The Best Thing I Ate This Week: Crispy Rice Salad, Spiced Sweet Potatoes
Washingtonian’s food team shares favorite dishes from their past seven days of dining.
Crispy rice salad at Bangkok Golden
Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Admit it—you’re picturing a bowl of Rice Krispies dumped unceremoniously over some lettuce.
And yet I kind of like the blandness of the dish’s name, if only because it makes the first taste, for a newbie, that much more surprising.
Even salad seems a misnomer, given that we’re conditioned by the term to expect a mild-tasting mélange of vegetables that isn’t teribly ambitious or inspired and is, as often as not, designed not to draw focus from the main course.
This one is a riot of flavor, and the only way I can think to communicate its popping intensity is with italics and exclamation points— brightness! pungency! funkiness! crunch!
The main ingredient is rice, but not the fluffy thing you see in a pilaf—the chunky stuff you find at the bottom of the pot. (In Valencia, the birthplace of paella, this hard layer is so revered that they came up with a name for it: socarrat. In fact, in many culinary cultures, the greatness of the crunchy bits is acknowledged with an identifying word. In Puerto Rico, they call it pegao; in Cuba, raspa. A specialty of Persian cooking is Tahdig—a celebratory dish built upon a delicate foundation of rice that’s been crisped at the bottom of a pan. In America? No name—we peel it off and dump it in the trash or squeeze a bottle of detergent onto it and let it sit in hot water.)
The crunchy bits here are tossed with sliced red onion, chopped cilantro and lime leaves, toasted peanuts, shredded coconut, and tiny cubes of smoky ham (the vegetarian version is minus the ham, and just as good) and slicked with a zesty lime dressing. Scoop up some of the mixture and fold it inside a lettuce leaf.
Little Serow has the buzz, and the lines, but there’s nothing on the excellent fixed-price northern Thai menu that I would take over this exuberantly prepared Laotian staple. My most recent dinner here, by the way—ordering only from the Lao menu—consisted of four stellar dishes and a beer, and cost me $43 before tax and tip.
Oyster po’ boy salad at Woodward Table
Po’ boys are among the easiest sandwiches to love. Who doesn’t fall for things that are fried or drenched in remoulade? But they’re also so easy to get wrong, and what often kills them, at least in these parts, is the bread. Now matter how many pronouncements a place makes about flying in rolls from Leidenheimer Bakery or someplace else in Louisiana, it’s rare to find a baguette here that hits the right crisp-but-fluffy notes. Then you’re left with a foot-long calorie bomb, the heavy, chewy bread obscuring any other flavors.
If a craving strikes, get yourself to Woodward Table, where chef/owner Jeffrey Buben smartly loses the bread and turns his oyster po’ boy into a salad. Before I lose you, know that there is really nothing salad-y or virtuous about the way it tastes. Big oysters, still warm and crunchy from the fryer, get tossed in zesty remoulade and thin threads of coleslaw. There are baguette croutons, but they kind of disappear into the mix—it’s the bivalves that command all of the attention, as they should. And if you need a carb fix, the basket of Parker House rolls that precedes meals here should do the trick.
Roasted pumpkin soup at Boundary Stone
My father is a very good home cook, knocking out rustic French- and Spanish-inspired dishes on the reg. But it wasn’t always that way. When my sister and I were kids, my parents had a roster of meats, vegetables, and “starches” (such an attractive word, isn’t it?), and every night we’d eat some combination thereof. There wasn’t much in the way of salt or sauce, either. It was efficient and healthy-ish, and it was also zero fun.
Then my parents decided we’d spend my dad’s sabbatical year in Nantes, France, a place where no one would dream of serving their children spinach soufflé cooked in a plastic tub or steamed green bean sans seasoning. My dad caught the foodie bug quick, and was soon serving us ambitious, horrible food: burnt cassoulets, disgusting, organ-stuffed sausages, dangerously undercooked poulet à la Basquaise. I remember one dinner party when he made our neighbors an atrocious coq au vin—you have to understand, these people had probably never tasted any bad food in their blessed French lives, let alone a bad coq au vin. And you should have seen their stunned expressions as they cut into the rubbery bird smothered in the crude oil he was passing off as sauce. I’m surprised we weren’t deported that night.
Gradually, he got better. By the time I was in high school, my friends were popping by almost daily around 7 PM in hopes of getting invited in for paella or a lush slice of salmon dressed in oniony beurre blanc.
But before all that, back when he was first learning, one of the first things my dad got good at was puréed pumpkin soup. And the way that he got good at it was by making it about 500 times one fall. The better it got, the more he made it—for guests, for holidays. Give my dad an occasion, he’d give you pumpkin soup. I never, ever ate it anywhere else. Why would I, when there were gallons of the stuff at home?
Then this week, I brought my computer to Boundary Stone for a wi-fi-enabled lunch. Better known for beer, the Bloomingdale bar is a quiet weekday lunch spot, as well. I love working there while tearing into a fresh salad along with the best wings in town. The soup of the day, on this occasion, was a vegan roasted pumpkin soup. I surprised myself by ordering it, and then surprised myself again by devouring the bowl in about three minutes. I love when a healthy food is also hearty, and the soup managed to draw an impressive amount of flavor without the benefit of chicken stock and cream, which, it must be said, my dad employs liberally in his version. Maybe I’ll tell him about it. He could use a new challenge.
Spiced sweet potatoes at Food Wine & Co.
Full disclosure: I’m a rice and pasta girl. Potatoes rarely tempt me, whether they’re baked, mashed, or even French-fried. Still, I found myself polishing off a plate of sweet potatoes this week at Bethesda’s Food Wine & Co. Chef Michael Harr has a knack for bar food, concocting dishes that go beyond your average wings in terms of creativity (though not so far that you’re left craving a Buffalo drummette). A close second favorite this week are his fried artichokes piled atop a hearty gribiche sauce generously studded with capers and chopped egg. Still, I’m currently (and uncharacteristically) craving those sweet potatoes: crispy hunks with cumin-spiced skin and creamy, sweet flesh, served alongside cilantro yogurt and tamarind sauce for dunking. The dish is a riff on Indian samosas, though the seasonal potato boasts a purer flavor than the spiced savory pastry. So call me a convert—at least when it comes to these particular potatoes.
All previous editions of the Best Thing I Ate