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Food and Fright in Washington DC

Posted by Spencer Hope Davis on October 29, 2009 in Road Trips, Urbanspoon Reviews, Washington, DC |

The Original 1973 Trailer. Still Scary Today.

Just returned from an excellent and quick getaway up to Washington DC. While at a family function Saturday night, I had a sudden craving for my favorite Mexican restaurant. So what if the restaurant was in DC 4 hours away? I could taste the Carne Asade and the Margarita’s that many say are the best in town. They’re the kind of ‘ritas that have just the right mix of top shelf tequila, grand marnier, cointreau, lime, and salt. The perfect combo of taste and disguise so that when you stand up to leave you’ll have a smile on your face, but also feel very fortunate that you’re walking to your hotel in the cool evening air. That, my friends, can be found at Alero in DuPont Circle. And so with those memories hot flagging my taste buds, I started to plan my escape.

Perhaps because it’s nearing Halloween, or perhaps because I recently saw “Paranormal Activity,” my thoughts had been running back to the mother of all paranormal activity films, “The Exorcist.” I was 7 yrs old when my birth father took me to see it against the screaming protest of my mother. Few people who considered themselves adults could handle this film when it came out, and this kid? ….well. I was touched for life. It was bad enough that I had “devilish” older brothers who immediately began finding ways to torture their little sister day after day. It took a good 2 decades before I was able to eat lime sherbet and get past memories of them screaming, cursing, and chasing me through the house with mouths full of sherbet gurgling and bubbling down their chins in a faithful imitation of poor unfortunate “Regan.”

So in between my plans to get a great walking buzz at Alero, I thought– why not visit Georgetown, the supposed scene of the crime in my classic nightmare? It was quite interesting. Neighborhoods like Georgetown and many of those in Boston share a kind of bewitching 17th century under current. I am sure that much of their quiet history has been touched by the occult. During our visit, it seemed not a stretch to consider that the year round Halloween-type decorations scattered along the cobblestoned streets and inside the low ceiling brownstones would have quite the story to tell if they could talk. For me, they paled next to the pop culture icons in the neighborhood in the form of the stairs and house that were crucial images and props to The Exorcist back-story.

We traveled up to 3600 Prospect NW, to see the very stairs that “Father Karras” was hurled down by a mix of his own suicide and demonic possession. The stairs are quite impressive. Seventy-five steep, narrow steps of cold stone with harsh sharp edges just ripe for an “accident.” They run alongside the home that many will recall as being part of the pivotal scene where “Father Marrin” arrived by cab on a foggy night, looking upwards to a window above the stairs that would eventually play a pivotal role in the final exorcism. Even though the real house is actually set back from the stairs, it was startling to see it, and even scarier to consider the nerve the owners must have to inhabit such a creepy icon next to an equally terrifying one. It is hard to imagine walking anywhere near this psychologically powerful area at night. We made our visit during the day, yet emotionally it felt like night. Imagine my surprise, when a Father Karras look alike engaging in the “running of the stairs,” a common fitness rite of passage for locals, nearly ran into us. We stopped him on his sixth ascent and told him of his resemblance to Karras. He laughed and shrugged it off, but I had chilling moment of movie déjà vu.

Georgetown isn’t all scares and secret signs above red doors. It is also a great shopping mecca and food discovery zone. To take the psychic chill off of our visit, we wandered up the main strip to the corner of Wisconsin and P Streets and found Thomas Sweet, a candy, fudge and ice cream shop that brags to have the best ice cream in the world. I can’t say that for sure, but they do have an incredible array of homemade ice creams in generous scoops. I had separate scoops of coconut and pralines and cream, rolled in health bar crumbles. Rochelle had coconut and pistachio and chocolate fudge scoops, proclaiming it a “pistachio joy.” The pistachio had a vanilla cream so clean and light that the flavors of the whole nuts burst through with a full onslaught of “shut your mouth power.” This is what I call it when food is so good that you become focused on it, you don’t speak for minutes, and you realize that you’ve ignored everything and everyone around you. Food so good, you hear no one talking around you. You’re just looking lovingly at your plate and rolling the flavors of the food around inside your shut mouth. Heaven.

Back in DuPont Circle on our second evening, we decided to venture out for sushi. Sushi Taro is said to be the sushi experience in DC, and that means very expensive sushi for the totally discriminating sushi lover. While one can go to Taro for simple rolls, the Kaiseki dinner experience with its 11 course seasonal menu is the experience to have here. Since to enjoy this is to experience it, and to experience it takes 2-3 hours, we decided to let our dinner choice be a daring one left up to the clerk at Kramerbooks and Cafe. Kramer’s is yet another DuPont Circle staple where row upon row of intellectual people and books are just waiting to make you smarter and more liberally aware of the world around you. I don’t think Rush Limbaugh shops for reading material here.

The clerk suggested Thai Chef Sushi Bar as a place with sushi described as “better than the ordinary,” and we walked up the block to check it out. In many cases the combo of sushi and Thai in one restaurant is a warning sign. Few do both well and one tends to suffer. This worried us and at first glance the restaurant appeared small, a bit dark, and foreboding. Slightly trendy and vampish, with a touch of risk. However, it was late into happy hour and the sign on the door proclaimed to serve “drinks that will make you brave,” so why not? Before it was over, we had been served platters of incredible sushi, in uncommonly huge portions. I exhibited my own bravado by eating slice after slice of rare meat soaked in spicy scallions and peppers. This was a first for me. I can’t eat meat without a certain gag reflex unless it’s roasted brown. But somehow I managed to make it through these tasty slices, seeing pink and ignoring my inner logic that as dark as it was in the place, the pink meat must really be red and raw in the light. Did I say it was vampish in there? Ah yes, I paid for this nerve of mine, barely making it back to the hotel without crying from the pain of a very angry stomach. Yet, as I fell asleep later, twisting into a crumbled “ache-ball,” I wondered…”can I handle a half smoke tomorrow?”

More on Thai Chef Sushi at: Thai Chef on Urbanspoon

A half smoke? What the heck is a half smoke? You have to be raised between the DC to Philadelphia leg of I-95 to really understand this curious piece of meat. I admit I didn’t know what it was until I saw it on an episode of Man vs. Food. A half smoke is like a bratwurst. It’s a quarter pound sausage that’s half pork, and half beef stuffed into a sausage casing and cooked to perfection on a fryer grill by the cooks at Ben’s Chili Bowl- a DC staple and famous folk stop on U street since 1958. I couldn’t handle the classic Bill Cosby version with chili, onions, and mustard. Couldn’t risk the chili after the sushi and rawness the night before, so I settled for a cheese toping instead. To my surprise, even though it at first looked like instant cheese, it was rich, peppery and the perfect compliment for the monster underneath it. With a quick snap of the casing between my teeth, it was on, and it was very good! Being in Ben’s is a total experience. The walls are covered with famous guests, and the counter staff and many of the customers are interactive, open, and entertaining. Our server and manager Maurice, was certainly a charmer. Seeing my embroidered “Harpo Studios” t-shirt, he decided that we must be affiliated with “O” herself, and began to tell us about his recent speaking part in the Ben Affleck film “State of Play.” He then began to sing his heart out and into the little pixel eye of my iPhone. “Don’t erase that,” he winked, “I’m going to be famous one day.” You already are Maurice.

More on Ben’s Chili Bowl at: Ben's Chili Bowl on Urbanspoon

So it had been a whirlwind 48 hours and it was time to head home. I was full, tummy on the mend, and weary. Ready to put thoughts of food and haunts behind me. But then I saw this creepy cemetery along on the way…….

Check out a video clip of Maurice singing at Ben’s, pics of the awesome sushi, the Exorcist stairs, “Father Karras,” “the creepy cemetery,” and more at the travel side of Observations from the Road Less Traveled. Click here to see the shots and become a “fan.”

Photos from the DC Road Trip:

DC Links

Ben’s Chill Bowl
Sushi Taro –site crashes on occasion! (alternate)
Thai Chef Sushi
Thomas Sweet
Kimpton Hotels
Kramerbooks and Cafe

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