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Vaunted dance venue U Street Music Hall continues to impress. Perhaps even more impressive than the high quality of musical acts booked to play at the venue is the surprising success of the proprietors’ atypical approach to nighttime dining. The inventive “pho dog,” in particular, proved so popular that some patrons were willing pay cover charge simply to get in and eat it.
Last weekend, co-owners Jesse Tittsworth and Will Eastman, in collaboration with Toki Underground chef Erik Bruner-Yang (whom Y&H recently profiled), debuted a slew of new menu items, notably including the “jelly belly,” an unusual sandwich consisting of slabs of pork belly slapped between two slices of glazed doughnut.
No actual jelly is involved. “It’s a play on the concept of a jelly doughnut,” explains U Hall promotions director Morgan Tepper via email. “Instead of a glazed doughnut being filled with jelly, it’s ‘filled’ with pork belly.”
On Wednesday, I visited with Bruner-Yang to sample and discuss the new menu items, which also include the “sloppy cho,” an Asian take on the traditional sloppy joe, and a bratwurst bathed in curry ramen broth:
Y&H: First, we have the “jelly belly.” This is the one that everybody’s been telling me about. Can you tell people a little bit about this, its history?
BRUNER-YANG: It’s two grilled glazed doughnuts with our house-cured pork belly.
So they’re not jelly doughnuts?
No, they’re just plain sugar-glazed doughnuts.
I’ve got to try this.
[The author takes a bite.]
It’s hot. It’s sticky. It’s lewd.
That’s really good.
[Extraordinarily sweet meets highly greasy and extremely salty.]
Where did the idea come from?
This is all Jesse [Tittsworth] right here. He was at Birch & Barley/ChurchKey one day and he wanted the kitchen to make him a fried chicken-doughnut sandwich. They ended up putting it on their menu and not giving him any credit. So he’s sort of reclaiming it with this.
And what do we have here?
This is the curry chicken bratwurst. This is based off of the curry chicken ramen broth we have here [at Toki]. It’s kind of like the pho dog where it’s a bratwurst but it’s supposed to taste like our bowl of soup. Originally, it was going to be a hot dog but we tailored it to be a little spicier.
What’s the sauce?
It’s a curry and Japanese mayo.
[I find it nicely compliments the spices in the bratwurst.]
And last we have…
This is the “sloppy cho.” It’s an Asian-style sloppy joe. It’s made from the same pork that we use in our ramen here [at Toki].
[I find it a bit dry, but it still delivers a tart barbecue kick.]
How did you first get aligned with U Street Music Hall?
One of my business partners knew Will Eastman, and before Toki opened I needed some revenue, and it all was originally facilitated through Will. Will brought me to the club, and their original idea of the food was pretty basic. They wanted high end grilled cheese sandwiches and fancy hot dogs.
U Hall co-owner Jesse Tittsworth is a noted amateur gourmand. How has your relationship grown with him?
I think our connection comes from both of us being Taiwanese, and both realizing that there were other Taiwanese entrepreneurs out there. We both hit it off creatively in terms of music, food and art culture. We’re like the same type of people with different skill sets.
How long have you been affiliated with U Street Music Hall and its menu development?
I’ve been with U Hall’s food since it opened. In the first month, they concentrated on hot dogs and grilled cheeses, and by the second month is when we launched the pho dog.
The pho dog is the only exotic menu item that has survived to year two. Did you expect the pho dog’s popularity to boom as it has?
Jesse and I knew the pho dog was awesome. The club booked so many local DJs at the beginning that it sold itself. One local DJ tells another local DJ, and they all spread the knowledge amongst different groups of people. I mean everyone was doing a hot dog then. There was the kimchi dog and banh mis, so we just wanted to take it to the next level.
How did the first weekend fare for the new menu, and what about the second year’s menu do you feel distinguishes it from a conceptual standpoint?
We sold 40 jelly bellies on the first night, and it was the gross, sugary, sweaty, glazed pig mess back there. It reminded me of when the pho dog first launched and they were flying out the window. The second menu is in the same vein as the pho dog, to keep pushing the envelope of what’s edible.
Photos by Sean O’Grady