Washington's coolest suburban dining destination began in a school bus. That's where Arturo Mei launched SnoCream, a Taiwanese shaved-ice shop based out of a parking lot in Clarendon, in 2014. The fluffy dessert, a cross between ice cream and shaved ice, came in such flavors as black sesame, Thai tea and vanilla latte. Crowds became so big that Mei moved the bus to a larger space with better hours — an Annandale strip mall — where the landlord of a vacant property, enticed by the long lines, approached Mei about a 5,000-square-foot parcel.
Mei transformed that empty space into the Block, a buzzing culinary playground home to a permanent location of SnoCream, a full bar, an ice cream shop and the area's first location of Pokéworks, a Hawaiian-inspired poke franchise. It also has stalls serving Thai street food and Asian comfort food.
Visitors can bounce stall to stall devouring modern Asian dishes prepared by a young crop of chefs. Although the menus are small, they're always evolving.
“People like the variety and the vibe” of the Block, says Mei, who left a lucrative finance gig in Los Angeles to start SnoCream. “It keeps them coming back.”
Food courts are nothing new, but food halls like the Block represent a slightly new trend, backed by a higher level of culinary quality and heft. In the Northeast quadrant of the District, there's Union Market, a former produce market turned into a shiny hub for independent grocers and small stands, selling Venezuelan arepas and fresh pastas. Grace Street Market in Georgetown houses a handful of D.C.-born businesses, including Sundevich sandwiches, South Block Juice and Grace Street Coffee.
More are on the way. Three new food halls are planned for the region: near Union Market, James Beard Award-winning chef Jose Garces's Latin American themed marketplace; in Tysons Galleria, Mike Isabella's outpost of Graffiato, Kapnos, Pepita and six other concepts; and in the Wharf development, Nicholas Stefanelli, of Masseria, will open a three-level, 13,000-square-foot Italian food hall, complete with a salumeria, a cheese cave, a butcher shop, a wine boutique and prepared foods.
For consumers, these halls serve as a one-stop shop where they can try myriad dishes from a number of chefs under one roof — a blessing when Mom has a gluten allergy, sis doesn’t eat meat and Dad has the palate of a 4-year-old. For budding food producers, it’s a chance to test out a concept without undertaking the financial risks of a stand-alone bricks-and-mortar operation. And as for location: It can drive traffic to — as is the case with the Block — an otherwise isolated area.
Before the Block opened, that strip mall’s crown jewel was a Kmart. Today, the hall draws young, experience-hungry visitors who hang out at communal tables dining on braised-beef rice bowls, Taiwanese fried chicken and pork belly french fries.
Even Mei’s business associates have been surprised by the crowds: “My landlord was like, ‘Wow, I never expected so many non-Koreans in Annandale.’ ”
First time visiting the Block? Here are the must-try meals. Bring friends and sample them all.
Hawaiian Classic bowl ($10.95) at Pokéworks
In a city awash with poke — a Hawaiian dish made with marinated raw fish — Pokéworks stands out. Arturo Mei oversees the Block’s outpost, part of a larger chain of restaurants based in New York. You can’t go wrong with the Hawaiian Classic bowl, made with ahi tuna, green and sweet onion, seaweed, cucumber, chili flakes, sesame seeds and a light soy-sauce-and-ginger dressing.
Everything is sourced through local businesses except for the sauce, which Pokéworks supplies for consistency. The kitchen chops and piles fresh fish, which arrives daily, atop your choice of white rice, brown rice or quinoa. There’s also an option to have your poke served as a burrito or a salad or with kale noodles.
Fried chicken tacos ($9) at Balo Kitchen
The fried chicken tacos at Balo aren’t your average tacos. To start, the shell is made from roti canai, a Malaysian flatbread that’s denser and flakier than a traditional tortilla. It’s filled with boneless chicken thighs, which have been marinated in a tangy blend of soy sauce and five spice, battered in sweet potato flour, deep-fried and topped with pickled carrots, scallions and Sriracha mayonnaise. The meat is crispy but not greasy, and the buttery roti canai enhances the tender chicken’s umami flavors.
The stand is run by Huy Nguyen, who, in addition to Balo, owns the Pho Wheels food truck. “When people come to Balo they wonder, ‘Is our food Vietnamese? Is it Chinese?’ ” Nguyen says. “They’re a little confused, so that’s why I say we serve Asian comfort food.”
Boat noodle soup ($11) at Roots
That rich, tongue-coating flavor you experience with every slurp of Roots’ boat noodle soup? That’s a touch of beef blood, a common ingredient in the traditional Thai dish. But don’t let the addition deter you. It lends an iron-rich tang to the complex stock, made from bones, cinnamon sticks, soy sauce, star anise, roasted onions and rib-eye. Served over rice noodles, the soup is meant to be doctored with the free condiments on the counter. A dash of chile vinegar and a scoop of red chile flakes best dials up the flavor and coaxes out some of the subtler herbs.
And if the thought of blood makes you queasy, go for the beef noodle soup, made with brisket and a light but flavorful broth.
Almond cookie ice cream ($3) at Munch
At Munch, everything but the toppings are made from scratch, including the bold-colored cones, available in such flavors as red velvet and ash coconut. Eat your scoop sandwiched between a warm, homemade doughnut or straight-up in a cup — our personal preference — with a scoop of almond-cookie ice cream, a smooth-as-velvet flavor Mei dreamed up based on a Chinese almond cookie from his childhood.
Overwhelmed by the mix-and-match fixings? Top it with Nutella drizzle and cornflakes. On a recent trip, the black-as-night ash coconut and cookie butter ice creams were a hit, too.
Pandan and taro ($6.50) at SnoCream
When customers ask Mei to describe the taste of pandan, he usually tells them to just try it. The Southeast Asian plant’s flavor is subtle, with hints of coconut and hazelnut, and pairs nicely with the taro-root-flavor SnoCream, made with the starchy plant root common in Asian cooking. The consistency is fluffy and light thanks to its preparation: Mei freezes blocks of different flavors into large ice cubes then shaves them with a machine not unlike a meat slicer. The ribbons, which disintegrate in your mouth like fresh snow, aren’t as syrupy as the snow cones of your youth.
Campfire s’more-tini shooter ($8) at the Block Bar
This is the kind of drink you might order on your 21st birthday, but we loved the flaming Teddy Grahams floating atop the mix of vanilla vodka, Baileys Irish cream and butterscotch schnapps. The drink comes with a toothpick full of miniature marshmallows, which you’re encouraged to roast over the flame. By the time the fire burns out, the glass is hot, so wait before kicking the shooter back. You could also ask the bartender for a top-off of chilled Baileys to cool it down. It’s cloyingly sweet, but it made us giggle with delight.
If you go
4221 John Marr Dr., Annandale. 703-942-5076. No website.
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday-Wednesday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday.