Pamela Hess leads a DC Metro Food Tour at Eastern Market. She arranges special samples from the vendors and gives a history of the building to the group. The companys Capitol Hill Food Tour closely tracks the Barracks Row Heritage Trail.
Most Capitol Hill denizens pay us no mind, carrying on about their weekend business without giving my little, lollygagging group a second look. Others smile and wave — “Hope you all like our city,” one friendly gentleman called out from across the street — appreciative we’ve come to admire their neck of the woods.
So it goes on the leisurely strolls DC Metro Food Tours has been winding through the neighborhood since 2009.
The company, which is one of 10 regional branches managed by the parent Food Tour Corp., offers nine structured culinary outings spread all over town. The twin treks designed for the Southeast quadrant include the 3.5-hour Capitol Hill Food Tour and 1.5-hour Foods of Eastern Market exploration.
According to Food Tour Director Jeff Swedarsky, both tours continue to grow in popularity. Each experience is kept fairly intimate (about a dozen guests on the Capitol Hill trek; no more than seven going through the market) and highlights only carefully vetted vendors.
“What we try to do is tell the history of the city through food,” Christopher Pitt, FTC director of outreach and development and occasional tour guide, explained as we sauntered along. He stressed that the company tries to stick with independently owned restaurants “that source their food locally” and that also have ties to the community. Not that newcomers are necessarily shunned.
“We couldn’t have done this 15 years ago. ... There was nothing here,” Pitt noted before launching into his spiel about the ascendancy of Barracks Row.
Walking the Walk
Whether you grew up here or are just passing through, confidence is high that the Capitol Hill Food Tour will hold your attention for at least an afternoon.
The circuitous tour closely tracks the Barracks Row Heritage Trail, interweaving stops at historical sights (Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion Park, John Philip Sousa’s childhood home, Navy Yard) with pop-ins at a half-dozen Eighth Street eateries.
“We get 50-50 local to tourists,” Swedarsky estimated, adding, “foodies for sure.”
True to form, my tour group brought together a single woman from Manassas, Va., a pair of 30-something school teachers from King George, Va., and retiree couples hailing from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Dallas.
Pitt marries recaps of the early days in Washington (“It was a backwater,” he repeatedly said) with modern tips. “This place has fried Oreos. They’re delicious,” he said as we passed DC-3. Likewise, when one of the out-of-towners fished for info about killer cupcakes, Pitt crowed about the Sweet Lobby’s Food Network win.
The restaurant visits were brief but informative. Pitt tried to justify each choice based on immigration patterns, which translated into multicourse meals at a number of well- regarded local restaurants.
The least exciting visit was also the first: Capitol Hill Tandoor and Grill. The Indian restaurant greeted us with bowls of Mulligatawny soup and spiced chicken, both of which were fine but hardly astounding. They were, however, incredibly generous with their portions. “This is way more food than I expected,” one companion uttered as the second full plate arrived.
The group got much more excited about the flash-fried cheese (saganaki), zesty harissa and fork-tender braised lamb set before us at Cava Mezze. “I’m going to try to make this,” one woman declared after savoring the lamb.
But the surprise hit had to have been the house-made limoncello poured by Lavagna. Staff explained that the digestif is traditionally made with grain alcohol but that they’ve settled on a less dizzying version forged from vodka and Meyer lemons. The drink was citrusy and sweet but still forceful enough to cause others to bow out.
Shop ’Til You Drop
Newly minted Eastern Market tour guide Pamela Hess knows a thing or two about food. Apart from being a die-hard local — “I’ve been shopping at this market for 27 years,” she proclaimed — she also serves as editor of the eat-local-minded publication, Flavor.
Her trip through the landmark-shopping mecca was marked by precision and preparedness. She handed out bottled water as soon as everyone in my group was fully assembled, discussed the history and architecture of Eastern Market with the authority of a Smithsonian staffer and made sure to snag all the pre-arranged snacks from the preferred vendors so that neither she, nor we, would clog up the lines for regular shoppers.
She distributed sweet and savory treats with abandon, retrieving the likes of terrifically juicy hot half-smokes (Union Meat Co.), mounds of beyond buttery goat cheese (Bowers Fancy Dairy Products) — “This is amazing,” one tour member gushed between bites — and spicy-nutty baklava (Calomiris Fruits & Vegetables).
Peering into each display case was educational on its own. Market Poultry, for instance, taught this hired mouth that there are such things as turkey “ribs,” “steaks” and “chops.”
Union Meat Co. runs the protein gamut, offering up traditional cuts (gorgeous bone-in rib eyes, country-style pork ribs, Black Angus boneless chuck roast) alongside gourmet splurges (osso buco, trimmed frenched racks of lamb, whole rabbits) and rustic delicacies (oxtails, pork ring pudding, hog maws).
Eastern Market Grocery may traffic in some of the most enticing grains around, including chipotle linguine, porcini taleteller, lemon-black pepper fettuccine, egg ziti and gorgonzola-braised-figs-stuffed ravioli.
The tour-supplied rugelach was very good. But if you’re going to visit Fine Sweet Shoppe anyway, I highly recommend indulging in the divine sweet potato bar, a light, fluffy cake slathered with dulcet cream cheese frosting and studded with big, crunchy nuts, or a tantalizing Key Lime cupcake (tart cake, ethereal frosting).
Pitt said he’s still trying to work out the logistics for a regular chocolate tour and standalone dessert trek, but he said those two universes tend to be too spread out for the walking set.
Swedarsky intimated that he might be sending even more gastronauts our way in 2013. “H [Street] is definitely on the radar,” he said.