By Amanda McDougall - 12/13/12 11:16 PM EST
Looking for a late-night nosh spot with a cool vibe, spirits-spiked milkshakes and big noise? Make your way to a new bar-diner called Satellite Room, located behind the 9:30 Club on Ninth Street NW. It’s the fourth U Street iteration by brothers Ian and Eric Hilton, who also own American Ice House, The Brixton and The Gibson.
Satellite Room takes its décor cues from ’60s-era Los Angeles diners, with Formica-topped, chrome-lipped tables and vibrant pop-art wall hangings, and mixes in a bit of eclecticism with a mishmash of black and white patterned tiles and a lot of exposed brick. An oversize white neon sign that reads “Satellite” casts a clubby glow over the typically deep weekend bar crowd, and music that ranges from old-school hip-hop to au courant indie rock blares from its speakers. There is an “outdoor” patio (fully covered, with concrete walls that leave just a foot or so of open-air space) that can accommodate overspill; it has its own bar, and heat lamps make it tolerable even on chilly nights.
lighting and loud music win over few in the 40-plus category.
Like its mixed crowd, the food is a jumble of Mexican and diner dishes. Shrimp or fish ceviche and chicken posole (hominy) soup commingle with Cobb and Caesar salads in the apps; it’s tacos versus burgers in the mains, along with huevos rancheros, blueberry pancakes, chicken-fried steak and chiles rellenos, to name a few more. The Mexican-inspired plates generally perform better in terms of flavor and execution, but a couple classics of Americana shine, too.
For one, the vegetarian pot pie is one of the best meals in the house. The pie is big — almost intimidatingly so — but its flaky, buttery crust and rich, creamy, vegetable-filled interior make it hard not to eat the whole thing, or at least make a serious dent (leftovers are just as good the next day heated in a 350 F oven).
Fried chicken and chicken-fried steak are identical meals, except for the protein found beneath the super-crunchy deep-fried shell. The steak is devoid of any flavor whatsoever, but the chicken is tasty, despite being on the slightly chewy side for the breast piece. One night the mashed potatoes served with the chicken-fried steak were so watery they were leaching liquid onto the plate, but another night they were decent. The meager tablespoon of brown gravy that pools in the mash has the same tasteless problem as the steak.
The short stack of pancakes, on the other hand, are perfectly tender and spongy with golden crisp edges — not the dense, mouth-drying disks you’ll get in most diners. But don’t waste the $3 on the side of thick-cut bacon, as these two measly strips of pork belly are about as disappointingly opposite of thick as you can get.
If you’re trying to choose between a burger and tacos, go with the tacos. At one meal the smoke stack’s 6-ounce patty looked and tasted dried-out and sad — not even the bacon and chipotle barbecue sauce could save it. The tacos al pastor, on the other hand, are alive with flavor from their marinated pork filling, cilantro, onion, fresh tortillas and house-made salsas. Same goes for the huevos rancheros — tortillas layered with black beans, guacamole, chipotle salsa and crumbly white Cotija cheese, all topped with poached eggs.
Ending the meal with a boozy shake is a worthwhile pursuit in calories and cholesterol. The bar is not timid with the spirits, and the variety of options gives a wide berth for picking something interesting, like the avocado with tequila, or something more familiar, like the strawberry with gin. Of course, if you’d rather lose the liquor, they’ll happily accommodate virgin versions.
Satellite Room isn’t going to blow anyone away with its food, but it’s not meant to. It’s a fun and lively spot to grab a drink and some grub before or after a show, or to get away from the hype of so many of the U Street veteran restaurants and bars. It’s also open late-late (until 2 or 3 a.m.) and that includes the kitchen — and who can resist a delicious 2 a.m. taco?
2047 Ninth St. NW
Hours: Sunday – Thursday, 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. – 3 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads range from $6 to $11; main courses, $8 to $14; boozy shakes, $10.
Ideal Meal: Yucca fries; vegetarian pot pie or huevos rancheros; any boozy shake, but particularly Linus Van Pelt (peanut butter with whiskey).