Friday, January 30, 2009

Washington, DC as a Battleground - September 2008

There’s a war going on in Washington, DC that has nothing to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, the upcoming presidential election, or the economy. Instead, it’s a battle about something that fits in the palm of your hand, requires experience with chemical reactions, and, um, tastes sweet. This is a war about one of the city’s latest food fads: cupcakes.

I don’t know exactly when cupcakes took front line among our nation’s capital foodies because I’m still a relative newbie to the Washington, DC area food scene – I moved back here a year ago after a decade away. But I do know there are more than a dozen bakeries deeply entrenched throughout the city, all hustling a cornucopia of cupcake flavors.

At first I didn’t pay any attention to the hoopla because, as we all know, bakeries and celiacs just don’t mix. Then I heard through the celiac list that a new place, Hello Cupcake, was baking gluten-free cupcakes from scratch on a daily basis. The reports also said the cupcakes were really good. So when an old friend recently asked if he could come for a visit and take in some DC highlights, I strategically designed an itinerary that would include this new bakery. It would be the first stop of the day, followed by my other sightseeing priorities: a gluten-free lunch at the National Museum of American Indians and dinner at a gluten-friendly restaurant.

Hello Cupcake is located on Connecticut Ave., NW, near the Dupont Circle Metrorail stop on the Red Line. Metrorail has five color-coded subway lines that all traverse the city center on their way to and from various suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Fortunately for me, the Red Line is the artery that extends to my neck-of-the-woods in Maryland, and then flows into the city via numerous upscale neighborhoods, the venerable National Institutes of Health, the National Zoological Park, Chinatown, and Union Station, before pumping people out to other neighboring Maryland towns.

Organizing our day in Washington, DC solely around where I was going to eat was, I’m sure, not what my friend, Carl, had in mind when he came to visit. Still, he was intrigued with the cupcake wars. Mostly because the trend hadn’t yet taken hold in Atlanta, where he lives now, but also because baking is one of his passions. So it was with much anticipation that we both stepped into Hello Cupcake, taking our place in line behind several customers who each seemed to want a detailed description of the dozen or more flavors of cupcakes that were on display that day. All told, the bakery’s master menu includes about 50 different flavors, with about a quarter of them prepared on any given day. While waiting in line, we admired the bakery’s Neapolitan décor (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry!), two pink chandeliers, and the eco-friendly packaging.

Only one flavor of gluten-free cupcake is baked each day, and they are always the first item prepared each day. Penny Karas, the bakery’s owner, explained that the kitchen is cleaned and sanitized every evening. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, when the bakers’ day begins, the first and only batch of gluten-free cupcakes for the day is baked. Karas believes that baking gluten-free first thing in the morning helps minimize any potential cross-contact in the kitchen. Several dozen are made at that time, but once they’re gone, that’s it for the day.

While Hello Cupcake’s owner and staff seemed knowledgeable and enthusiastic about providing treats for the celiac community, they also seemed eager to hear my evaluation of their product. Between mouthfuls of my classic vanilla with chocolate frosting cupcake, I gushed about the exquisite texture of the cake – not dry, grainy, or crumbly, nor dense and gummy – and the just right sweetness of the frosting. But I also knew I was biased, this being the first time I’d eaten in an honest-to-goodness bakery since my celiac diagnosis in 2001. So I turned to Carl, hoping he’d present a more objective analysis. He did - first with a detailed and technical description of the texture, but then with a smile and a shrug, he stated that the cupcakes just tasted really good. Another point to note is that the gluten-free cupcakes cost the same price as their gluten counterparts - $3.00 each.

Hopping back onto the Metrorail we made our way to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Opened in 2004, the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits are devoted to sharing the beliefs, history, identity, and art of native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. After spending about an hour in the permanent exhibit called “Our Peoples – Giving Voice to our Histories,” Carl declared it riveting, yet emotionally exhausting because it deals largely with the often brutal elimination of the Native Indian way of life. He suggested we take a lunch break.

Among all the food establishments located within the Smithsonian Institution complex, which includes 19 museums, the American Indian museum café is the only one to my knowledge that labels major allergens and gluten-free food. Mitsitam Café (meaning, “Let’s Eat” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples) is a large cafeteria with separate stations that highlight Native foods from various regions. This includes: the Great Plains, Meso America, Northern Woodlands, the Northwest Coast, and South America. The hardest part was deciding “where” to eat, as each Native region offered several gluten-free options, and they all looked wholesome and scrumptious!

After lunch, Carl and I walked next-door to the U.S. Botanic Gardens. An avid gardener, he probably could’ve spent an entire day exploring the Garden’s Conservatory and two permanent outdoor gardens. My goal was to see a temporary exhibit called “One Planet - Ours! Sustainability for the 22nd Century,” because an acquaintance who is a sculptor and a horticulturalist had designed a pervious walkway for the exhibit. We both came away with fresh ideas for honoring the environments in which we live.

Late afternoon found us sitting in a coffee shop near the Federal Center SW metro stop, with me munching on a gluten-free vanilla frosted cupcake from Hello Cupcake. Earlier in the day, when I hadn’t been able to decide between chocolate and vanilla, I planned ahead and bought one of each, knowing there’d be an afternoon cup of coffee in my future that would go great with a cupcake!

Afternoon soon turned to dusk, and the streets of DC buzzed with activity as museums disgorged intrepid tourists, and local workers trudged toward home, or perhaps happy hour and dinner at a favorite restaurant. Carl and I hopped aboard Metrorail, exited at Metro Center, and then hiked up 13th Street past a homeless shelter and the National Museum of Women in the Arts before entering a posh legal office where another old friend bided her days. Recently diagnosed with celiac disease, this friend took on the gluten-free diet pretty much as she had law school when she was a divorced mother with two children – with grit and wit. She declared we were dining that night at The Capital Grille, where the bartenders knew her by name, and that she was buying.

The Capital Grille in Washington, DC is called the “premier political watering hole in town,” by Frommer’s “Washington, D.C. day by day” guide book. More important to me, though, was whether or not they could provide a gluten-free meal. And the answer to that is: Yes...but always alert the manager to your dietary needs because most menu items must be modified. Dinner also comes with a hefty price tag, but with my friend treating, I dined lavishly on Greek salad, steak (no sauce), flourless chocolate espresso cake, and probably too much wine. But no gluten-free cupcakes.


In November 2008, the Washington Post newspaper announced the winners of its cupcake-tasting competition. They rated 16 places that sell cupcakes, with the stipulation that all must be located within the Capital Beltway (I-495); this means the stores could be in DC, MD, and VA. The criteria used were: weight, appearance, taste and texture of the cake and frosting, ratio of frosting to cake, and overall impression.

Hello Cupcake ranked #2 overall, while the specific flavors of Vanilla Gorilla (banana cake/cream cheese frosting) and You Tart! (lemon) ranked #8 and #9 overall respectively! Even thought the gluten-free versions of these flavors were not included in the taste test, I hope they'll be available the next time I visit the bakery!

Helpful Information:

Hello Cupcake
1351 Connecticut Ave.,NW
Washington, DC 20036
Open Monday – Thursday 10-7, and Friday – Saturday 10-9. Closed Sunday.

The National Museum of American Indians
Fourth Street & Independence Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20560
Open daily 10-5:30.

U.S. Botanic Gardens
245 First St., SW
Washington, DC 20024
Open daily 10-5 (Conservatory), 10-7 (Gardens).

The Capital Grille
601 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20004
Lunch: Monday – Saturday 11:30 – 3:00.
Dinner: Sunday – Thursday 5-10; Friday – Saturday 5-11.

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