Image courtesy Washington City Paper

Philadelphia Cheesesteak.  New York Pizza.  Kansas City Barbecue.

You know you’ve found a city’s signature dish when the conversation changes from “what’s to eat?” to “who does it better?”  Back in July, Tim Carman at the Washington City Paper ruffled some feathers when he suggested that DC lacks a signature dish of its own.  What about the half-smoke, especially the chili half-smoke from Ben’s?

As much as I hate to admit it, he makes a compelling argument.  Thankfully,  Carman wasn’t satisfied with just making that downer of a point.  He has since been engaged in an ongoing conversation with readers, chefs and other writers.  The topic: In the absence of a single signature dish, is there a pantheon of can’t-miss plates that locals and visitors alike should seek out to experience the best of what Washington has to offer?

Carman and his audience found plenty of candidates – more than 100 dishes were suggested.  The concept of a DC Dish Hall of Fame was clearly a popular one, and in late October it was announced that the inaugural class would be decided by popular vote from a list of 30 standout items.

With the vote deadline coming up on Friday, we’re in the home stretch.  Of the 30 dishes on the survey, the top 5 will be named to the Hall of Fame.  Currently, those five would be:

  • Half-smoke with chili at Ben’s Chili Bowl, 399 votes
  • Falafel at Amsterdam Falafelshop, 349
  • Hamburger at Five Guys, 223
  • Peruvian chicken at El Pollo Rico, 161
  • Margherita pizza at 2Amys, 148
  • We reached out to Carman to ask him a few questions about the overall concept and where the Hall of Fame will go from here.  Check it out after the jump.

    Image courtesy Washington City Paper

    According to Carman, the Hall of Fame wasn’t really meant to be a popularity contest.  Instead, it was meant to find dishes that people “love and that have a sense of history.”  He limited the contenders to those that had been around for at least a year and a half, to give the items a bit more gravitas within the local dining scene.  And he sought the input of top local chefs to ensure a balance between widely popular dishes and dishes that deserve greater popularity.

    And then he put it to the masses, which is either the genius or the fatal flaw in his plan, depending on how you look at it.  Naturally, a public vote is going to favor those dishes that have been tasted by the greatest number of people.  It’s also going to favor those restaurants with the strongest fan bases (and the most effective outreach efforts).  Even if every voter who has had Komi’s spit-roasted goat picks it as one of his or her top three, it will still have far fewer advocates than a more accessible dish like a Five Guys burger.

    “I can’t say there have been a lot of surprises,” said Tim,  “[but] I have been happy with the performance of so-called “ethnic” dishes.  Pho, palak chaat, falafel, and Peruvian chicken are among the top 10 dishes.”  Only the chicken and the falafel currently stand to make the Hall of Fame, but his point is well taken.

    Image courtesy Washington City Paper

    One thing that did surprise Carman is the lengths that some people have gone to to influence the results.  “We had a surprising number of spambots hit the site,” he told us.  He also admitted that there’s not much that can be done about restaurants’ efforts to rally their supporters in an online poll like this (a circumstance that marred Washingtonian Magazine’s efforts to crown a local burger champion earlier this year).

    Going forward, Carman is looking into a number of tweaks to the Hall of Fame.  He’s still considering the possibility of a second set of inductees selected by industry professionals, and he’s open to suggestions on whether or not there should be a limit to the number of times a dish can be nominated before it becomes ineligible.

    So what do you think?  And – more importantly – have you taken the time to cast your vote?  We’d like to encourage all Capital Spice readers to take a moment today or tomorrow and vote before the polls close on Friday.  Feel free to lobby for your personal favorites in the comments below.

    Us?  We voted way back in October.  So far it’s looking like only one of our favorites is likely to be inducted this time around.