I didn't roam the district as widely as Robert Sietsema, my counterpart at the Village Voice, mostly because I was intent on touring the new House & Home exhibit at the National Building Museum and the recently-renovated Ford's Theatre (My museum studies degree isn't good for much, but it formally guarantees that I'll be hopelessly distracted when visiting the nation's capital.) So if you're D.C.-bound and hungry for a smoked brisket sandwich or pig-foot broth, you should certainly consult Robert's must-eat list. And if it's beer you're craving, you might want to check out where the Houston Press' Katharine Shillcutt drank during the conference.
But if what you really want to know is where you can sample regional specialties within an hour or so of the city, I've got you covered, thanks to a few well-spent days before the Association of Food Journalists conference started. I've listed my favorites here, along with one can't-miss D.C. meal. Consider it my "Where to Eat in the Mid-Atlantic" exhibit.
1. Blue crabs, Cantler's Riverside Inn, Annapolis, Md.
There are perhaps truer crab houses further down the state's Eastern shore, where hostesses don't distribute electronic pagers and the bar's crowded with working watermen. But Cantler's has the advantage of being within striking distance of D.C. And the restaurant isn't quite as polished as the long line of cars out front would suggest: Beer's only served in cans, and a dock out back doubles as a waiting area. Even purists who might object to the souvenir t-shirts and beer coozies couldn't legitimately complain about the meaty crabs, seasoned with a tremendous amount of salty Old Bay. Outlanders dip the crab meat in vinegar, while locals prefer butter, but the crabs are far too flavorful to require any condiment.
2. Pit beef sandwich, Chaps Charcoal Restaurant, Baltimore, Md.
Imagine you loved Cheetos (I'm hoping this isn't too much of a stretch.) And then imagine you stumbled upon the Platonic ideal of a Cheeto, made with the world's orangest cheese and hand-fried by a Cheeto master. For closeted Arby's fans, that's pretty much the situation at Chaps, a roast beef emporium that's gone from unelectrified shack to culinary institution over just two decades.
Pit beef is sometimes described as Baltimore barbecue, but that's misleading: To make pit beef, practitioners grill hefty top rounds over charcoal. At Chaps, customers can request any doneness they like, but tradition demands rare beef, sliced paper-thin and crowned with fresh horseradish or horseradish sauce, bread-and-butter pickles and white onions. The extraordinarily juicy beef, crusted at its edges, is served atop a Kaiser roll. Don't forget the gravy fries.
3. Cinnamon twist, Stoltzfus Homestyle Bakery, Lancaster, Penn.
The Stoltzfus' stand in Lancaster's 275-year old Central Market is known for its whoopie pies and chow chow, but former farmer Dan Stoltzfus says the biggest perk of selling baked goods is being able to spend the day eating cinnamon buns. I didn't try the bun, but the aromatic, lightly-glazed cinnamon twist was wonderfully doughy and soft.
4. Weiner, The Famous Hot Weiner, Hanover, Pa.
Honestly, there's nothing special about the weiner (which could have been meatier) or the bun (which could have been fresher) at The Famous Hot Weiner. But the dog's worth ordering for its chili sauce, which Nicholas Mavros and his descendents have been making since 1928. The recipe is super-secret, of course, but the gently sweet seasoning that's added to the finely-ground beef makes a fine counterfoil for the yellow mustard that the grill guys apply with abandon.
5. Pork ribs, Little Serow, Washington D.C.
Unlike every other purveyor on this list, Little Serow doesn't have much of a pedigree. Johnny Monis' tribute to Isaan Thai cooking opened just last year. But the humble-looking hotspot has already landed on Bon Appetit's list of Best New Restaurants, and rightly so: Every dish I had was an incredible feat of spicing. Little Serow is serious about heat, but applies it in a nuanced, elaborately-layered style that's impossible to pick apart.
I was especially fond of a silky catfish soup and the molten pork ribs, gently glazed in a whiskey sauce that I sopped up with perfectly-cooked sticky rice. Both of the dishes spoke not only of Thailand, but of Little Serow's home at the edge of the American South.