Good Cultural Festivals in DC or NoVa?
I've just returned from the Japanese Street Festival in Downtown DC, and I was sorely disappointed. There was an overabundance of nasty non-Japanese food (lots of tents that had fried rice, egg rolls, pad thai, and chicken teryaki - the only remotely Japanese food), then there were tents with sushi. I spotted a tent serving some sort of soup, which tasted like a corn soup (it wasn't very good). I don't know if I just missed the tents serving the good, authentic Japanese food, but it just wasn't good at all.
The whole thing made me wonder if there are any good cultural festivals in the DC area. I used to live in Houston, and there were some excellent festivals there that different churches put on (there was a huge Greek festival with the best food made by the congregation of the Greek orthodox church that held it, and another excellent Egyptian festival put on by a Coptic church - it had the best dolmas I've ever had). Generally the better ones are held by churches or cultural associations and aren't city sponsored. Are there any good ones here? I've read about the DC Festa Italiana - how's that one?
Any suggestions in DC or NoVA are welcome (and possibly in MD, but I'm not really crazy about driving to Baltimore).
I think you must have missed alot of the Japanese booths then because there was a fair assortment of "authentic" Japanese food (beyond sushi), in addition to the albeit substandard non-Japanese tents.
Clustered mainly on Penn near 12th street an also just south of beer garden on Penn, multiple Japanese restaurants had booths serving a variety of items including sushi, various rice bowls, yakitori (there was Japanese style yakitori at one booth, in addition to the psuedo-yakitori at the non-Japanese booths) takoyaki (octopus fried in dough balls traditionally sold at Japanese street festivals), tempura, etc., etc.. Alot of these items, like rice bowls and tempura, are not typical Japanese street fair foods, but definitely are Japanese food.
A handful of local reastaurants ran these booths, including the ever-popular Tachibana in VA, Maneki Neko, Matuba, and others (I'm drawing a blank on the other restaurants, but there were at least 6 or 7 local Japanese restaurants at the festival). Also Kikkoman had a tent set up sampling their products, Kirin beer was sold at the beer gardens, and there was a sake tasting tent for those who didn't mind paying $25 a head (ouch!)
Now what I'd like to see are more traditional Japanese street festival foods in the future at the Sakura Matsuri, but I don't think it's accurate to say there wasn't Japanese food beyond sushi.
However, I would recommend some of the area Greek Festivals in town. I've been to the one on Mass Ave. that's mentioned below and think the food is quite good.
It's possible that what you described as "some sort of soup, which tasted like corn" was amazake. I thought it was pretty good, although it could be that I was just happy to see it (not too common in this area).
As takajin said, there were several Japanese restaurants that had booths, although I think there were an equal number on 12th Street. Tako Grill's booth had okonomiyaki, which is next to impossible to find in this area. It wasn't as good as what I've had in Sakai City outside of Osaka, but, for DC, not too bad. They also had takoyaki and Japanese curry. I didn't have the curry, as I make that at home when I'm not too lazy, but it looked pretty good and authentic (not really festival food, but it's a popular Japanese food). I also had oden at another booth.
Personally, I wouldn't want sushi from a street fair, and I ignored the pad thai/lo mein booths. In previous years, I saw huge lines for the inauthentic foods and very short lines for the Japanese foods. This year, there seemed to be a greater demand for the more authentic food. I hope that translates into more variety in future festivals (or, could I dare to hope, better variety in what our Japanese restaurants offer?).
I think the church festivals always have better food than the commercial street festivals ("Taste of ______" and pretty much anything on the Mall). Keep an eye out for the greek festivals. In DC, the greek church by the Cathedral has a good one. I'm sure someone on chowhound will know the dates if you post asking about them.
Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral
36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20007-1424
Tel: (202) 333-4730
Festival May 15-17
St. George Greek Orthodox Church
7701 Bradley Blvd., Bethesda, MD, (301) 469-7990
Friday, 5/2/2008, Time: 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Saturday, 5/3/2008, Time: Noon to 10:00 PM
Sunday, 5/4/2008, Time: Noon to 10:00 PM
Saints Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church
920 West 7th Street, Frederick, MD, (301) 663-0663
Thursday, 5/15/2008, Time: 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM
Friday, 5/16/2008, Time: 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM
Saturday, 5/17/2008, Time: 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM
Sunday, 5/18/2008, Time: 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM
Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church
2747 Riva Road, Annapolis, MD, Greek festival web site, (410) 573-2072
Friday, 5/30/2008, Time: Noon to 11:00 PM
Saturday, 5/31/2008, Time: 9:00 AM to 11:00 PM
Sunday, 6/1/2008, Time: Noon to 5:00 PM
I'll second the Greek Festival at St. Sophia. Went last year and had a blast: whole spit roasted lamb over charcoal, kebabs, gyros, souvlakis, pastitsios, a bewildering variety of pastries, all washed down with Greek beer. Big tent with tons of Greek vendors; they even gave my kid a free amulet to ward off the evil eye.
Don't feel bad about the fried rice/eggroll/lomein at the Japanese fest. That's pretty much standard fare at EVERY DC "____-Day" festival.
The single most impressive in the area is the Thai festival this weekend or next in Silver Spring, MD, but way out there. The key to getting the best food is to stand in the longest lines. There's a reason why the people are standing in line instead of walking up to the vendors with no line.
In NoVa, probably the best is the Ukranian festival at the Byzantine Church (annandale?) which has impressive potato pancakes, kielbasa, and a few other delights. High marks on the food overall.