Red Velvet Cupcakery, Reston, Va./Washington
Throughout this country, when there’s a big city, there’s usually an iconic food that goes with it. In Chicago, for example, it’s the deep dish pizza. Minneapolis has the Juicy Lucy, Baltimore has the crab cake, Cleveland has the Polish Boy and Kansas City delivers with barbecue. Even smaller cities, such as Louisville with the Hot Brown and Butte with the pasty, have their own signature foods. But in our nation’s capital, the closest large city to my native state of Virginia, the joke for the longest time was that our signature food was…absolutely nothing.
Truth be told, for the entire time that I lived in the Washington area, that was pretty accurate. Sure, we had some pretty awesome restaurants throughout the capital, and still do, with Ben’s Chili Bowl being almost as much of a Washington landmark as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the past half-century. But as good as the chili half-smokes are, great chili on a sausage isn’t exclusive to Washington, as Cincinnati and Detroit have made that part of their cuisines for decades before Ben’s opened, so it was sadly out of the running for being a true signature.
The simple fact was that with so many cultures in the nation’s capital, there wasn’t anything that could actually establish itself because of how many different tastes the city had. That only continued when Adam Richman visited Washington in season 2 of Man vs. Food…and had to conduct his challenge in Annapolis, Md., which is actually closer to Baltimore than it is to Washington, Soon after, Food Network released a potato skin for every team in the NFL based on their city’s cuisine…and couldn’t come up with anything for Washington, settling on redskin potatoes for the Redskins. That one came out when I was living in Idaho, and at the time, I thought that was simply the way it was and the way it always would be for the home of politics.
But a funny thing happened since I left Virginia. Amazingly, Washington, the city that can’t agree on what day of the week it is, has actually created a taste of its own in the past three years: the gourmet cupcake. I’d hate to think about how that would taste on a potato skin, but over the past few years, cupcake-only bakeries have been popping up all over the Washington area. Truthfully, it was New York that started cupcakes with Magnolia Bakery, but Washington was the city that really got it going in the form of Cupcake Wars and D.C. Cupcakes. Georgetown Cupcake was the first one in the nation’s capital, but since it opened in 2008, it’s had several top rivals challenge for its crown.
One of the strongest contenders for the throne is Red Velvet Cupcakery, which has locations both inside the city and in suburban Reston, Va., which has quickly become a hot spot for young adults in northern Virginia. What’s made Red Velvet so strong in the cupcake trend is its commitment to quality ingredients and its penchant for creating excellent flavors. Since their opening in 2008, their commitment has been to go local when possible and spare no expense in using the finest ingredients available in their cupcakes. They want to be judged by the highest standards possible, and that’s the way they prepare every cupcake they sell.
The most obvious example of this is in their Devil’s Food cake, which features some of the best ingredients to grace the inner wrapper of a cupcake. The Devil’s Food features a chocolate buttermilk cake topped with a ganache made from Valrhona chocolate, a luxury French chocolate that is used in some of the finest desserts imaginable. Bern’s Steak House has used it for years in its famed dessert room, and Red Velvet puts it to good use with its firm ganache atop the chocolate cake. As if that wasn’t enough luxury for this cupcake, Red Velvet goes the extra mile and tops it with edible gold. Yes, that small speck in the center of the ganache that looks like foil is genuine 24 karat gold. Pretty impressive stuff, which is why Amy decided it would be one of her two choices. I have to say, I can’t argue with that, because after all, she is a princess and deserves the luxurious things in life whenever possible.
The taste is just as impressive as the looks. Chocolate overload can be a beautiful thing, and that’s exactly what happens here. I love a good devil’s food cake, and this was well beyond good. The ganache is firm, not melted, and that’s something that really should occur more often atop cakes and cupcakes. The softer frostings have their times and places, but give me the firm and rich ganache on this one any day. Whoever said too much of a good thing is a problem definitely never had this cupcake, as the rich chocolate taste is just incredible.
With the luxury cake out of the way, it’s time to shift the focus to Red Velvet’s signature cupcake, the Southern Belle. As you might have guessed from the name of this place, the Southern Belle is Red Velvet’s red velvet cupcake, topped with cream cheese icing and red sprinkles. A red velvet cake simply isn’t proper without whipped cream cheese icing, and this icing is epic on top of a perfectly baked cupcake. They claim this one is an essential experience for the first time guest, and as a lover of pretty much anything red velvet, I knew this one had to be one of mine. I loved this one, but amazingly, it wasn’t even my favorite one that I tried here.
That one would actually go to the peanut butter cup cupcake, which is something that I know my future in-laws would absolutely love. Both Amy’s mother and sister are huge fans of peanut butter and chocolate, and so am I, dating back to my days of having a peanut butter silk pie at every chance I got. This cupcake’s peanut butter topping was silky smooth and worked wonderfully with the chocolate buttermilk cupcake base underneath the frosting. The small peanut on top was another nice touch and shows yet again that Red Velvet is going to go the extra mile when it comes to the details. I love when places do that.
For Amy’s final selection, she decided to go for something that seems normal on the surface, but is actually pretty unique when you get to the interior. Amy loves the taste of cookies and cream, and Red Velvet’s cookies and cream cupcake actually includes pieces of cookies baked into the cupcake, before topping the cake with buttercream icing and adding cookie crumbs to the top for the final signature touch. Both of us really enjoyed this one, which tasted like an Oreo cookie in cupcake form. Getting the crisp cookie inside the cake was an extra treat, and it really showed yet again the lengths Red Velvet is willing to go to make sure that its cupcakes are as good as they can possibly be.
That’s the beauty of competition, and it’s what makes sure certain foods become icons in their cities. No food can become legendary without competitors, because that’s what pushes those who make said food to make sure that it really is the best in their city. When that happens, everybody wins. Red Velvet might not have been the first one to make cupcakes in the Washington area, but it’s certainly making a case to be one of the best. A commitment to quality is always a great recipe, and when you’ve got the ability to turn great ingredients into great flavors, you’ve really got something special.
Time to go: This is a very nice thing about Red Velvet, as it’s open until 11 p.m. in Washington every night, opening at 9 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends. In Reston, it’s reversed. It opens at 11 a.m. every day and closes at 9 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday and at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Wait during my visit: None. Cupcakes don’t take very long to get.
Location: The one we visited was in the Reston Town Center, across from The Counter at 11939 Democracy Drive. In Washington, it’s in Penn Quarter at 505 7th Street in Northwest Washington. There is also a location in Doha, Qatar. No, I’m not kidding.
Cost: Gourmet cupcakes are not cheap. You’re going to pay about $3 to $3.50 for each cupcake. Definitely worth it, however.
Parking: Depending on which location you visit, this will either be “plentiful” or “don’t even think about it”. In the Reston Town Center, garages are located all over the area, and you can park for a nominal fee, unless it’s a weekend, when parking is free. In Washington, it’s one street south of the Verizon Center, which houses the NHL’s Capitals and the NBA’s Wizards. Basically, a sports stadium or arena in the District means don’t even try parking there. Just take the Yellow or Green Line of Metro to Gallery Place/Chinatown (which spits you out directly under the Verizon Center) and head down 7th to E Street.
Seating arrangement: N/A in Reston. We picked up our cupcakes and ate at our hotel. I don’t know if seats are at the Washington location.
Website: Red Velvet Cupcakery
Specialty items: Cupcakes