Yesterday we had the pleasure of attending the final round of the Mess Hall Competition to find a new food vendor for an open stall at Union Market. There were 5 vendors in this final round, all amazing cooks and entrepreneurs.
First I tried a pork belly bao bun and mango slaw from the newly minted Bao Brothers Bar. The buns were fluffy, the meat tender and flavorful, and perfectly topped with cilantro and slaw. They kicked it up a notch with hoisin and sriracha on top- making for a sweet and spicy finish. It rivaled other Bao buns I've tried from Chaplin and Maketto. Nice work, especially considering they've only been in operation for a month. I also really enjoyed the mild mango slaw. I am hopeful these guys will keep the DC bao dream alive!
Perhaps the booth I was most excited to visit was Arepa Zone. I have been a fan of their food truck for a year now, and just love their homemade Venezuelan food.
The Arepa Zone booth had a wide range of offerings, including a couple different arepa flavors. For those who don't know, arepas are like a fluffy corn-meal bun that is sliced in half and stuffed with any combo of shredded chicken, beef, beans, cheese, plantains, and avocados. They also served other traditional specialties like sweet corn pancakes and arroz con leche. All so amazing! I had the chicken and avocado arepa, which is one of my all time favorites.
One of the more DC-oriented vendors was a new business called Half Smoke. They will feature, not surprisingly, half smoke sausages in a variety of meat options with some pretty gourmet toppings. I am not a big hotdog or sausage fan, but even I was impressed with the caramelized onion and pepper jack cheese-topped half smoke. I also love that they plan to have a fast-casual concept that hires graduates of DC Central Kitchen.
One of the steep competitors was Whisked bakery. Handing out hundreds of cookies and home made pies, they were in it to win it. Their peach rasberry pie and their sea salt chocolate chess pie were delicious. But I have a feeling Union Market may already have its fill of bakeries.
One vendor that took me completely by surprise was Bene. Bene is gearing up to be a fast-casual Italian kitchen, that serves gourmet pastas for a reasonable budget. It's run entirely by Koreans who grew up in NYC and met at GWU. I was particularly struck by Bene's presentation to the judges. When the chef from Daikaya challenged them for not including their Korean heritage in their cuisine, they deftly explained that while they came from Korean families, they grew up eating slices of pizza and pasta al vongole around New York. I am with Bene on that one; as much as we can be inspired by our heritage, we don't need to be bound or limited by it.
Bene offered a sampling of two pastas, a vegetarian white manicotti with fried basil leaves on top and a rigatoni-type pasta with a hearty ragu.
The manicotti was a little rich for my personal taste, but everyone around me agreed the ragu, slightly smokey and spicy, was one of the best things they had all day. I am hopeful this team opens a permanent shop in DC soon, because I would definitely be in for that ragu!
In addition to the food, we also got to sample cocktails, wine and beer from local mixologists and producers. The cocktails were served in pretty copper mugs that we got to take home at the end of the day!
After an hour of face stuffing, we made our way to the seated area for the team presentations and official judging. The audience vote counted for 5%, but the real judging was made by the chef/owners of Rose's Luxury, Ris, Nora's, the Inn at Little Washington, Daikaya, and other members of the Mess Hall team.
Almost like a mini Shark Tank episode, each vendor presented their business case and gave the judges the chance to ask questions. Whisked had the most impressive presentation -- they clearly had a real handle on their numbers, projections, and margins.While the judges deliberated, we were treated to a second round of food and drinks from the competitors as well as a number of other DC food vendors like Bullfrog Bagels, Capital Kombucha, and other delicious treats from around the area. Needless to say, we were well fed all day long!
Finally, around 5pm the emcee came back out and announced two winners. First, Bao Brothers Bar took home the People's Coice award by winning the audience vote.
And lastly, a moment of real pride and anticipation, they announced Arepa Zone as the official winners. Which is good news for everyone really, because soon they will have their own stall in Union Market! Arepas for all!!
Congrats again to the winners, we will definitely be in to support them at Union Market!