National Institutes of Health Clinical Center Cafeterias

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

National Institutes of Health Clinical Center Cafeterias

Grade: D

The vast campus in Bethesda is dotted with many buildings, some of which house their own places to grab a bite. But most NIH visitors end up eating in one of two cafeterias in the Clinical Center.

A quick scan of the B1 basement cafeteria is like a head fake performed in any sports arena: lots of signs about making "balanced choices for a healthy lifestyle," but other signs pointing to a full food-court press: Sbarro, Au Bon Pain, Sakura Sushi, Austin Grill Express. Of those various short-order stations, one soup and one sandwich were commended for moderate calories (600), fat, cholesterol and sodium (600 milligrams). That soup, an ABP low-sodium chicken noodle ($2.69 for 12 ounces), had almost enough chicken but not enough chicken flavor.

The in-house cafe station offers a daily lunch special; the day we were there, it was a non-offensive vegetable pasta ($7.49). Salad bar offerings (40 cents per ounce) were a cut above, including crunchy jicama salad, black quinoa and vegetable-studded rice.

The second-floor cafeteria has three stations with hot food cooked to order and a skimpier salad bar. Entree choices on the same day were a goopy selection that took the good General Tso's name in vain yet again; slices of marinated pork loin that were dried out and fatty at the edges (both entrees with two sides and drink, $7.79); and a "flatiron top sirloin" steak sandwich with which I was able to re-create a scene from "Spinal Tap" (the one where Nigel Tufnel tries to fold the meat so it stays tucked within its ill-fitting bread). Its over-chipotled sauce rendered the sandwich wrangling moot, as it made the whole thing inedible (with side and drink, $7.19). Topping it off with a fresh lemonade only worsened the situation, as I believe no sweetener of any kind had come close to the vat of yellow liquid with floating lemon slices.

And in the reality-check department, canteens next to both markets were doing a brisk business in bagged chips, cookies and bottled sodas.

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

NIH B1 Cafeteria and 2nd Floor Cafeteria, NIH Gateway Drive, Bethesda (Clinical Center, Building 10), 301-496-2563. Hours for B1: weekdays 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Hours for 2nd Floor: weekdays 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., weekends 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Open to the public; must check in at the Gateway Center (Building 66).

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