The Black Experience in Chocolate City
I went back to my hometown. But, technically this was a solo trip. All my family and most of my friends live in this area. But, in the effort of not trying to spread "the rona", I didn’t reach out to most folks to see them. I decided to go to DC as a certified tourist. I’ve never seen DC like this before. When you are from an area you tend to take their history and gems for granted. So, what did I see that I barely paid attention to in the past?
DC is known to be Chocolate City. But what is DC like in 2020? I’ll tell you in one word. Gentrified. I lived in DC off and on from 1979 to 1991. The city that used to be full of black people, soul food and go-go music is no more. But is it totally gentrified? Yes and No. All over the city there are black lives matter murals. And the Metro PCS store that blasts go-go music and was the focus of the #MUTEDC movement still blasts go-go music. However, DC is still full of black influence. I wanted the full black experience. Siri, tell me what I should see first. Of course Siri responds that the first stop should be the Martin Luther King Memorial. It’s inconspicuous and right on the Potomac River. It's huge but not as big as I thought it would be. It's grand and serious and powerful. There are quotes engraved on the walls around the statue. It's a sight to see and an experience.
The African American Civil War Memorial was also inconspicuous. I had to circle the block a few times to actually spot it. It's in a small space. It's right at the top of a DC Metro subway stop. If you weren't looking for this memorial, you would be sure to pass it. It has great meaning and honors all of the African-American soldiers who served in the Army and Navy during the Civil War. Although civil war time-piece movies rarely show how involved we were during that time, we were definitely there and fighting on the front lines. I salute all of them.In opposite directions, from the African American Civil War Memorial, are Ben's Chili Bowl and HalfSmoke the restaurant. They are walking distance from each other. Both of their specialties are the half-smoke, a DC staple, which is a blend of beef and pork and similar to a hot dog. Ben's Chili bowl is reminiscent of a typical diner.
The grill is open for observation while sitting at the counter or at a table. You can order the half-smoke with their signature chili and fresh chopped onions or however you like it. HalfSmoke, the restaurant, is way fancier. It's a restaurant with chandeliers, a bar and trap videos playing on a screen. Now, don't confuse the trap videos with bringing down the stock of HalfSmoke. The screen matches perfectly with the decor and brings an edgy vibe to the restaurant. So who would I rather?
I would rather eat a Ben's Chili Bowl half-smoke inside the HalfSmoke restaurant. I'm not a fan of the diner atmosphere.
I like a good chandelier and a perfectly manicured bar. But, the half-smoke at HalfSmoke was terrible. Ben's puts their half-smoke on a regular steamed hot dog bun. While, HalfSmoke went over the top fancy and put theirs on a fresh baked and toasted buttered brioche toasted bun.
Throw the gaudy bread away and put it on a hot dog bun. Both
of their special blends of chili leave something to be desired.
When I taste both of their chili, it gives me Hormel canned chili vibes.
I'll pass on both places. But, I definitely had the DC black experience, complete with a homeless man laying on the sidewalk by my feet outside the window of HalfSmoke. He was mid-day chilling, taking a nap on a busy street. No harm, no foul.
Florida Avenue Grill is the world's first soul food restaurant, built in 1944. It was featured on the Travel Channel and
I had to try it. Well, I rode past it, on the way to Meridian Hill Park aka Malcolm X Park, and got spooked. It looked dilapidated and that it should be on the food inspector's watch list. The look of the outside made me second guess this impending food adventure. I had another day to make a decision. But, it was on my mind if I would take the leap for about another 12 hours. I'll tell you about Florida Avenue Grill in one second.
I made my way to Malcolm X Park. The picture on the internet was beautiful. It was an open plaza with a cascading waterfall that flowed from a sitting statue at the top of a hill down tiers to the bottom of the hill. I hiked through the park and found the Malcolm X section. Malcolm X Park was known in the 1960s as a gathering place for political demonstrations. I had to see it. You can only imagine my disappointment when I finally reached Malcolm X Park and it had been abandoned. It looked like water for the waterfall was turned off in 1969. The place was dry and deserted. There was someone skateboarding on one of the tiers that was supposed to be filled with water. The grass was overgrown and dead at the same time. I could picture this place as a central meeting location to talk about equality and reparations in the 60s. I can also picture how the talk of freedom was surrendered and not to be revisited on that same plaza.
I did visit the Frederick Douglas House. But, it was closed. Gates locked. Shut down closed. I couldn't even get a good view of his house at the top of the hill. The Mary McCloud Bethune House, who fought for civil and women's rights, was closed for tours as well. I was able to read about the house on the outside. Also, the African American History Museum was closed. But, it was serene to not see a line at the museum. I went before when it first opened. The place is outstanding. Plan to spend a whole day there. The tour starts in the basement and really explains the history of slavery in America. The lighting is dark and the exhibits are haunting. Then, you go up in direction and time from there. It's a must see in DC. I won't give it away but whoever planned this museum put phenomenal thought into the artifacts and emotional response of this tour.
Back to Florida Avenue Grill. I decided to take one for the team. I made my way back there the next day and was determined to not let any grit or grim turn me away from dining on the food of the first ever soul food restaurant. I ordered pancakes, fried apples, turkey sausage, scrambled eggs with no cheese and a biscuit. I asked the lady taking the order what people usually eat there. She said they will eat the ceiling if she let them. Well lady, the biscuit tasted like the material used in a drop ceiling panel. So, her ceiling analogy was correct. The biscuit had a really strong dry flour taste. It wasn't hard as a rock like it had been sitting around. Someone just forgot to fold in the wet ingredients. The rest of the food was ok. You won't starve if you had to eat their pancakes, apples and turkey sausage. But, you could easily make those things at home. Skip the eggs altogether.
NuVegan Cafe is my ultimate favorite vegan food place, in the whole wide world. They are black owned and their chick'n drummies and mac & cheese are delicious. They have a whole menu of superb vegan foods. Even the cake is bomb. The Union District Oyster Bar has a good ambiance but the food is not top notch. I don't want to drag a black owned business so I'll leave that there.
Agua 301, a Black Owned Mexican restaurant at the Navy Yard, has great drinks and their food is delectable. I didn't have my full appetite when I went and I'm mad about it. I don't even like corn tortillas but I loved theirs. I had the chips and salsa, fish tacos, black beans and rice. And I rinsed it down with a blackberry mojito. I had two bites of everything but couldn't eat it all. They get five stars for the food and four stars for the service.
I heard about the Black Lives Matter mural and thought of it as a sense of pride. Yes, Mayor Bowser! Let Trump know who runs DC. The mural is gigantic and spans a couple blocks. Aerial pictures make it look like Donald Trump will always be big mad when he looks out of his window. But, is that really the case? Can Donald Trump see it everyday all day? Maybe he does see it when he gets on Air Force One, while flying out or into the White House grounds. It's definitely not placed where I thought it was. He can easily look out any window of the White House and not see this massive mural. The mural is painted on the street perpendicular to the White House. The Black Lives Matter Plaza is directly across the street from the White House. And the mural is painted on the backside and across the street from the plaza.
So, essentially the mural is about two blocks away. He may get a glimpse from time to time. But, I'm sure he is sleeping well at night and not having to face any "Black Lives Matters" on a daily basis.I spent two days touring DC and I probably could have spent a couple more days. There is so much to see. And that's just the black experience. The whole DC experience is so much more. There is Georgetown, The Wharf, The Zoo and a plethora of museums and monuments. Once things open back up, I can see DC continuing to be on the top of the list of places to visit in the U.S. And right now, appreciating our domestic locations is paramount.