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What started out as a search for the metro area’s best dishes turned into a coronation of the region’s cheap eats. Johnny Monis’ spit-roasted goat and Michel Richard’s lobster burger never stood a chance in the D.C. Dish Hall of Fame contest. They were buried under a blacktop of Ben’s chili and Five Guys’ grease.
Perhaps that’s how it should be. Perhaps the dishes that best define a city should be the ones everyone can enjoy, regardless of education, wealth, and ability to grease the palm of a maitre d’. I look around at other cities and some of the dishes associated with them—the cheesesteak and Philadelphia, gumbo and New Orleans, pizza and New York, hot dogs and Chicago—and I see foods that the average suburban stoner with a part-time job at the 7-Eleven can afford.
Whether they’re the right choices or not, all five of the hall’s inductees can be had for $13 or less, including the chili half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl, which is the king of the inaugural class. Of the 1,238 people who voted in the online poll, 502 cast a ballot for the half-smoke.
“When people come in, we tell them that [the half-smoke] is kind of the thing to get just because that’s very uniquely D.C.,” says Nizam Ali, the youngest son of founders Virginia and the late Ben Ali. “You can kind of get a chili dog at other places…but you really can’t get this chili half-smoke other places except D.C.”
“It’s a specialty thing,” Ali continues. “It’s kind of hard to make a burger a D.C. thing. It’s hard to make a pizza a D.C. thing. Chicago is very unique. There are pizzas and burgers in every town all across America and all over the world, so it’s hard to make something so uniquely D.C. out of some very mainstream items, I guess.”
I understand the point Ali is making, but in a way, I think it denies the very history of the half-smoke, which, as former City Paper reporter Dave Jamieson explained in his 2007 cover story (“The Missing Link,” 2/6/07), likely arose from the District’s robust meatpacking industry of the 1930s. The half-smoke was the logical outgrowth of the other smoked sausages and hot dogs that were widely produced at the time. Hall-of-fame-level innovation, in other words, often starts with the mainstream and the mundane.
What’s more, when I look at Frank Ruta’s roast chicken at Palena Café, I don’t see yet another brined bird with crisped skin. I see perfection on a plate, the result of Ruta’s endless tinkering and testing. When I bite into Michael Landrum’s Hell burger, I don’t taste yet another beef patty on a bun. I taste the sum total of one man’s quest to pack the steakhouse experience into one freshly ground hamburger. These are D.C.’s originals, no matter how many other feeble burgers and roast chickens are peddled out there.
What these dishes aren’t, however, are members of the hall of fame. Neither made the cut, although the Hell burger came close. It was just 23 votes shy of overtaking 2Amys’ Margherita pizza for the fifth and final spot in the hall’s inaugural class. I’d like to think Ruta and Landrum’s dishes failed to garner enough votes not because people viewed them as just another burger or chicken entrée, but because neither establishment deals in the kind of volume necessary to generate voting blocs. Or, perhaps, they didn’t give a damn enough to encourage customers to stuff the ballot box.
Scott and Arianne Bennett, owners of the Amsterdam Falafelshop, whose signature dish earned a hall nod, admitted they dropped small reminders to their diners to cast votes. Each Amsterdam receipt came with a suggestion to help induct the sandwich into the hall. The Bennetts also worked the vegetarian/vegan crowds to encourage those communities to stand up for the only veggie dish in the competition—and to lobby for less meat-eating. I noticed numerous comments similar to this: “there should be more vegan options! but amsterdam is the best place in dc hands down. even before i was vegan.”
The final two inductees, the Peruvian chicken at El Pollo Rico and the hamburger at Five Guys, apparently did little to improve their chances at victory. Well, other than franchise themselves to death (Five Guys) or increase their notoriety by getting busted for federal money-laundering crimes (El Pollo Rico), neither of which has hurt their popularity. And yet: Do either truly belong in this elite company, regardless of how cheap and easy they are to acquire?
For that matter, does the Amsterdam Falafelshop belong in the same company as Ben’s and 2Amys? Allow me to answer that.
• The chili half-smoke at Ben’s: If this dish doesn’t deserve hall recognition, none does. The Manger Packing Corp. in Baltimore has been making customized half-smokes for Ben’s for decades, carrying on the fine tradition of Briggs and Co., the defunct District meatpacking company that once made the most popular (and ubiquitous) local link of the last century. It’s a dish with both history and flavor.
• The falafel at Amsterdam: As much as I like the fried chickpea rounds at this place, I feel this nod is premature. The Amsterdam Falafelshop is only five years old, and while it did pioneer the top-your-own falafel concept in these parts, it still doesn’t produce the best balls around. I give that nod to Max’s Kosher Deli in Wheaton.
• The hamburger at Five Guys: This is a classic lifetime-achievement nod, a recognition that the chain, back in the ’80s, led us out of the Dark Ages of frozen, fast-food patties of unknown origin. No one in their right mind can argue, in this time of Hell Burgers and Burger Joints, that these humble twin patties rank any higher than fourth among the local fast-casual hamburgers. I do think the lifetime honor is justly deserved.
• The Peruvian chicken at El Pollo Rico: Before El Pollo Rico opened in 1988, who in the D.C. area had ever heard of pollo a la brasa? Twenty-one years later, this Latin American staple can be found at countless counters, and I’m inclined to give the Solano family much of the credit for the dish’s widespread success. I can, without question, credit the family for EPR’s charcoal birds, which, when pulled fresh, smoky, and juicy off the rotisserie, are without peer.
• The Margherita pizza at 2Amys: This pizzeria has been around only since 2001, but owner Peter Pastan has been making pies professionally since at least the early 1990s when he and Ruth Gresser transformed D.C.’s pizza culture at Pizzeria Paradiso. Pastan’s Margherita is an homage to dough-making. The chef knows how to use time, temperature, and damn few ingredients to develop a chewy, puffy, and deeply flavorful crust, which shines in this minimalist pie. A hall of famer, no doubt.
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