DC’s New Pocket Destination
Ledroit Park, Truxton Circle, U Street East, call it what you will, but there is a growing cluster of restaurants around Sixth and Florida. If the waits on 14th and U, the explosion of new openings on Ninth and Seventh in Shaw, and Capitol Hill’s Barracks Row are too long, this just might be your new dining destination.
The Royal Has Landed
Don’t worry, The Royal (theroyaldc.com, 501 Florida Ave. NW), this pocket’s newest addition, doesn’t suffer delusions of grandeur. Rather, this cozy and decidedly neighborhood spot pays homage to a liquor store that formerly occupied the northwest corner of Fifth and Florida. The Royal kicks off the day at 7 a.m. with Counter Culture coffee and breakfast (8 a.m. on the weekend. Everybody deserves to sleep in!).
You can hang out and use the free wifi and grab a midday lunch, stay for dinner, and tipple through closing at 1 a.m. (grab a late drink until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday). Ready to kill each other after a long day of assembling furniture (another marriage nearly ruined by IKEA), my husband Jason and I headed out for a much needed drink and dinner.
Let’s start with the drinks. We certainly did! Royal’s Whiskey Mule with bourbon lime and ginger beer seemed appropriate for a rainy night. Preferring my drinks tart and bitter to sweet, I was pleasantly surprised by the reserved sweetness. My next drink, the Paloma, a mix of tequila, lime, and grapefruit soda, was also pleasantly tart and refreshing. No sorority girl sweetness here!
Bar snacks followed, starting with awesome arepas. The richness of the beautifully browned cornmeal-dough-encased gooey, stringy cheese got bright balance from Royal’s fresh aji sauce of cilantro and onion. The empanadas, also encased in a corn batter, were fried to a crisp hollow crust, almost like a samosa and richly filled with exotically seasoned beef (that’s code for I couldn’t identify the spices), peas, and onion.
Already full, we still ordered the cucumber and hearts of palm salad and the burger, because every bar menu should have a great burger. The burger was a really great backyard cookout burger. Smoky, on brioche that had the taste and mouth feel of a soft hamburger bun, and moist with slaw and a mild cheese spread. I love a green salad, but the plate filled with chunks of refreshing cucumber, creamy sweet hearts of palm, and fresh bright slices of jalapeno with a light coating of a thin cream dressing was a wonderful alternative to vinaigrette tossed plates of mesclun and arugula.
Wrapping up out meal, relaxed and no longer on the brink of divorce, we commented that this is the neighborhood place we’ve been waiting for. Somewhere cozy and familiar to swing by for an easy dinner and a quick cocktail at the end of a long day. The kind of place you can hit once – or twice – a week.
All Meat, No Filler
You may be wondering why I’m writing about another burrito and taco stand nee food truck. Rito Loco (ritoloco.com, 606 Florida Ave. NW), known for its bright red food truck, has a bricks-and-mortar home next to the Howard Theater. It has built its reputation on a signature burrito. Forget the overstuffed fare from Chipotle, these burritos are all meat, no filler, wrapped in a flour tortilla that is pressed until crisp.
You can get slow-roasted, tender rich pork rib (which was amazing), citrusy chicken, spicy ground beef, spice-rubbed fish, or veggies in a burrito, tacos, or low carb in a bowl. If you order veggies in a bowl just to eat light, we can’t be friends. If this sounds too simple, keep life interesting by changing up your choice of Rito Locos’ homemade sauces from mild salsa rojo to chimichurri.
The burrito is roughly the size of those bad-decision, gut bomb burritos you can grab in the freezer section at CVS. These, however, are delicious, and the eat-with-your-hands, fits-in-your-mouth is perfect for a quick meal, silverware free. The fish in my tacos was moist and flavorful, paired only with chopped tomatoes, fresh cilantro, and, at their recommendation, the earthy sharp chimichurri. No dried out cabbage and heavy mayo-based sauce on these rockin’ fish tacos.
Delicious for lunch, Rito Loco will take care of your late-night cravings weeknights until 11 a.m. and Friday and Saturday until 4 a.m. If you’re an early riser, join them from 7:00 to 10:30 a.m. for their new breakfast menu.
Picture-Perfect Shaw’s Tavern
Before you get around to ordering, Shaw’s Tavern (shawstavern.com, 520 Florida Ave. NW) starts to impress with its straight-out-of-central-casting atmosphere. The brick exterior, multipane, black framed windows, and large awning-covered patio facing Sixth Street are the perfect setup for a menu of sandwiches, salads, and pizza with daily specials. This is the place to hit, a couple nights a week, when you just want to cozy up to a table for a weeknight dinner
I grabbed lunch with my co-worker Nancy on a perfect DC fall day, the sun warm and the breeze light. We put the menu to the test with a plate of wings, the Cubanito sandwich special, and a chicken Cobb salad. The wings are served up three different ways including mango chipotle barbecue, but Nancy insisted that real wings were Buffalo sauced and I couldn’t argue. The roasted grilled wings hit my three marks for great wings: crisp skin, tender flesh, and a sauce that wasn’t so hot as to obscure flavor nor too buttery to smother the taste buds. The bleu cheese dressing was nice and creamy, mild and blissfully free of the greasy thickeners in most bottled dressings.
Now, in all fairness, I wrote a column earlier this year on DC’s best Cuban sandwich, so I can be a little rough. While I wouldn’t place Shaw’s Tavern’s in the winners circle, the rich and tender pork and sharp mustard were a respectable entry and certainly satisfied my Tuesday lunch craving. Pressing the baguette for a little crispiness would have taken it home. The Cobb, however, was great: tender, well-flavored chicken on a loaded plate of lettuce, eggs, bacon and tomatoes.
Let’s face it, when you order a Cobb salad or a plate of wings you’re not looking to be surprised. You’ve got a hankering and you want it filled, just as expected. Shaw’s Tavern delivers with a broad menu of comfort favorites and daily specials, from Tuesday’s half-price burgers and pizza to lunch specials that will keep you coming back, often.
It’s Time to Go Back
You’ve been to Bistro Bohem (bistrobohem.com, 600 Florida Ave. NW) and Thai X-ing’s original location (thaix-ing.com, 515 Florida Ave. NW), right? It’s time to go back. Need a reason? A pierogi of the day – a richly sauced Polish dumpling – and Sunday’s schnitzel brunch are worth regular visits to Bistro Bohem.
Thirty-dollars for a multi-course chef’s menu including the most amazing pumpkin curry you’ve ever eaten (and if you haven’t, go now!) is the perfect budget-strapped excuse to fill up Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday at Thai-Xing. The Florida Avenue eatery is alcohol free so you won’t have to worry about being hung over at the gym in the morning.
Jonathan Bardzik is a cook, storyteller, and author living in Washington, DC. Known for his regular live cooking demos at Eastern Market, Jonathan loves cooking fresh ingredients as much as seeking them out in DC’s exciting restaurant scene. Jonathan’s second cookbook, “Seasons to Taste,” is available now for presale at SeasonsToTasteCookbook.com. Order a copy and find out what Jonathan is cooking at www.jonathanbardzik.com or his Facebook page, “Jonathan Bardzik.” Need some foodporn? Follow @JonathanBardzik on Twitter and Instagram.