Inside Union Market, Washington D.C.'s culinary capital

Nothing brings people together more than food. And perhaps nowhere in Washington, D.C., is there a more bipartisan place than Washington’s new culinary capital: Union Market.

The soaring structure is home to an eclectic group of chefs and entrepreneurs. Bon Appetit magazine named it one of the top five food halls in America. And it’s transformed a once-overlooked section of the city into one-stop shopping for some of the finest and rarest foods around, reports “CBS This Morning: Saturday” co-host Alex Wagner. 

Cheesemonger Carolyn Stromberg loves talking about 80 or so rarities for sale at her Righteous Cheese shop.

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Righteous Cheese at the Union Market

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“They wrap the cheese in cloth and they let it age for a year,” Stromberg said. “It allows the cheese to get all these additional flavors.”

“I taste England,” Wagner said after a taste.

“Yes. And that’s what real cheddar tastes like,” Stromberg said.

It’s why Nick Stefanelli – whose Michelin-starred restaurant, Masseria, is just next store – shops there almost daily.

“I eat a lot of cheese. I have not seen a lot of these cheeses. Were you surprised at the sort of level of fluency in terms of what they’re selling?” Wagner asked.

“I think it was, like, the whole Union Market aspect when they came in,” Sefanelli said. “They wanted to put the best foot forward and they did a really good job curating all of the vendors that came in to be a part of making up the food culture and ecosystem that we have here.”

Located in Southeast D.C. two miles from the Capitol building, Union Market is a food hall fit for a world capital. There, you can taste everything from a savory South Indian pancake at D.C. Dosa to the sweet spicy flavors of the American South at Puddin’.

 “So, Toyin, I see here one of my favorite things on earth -- bread pudding. What’s your secret?” Wagner asked Toyin Alli, the owner of Puddin’.

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Chef Toyin Alli serves etouffee

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“Well, I can’t give you the secret,” Alli said, laughing. “But it’s brown butter bourbon bread pudding. It’s amazing. It’s everything you want bread pudding to be.”
 
Alli started Puddin’ after her first career went wildly off track.
 
“I actually graduated from NYU with a master’s in public administration. And I… started working at Amtrak as a financial auditor,” Alli said.

“Wow, you’re like the public administrator of gumbo and bread pudding,” Wagner said.

“It works,” Alli said.

Now she’s at Union Market, luring in eaters with her signature etouffee and gumbo.

Union Market is filled with newcomers. But the butchers at Harvey’s have been anchoring the place for a long time.
 
“Harvey’s has been around since 1931. Is that right?” Wagner asked.

“Well, we haven’t quite been here since 1931,” said Marty Kaufman, who’s been working in the market since 1978.
 
After 40 years in business, Harvey Chidel brought his father’s butcher shop to what was then called Union Terminal Market in 1971.  

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Harvey’s Market at the Union Market 

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“It was a bit of a rat hole, and a very, very busy rat hole at that,” Kaufman said. “Everybody bought cheap and sold cheap, and the people are very happy with it.”
 
But after a fire burned the market down in 2011, Union Market embarked on a makeover, forcing the butcher to take stock of the business.

“And it afforded us a one-year stint where we got to learn this business from the farmer up. And we never did that before,” said George Lesnar, Chidel’s son-in-law.

“What was that process like?” Wagner asked.

“You got to meet the farmers. You got to see the animals in the field. And we got to see their protocols on how they feed the animals,” Lesnar said. “And we developed this great appreciation for how the animal is raised.”

They now buy most of their meat locally from farms in five surrounding states.

“How has your customer base changed?” Wagner asked.

“Our client base now is between 18 and 40 years old. And they have this real nice appreciation for the entire animal -- not just the chops and the burgers,” Lesnar said. “They want to do the whole animal. And that’s really important for the farmers.”

From the chopping block to the kitchen countertop, a cook needs a good knife. For that, there’s Ryan Swanson at DC Sharp, where you can buy a brand new Japanese steel knife or just sharpen your old one.

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Ryan Swanson, owner of DC Sharp

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“That’s one of the draws to the market here, is that everybody comes for the food. But then honestly, they’ll walk in the store while I’m sharpening a knife, right... and they’ll be like, ‘Do you guys sharpen knives?’” Swanson said. “And it’s like, you know, ‘We sure do.’ Because there aren’t too many stores like this in the country. There’s maybe a handful.”

Union Market has something for nearly every palate, including that of the daughter of a Burmese immigrant. We closed out the feeding frenzy at Jocelyn Law-Yone’s Toli Moli, which means “a little of this and a little of that” in Burmese.
               
“So I grew up going to the Burmese bazaar at the monastery with my grandmother and mother. And falooda is my favorite thing in the world,” Wagner said. “But I have no idea what goes into it. So can you tell me? What do you have here?”

“Falooda is almost anything really, where it’s something sweet, right, and some kind of dairy. So first layer, right, pomegranate and ginger jellies that are just wonderful,” Law-Yone said, preparing a falooda for Wagner. “Little rubies, right?”

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Alex Wagner tries Toli Moli owner Jocelyn Law-Yone’s falooda 

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“Yeah, Burmese rubies,” Wagner said, laughing.

She then added basil seeds, noodle pudding, a scoop of ice cream, sweetened milk and a cranberry syrup made with rosewater.

“It’s no surprise that I loved this drink growing up,” Wagner said. “It’s basically a milkshake with jelly in it.”

“I remember my childhood,” Wagner said with a smile after a taste.