WHERE: From Howard University to Foggy Bottom, with a couple of stops in between.
WHY: Jamaican coco bread, spicy burritos and two-buck lattes.
HOW FAR: All within walking distance of the Metro, or about 4 miles by car from start to finish.
James McLaughlin sells breakfast sandwiches, fried and baked chicken, potato wedges and hot soup, as well as his wife's homemade cake -- all from his retrofitted white truck.
"My truck speaks for itself," says McLaughlin. Parked on Sixth Street NW at Howard University for 37 years, Mr. Jimmy, as he's known to his customers, has a reputation. That's what pays for food vendors -- having a reputation, both for their eats and for being dependable.
Nearly 700 vendors hawk their wares on the District's sidewalks and streets. Off the National Mall and away from tourist central, an assortment of food stands cater to professionals, students and passersby looking for convenient, cheap chow. (These stands generally operate weekdays, except in bad weather.) A 1998 moratorium on licenses means no new kids on the block (city agencies are currently examining how the cart community should be regulated), but several veterans are still going strong -- and have long since moved past hot dogs and pretzels.
Not far from Mr. Jimmy, for example, three smaller stands specialize in Jamaican coco bread. Try the soft bread in the morning with butter, jam or honey for $1.25.
"Once you eat that and drink water, you're ready to go," says Gibril Mansaray, whose cart keeps a steady line around mealtimes. Folded like a half-moon, the bread is also offered with a chicken or beef patty inside ($3). "People don't want to eat hot dogs all the time," Mansaray says. "It's something different."
For more untraditional food cart fare, head to K Street NW at 15th, where John Rider runs a burrito stand. Vegetarians rejoice in Rider's output -- steamed flour tortillas stuffed with black or refried beans; a medium with rice costs $4.50. While waiting their turns, customers can snack on free chips and sample his latest concoction: a mango habanero hot sauce, stored in a Grey Goose vodka bottle.
"I've never seen a burrito cart before," says customer Mitchell Schwenz. "It's a break from the regular hot dog and half-smoke. Plus, they're good!"
Two blocks away on K at 17th, Carlos Guardado makes another popular burrito for under five bucks. And Guardado deals in a second type of bean: His stand houses an espresso machine, allowing him to crank out beverages such as "caffe ole" ($1-$1.50) alongside those spinach, wheat, tomato-chili and onion-garlic tortillas.
Another favorite for a caffeine jolt is Naceur Negra's cart outside George Washington University's Kogan Plaza. For 12 years, Negra has been whipping up coffee drinks, including seasonal specialties such as his caramel-apple latte ($3.50). His cart buzzes with business, thanks to $1 coffee and $2 latte deals as well as goodies from Uptown Bakery. The only thing hotter than the coffee? The solar panel Negra affixed to the top of his cart in August, which supplies enough energy to run his espresso machine, refrigerator and a light -- and eliminates the need for a noisy generator. It's just another example of the handiwork happening at Washington's food carts.
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