Following successful CES Unveiled events in London, Paris, and Tel Aviv – I spent 3 days in Ethiopia. It was my first trip back to Africa since 1999 when I was in Egypt and it was really my first trip deeper into the heart of Africa’s Africa.
A few quick thoughts from my three short days there.
Africa is Massive. The land mass is overwhelming. You know it intuitively. But only really grasp the enormity by being there. China is 3.75M square miles. The United States is 3.79M square miles. Africa is 11.76M square miles.
Africa is Growing. Certainly no surprise to anyone. Africa is growing. Ethiopia is growing. Ethiopia’s GDP is averaging 10-11 percent annual growth over the last decade. This growth – itself a confluence of factors – is producing numerous intersecting outcomes.
Africa is in transition. As a result of its growth, Ethiopia and Africa broadly are transitioning quickly. This was clear in Addis where you’d catch glimpses of goats being herded across busy city streets.
China is colonizing Africa. Of course I’m not suggesting colonization in the traditional sense, but the presence of China was felt during my three days in Ethiopia. I saw a number of Chinese facilities. I saw hospitals built by the Chinese. I saw Chinese cement factories. I was told the major road project outside of Addis had been completed by the “Chinese.”
A few personal observations:
Americans generally misunderstand the geography of Ethiopia. Americans generally recall the numerous commercials from the 1980s depicting a country ravished by drought and as a result I think many picture an arid country. While it is true that over 400,000 died during the widespread famine that affected Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1983 to 1985, I think most Americans fail to recognize the influence government policies and human rights abuses had – causing the famine to come earlier, strike harder, and extend further. I flew into Addis, but traveled as far south as Hawassa into the Great Rift Valley. I was surprised by the tropic-like environment – with a large number of lakes and rivers.
Addis is the 3rd highest capital in the world and walking towards the outskirts of the city by the U.S. embassy, you could feel (and see) the gain in elevation. Ethiopia has peaks over 14,000 feet, but surprisingly these never appear to get snow.
Diffusion of innovation in practice. In Ethiopia I traveled to a small village outside of Shashemene. There a farmer walked me around his assorted plots of land where he was growing a number of grains (teff) and vegetables (corn). He showed me a “new” form of planting he had learned from a few Americans involved in agriculture and he had began employing the “new” practice in the last year or two. He told me Ethiopian farmers typically employed broadcast sowing where the seed is spread across the field. The “new” form he showed me was row sowing where the seeds are planted in rows. He said the yields for this “new” form of planting are much better than broadcast sowing and he was teaching other farmers how to do it. Of course, American agriculturalists have known this for sometime and the technique has even been diffused for decades to backyard family gardens.
Friday we were in search of some authentic soul food. Henry’s Soul Cafe has been on my DC Dining Bucket List so we headed there. But in poking around there are a few more I want to try. These include Ooh’s & Aah’s, Hitching Post, the recently opened Mama Reacer’s, Eatonville Restaurant, and Saints Paradise Cafeteria (any restaurant in the basement of a church has to be worth trying once, no?)
Henry’s Soul Cafe is in U Street-Cardozo and if you aren’t watching closely you’ll mistake it for a convenience store instead of the mecca for soul food that it is. Perhaps best know for its “world famous” sweet potato pies, I don’t know that I would go as far as to say it is the best sweet potato pie I’ve ever had, but certainly Henry’s doesn’t disappoint and provides you exactly the unassuming attitude you’d want from a place that has been dishing up soul food for years. Not quick – nor seemingly happy about answering questions, the staff at Henry’s were short with me and ready to dish up whatever I ordered before moving onto other things they obviously needed (or wanted) to do. Suggesting they showed a degree of attitude toward customers wouldn’t be a stretch. But it is exactly the type of place where regular visits would prompt a smile, a laugh, a salutation by name, and perhaps even a hug (something I think I could work towards).
Henry’s is more of a take-out than a restaurant or even a cafe as the name suggests. There are a few token chairs inside and a few plastic ones outside – with the impression they are provided more for waiting for your food to come up than to be used while you eat. We arrived around 2PM on Friday afternoon and the kitchen was staging large aluminum containers on the counters – catering orders waiting to be picked-up. I moved a few to ebb out just enough room for two people to eat and received an ear full for my clear “impropriety.”
But the food was great and the attitude only helped secure the ambiance you would want and expect from a place like Henry’s. The chicken and waffle was a perfect combination – the waffle, the chicken, and syrup coming together perfectly. I ordered fried chicken – which was also available barbecued, or “smothered.” The cornbread was fresh and the sides were rich. Henry’s also serves up its own Mumbo Sauce – a uniquely DC condiment. Definitely a place I’ll return to again soon. Hopefully next time I earn a hug…
It has been a few months since I’ve done a travel log. Making up for lost time by putting the last few months into a single post.
- 2 trips
- 3 airport (IAD, SAN, LAX)
- 4 flight segments
- 9116 total miles
- 2 red-eye flights
- 4 hotels
- 6 hotel nights
- 3 trip (Lake Anna, VA; Corolla, NC; Aberdeen, MD)
- no flights
- 1 hotel night
- 1 hotel night
- 2 trips
- 3 airport (IAD, SFO, SEA)
- 5 flight segments
- 10,240 total miles
- 2 red-eye flights
- 4 hotels
- 8 hotel nights
- 3 trips
- 11 airport (IAD, LHR, CDG, FRA, TLV, ADD, DXB, LAX, DCA, EWR, BOS)
- 12 flight segments
- 21,402 total miles
- 4 red-eye flights
- 1 train segment (London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord)
- 10 hotels
- 19 hotel nights
Today was a BBQ day. A perfect BBQ day. Friday afternoon was calling for a slightly prolonged lunch. 79 degrees. Fall is coming quickly and the last days to eat outside are upon us. All of this summed to outdoor dining and BBQ. We were on the hunt for the best BBQ in DC and our research unearthed several worthy options. Each of these will be added to my list.
Our first/original destination was Mr. P’s Ribs and Fish. But upon arriving at the converted school bus in NE, we found Mr. P’s closed for the day. A quick call to his “office” (which I’m pretty sure is his home number) confirmed that M.r. P’s was closed for the day. That write-up will have to wait for another day. We left the parking lot that has been the home of Mr. P’s for several years and headed for King Ribs at the 7th Street Landing at The Wharf.
Everett Ford “Bufus” Buchanan founded King Ribs. You can see a video interview with Bufus here. His nephew Ron was working the grill today. I’m not sure I have all of the history of King Ribs accurate – which happily mandating a return trip so I can ensure I have the story correct. Ron told me they’ve been in their current location for about 4 and half years and prior to that they were at the church across the street (presumably in the parking lot). A limited amount of information on the web suggests Bufus has been BBQ’ing Ribs in SW for 40+ years. It certainly had the appropriate institutional feel of an establishment with deep DC roots.
You order from a small shack and while you are given a handwritten “receipt” – which appears to be written on the back of a piece of paper cut from a cigarette cartoon – your order is yelled out the window to Ron at the grill so the receipt isn’t really used. You get most of the sides from the shack but the ribs and other meats together with the potatoes come straight off the grill. King Ribs sells chicken, steaks, turkey thigh, and kielbasa – but the real reason, dare I say the only reason, to go to Kings is for the Ribs.
The cole slaw is good – not homemade great – but good. The sweet potato was wonderfully cooked and HUGE. Covered in butter and you naturally can’t go wrong. The ribs were cooked to perfection. Tender, fall-off-the-bone perfection. And the sauce does make the ribs so don’t consider skipping the sauce. It is a sweet sauce with discernible pieces of fresh onions and peppers and “other secret ingredients” according to Ron. We had bees attracted to our ribs throughout our meal. While I’m accustomed to flies when eating BBQ outside, I don’t recall a time when bees were so attracted to the meat. The meal is extremely reasonably priced. $11 for a half rack of thick and meaty ribs.
King Ribs did not disappoint.
Earlier this week I knocked another restaurant off my DC Bucket List. RT’s Restaurant – named for the initials of the founder – is now in it’s 28th year and has occupied 3804 Mt Vernon Ave the entire time. I was told that before RT’s opened the location was occupied by another restaurant dating back to the 1930s. Hung on the wall inside the current restaurant are several black and white photos of waitresses outside of the front door of 3804 Mt Vernon Ave and I was told these photos date back to that earlier restaurant.
Just north of the heart of Del Ray, RT’s is on a section of Mount Vernon avenue that has undergone significant change over the 28 years RT’s has existence there. RT’s is now adjacent to a check cashing store and at the end of a series of shops that includes a Chinese take-out restaurant and the La Feria Grocery store. But while many things have likely changed around RT’s I’m not sure anything much as changed within RT’s. The decor is certainly the same. They even had a bowl of RT’s Restaurant matchbooks at the door – a fixture, I’m sure, that has been there since the beginning. Upon walking in, I felt as if I had just walked into the Regal Beagle. The seat back in my booth was well worn and anytime the person in the adjoining booth leaned back he pushed on me and I did the same for to him. It was the long lost dinner tango that can only take place in well worn diner booths. But you quickly realize the
lack of ambiance character adds to the culinary experience as opposed. RT’s is – and has been since the beginning – focused on preparing cajun and creole cooking and everything else is superficial.
Coupled the atmosphere with the staff who are attentive and friendly – and dare I say homely in the most endearing way – and “causal neighborhood restaurant” is a very fitting description for the establishment. But as with many restaurants – and certainly most on my D.C. bucket list – looks are deceiving. Over the years RT’s has attracted a number of notable personalities including President Bill Clinton, Vice President Gore, Leslie Nielsen, Woody Harrelson, Clint Black, Mary Chapin Carpenter and more. It has also catered to large number of congressmen and senators over the years. The back/side room is named in honor of Sonny Callahan – nine time congressman from Alabama – who clearly frequented RT’s during his years in office. Callahan was somewhat
famous infamous for being named as the person speaking on the phone with President Bill Clinton during one of the President’s first sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky. Callahan’s congressional aide, Jo Bonner, won the election to fill Callahan’s seat upon his retirement and dinner fundraisers for Bonner have been held at RT’s. Still today RT’s finds itself on the short list of the favorite restaurants of politicians. Rep. Duncan (R-Tenn.) has frequented RT’s for years and one can even find a papier-mâché likeness of him hanging on one of the wall of the Sonny Callahan room.
It seemed somewhat slow with only a table or two occupied, but it was lunch on a Monday and I could easily see things picking up early heading into the early evening. The bar was staffed even at lunch and I imagine there are a deep set of regulars who are known by name the moment they walk through the door. We ultimately couldn’t leave without introducing ourselves to the waitress by name and bidding her farewell.
At the same time, it felt in many ways as though RT’s has slowly been forgotten while at the same time the quality of the food hasn’t faltered. More as though the restaurant has simply faded with the green of the vinyl seats or the formica tables. RT’s website states, “RT’s has been a fixture on the Washington Magazine’s “Top 100 Restaurants” and other places say it has been listed in the Washingtonian magazine’s Top 100 for 15 years in a row. Above the bar are certificates from these accolades which the waitress was also quick to point out. But I couldn’t find the restaurant on the current top 100 and while the waitress told us they’ve received so many accolades they’ve run out of room to hang them all I’ve never seen a restaurant void of wall space for excellent reviews – especially recent ones. There was a string of Washingtonian magazine Top 100 certificates – with dates going back to the early 1990s. So while I don’t doubt they had a run of 15+ years on the list, I’m not sure when that run was.
Now on to the food.
I started with the delicious she-crab soup. The description on the menu simply says, “Our Original Recipe.” It had tent of spice to it which was great and arguably they could have even made it even more spicy. The waitress – who herself had lived in New Orleans for a time – explained that creole cooking is essentially home cooking and most restaurants destroy it because it has to be prepared fresh like home cooking. Otherwise you lose structure and flavor. She explained that RT’s pretty much prepares everything fresh to order to maintain the structure of the dishes. You can’t mass produce creole or cajun cooking.
For the main event we followed things up with Spicy Crawfish Red Beans & Rice and Crawfish Etouffée. The Spicy Crawfish was superb – though arguably could have been a bit spicier. But the structure of the dish was fabulous. Structure is a key element of exquisite cuisine. To enjoy spices they have to roll over your taste buds separately and in all of the dishes we tried, RT’s did a wonderful job of allowing the elements of the dish to have their own unique identity. RT’s special – unsurprisingly – is Etouffée. I give it the slight nudge over the Spicy Crawfish Red Beans & Rice.
I’ve seen written that RT’s is one of the best NOLA restaurants outside of New Orleans and some have even said it rivals those within New Orleans. I would certainly agree with the latter and you see why many transplants from that region frequent RT’s.
I’m sure there is part of me that sublimely wants to be a food critic. Early in my education – after deciding not to purse art school (another story entirely), but before studying economics – I debated heavily about getting a degree in culinary arts. I had just returned from living in the Netherlands where I had spent time around Maastricht and Masstricht University and loved the atmosphere there. It is a fabulous, cultural city tucked on the Belgium-Netherlands border and straddling the Mass river. The perfect place to study food.
But I digress. I went into economics. I chose the dismal science over the gastronomic science. I don’t know that I’d consider myself a true foodie while at the same time I lack the writing eloquence to adequately capture how a given course rolls over my taste buds. So it was probably wise I chose demand and supply curves over whisks and spatulas professionally. And yet there is a part of me that likes the idea of being a food and hotel critic (though as a glass half-full kinda guy I’m not especially critical). As I’ve mentioned before, my travels afford me the opportunity to partake in some amazing meals and stay in some wonderful places. I am full of intentions to write about these experiences but I never quite
find make the time to capture these experiences in writing. And still I digress (which might explain my lack of reviews to-date).
As I wrote about recently, I’ve started a bucket list of DC-area “dives” and I have full intentions of documenting these culinary experiences as I cross them off the list. Here comes the first stop.
Earlier this week I ate at Fast Gourmet (Yelp review, Zagat review). Fast Gourmet is an unassuming sandwich shop tucked into the back of a gas station at the corner of 14th street and W in Washington, DC. The gentrification that bled from Adams Morgan to Logan’s circle and eventually worked it’s way up 14th street to the U Street corridor is spreading into the neighboring streets. While some of it is still a work-in-progress, this area has been greatly gentrified over the last decade and Fast Gourmet clearly benefits from the gentrification.
Fast Gourmet occupies the space that was likely once the “quickie mart” of a cash-only gas station in a part of Washington DC that had fallen deeply into disarray following the 1968 riots and had only in the last decade begun to return to its prior stature.
You wouldn’t notice it was there, unless you knew it was there and you probably wouldn’t be inclined to stop if you didn’t know – presuming it to be nothing more than “gas station cuisine.” However, while tucked into the gas station, the newer Fast Gourmet sign does give away it’s identify as does the large “2011 Best of Washingtonian” sign hanging on the roof line.
Upon entering the
restaurant gas station, you are greeted by a full service sandwich shop with a slight industrial feel though it is clear you are inside a gas station.
We ordered the Cubano with a side of yuka and the Big Mason’s BBQ Chicken sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries. The Cubano was amazing. I don’t know that I would claim it as the best Cuban I’ve ever had, but it was a unique Cuban and would rank with the ones I’ve had in Florida. The use of pulled pork gave it a decidedly southern BBQ feel which I really enjoyed. The sandwich oozed with fresh melted cheese and was flooded with meats. It was a massive serving and could have easily been shared by two or three people. I however, ate the entire thing myself….and forewent dinner that evening as a result.
The Big Mason’s BBQ chicken sandwich was served with sharp cheddar cheese and bacon. The sandwich is a simple grilled chicken breast dripping with BBQ sauce. While I lack the words to sufficiently describe it, the BBQ sauce was fabulous with a unique flavor. It has just enough sweetness. The sandwich is served with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions – all of which blend into the BBQ sauce – while the bacon and cheese provide just enough flavor over the top of the dominating (though not overbearing) richness of the BBQ sauce.
The sweet potato fries were good. They seemed perhaps twice fried. The yuka on the other hand was dry and tasteless and even salt couldn’t save it. It was served however with a chipotle mayonnaise sauce which helped redeem some of the lack of flavor.