Young and Hungry

Does D.C. Have a Signature Dish or Not?

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!

  • curiouskitkat a really good question. When I think of signature dish, I often think regional. A dish that has its roots in said place. Being that DC is such a transient town, its so hard to say. People from all over come here to tour the musuems and historical landmarks, but do they come for the indigenous eats, not so much. And chefs from all over have brought their traditions, but who among them have created a dish that Great-grand mama made. I can not think of one. Sad, really.

  • SG

    Who cares where it's made? Do you see half-smokes in bammamore? I sure don't.

  • typicalsquirrel

    What about Croaker as a DC signature dish? Many local eateries' such as Horace & Dickies and Oohs and Ahhs' have their own variations of this locally found fish.

  • Lou

    While not related, I had an absolutely disgusting Philly Cheesesteak at America (in Union Station) the other day (I was hungry, didn't want Uno's nor any pizza for that matter nor McD's or a pretzel). It actually said "cheese whiz" but the sauce was more like Welsh rarebit. One of the few times where I thought the fries - and I'm a fries snob - were better than the entree.

  • Lauren

    That's the concept of my show.

  • DC Foodie with ze ever changing name

    Where is the best cheesesteak in DC?
    (I admit that I have not searched DR or the Y&H archives/dining guide - just asking off the cuff)

    I would vote for the half-smoke still because, while the product might not have been made in DC it is served and consumed here (as SG noted). The fact that most of the half-smokes we see on the street are fake is sad but there are still plenty of originals out there, no?

    Further to the point, Cheez whiz is not made in Philly nor are the cows grazed in PA, but the food is put together and consumed there, thus the signature dish. The same goes for tomato sauce and cheese for NYC pizzas, etc. etc.

    The source of the ingredients should not dictate the applicability of a region to the dish unless the dish is solely a feature/function of the ingredient.

    Just my 2 cents...

  • JB

    Mini-burgers. I'm sure these were a trend in some other parts of the country (White Castle doesn't count), but Matchbox put these on the board in DC when they opened. Since then they have taken off in DC and elsewhere.

  • Hill Rat

    I'm with DC Foodie, stop hating on the half-smoke Carman!

  • Tim Carman

    Hill Rat,

    Don't misunderstand. I'm not hating on the half-smoke. I really like the one at Ben's, smoked in chili. But,seriously, name me 10 other places in the city that serve a real, genuine half-smoke on a daily basis. I'll give you a head start, too: Weenie Beenie and Florida Avenue Grill.

    Can it be a signature dish if you have trouble finding it in the city and half the people here can't even define what it is?


  • X marks the spot

    I assume the signature meal is what I saw; it was a homeless person sitting on the sidewalk was none-other-than a styro-foam plate of fried chicken wings with mumbo sauce, french fries and a soda.

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  • The Big Crunch

    I agree with the regional idea. As a result, I think crabcakes have as much of a right to being D.C.'s signature dish as anything else you can imagine. Think about it... How many other foods get people throughout the metro region into intense debates regarding the best ways to prepare the things, or the best place to eat 'em? And look at the area restaurants! Even if they're mediocre, every place puts the things on their menu. Furthermmore, even when they're mediocre, a crabcake is usually a tasty thing to eat. When guests visit me from out of town, they want crabcakes or they want to go somewhere for a bushel of steamed crabs. DC is the major metro area for the Chesapeake Bay region and this area is crazy about crabs, even if we have polluted the Bay to the point where most crab meat now comes from Louisiana. I think it's ridiculous to make the area's signature dish something that you can only get at one restaurant (Smoked branzino carpaccio or a 2 Amy's pizza). A regional signature dish is something that shows up at enough restaurants that it permeates the dining culture. As much as I love a Hellburger, I don't really feel it permeates the DC dining culture. Chicagoans argue about the best deep-dish pizza in town, and the ink spilled over the debate as too the best cheesesteak in Philly can be measured in gallons. The only dish that everyone in the DC region has a similar love and opinion about is the crabcake.

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  • richard hilbert

    ok if it is a signature then who in the heck signed for it.and was it signed in ink.

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  • Philly_Yo

    A true signature dish is something that the townies eat. Senate Bean Soup fails on this qualification. Even as the condescending commentator pointed out, it's popular amongst Congressman and Hill workers. It is not seen amongst the locals, townies, and regular folk. In Philadelphia, you have the cheesesteak, the roast pork sandwich, and the pretzel. In New York, it's the bagels and pizza. In Miami, it's the Cuban sandwich. The list goes on. What do they all have in common? They are made, perfected, and eaten by the locals and then spread to the tourists, transients, and politicians. Not the other way around.