WASHINGTON — Lunchtime on a warm, sunny Friday in downtown Washington.

The sidewalks around Farragut Square — a postage stamp of grass and benches two blocks from the White House — were packed with hundreds of hungry workers mulling the culinary tableau offered by two dozen kitchens on wheels.

Afghan kabobs? Fried Asian dumplings? Peruvian pork tenderloin with grilled sweet potato? Gourmet mac ‘n’ cheese?

Kelly Seymour and Sara Eppes bypassed all of those options and instead headed straight for the long line of people waiting for Maine lobster served up curbside from a truck.

“I’m a lobster fan and this is the best lobster roll I have ever had,” said Seymour, a loyal customer of Red Hook Lobster Pound DC’s food truck, as she pointed emphatically to her $15 roll piled with lobster supplied by a Maine processor.

“It’s just such a treat,” said Eppes, who somewhat sheepishly confessed to tracking the roving truck via Facebook and Twitter to find out what days it will be parked nearby. “Even though it’s expensive, you get your money’s worth.”

Gourmet lunch trucks have become big business in the nation’s capital during the past three years — so big that traditional restaurants are pressuring the city to restrict where and how long they can park.

And if the lines were any indication, dishing out Maine lobster on the streets of D.C. is good business. The Red Hook truck consistently had among the longest lines last Friday and ran out of its Maine-style rolls in less than two hours, although those craving lobster still had the option of getting the hot and buttery Connecticut-style roll instead.

Success wasn’t a guarantee, however.

“We kind of rolled the dice,” said Leland Morris, president of Red Hook Lobster Pound DC. “We didn’t know what the reaction would be to, one, a seafood sandwich sold from a truck and, two, a $15 seafood sandwich from a truck.”

In fact, Morris and his partner, Doug Povich, had to convince city officials that there was nothing in Washington’s health code precluding the sale of seafood from a food truck. But a year after launching the first truck, Red Hook added a second in Washington.

The company actually started in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, N.Y. — hence the name — when co-owners Ralph Gorham and his wife, Susan Povich, decided there was an untapped market for fresh, live lobsters in the trendy neighborhood.

Gorham began making twice-weekly trips to Maine — where Povich’s family has a home — to buy the crustaceans that would be sold in their small storefront.

But the business took off when Povich — a trained chef who is also the daughter of talk show celebrity Maury Povich — began selling Maine lobster rolls at the couple’s lobster pound and at a big Brooklyn flea market.

Doug Povich, who is Susan Povich’s cousin, eventually convinced the skeptical couple to allow him to try a food truck in Washington. Its success led to a truck in Manhattan and, eventually, the second truck in Washington.

Today, the “Lobster Truck DC,” as the truck is known, has more than 25,000 followers on Twitter and was named the “Best Food Truck” in 2012 by readers of the Washington City Paper. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine uses the company for her annual lobster-themed fundraiser in Washington, as does Bloomberg for the company’s star-studded party following the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Customers have their choice of either a traditional Maine-style lobster roll piled high with meat in a light mayo-lemon sauce (but with a paprika twist) or a Connecticut-style roll that features buttered meat served hot.

Continuing the Maine theme, the truck offers Maine Root fountain sodas from Portland, clam chowder and lobster bisque ingredients from a Maine supplier and whoopie pies that, while made locally to D.C., are from a company with Maine roots. The company also served its lobster on J.J. Nissen rolls until the Biddeford bakery’s recent closure.

“We try to source everything from family-oriented folks up in Maine,” Morris said.

On Friday, Farragut Square looked more like a bustling outdoor food market as crowds lined up in front of the two dozen food trucks and then took their fare into the park to eat on a bench or the grass.

At $15 a roll (or $18 with chips and a drink), a lobster lunch doesn’t come cheap, even when it’s bought on the curb in Washington. But then again, neither do most other things in a city consistently ranked among the Top 10 most expensive places to live in the country.

Few customers were complaining.

A big fan, John Yoo brought along two co-workers from the American Red Cross who had never tried the truck before. Yoo admitted that he occasionally goes to another place to get his lobster rolls in D.C., but he prefers the truck.

“Oh, my God, so good,” co-worker Hiba Anwar said between bites.

“It’s delicious,” added Roxanne Namazi.

While Washington was largely spared Hurricane Sandy’s wrath, the waterfront community of Red Hook, Brooklyn, lay directly in the path of the October superstorm. Saltwater surged into Red Hook Lobster Pound, ruining everything inside.

“We were closed for four months. We had to redo everything in the business,” Mark Franzen, manager of the pound, said by phone last week. But when the pound and other local businesses reopened on March 1, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg bought the first Maine lobster roll.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

 

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