As an epicurean with celiac, I’m like the kid left out of the sandbox when it comes to culinary adventures. I dream to participate in chef tastings, secret supper clubs and the newest trend, underground restaurants with no menu, all challenging experiences when one has a severe “allergy”. But one foodie venture is capitalizing on the rise of celiac and gluten-sensitive diners by offering a gluten-free experience not to be missed. Dishcrawl was founded in 2010 in San Jose, CA, and now has chapters in numerous cities throughout the country. It hosts ticketed progressive dinners that take participants to four restaurants for four different dishes over a three hour period. The DC chapter, led by ambassador Qui-Juan Jones, organizes themed crawls in various neighborhoods around the District and surrounding areas, to acquaint a group of strangers both to each other and to the many sides of DC’s gourmet kitchens. Last week’s first ever gluten-free DC Dishcrawl in Barracks Row attracted 17 hungry individuals on all spectrums of the gluten-free diet (strict observers, occasional subscribers, and loyal supporters). I couldn’t wait to mingle with fellow gluties on a mystery food tour of Capital Hill.
The Chesapeake Room
We began our journey at the The Chesapeake Room, a small, casual restaurant with an interior dominated by a long narrow bar, a couple of horseshoe leather booths, and a few high tops. A large outdoor patio offers more seating, but certainly not on this scorching hot DC summer evening. The bar brought in a selection of Omission Beers and Angry Orchard Cider just for the occasion and are considering keeping one gluten-free bottle option on the menu. We were served our first dish by the executive chef who explained that their American/French/Italian fusion menu offers several gluten-free options. Our plates, winning for best presentation of the night, included a trio of tastings starting with a seared scallop over a fava bean and mushroom risotto. While the scallop was over-salted it was nicely seared to produce a caramelized surface while retaining its soft interior. In the middle of the plate was a scoop of crab salad on a slice of raw tomato with an avocado dressing (adapted from the menu’s fried-green tomato version). A sprinkling of greens added texture to the mayo-heavy yet fresh tasting crab. The final element was a watermelon gazpacho, a refreshing choice for the heatwave we were in. The addition of orange juice to the recipe pushed the chilled soup too far on the sweet spectrum. But overall the variety of flavors between all three items and the well portioned plate made for a successful first stop.
For our next dish, the group crossed 8th Street SE to Pacifico Cantina for some Tex-Mex flare. We were greeted by festive Mexican decor and music and servers ready to take our margarita and mojito orders. Fresh guacamole was served family style at our table, accompanied by salsa and corn tortilla chips fried separately from anything glutenous. The guac was heavy on the salt, but the salsa had just my speed of heat. We were then served a cup of shrimp ceviche with jicama, corn, tomato, cilantro and cucumber over a touch of spring greens served with a few chips (not a regular menu item). Around me my fellow diners started reaching for liquid relief from the spice. I seemed to get a mild batch that was well balanced and tasty. Our plates were cleared and we prepared to move on when surprisingly another fleet of dishes headed our way…then turned on its heels and disappeared. The manager embarrassingly explained that the kitchen accidentally prepared a chicken taco on a flour tortilla, this after his speech on how gluten-free friendly Pacifico Cantina is. The staff quickly rebounded and soon delivered a soft corn tortilla topped with chopped chicken, pico de gallo, salsa verde and cilantro. The double layered tortilla was crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and folded nicely over the slightly overcooked yet flavorful chicken. We walked away stuffed after that plentiful sampling of average tasting Tex-Mex. Overall, Pacifico Cantina is a fun spot to sip on sweet drinks and nosh on addictive tortilla chips.
We hobbled just a couple of doors down from Pacifico Cantina to our third location, Cafe 8, which offers unpretentious Turkish/Greek cuisine in an authentic, Mediterranean atmosphere. Unfortunately the air conditioner was having technical difficulties, but we filed into the bar area and were served cold water on the spot. Plates soon arrived with plentiful helpings of shaved doner meat over white long grain rice, covered with tomato sauce. The meat heavy dish made up for its unrefined appearance with its rich, salty flavor (notice a trend?) and tender consistency. The kebab is made in-house with 80% lean beef and 20% lamb that marinates for days in milk and spices before being pitched on the spit. The dish was a crowd pleaser, even given our full stomachs. I forced myself to stop after a few bites for fear of impending button popping. Cafe 8 offers a number of gluten-free options, as is often the case with Mediterranean menus. The quaint restaurant’s low key, eccentric vibe and quality, reasonably priced food tempts me to return for another try on a cooler night. Pleasing carnivorous Mr. Green Bean will be the true test.
We had one more stop to go and luckily it was dessert. After all that high sodium food, I relished the thought of something sweet. We walked toward Eastern Market to bombard the tiny storefront of Pitango Gelato. A young, spirited associate was prepared to manage our group and pitch us the spiel about Pitango’s direct line to fresh milk from Mennonite farmers, pistachios sourced from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in Italy, and nuts roasted with infrared light for the most natural flavor possible. Pitango now has five locations in DC, Maryland and Virginia, all serving the highest quality, seasonally changing gelato and sorbet. We were thrilled to learn that everything in the store is gluten-free accept for the cones. But the tiny colorful spoons are so fun, who wants a cone anyway? Our server’s patience astounded me as she allowed each of us to try multiple flavors before ordering. I am a frequenter of this gelato joint and can vouch for every flavor I’ve tried, which is many. The classic Pistachio di Bronte is nutty bliss, the Green Tea is subtly herbalicious, and the Chocolate with Chips is born-again classic. The vegan sorbets taste nearly as creamy as their dairy counterparts. Nothing compares to the mango, which you’ll swear is packed with fat. When the rush to order was over, we passed around cups and swapped spoons. Gelato has a way of making even strangers fast friends.
On that sweet note, I solicited some reflections on the night and received overall positive responses. While the food was not the finest Barracks Row has to offer, it is a challenge to find committed and enthusiastic restaurants given the size of the group, our food limitations, and the logistics of the program. Thanks is due to Qui-Juan Jones, Dishcrawl DC, and the participating restaurants for providing us gluties the opportunity to let down our guard and dine out free of the usual hassle and stress. It should be mentioned that these pre-set, traveling dinners may still be a challenge for those who are less adventurous or more limited in their eating habits. While Dishcrawl makes every effort to take into account food restrictions, the substitutions seemed lacking (in other words, had Mr. Green Bean accompanied me, he may not have gotten his money’s worth). But for someone like Glutie Foodie who will eat anything (gluten-free), I enjoyed myself immensely knowing that our Dishcrawl ambassador had done all the work, asked all the tough questions, and cleared a safe and healthy path for a night of culinary indulgence.
The Chesapeake Room, 501 8th Street SE, Washington DC
Pacifico Cantina, 514 8th Street SE, Washington DC
Cafe 8, 424 8th Street SE, Washington DC
Pitango Gelato, 660 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, DC