Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Great DC Cupcake Taste Test

Last year, the Washington Post capitalized on the DC cupcake craze and did a "Cupcake Wars" taste comparison. In a showing of true dedication and sacrifice to our loyal readers, B and I decided to perform our own scientific analysis of four of the area's most popular cupcake joints. The shops we chose are all located within the District, were high on our list from previous visits, and have received high marks on the Washington Post and other DC cupcake reviews. Three of them have opened in the last year (Hello Cupcake, Georgetown Cupcake, and Red Velvet Cupcakery) and only serve cupcakes. The fourth, Baked and Wired, has been serving up an assortment of baked treats since 2001.

On a sunny Saturday morning, B drove me around town so I could collect our cupcake samples. Rather than having our own personal preferences bias our review, we decided to call each store ahead of time and ask them to name their "best" cupcake, and thereby, decide their own fate.

Left to right: Red Velvet's Southern Belle, Hello's Peanut Butter Blossom, Georgetown's Chocolate Ganache, Baked and Wired's Fresh Strawberry

Red Velvet Cupcakery

This tiny Penn Quarter shop serves up eight different flavors of cupcakes for $3.25 each. The price is fairly steep considering that the cupcakes aren't all that large. There is no seating in the store but a sign on the counter lets you know that you're welcome to sit at TangySweet, the yogurt shop next door owned by the brother of Red Velvet's owner. Red Velvet also loses a couple of points for service. The guy getting my cupcake was less than enthusiastic and placed the cupcake on a napkin for me to take to go. When I asked for a bag, he set a plain paper bag down on the counter and stuck out his hand for my money. As I attempted to put the cupcake in the bag I ended up getting frosting on my hand and accidentally scraped some of the frosting off of the cupcake and onto the side of the bag. Not a good beginning for Red Velvet.

Luckily, the cupcake was better than the person serving it. We tried the Southern Belle, which is a red velvet cupcake (dyed red chocolate cake) with cream cheese frosting. The cake was moist but had little flavor. The frosting was excellent and had a sharp cream cheese tang. The consistency of the frosting was unlike any I've tasted before. It was perfectly smooth without the gritty taste that is common in many frostings.

Second Thoughts from B

As J said, the consistency of the frosting was like nothing I've ever tasted. I've spent the last couple of minutes trying to compare it to something and I'm drawing a blank. It was extremely light and smooth, almost fluffy. It was so unique, it was almost disorienting and I'm still not quite sure if I liked it more than the traditional texture of frosting. As for the flavor, the frosting was true to it's cream cheese base and again, absolutely unique. Did I like it? Again, I'm undecided but I certainly appreciated it. Unfortunately, the cake itself served no other purpose other than to shuttle the frosting into my mouth...
Red Velvet Cupcakery on Urbanspoon

Hello Cupcake

If this was a store naming or interior design competition, Hello would win hands down. I love the cheeky name and the beautifully designed Dupont Circle shop. The aroma of baking cupcakes surrounds you as you enter and the cupcakes are displayed on labeled shelves behind glass. I've been to Hello a couple of times and the service has never been particularly notable. It's a bit annoying that they won't give you a box unless you order three cupcakes. Two or less? You're stuck with a plain white paper bag.

Hello's staff recommended the Peanut Butter Blossom: chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting topped with a chocolate kiss.

This one was a winner. The cake was moist and a bit denser than the others. The frosting was outstanding. It was like eating the creamiest peanut butter straight from the jar. Hello Cupcake also gets high marks for making the cupcake so pretty to look at. The cupcake was priced at $3.

Second Thoughts from B

This was probably my favorite cupcake of the bunch. I don't think I would have ordered it because I'm not a huge fan of chocolate cake, but as far as execution, this was top notch. I don't think there's a thing I can criticize. It was a decent size, the frosting was rich and flavorful with a smooth texture, and the cake was moist and tasty. Well done!
Hello Cupcake on Urbanspoon

Georgetown Cupcake

According to the Post, this is the crown jewel of the DC cupcake scene. Based on this one visit, I'd have to disagree. The shop, tucked on a side street in Georgetown, is so tiny that a line is almost always formed outside. They had a variety of very interesting looking flavors beautifully presented on tiered stands. The cupcake was the least expensive at $2.75 but it was pretty tiny as you can see from the first picture.

Georgetown Cupcake reminded me a lot of Sprinkles in Beverly Hills. It has the same sort of People Magazine-style buzz and similar clientele. As far as ambiance, this isn't a good thing in my book.

The person who answered the phone at Georgetown Cupcake said that the Red Velvet flavor was the most popular but the Chocolate Ganache was the one that won the Washington Post's top honors. I have a feeling that I would have ranked Georgetown Cupcake higher if I had been able to sample one of the more unique flavors such as Cherry Blossom or Lemon Berry. The Chocolate Ganache was just ok. The cake was pretty bland, tasted very cake mix-like, and while the ganache was rich, it was a very thin layer. I did like the cute sugar flower that topped the cupcake. It receives high marks for looks but low marks for overall taste.

Second Thoughts from B

Like I said, chocolate cake isn't my first choice but I feel like I still can tell good chocolate cake from not as good. Maybe I'm fooling myself because I can't tell what the Washington Post was so excited about. To be honest, aside from the beautiful presentation, you could have told me that you got this at Safeway and I might have believed you.
Georgetown Cupcake on Urbanspoon

Baked and Wired

Baked and Wired is the only store in our taste test that does more than just cupcakes. If their cupcakes are any indication of the quality of the rest of their baked goodies, I can't wait to go back and try other things. This is also the only place that has ample seating in a cafe-like atmosphere. The staff were very friendly and they gave me a box for my lonely cupcake. The price ($3.50) was the steepest of the group but this cupcake was HUGE compared to the others (see first picture). We lovingly dubbed it "Monster Cupcake."

The Baked and Wired staff recommended the Fresh Strawberry cupcake: vanilla cake with chunks of fresh strawberry topped with strawberry frosting and little pink sugar sprinkles. This was my favorite cupcake. I thought the cake was incredibly moist and loved the fresh strawberry taste. Baked and Wired may have had a bit of an unfair advantage because I like vanilla cupcakes better than chocolate.

Second Thoughts from B

So this would be a cupcake I would order. I really enjoyed both the cake, especially the mixed in pieces of strawberry, and the frosting. I also couldn't help but be impressed by the size (I think that the cupcake from Georgetown Cupcake may have been intimidated when they were side by side). However, something seemed off and I can't put my finger on it. Maybe I was just thrown off by the natural favoring, which is such a sad statement that I would be so used to artificial flavoring that it would seem to be the norm. This is something that I look forward to figuring out on future visits.
Baked & Wired on Urbanspoon

Two Conclude

While this review may indicate some clear cut winners, these four shops were carefully chosen to be among the best of DC, so you really can't go wrong with any of them. Obviously your favorite will be determined by your own personal tastes, but it is fair to say that the DC cupcake craze is as "healthy" as anywhere. Also, in our experience, Washington's best certainly matches up well with those around the country, including the ever popular Magnolia (NYC) and Sprinkles (LA).


Anonymous said...

Best post yet-I love cupcakes! Amy

Vidda said...

Loved your review, but it may be a while until I make cupcakes for you... your increasing sophistication and analysis of food is intimidating.
Good thing we love going to restaurants!

Victoria said...

Hm, ok so the question is what is J's favorite cupcake shop...she says that Baked and Wired is the her favorite cupcake!
Also it looks freaking delicious. I'm a big fan of the Hello Cupcake Princess cupcake but that might be because of the pink frosting/the name. Who really knows?

Amy said...

I believe that Baked and Wired is J's favorite cupcake shop.

Alix said...

J's favorite cupcakes are from Baked and Wired. But if you had attended inauguration at our apt you would have been lucky enough to try my homemade cupcakes. That I make approximately once every 4 years. Maybe in 2013 ...

Anonymous said...

Last night, I was jonesing for a cupcake and my usual craving spot (Hello Cupcake only because it is so conveniently located a few blocks from where I work) was closed (7:00PM) by the time I wrapped things up at work. So I decided to drive over and check out Georgetown Cupcake to see what the hype was all about. Usually, when there is alot of media attention (HYPE) about something, it's really about the marketing and not the subject itself. I saw the line around the block at GC when I got there and made the best decision ever, to find Baked & Wired. The best person ever hooked me up with the Vanilla cake w/Chocolate Ganache. I was in heaven. Fresh and natural homemade style tastes way better than HYPE any day!

J said...

I think we're living parallel lives. We drove through Georgetown last night and I rolled my eyes at the huge line snaking around the corner for Georgetown Cupcake. Little did I know when I posted my review about their "People-magazine style buzz" that TLC would give them a TV show that would increase the buzz and decrease my tolerance for them.

Also last night I was surprised with a strawberry cake from Baked and Wired. It was like their strawberry cupcake but 50million times bigger and so amazing. I love Baked and Wired and it's laid back style and I'm thrilled you liked it too!

Anonymous said...

Ok! I've pretty much tried all of the flavors that HC has had to offer.

So, be honest and tell me if this sounds like a cupcake obsession. When I was adding my comments that you posted last Friday. I went over to B&W on my lunch break and picked up four more cupcakes (Chocolate Satin, Carrot Cake, Red Velvet & Smurfette - vanilla cake w/fresh blueberries baked in & Lemon buttercream icing). Just to make sure it wasn't a fluke, and I wasn't being biased I shared them with a few of my co-workers to see if they thought the same thing I did. HANDS DOWN! All four flavors were enjoyed and had them asking where did I get them. I plan to try the Strawberry Cupcake or the Just Peachy next.

Another co-worker and I were planning on walking over to Red Velvet Cupcakery. Which flavor do you recommend?

J said...

I recommend you walk to Baked and Wired instead. Red Velvet's cupcakes are fine but no comparison. If you find yourself in Red Velvet, I recommend the Summertime (nice, light summery cupcake) or the Southern Belle for the cream cheese frosting (the cake is just eh). We're really glad you liked Baked and Wired!