Consider the food cart. These ubiquitous urban fixtures exist for a reason — SURVIVAL. The urban jungle is a harrying place, and crowded, so sometimes one just has to resort to foraging. This isn't to say that cart food can't be great cuisine — hell, I and many of my fellow GWU graduates owe our very lives to Manouch and his magical hot dog cart, rendered all the more fantastic for it's being open till four in the morning. Though I was less than a gourmand in my college years, I have to say that Manouch worked some real magic in that tiny kitchen, as I'm sure he continues to do to this day. A true chef is not the sum of his tools, but rather an amalgam of skill and a love of the craft; good food can be made anywhere, from the four star Michelin kitchen to the camper's sterno can. Knowing this, I was more than a bit intrigued when I heard about Spy Diner.
Late last month, the good people of DC Central Kitchen teamed up with Stir Food Group (the creative minds behind Zola and Potenza) in an innovative venture in culinary philanthropy. For twenty years, DCCK has been collecting our city's massive load of wasted foodstuffs, and turning it into good, wholesome meals for those in need -- today, the group reprocesses more than one ton of unused food donated by local businesses everyday. In recent years, the group has expanded its aim to attack DC's unemployment problem, and with its Culinary Job Training program it has educated and placed hundreds of our city's struggling citizens in local commercial kitchens, where they may thrive and feel needed.
Spy Diner is DCCK's newest venture to this end. The creative minds at Stir provide the recipes, and the burgeoning chefs fresh from DCCK's Culinary program take it from there. I'd been meaning to swing by for awhile, and professional reasons put me in just the right neighborhood yesterday, so I made an impromptu visit.
The corner of 9th and F St was surprisingly quiet at 11:40 am, so I had the good fortune of a lineless lunch. The cart itself is your standard model, if a bit newer, bearing the usual array of propane burners and refrigerated bins. The man behind the counter greeted me kindly, and I perused the menu, which I have transcribed below:
(Served 8:00 - 11:00 am)
Egg Sandwiches with cheese - $2.75
w/ Taylor Pork Roll or Ham or Bacon - $1.75
served on a bagel or housemade roll
Fresh Baked Muffins - $2.00
Housemade Coffee Cakes - $2.50
Bagels (grab and go) Cream Cheese, Jelly or Butter - $2.50
Nantucket Nectars Juices - $2.25
Romaine Red Pepper Slaw and Goat Cheese Aioli - $6.00
Roast Beef Melts
Emmanthaler Sauce, Carmelized Onions, Horseradish Bun - $4.00
Coleslaw, Salt & Pepper Bun - $4.00
All American Burger
Romaine Pickle Slaw - $4.00
Tomato & Brie - $4.00
Add a Bag of Chips and a Soda or Bottled Water for an Additional $1.50
Soup of the Day - $3.75
Chips - $1.00
Cookies - $2.50
Cupcakes - $2.50
Rice Crispy Treats - $2.50
Nantucket Nectar Juices - $2.25
Sodas - $1.50
Bottled Water - $1.25
Those of you who have been to Zola will probably recognize the slider selections, as they are pulled straight from the bar's awesome happy hour menu. For my undying love of caramelized onions, I ordered the Roast Beef Melts, and waited patiently for my order. In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with my host, a man by the name of Derrick*.
Derrick has been in the program for about 11 months, and it turns out that I came by on his very first day on the job. Despite this, he aptly and confidently started preparing my meal, even amidst my incessant questioning. Derrick is a recovering alcoholic, and wasn't shy to tell me this. We got to talking about food, and DC chefs — Derrick has met a good number of them (lots of local chefs donate time to DCCK), and is happy for the experience. While he was topping my beef off with the Emmanthaler mousse, I asked my chef what he thought of the program. After some thought, Derrick replied that it was great, for numerous reasons, but mostly because "it makes you want to serve instead of just taking." I took my lunch, bid him adieu, and promised to come back.
As far as the food goes, I gotta say, you are not likely to do much better downtown for less money. The portion of sliced beef was more than satisfactory for the price paid, and it was cooked to perfect temperature. The caramelized onions boasted just the right combination of sweetness and earthiness, and the Emmanthaler sauce was generously applied, and decadent. This, for $5.50 with drink and a bag of chips? Sure, Potbelly's, Subway, and the like can give you a much larger pile of crap for about that price, but I seriously doubt it would be as filling or satisfying. I was glad I left a tip, and honestly wish I'd left more.
It feels great to lend one's money to a good cause; to use one's power as a consumer for good, rather than wasting it on convenience. But ya know, I am an inherently selfish creature, and I ain't gonna eat crappy meals ad nauseum for altruism's sake. Fortunately such a dilemma did not present itself here: as far as I can tell, DCCK is doing a wonderful job with their students, and they and their partners should be lauded for their efforts. If you live or work in the Chinatown region, and value good food and good, well, values, take a trip to the little food cart at 9th and F. As for me, I plan on making good on my promise to Derrick in the very near future.
Northeast Corner or 9th and F St. NW
Breakfast: Monday - Friday: 8:30 am to 11:00 am
Lunch: 11:00 am to 5:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday Hours: 11:00 am to 6:00 pm
* If you are reading this, sir, please let me know if I spelled your name wrong!