By Warren Rojas
Roll Call Staff
Farmers markets, food trucks and local hospitality stars all have a home at the fledgling Union Market, a shopping haven chock full of deliciously guilty pleasures.
The epicurean playground opened its doors in early September, but only on an abbreviated basis (Friday through Sunday) and with several of the planned retail anchors still in absentia. The grand opening is scheduled for Nov. 10, at which point many of the participating vendors plan to make themselves available from Wednesday through Sunday.
The current crop of purveyors ranges from regional stalwarts (Trickling Springs Creamery, EcoFriendly Foods, A. Litteri) to boutique brands (Pearl Fine Teas, All Things Olive, Oh! Pickles) to service providers (Buffalo & Bergen, Blue Iris Flowers, DC Mobile Sharpening). On any given weekend, the place is crawling with toddler-toting locavores, retirees with a penchant for gourmet ingredients and 20-somethings interested in a taste of something different.
The breakout star for on-site dining is clearly Rappahannock Oyster Bar.
The restaurant’s passion for quality seafood — think freshly shucked oysters, mouthwatering caviar and jumbo lump-packed crab cakes — and locally sourced suds (3 Stars Brewing Co. and D.C. Brau were recently on tap) makes it the hangout of choice for consumers and fellow retailers alike.
We were bowled over by the juicy pork and tender oysters inhabiting the signature Barcat oyster chowder, inhaled a plate of bacon-fat-poached scallops bolstered by curried vegetables and marveled at the boldly spiced tuna tartare.
If Rappahannock controls the sit-down traffic, Border Springs Farm takes the grab-and-go crown. Founder Craig Rogers said many of his recipes have been developed by the various local chefs he supplies, a reciprocal agreement that benefits us all in the form of overstuffed sandwiches, gravy-laden breakfast bowls and savory pot pies.
The shaved lamb sandwich was good, layering tender, rosy meat, peppery arugula and piquant horseradish sauce atop a crusty baguette. The gyro was better, marrying succulent lamb and crunchy root vegetables in dill-spiked yogurt sauce and enveloping it all in pillowy pita.
“Our concept has been to provide a place for lunch or dinner, but that all of the features can be brought home and heated up later. Thus, we sell the gyro meat, tzatziki sauce and pita bread as a kit to make at home,” Rogers said of his plan for total shopping domination.
On the Go
The mobile-dining-verse is well-represented by a trio of wildly diverse meal flingers: TaKorean, DC Empanadas and Curbside Cupcakes.
The fusion-oriented taco stand draws a decent crowd, appealing, naturally, to fans of Asian cuisine as well as devout vegetarians and vegans.
We’re all for diversity but much prefer the meat-related offerings to the tofu-based stuff. Soy-marinated bulgogi works best with pungent kimchi dressed with a healthy dose of Sriracha. Chicken marinated in sweet chili and ginger is better complemented by the lime crema, the citrus adding a splash of zing to the caramelized bird. If you are going to go the tofu route, fresh cilantro is best. The herbaceousness offsets the underlying sweetness of the hoisin-marinated bean curd while shredded Napa cabbage brings the roughage.
DC Empanadas serves up fried dough filled to the brim with all sorts of culinary whimsy, from a proper Sunday dinner (stewed beef, onions, potatoes and carrots) to a trek through Thailand (broccoli, Thai basil and red coconut curry).
Our favorites are the aptly named “Badass,” a provocative blend of buffalo-style chicken embraced by molten blue cheese (after-burn lasts a good long while) and the “Divine Swine,” a handheld helping of shredded pork soaked in tangy-sweet barbecue sauce, all wrapped in buttery crust.
Cupcake enthusiasts can feast on a rainbow of single-serve decadence at Curbside. The mobile bakery rotates flavors and frostings at will, but it tends to feature favorites for as long as folks demand them. One companion swooned after biting into the flagship red velvet offering.
"Even the cake part is super rich," our guest exclaimed over the cream-cheese-frosted, extra spongy indulgence. We preferred the fruity blasts provided by a raspberry lemonade creation, the booze-spiked tequila sunrise cake and apple-chunked apple cinnamon offering.
Righteous Cheese owner Carolyn Stromberg is still getting her bearings -- she currently offers nine cheeses on the retail side and three preset flights at her cheese bar.
The three flights will stay, but she’s planning on showcasing about 70 artisanal cheeses when the grand opening rolls around. Still, she has already noticed a devoted following.
“It’s incredible and inspiring that so many people have come back again and again — both to the retail side and the bar. With new pairings every couple weeks at the bar ... we’ve had many, many repeat guests wanting to try something different,” the entrepreneur said. “We’re also able to keep a cheese history, so our customers don’t have to even try to remember what they had a month ago.”
Rappahannock co-owner Travis Croxton senses the same momentum building.
“D.C.’s a huge city, but many folks still don’t know what Union Market is. Once they come out, they realize how easy it is to get to -- and free parking -- and you see them coming back and back,” he said of the burgeoning community.
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