You call that a bagel?

Transplants say D.C.'s bagels (and pizza and cheesesteaks and...) don't measure up. Here's where they go for a taste of home.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s sports, local governance or the weather, people who have moved to Washington have a superiority complex about a lot of things — regardless of how long they’ve lived here. As someone who grew up in the Chicago area and now lives in the District, I get it. It’s hard for me to pass up an opportunity to recall the bleak Midwestern winters I’ve survived and not dunk on Washington’s ineptitude for handling snow.

But when it comes to food, it’s a little weird for my fellow transplants to insist that D.C.’s food options reflect wherever they grew up. A city’s dining scene is based on its unique combination of local history, demographics and geography, and it’s partly what makes visiting different places feel special.

Washington has plenty of good restaurants, but I understand what it’s like to crave the iconic dish you grew up with. So I asked D.C. transplants to break down the qualities that make their favorite foods — cheesesteaks, pizza, bagels, fish tacos, poke and bubble tea — so special, and where to find good versions in the District. Here’s what they said.

Cheesesteak

Philadelphia

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Let’s get one thing straight about cheesesteaks. If you sell them under the name “Philly Cheesesteaks,” they’re probably trash. At least that’s what the Philly natives I talked with say. They’re just cheesesteaks, and that’s all there is to it.

Steak sandwiches are a nearly 90-year-old institution in Philadelphia, where they originated as a lunch option for working-class Italians. Cheese was added during the 1960s – not long after Cheez Whiz (many Philadelphians’ cheese of choice) entered the market.

Philly transplants who speak wistfully of their beloved grease steak say the sandwich is far more than the sum of its parts. The individual components — meat, cheese, bread and any extra toppings such as onions — must melt into one entity while still maintaining their individual integrity.

Many cheesesteaks exist outside of Philadelphia. Some are aspirational interpretations by chain restaurants, others are gussied up versions with premium ingredients. Whichever route you take, Philadelphians warn against underestimating the role of the bread and advise mastering the cheesesteak in its original form before trying any spins on the classic.

Where to get it in the D.C. area:

• Bub and Pop's, 1815 M St. NW. bubandpops.com.

Pizza

New York

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According to New Yorkers, a classic New York-style pizza could simply be judged by a test of whether you could comfortably eat it walking on a city sidewalk.

Is it sold by the slice? Is the crust stiff enough to hold up all the toppings – especially when the slice is folded lengthwise into two?

Flavor certainly plays a role, but pizza must satisfy these basic structural requirements before being considered a proper New York slice.

Where to get it in the D.C. area:

• We the Pizza, 305 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Also has a location in Virginia. wethepizza.com.

• Wiseguy Pizza, 300 Massachusetts Ave. NW; 202 M St. SE. Also has a location in Virginia. wiseguypizza.com.

Bagel

New York

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As if New Yorkers needed another reason to lord their food culture over other cities, urban mythology credits the city’s softer tap water as the magic ingredient in their allegedly superior bagels. Local water may play a role, but more often than not, the reason bagels fall short of the New York standard is less about ingredients and more about the priming process.

Ideally, bagel dough must rest after being kneaded, allowing it to ferment and for flavors to form. After the dough is rolled and twisted into rings, it must be boiled before it is baked. This allows New York-style bagels to form a thin crust and — along with high-gluten flour– helps create a dense and chewy interior.

If a bagel has that signature crust, toasting it is not always necessary. It can instead be adorned with a creamy schmear and balanced with smoky, salty or sharp toppings such as lox, capers or red onions.

Where to get it in the D.C. area:

• Bethesda Bagels, 1718 Connecticut Ave. NW; 120 M St. SE. Also has locations in Maryland and Virginia. bethesdabagels.com.

• Call Your Mother, 3301 Georgia Ave. NW. callyourmotherdeli.com.

Bubble tea

West Coast

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The foundation of Taiwanese bubble tea is boba — those squishy, chewy tapioca pearls that serve as the drink’s base. They are so integral that “boba” is often shorthand for the drink itself.

First popularized in the United States in such West Coast cities as Los Angeles, bubble tea requires boba to be boiled, then cooled before it’s added to a cup with ice, tea and often milk and other toppings such as fruit jellies and custard. The drink should be made fresh, because old boba can lose its springiness and become unpleasantly hard and mealy.

West Coast fans say that good bubble tea is extremely customizable, allowing you to select your tea, favorite toppings and exact amount of ice and level of sweetness. Beware of shops that list bubble tea on the menu but offer no other details.

Where to get it in the D.C. area:

• Kung Fu Tea, 1990 M St. NW; 1529 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Also has locations in Maryland and Virginia. kungfutea.com.

• Sharetea, 519 H St. NW. Also has a location in Virginia. 1992sharetea.com.

• Gong Cha, 1339 New York Ave. NW. Also has locations in Maryland. gongchadmv.com.

Fish taco

Coastal cities

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Fish tacos are a study in contrasts.

Like bubble tea, fish tacos are transplants themselves, originating in Baja California and becoming integral to food culture nearly four decades ago in San Diego.

Fish tacos can be crunchy, flaky, crispy and creamy. The accompanying white sauce, which often uses sour cream or mayonnaise as a base, can be citrusy and spicy.

There are a lot of elements to consider in a good fish taco: the corn tortilla, white fish (which can be deep-fried or blackened on a grill), cream sauce, slaw, salsa. But freshness is a key component — especially for the fish and tortilla.

Where to get it in the D.C. area:

• Surfside, 2444 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 1800 N St. NW. surfsidedc.com.

• Taco Bamba, 777 I St. NW. Also has locations in Virginia. tacobamba.com.

• Taqueria Habanero, 3710 14th St. NW. Also has a location in Maryland. habanerodc.com.

• Mezcalero, 3714 14th St. NW. mezcalerodc.com.

Poke

Hawaii

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In Hawaii, there are entire grocery-store sections dedicated to poke. Although it’s commonly served there as an appetizer or a side, poke is more often eaten with rice as a main dish on the mainland, where it is popular in such West Coast cities as Seattle and, increasingly, here in the District.

No matter where it’s eaten, the chunks of raw fish or other seafood are usually pre-marinated and dressed with such toppings as sweet onions, green onions, seaweed and rice seasoning. Those additions should not overwhelm the fish, which transplants from Hawaii say should be fresh and ideally caught the day it’s served.

Where to get it in the D.C. area:

• Abunai Poke, 1920 L St. NW. abunaipoke.com.

Ruth Tam

Ruth Tam is a writer and illustrator based in Washington, D.C., where she is also a producer for WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

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