Illustration: Nick Caracciolo

The Cannabis Conversation

Cannabis legalization has been a hot topic for decades, but as federal legalization of the plant and its byproducts inches closer, policymakers, advocates and enthusiasts are in the weeds with conflicting state and federal laws. For the District, cannabis legality is particularly convoluted – especially when taking the different strains and uses of cannabis products into account.

Industrial hemp, for example, lacks the chemical compound of THC, which is responsible for producing the high that consumers get after ingesting the leaves of a regular marijuana plant. Industrial hemp has been descheduled as a schedule one controlled substance under federal law, but regular marijuana has not.

Then there’s byproducts of industrial hemp to consider like cannabidiol (CBD oil), which has surged in popularity because of its health benefits studied and tested by scientists internationally. It’s so trendy, in fact, CVS announced on March 21 it will begin selling CBD products in 800 stores across eight states.

While people who consume marijuana and its byproducts for medicinal purposes have more protection from the law in DC than those who consume it recreationally, the state of the plant’s legality is confusing, to say the least.

The Law

The distinction between DC and federal law is murky, especially because the District’s budget is controlled by Congress. But by looking at the timeline of legislation, one can start to parse out what is allowed – and what isn’t – in DC regarding marijuana and hemp consumption, possession and sales.

The Agricultural Act of 2014, or Farm Bill, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on February 7 that year. While the bill reauthorized and established various federal agricultural programs, the most important aspect of the bill for cannabis advocates was the allowance of institutions of higher education or state departments of agriculture to grow or cultivate industrial hemp for research purposes. Regular cannabis, however, remained a schedule one controlled substance alongside heroin and cocaine under federal law – where it still remains today.

Four years later, the Agricultural Act of 2018 passed, opening up the industrial hemp market by allowing states to regulate their own hemp production and research. But just because states are allowed to grow hemp doesn’t mean its byproducts are legal. Martin Lee, director of Project CBD, a nonprofit dedicated to CBD oil advocacy, takes issue with this aspect of the law.

“One of biggest problems – now according to the Farm Bill – is it’s legal to grow hemp and contents within hemp plant,” says Lee, who authored Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana. “But once it’s extracted out of the plant, it’s not clear what the legality is. [This bill] is like a patch for bad software, [and] it’s impossible to patch up the bad software of the Controlled Substances Act.”

The Controlled Substances Act is the federal law under which cannabis is classified as a schedule one substance. This makes recreational possession, consumption and the selling of cannabis illegal at the federal level, but DC’s robust medicinal program is licensed and protected to prevent the Department of Justice from targeting medical cannabis providers who are in compliance with state law.

In the District, Initiative 71, a voter-approved ballot initiative that went into effect in February 2015, legalizes recreational consumption and possession of less than two ounces of marijuana – as long as the adult is at least 21 years of age. Growing up to six plants and consuming marijuana is also legal in the privacy of one’s own home, but public consumption is still illegal.

Gifting marijuana under Initiative 71 is allowed as long as the amount is one ounce or less and there’s no goods, services or money exchanged for the product. This makes the commercial sale of marijuana products illegal but medicinal sales are still allowed, which explains the small number of medical dispensaries in DC.

Although Initiative 71 basically legalizes public possession of marijuana, albeit a few caveats, a federal officer still has the right to arrest anyone holding any amount of marijuana in the District under federal law. So, to answer the question: Is weed legal in DC? Sort of, but advocates remain optimistic for the not-so-far-off future of marijuana descheduling and legalization.

Advocacy

Groups all over the country are pushing for a change in legislation at the federal level, but the one place to celebrate cannabis nationally is right here in DC at the National Cannabis Festival.

Festival founder and executive producer Caroline Phillips says she and a group of cannabis advocates started the festival in 2016 for two reasons: to give supporters of legalized cannabis a place to congregate and confer with one another while celebrating the cause, and as a fresh way to have the conversation by creating an all-inclusive event no matter a person’s identity.

“We wanted to create an event that’s accessible and approachable for a broad range of people from all backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities,” Phillips says. “You’ll see people from 21 to 80 years old from all backgrounds [and] speaking different languages, but all coming together over the shared love of a plant.”

The 2019 National Cannabis Festival will take place on April 20 at the RFK Stadium Festival Grounds. Phillips says in its first year, the festival saw about 5,000 attendees; this year, she’s expecting around 20,000.

“The response has been incredible,” she says. “We’re very lucky to have been so warmly received by our [community] of enthusiasts, patients, business owners and advocates. It’s exciting to see the way activists are taking the lead and working with for-profit organizations to make sure the cannabis industry is always connected to its grassroots – pun intended.”

While live music, an epic food court and a large selection of vendors will be the focal points of the event, the festival is also hosting a policy summit the day before on April 19. The policy summit aims to bring together “a diverse group of activists and leaders from government, business, healthcare, veterans groups, and civil rights organizations to discuss today’s most pressing cannabis policy challenges and opportunities,” according to the festival’s website.

The summit is free to the public and will be the landing point for a multitude of important discussions on cannabis policy, including the media’s coverage of cannabis, the path to federal legalization, and the need for FDA regulations on hemp and marijuana consumable products.

Morgan Fox, media relations director at the National Cannabis Industry Association, says the importance of FDA regulations is an especially big issue when looking at the medicinal side of the cannabis industry because patients deserve to know what exactly is in their medication.

“All cannabis advocates right now are looking forward to the day when they can work hand in hand with regulations like the FDA to ensure the medications that we put into hands of patients are safe,” he says. “Just in the same way you want to know what’s in the food you’re eating, it’s critical for people to know what’s in the plant.”

FDA regulations on cannabis will not only protect consumers but also allow for wider research and testing to be performed on the plant, which could lead to new and exciting discoveries about its medicinal properties, according to Phillips.

“Regulations would allow for us to develop and allow standards to be set by doctors and scientists, creating an environment for a product that is already in the hands of adults and going to continue being used on a broader scale not only in the U.S. but also around the world,” she says. “It’s in everybody’s best interest to support regulation and legalization in a burgeoning cannabis industry.”

Erica Stark, executive director at the National Hemp Association, confers with Phillips but includes the benefit of the doubt for marijuana, hemp and CBD oil producers that are doing the best they can to provide quality products to their customers.

“[The lack of regulations] is a very large problem in that consumers don’t know how to tell if they’re buying a quality product or not,” she says. “There’s plenty of good quality companies out there that are doing things the right way – the problem is bad actors out there.”

This month, the FDA plans to begin public hearings on allowing companies to produce CBD-infused food products, as commissioner Scott Gottlieb told the House Appropriations Committee in late February.

But before the FDA can begin setting regulations for the cannabis industry writ large, Phillips says the first step is descheduling the plant from the federal controlled substances list and then legalization, although she would like to see both happen simultaneously.

“Activists on the federal level are trying to push the government to full legalization and would like to see the government immediately deschedule cannabis so we can have broader testing,” she says. “A lot of folks are looking at the next presidential campaign cycle with candidates in support of legalization.”

The Future

While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the future of cannabis looks like in the District and the country at large, one thing all the experts sourced here agree on is growth. On the CBD oil side of things, Lee of Project CBD says he believes the trend of hemp-based oils will continue and expand exponentially once regulations are in place.

“CBD has disordered the cosmos of the federal government,” he says. “It’s the hottest thing going these days. What we need are policies that facilitate wide access to CBD products but also regulate them on the basis of public health concerns.”

Stark at the National Hemp Association thinks the CBD oil market in particular will depend on the FDA and how they choose to regulate it.

“Assuming the FDA goes down a reasonable path [with regulations], the CBD industry will expand exponentially,” she says. “It’s already quite large and will only get larger as demand increases.”

Meanwhile, Fox from the National Cannabis Industry Association says he thinks the cannabis industry will likely follow the model of the beer industry, with big producers handling the average consumer market and smaller, localized producers serving the organics and artisan market.

“I really think consumer demand is going to shape the industry as opposed to corporate interest,” he says. “Because of the time at which this industry is evolving, I think corporate responsibility and ethics in sourcing is going to be more important [with cannabis] than most consumer products because of the culture of the consumers’ concerns.”

Phillips of the National Cannabis Festival thinks the industry will follow along a line similar to what Fox proposes; but she’s focused on the District specifically and reiterates her point on the importance of regulation.

“Because you’re allowed to do home growing in DC, it allows a lot of cannabis connoisseurs – not unlike craft brewers – to experiment with different strains at home and see what they can grow,” she says. “The danger of the unregulated market that we have in many states is patients can’t always be certain how a plant has been grown.”

Tap these educational resources to learn more about cannabis legalization.

National Cannabis Industry Association:
www.thecannabisindustry.org
National Hemp Association: www.nationalhempassociation.org
Project CBD: www.projectcbd.org

To learn more about cannabis in a festival setting, check out the National Cannabis Festival on Saturday, April 20. Doors open at 12 p.m. Tickets are $45.

RFK Stadium Festival Grounds: 2400 E. Capitol St. SE, DC; www.nationalcannabisfestival.com


CBD in the District

District Hemp Botanicals
Established in May 2017, District Hemp Botanicals was the first hemp-based CBD store to open its doors in the DMV. The shop boasts a wide selection of CBD and hemp products, from CBD salves and massage oils to bath bombs and gummy edibles. 9023 Church St. Manassas, VA and 19 Wirt St. SW, Leesburg, VA; www.districthempstore.com

National Holistic Healing Center
This medical dispensary located in Dupont Circle now serves all registered DC, Maryland and Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients as well as registered patients from select states. Led by CEO Dr. Chanda Macias, who has dedicated more than 15 years to understanding how medical marijuana can impact patients, the center has 98 percent patient retention and adds more than 100 new patients per month. To purchase marijuana products from the center, one must be a registered medical marijuana patient. 1718 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.nationalholistic.com

Relâche Spa at Gaylord National Resort
Starting this month, Relâche is featuring 50-minute CBD oil massages for a limited time. Spa director Debra Myers says if customers respond well to the specialty massage, she will consider adding the offer permanently to Relâche’s menu. “CBD is touted to decrease anxiety, lower inflammation, reduce pain and help improve sleep, which can all be achieved topically through the CBD hemp oil used during the massage service,” she says. Each massage costs $185 and the CBD oil used is Mary’s Nutritionals hemp oil and muscle relief compound. 201 Waterfront St. National Harbor, MD; www.nationalharbor.com/gaylord-national

Vim & Victor at The St. James
There’s a little something for everybody at Vim & Victor. Chef Spike Mendelsohn created the menu with health and wellness enthusiasts in mind, as well as everyday community members. Pro tip: try Mendelsohn’s own line of CBD-infused PLNT waters. 6805 Industrial Rd. Springfield, VA; www.vimandvictor.com

National Geographic’s Queens of Egypt: Women Who Ruled the Ancient World

The ancient Egypt you know is a lie. It’s a golden, glittering myth created by Hollywood as an excuse to parade Elizabeth Taylor around draped in gold and makeup. The ancient world could not have been so divorced from the Egypt of my youth: dusty, hot, poor and filled with people who aren’t white.

One exhibit in DC this year is setting the record straight.

The National Geographic Museum is hosting an exhibit on the Queens of Egypt in DC until September 2, and Nat Geo researchers have taken a more nuanced approach to discussing women rulers in ancient Egypt.

The way ancient Egypt exists in the collective Western imagination is not actually how it existed at all. According to National Geographic Egyptologist and author of When Women Ruled the World, Kara Cooney, real life in the ancient world was extraordinarily hard.

“The reality was very different,” Cooney says. “We’re talking about people with a much darker skin color to be sure – people of a North African descent – and a place that, while opulent for a few, was much more real for others in terms of a hard life: constant labor, farming, parasites, diseases, life expectancy at the age of 30.”

The myth probably started with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. For all of his contributions to literature, the Bard portrayed Egypt as little more than a place to get a tan and cheat on your wife.

So even though there was more to life in ancient Egypt, at least we are right in feeling empowered by its female rulers. Right? Well, it’s more complicated than the “You go, girl” mentality we tend to adopt when talking about Egypt’s queens.

Although some women were able to attain the highest positions of power in Egypt, they still ruled and existed within a rigid, unforgiving patriarchal society. Many queens were simply holding the throne until the rightful king – a son, nephew or brother – was old enough to assume it.

And while each queen ruled differently – facing different challenges, accomplishing different goals and failing in different ways – their entire existence as a ruler was in service of a system that would hand power to the appropriate male as soon as he was old enough.

“There were some women who could surmount the obstacles in their path of being a woman in a patriarchal society, but there was not one woman who was a feminist who was going to move the system in a different direction,” Cooney says. “There was no way of thinking in that way in the ancient world.”

The West likes to think of Cleopatra as the most empowered of queens – even Cooney describes her as the least traditional. But her relationships with Roman warlords, which long ago captured the Western man’s imagination, were intended to solidify her power. And by getting involved with Rome, she invited their violence and civil war into Egypt, Cooney says.

“She’s brought herself into that realm so one can ask: is that Cleopatra knowing she needs a man, a male presence by her side, and looking to the strongest man in her political arena and getting herself in trouble by drawing a target on her back?”

The fact that Cleopatra is the queen cemented in our minds is quite revealing. Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt from 1479-1425 BC, was arguably the most successful queen.

Hatshepsut assumed the throne as regent on behalf of her infant stepson after her husband’s death. After just five years, she was crowned pharaoh. She was such a successful ruler that she was often depicted with masculine features, including a beard as a symbol of her power.

According to Cooney, the queens we can name tell us a lot about how we treat women in power. The ones who succeed have their womanhood erased. The ones who fail are immortalized as a warning against vice and promiscuity.

“One succeeded and one failed. One is forgotten and one is remembered. And I like those comparisons. They’re very useful for us to see what we do to the female who is a failure. [We] make her a cautionary tale. And what do we do to the [successful queen]? Just erase her.”

If learning about the queens of ancient Egypt with all their complexities and flaws sounds more interesting than watching Elizabeth Taylor make eyes at white men for four hours, then check out the National Geographic Museum’s Queens of Egypt exhibit.

The exhibit is open daily until September 2 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12 and can be purchased online or at the museum until 5 p.m. Learn more about the exhibit at
www.nationalgeographic.org/events/exhibition/queens-egypt.

National Geographic Museum: 1145 17th St. NW, DC; 202-857-7700; www.nationalgeographic.org

Photo: Scott Affens

Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival Celebrates 10th Anniversary

May 4 marks DC’s 10th annual Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival, one of the city’s most iconic music showcases. However, this particular happening wasn’t formed with a singular effort to deliver more music to the District; instead, the organizers intended to draw attention to one of the city’s most unique features: Kingman Island. Nestled between the banks of the Anacostia River, the Kingman and Heritage Islands are home to wildlife and natural resources unlike any other in the city.

This year’s festival is slated to bring another talented lineup to DC, featuring prominent performers like The Dustbowl Revival, Ballroom Thieves, Hackensaw Boys, Odetta Hartman and more. As always, proceeds from the event go toward supporting stewardship of the islands, as well as educational programming.

“We wanted to drive people to the island because at the time, it seemed like no one knew it existed,” says Lee Cain, the director of Kingman and Heritage Islands for local nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, of the festival’s beginnings. “Over the years, it’s helped us gain momentum and enhance opportunities for our hands-on education programs.”

Cain says the festival, brainchild of DC’s Ward 6 and Living Classrooms, saw only several hundred attendees its first year. Now, Kingman draws crowds up to 8,000 each spring.

“The first one was like 300 people, a band and a keg of beer,” Cain says with a chuckle. “Then a few hundred more, and a few hundred more. In 2015, it went from 1,200 people to 6,000 people. It was amazing because all these people were coming to Kingman and the Anacostia River. People discover this amazing wildlife in our backyard. [The festival] really lives up to its purpose.”

Volunteer participation has also risen steadily as more people get acquainted with the festival and its mission, says Living Classrooms Director of Communications Michelle Subbiondo. With more people helping and enjoying the annual shindig, resources have gone toward improving the island.

“The island has grown and changed along with the festival as it morphed from a dumping ground to a lush animal and plant oasis thanks to our students and volunteers,” Subbiondo says. “Now, we’re among the top festivals in DC. It’s been quite a ride, that’s for sure.”

Despite the foot traffic and vendors providing goodies for patrons, Kingman doesn’t stop maintaining its eco-friendly zero waste initiatives during the party. The campaign began in 2016 with help from the city and organizations like the Sierra Club, which helps manage waste during festivities.

“I’ve been working in this field my entire career, and trash is the one thing that people don’t like,” Cain says. “That’s one of the things that is exciting because it’s not a polarizing issue. That’s a lot of waste not going to the landfill and there’s literally no trash on the island the day after. That’s an exciting blueprint.”

With 10 years in the rearview mirror, the organizers have no plans of slowing the momentum. However, with a finite amount of space, more people may be a tough ask; but that doesn’t mean it can’t continue to thrive in other ways.

“We have a few things on the table for future years,” Subbiondo says. “Perhaps bringing in some big-name talent or introducing new genres of music, expanding the event to two days, [and] including more educational opportunities to get people really immersed in the island. Time will tell how this all unfolds, but one thing we can guarantee is that the island and community are always our first priority.”

As for this year, with the festival enjoying a pivotal anniversary, there’s no plans to deviate from the successful formula of lots of music, beer and food trucks. With that being said, Cain does expect some costumes of a very specific variety.

“It does fall on May 4, so I’m wondering if people will show up in Star Wars gear.”

Join Luke Skywalkers and Darth Vaders at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on May 4 from 12-8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$100. For more information about the festival, visit www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info. For details about Living Classrooms and its mission, visit www.livingclassrooms.org.

Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC; 205-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info

Photo: Rey Lopez

New and Notable: Mama Chang, Rooster & Owl, TallBoy, and More

NEW

Mama Chang
Open:
March 8
Location: Fairfax
Lowdown: Ask almost any local diner if they know Peter Chang, and you’ll get nods of recognition. The names Ronger Wang, Lisa Chang and Lydia Chang may not be as familiar. Chef Peter Chang wants that to change with his newest restaurant. Mama Chang pays homage to the women of the Chang family: Peter’s grandmother, mother, wife and daughter. The restaurant celebrates home-style cooking, with many family recipes from their home in the Hubei province. Peter’s mother, Ronger, visited from China for the opening of the restaurant and her influence is seen throughout the menu, which features simple and comforting dishes like a farmer’s stir fry, stir-fried rice cake with homemade fish cake and braised pork belly with lotus root. Peter’s wife, Lisa, is known as a pastry chef, but is the star of the kitchen at home according to their daughter Lydia. Favorites from the Changs’ other restaurants like dry-fried eggplant are changed up slightly – here you’ll find dry-fried cauliflower. There are also the expected fiery Szechuan dishes like hot chili oil tofu with flounder, plus more unusual options like Chinese barbecue pig feet, dry chili pork intestines and a sweet caramel rice with thin pork belly. 3251 Old Lee Hwy. Fairfax, VA; www.mamachangva.com

Rooster & Owl
Open:
February 7
Location: Columbia Heights
Lowdown: A restaurant offering a market-driven tasting menu doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary. But Rooster & Owl is intriguing and satisfying in a way that very few places are. In fact, it’s something of a sleeper hit. The restaurant is the passion project of husband-and-wife duo Carey and Yuan Tang. Their opposite but complementary roles in the business inspired the name. Carey has a 9-to-5 job at Children’s National and manages the restaurant operations, and Yuan works late in the kitchen. Despite the inverse hours, the Rooster and the Owl have always made time to share a meal together. Their first restaurant together honors that commitment to communal dining with an experience that blends shared plates with tasting menus. The menu is divided into four courses, and each guest chooses one small plate for each course. When the dishes arrive, sharing is highly encouraged. The food is imaginative, taking simple ingredients – especially vegetables – and transforming them into something that makes you think twice. Carrots are seasoned with barbecue spices and served with cornbread ice cream. Sunchokes masquerade as wings with a “buffa-no” sauce. Light and fluffy Parisian gnocchi is bathed in a tarragon butter sauce. Pastry chef Olivia Green sweetens the meal with desserts like a delicate hazelnut éclair and a parting gift of a little chocolate robot. 2436 14th St. NW, DC; www.roosterowl.com

TallBoy
Open:
March 7
Location: Shaw
Lowdown: After the beloved Smoked & Stacked closed, Tin Shop partners Geoff Dawson and Peter Bayne decided to go in a different direction with their space. They realized 9th Street was in desperate need of an affordable neighborhood bar that stayed open late and felt nostalgic and playful. TallBoy was born with that goal in mind. The concept is simple: grilled cheese sandwiches, wings and tall boy (16 oz.) beers. Fans of the pastrami from Smoked & Stacked will be thrilled to hear that the house-made meat is still available in a grilled cheese sandwich with Swiss, pastrami, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. Other sandwich options include the Kim Cheese with pepper jack, kimchi and bacon and the Cuban with Swiss, bread and butter pickles, ham, and Dijon. Any of the sandwiches can be ordered with vegan cheese, and of course, each grilled cheese is accompanied by a cup of smoked tomato soup for dipping. The wings are available in various flavors, from a Memphis dry rub to a lemon pepper wing with butter and lemon pepper sauce. There’s a full bar but tall boys are the hot sellers, with nine to choose from including the OG Schlitz Lager as well as the Guinness Stout, Bold Rock Cider and Union Duckpin Pale Ale. There’s also a rotating tall boy of the week. 1239 9th St. NW, DC; www.tallboybar.com

Zeppelin
Open:
March 4
Location: Shaw
Lowdown: The meaning behind the name of this sushi and cocktail bar is twofold. The space is designed to look like the famed airship, and there are references to the legendary rock band hidden throughout. Zeppelin is the latest project from beverage bros Ari and Micah Wilder and their partner Adrian Williams of Chaplin’s, in addition to Tokyo native and chef Minoru Ogawa of Sushi Ogawa. The new Japanese concept offers two experiences: a lively bar and dining room for sushi, charcoal-grilled yakitori, cocktails and karaoke, as well as a secluded omakase counter with top-quality seafood hand-selected from Toyosu Market in Tokyo. The à la carte offerings range from shrimp dumplings and various tempura to skewers of chicken meatballs or beef and maki made with cucumber and plum paste or fatty tuna. The cocktail program is built around a highball machine that adds “baller bubbles” to drinks inspired by the Japanese highball. Wine, beer and 80 premium sakes are also available to complement the à la carte and omakase menus. 1554 9th St. NW, DC; www.zeppelindc.com 

NOTABLE

Georgian Wine Wednesdays
Location:
Supra
Lowdown: Since opening, DC’s first Georgian restaurant has been lauded for introducing Washingtonians to the little-known world of Georgian wine. Now they’re making it a little more affordable to explore the country’s wine regions and grape varietals with themed specials on Wednesdays. Each month, they’ll offer a $20 discount on select bottles. This month, they’re channeling the element of surprise in honor of April Fools’ Day. Every Wednesday, guests can try three of the restaurant’s most unexpected bottles, including an amber wine that isn’t what it seems and a sparkling wine that combines 8,000-year-old Georgian techniques with the champagne method. 1205 11th St. NW, DC; www.supradc.com

Hank’s Cocktail Bar in a New Home
Location:
Dupont Circle
Lowdown: Jamie Leeds’ cocktail bar, formerly located in Petworth, has a new home in Dupont Circle. It sits right above the flagship Hank’s Oyster Bar and has an extensive menu of more than 40 different cocktails. The drinks are divided into five categories: Market Fresh (seasonal creations), We Invented the Remix (twists on the classics), New Fashioneds (what it sounds like), Size Matters (large and small options like shareable drinks and shooters), and Food Production (starring ingredients from the kitchen). In addition to these themes, there’s also a very useful diagram that plots each of the drinks based on flavor and booziness so you can find your perfect match depending on where your tastes fall on the cocktail spectrum. You can feel good about ordering one of the most interesting selections because it repurposes kitchen waste into a delightful cocktail. Revisionist History is a rum milk punch made with leftover tea, coffee and citrus rescued from the kitchen and bar at the end of the night. 1624 Q St. (second floor) NW, DC; www.hankscocktailbar.com

Photo: Clay McBride

Lewis Black is Still Pissed, and It’s Still Funny

I knew comedian Lewis Black would provide a conversation laced with passionate vulgarity aimed at folks manning positions in Congress and the White House, but even I was a tad unprepared for how little buildup he required. He went from zero to 100, as Drake would say. From pleasantries of, “Nice to speak with you, I’m in a car so the call may drop” to “All of you are pieces of sh-t, f–k you.”

“There [used to be] a level of civility,” Black says of elected officials. “Their job in Congress is to negotiate with each other, and they’re not. They haven’t for so long; it’s like, stop it already. As much as I’m into the future more than these people are, I want to get to a place of moderation.”

A ton of Black’s onstage material reflects the politics du jour. He shouts, he stammers, he stomps. Moments in his set resemble a child throwing a temper tantrum after not getting their way. However, the 70-year-old comedian isn’t begging his parents for a toy or game; he’s simply making observations about the world we all live in. And he’s not afraid to vocalize how seemingly everything – from a crappy vacation with poor service to a Chantix prescription – pisses him off.  

“I stumble onto stuff when I’m looking around for things,” he says about crafting material. “I’ll read something and go, ‘Oh, look at that.’ It starts from what makes me angry, and [I] want to know facts about it.”

The DMV native is slated to continue his unique brand of comedy in his former backyard with a stop at Strathmore on April 14, part of his The Joke’s on US tour.

“Yeah, it means a lot,” he says of performing in the DC area. “It’s always important because I get to see friends of mine. My roots are there.”

After almost 40 years in the business, Black is basically the angry elder statesman of comedy. He once said during a special that part of his job was to take the craziness of the world and exaggerate it onstage. This formula has seen him rewarded with success and accolades in abundance. But lately, reality is finally mirroring – or in some cases out-crazying – his satirical outbursts in terms of shock value.

“It’s consistently hard to find something that I can open with that nails it on a lot of levels and is funny and says what I want to say. It’s finding those moments. How do you do this? How do you make this funny? I don’t care what side people are on; they’re [all] anxiety-ridden.”

Finding things about life that piss him off has always been easy for Black. He’s held an overtly sarcastic, skeptical point of view since his teen years.

“Near the end of my junior year of high school, I was the sarcastic one. I’d be the guy telling people they were idiots.

Somebody once told me, ‘On your tombstone, it’s going to read, ‘I disagree.’”

Lately, he isn’t the only person ranting and raving over the news. In the past few years, Black has featured fan-submitted complaints as part of his “The Rant is Due” initiative. He encourages people of all viewpoints to submit their own complaints, whether politically aligned with him or in disagreement. Before reading selections onstage, he whittles down the entries to a handful, looking for funny, timely fits of rage.

“It’s remarkable and it’s evolved over time,” he says. “I’ll show up there to do the show, and by the time I’m there, there will be three or four rants about the county or questions they have, or even little biting sentences. It’s great; it’s a show that essentially, I’m kind of producing, but is really a product of the community. I’m just selecting, because I’m going to do the reading.”

Despite being eligible for social security checks, he still brings tremendous energy to the stage. His routine is probably not dissimilar from a guy operating a flamethrower at an ice sculpture exhibit – nothing is safe from his opinionated wrath. He cathartically lets his rage out and it’s entertaining, no matter what side of the fence you’re on. Like most comedians, he only has one rule in his own comedy and in fan rants.

“What it comes down to is: What’s funny?”

See Lewis Black at Strathmore on Sunday, April 14. Show starts at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $35-$89. For more information on the comedian, visit www.lewisblack.com.

Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Public school playground at Sedona, Arizona // Photo: Bill Bamberger

HOOPS Depicts International Connection

Basketball has always held the hearts of people from all over the world. Need proof? Just turn on your TV until you find an NBA game. Hell, you can look at just this past year’s all-star roster featuring players from Germany, Greece, Australia, Cameroon, Serbia and Switzerland all sharing the same court.

Since the 1992 Summer Olympics and the formation of the Dream Team, basketball reached a fever pitch internationally. And though it’s unlikely that most kids who pick up the ball and head to a court will make it to the professional level, the game is nonetheless celebrated and played everywhere.

“It shows how we’re all connected around this common game,” photographer Bill Bamberger says. “It’s played worldwide. You can come upon [courts] in Italy and South Africa, and you can step up and play. It’s open to anyone willing to step on the court.”

Bamberger grew up hooping when he was a child, and in 2004, the established photographer began shooting courts near his home in North Carolina. Over the next 15 years, he traveled the country – and the world – collecting a diverse set of images depicting places people shoot, dribble and ultimately connect through this game. From now until next January, 75 large-format photographs from his massive collection are on display in his exhibition HOOPS at the National Building Museum.

“It was completely unintended,” he says. “I often start my projects close to home, and you expect to find courts everywhere. I love to explore the middle of nowhere, and I’d see these courts in cotton fields and in barns. I like some of the early ones that speak toward different times; not all of them are active and some are relics.”

Though the photographs are creatively captured through a series of environmental portraits, a majority of the 22,000 pictures feature basketball courts that aren’t what you’d expect to see at your local park. Some feature murals on bordering walls and a vibrant blacktop with a plexiglass backboard, while others are made up of a dirt surface with beat-up pieces of metal acting as rims.

“You take that basic design and it becomes interpreted in different ways,” Bamberger says. “The permutations are virtually endless, and each court reflects the design and influence of the host community.”

The courts are tremendously varied and display a certain amount of ingenuity on the part of the people who put them in place, while the backdrops for the photographs shed light on the communities they serve. From Italy and South Africa to New Hampshire and Philadelphia, each portrait displays a unique sense of place.

“I drove through Colorado and Utah and South Dakota just looking for hoops, and they were everywhere,” he says. “One of my favorites is a campsite in Utah. There was a hoop in the middle of these grassy fields and I photographed them in the distance, making the point that even in really remote places like this, you’ll find a court for young people.”

Bamberger didn’t just focus on public places; he often found extremely intimate settings worth immortalizing. There are a number of selections featuring courts in abandoned areas and others in family backyards.

“[For] some of the private places, I would stop and knock on the door. In every instance, I would ask. The same is true internationally. I remember I was on a court in Naples, Italy and there was a lot of ballers playing on the court. There was one who spoke some English, and I just asked them to clear the court.”

If nothing else, Bamberger set out to show how connected we are as a society through this one universal game. Whether your court is regulation-size in the middle of a city or involves a tree, a hubcap and a block of crooked wood, you can still pick up the ball and hoop.

“It’s been one of the truly fun projects to work on,” the photographer says, reflecting on the past decade. “I work on long-term projects, and as an artist, it’s been a joy to have something I can take worldwide. It represents the full range of the work. It’s probably time to let go, but it’s going to be hard. This exhibition represents a stopping point and opportunity to reflect on the project.”

HOOPS will be at the National Building Museum through January 5. Admission to the museum is $10. For more of Bamberger’s work, visit www.billbamberger.com.

National Building Museum: 401 F St. NW, DC; 202-272-2448; www.nbm.org

Photo: Courtesy of Anacostia Watershed Society

I Am The River’s Keeper

The relationship between man and water has long been part of our biological history as a species. In the U.S., European settlers often chose locations near rivers and lakes because of the convenience and access that comes with living near clean water; those settlements often transformed into massive hubs of industry and transport over the next two centuries. DC’s story is the same.

Booming areas like Capitol Riverfront became extremely profitable off the flow of the Anacostia River, but the river did not improve in the same way. Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) President Jim Foster says 40 years ago, no one wanted to even go near the water because of the smell and pollution.

But since the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, AWS and other organizations like Anacostia Riverkeeper and DC’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) have dedicated resources to bring the human connection back to the Anacostia by leading cleanup efforts, proposing legislation and educating the public on why it’s so important to have a clean water source. DC Water, the District’s Water and Sewer Authority, has also contributed to the river cleanup in a big way as part of the Clean Rivers Project, a two-billion, 20-year initiative that will reduce combined sewer overflows by 98 percent in the Anacostia River through a massive infrastructure program designed to capture and clean wastewater during rainfalls before it ever reaches the river.

Construction on the Clean Rivers Project Phase I deep underground tunnel system began in 2013 and was completed in spring 2018, contributing to a much-healthier-than-before Anacostia River. Capitol Riverfront is a primary example of the benefits cultivated from their hard work.

“Capitol Riverfront was an opportunity to do waterfront redevelopment with high-end retail [and] residential office space for a whole new group of folks,” Foster says. “It married up well for the goals of local population and the cleanup of the river.”

As the river became cleaner and more people visited its waters, the AWS received more support from the general population to do something about the state of the Anacostia. As more people moved to the waters, the river became cleaner because of the residents’ personal investment in its well-being. This beneficial, symbiotic relationship all starts with education and getting people down to the river to see for themselves, according to Anacostia Riverkeeper Outreach Coordinator Trey Sherard.

“The Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District wants a river that they’re proud of, that looks clean and supports healthy recreation,” he says. “For the sake of the river, having the neighborhood here brings so many people to the river who may not have seen it or interacted with it otherwise.”

Capitol Riverfront is one of the only places in DC with easy access to the Anacostia, which makes it important to the cleanup efforts of Anacostia Riverkeeper and other organizations, according to Sherard.  

“It’s one of the only places where people live this closely to the river,” he says. “People only started seeing how dirty the river was maybe four or five years ago. Then they wanted to join groups and get involved. This whole conversation around a clean Anacostia wouldn’t have happened as fully or with as much broad support so quickly without this neighborhood here.”

But the DC population isn’t the only entity benefitting from the effects of cleaning the rivers. DOEE Director Tommy Wells says one of the most telling signs of the improvement in the waters has been the return of the eagle to its shores.

“Fifty years ago, there were no eagles on the river,” he says. “Four years ago, the eagles returned and they’re on their fourth [or] fifth generation of eaglet. They can finally feed themselves off the river again.”

Although there has been a massive overhaul in the cleanliness of the river over the past several decades, Foster, Sherard and Wells all agree there is still work to be done. AWS wants to make the river swimmable again and has a plan to get there by 2025. Foster says the organization created the Waterway to 2025 plan five years ago to “help drive that vision of connecting people through storytelling through the river.”

“Everybody has a different mindset or connection to the water,” Foster says. “It can be spiritual [or] it can be liking to reflect and relax and be energetic in sports. The water is very powerful. To stand here and look at a waterbody that you can’t touch is just not right. We advocate, we try to engage and persuade and teach people, and if we can’t make that work, we find the legal remedy.”

Meanwhile, Anacostia Riverkeeper is continuing to test the river for E.coli – the bacteria present in solid waste – as they have done for the past few summers. But this year, they have a $140,000 grant from the DOEE to expand testing sites to cover the rest of the rivers in DC and include temperature and pH levels in the readings. This year’s water testing data will be posted online to the Anacostia Riverkeeper website and to Swimmable, an app used to track whether or not the natural bodies of water would be swimmable on any given day. Sherard says there’s an intention behind making the data public.

“In DC, when it’s a 110-degree natural heat index, we think it’s silly you can’t swim in the natural water bodies,” he says. “It’s illegal to swim in the rivers, and we want to get that ban lifted by studying how many people are swimming and document days when water is swimmable.”

A throng of volunteers from many different organizations invested in the cleanliness of DC’s natural water supply will conduct the tests this summer. Sherard says he would love to see more people to volunteer and come out in support of cleaning the rivers because there’s nothing like having a clean body of natural water to recreate on.

“People love water,” he continues. “Almost all the world’s cities are on rivers or coasts. We want to simultaneously introduce people to the Anacostia and have them realize the river is fun and safe.”

For more information on how to get involved with Anacostia River cleanup efforts, visit AWS at www.anacostiaws.org and Anacostia Riverkeeper’s at  www.anacostiariverkeeper.org. To review the Clean Water Act and learn more about DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project, visit www.doee.dc.gov and www.dcwater.com/cleanrivers.

This article also ran in the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District’s 2019 Riverfront Review, an On Tap-produced publication.


RIVERFRONT RECREATION

Ballpark Boathouse
DC’s newest river recreational hotspot Ballpark Boathouse will officially open its docks for kayaking, canoeing and river tours on the Anacostia in late May. Stay cool on the river and tour some of DC’s most notable locations like the U.S. Capitol and Capitol Riverfront this summer. Potomac Avenue and First Street in SE, DC; www.boatingindc.com/boathouses/ballpark-boathouse

Riverwalk Trail
Instead of taking a stroll down crowded downtown streets this summer, get out to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The continuous 20-mile trail along both sides of the river for walkers, runners and cyclists alike is perfect for a jaunt in the cool breeze off the Anacostia. Only 12 miles of the trail are currently open, but DC’s Department of Transportation is working hard to get the Capitol Riverfront project completed. Start at Diamond Teague Park and head east along the Anacostia riverfront in SE, DC;  www.capitolriverfront.org/go/anacostia-riverwalk-trail

Riverkeeper Motorized Boat Tours
Join the Anacostia River Explorers this summer for an educational river tour focused on the Anacostia’s history, wildlife, environmental threats and possible solutions to the problems it faces. The best part? They’re free. Various locations in Capitol Riverfront, check website for details; www.anacostiariverkeeper.org/tours

Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals

Pitching Expected to Take Nats Far in 2019

You can’t talk about the 2019 outlook for the Washington Nationals without first addressing the elephant on the field – mainly that franchise icon Bryce Harper has departed to Philadelphia thanks to a record-setting, 13-year, $330 million contract. But even without the former MVP at Nats Park, the team is still flush with outstanding talent and has made some of the savviest moves of the offseason.

The team signed Patrick Corbin, the top pitcher on the free agent market, to a six-year, $140 million contract in early December. Coming off a season in which he went 11-7 with a 3.15 ERA, striking out 246 batters in 200 innings pitched, the former Arizona Diamondback immediately made the already formidable rotation arguably the best in baseball.

“I think [the Nationals] have won the most games in regular season baseball in the last five [or] six years,” Corbin says. “And knowing how deep of a team they are, I saw this as a place that I could live for a long time and be part of this rotation. Honestly, I feel like I just stepped right in, and I can’t think of one thing that hasn’t been great. Between all the players, all the things that we’re doing on and off the field together, the coaching staff [and] the training staff, everyone has been awesome. Being a new guy here, it seems like it’s been easy to join and be part of it.”

Staff ace Max Scherzer struck out 300 batters in 220 innings on his way to a league-leading 18 wins and 2.53 ERA. While Stephen Strasburg had some injury concerns last year, he still managed 10 wins and 156 Ks in just 130 innings; he’s looked healthy all spring and should be poised for a top season. The rest of the rotation includes veterans Aníbal Sánchez and Jeremy Hellickson – both recent free agent signees – and 25-year-old Joe Ross, who has been a dependable arm for the Nats since 2015 as insurance against injury.

Sean Doolittle established himself nicely at the closer in 2018, as the lefty recorded 25 saves and an anemic 1.60 ERA. This year, he’s joined in a revamped pen by veteran Trevor Rosenthal, who will serve as his primary setup man, as well as young fireballers Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover and Justin Miller. The new additions reinforce a bullpen that should improve on its overall 4.05 ERA.

Even without Harper, the Nats shouldn’t have any problems scoring runs. A breakout season by rookie Juan Soto last year is just the tip of the iceberg of what MLB experts expect from the left fielder. Expect plenty of tape measure home runs to go along with an impressive eye at the plate.

Soto’s joined in the outfield this year by Adam Eaton in right and top prospect Victor Robles, whose speed rivals anyone in the game, manning center. Michael A. Taylor injured himself near the end of spring and until he’s fully recovered, power hitter Matt Adams will see some time in the outfield as will veteran Howie Kendrick.

“It’s exciting to know that you’re on a team that wants to win and tries to put the best team on the field,” Corbin says.

Anthony Rendon is the true star of this team to many, and even though he’s entering the final year of his contract, it’s a good bet that he’ll be reupping on a long-term deal sometime soon. The third baseman hit .308 last year, with 24 homers and 92 knocks, and was exceptional as always at manning his position. Longtime Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman will try to rebound from another injury-plagued season, and hopefully provide more than the 85 games he played last year. He’s only a year removed from a 36-homer season, though three of the past five seasons, he’s seen action in less than 95 games.

Adams will most likely find some ample time as his backup. Veteran Brian Dozier was signed to play the keystone and forms a new double-play combo with speedster Trea Turner, who led the league with 43 steals in 2018. In fact, speed is going to be a major weapon for the Nats this season.

Between Turner, Robles, Dozier and Eaton, this team can run, and manager Dave Martinez is not afraid to send his guys or call on the hit-and-run. The team brought in two longtime backstops this off-season to handle catching duties, with Yan Gomes coming over in a trade with Cleveland and Kurt Suzuki signing a two-year deal to return to the club after seven years. Both offer solid framing skills and are above average with the bat for the catcher position.

The NL East is expected to be one of the toughest divisions in baseball this year, with the Phillies adding Harper plus four other former all-stars in shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Andrew McCutchen, catcher J.T. Realmuto and closer David Robertson. The Mets are making a splash adding Edwin Diaz, last year’s AL saves leader, in a deal that also netted them offensive-minded second baseman Robinson Canó, not to mention signing catcher Wilson Ramos and infielder Jed Lowrie. And the Braves brought in former MVP Josh Donaldson to man third for the team that won the division in 2018.

The Nationals seem to have put together a team that is a perfect balance of pitching, offense and defense, and should be able to ride the strength of their arms all the way to the postseason.   

“I think we’re as good as any team in baseball from top to bottom,” Corbin says. “Everyone’s goal is to win a World Series. That’s going to be ours. Our job now is to get better each and every day.”

For more information on Corbin and the Nats’ 2019 season, visit www.mlb.com/nationals.

Nationals Park: 1500 South Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-675-6287; www.mlb.com/nationals

Photo: Oscar Merrida

Oh He Dead, DC’s Next Big Indie Soul Band

No one really died. When Oh He Dead singers Cynthia “C.J.” Johnson and Andrew Valenti first formed the band in 2014, Johnson wrote a ballad about a boy she’d fallen in love with. In the song, she walks in on him cheating, pulls out a gun and shoots him.

“About a week later, we had practice,” Valenti says. “It dawned on me to ask, ‘Whatever happened to that guy in that song that you wrote?’ She responded, ‘Oh, he dead!’ We all died laughing.”

After collecting themselves, the then duo decided to immortalize the phrase, resolving to begin their journey into the music business together. Their first big break came at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival in 2016, and it was all the confirmation they needed to keep going.

“I think it was a very pivotal show in our trajectory where we looked at each other afterward and felt like, ‘Okay, we can do something with this,’” Valenti says.

Oh He Dead will be playing this year’s Kingman Island Festival on May 4, but fans may be surprised by what they hear. The once strictly country folk band has transformed into what is perhaps best described as indie soul. Their new sound is much groovier, with an R&B base.

“Someone in the crowd [recently] told me that people were grinding at one of our shows and I just started laughing,” Valenti says. “I never thought I would be in a band where people would be grinding to our music.”

They cite the addition of new band members as the primary cause of their evolution. Guitarist Alex Salser brings his jazz background to the group while bassist John Daise offers an R&B influence.

“I think everyone has a unique skill and knows what their role is,” Salser says. “It’s been really special to utilize each other’s different talents. It doesn’t feel like anyone’s fighting for the spotlight like in a lot of other bands I’ve played for.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Johnson’s strikingly smoky, textured voice that lingers long after she’s stopped singing. It’s no surprise to learn who she idolizes and emulates most as a vocalist.

“My inspiration was definitely Fleetwood Mac,” Johnson says of her influences during her formative years. “I listened to them a lot in high school. I love Stevie. Her voice is just something, that raspy voice. I was like, ‘I want to be like Stevie!’”

Though difficult to categorize, Oh He Dead’s unique sound has earned them a growing fanbase in the DC area.

“I think the reception we’ve gotten from our crowd [in DC] has been super encouraging,” Valenti says. “We played Union Stage last week. There were over 300 people in the crowd, and I don’t think any of us have had that kind response with original music.”

Oh He Dead seems to have finally hit their stride, finetuning their sound and discovering their own audience. The band is currently working on their debut album, which they plan to release this year. As far as their hopes for the future, Johnson puts it best.

“I want to win a f–kig Grammy!”

Learn more about Oh He Dead at www.ohhedead.com, follow them @ohhedead, and catch them at Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on Saturday, May 4. Tickets start at $35.

Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC 205-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info

Chaia taco lineup // Photo: Maya Oren

Power Plants: The Rise of Vegetables as a Main Source of Energy, Not Alternative Fuel

It’s no secret there’s been a recent uptick in healthy dining options in the nation’s capital. Plant-based and vegetable-forward restaurants have taken root in the District, and they’re championing the idea that healthy food can also be tasty food. From local expansions to international brands, DC is adding more and more vegetable-friendly options to an already growing list of new restaurants. Just don’t call it a trend.

Homegrown taqueria Chaia recently opened its second location in Chinatown this January. From slinging tacos at farmers markets to their first location in Georgetown to the newest spot downtown, owners Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon have always remained committed to utilizing seasonal ingredients.

“Our business really wants to get people to eat more vegetables more than anything,” Stern says. “Support your local farmer and eat foods in season. What grows together goes together.”

In addition to serving up seasonally inspired tacos, Chaia’s newest location offers a lineup of local brews, ciders and draft cocktails. The ambiance and new offerings are key to the restaurant’s goal of making vegetables more fun.

“[Ten] years ago, being vegetarian or vegan or going into a restaurant that focused on that had the perception [that] there was no joy; you were just stripping your life of all the good things,” Simon says. “But that’s all changing with places like Chaia. We’re trying to make vegetables fun.”

Another component of their business model? Sustainability. Leftover tortillas are repurposed as the base for their spin on Oaxacan street food tlayuda. Cilantro stems are given new life as a sauce ingredient and discarded items are composted when possible. Hummus purveyor Little Sesame also looks to high-quality ingredients and seasonality for menu inspiration.

“The region that inspires our food is so built on fresh vegetables and big spices, and lots of ferments and pickles,” co-owner Nick Wiseman explains. “How we feel and shape the menus at Little Sesame is all around this idea of, at the end of the day, does it make you feel good?”

The hummus shop added its second location in Chinatown this March (the flagship spot is in Golden Triangle), where guests can order vegan options including their popular hummus bowls, pita sandwiches and dairy-free soft serve. More than just providing an exceptional in-restaurant experience, Wiseman and co-owner Ronen Tenne hope to build a community that transcends the walls of the physical space.

The owners even have an offshoot project, Wild Sesame, as “a way for us to strengthen the community we’re starting to build around these ideals of travel, outdoor cooking and storytelling.” It’s equal parts weekend getaway and outdoor adventure – an exploration of food and community.

“Food is the center, the focus of travel and this sense of adventure around food,” he continues. “We’re trying to really bring that spirit to Little Sesame and certainly what inspires us.”

H Street fast-casual concept Pow Pow made the switch to a completely plant-based menu last spring after two years in operation, and co-owner Shaun Sharkey believes DC is ready for more.

“I think DC has always been known as a city full of intelligent, forward-thinkers,” Sharkey says. “Plant-based food just makes sense in every aspect, whether you’re cutting back on a regular meat-based diet a day or two a week, interested in its benefits for the environment, or just interested in new flavors. Some chefs are really pushing the boundaries with plant-based food.”

Sharkey has a meat allergy and Chef Margaux Riccio has a dairy allergy; Pow Pow’s menu is a reflection of the foods they missed eating.

“Most of the menu items are developed that way,” he says. “This is more about fun food than anything else.”

The popular trolley fries are now topped with cashew cheddar and plant-based protein, the disco stick egg roll now features plant-based chicken, and their bowls have all switched over to plant-based chicken and seitan as protein options.

“We create all of the proteins and cheese in-house from scratch. Our focus is making good, plant-based food.”

Shouk founder Ran Nussbacher wants to remind the world that vegetables have been a mainstay of our diet for centuries, and it’s time to make a reconnection with the freshest produce possible.

“Eating a plant-based [diet] is a very positive experience, and it’s tasty and not lacking in any regard,” Nussbacher says. “I wanted to demonstrate that by bringing a compelling, appealing product that people would get hooked on, and that’s exactly what we’ve done with Shouk.”

The Israeli street food-inspired menu at Shouk’s Mount Vernon Triangle and NoMa locations features an oyster mushroom shawarma, fresh salads, pita and the famous Shouk burger. One of the healthier items on the menu, Nussbacher notes that despite chowing down on a burger, “You’re not eating health food; you’re eating delicious, decadent food that’s healthy.” And the recent addition of falafel to the menu has already proven to be a popular move.

“There used to be this perceived compromise that you could either get food that was really tasty or food that was really healthy, but you couldn’t get both,” the founder continues. “And what we do at Shouk – as well as others in the industry today – is eliminate that compromise and offer food that is exciting, tasty and healthy at the same time.”

Glenn Edwards, U.S. managing director of international fast-food chain LEON, shares a similar sentiment.

“I want to eat food I enjoy,” he says. “I don’t want to feel compromised in eating food that’s better for me. I want to eat food that’s delicious and oh, by the way, it’s better for me. Food should taste good and do you good.”

LEON opened its first North American outpost last summer on L Street and is hoping to change the way people view fast food. Fries are baked and the recently added, vegan-friendly LOVe Burger is quickly becoming a fan favorite.

Edwards says, “When we launch dishes, [we ask ourselves], ‘Does it taste really delicious? Would your best friend ask you for a recipe? Is it better for you?’”

It seems DC denizens agree that fast food can be good food; a second LEON restaurant is coming this summer. But you won’t find any marketing or advertising efforts to promote these restaurants as vegan joints. Instead, the focus is on preparing first-rate food offerings.

Chaia’s Stern notes, “You have to have a delicious product, and that’s why people are going to come.”

Regardless of protein preferences, get people in the door. And if they like what they eat, they’ll come back.

Chaia: 615 Eye St. NW, DC (Chinatown) // 3207 Grace St. NW, DC (Georgetown); www.chaiatacos.com
LEON: 1724 L St. NW, DC; www.leon.co
Little Sesame: 1828 L St. NW, DC (Golden Triangle) // 736 6th St. NW, DC (Chinatown); www.eatlittlesesame.com
Pow Pow: 1253 H St. NE, DC; www.eatpowpow.com
Shouk: 655 K St. NW, DC (Mount Vernon Triangle) // 395 Morse St. NE, DC (NoMa); www.shouk.com


Plant-Forward picks

Fare Well
Doron Petersan’s vegetable-centric bakery, diner and bar on H Street offers plant-based comfort dishes like Southern fried wings, pierogies and a steak platter made with Southern fried chickpea seitan. And don’t walk out the door without dessert: indulge in a brownie sundae and a daily rotating lineup of cakes from Petersan (of Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats fame). 406 H St. NE, DC; www.eatfarewell.com

Flower Child
Championing feel-good food, the national chain landed in Foggy Bottom at the start of the new year. The fast-casual joint features bowls, salads and wraps that come as vegan and vegetarian-friendly in a hip, colorful atmosphere. 2112 Pennsylvania Ave. Suite 101, NW, DC; www.iamaflowerchild.com/locations/washington-dc

HipCityVeg
The Philadelphia import arrived in the District in 2016 and serves up a 100 percent plant-based menu including burgers, salads, milkshakes and sandwiches. There’s even a Philly steak, an homage to the brand’s hometown. 712 7th St. NW, DC; www.hipcityveg.com