Here’s the kind of problem Rose Previte faces these days — she can’t seem to track down sulguni, a mozzarella-like cheese she needs to make khajapuri, a traditional Georgian snack.
Previte, 34, is the owner of Compass Rose, the restaurant off 14th Street she’s aiming to open in late March. Unlike menus at other ethnic restaurants that focus on one particular country, Previte’s will instead include dishes inspired by street foods found around the world.
And that presents some challenges. Take, for example, the sulguni cheese. Previte visited farms up and down the East Coast but couldn’t quite match the sour-meets-salty taste of the cheese so prevalent in the Samegrelo region of Georgia. “It’s the cows,” she says. “We don’t have the right cows here.” Undeterred, she and her chef — John Paul Damato, formerly of Restaurant Nora and Jaleo — are experimenting with combinations of feta, mozzarella and farmer’s cheese to make their own blend.
Previte fell in love with the idea of street food while eating scallion pancakes in Shanghai, porchetta sandwiches in Tuscany and spinach pies in Beirut. No, Previte is not a hungry version of Carmen Sandiego. She lived in Moscow from October 2009 through January 2012 with her husband, NPR reporter David Greene, while he was on assignment. “He would go to scary war zones, and I would go traveling with my friends,” Previte says.
It was during those travels that Previte realized the significance of a country’s street food.
“It’s a window into the culture and something that equalizes people,” she says. “You see rich people and poor people eating the same thing.”
Compass Rose will feature a rotating array of food you’d find being served on the sidewalks of Turkey, Lebanon, Italy and Latin America. The restaurant, built on the first floor of the row house in which Previte and Greene live, is even decorated to look like a night bazaar.
Part of the reason for street food’s popularity, Previte says, is it’s usually the most affordable option in a city, and often the most genuine. Which are precisely the reasons she thinks her concept will work well in the District.
“What I’ve found in D.C. is that big-name chefs are swooping in to open places,” Previte says. “It’s great, but it makes us miss the holes-in-the-wall.”
Compass Rose is the only restaurant in D.C. dedicated entirely to street food, but it’s not the only place to find the dishes that are served along sidewalks around the world. (Photos by Jason Hornick)
Izakaya Seki, 1117 V St. NW; 202-588-5841, sekidc.com. (U Street)
The Japanese rice ball is simple — take some sticky rice, put salmon or pickled shrimp in the middle, then roll it up. Fold it into a piece of dried seaweed and you’ve got lunch. But at Izakaya Seki, the rice balls come with a twist — an extra wrapping of soy paper and toasted sesame seeds. “In Japan, if you go to a convenience store, the rice balls are everywhere,” says executive chef Hiroshi Seki, who co-owns the restaurant with his son Cizuka. “It’s like a sandwich over there.”
$6 for 3; $10 for 6
Biergarten Haus, 1355 H St. NE; 202-388-4085, biergartenhaus.com.
Bavarian cuisine began as the food of the rural, royal courts. Today, it’s most likely to be found at German street fairs serving as cushion for the pints (and pints) of beer consumed. The menu at Biergarten Haus features stick-to-your-bones fare like brat platters (served with sauerkraut and potato pancake) and laugenbrezel, a cloudlike pretzel roll served with a slice of salty white cheese and mustard dipping sauce. The challenge, says Jessie Caola, director of marketing at Biergarten Haus, is adapting recipes designed to be cooked quickly, in a single serving, for larger crowds.
$9 for three
Mari Vanna, 1141 Connect- icut Ave. NW; 202-783-7777, marivanna.ru/washington. (Dupont Circle)
Russians sometimes liken these plush bites to the American hamburger, but in practice they’re more like a cross between a samosa and a bready dumpling. Delicious and doughy, these cabbage- or meat-stuffed bread pockets come three to a plate at Mari Vanna. The filling (either a mixture of ground beef, rice and cheese or cabbage and onions) is blanketed in a pastry and fried. They’re just the right size to stick in your pocket as you dart around on a chilly Moscow day.
Ethiopia: Kitfo Dulet
Yetenbi, 1915 Ninth St. NW; 202-299-9699. (U Street)
Right around dusk in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, mobile kitchens start to appear outside of bars and restaurants. Vendors fry up samosas and chunks of meat for workers on their way home (or partiers on their way out). Yetenbi’s version of the kebab is the kitfo dulet, a plate of beef served up with diced onions and jalapenos. Enjoy it with other sidewalk specialties — spicy tea and a side of spongy bread.
Mexico: Elote Callejero
El Chucho, 3313 11th St. NW; 202-290-3313. (Columbia Heights)
Between the tacos and the tortas (a Latin American grilled cheese), Mexico City is a street food paradise. Owner Jackie Greenbaum does the cuisine justice at El Chucho, her restaurant, which she describes as a “love letter to Mexican street food.” Greenbaum and El Chucho’s original chef, Diana Davila-Boldin (who has since been replaced by Matt Russell), added their own twists to popular dishes like the elote callejero, grilled corn on the cob covered in cheese. To spice it up, Davila-Boldin incorporated a brown butter aioli and chili lime spice. No wonder it’s the restaurant’s most popular dish, according to Greenbaum.