As I glide silently down the escalator, past a radiant mural of flowers in full bloom and produce fresh off the vine, I’m mentally reviewing the food vendors at the Ballston Quarter Market and stressing over which ones I have yet to visit. As I approach the Soviet-austere concrete flooring that anchors this basement-level food hall, I realize I have yet to stop at Roll’d or Rice Crook or even the new outlet of Cucina Al Volo, whose osteria in Adams Morgan has been a reliable source for comfort and Parm-dusted noodles.
But try as I might, I can’t muster the enthusiasm necessary to approach any of the three. You could say I’ve got Bentley on the brain.
The Bentley is one of the signature combinations at Turu’s by Timber Pizza Co., the Ballston sibling of the superb Petworth pizzeria. The first time I tried the Bentley, I was seduced by these tiny, tear drop-shaped peppers semi-buried in melted cheese. They looked like a cross between grape tomatoes and pequin peppers, and they tasted like candy, a little sweet and a little tangy, with a mere suggestion of heat. They turned out to be Peruvian “sweety drop” peppers, and they were a perfect foil to the crackerlike, New York-style pizza that burns hot with pepperoni, sopressata and a sheen of honey infused with Little Red Fox hot sauce.
I salivated at the thought of biting into the pizza again, maybe this time with A Hopwork Orange, the fruity IPA from Blue Mountain Brewery, available on draft at the Ballston Service Station, a craft beer bar that will pour you a cold one no matter where you purchase dinner inside the hall. This is the problem — if you want to call it that — with Ballston Quarter Market: You develop a relationship with a single vendor at your own risk.
What I mean is that, in the days before artisanal food halls, you chose a restaurant, you traveled to the restaurant and you dined at the restaurant, your needs met without any undue agitation. Now you pick a destination like Ballston Quarter Market, and once you arrive, you realize you’ve entered the FAO Schwarz of eating. The big top of dining options can generate a major case of FOMO, even when the meal in front of you satisfies all your conscious needs. This is particularly true at Quarter Market, where mall operators spent years seeking out and negotiating with a smartly curated collection of local chefs, restaurateurs and producers.
“We wanted this to be a major draw,” said Keith Brandt, senior vice president of retail leasing with Brookfield Properties, which, in partnership with QIC, reimagined the old Ballston Common Mall into a millennial magnet.
Personally, I’m drawn to the food hall for a dizzying assortment of dishes and snacks, starting with the Bentley at Turu’s. But I’m also quite fond of the two-meat combo at Sloppy Mama’s. My order packed thick slices of moist brisket, each harboring reservoirs of rendered fat, as rich and gelatinous as pig trotters but, you know, smoky and robustly seasoned, like the good stuff back in Texas. The pulled pork, lightly sauced but assertively spiced, suggests that co-owner Joe Neuman has hit his stride as a pit master overseeing multiple locations, no easy task. The meal, to me at least, was a preview of Sloppy Mama’s new bricks-and-mortar location in Arlington, which smokes meats for the Ballston counter.
After slurping down a pair of Maryland bivalves — clean but completely bereft of brine, a sign that heavy rains truly have impacted Chesapeake oysters — I found other pleasures at the Local Oyster, the Baltimore import that has carved out an attractive, nautical-themed corner here. Its crab cake, a fried puck heavy on lump meat, puts very little between you and the fresh, clear-water flavors of Maryland blues. The lobster roll, though misnamed, may be even better. My pile of chilled and chopped meat was tucked inside a hamburger bun, making for a cool, sweet and almost creamy bite.
My first visit to Hot Lola’s produced nothing but an overwhelming desire to sprint to the Ice Cream Jubilee counter and ask the nearest employee to place a scoop of fresh minty chip on my tongue, which had been cauterized by the O.G. Hot sandwich, chef Kevin Tien’s Sichuan-meets-Nashville hot chicken. (By the way, I’d recommend the fresh minty chip even under normal circumstances; the honey lemon lavender is pretty sweet, too.) I dialed it down on my return trip: Tien’s Dry Hot chicken doesn’t require that you pour flame retardant down your throat before digging in; its heat is a steady burn, strong but not powerful enough to cremate the other sweet, stinging elements in the chef’s spice mix.
I eventually did make it to Roll’d, Rice Crook and Cucina Al Volo. I’m still trying to find something at Roll’d worthy of Nobu Yamazaki, the Michelin-starred chef at Sushi Taro who is the marquee name in this project. It’s certainly not the bento box with maki roll, steamed dumplings (courtesy of Pinch, a farmers markets regular), miso soup and salad, a meal so snooze-inducing I almost did a face-plant into the leaden pork dumplings. Rice Crook chef Scott Chung has engineered a far more appetizing cross-cultural dish with his five-spice pulled pork, a Korean rice bowl that comes drizzled with cilantro-lime aioli. And I’d willingly do a face-plant in Cucina Al Volo’s smoked pappardelle with wild boar ragu, if it means I could eat it faster.
But of all the things I ate at Quarter Market, the one that permanently left its mark was, well, a doughnut. Specifically, District Doughnut’s everything cream cheese, a baked good that divides people faster than “The Big Bang Theory.” People love to hate the everything cream cheese on principle alone, for assuming an identity that is neither bagel nor doughnut.
Its real treachery, I’m convinced, lies in its ability to point out our prejudices — our unwillingness to accept that the flavors of a classic bagel might work just as well in a lighter and more efficient form: a yeasted doughnut filled with whipped chive-and-onion cream cheese. District Doughnut is not taking away your everything bagel. It’s simply offering it in a sleek, aerodynamic package. It’s genius, and it’s delicious.
4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va., quartermarket.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, except Fridays and Saturdays when some vendors remain open until 1 a.m.
Nearest Metro: Ballston-MU, with a 0.2-mile walk to the food hall.
Prices: Varies by vendor.