Holdout: 1418 14th St. NW
Whiting fish, fried "hard," is what most people ask for when they walk up to the wide yellow counter at the Mid City Carry Out and Fish Market, at the corner of 14th and P Streets NW. Owners Kenny and Jane Ham leave the fillets submerged in bubbling grease until they are dark brown and extra crispy, so that even people carrying the fish away are assured a loud crunch when they bite into a piece.
Mid City's proprietors plop the hard-fried whiting in a mound of grits, call it a breakfast, and sell it for $3.39. The store's other stock in trade is its homemade version of Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast. "[Customers] can get a lot of breakfast for little money. We give them two eggs, one meat, home fries, and toast for only $2.39!" says Kenny Ham.
The bargain-basement greasefest doesn't quite comport with Logan Circle's emerging image as a gentrified locus of yoga devotees. Nearby Whole Foods dominates the neighborhood's culinary identity with its more up-market offerings. The fish there is raw, gleaming, and often priced at $18 per pound.
But Whole Foods fish isn't available until 8 a.m.which in this part of town says it all. Mid City is up and running at 6 a.m., just in time for the workers who are advancing gentrification at nearby building sites. "The workers tell me, 'Mucho trabajo, poquito dinero,'" says Kenny Ham.
There's a reason why Mid City's retail space isn't catering to the mucho dinero crowd: The landlords just aren't greedy enough. The building that houses the operation is owned by Aaron O. Richman and his brother, Joseph. In 1996, they inherited it from their parents, who bought it in 1948.
As property owners, the Richmans have seen far worse times along the 14th Street strip. They held on to the building through the 1968 riots, when many neighboring buildings were destroyed, and the three-decade hangover that followed. And they're staying put now, in the midst of a development boom that is revitalizing the corridor with art galleries, Whole Foods, and soon a cluster of new luxury apartment buildings being built by PN Hoffman.
Speculators frequently dangle offers in front of the Richmans. And the landlords could certainly gouge a more upscale commercial tenant. Yet they signed a 10-year lease with Mid City in November 2002. So there'll be no downtown branch of Yanÿu coming in anytime soon. "It has been owned by our family for a long time, and we hope to hold on to it," Aaron Richman says.
There may come a day when the market for deep-fried fish swimming in a pool of grits dries up. But for now, the Hams say that their carryout benefits from the many construction projects in the neighborhood; workers from the Hoffman sites, and others around it, are loyal customers.
"It tastes good, and we provide a service for them," Kenny Ham says. "We need money, but we don't think like that. We're a down-priced store. Someone must give the workers breakfast."
The Hams have run Mid City for about five months, but the carryout has been a fixture on the 14th Street corridor for more than 20 years. In addition to regular visits from workers, the site has been a favorite of Health Department inspectors. Since 2000, the store has racked up six "Unsatisfactory" inspection ratings one since the Hams took over.
The store serves about 50 customers during the lunch rush, nearly twice that number on a good day during the breakfast run. But with the average customer spending only between $4 and $8, the Hams admit that they fry up more bacon than they bring home. "We don't make enough money," says Jane Ham, before quickly amending that to say they do "very well."
As they should: The only competition in the cheap-breakfast biz comes from the Ridgeway carryout next door. The rival offers the exact same deals as Mid City: eggs, homefries or grits, toast, and meat for $2.39, and an identical $3.39 fish breakfast.
Both eateries have their loyalists, but the neighborhood attracts enough bargain hunters to keep both spots humming. Some, like Logan Circle resident Cassaundra Whitt, patronize both spots.
"I eat breakfast at the first one and lunch at the second one," she says of Mid City and Ridgeway, respectively. "Then I eat dinner at home. They're both good, and they're both the same price, so I try to give business to both."
Southeast resident Garrett Howard, who works in the neighborhood, is less diplomatiche's a die-hard Mid City devotee. "He likes the breakfast," says a smiling Jane Ham as he walks through the door for a homemade iced tea in the middle of the day.
"It's cheaper than a lot of places," says Howard. "And it's breakfast." Even if Whole Foods were open early enough for him to grab a bite before work, Howard isn't sure he would venture over to check out the offerings. "It's too high," he says of the pricey grocer. "You only go in there to get odd stuff like...well...I guess I don't know what you'd get in there." CP