What Are D.C.'s Greatest Dishes? Half-smoke or lobster burger? Ray's ribeye or the salty oat? Help choose the first five members of the D.C. dish hall of fame.

Rich and Famous: The half-smoke at Ben’s and the lobster burger at Central.
Darrow Montgomery
(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery )

You can bank on two things when you order the roast chicken at Palena Café. The first: Your server will repeat, automaton-like, “You do know the chicken takes 45 minutes to prepare?” The second: Your plate of bronzed bird, from leg to breast, will ooze juices all the way to the bone. Its skin will arrive crisp and aromatic, and the organic meat itself will trip some genetic memory, stored there from your grandparents’ generation, that reminds you this is the way chicken is supposed to taste, rosy and succulent and saturated with a rich natural fat.

Every time I venture into Palena Café, I half-expect the roast chicken, like most loves that enter one’s life, to fail me, but it never does. Which is why I’m slightly taken aback by what Eric Ziebold, the CityZen chef whose skills I admire, has to say about Frank Ruta’s roast chicken: “It’s not my cup of tea.” Ziebold isn’t a fan of star anise, one of the more prominent flavors in Ruta’s long-marinated bird.

“The roast chicken is fantastic,” Ziebold adds quickly. “It’s just a personal taste.”

Mark Furstenberg, the master baker behind G Street Food, considers himself a fan of Palena Café’s chicken, but he’s not as beguiled by its consistency as I am. He figures most good chefs could prepare a similarly supreme bird given 45 minutes to do it. Ruta’s “given himself the advantage of cooking [the chicken] to order,” Furstenberg says.

All of this mild disparagement leads me to one inevitable conclusion: Even apparent shoo-ins for the inaugural class of the D.C. Dish Hall of Fame have their critics. No dish, no matter how well conceived and executed, will tickle everyone’s taste buds, which makes creating a hall of fame an exercise fraught with pitfalls. There are few, if any, objective measures by which to determine whether a dish merits inclusion. In sports, statistics determine whether an athlete becomes immortalized in some hall. In the world of restaurants, it would seem to be merely a matter of opinion.

Even the length of time a dish must appear on a menu is open to discussion. One chef I spoke to said six months would be long enough to merit consideration for induction, a suggestion at which I balked. We agreed that at least a year and six months would suffice, which might sound ridiculous if this were the sports world, but it’s not. Time is compressed within the realm of restaurants, where menus change with the seasons, with the whims of chefs and customers, and with the availability of ingredients. Some great dishes, like Morou Ouattara’s gazpacho, may appear only once a year when the right season hits.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been soliciting your nominees for the hall of fame. You nominated more than 90 dishes. They range from the ridiculous (“Dozen HOT Krispy Kremes”) to the sublime (the smoked branzino carpaccio, served in a cigar box, at Teatro Goldoni). Some of you argued that only the most iconic of D.C. dishes belong in the hall, like the half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl or the salty oat cookie at Teaism or, God forbid, the jumbo slice at Jumbo Slice Pizza.

Just to round out the public picks, I contacted a number of chefs for nominees, which forced them to ponder their own limitations. Chefs, after all, spend too much time in the kitchen to eat widely around the area. Or, in Cathal Armstrong’s case, he spends too much time in the kitchen and on planes. When he and his wife, Meshelle, return from the airport, they often head straight to Duangrat’s in Falls Church for the deep-fried whole flounder with chili-basil sauce. “It tends to get us over the hump,” says the Restaurant Eve chef via phone. Armstrong would submit that dish for nomination, as well as a few tapas from the downtown Jaleo: gambas al ajillo, patatas bravas, and croquetas de pollo.

Chef/owner Jamie Leeds (Hank’s Oyster Bar, CommonWealth) wants to see Sushi Taro’s katsu don set, a fried pork cutlet with a poached egg and caramelized onions, added to the list. Jackie Greenbaum, co-owner of Jackie’s and Quarry House, nominates the veal sweetbreads from Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan, which chef/owner John Manolatos carried over from Ann Cashion’s old menu. “I’m comforted by the fact that is still there,” Greenbaum says.

Ziebold had a small laundry list of nominees: the side dish of mac and cheese at Vidalia, the white pizza at the Italian Store in Arlington, the crispy spare ribs at Szechuan Gallery in Chinatown, the palak chaat at Rasika in Penn Quarter, and the charcuterie at Palena. Furstenberg had a list, too: the fried Ipswich clams at Kinkead’s, the small ribeye at Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, and the Alsatian plum tart and charcuterie at L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls.

Furstenberg even selected one that I would consider essential to any list of hall nominees: the lobster burger at Central. As I’ve written previously about the burger, it’s a sandwich that requires the precision of a baker and the imagination of a great chef to overhaul a lobster roll with such calculated whimsy. Furstenberg goes even further: He believes that the great chef in question, Michel Richard, invented the lobster burger—and that all the other sandwiches are just imitations of the original, cheap or otherwise.

Aside from that burger, my own nominees include the Margherita at 2Amys, which I consider the finest expression of the pizza-making art in this area, a testament to the power of a few quality ingredients and a well-developed dough. Another pick: The Parker House rolls at CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental are presented in a small wooden box, as if they’re the crown jewels on display; the rolls—their supple crusty surface, sprinkled with salt, practically dissolves into liquid butter on your tongue—are so popular that CityZen itself considers them a signature dish.

My last nominee, of course, is the roast chicken at Palena Café, a dish that both R.J. Cooper and Jeffrey Buben at Vidalia also recommend for nomination. When I tell Ruta that several of us consider his chicken hall-of-fame-worthy, the chef assumes a defensive posture. He starts invoking the names of Jean-Louis Palladin and Gerard Pangaud—and the great lobster and oyster dishes these chefs once made.

“I don’t know if the roast chicken falls into that category,” Ruta demurs.

I suspect City Paper readers will decide otherwise.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.

Between professional chefs and the public, more than a 100 dishes were nominated for the inaugural class of the Washington City Paper’s D.C. Dish Hall of Fame. I’ve narrowed the list down to what I consider the 30 dishes that could represent the D.C. area well, if elected. The dishes are listed at http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/food/dc-dish-hall-of-fame/, where you can vote for your top three. The five dishes that get the most votes will be the inaugural inductees. You have until Dec. 11 to vote.

Our Readers Say

Peruvian rotisserie chicken in Arlington. (My vote is for Pollo Rico, but others may disagree.)
A burger and fries from 5 Guys.
I don't see how these are signature DC dishes. Any of them can be had in NY, Chicago, LA. Nobody comes to DC to have the famous DC salty oat cookies. Halfsmokes are more than just Ben's Chili Bowl, <a href="http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/display.php?id=561#" rel="nofollow">they're a unique regional sausage.</a> You can get fried fish sandwiches just about anywhere, but H&amp;D's is the only one that comes close to the old Maine Avenue Fish fryers of the 1950s. And though Litteri's makes a decent Italian sub, Mangialardo's G Man is far tastier and they've been making it since 1968. It's a part of local history.
Maybe Shad Roe. But that's old DC, and that's mostly come and gone.
I've had half-smoke in Chicago, P-Burgh, and NY - DC doesn't have a claim on this dog.
A peppercorn-crusted burger at Ray's Hell Burger, loaded. One of the best burgers you'll ever eat, and for a fraction of the cost some of the over-designed food you're talking about here. (And please don't say it doesn't qualify because it's in Arlington -- DC is a metro area, not a city.) Fun topic, looking forward to seeing everyone's votes!
Maybe you should distinguish between DC and Washington.

DC folks know Johnny Boy's ribs or Capitol Carryout steakandcheese or Horace&amp;Dickey's fish or Daddy Grace collard greens, they know Florida Ave. Grill and Whitehouse on Southern Ave. and Bowen Rd. or barbecue from the Ebony Inn on Sheriff Rd. or crabs from Ruff and Ready off Riggs Rd. or Turkey wings from Henry's at Eastover/Indian Head Highway. Those places along with Ben's are DC spots.

Some of the dishes/places mentioned in the article are not known to folks from DC but may be known to folks who reside in Washington. A tale of two cities as it were.
Chicken wings and Mumbo sauce are the #1 Signature dish of DC.
Cream of Sum Yung Guy?
@Simon:

Pollo Rico was closed over a year ago, and Arlington is not part of DC. Just sayin'.
Senate Bean Soup
I'm leary of such distinctions, because it often depends on who you ask. How can Palena have a signature dish that's not eaten by such a large percentage of the population of DC? Or anything at Cityzen for that matter/

If you want to ask industry types for their favorite foods in town that's one thing. But the Palak Chaat at Rasika is hardly unique or that common for DC (and where it can be found it's of comparable quality to Rasika's)

Fried whiting fish common to DC and Baltimore (Lake Trout) or Chesapeake rockfish or crabs are closer to native cuisine than anything mentioned above (maybe with the exception of 1/2 smokes, which are more common in DC than elsewhere). Or any number of Ethiopian dishes, which are far more common in DC than in other parts of the US.

When I lived in St. Louis, I was surprised to learn of a very distinct local food item known as a regional favorite, but you had to be somewhat versed in African American culture to know the divine snoot ie pig snout (many St Louisans do not know the joys of snoots, nor are they familiar with their status as world class snoots destination)
Matchbox mini-burgers. They started the trend in the DC area and still bring it. The servers even wear shirts that say 3-6-9.
Im with monkeyerotica re: H&amp;D's and Mangialardos. Johnny Boys Ribs are the best ever. And I agree that Pollo Rico is not part of the DC scene,since its in Nova but its still mouthwatering....and available. They didnt close down. I was there yesterday.
five guys fries, half smoke, sure. Many vegetarians in town, let's see...

The vegan mac &amp; "cheese" @ Soul Veg.
How about a Julia's empanada?
a Vace pizza
it's bland as hell, but a sticky fingers "sticky bun"

or stuff that's just really good
the tom kha pak at thai chili is best in town
the phenom that is the native American museum food court
there's a bomb seaweed soup at Mr. Chens
the chai tea waffle at open city
some local beer

quirky stuff:
that dude that pushes the italian ice cart
roadside sliced mango
ollie's fries (gross!)
the fries at that whiskey bar in glover park
the bone soup at Sumahs... I think she calls it pepper soup

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