Archive for June, 2014

Tortilla Cafe

Tortilla Café

For my traditional end-of-the-month restaurant review for the month of June, I chose to ride to Tortilla Cafe, located at 210 7th Street in southeast D.C. (MAP), in one of D.C.’s hotspots for tourism, the Historic Eastern Market on Capitol Hill.  A self-described Mexican and Salvadoran grill, Tortilla Cafe is small in size but big on flavor, and well worth a visit.

Tortilla Cafe and is managed by Catalina Canales, who seems to know exactly what she’s doing.  Whether she’s in the kitchen in the back creating her signature tamales and papusas that are so good they have developed a cult following, or out front greeting and interacting with the customers with a smile that sets the tone for the place, Catalina remains as authentic as the cuisine.

The distinctive Mexican-Salvadoran offerings on the menu begin with famously tasty tamales, offer with a choice of seasoned pork, chicken, or sweet corn filling, and made with a traditional masa and the perfect blend of spices.  The papusas, empanadas and burritos are equally great choices as well, as are the Salvadoran chicken and Cuban sandwiches.  Other favorites on the menu include Salvadoran beef soup, carne asada, Yucca y Chicharrones.  Lighter seafood options such as talapia tacos, shrimp fajitas, or a salmon Caesar salad are also available.  The availability of so many delicious choices makes the decision of what to order an even more difficult one.

The attention to detail in the finishing touches at Tortilla Cafe complete the experience.  Make sure to place your order as a platter to add sides dishes that include refried or black beans, Salvadoran rice, yucca, and plantains.  And the fresh housemade pico de gallo, salsa, and guacamole at Tortilla Cafe taste as though they are more than mere condiments.  Finally, to enhance your dining experience even more, I recommend that you round out your meal by trying one of the non-alcoholic traditional drink offerings, such as Horchata, Maracuya and Maranon.

Almost as phenomenal as the food is the value. The affordable pricing at Tortilla Cafe would be an amazing value anywhere, but it’s even more amazing for D.C.  There is frequently a line at Tortilla Cafe, but it moves along and the food arrives quickly.  And the inside seating is sparse, with the available seats often fill up during their busier times.  But the additional outdoor seating where I chose to enjoy my lunch offers the added benefit of being able to people watch as locals and tourists alike come and go from Eastern Market.

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The District of Columbia War Memorial

Tomorrow morning at approximately 10:45am marks exactly one century since Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were shot to death by a 19-year old Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip during an official visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. The killings sparked a chain of events that by early August of that year led to the outbreak of World War I.  On June 28, 1919, five years to the day after Archduke Ferdinand’s death, Germany and the Allied Powers signed the Treaty of Versailles, officially marking the end of World War I.

The day before Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, on June 27, 1914, who could have predicted that the next day’s actions of Gavrilo Princip would, over the next five years, lead to over 16 million additional deaths, including 499 citizens of D.C., who were 4,680 miles away at that time?

That’s the butterfly effect.  The butterfly effect is a term used in chaos theory to describe how small changes to a seemingly unrelated thing or condition (also known as an initial condition) can affect large, complex systems. The term comes from the suggestion that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in South America could affect the weather in Texas, meaning that the tiniest influence on one part of a system can have a huge effect on another part. Taken more broadly, the butterfly effect is a way of describing how, unless all factors can be accounted for, large systems like the weather remain impossible to predict with total accuracy because there are too many unknown variables to track.

So to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, I rode to the District of Columbia War Memorial, located at just of Independence Avenue on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial (MAP).  The memorial, which stands in West Potomac Park, is located in a grove of trees.  It is the only local District memorial on the National Mall.  The Memorial commemorates the citizens of the D.C. who served in what was then known as the Great War, or the World War.  Built prior to World War II, they did not contemplate at that time that there would be another world war necessitating the designation of that world war as the first one.  Inscribed on the base of the memorial are the names of the 499 D.C. citizens who lost their lives in the war.  Also preserved in a vault at the Memorial is a list of over 26,000 additional Washingtonians who served in the Great War.

What did you do today that, through a butterfly effect, may have an influence on the future?  What will that influence be, and will it be positive or negative?

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Dante Alighieri Statue at Meridian Hill Park

Dante Alighieri is a public artwork by an Italian sculptor named Ettore Ximenes, and is a tribute to the major Italian poet of the Middle Ages of the same name, mononymously referred to as Dante.   It rests on a granite base, with the statue depicting a standing Dante wearing a robe and a laurel wreath on his head.  In his hands he is holding a copy of “The Divine Comedy,” his epic poetic trilogy depicting an imaginative and allegorical vision of the afterlife describes Dante’s journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso).  Originally called Commedia and later called Divina by Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote a biography of Dante.  The Divine Comedy is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature, as well as one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature.

Dante was a Medieval Italian poet, writer, political thinker and moral philosopher.  He known in In Italy as il Sommo Poeta, or “the Supreme Poet.”  He is also called the “Father of the Italian language.”  He was born in Florence in the year 1265.  Unfortunately, relatively little is known about his life.  Much of what is known of the writer comes from his essays and writings.  Dante did not write of his family or marriage, but it is known that he married Gemma di Manetto Donati, and they had several children, of whom two sons, Jacopo and Pietro, and a daughter, Antonia, are known.

Dante Alighieri is a casting of an identical statue located at Dante Park in New York City, and was donated to the city of D.C. as a “gift of the Italians of the United States” by Carlo Barsotti, the founder of Dante Park and editor of Il Progresso Italiano-Americano, an Italian-language daily newspaper published in the United States at that time.

On this bike ride, I rode to see the statue, which is located at the southeast corner of Meridian Hill Park, which is located in northwest D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, on land bordered by 15th, 16th, W, and Euclid Streets (MAP).  It was dedicated at that location in December of 1921, in a ceremony attended by numerous dignitaries, including President Warren G. Harding and his wife, Florence, who may or may not have been named after the city where Dante was born.

Freedom Plaza

Freedom Plaza

Freedom Plaza, originally known as Western Plaza, is an open urban plaza built in 1980 in northwest D.C., located at 1455 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), at the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.  It is adjacent to Pershing Park, and just a few blocks from The White House.  The plaza was designed and developed by The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, as part of a plan to transform Pennsylvania Avenue into a ceremonial route connecting the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

The western end of the plaza contains a raised reflecting pool with a large, animated circular fountain, while the eastern end contains an equestrian statue of Kazimierz Pułaski, a general in the Continental Army.  The center of the plaza contains a giant inlaid black granite and white marble map of the national capital city, as designed by Pierre L’Enfant, with grass panels representing the National Mall and the Ellipse, and bronze markers denoting the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

It was renamed Freedom Plaza in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked on his “I Have a Dream” speech in the nearby Willard Hotel.  At the time the name was changed in 1988, a time capsule containing a Bible, a robe, and other relics of King’s was planted at the site.  I look forward to another bike ride there in 2088 when the time capsule will be reopened.

Freedom Plaza is a popular place for political protests and civic events.  In the spring of 1968, it was home to a shanty town known as “Resurrection City,” which was erected by protesters affiliated with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Poor People’s Campaign.”  In the wake of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, the encampment ultimately proved unsuccessful, and the inhabitants of the tent city were dispersed within the next couple of months.

Years later, beginning in October of 2011, it was also one the sites in D.C. which was temporarily home for a group which called itself Occupy Washington D.C., which was connected to the Occupy D.C. movement, encamped at McPherson Square, and to the Occupy Wall Street and broader Occupy movements that sprung up across the United States throughout the fall of that year.  However, by December, the movement’s presence at Freedom Plaza was nearing its end.  The two original organizers of the Freedom Plaza occupation divorced themselves from the occupation, and the “exploding” rat population around the camps at Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square was described by D.C. Department of Health director Mohammad Akhter as “no different than refugee camps.”

Freedom Plaza is one of those places in D.C. that many people have already been to but never really noticed.  Unique among the city’s plazas and parks, it is worth a long enough visit to appreciate its subtlety and details.

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The Watermelon House

The Watermelon House

When the owners of the 19th century brick end row house located at 1112 Q Street in the Logan Circle neighborhood of northwest D.C. (MAP) hired painters to paint their house, it did not turn out the way they had intended.  They had wanted the house to be painted a solid, nice shade of fire-engine red.  And although the front of the house turned out as originally intended, the side of the house ended up being more like to color of “Pepto-Bismol.”  But that mistake turned out to be a good thing, because without it the public might not otherwise be able to enjoy what has come to be known as “The Watermelon House.”

Instead of becoming upset with the way the painting job turned out and filing a lawsuit or a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, the owners made the most out of it.  They got some black and pink and green paint, and painted a watermelon on the side of the house instead. When asked, the owners of the house will say that they don’t consider themselves to be artists, they “just can’t stand bland colors.”  Since then, the “Watermelon House” has become an unofficial neighborhood landmark.

Since watermelon is one of those foods that screams summertime, I thought The Watermelon House would be an appropriate destination for a bike ride during this first week of summer.  And I enjoyed seeing the house, although it seemed to be a little “seedy.”

The Summer House

The Summer House


In the United States as well as the rest of the northern hemisphere, the first day of the summer occurred over this past weekend.  Known technically as the Northern Solstice, or by those affected as the Summer Solstice, it is the day of the year when the sun is farthest north.  For people in the northern hemisphere, the first day of summer is the longest day of the year, with the length of time elapsed between sunrise and sunset at its maximum.   At this time of year the equator receives twelve hours of daylight, while there is 24 hours of daylight at the North Pole.  In the United States, there will be approximately 14½ hours of daylight starting tomorrow.

To celebrate the beginning of summer, I decided to write about The Summerhouse.  Tucked away on the sloping hillside on the northwest side of the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building (MAP), the Summerhouse is a small, ornate, hexagonal red brick and Spanish tile building.  It has three arched doorways flanked by small windows on three of the six walls, and an open roof.  In the center of the structure is a fountain that used to be fed by a local spring.  The building’s water supply originally fed into a large bowl, and ladles were chained to the bowl to be used for drinking the cool spring water.  Overflow was often used to supply water for horses.  Today the original fountain bowl is decorative only and the ladles are gone, but it is surrounded by modern drinking fountains which utilize city water.   And you are more likely to find dog walkers providing water to their canine friends than riders watering their horses.

Lining the interior of the Summerhouse you will also find numerous bench seats alternating with the doorways, which are designed to provide seating for 22 people.  The seats are constructed out of bluestone, and are shaded and sheltered by projecting coverings of Spanish mission tiles, thus providing an ideal place for enjoying a cool drink of water on a warm summer day.

The original design intended for some of the overflow from the Summerhouse’s fountain to operate a small device called a “carillon” to produce soft musical chimes.  Designed by Tiffany & Co. of New York, the device could not be made to work properly and was eventually removed in 1891.  Years later, in 1959, visitors to the Summerhouse were finally able to hear the music of a carillon when The Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon opened nearby just north of the Capitol Building.

The Summerhouse was designed by architect Thomas Wisedell, with construction beginning in 1879 and completed in late 1880 or early 1881 by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who had previously been appointed by Congress in 1874 to develop and improve the expanded Capitol grounds.  The grounds had recently increased in size during the process of designing and building the north and south wings of the Capitol Building.  Original plans called for two identical structures, but members of Congress objected to the design of the first and present building, so the plans for a second, matching summerhouse on the southern side of the Capitol Building were abandoned and the twin was never built.

Today, the Summerhouse can be a hidden surprise and delight for visitors touring the Capitol grounds, providing refreshment of both body and spirit.  Unfortunately, most people simply walk past it.  Some are oblivious to its presence, while others may be curious, but remain too focused on where they are going to stop and take enough time to discover it and what’s inside.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Vermont Avenue Farmers Market

Vermont Avenue Farmers Market

For my last springtime bike ride before summer officially begins this weekend, I leisurely rode around the downtown area for a while before going to a farmers market named Farmfresh Markets by The White House, located on Vermont Avenue between H and I Streets in northwest D.C. (MAP), just across from the northeast corner of Lafayette Park.  Every Thursday from April through October, the street is closed to traffic while it temporarily becomes an open-air market and street fair.  Although only a block long, a number of booths and vendors set up with a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other products like breads and baked goods, kettle corn, artisan cheeses, milk and yogurt, fresh-cut flowers, and jellies and jams. There were also some places serving lunch, and even a street musician providing background music.

But on this occasion it was one particular booth run by a Mennonite family that caught my attention. It was operated by Kinley and Rebecca Coulter and their family, from Coulter Farms of Honey Grove, Pennsylvania. They were selling a variety of products, including organic meat, free range eggs, raw milk cheeses, and a variety of flavors of raw honey.  What initially caught my eye was a display for their honey that included a large hive and a swarm of hundreds of live bees, which they had set up on a table in the front of their booth. It was all behind glass, so it was safe enough to get up close, and it was very interesting to stop and watch for a while.

The Coulters also had a large grill set up and were serving lunch, which consisted entirely of products from their farm. I had a certified organic 100% grass-fed beef sausage with fresh grilled peppers and onions on a homemade roll, and a big glass of iced tea flavored with raw honey and fresh-picked mint.  I then took my lunch across the street to eat it in Lafayette Park. I ate on a bench near a fountain in the park, and listened to the street musician as I watched an ongoing protest in front of the northern portico of the White House.

There are a number of farmers markets in the D.C. area during the warmer months, including one sponsored by the Department of Agriculture every Friday.  While I have visited a number of them, the one on Vermont Avenue remains my favorite.  And this ride and stopping by the market was a relaxing and enjoyable way to say goodbye to spring.  And it left me looking forward to many more rides during the coming summer.

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Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail

Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail

The Fort Circle Trail is what’s known as a hiker-biker trail, and follows along part of a route connecting historic sites that are collectively known as The Civil War Defenses of Washington.  The seven-mile trail passes through four of D.C.’s dozens of Civil War era forts which were originally built to defend bridges, naval installations, Capitol Hill and the rest of the city from likely approaches by Confederate rebels through southern Maryland during the Civil War.  Trail end points are at Bruce Place (Fort Stanton) in southeast D.C. (MAP), where I entered the trail on this ride, and at 42nd Street (Fort Mahan) in northeast D.C., where I ended.

The Fort Circle Trail contains surprising expanses of natural open spaces in what is otherwise a highly urban area.  It runs along the traces of old roadways, as well as through forests which are thick with oaks, beech, maples, and pine.  It can also get overgrown with vegetation at times along the route.  There are a few busy road crossings too, and navigating the starts and stops can sometimes get tricky if a rider is not paying attention.  The trail’s surface is mostly natural earth, with some improved sections which are paved with asphalt.  Be aware that the natural surface areas can also get muddy after heavy rains.  But the trail is signed in most places and easy to follow.

The Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail was designated in June of 1971, and was one of the first National Recreation Trails.  It is administered by the National Park Service, and is part of the larger American Discovery Trail as it winds its way from Chesapeake Bay to Georgetown, as well as the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, whose 425 miles of trail stretch between the Chesapeake Bay and the Allegheny Highlands.

The Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail is unique in that it is the only natural-surface trail within the D.C. city limits that allows mountain bikes.  In fact, a good way to see the trail is on mountain bike guided tours that are offered on the last Saturday of the month during warmer weather, and are lead by a Park Service ranger.  And if you don’t have a bike, the National Park Service will even provide one for you with advanced notice.

Whether you happen upon it like I did and explore the trail at your own pace, or plan ahead and take a tour guided by a ranger from the National Park Service, the Fort Circle Trail is unique among D.C.’s many trails, and worth experiencing in whatever way you choose.

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St. Matthew's Cathedral

Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle

On this lunchtime bike ride I went to The Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where I attended the noon service.  Established in 1840, and located downtown at 1725 Rhode Island Avenue in northwest D.C. (MAP), the cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

The Cathedral is constructed of red brick with sandstone and terra cotta trim in the Romanesque Revival style with Byzantine elements. Designed by architect C. Grant La Farge, it is in the shape of a Latin cross and seats about 1,200 persons. The interior is richly decorated in marble and semiprecious stones, notably a 35-foot mosaic of Matthew behind the main altar by Edwin Blashfield.  The cathedral is capped by an octagonal dome and is capped by a cupola and crucifix.  As St. Matthew’s Cathedral and Rectory, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As a Federal employee, I think it is also noteworthy that because of Matthew’s duties as a public official, namely a tax collector, the Church has designated him as the patron saint of civil servants and all who serve government in some capacity.  Because of this connection to government employees, and the Cathedral’s location in the nation’s capital, many prominent government figures, including Senators and Congressmen, members of the Cabinet, Justices of the Supreme Court, and many other dignitaries including, at times, the President, attend the Mass there.  The requiem mass during the state funeral of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, thus far the only president who was a member of the Catholic Church, was also conducted at the Cathedral in 1963.  The iconic photograph of John-John Kennedy saluting his father was taken out front afterward.

St. Matthew’s Cathedral is also the location for one of the most famous Red Masses in the world. Each year on the day before the term of the Supreme Court of the United States begins, Mass is celebrated to request guidance from the Holy Spirit for the legal profession.

It was an uplifting and educational service.  However, I must confess that as I sat there and took in the ornate cathedral’s elaborately decorated interior and appreciated its beauty; I couldn’t help but think of the numerous homeless people on the sidewalk in front of the church’s steps who were asking for money from people as they entered.  Although it is commonplace in D.C., and while I did not see it as reflecting on the church or the parish, I felt a sense of uneasiness as I found myself unable to reconcile the opulent excess of the cathedral with the unmet basic needs of the individuals outside.

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The Shipbuilder

The Shipbuilder

Across the Potomac River, located in Old Town Alexandria’s Waterfront Park, which stretches between Prince and King Streets along the waterfront (MAP), is a statue dedicated to the city’s legacy as a colonial seaport and home to the shipbuilding industry.  Entitled “The Shipbuilder,” the statue was created by a local classical sculptor named Michael Curtis, whose other works can be found in the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, The Library of Congress, various museums, and in public buildings throughout the country.  It is intended as a tribute to the craftsmen in the shipbuilding industry, which is considered to have played a vital role in the city’s early development.

The seven-foot-tall bronze statue of a 19th-century shipbuilder stands atop a three-foot carved hexagonal granite plinth.  It specifically depicts a rigger or lineman, although it symbolically represents the more than 30 different trades involved in shipbuilding at that time.  The statue’s rigger is holding what was called a “run around sue” type of rope, and is dressed in clothes representative of that era, which were often made from leftover sail cloth.

The idea for the statue was originally brought forth as part of the city of Alexandria’s 250th Anniversary Celebration in 1999.  It was gifted to the city by The Friends of Public Art for the Year of Celebration, a citizens group interested in promoting Alexandria’s historical heritage as a significant American seaport, and unveiled and dedicated to the city in 2004 by the Alexandria Arts Safari, a nonprofit organization that supports public art, education and history projects.

The warm and pleasant weather typical of the D.C. area at this time of year makes the ride to “Old Town” worthwhile in and of itself, but I suggest a visit to The Shipbuilder, and perhaps lunch in one of the neighborhood’s many excellent eateries, before riding back across the river to D.C.