In the age of free-range chicken and grass-fed beef, there’s still room on restaurant menus for Spam. The mysterious meat in Hormel’s iconic blue can has been around since 1937 and has long been popular in Hawaii and Asia. The addictive slab (actually a pork-and-ham mash-up) is not exactly a health food — and maybe because it’s not a health food, D.C. diners are falling for its simple pleasures.
“Any chef that says that they don’t like Spam is a liar,” says ButterCream BakeShop’s Tiffany MacIsaac, who ate her fair share of Spam while growing up in Maui and continues to cook with it at home. “It’s so salty and there’s so much flavor,” she says. “It makes people think of lowbrow dining, but you can make it taste delicious.” See how chefs around town are taking the humble canned meat to new heights.
Lei Musubi : The meat becomes a work of art in the hands of Vivien Bang, the owner of Lei Musubi. Inspired by the rice balls her mom served her growing up, Bang started creating her own version at food halls across town eight months ago. While she sells rolls featuring all sorts of ingredients (including edible flowers from D.C. farm Little Wild Things and crushed hot Cheetos), the bestseller is still her take on a Spam musubi, Hawaii’s sushi-esque snack.
Dubbed the OG, it’s a pyramid-shaped nugget of sticky rice, sea-salted green-tea nori, caramelized Spam, her own furikake rice seasoning and sauteed kimchi, seared on a grill and served warm with a drizzle of unagi (or eel) sauce.
Bang’s favorite thing is to convince skeptics to try Spam — and see them come back for seconds or thirds. “It’s honestly such a great feeling to see that people enjoy canned meat,” she says. “I don’t eat meat anymore — it’s been about seven and a half years since I’ve been a pescatarian — but I can definitely taste it in my mouth when I’m cooking,” she says. Popping up next at Pike Park farmers market, 2820 Columbia Pike, Arlington, and Union Market’s Toli Moli stall, 1309 Fifth St. NE. $6.
Bul : Spam dishes won’t always make you think of a tropical Hawaiian vacation. In Adams Morgan, a blustery day calls for budae jjigae at Korean restaurant Bul. This bubbling, fiery-red concoction sometimes written as one word is made with slices of Spam paired with sausage, beans and tofu. Nicknamed soldier’s stew, the dish’s origin stems from the Korean War, when rations like Spam from U.S. army bases became a highly prized ingredient. Today, the rich soup seems to have special powers to warm diners up when it’s freezing out — or perhaps just counter a hangover. 2431 18th St. NW. $16.
Coconut Club : At the new Coconut Club in Northeast, there’s an entire section of the menu devoted solely to Spam (with a cute illustration of its can). The ingredient channels the restaurant’s Hawaii-meets-L.A. theme, and it’s just as playful as Coconut Club’s hanging chairs and disco-ball cocktail glasses, according to chef Adam Greenberg. “I wanted Coconut Club to be carefree and fun for everyone, and when [diners] see the Spam section on our menu, it usually gets some sort of fun or silly reaction. We’re just trying to have fun, and this was one way to do it,” he says.
So far, the Spam fried rice is the restaurant’s top-selling dish. Other canned meat options include a Spam patty melt topped with American cheese, caramelized onion and pickled cherry pepper relish, and a littleneck clam dish with Spam and kimchi butter via Chiko chef Danny Lee. Spam even finds its way into the bar menu, with a Spam-washed bourbon Old Fashioned. 540 Penn St. NE. Patty melt: $8.50; fried rice: $12; Danny’s clams: $9.50; Old Fashioned, $13.
Tiki TNT : Just three ingredients (rice, nori and Spam) go into the straightforward Spam musubi at the Wharf’s Polynesian-influenced tiki destination, albeit with Tiki TNT’s Sriracha-based Dynamite sauce on the side for dipping. “I don’t know if the masses would’ve tried Spam six years ago,” mused Tiki TNT’s owner Todd Thrasher, who’s been surprised by how well the dish has been selling. “I think everyone went through that super duper fine-dining” phase, he says. “They would definitely eat pâté six years ago. Or pâté de campagne — they’re all about it. But if it comes out of a can, ‘I’m not trying it.’ ”
Now, Tiki TNT regularly serves up three or four dishes with Spam, including an egg sandwich with the meat on Hawaiian rolls and a special called Spam fingers (a.k.a. Spam coated in panko, deep-fried and served back in its can). 1130 Maine Ave. SW. Spam musubi, $10.
Momo Yakitori : Cats are a major motif at Momo Yakitori in the Brookland/Woodridge neighborhood — kitty-themed mugs are everywhere — but cans of Spam also serve as decor. That’s what you’ll see as you descend into the basement bar, where Spam is displayed on shelves and featured on the menu too. The subterranean bar serves up Spam onigirazu regularly: described as sort of a Spam-rice sandwich, the snack features a thick slice of grilled Spam surrounded by scrambled egg, grilled cabbage, Kewpie mayo and sticky rice, all wrapped up in nori. Salty Spam meets pillowy rice in a handheld snack that’s big enough to share, if you must. 2214 Rhode Island Ave. NE. $5.