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A Kansas Foodie in Washington DC

Updated on December 15, 2015

Cantina Marina Pictures

Menu
Menu
Menu
Menu
Crab Balls
Crab Balls
Jambalaya
Jambalaya
Shrimp Taco
Shrimp Taco
Fish Basket
Fish Basket
Crab Cake Sandwich
Crab Cake Sandwich
Cantina Marina
Cantina Marina

Cantina Marina

Following a long, delay filled day of travel from KCI to Atlanta and then to Washington DC the family was tired and hungry and in need of a stretch. So we took an aimless stroll in the area around the hotel and then grabbed a cab and headed for a nearby restaurant called Cantina Marina. This is a sprawling water front eatery with the atmosphere of a bar. Much of it is open air, and dogs are apparently welcome because we saw one hanging out by the edge of the dock watching ducks float by in the Potomac.

The best part of Cantina Marina was absolutely the location. Reaching right over the edge of the Potomac, the setting was beautiful. However, the jarring contrast of the startling blue and yellow wooden edifice of the cantina would have look more at home in some rustic fishery. It had a somewhat disjointed menu that defied culinary genre in spite of the stated southern cuisine.

For the appetizer, we selected the crab balls. The menu described this item as bite sized crab cakes with a spicy Remoulade. They were cooked quite well with a dark golden panko crusted exterior and a well-seasoned crab mix on the interior. The crab mix consisted of crab meat, parsley, garlic, finely diced sweet red bell pepper. The sauce hardly met my expectations of a Remoulade which is intended to be a mayo based, spicy, condiment sometimes with pickles or horseradish. Think tartar sauce with a kick and you’ll be in the remoulade ballpark. This was more of a wild drizzle of thick coarsely ground creole mustard, which was quite delicious in spite of its misnomer, and paired delightfully well with the crab cakes.

The middle child ordered the fish basket. This consisted of cornmeal battered tilapia filets served over a mound of fries with a house-made tartar sauce. This was one of the more definite southern style dishes although it lacked some heat. The cornmeal batter was a crisp golden brown and the tilapia was perfectly cooked and moist. However, the mound of fries under the fish left much to be desired. I’m not sure, but they had the flavor of frozen fries which would be a disappointment since so much of their other offerings were fresh or house made, or at least house altered. The fries also had a slightly greasy texture as if the oil in which they had been cooked was not quite up to the right temperature.

The oldest child ordered the shrimp tacos which I was interested in since these had received the most reviews online and were clearly one of the most popular items on the menu. However, I didn’t get a chance to even smell them let alone taste them because he wolfed them down in a matter of minutes and I caught him licking the plate clean. They must have been tasty. The tacos were presented well and featured huge slices of fresh avocado across the top and fresh pico de gallo on the side. The sour cream was thin and had a blandness to it that I wasn’t expecting, as if they’d whipped crème freche or milk with the sour cream to stretch it.

The highlight of the meal was my crab cake sandwich, which the menu insisted was spicy. This was a massive crab cake with just a trace of flour based breading. It had more heat than the crab ball appetizer with some crushed red pepper flakes hidden throughout the perfectly cooked crab meat but I wouldn’t describe it as spicy. Perhaps these north eastern taste buds don’t like the heat turned up very high. I thought it mild and my husband considered it under spiced. The crab mix again contained the parsley, garlic, and finely diced red bell pepper. This was served over a well toasted, crisp bun with a creole aioli, lettuce, tomato, and onion. The aioli was lovely, consisting of a light mayo with a blend of creole mustard. I requested a side salad instead of fries or chips and was pleased to see a fresh blend of romaine and green leaf lettuce with a reasonable amount of arugula, a gigantic slice of fresh and crunchy cucumber and smaller slice of tomato on the side topped with diced red onion.

At the end of the meal, my plate was nearly clean, the oldest had literally licked his plate clean, and the middle child had eaten all the fish and left the pile of fries nearly untouched. My husband had scooped his remaining jambalaya to the side of the plate revealing the somewhat unnerving pool of oil at the bottom of the bowl. It was a meal as disjointed as the menu with some items being well executed and presented and other items falling short, almost as each dish had been prepared by a different chef.

Ben's Chili Bowl Pictures

Ben's Chili Bowl at Nationals Stadium
Ben's Chili Bowl at Nationals Stadium
Half Smoke All the Way
Half Smoke All the Way

Ben's Chili Bowl at National's Stadium

Independence Day found us at the National’s Park to root on the Nationals as they took on the San Francisco Giants. I challenge anyone to find a more perfect activity to indulge in than to watch our nation’s game, on our nation’s day, in our nation’s capital. The weather was trying to cooperate and it quit raining not too long before we found our seats. A friendly usher wiped the water off of our seats and the sun started to come out. It became slightly humid by the end of the game, but it was the most amazing baseball game I’ve ever watched.

We were filling peckish by the top of the 6th and we knew there was one item we absolutely had to try while in DC, and that was a half smoke. This iconic sausage has been a part of Washington DC since the 1950's. You can find it scattered throughout the city being served out of food trucks as well as notable establishments like Weenie Beanie and the Boundary Stone. It has even been immortalized in local beer.

Luckily, Ben’s Chili Bowl has an outpost right in National’s Park, directly above our seats. So we tore ourselves away from the game and headed up. As we stood in line I couldn’t help but notice the line was a bit longer at Ben’s than other nearby locations including Nat’s Dogs and I hoped that the line was merited and not just based on the Wikipedia article on half smokes. The open kitchen gave me an opportunity to watch the process.

They start with a half beef, half pork sausage that was lightly smoked. Then they throw it on a flat top grill until it’s brown and crisp on the outside. The skin has a perfect snap to it when you bite into it and the interior is juicy and well-seasoned. They throw some mustard on a bun and top it with the half smoke. Having ordered it “All the Way”, the sausage was then slathered in chili with a perfect level of spice, a nice kick of heat that doesn’t melt off your face and adds depth to the flavor of the entire dish. The chili is then topped with clarified onions which add a hint of sweet and a light crunch to the dish. The onions are then topped with huge mounds of shredded cheese which quickly melt into a gooey mass on top of the dish. The final result was almost impossible to eat without a fork and five napkins.

The half smoke was one of the best things we had all week.

Jamaican Mi Crazy

Food Truck Fare

While DC doesn’t have the engrained food truck culture of say Portland or the sheer volume of trucks like LA, you can still find food trucks at every wide part of the road, on hand at businesses downtown, and awaiting the hordes of tourists outside every museum. There are chain food trucks all offering similar wares. I won’t go into too much detail about the food trucks, but there was on definite stand out.

Jamican’ Mi Crazy offered Caribbean cuisine both from the truck and via a catering business. I opted for “mi crazy burrito” and raved about it for hours afterward still feeling the slight tingling in my lips from the jerk chicken with which it was loaded. I can’t say enough about those slightly sweet perfectly cooked plantains or the way all the flavors and textures exploded together across my taste buds as if my mouth had gone on vacation to some tropical culinary resort. Jamaican’ Mi Crazy was hands down the best food truck experience of our visit.

Das Ethiopian

Building Exterior
Building Exterior
Interior
Interior
Injera
Injera
Lentil stuffed pastry
Lentil stuffed pastry
Our Meal
Our Meal

Das Ethiopian

I knew from day one that we had to sample some Ethiopian cuisine while in DC. Washington DC has the largest Ethiopian population outside of Ethiopia itself and many areas of the city reflect this growing cultural influence. If you can’t take a trip to Ethiopia, dining at one of the many options in DC is the next best thing.

After perusing reviews and asking the opinions of random strangers and taxi drivers we settled on Das Ethiopian. From the charming Revolutionary era exterior to the interior glowing with natural light and graced with stunningly beautiful black and white photographs, it was magical in every aspect. Our waitress was knowledgeable and friendly and was happy to answer all of our questions and point us in the right direction from a beverage stand point. She gladly walked us through the menu and then brought out a large pile of injera to be shared around the table.

Injera is a sourdough flat bread. It is spongey in consistency which makes it the perfect vehicle for scooping up mass quantities of wat, or stew. Having ordered our meal family style it arrived in bowls which the waitress promptly spooned out onto yet another piece of injera, this one almost as large as the table.

We broke smaller pieces of injera off the rolls we had received. According to Ethiopian custom, the injera should be held in the right hand and used in place of silverware. We all thoroughly enjoyed the practice, especially the children. Since it was all served family style we got to sample a variety of dishes.

We really liked the Shrimp Tibs, a sautéed shrimp and vegetable mixture. We had Chicken Doro Wat, chicken slow cooked in spices and a red pepper sauce along with a hardboiled egg. We tried the Beef Kay Wat, melt in the mouth cubes of beef which had been simmered in the red pepper sauce. We tried beef a second way in which it was prepared in clarified butter and then flavored with curry and tamarin that was called Beef Alicha. We had collard greens mixed with beef cubes and spices called Beef Segana. Finally in that vast mountain of food we had Beef Awaze Fit Fit, cubed beef in that amazing red pepper sauce mixed with shredded injera just dripping with sauce.

The middle child wasn’t very hungry so we ordered him a lentil stuff puff pastry with an amazing red pepper sauce on the side. The lentils were perfectly cooked, the pastry was a crisp golden brown and the red pepper sauce just brought it all together. I was expecting it to be dry but it was perfectly moist in the center. I have never enjoyed lentils as much as I did at Das.

Das Ethiopian Location

A marker1201 28th St Nw, Washington, DC 20007 -
1201 28th St NW, Washington, DC 20007, USA
get directions

Das Ethiopian

SEI

Sushi Chef at Work
Sushi Chef at Work
Miso Soup
Miso Soup
Ridiculous Plum Wine
Ridiculous Plum Wine

SEI

After traversing the many miles and wonders of the National History Museum and the National Gallery, we returned to our hotel to rest our aching feet. My husband had been scanning through his phone hunting for restaurants and was excited to have found a sushi place with a high rating. Zagat had it listed as one of the top 25 restaurants in Washington DC. The only trouble was that it closed in an hour. No time to change, let alone shower, but the website also made no mention of a dress code. Everyone quickly put their shoes back on and dashed to the elevator. We got lucky and found a cab quickly and arrived at SEI just in time.

It had an odd atmosphere, cold and austere, but was very clean. Our server took one look at us in our shorts and t shirts and sort of rolled her eyes a bit and for the rest of the evening took on a condescending air as if we didn’t know anything about sushi at all. Which is on one hand somewhat amusing, and on the other very annoying.

She also told us some things that were so off from the actual menu and environment that we stopped asking questions and tried not to attract her attention. She said they didn’t offer a sashimi sampler, even though we’d clearly seen the sushi chef offer just such an item to a pair of gentleman seated at the sushi bar. She also said they did not have Pinot Grigio, but they did and we found it smack in the middle of the wine list. So when I asked for more plum wine since I’d only received two ounces and she came back and said they were out I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from saying something rude.

The miso was excellent and overpriced. The sushi was okay. As I mentioned in the review I posted on their Facebook page, they’ve confused culinary couture for innovation and buried the fish, which should be the star of the show, under a blanket of over powering and in some cases ill-conceived fruit pairings. Not worth the exaggerated prices. The salmon on the much touted S.O.S. roll was nearly overpowered by strawberries and the eel on the snow white roll was lost in a mass of avocado. The spicy tuna roll was my favorite, it had a nice heat to it that didn’t overpower the tuna, and the pickle and scallion were a nice touch. I just wish I knew where the miso aioli was hidden because I didn’t see any on the plate.

My request for plum wine was a complete debacle. They had a plum wine and brandy drink on the menu which indicated two lonely ounces. I asked if I could just have a glass of plum wine. The waitress insisted that their plum wine was much stronger and I probably would only need one glass. I found this insulting. I was even more insulted when she brought me precisely two ounces of plum wine and then tried to tell me that they had run out. That is how I wound up with a glass of pink pinot in a sushi restaurant.

In spite of the ridiculous prices, an atmosphere reminiscent of a 1980’s film, and a waitress that seemed bound and determined to make us leave, I was glad that I went because it confirmed my opinion that Yuki’s in Topeka is one of the best sushi restaurants in the United States. I guess Zagat had this one wrong. I also learned a valuable lesson. Always sit at the sushi bar when you can.

Final Thoughts

No vacation is ever long enough to fully experience the culinary possibilities of a city, and no hub should be so long as to capture every meal and snack we enjoyed during our trip. We had an outstanding journey through our nation’s capital. If you ever have the opportunity to go, remember that isn’t just about museums and monuments. Your stomach and your tired feet will thank you for pausing a while to enjoy the culinary delights this city has to offer, and the food can stay in your memory as much as the other places you visit. I hear my kids talk about Das Ethiopian almost as much as I hear them talk about the Spy Museum.

This vacation has left me eager for my next culinary journey, which I hope to share with you as well. I further hope that you’ll share some of your own culinary travel experiences, especially in regards to DC in the comments section. Where are some of your favorite restaurants? What other hidden gems are waiting for me if I should ever be so lucky to return to DC?

How Do You Rate the Food in Washington DC

4 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of DC Food Scene

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