The explosion of color from rapidly turning foliage. That sudden nip in the air that precipitates a spike in upturned collars. Jaw-dropping sunsets that seem to set the firmament ablaze as office lights switch off for the evening.
Fall is a wondrous time in Washington, D.C. Or, at least it used to be.
Back before both sides committed to playing year-round chicken, lawmakers spent the waning months of each session larding up the “must-pass” spending bills (remember those?) with pet projects galore. Were it not for the government shutdown and/or the inability of our elected officials to hammer out any kind of agreement on the nonbinding budget resolution, we’d all be consumed with congressional pork instead of whetting our appetites for holiday turkey.
Several local restaurants, on the other hand, have made it their business to highlight just how wonderful pigging out can be.
Belga Café: Mais Waffels
Back before garnering a nationwide following on “Top Chef Seattle” and storming the “it” dining corridor of 14th Street Northwest with his swanky B Too concept, chef Bart Vandaele kept busy by turning out Flemish comfort food at Belga Café.
Crowds still flock to the Barracks Row mainstay for beer-spiked mussels and slow-cooked proteins, but we remain smitten with the hearty mais waffel.
The meal is Belgian soul food at its finest, spicing up the fried-chicken-and-malt-waffle concept familiar to fans of Southern cooking by heaping zesty pulled pork atop a sweet, golden kernel-studded cornbread waffle. Sliced avocado melts into the mix, while the accompanying lightly fried egg cascades its silky deliciousness over all once pierced.
Belga Café: 514 Eighth St. SE; 202-544-0100; belgacafe.com. Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Chez Billy: Braised Pork Shank
Any reservations Chez Billy co-owner Ian Hilton may have had about allowing executive chef Brendan L’Etoile to rehash the cider-braised number he’d previously toyed with while manning the burners at Marvin appear to have been thoroughly dispelled by the overwhelming reaction the new menu item has received in just a few short weeks.
“Customers love it. Despite how large the dish is, all that comes back to the dishwasher is a plate with a cleanly picked bone,” Hilton said of the Flintstone-like meal which, despite being added to the carte in late September, is already challenging the top-selling steak frites entree.
The sizable shank is brined for 24 hours, then braised in French cider for a while longer before joining a soupy mix of tender white beans, whole stalks of fibrous kale and lusty cubes of applewood-smoked bacon (crispy edges, buttery center). The fermented apples lend the fork-tender swine a bittersweet bite.
Chez Billy: 3815 Georgia Ave. NW; 202-506-2080; chezbilly.com. Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for dinner daily, with late-night dining Friday and Saturday.
Del Campo: Pan con Chicharron
Most of the selections at chef Victor Albisu’s South American-style grill — think: monster 48-ounce rib eyes, mouth-watering veal sweetbreads and three kinds of chorizo (house, Argentinean, blood) — would likely make a vegetarian feel woozy.
But we’d like to believe the multilayered masterpiece that is the pan con chicharron would bring tears of joys to the eyes of even the most seasoned meat-eater.
The two-handed sandwich is modeled after Peruvian street food but built to Albisu’s specifications. His modifications include using a brioche-style bun brought in from Lyon Bakery, packing it with huge chunks of unctuous pork belly braised in aromatics for several hours and then deep fried till crisp and then tugging the taste buds in different directions by layering on a dulcet sweet potato emulsion and house-made relish fashioned from pickled chili peppers, raw onions, rocoto peppers, lime juice and olive oil. Each bite truly is sublime.
Del Campo: 777 I St. NW; 202-289-7377; delcampodc.com. Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily.
Garden District: Whole Smoked Pig’s Head
“That. Looks. Awesome,” said one stunned gawker.
“I’m so jealous,” chimed in another, who virtually leaned into our lap to snap a pic with his iPhone.
Believe it or not, ordering a whole pig’s head gets people’s attention.
The mesmerizing meal remains one of the hallmarks of chef/founder Tad Curtz’s barbecue-beer-garden operation on 14th Street Northwest. Staff said the smoked skulls are typically only served on weekends, and they routinely sell out.
The anticipation is murder.
Staff offers guidance (“Have either of you ever eaten a pig’s head?” our server inquired), but as with most primal experiences it’s best to dive right in. Mounds of burnt-ends-like flesh can be plucked from the neck region, while ribbons of succulent meat candy reside in the hollows beneath the eye sockets. One companion enthusiastically ripped off a jerky-like ear, while another dedicated himself to unearthing the fork tender splendor of the hidden jowl meat. Each head could easily serve four and is best enjoyed with those who appreciate the hands-on nature of urban barbecue.
Garden District: 1801 14th St. NW; gardendistrictdc.com. Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for dinner and late-night dining daily, lunch Saturday and Sunday.
Jaleo: Secreto Iberico
There’s ham. And then there’s iberico de bellota.
As part of his crusade to have everyone worship at the altar of Spanish gastronomy, cheflebrity José Andrés has woven different parts of the fabled pigs, which dine almost exclusively on nuttiness-imparting acorns, into the fabric of the Jaleo menu.
The “secreto Iberico” may be our favorite form of edible diplomacy.
The 8-ounce to 10-ounce skirt steak is flash grilled (6 or 7 minutes) on each side, and plated with just a smattering of flaky gourmet salt by its side. The incredibly well-marbled meat is then surrounded by crusty bread smeared with pulpy tomato sauce, herby salsa verde and surprisingly sweet whole grain mustard aioli.
The succulent pig proves slightly less nutty than its heavily cured counterparts but is still ravishing, tender and sheathed in a veil of strategically trimmed fat.
Jaleo: multiple D.C. metro locations; jaleo.com. Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Check locations for times.
The Pig: Face Bacon and Barbecue Pig Tails
Going all nose-to-tail has never been easier, thanks to The Pig.
Chef Mike Bonk, who moved to the porkatorium after keeping Capitol Hill types well-fed at Sonoma, brought over one new addition that’s quickly become a fan favorite: face bacon.
Bonk cures the entire jowl for 24 hours, smokes the heavenly hog for an hour, slow roasts it for another six hours, and cools, slices and then flash-sears the whole bit before saucing it up with maple syrup and bracing mustard.
“We sell a lot of face bacon,” he said of the delectable slab of pure decadence.
The barbecue pig tails were an inherited dish, but one that continues to fare well.
We loved the combination of fiery hot barbecue sauce and pungent cambozola cheese — a high-end buffalo wing for the swine-chasing set.
Still, Bonk sees room for improvement. He plans to tweak the pig tails with a Vietnamese-style caramel sauce he’s been playing with for some time. The new flavor could hit the menu as early as this weekend.
The Pig: 1320 14th St. NW; 202-290-2821; thepigdc.com. Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Red Apron Butchery: Porkstrami
Pork sandwiches are nothing new.
But pushing the envelope on new pork products is what Red Apron chef/founder Nathan Anda does for a living.
The charcuterie master brines his Berkshire pork for up to two weeks in a combination of cloves, juniper, coriander and other proprietary herbs. He then smokes and steams the piggy before slapping it into a cottony sub roll pre-packed with tangy house-made sauerkraut seasoned with fatty scraps of bacon. Add in the brazen whole grain mustard, and you’ve got a mouthful of awesome you won’t soon forget.
And Anda’s not done yet. He’s working on a line of breakfast sandwiches for the forthcoming D Street Northwest location.
Red Apron Butchery: multiple D.C. metro locations; redapronbutchery.com. Average entree: under $12 ($). Check locations for times.