by Jennifer Cole
It’s 12:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. Still tired and weary-eyed from the weekend, hungry business people stumble out of the office and into the sunshine for everyone’s favorite part of the day: lunch. Some venture next door to the nearest Subway shop for a quick and light bite, while others roll up their sleeves and chow down on southern-style BBQ ribs with a side of cornbread.
No, this isn’t Texas—or even the Midwest for that matter. This is North Bethesda, MD, located just outside of Washington, D.C. and surrounded by a fine dining and shopping metropolis. With a Whole Foods down the road and a metro station around the corner, Blue Star House of Beef, Burgers, BBQ, is anything but the hole-in-the-wall dive that the name might suggest.
To add to this oddity, diners wear kippot while savoring brisket sliders, and the mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) inspects each ingredient behind the kitchen doors. Kosher barbecue has taken over the hearts of religious Jews longing for dining alternatives and the mouths of hungry eaters looking for some good ol’ comfort food.
Since its opening in February 2014, Blue Star, under the supervision of the Washington Vaad, has redefined what it means to eat Kosher. From bestsellers like twice-cooked BBQ ribs and slider samplers to classic favorites like baked beans and apple pie, one thing is certain: we’re definitely not in Bubbe’s kitchen anymore.
Having heard the Kosher BBQ buzz in recent months, I wanted to check it out before crossing it off the list of places unfit for a vegetarian, like myself. But as soon as I entered, I was quickly reminded that Tish B’Av was to begin that night.
A time of remembering the First and Second temple destructions, Jews traditionally fast to commemorate the day. However, during the nine days leading up to Tish B’Av, it is customary to refrain from eating meat.
Cue the vegetarian-friendly menu that greeted me upon my arrival. I was thrilled, to say the least.
The “Nine Days Menu” that Blue Star created for this religious time featured a variety of parve and meatless dishes including veggie burgers, salmon tacos and vegetarian spring rolls.
Maria Barreiro, Blue Star’s manager, says adding fish to the menu proved to be a great success during the past nine days, so she plans to continue serving salmon and tilapia after Tish B’Av.
First on my list was Blue Star’s veggie burger. Made with real corn, peas and carrots, the burger tasted like anything but a frozen patty that most restaurants serve. Topped with grilled peppers and onions and served on a bun with lettuce and tomato, I barely needed the spinach side salad that accompanied the dish. But hey, you can never have too many veggies.
Next, I tried the grilled Portobello mushroom sandwich served on a Kaiser roll with avocado, lettuce, tomato and a side of coleslaw. Aside from the fact that the mushroom slightly resembled a sloppy Joe or other type of smothered meat item, it was actually pretty tasty and 100 percent veggie-friendly!
The Farmhouse salad was one of the least exciting items on my meat-free menu. Topped with roasted eggplant, avocado, tomatoes and fried onion rings, the salad was pretty bland. However, Barreiro says she hopes to add a few more savory dressings, with the help of soy products, to spice things up some more.
My final course was a sampling platter of all things fried: Onion rings, French fries and sweet potato fries. Though I’m not a fried-food fanatic, the sweet potato fries were probably my favorite thing on the menu. The crispy fritters were sweet and salty all at the same time and were even better when dipped in Blue Star’s BBQ and remoulade sauces.
Barreiro says she is confident the restaurant meets all of the Kosher requirements especially because the rabbinical council is frequent with inspections, some even unannounced. Meat products and a majority of the other ingredients come from a Kosher vendor in New Jersey. All baked goods are sourced locally from Sunflower Bakery, a Gaithersburg, MD, business that employs individuals with cognitive or developmental issues and teaches them on-the-job skills while baking Kosher goods.
The restaurant even forbids customers and employees from bringing in any outside food or drink. Barreiro says she’s had to ask people to leave the restaurant when they’ve brought in chocolate milk or string cheese for young children.
“I feel so responsible that my heart beats faster when I see someone come in from their car with their own food or drink,” she says.
To ensure that every dish served is perfectly Kosher, Rivka Silverman, Blue Star’s very own mashgiach, inspects each ingredient tirelessly. With apps like KosherQuest and cRc, Silverman, who calls herself the “Kosher Police,” diligently ensures that everything from a rib-eye steak to an asparagus stalk is in the clear.
Using a magnify glass, Silverman checks all produce leaf by leaf to ensure there are no insects inside, making it un-Kosher.
“Anything you eat here is bug-free and worm-free,” she adds, even making it the perfect place for the strictest of vegetarians.
While Barreiro says she’s run into the “cheeseburger issue” with customers who do not observe Kosher laws, the restaurant not only meets the needs of the Jewish community but also other religious groups too. Blue Star is popular among customers from other cultures who also refrain from eating pork, Barreiro says.
Though some may argue that the words vegetarian and barbecue don’t fit in the same sentence, I was impressed with how satisfied I felt after my Blue Star tasting. After all, when eating anything smothered in tangy marinade while sitting at a long wooden table in a plaid shirt, it’s hard not to feel like a real meat-eater (even if there’s just a mushroom hiding underneath it all).