Oh, USA. Home of the free and the brave. Also home of the hamburger, the milkshake, and Coca Cola—all delicious symbols of our food culture, even though they really weren’t even around until the late 19th century. So, what did early Americans eat?
Now, I consider myself a food enthusiast (read: lacking the financial means to be a “connoisseur”), and I love ethnic restaurants. When I travel, I find it’s the food that connects you with the cultural and emotional spirit of a country. But I never really took the time to learn about my own country’s food heritage. Enter America Eats Tavern.
Becca had planned a girls’ brunch. Surprisingly, five women, on a raining and dreary Saturday, all made it to the restaurant on time. I arrived fresh from a five-day birthday trip to Paris. Erinn was prepping to head out on her own big excursion to Africa (wow, right?). And, one of us (whom we shall not name) arrived puffy-eyed, still in her post-break-up funk.
But there was much to distract us from talking about all these things. In fact, at America Eats, the menu ends up being the primary conversation piece. It’s full of stories and history, and you won’t want to rush through it. I had been there for dinner with Becca the month prior, and we loved it so much we returned for our brunch history lesson.
Now, because each menu item does tell a story, this review might get a little lengthy. So I’m just going to dive in.
America Eats opened (appropriately) on July 4th this year, as a six-month benefit destination to support the National Archives Experience exhibition program. Profits go to the Archives Foundation and the What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? exhibit.
Simply put, it’s a philanthropic pop-up restaurant created right inside where Café Atlántico used to be. Jose Andres’ team took out the Nuevo Latino digs and replaced it with full-on Americano, leaving Minibar there and totally unharmed (breathe easy, Minibar lovers).
To start we shared the bread basket, which had two buns, two biscuits, and two slices of cranberry walnut bread. Suitable for all tastes at the table. The cranberry walnut bread was delicious, and the biscuits went perfectly with the ‘blackberry butter,’ which was just jam with a dollup of butter in the center.
America Eats offers a nice array of starters, including oysters (supposedly an American favorite since the 1700s). Although we didn’t sample any on this visit, we did admire the charming oyster bar (and boy) near the front door.
The homemade dough nuts with blackberry jam get my vote for best app: two donut rounds with frosting on top. Soft inside, perfectly sweet. The menu told us of the dough nuts’ origins in the early 1800s, influenced by Dutch olykoeks and French beignets. The distinctive dough nut hole did not come ‘till decades later, when a ship captain used a tin box cover to cut a hole in the otherwise heavy center of the donut (bless him!).
We thought we could order the bagels and lox as an entrée, but no such luck. The dish is sushi-like hand rolls of salmon caviar served in a toothbrush holder. A delicacy if you’re big on fish eggs, but to me, it tasted like salty fishy jelly, and there was no cream cheese happening. This was clearly an artistic take on the first American bagels, which we learned arrived with Jewish bakers from Eastern Europe, and were perfected to their current chewiness thanks to 300 bakers of the New York bagel union.
The hush puppies were comforting and just sweet enough. They came with a side of sweet corn butter, but you can also get them with a side of caviar. We opted for not.
The cocktails! Simply amazing and strong—how else would you survive those early American winters? The brandy milk punch (consisting of brandy, milk, vanilla, and nutmeg) definitely served its promised punch. It was strong and would have been perfect during a cozy winter by the fire in New Orleans, where it was first created at Brennan’s, a NOLA institution.
Becca’s and my favorite cocktail was the French 75, which is the closest thing to a mimosa on the menu, but with an extra kick that comes from the gin that is mixed in with the sparkling wine and lemon. Created in Paris, and popularized in New York, the French 75 was known to deliver such a kick that it was compared to being shelled with the powerful French 75mm artillery piece. Perfect for dreary Saturdays or getting over ex-boyfriends.
Now the entrées. The dishes were all very small, but came with Jose Andre’s signature twist. Think delicate, well-constructed, artistic plates. So you definitely want to order lots of different dishes. Becca had the eggs a la Benedick. It was all foam, which is probably not very historic. The original dish was created in 1894 to please a patron named Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, who wanted something new for lunch. Upon learning this, we strongly considered erecting a shrine in her honor. As you know, the Bitches are big Benedict fans.
I had the corn bread with bacon, fried egg and Sorghum Syrup. Sounds simple enough, but this dish starts with sweet corn bread, a staple during the Civil War because of its economy and versatility. Then comes the bacon (from Virginia of course), and then … wait for it … that is topped with a deep fried egg. I can’t explain the miracle of how one deep-fries an egg, making the outside crisp while maintaining the inside perfectly yolky (I can’t even poach an egg), but they did, and it was fantastic.
Joanna had the Hangtown fry, named for the rough mining town in Cali known for its public hangings and its gold strikes. It was deep-fried oysters, which were not greasy and pretty perfect. The eggs were a tad undercooked, but the bacon was crisp. Perhaps the first true Californian cuisine, it combines the most expensive ingredients of the time: oysters, eggs, and bacon. If this was still true today the Bitches might be pretty broke.
Erinn had the shrimp ‘n’ Anson Mills grits with a fried egg. Just like my dish, the egg was deep fried and perched on top. It was a small dish, but there was enough buttered shrimp to fill you up.
Brooke had the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s the only PB&J in town that comes with Foie Gras, although it was tough to taste under the peanut butter. The sandwich itself tasted like fresh nut butter prepared like grilled cheese. Comforting. It also comes with an adorable mini jug of milk and a bag of homemade chips. Did you know that nut butters were originally considered a health food, and only grew into sandwich fillers towards the end of the 19th century? Now you do.
Also on the menu, an assortment of different flavored catsups that represent the first American condiments—thinner and spicier than today’s Heinz. Flavors included oyster, gooseberry, and anchovy. We didn’t order any—seemed a bit odd with brunch—but had them with dinner (alongside steak), and they were fabulous.
We did dip into the dessert menu. We split the cheesecake, which was delightfully light and fluffy. We also ordered the Vermont Sugar on Snow, a pile of shaved ice topped with a drizzling of maple syrup. The concept is cute. The syrup hardens and you wrap the thin glossy strands around candy sticks or your spoon (aka do-it-yourself candy). The first few bites were sweet and tasty, but soon after the whole plate turned into a melty, sticky mess. Still, worth a try.
You won’t find espresso on the menu (not American), but you will find delicious Café du Monde coffee with chicory.
At the end of the day, I think we were all impressed with how much research was put into every corner of the menu and décor, even if we did leave still a little hungry. The perfect last touch? Your check arrives in an old American hardback.
The Bitches say: B+ The dishes were small but flavorful, the service was attentive and knowledgeable, and we all feel a whole lot smarter after having eaten there. Don’t come hungover, but do bring visiting friends (especially if they are history buffs). Get there soon though—this pop-up restaurant only stays open till January. God bless ‘Murica!
America Eats Tavern
405 8th St. N.W.