My empanadas have turned into hostages, as I parade them around Union Market in a small paper tray, slowly watching the life and heat recede from the savory pastries. I’d prefer, of course, to execute them on the spot with a few satisfying bites, but I can’t find a place to perch. Every table, every possible surface to park my backside, is occupied.
Finally, I give up. I grab the buffalo-chicken-and-blue-cheese pocket, dubbed the Badass at D.C. Empanadas, and go to town on it, while still endlessly circling the market like a hobo. I hate eating on the run; it takes my focus away from the pleasures of the plate (or the paper tray) and places it on the road or, in this case, the foot traffic that darts and weaves through Union Market like worker ants.
But one bite of the empanada and my reptilian brain kicks in, guiding my movements through this maze as I recall the many things I love about this fried masterpiece: the richness, the creeping heat, the lacerating tang, the crackle of the bronzed shell. I believe I could eat a Badass daily and never tire of it ($3.50 per pocket or three for $9).
I’ll apparently never get to test that theory. D.C. Empanadas has had a different menu every time I visit, which is just one of the eccentricities of Union Market you grow to accept. The market, the centerpiece of developer Edens’ long-term plan to overhaul the dumpy warehouse district off Florida Avenue NE, opened in September 2012 and immediately attracted every chef, food blogger and publicist within a 15-mile radius. Or so it seemed.
Union Market is a strange beast, offering designer dishware and linens next to knife sharpening services and artisanal knishes. The market has set hours, but some vendors close earlier, some later. You can shop for ingredients here, but most folks arrive to eat a prepared meal or just people-watch or perhaps suck down a frozen cocktail ($8) on the weekend at the Suburbia trailer parked outside during the summer. Between the crowds, the weird hours, the random assortment of goods and services and the nonstop circling, I sometimes feel like I’ve stepped off a Tilt-A-Whirl after my third margarita.
Yeah, I love the place. Or, I should say, I love some things more than others.
I am, for example, crazy for the smoked egg salad (with smoked jalapeños) at Neopol Savory Smokery, which transforms a childhood staple into something woodsy, dark and deep. This is a sandwich ($7.95), I imagine, prepared by soot-covered men hovering over a crusty smoker, not a suburban dad at a kitchen counter, trimming the crusts off for little Blaine. This egg salad has enough of a Y chromosome to compare favorably to that musky den of meats in Union Market known as Red Apron, which sells my beloved porkstrami sandwich ($9), with its own nasal-radiation blast of mustard aioli.
June, with temperatures pushing 90, is not typically a time when you want to stuff a wad of hot cheese down your gullet. But the rotating grilled-cheese sandwich ($7) at Ris is not your typical wad of hot, coagulated milk solids. The one I wolfed down in May mixed three cheeses (white cheddar, provolone and goat) with poblano peppers and red onions, the piquancy of the latter ingredients cutting through and complementing their fatty, tangy bread-mates. The grilled cheese now at Ris sounds equally well-engineered: provolone and fontina paired with sopressata, arugula and roasted artichoke hearts.
The glistening fillets for sale in the District Fishwife’s display case vs. the beer-battered deep-fried seafood available on the shop’s compact menu can make for serious cognitive dissonance. But when the fry cooks are on their game, the fish and chips here ($12.65) redefine the combo. The Fishwife’s catch of choice is blue catfish, an invasive species thought to be helping itself to the Chesapeake’s native fauna. I have to say, the catfish is pretty tasty itself, its flesh so lush and succulent it goes down like custard. The aggressive flavor, however, is not for the mild-white-and-flaky crowd. Consider this a fish and chips for those who actually enjoy the flavor of fresh seafood, not just a salty fried coating.
For those who had grown weary of waiting for a table at Toki Underground on H Street NE, the news of chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s pop-up at Union Market was practically cause for a bonfire dance. The reality of the satellite Toki has thrown a bit of cold water on that initial rush. The menu is microscopic, and Toki’s signature ramen is usually not part of it. The only staple is the Chinese steam bun ($3), a snack of deceiving complexity. The mildly sweet dough conceals a pork-shoulder filling with its own slow-building, jack-in-the-box surprise: the spicy and numbing ma-la sensations of Sichuan cooking.
The bun is symbolic for Union Market itself. Any time you walk into the imposing white structure — a very Washington building, yes? — you never know what awaits. It might be lemon chiffon ice cream (starting at $3.50), so mousselike in its delicacy, at Trickling Springs Creamery. Or it might be the more-is-more vegetarian taco mashup ($3.50 each, three for $9) at TaKorean, this two-ply corn tortilla brimming with caramelized tofu, spiced kale slaw, lime crema and cilantro. Or it might be the soul-food knishes stuffed with collards ($5) at Buffalo & Bergen, where, if you eat late enough, a free bag of leftover New York-style bagels could be sent home.
It’s just one more of Union Market’s eccentricities, so easy to embrace.
1309 Fifth St. NE.
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Some vendors may stay open later.
Nearest Metro Station: NoMa, with a half-mile walk to the market.