.
We ended up using this time to walk into Georgetown, which I’d heard so much about. G-Town was this smart, young, trendy, college neighborhood, or so I was told. Yeah, the architecture may have been pretty, but it seemed like gentrification’s ugly Anytown, USA had eaten it whole. Chipotle. TJ Maxx. Sephora. These were just a few of the chains that I spotted. The park trail by the Potomac River was scenic, though Starbucks punctuated its riverside plaza.
Granted, DC is much smaller than New York, Los Angeles, or other major US cities, it seemed to lack substance. It was almost bizarre how devoid of any diversity many parts of the city were. Even Chinatown, where we stayed, was about a block long and aside from a couple of restaurants, there was no sign of Chinese culture. To find those kinds of neighborhoods, you need to leave the city center towards the periphery. In fact, in certain sections, aside from Stefan, there were few people of color period. It seemed very homogenous.
Walking through the streets back to the hotel, the streets seemed deserted with few shops, and not a whole lot going on. Where was the personality? You could walk blocks and it really didn’t look much different than the neighborhood before. Are there cool restaurants and bars? Sure. Dozens of museums and monuments? Absolutely. Are there buzzing, diverse neighborhoods full of art and character? That I’m not too certain about.
This may sound odd, as it seems like we hit all the cool places in town— and maybe you’re not wrong. The restaurants and bars we found may not have been places that you “just stumble upon”— we had to look for them or go on recommendations. What I noticed in my research for this trip was that cuisines that we take for granted, like Indian or Thai, were at higher price point than you’d find in New York, which was surprising (and nothing is cheap in New York.) It was bizarre to see some foods that were common in our neighborhoods being sold for super inflated prices.
When I talk about Brussels, where I’ve been twice, I’m usually met with ambivalence at best from travelers who’ve been there. No real Belgians live there, they complain. It’s an administrative capital full of bureaucrats and government employees, not a real city, they say. Is DC the United States equivalent of Brussels? I left without feeling like a got an adequate enough dose of DC’s personality. Or more accurately stated, I left wondering if DC did have a personality at all.