Derek Cheng takes a delectable street food tour of Washington DC

The make-up of colourful U Street in Washington DC may have been very different if a certain pivotal figure had taken a stronger liking to tomato sauce.

The neighbourhood is known for its food and history, as well as all the amazing artists that honed their talents in the area known locally as Black Broadway.

The bedrock of the suburb is Ben's Chili Bowl, a DC institution and the first stop on Carpe DC's U Street walking food tour.

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Scott, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, tells us that the bowl opened in 1958 after Ben Ali, an African American with some Caribbean ancestry, was so offensively dulled by the taste of ketchup.


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Ben based his business on the seemingly full-proof idea that no one could possibly choose a dull dump of tomato mash over his chili half-smoke sauce, whose recipe is as top secret as the President's nuclear codes.

Built in 1910, Ben's is a rustic diner and, if the number of customers is any indication, the half-smoke must be divine; the place is packed at 11.30am.

The half-smoke is undeniably good, just spicy enough to make the spice-innocent start to sweat, but it has a downside - the fries become very soggy.

14th St, Washington DC. Photo / washington.org
14th St, Washington DC. Photo / washington.org

I suspect Ben's half-smoke is tastiest when drunk (Ben's is open 22 hours a day).

Ben's has seen through the most dire and uplifting times, including the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (apparently a regular Ben's customer) in 1968, when it became a safe space to shelter while neighbouring shops were looted for four days until the military were called in.

The decades that followed saw accelerated "white flight", and the neighbourhood fell into a state of neglected disrepair.

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Ben's continued to survive through the 1970s - when the streets turned into dangerous dens of drug dealers - and through the revitalisation projects that began in the 1990s and accelerated in 2005.

The median income has since ballooned from about US$17,000 to US$100,000 as the middle class has clambered to move back to the area, which has unsurprisingly ramped up housing prices and pushed out families that have lived through it all.

Clientele of all socio-economic backgrounds still frequent Ben's; Barack Obama made it his first stop when he came to town as President-elect.

He and Michele Obama are also the first faces you see on the adjacent wall mural by renowned artist Aniekan Udofia.

The vibrant, colourful artwork is one of many of his in the area, and this one is full of portraits of African Americans including Prince, Dave Chapelle, Harriet Tubman and Chuck Brown.

The new design was painted in 2017, replacing his previous one in 2012 that featured, among others, a portrait of Bill Cosby. The rather dubious official explanation for this was that the mural had degraded, and was in need of renewal.

Washington DC's musical history

Next to Ben's are historic buildings from an era that gave the neighbourhood the name "Black Broadway".

There is the Lincoln Theatre, where Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday performed and which served the African American community when segregation kept performers out of other clubs.

Nearby is the True Reformer Building, commissioned in 1902, which was the first building in the US to be designed, financed, built and owned by African Americans. Duke Ellington, whose face looks on from a mural on the side of the building, is said to have played the first show there.

John Coltrane and Miles Davis were frequent performers in the 1960s at the Bohemian Cavern, across the street.

Nearby is also Dukem, a traditional Ethiopian restaurant that is our second food stop, where Scott tells us of the tour's intention to make our bellies pleasantly full.

Ethiopian cuisine is common in DC, which has the biggest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, with some 35,000 Ethiopians living here.

Many of them are descendants of graduates of nearby Howard University, which was established in 1867 to improve education for African Americans, starting with freed slaves.

Scott tells us that many richer Ethiopians liked to send their family members to Howard, and they understandably decided to stay when civil unrest stirred in Ethiopia.

The Dukem dishes are traditional: yellow split pea curry and a tomato-based red lentil dish known as misir wat.

It's eaten traditionally too, meaning with our hands and communally. We tear off segments of moist and savoury flat bread -called injera - to scoop up the various offerings from a communal plate.

After a longer stroll along wide footpaths, we reach our third food stop: a large restaurant called Matchbox, named after the first match that lit the brick pizza oven.

It used to be a club space where Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway used to perform. Now it's a large, three-storey restaurant where we eat a fried risotto and mozzarella nuggets.

This is the blandest food stop of the tour: a modern but good restaurant that has little to distinguish itself from all the other nice, modern restaurants in the world.

Our tour moves on to the eternal cuteness of small shots of Cuban coffee at Colada. These are well complemented with Cuban empanadas filled with sweetcorn and dipped in a rich aioli-type sauce.

Jubilee is DC's premium icecream palace, with flavours including Thai iced tea, banana bourbon caramel, and more. Photo / washington.org
Jubilee is DC's premium icecream palace, with flavours including Thai iced tea, banana bourbon caramel, and more. Photo / washington.org

The last stop is next door, Jubilee, DC's premium icecream palace, where the sweet aroma of waffle cones assaults our nasal passages as soon as we enter.

The icecream flavours are plentiful and inventive - blueberry pie, Thai iced tea, banana bourbon caramel - but I go with something I can only get in America: marionberry, a type of blackberry from Oregon.

It looks fruity but otherwise uninspiring.

This ignites the idea that I could possibly be the next Ben, sufficiently dulled by the taste of marionberry that I set up my own Derek's icecream bowl, selling hokey pokey, L&P or pineapple lumps.

It would endure as the neighbourhood has, allowing art and culture to thrive and growing as the streets and houses became cleaner and grander and generally more joyous.

This reverie is so alluring I hardly notice my icecream starting to melt. I quickly taste it, mainly to avoid it dripping all over me, and in a poof, the dream is over: the marionberry is delectable.

GETTING THERE
Fly from Auckland to Washington DC from $1675. hot.co.nz/usa
DETAILS
visittheusa.com
www.washington.org