U Street Area

by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
February 27, 2008

One of my favorite stores in Washington, D.C. is Home Rule, a small boutique that’s chock full of great housewares for the kitchen, bathroom and more. While I have my favorite concept stores for well-designed houseware and kitchenware in New York City, like Mxyplyzyk and Broadway Panhandler, Home Rule is unique and carries goods that satisfy another set of criteria for the object-obsessed. In fact, it’s so addictive that if I can’t make a trip down to D.C., I ask a friend to send supplies.

Part of the allure is that besides stocking gorgeous housewares, Home Rule’s selection is extremely utilitarian. Sur La Table’s vast inventory of kitchen goodies, for example, is so large that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Home Rule, however, is manageably small, making the useful, efficient and extremely attractive items easily accessible.

Upon each visit, I usually just cut to the chase, asking the owner, “What do I need from here? What will I fall in love with and not be able to live without?” I’m always met with stellar recommendations (not expensive or frivolous ones), ranging from stylish multipurpose silver scrubbies to the Kershaw Kai tomato/cheese knife. These items not only work well, but they also make my kitchen and overall home environment more beautiful, which in turn makes me happy. And once I’m hooked on an item, I replenish my stock of it every couple of months.

Home Rule is located on 14th Street, just off of the U Street corridor, and it’s just one example of the fun little stores in the hip U Street area. On my most recent weekend visit to Washington D.C., I ended up spending most of my time in this neighborhood, shopping and, of course, eating.

On U Street, two of my most memorable meals were at the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl and famed Ethiopian restaurant, Dukem.

Having just had lunch, I was only going to drop into Ben’s to take a look at this institution that’s been around since 1958. But once inside, a waft of grilled meats convinced me to stay and have a “snack.” My friend recommended the chili half-smoke with everything. Even though I wasn’t clear on what a half-smoke was, I ordered it. From what I could tell, it was a sausage about two and a half times larger than a regular dog. And I learned that it’s usually filled with pork and beef and spices, and served on a bun with mustard and onions. (It’s often mistaken for kielbasa.)

After my first Ben’s experience, I decided to do some research and found an article, “The Missing Link”, in the Washington City Paper, in which David Jamieson traces the history of the half-smoke. It seems that there are different theories behind who created the original half-smoke, why it’s called that, who makes the best one and what goes in it. About the only thing on which everyone agrees is that the half-smoke is native to Washington, D.C., which explains why I had not heard of it before.

Regardless of all the controversy, the chili half-smoke at Ben’s was good! My friend and I were supposed to share it, but I ate about three-quarters before reluctantly handing it over. The next day, immediately after a disappointing brunch at the neighboring Turkish Tabaq Bistro (though the rooftop has an amazing view of D.C. and is a great place to enjoy happy hour), I headed back to Ben’s for a regular chilidog. I thought maybe a regular dog would pair even better with the chili, but I was wrong. The half-smoke that was full of spice, smoky flavor and great texture in every bite, whereas the dog just tasted like limp salted meat.

For dinner, it only made sense to have Ethiopian food since D.C. has the largest Ethiopian population outside of Ethiopia. The concierge at the hotel tried to recommend a “nice” Ethiopian restaurant but I insisted on finding the “best.” He was concerned that lack of white tablecloths would be a concern, but I assured him that the food was of the utmost importance, not the atmosphere. He recommended Dukem, on U Street, where they not only make their own injera (pancake-like bread), but also supply many of the Ethiopian restaurants in D.C.

To quote my six year-old companion, Logan, dinner was “excellent!” While eating with my hands wasn’t the top criteria that helped rank this dinner above the previous evening’s meal at another top-rated D.C. restaurant, Blue Duck Tavern, it was a lot of fun. Dukem was not the hole-in-the-wall restaurant that I was expecting, based on our concierge’s description. It was an extremely popular local joint that served downright good grub. Everyone in the restaurant was laid back and having a ball.

Normally, I prefer the vegetarian spreads at Ethiopian restaurants, but I realized at Dukem that that’s probably because I had never had really good Ethiopian cuisine before. Both the meat and the vegetarian selections were delightful. We chose a combination platter that included lamb wot (spicy homemade lamb stew), doro wot (chicken stew simmered in ginger sauce with garlic onion and herbal butter served with boiled egg), minchet abesh (finely chopped lean ground beef braised in milled ginger and garlic sauce), beef tibs (cubed tender beef fried with onion, rosemary and jalapeno pepper), spicy split lentils, greens, cabbage, salad and potato in spicy sauce. And as if that weren’t enough, we added an order of goden tibs (beef short ribs marinated in special Dukem sauce, with onion, tomato, garlic and jalapeño). This was a mistake because not only was there just the right amount of food in the combination platter, but the short ribs turned out to be a bit tough and not as juicy as imagined.

Logan’s favorite was the minchet abesh, while I enjoyed the lamb stew and all the veggies the most, but everything was so good that we all did our part to clean the plate. When we walked into the restaurant, Logan had wanted a burrito, but when we walked out, Ethiopian was his new favorite cuisine. I was afraid that he might complain that the inerja tasted sour (a quality I love as it reminds me of sourdough bread despite the differing textures), but that never came up. Instead, he declared that he wished he had his wallet so he could tip the people who served us such great food. I was delighted; not only was my stomach ecstatic from the fabulous dinner, but I was even more excited about the fact that I had shared a good ethnic meal with a six year-old who appreciated it. Now that’s what I call a rewarding meal.

Home Rule
1807 14th St, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U St, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

Tabaq Bistro
1336 U St, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant
1114 – 1118 U St, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

Blue Duck Tavern
1201 24th St, NW
Washington, D.C. 20037

Photograph at top of the page courtesy of Spoolia Design (UR Here guidebooks).

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