Best Thing I Ate: Steamed Blue Crabs, Perfect Pupusas
Our favorite dishes from the past seven days of dining.
Pupusas at Pupuseria y Taqueria Rios
I recently asked David Chang, the celebrated Momofuku chef, what sorts of things he’s passionate about right now in the world of food. “I’m fucking infatuated with fucking Salvadoran cuisine,” he told me.
Two f-bombs in one sentence: now that’s passion.
Salvadoran isn’t a recent discovery for me—I’ve been eating it for more than two decades, now—but it’s not often I come across a plate as terrific as this one.
So, yeah, I’m pretty fucking infatuated, too.
Marian Rios runs the place, which occupies the former Suporn in Wheaton; one of her sisters, Lucia Ochoa, runs the kitchen. Ochoa is a master of the pupusa, the griddled, stuffed corn cakes that are a staple of the Salvadoran table.
Picture it: thick and warm and soft and rich, with the slightest crispiness at the edges, and not even a little—no, not even a hint—of grease.
Ochoa serves them with a yellow curtido (a cabbage relish) which you almost never find; most Salvadoran spots favor the easier-to-make white curtido. The color comes from pickling, and a heaping spoonful of the tangy, crunchy slaw makes each cheesy rich bite that much more delicious.
Now, the sad part.
I can count the number of other diners in the room in all of my recent meals here on one hand. And I wouldn’t need two of my fingers.
Go, please, and help these people out.
Sugar toad with Darden ham salad, okra blossoms, and green-tomato coulis at CityZen
My mom grew up in Connecticut, and as such, I grew up on a steady diet of dishes that are familiar to all New Englanders: baked beans with salt pork, lima-bean succotash, and a sandwich filling she called “ham n’ pickle.” That last thing—a mix of baked ham and dill pickles buzzed in the Cuisinart and mixed with a dollop of Hellman’s—was always my favorite, despite its rather disgusting appearance, which drew lots of grimaces from my friends whenever I unwrapped my lunch at school.
I know ham salad exists out there in the rest of the world, but I’ve never had it made from anywhere but my mom’s kitchen, much less in a deli or restaurant. So I was floored when my second course arrived at CityZen, the hushed dining room in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I’d ordered the sugar toad, a little-seen Chesapeake pufferfish I’d never tried before, and the tiny, lightly seared filets turned up atop a mound of—you guessed it— finely chopped ham salad. I’m sure Eric Ziebold makes his own mayo and he definitely didn’t use Honeybaked ham, but his version tasted uncannily like my mom’s. It was circled by a ring of grass-green tomato coulis, which had a sour tanginess that played a similar function as the pickles. It might not be for everyone—the friend sitting next to me didn’t love it—but for me, it cued one of those Proustian waves of nostalgia that you always hope for but rarely find, especially on a $90 four-course menu.
Steamed blue crabs from Wild Country Seafood
I discovered Wild Country Seafood thanks to my colleague Todd Kliman. The nondescript seafood joint outside Annapolis has topped his Where I’m Eating Now list for several weeks. Though the recommended soft-shell crabs are no longer in peak season, their hard-shell counterparts are worth the trip.
Many Chesapeake crab houses source their crustaceans from beyond the Bay, even in peak season. At Wild Country, the father-and-son watermen owners pluck fat crabs from the waters just beyond the storefront. There’s a reason other establishments import their catch from the Carolinas and Texas: the harsh winter made for leaner traps this summer, and prices are high. A dozen jumbos cost $90 on my visit—a comparable cost to other Annapolis-area spots—but these were some of the heaviest, meatiest, most perfectly steamed blues I’ve had this summer. Discard the notion of tearing through ten shells just to get a cocktail’s-worth of crab. I filled up after four, plus a few addictive, corn-studded hushpuppies and a side of tangy slaw.
If your ideal crab feast includes a pitcher of beer, consider taking your catch to-go, as I did. The few outdoor tables fill up quick on busy weekend afternoons, and there’s no alcohol to speak of. Thankfully the crabs carry out just fine to a picnic table, and there’s a liquor store nearby for grabbing a few cold ones.
Maine lobster and jumbo lump crab salad at Fiola Mare
Some of the best dishes at Fabio Trabocchi’s ode to the sea are simple, yet bursting with flavor. Although market counter items like grilled dover sole seem most popular, we found that appetizers stole the show.
Imagine all of summer’s bounty on a single plate: beautiful red and yellow tomatoes at peak ripeness, fresh crab meat, and tender lobster. Thin slices of cucumber nestled in between the seafood offers a welcome crunch, while edible flowers bring bursts of color to the dish. Their summer salad offers a sophisticated take on a classic Maine tradition.