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As DC neighborhoods change, carry outs hold on

Carry out restaurants have been part of the fabric of Washington for decades, prized for their low prices, speed and long hours. With menus that run on for pages and pages, many break norms, serving Chinese food, fried seafood and sandwiches under one roof.


The Carry Out Deli on 14th Street NW. All photos by the author.

And although development has brought in new restaurants and businesses along the U Street corridor, on 14th Street Northwest, and in Logan Circle, carry outs are holding on. Of the those listed on the popular user review site Yelp, at least 24 carry outs are still operating in Northwest.

"We've been here since 1968. I don't plan to go anywhere," said Henrietta Smith, who owns Henry's Soul Cafe on U Street.

Named for Smith's father, Henry Smith, the restaurant is famous for its stick-to-your-bones comfort food and sweet potato pie, which was profiled by The Washington Post in 2007. "Mr. Henry can't cook, so he had to have other people cook," Smith said. Her brothers own the store's 2 other locations, at the intersection of 4th and K Streets NW and in Oxon Hill, MD.

While she said that the new restaurants are competition for her business, Smith sees the changes on U Street as a good thing. "The neighborhood is more diverse now," Smith said. "You're dealing with all walks of life." She has been able to rely on a steady flow of regulars, who come to 17th and U from all over the DC area for her smothered pork chops, fried chicken and ribs. "You don't forget where home is," she said.

One of those customers is Darren Snell, 47. Snell has been coming to Henry's for 21 years, and said that not much has changed. "The meatloaf still tastes the same today as it did back then," he said.

Smith said that gentrification has made the area more diverse, which bodes well for Henry's prospects going forward. "The regulars are still coming and the newcomers are coming too," he said. "[Henry's] isn't going anywhere."

In Logan Circle, Chong Hu, 58, has no plans to close her business, The Carry Out Deli. Like Smith, Hu said that loyal customers have helped her stay afloat for the last 27 years.


Lily Pilgrim eats breakfast at The Carry Out Deli in November 2012. Photo by the author.

Lily Pilgrim, 84, lives two blocks away from the Deli and stops by 2-3 times per week. "[It's] much better and cheaper than any other restaurant on P Street," she said.

Pilgrim is bullish on the Deli's chances of staying open. "[Hu] has the same customers over the years. They go out of their way to come here. It should be here for a long, long time," she said.

Hu sees both the pros and cons of development. As office buildings on 14th were replaced by condos in the last few years, the lunch crowd has died down dramatically, cutting into her profits. "My business is real slow," Hu said. "Now everyone goes to coffee shop."

But, on the positive side, there are "no more drunk people," Hu said. In the 1980s, "every day I called the police," she said. For her part, Pilgrim, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said that she used to avoid walking down 14th Street because it was too dangerous.

Brendon Miller, public affairs director for the city's department of small and local business development, said that new development does not automatically result in an outward flow of small businesses. "You've got small businesses that come in and you've got small businesses that depart. It's cyclical," he said.

And some small businesses, like Henry's and the Carry Out Deli, have reached "institution status," which helps them stay open in a changing landscape. "The business owners take the time to identify with the folks coming through the door, and to sort of cultivate repeat customers," he said. "It's got to attract people from the neighborhood."


The former Yum's Carry Out on 14th Street NW.

A few carry outs have left the area for various reasons. Yum's, which used to sit at the intersection of 14th and Wallach streets NW, was recently demolished to make way for an upscale apartment building. It will reopen soon in Pleasant Plains, a neighborhood east of Columbia Heights. And the Mid City Deli, which neighbors The Carry Out Deli, closed its doors in June 2012.

City health inspectors have played a role in shutting down some carry outs, at least temporarily. Before becoming a hole in the ground, Yum's was cited for two health hazards and closed for a day. And in April, the Mid City Deli was closed twice for a variety of health hazards.

China Dragon Carry Out, which sits at the intersection of 11th and P Streets NW, was recently closed "for gross unsanitary conditions, operating without a license, [having] an improperly trained manager and failure to minimize insects."

Alicia Davis-Coates, 39, said that she looks for information about health inspection-related closings in the newspaper when deciding where to eat. Her carry out-of-choice is Yum's II on 14th Street. A resident of Fort Totten, Davis-Coates said that Yum's II is worth the drive.

"The food is fresher. You can actually see them make it," she said on a recent Friday night, take out bag in hand. "And they've never been shut down."

Jeremy Barr is a graduate journalism student at the University of Maryland. He previously worked in non-profit communications and has interned in politics on several occasions. In the last year and a half, he has lived in Adams Morgan, Logan Circle and Mount Vernon Square. Email him at jeremy.m.barr@gmail.com. 

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FWIW, Henry's opened a branch a few years ago at 4th and K Street NW. I would hands down rather buy anything there than go to the Taylor Sandwich shop one block down. Henry's is better, cheaper, and gives you more.

by Richard Layman on Dec 10, 2012 3:33 pm • linkreport

... of course, I like soul food. Get the whiting "sandwich". It's three huge pieces of fish. Bigger than a dinner platter at other places.

Another thing to cover would be Kenny's Smokehouse (formerly Hogs on the Hill) at 8th and Maryland Ave. NE. They've changed over the years. For years you could get 2 piecs of BBQ chicken, 2 sides, and cornbread for $3.95!!!, now it's probably $8.95.

Anyway, they made the transition and that would be interesting to study. Also see this old piece from 2006, http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2006/04/commerce-dans-de-quartier-de-la-ville.html, for the discussion of how a particular bakery in Paris changed to be responsive to new neighborhood markets.

Also the Post article about "fish in the hood".
http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-05-29/lifestyle/35456620_1_fish-bill-white-neighborhood

by Richard Layman on Dec 10, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

Of course Richard Layman beat me to it, but The Fish in the Hood article was the first thing that popped in my head as I read this.

by selxic on Dec 10, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

Hmm, shut down for sanitary violations just BEFORE they are evicted/bulldozed by a big development? This is a pattern that is repeated time and time again. I think we can just assume that the city's health inspectors are under the thrall of big developers, no?

The Yum's reference struck me. That was the first place I ate when I moved to Wallach St. back in 1995. It was gross then (broken screen door by the kitchen with swarm of flies going in and out). It gets shut down NOW for sanitary reasons?

Not defending health code violations, but who likes the idea of DC government pushing around small local businesses at the whim of big money developers?

by boris on Dec 10, 2012 4:23 pm • linkreport

@Boris

If it means getting rid of a nasty place like Yums, and getting in new residents/tax payers, I am all for the city pushing around dumpy places like Yums* if it means progress.

*Not that I subscribe to the conspiracy theory at all. The city is vastly different now compared to 1995. For example, residents accepted three month lead times on 311 calls/didn't call at all, and that would be completely unacceptable now.

I think the DC government is vastly more responsive now, and I would venture a guess they have quite a bit more health inspectors/trash collectors/street sweeping crews etc etc now than they did in 1995.

by Kyle-W on Dec 10, 2012 4:44 pm • linkreport

I love carry outs, when I worked in Dupont there was one on 19th right about n that I used to eat at everyday, that being said, would it hurt them to keep the front clean. If you are going to have seating, can there be real tables and not broken chairs that are mismatched. These things don't cost that much money it would probably spectacularly increase their profits in the gentrifying neighborhoods.

One of the things I like about New York is the variety of cheap food options even in manahtten. They are all fairly clean and inviting and consequently get great business. The same would be true in DC, a lot of the people who live in the group houses of columbia heights or tiny studios in Dupont can't afford expensive food, but still eat out a lot. If the carry outs were a little more inviting they would do better business.

by nathaniel on Dec 10, 2012 4:56 pm • linkreport

my favorite is Tiki at 7th & Q, right by my job. The grilled cheese is lovely, they do breakfast all day, and I like the tuna salad.

by sbc on Dec 10, 2012 5:29 pm • linkreport

Yum's has always had questionable cleanliness (and I'm using the word questionable loosely, of course), but I've been going there for as long as I can remember, and I will certainly head to their new location when it opens. Is it sad that I knew for years now that at some point, they'd get pushed out of their spot for some new 14th Street development?

Overall, I am a big fan of carryouts, and think that, like nathaniel says, if they were more inviting, they would attract a lot more business. They already have the price right, and the portion sizes even better, but to attract more people, they need to fix the cleanliness image.

by Justin..... on Dec 10, 2012 5:34 pm • linkreport

there used to be a "great" chinese place, not a carryout, but low cost, on CT Ave. east side between R and S Streets. The daily special was just under $5 with tax. It closed probably 5-6 years ago. I miss it and places like that which sold less expensive, filling food that wasn't totally unhealthy. (Similarly, not as good, there was a place like that next to CVS on the 600 block of PA Ave. SE. Now it's a Thai place and the entrees cost 2x that of the predecessor.)

by Richard Layman on Dec 10, 2012 6:06 pm • linkreport

There are a score of cheap Chinese carryouts that deliver to the Hill. Whichever one figures out that there's a market for options that aren't completely unhealthy is going to make a killing. As it is, all of them seem to have the same menu as in the mid-90s, targeted at panhandlers getting off of work.

by Oboe on Dec 10, 2012 7:11 pm • linkreport

Why are you all so concerned about what is health or not its not like you visit the places; leave well enough alone if the clientele of an establishment does not care if it is health or not why are you involved to interject between them and the business.

by kk on Dec 10, 2012 7:22 pm • linkreport

@kk, I think the government should have a role in regulating the cleanliness of restaurants because

a) restaurant patrons often don't get to see the kitchens the way health inspectors do, so they can't make decisions about whether a place is clean until it's too late any they get sick.

b) when people get sick it is bad for society--time off work, paying for health care, etc.

I don't know that anyone's arguing about the nutritional value of the food. I'm sure lots of carryout food is unhealthy, and so is most of the food at newer/fancier places. Restaurant food in general is terrible for you.

by sbc on Dec 10, 2012 11:44 pm • linkreport

Reading comments here, one would think these places are the best places in DC...

by selxic on Dec 11, 2012 8:09 am • linkreport

Reading comments here, one would think these places are the best places in DC...

Seriously. There are certainly some gems out there, but Yum's and those other places with barely edible Chinese food? Can't say I'm sad to see that one go.

by MLD on Dec 11, 2012 8:27 am • linkreport

All the cheap carryouts are gone from 8th Street now that it's Barracks Row. Instead, you get identical mediocre food from any of Xavier's eateries. Wings & mambo sauce and the steak & cheese are parts of DC's culinary heritage, not tapas and $5 cupcakes for dogs.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2012 9:30 am • linkreport

I had a great meal at whats it called, banana cafe on barracks row. And a very nice cupcake.

Chicken Wings as a "thing" are from buffalo NY and Steak and cheese is from Philly.

by MStreetDenizen on Dec 11, 2012 9:35 am • linkreport

Buffalo wings are drowned in Frank's Hot sauce and served with carrots, celery and blue cheese. DC wings are served with mambo sauce and were invented in the late 1950s.

DC's steak & cheese is the equivalent of the cheesesteak hoagie; it's always served with L/T/M.

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/480766#3310061

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2012 9:40 am • linkreport

fine - keep a few "DC wings" places. How many are actually needed to preserve this ancient heritage which goes back to the 1950's.

While we are preserving the DC heritage, should there be a place serving terrapin soup in every neighborhood?

by MStreetDenizen on Dec 11, 2012 9:50 am • linkreport

Also adding L/T/M to a sandwich sounds like a great creative advance, of deep regional distinctiveness.

by MStreetDenizen on Dec 11, 2012 9:51 am • linkreport

@monkeyrotica:

Mumbo sauce is an abomination. My six year old comes up with better condiments on tater-tot night. Sorry.

by Oboe on Dec 11, 2012 9:52 am • linkreport

It's not just the condiments but the cut of beef as well. The Broiler and Mario's use a thicker cut of top round instead of ribeye, which is what many carryouts use, and which Philly natives think is an abomination. And the reason there's no terrapin soup is because there's no terrapins.

How many DC restaurants date from the 1950s and are still around? Ben's? That's about it really. But by all means, wipe out cheap food so only the five richest crowned heads of Europe can afford lunch.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2012 10:08 am • linkreport

You don't see a lot of Go-go in this town anymore, either.

The region's food culture changes, always. The 1960s-1980s gave us these chicken-Chinese-fish carryouts. Before then, people could get quick casual meals at lunch counters, steam-table places, and sandwich shops. And before that, there were restaurants serving food like chicken dinners, cheap fried oysters, and baked crab dishes.

The US lost most of its regional foodways by WWII. The more recent carryouts are the product of cross-polination between regions. Mumbo sauce probably comes from Chicago.

by David R. on Dec 11, 2012 10:19 am • linkreport

I'm confident many of these places will stick around in one form or another, given America's appetite for General Tso's and Kung Pao Chicken. I just can't imagine ordering sushi from one. Still, seeing as many are Korean-owned, it's ncie to see the odd bulgogi sub appear on the menu.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

Discussion here is beginning to turn the direction I thought it would go.

Not all mambo sauces are created equal, oboe.

by selxic on Dec 11, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

How many DC restaurants date from the 1950s and are still around? Ben's? That's about it really. But by all means, wipe out cheap food so only the five richest crowned heads of Europe can afford lunch.

It would be better for DC to focus on how to help make cheap lunch happen.

Zoning is a part - the more potential storefronts, corner stores, etc, the better. Gotta have more supply for these kinds of places with reasonable rents.

DC's business licensing is another.

by Alex B. on Dec 11, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

All mambo sauce is a combination of duck sauce, bbq sauce, and hot sauce. There's no single recipe. Each shop makes its own verion. The critical element is that it must be sweet enough to offset the saltiness of the chicken.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

I walked by the Mid City Deli building last night and saw an interior demolition permit on the window in the name of Taylor Gourmet.

by Glenn on Dec 11, 2012 11:33 am • linkreport

I'm struck that the busiest midcity lunch place for cabdrivers is the Whole Foods on P St. It's been that way for some years now.

Similarly, the Post or the City Paper ran a piece on construction site lunch wagons, an enterprise whose audience has precious few choices. Even so, the proprietor profiled was changing his menu to add vegetables and health-conscious items, because he needed to compete with a rival truck.

The way that Americans eat is changing, even across class and cultural lines.

by David R. on Dec 11, 2012 11:49 am • linkreport

Are people changing the way they eat or are they just taking the food the eat with them elsewhere? As a neighborhood changes, businesses have to meet the demands of new residents, hence more upscale eateries and particular types of chain eateries. As the Chinese in America's Chinatowns leave, that food goes to the suburbs. So it is with lake trout.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2012 12:03 pm • linkreport

Probably both, although the cabdriver and lunch wagon examples were cases of eating habits changing. Few if any people really cook the way they did 80 years ago.

by David R. on Dec 11, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

People still barbecue and eat diner comfort food and give themselves coronaries from soul food. Then there's Martha Stewart and the whole "slow food" movement that's turned drudgery into an expensive fetish. Witness the $8 pickled stringbeans in Whole Foods.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2012 12:22 pm • linkreport

As I said, I'm much less interested in the $8 pickles at Whole Foods than in the droves of cab drivers who choose to eat there.

Most recipes for comfort food have changed profoundly since WWII and the urbanization of this country. The very possibility of freezing foods. Vegetables out-of-season. A distinct disineterest in offal, across ethnic groups.

Oysters and crab used to be cheap, and chicken, a comparative luxury. In New England, there is - was - a pretty well-known chicken-oyster pie. The oysters were there to pad out the more expensive chicken. The Chesapeake region's signature foods included baked shellfish dishes like crab imperials - not crabcakes, which were a way to use up the cheaper, smaller parts of the creature.

Intercultural borrowing has touched every way of cooking. Chinese sauces and cornstarch are what gave us mumbo sauce. The immigrants who opened the current generation of carryouts wouldn't even have been allowed to enter the country in 1920. The black population of northern cities was perhaps 10% of what it is today.

Freezers, cornstarch, cheap trucking, and mass migration. That's what shaped food in the mid-late 20th century. Nothing about the romanticism of slow food. Nothing about the factually-adrift idea that a 2010 cheap lunch place bears any but the most superficial resemblance to its prewar counterparts.

by David R. on Dec 11, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

Calling Henry's a U Street place is a little skewed geographically to me. It's really closer to Adams Morgan than U Street Corridor. I used to love going there when we lived around the corner.

One place I mourn is Miz Charlotte's Crabcakes on Minnesota Ave NE. You could pick up a crabcake sandwich, her awesome collard greens, potato salad and go have a picnic at Kennilworth Aquatic Gardens.

by lou on Dec 11, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

David R. ... sounds like you probably remember "Lunch Box." I miss their bean and rice salad. Those kinds of places got replaced by the Korean salad bar type places, although a number of those places (SoHo/Sizzling Express) which expanded for awhile, seem to have closed. Now it's the rise of Potbelly and Chop't.

by Richard Layman on Dec 11, 2012 3:42 pm • linkreport

monkey is on point in this thread.

by h street ll on Dec 11, 2012 7:15 pm • linkreport

The immigrants who opened the current generation of carryouts wouldn't even have been allowed to enter the country in 1920.

Actually, DC's Chinese population dates from before the Civil War. I have a great picture of of a Chop Suey parlor on Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1880s, before the expansion of Center Market, when the area was lined with hotels, restaurants, and shops.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived to DC in 1851. By 1884, the first Chinatown in Washington DC was established on Pennsylvania Avenue with approximately 100 residents in a dozen or so buildings. By 1898, Chinatown had expanded to include parts of 3rd Street NW. By 1903, Chinatown was bustling with drugstores, restaurants, barbershops, tailor shops, and community organizations.

Chinatown rapidly expanded until 1929, when the government forcibly removed the entire population in Chinatown to redevelop the area into the Federal Triangle Project, a group of government and cultural buildings. The Project forced 398 Chinese residents and businesses to seek out a new home against the resistance of white residents.

http://living-in-washingtondc.com/chinatown-washingtondc-history.php

by monkeyrotica on Dec 12, 2012 7:02 am • linkreport

I don't think nostalgia should rule out change. As long as there are patrons that want to eat at places they will (barring health code violations) so it seems best to just let the economic cycles take their course. I don't go to many carryouts but the ones I do, I patronize because they make damn good food. If we tried to restrict ourselves to what people ate in the past there would be no sushi, no empanadas, no ethiopian etc which seems pretty abysmal to me.

by Alan B on Dec 12, 2012 10:39 am • linkreport

The issue with "carryouts" is also price escalation. Lower cost food providers (like the Chinese place on Connecticut Ave. that I mentioned or places like the Lunch Box) are being replaced by places that charge a lot more for food (Au Bon Pain, Corner Bakery, Pret a Manger, Chop't, Potbelly).

And they are national companies. If that's an issue. Interestingly, DC's local "Mexican" places, Burrito Brothers and The Burro expanded for awhile and since have been reduced to nothingness (I don't know if The Burro is even still around). Although this has happened to Chesapeake Bagel Factory too.

Although maybe the local chainlet California Tortilla displaced the energy of the others. Plus Baja Fresh, although you can get a cheap meal there if you buy nachos.

I haven't gone to Chipotle for a long time, so I don't remember how they might stack up.

The closure of locally owned carryouts too is an issue in terms of the local economy, although more people might end up working for the chain equivalents and maybe more money is generated. Not sure. When they are franchises (California Tortilla) there is somewhat more money that stays local.

by Richard Layman on Dec 12, 2012 11:15 am • linkreport

Quoting David R: "The way that Americans eat is changing, even across class and cultural lines." Various relatives ran Chinese restaurants along the East Coast, from Maryland to Maine and from downtown banquet halls to factory-town take-outs, from the 1960s up until the present. And thank goodness that the way Americans eat has changed! Instead of sprawling menus composed of frozen/canned ingredients, we now have short menus (culminating in the single prix fixe found at the most prestigious restaurants) of fresh ingredients. Instead of kitchens that do everything poorly and nothing well, we have specialized venues for salads, burritos, cupcakes, whatever. Instead of Chinese, Italian, and Mexican, we have regional cuisines and fusion cuisines from Guyana to Guangdong.

@monkeyrotica: yes, a few Chinese immigrants arrived before the Chinese Exclusion Act (some of my ancestors among them), and others took their places afterwards, but the full repeal of racist immigration laws in 1965 opened the door for the Asian and Latin foods that we take for granted today.

by Payton on Dec 14, 2012 8:29 pm • linkreport

lou: Agreed - Miz Charlotte's on Minnesota is fantastic!

Best carry-out in town? panda, on the Trinidad/Ivy City border. Hands down!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Dec 21, 2012 10:13 am • linkreport

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