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Philly cheese steak: a true signature dish

With this week’s Young & Hungry column, we launch a new series called Stealing Home, in which we hunt for the best American regional dishes recreated right here in the metro area. The series is based on one idea: that D.C. has no signature dish to call its own. As a city filled with many transplants, we’re far better at trying to recreate the flavors of our hometowns, whether it’s an Italian deli like Taylor Gourmet or a Texas smokehouse like Capital Q.

In the weekly Young & Hungry newsletter (shameless plug: you can sign up for it in the box to your right), I raised the hackles of several readers by proclaiming, straight up, that D.C. doesn’t have a signature dish. I immediately dismissed the half-smoke from the discussion with this commentary:

The best half-smoke in town, the one sold at Ben’s Chili Bowl, is made in Baltimore, and few chefs, outside a handful of hardcore believers, make their own version of the spicy link. And the half-smokes sold on the street? Please, they’re Polish sausages in disguise.

To my surprise, no one came to the half-smoke’s defense. Instead, some folks pushed for other options to claim the title of D.C.’s Signature Dish. They include: the jumbo slice (God help us if this is somehow true, which it’s not), chicken wings with “mambo/mumbo sauce” (a sauce alone, mehopes, does not constitute a signature dish), and the most interesting one of the bunch, Senate Bean Soup.

I have to admit, I’ve never wandered over the Capitol Hill to sample the soup. I feel some low-level shame about this, particularly because this reader was, essentially, mocking me for not considering it D.C.’s signature dish. He wrote:

To sample Senate Bean Soup, visit the cafeteria restaurants on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. Hint: those restaurants are located on the basement level of the three connected Senate office buildings. Second hint: those restaurants are open to the public.

Senate bean soup is well known to countless Hill workers, including generations of Senators, legislative branch employees and many lobbyists. That group of people numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Because of the constant churn of Senate employees, those people make their homes in all states and territories of this country, as well as many foreign countries.

There are 20,900 online references to “Senate Bean Soup,” according to Google. For example, the Senate itself provides a history as well as a recipe.

I would be pleased to provide any additional research tips or journalism training you may need, for a modest fee.

I ignored the reader’s belittling tone to ponder whether I had seriously overlooked the obvious choice for D.C.’s signature dish. I must have spent an hour thinking and researching across the Web on Senate Bean Soup. I ultimately decided, without even tasting the soup, that it couldn’t be our signature dish. I put forth my argument in an e-mail back to the reader:

Despite your ticklish protestations, I’m still not convinced this is D.C.’s signature dish, at least not to those outside the insular environs of the Hill. A signature dish, by its nature, spreads from its source of origin. You should be able to find this dish in many restaurants away from the Senate side of Capitol Hill. Chefs would recreate it and put it on their menus. Former Hill staffers and Washingtonians would cry for it once they moved to a new city. I have not heard any such cries.

This is more like the Senate restaurant’s famous signature dish, which is not the same thing. To become the city’s signature dish, it needs more than a few scattered recipes found in a Google search.

But, as you rightly note, I’m just beginning to look into this. My question to you is the start. I will move onto other sources, perhaps a few with some perspective, too.

OK, I didn’t ignore his belittling tone completely. I got a little dig in there at the end! Call it self-perservation. But that’s not the point here. The point is this: Is Senate Bean Soup really D.C.’s signature dish. Chime in!