The Insiders' Market

Sam Wang Produce has a large room with a different kinds of fruits and vegetables.
Sam Wang Produce has a large room with a different kinds of fruits and vegetables. (Len Spoden - For The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

When Daniel Gyandoh needs a hard chicken, he knows where to find it. The plump hens, bred to have particularly firm meat even after a long simmer in a soup or stew, are sold at Obeng International Food, an African grocery at Capital City Market -- Washington's wholesale-retail warehouse hub.

Gyandoh, a postal worker and a native of Ghana, could buy a hard chicken closer to his home in Baltimore. "But not at this price," he says while waiting in line at Obeng's busy meat counter, which is well stocked with smoked turkey neck, cow feet and oxtail. All the while, sounds of hi-life West African dance music blend with the engine roar and cautionary beeps of a loaded forklift.

But for Gyandoh, a trip to Capital City is about more than saving money. "Here there's a neat environment, and it's a friendly place to shop," he says.

For the past 75 years, the market and surrounding area, bounded by New York and Florida avenues and Fourth and Sixth streets NE, has been the liveliest quarter of the city at dawn. The 18-wheelers come and go, stocking the warehouses with every sort of food and drink. Restaurant chefs and small grocery owners, for the most part, do their shopping until mid-afternoon when many of the warehouses close for the day. In addition to foods, dozens of additional wholesale warehouses sell a variety of small consumer goods.

More gritty than grand or gourmet, Capital City shows its age. There is a gray pallor to the funky, soot-stained warehouses where windows are either broken, bricked-up or covered with bars. In the distance is a fine view of the U.S. Capitol dome. Several developers are proposing cleaning up the area and adding housing, but for the foreseeable future, it's business as usual.

What the district lacks in beauty, it makes up for in cultural diversity with the input from Korean, Chinese, Latin American and African merchants. And while many business owners say that the regional wholesale food business is now centered in greater Baltimore, there is an increase in retail trade at Capital City for a number of reasons.

Rising property values in the adjoining residential neighborhoods have attracted young, first-time home buyers as well as renters who need convenient food stores. A new Metro stop on New York Avenue makes getting to Capital City less of a challenge. And it's more shopper-friendly: Business owners now sell, say, a 10-pound bag of short ribs rather than limiting quantities to a 50-pound box. Some have set up retail sales areas at the entrance of the warehouse.

"Business is getting a lot better now. There's foot traffic. The neighborhood is changing. Why, we even had kids in strollers in here for the first time," says Mike DeFrancisci, owner of A. Litteri, a top-quality Italian market and deli opened by his great-uncle and grandfather on Morse Street in 1932. Until the late 1980s, the store predominantly sold wholesale.

Within a short walk, shoppers can pick up fresh rice noodles and moo shu pancakes at Far East Noodle, buy Indian and Pakistani seasoning mixes as well as halal goat meat at Caribbean Crescent and choose between Argentine- and Mexican-style sausages at Don Pepe's Cash & Carry.

At Mexican Fruit, stacked, open boxes of produce form aisles along the sidewalk and into the street. On a recent morning, and of particular interest, there were three types of ripe mangoes scenting the air, as well as walnut-size Central American and Key limes and stacks of three-foot-tall, spike-tipped blue agave leaves that can be used to flavor a meat stew or to make tequila.

For traditional as well as Asian greens and fruits, there is Sam Wang, where regular patrons head right for the cold storage room. Nothing is priced. "You don't find out until the checkout counter," says a man who was picking okra one by one. "But it's really cheap here."

The best place to grab a bite to eat at Capital City is Young's Deli & Carryout. The sidewalk out front has a knee-high buckle and the doorway is dingy, but the food is surprisingly good. Yun Hoon and his wife Chun Young Yun, the owners, serve both Korean and American fare.

"But people know us only for our Korean food. Maybe, one truck driver will come for the American," says Hoon, who opened the deli five years ago and has 10 tables. Seasonings can be adjusted for those who like their food hot or not so much so. "Latin people, they like our hot beef and seafood soup, and we make it less spicy, just for them."

Looking for a 30-inch wok or a 200-gallon plastic tub suitable for making a lifetime supply of kimchi? Perhaps not. But Best Equipment, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant supply store, has plenty of gear for the home kitchen as well. Head back to the right rear corner of Best for a extensive collection of more than 150 kinds of glassware -- from stubby shot glasses to long-stemmed martini glasses and on to beer steins. Pieces may be purchased individually or by the case.

"They're all by Libbey, and that's good quality," says manager Lisa Choi. "Not only do people have choices, but these glasses last longer."

One block away, on Neal Place, is the D.C. Farmers Market -- an indoor emporium for small grocers and custom butchers rather than a marketplace for regional farmers as the name might imply. The five butchers stock, for the most part, the same items: beef, chicken, rabbit, duck, turkey and every piece of the pig. A popular promotion is the "package deal" -- a lot of meat at a bargain price. At Harvey's Market, for example, a 40-pound box of chicken leg quarters (leg and thigh) goes for $10.

"We've turned into a Costco for people in the city," says owner Miles Chidel, whose father, Harvey Chidel, now retired, opened the butcher shop 35 years ago. "Where else are you going to find chicken at that price?"

© 2006 The Washington Post Company