Tuesday, June 2 at 11 AM

Read the transcript of today's chat with Washingtonian's food & wine editor and restaurant critic Todd Kliman.

Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype?

The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 a.m. on Kliman Online. From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the 'burbs and exurbs to hitting the city's streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.

Did you know you can now write your own restaurant reviews on Washingtonian.com? Read here to find out how.

Read the transcript from May 26.

Follow Todd on Twitter!

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The Current List: Where I'd Spend My Own Money

Komi, DC
Nava Thai Noodle & Grill, Wheaton
Honey Pig BBQ, Annandale
Palena and Palena Cafe, DC
Citronelle and Citronelle Lounge, DC
The Source and The Source Lounge, DC
Johnny's Half Shell, DC
Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington
Vidalia, DC
Pete's Apizza, DC
Four Sisters, Falls Church
Poste Brasserie, DC
La Caraquena, Falls Church
Ray's Hell Burger, Arlington
Oval Room, DC
Farrah Olivia, Alexandria
La Sirenita, Riverdale
Sushi Taro, DC
China Bistro, Rockville
Sushi Sono, Columbia

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That's all the time Todd has for today. Submit your question for next week's chat here.

Arlington, VA
I haven't been satisfied in finding a good authentic taco: simple, cheap, and ready to-go…much like you would find in a taco stand or hole-in-the-wall in Mexico. Any suggestion?

I love the tacos at La Sirenita, in Little Mexico.

The salty beef tacos, especially. You get a two-ply corn tortilla filled with lots of meat and chopped cilantro, with radish to garnish it with and two kinds of sauce — one green, one red, both delicious.

The goat is good, too, and I also like the carnitas and the barbacoa.

To me, these are the best tacos in the area, and I go back for them again and again.

There are also good tacos at El Tapatio, also in Little Mexico, and at La Fondita, in Hyattsville, which occupies a tiny white house not far from the railroad trucks.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a fabulous little meal at La Fondita. I ordered a plate of slow-cooked lamb, and got a big portion of soft, tender meat and a pile of fresh-made corn tortillas. I shredded the meat (it wasn't hard), folded it within the tortilla, spooned on some of the excellent salsa verde, and voila! A terrific taco.

You also get good rice and good beans. A helluva meal for eight bucks. 

Washington, DC

I have a feeling I'm not going to like the answer to this, but is there any place to get real ramen in the area? I moved from NYC, which seems to have a noodle shop on every corner, but I miss it here.

I've seen ramen listed on a few Japanese menus, but I don't know if it's the actual stuff or not. I'm willing to drive anywhere in the area. Thanks.

Temari Cafe in Rockville has ramen, but it's not what you'd call real ramen.

Sorry. I wish there were — just as I wish there was real soba being made here. It can be a fabulous thing. 

What else are we missing? 

And I mean both what don't we have a lot of, and what don't we have at all that we ought to.

Personally, I wish I saw places serving lemon meringue pie. Or just pie. What's wrong with pie? Not a tart. Not a twist on pie. No: a slice of pie. 

I wish there were more places making good soups.

What else?

Kalorama, WDC

Noticed you didn't touch the issue of Komi not allowing the diner from Rockville to take a picture with flash.

My response to that is buy a DSLR with a very fast prime lens (50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8), or stick to restaurants where the waitstaff are graded on the flair on their suspenders. I can't believe the gall of people who think that just because they CAN take cameras everywhere with them that they SHOULD use them everywhere. I applaud the staff at Komi for saying no.

My feeling is, I don't think you should criticize a restaurant for not permitting you to take a picture.

I don't have a problem with people taking pictures in restaurants. And most restaurants apparently don't, either.

Since we're talking about peeves … My peeve, these days, is with people who seem to have no idea that when you go out to a restaurant you might be seated near — sometimes very near, what with the way tables are squeezed together in some new and new-ish places — other people.

And that sitting so close to another table, that table may be tempted to talk to you or engage with you at some point. Not for long. Maybe not at all. But the possibility exists. You don't bring a bubble with you when you go out to eat. You don't dine in a cone of silence. It's not a hermetic seal around you.

If you want that hermetic seal, you go to the Inn at LW, or you request a table out of the way and in the corner. 

 

DC
Todd, my boyfriend loves thai food and I was wondering what your thoughts are on the best thai food restaurant in the city. Thanks!

In the city, as in the city limits? And best, as in best, most memorable food?

I don't think there's any place better than Thai X-ing, which isn't really a restaurant. It's only got a couple of tables, and is meant ideally for carryout. 

If we're talking about the entire area, then we're talking about Nava Thai. I've gotten emails from readers for a couple of months now about how the restaurant isn't what it was, and some of you on the chat have weighed in too about this point.

I was there not long ago, though, and had a terrific meal. It could have been the time of day — lunch, late, during the week. But everything was dead-on.

I will say that I don't enjoy the space as much. The old black-and-white framed photos, like the one of Elvis in Thailand, are lost among all those rooms. And it very much has the feel of a restaurant that has taken over for another, and not yet made an old place its own.

Washington, DC

Hi, Todd.

Another early pre-theater dinner option on 14th Street would be the newly opened Eatonville.

So, I normally ask NW- or city-centric questions, but this one pertains to the broader DC/VA/MD area. Where are the good Asian markets?

And by "good" I mean affordable, large variety/selection, and generally frequented by a population that regularly cooks Asian cuisine. As always, thank you from a loyal reader…and glad to know that you're not heading to NYT (was that really a consideration?)!

Thanks for writing.

In Maryland, I really like Han Ah Reum in Wheaton. In Virginia, I like the several Grand Marts I've been to. Both are beloved by the area's Asian cooks.

I always find that shopping for produce at these places is far better than shopping for produce at places like Giant and Whole Foods. I know that will be blasphemous to all those Whole Foods devotees who are certain that the products they are paying top dollar for are the best, the choicest, in the entire area.

Well, 'taint so.

You walk down the aisles at Grand Mart, and you can actually smell the stuff, the way you can at a farmer's market. I never get a smell at Whole Foods.

And the selection is fantastic. There are things there you simply won't know what to do with. I always come home with something I've never seen before.

And the prices. They're extremely reasonable. They're what prices should be.

 

Washington DC
Hi Todd – Have you tried Little Ethiopia, the new one on 9th st? How does it compare to Etete?

I have.

It's very decent. The atmosphere is old-school Ethiopian, much more like the kinds of places I used to go to back in the '80s.

The cooking isn't as refined as Etete's, isn't as vivid, but that doesn't mean it's not a decent option for a meal. 

DC looking for REALLY Good Deep dish
Hi, I am from Chicago, well grew up there until 18…. I am looking for a place that has as close to authentic Chicago Style Deep dish pizza, but am having toubles finding it. I don't want Uno's as they aren't what I would call, Authentic anymore. Any Ideas?

There isn't any, sorry to say.

And I wouldn't get my hopes up just because Obama's here, either. He prefers thin-crust to deep dish. 

Rockville, MD

Hi Todd-

Since we have been on the subject of Vietnamese food, I am from Richmond, VA originally and there is an amazing Vietnamese restaurant called Mekong. They have several dishes that they call grill platters, and you can get multiple different proteins- shrimp on sugar cane, grilled beef, etc. But the best thing is that it comes with a large platter of rice noodles, lettuce, mint, carrot, cucumber and moist rice paper so that you can "roll your own" spring roll.

We are friends with the owners and they say this is common in Vietnam, but it is really hard to find restaurants that offer this style. We have tried many Vietnamese restaurants in this area and never see it as an option. When I have asked I have gotten the response that Americans find it too labor intensive, so they don't offer it. Do you know of any that do? I don't know what the Vietnamese term for this style is, but it's kind of like Vietnamese Fajitas!

It's called Bo Nuong Xa, and no restaurants here do it as far as I know.

The new Four Sisters, in Merrifield, does, however, serve its beef-filled grape leaves this way. A lot of fun to eat, and it's a delicious dish, besides.

I'll have to get down to Mekong … Thanks for the tip. 

Alexandria, VA
I tried The Wharf on King in Old Town Alexandria last week because someone had recommended their crab cakes. I cannot comment on any of the other dishes, but the crab cake appetizer was just right – lump crab and very little binding. Recommended.
Nice. Thanks for writing in.
Lorton, Va

Todd,

Really need help on finding both a crab house to sit and eat crabs.. that are yummy… at a clean place.. doesn't have to be fancy. We are tired of Capt Pells… bathrooms are gross!

And also a place where we can just pick them up and eat them at home… or somewhere near water. We go through this every season. Maybe we'll open one.. but why hasn't anyone else? Is there not a market for it? A crab place by the water… I don't get it… why don't we have one. Should I start one? Where do I start?

Well, the gross bathrooms evidently didn't bother Emeril and his posse. They ate at Captain Pell's twice in one week  last summer while filming nearby.

Let's see — out that way? Have you tried Quarterdeck?

My favorites are the places down in Pope's Creek, Robertson's and Billy's, and Cantler's, in Annapolis.

You said "it doesn't have to be fancy." A good crab place shouldn't be fancy. It should be simple and clean, that's all. And, of course, it should have lots of fresh crabs on hand, and lots of cold beer, and a couple of fiercely competent and sassy waitresses.

Arlington, VA
I've heard that Matsuba in Bethesda has started serving ramen on Sundays. IMO, Grand Mart is the worst of the Asian markets. But their stores do vary greatly in terms of quality, and you might have hit a good one. Lotte has opened a new market in Chantilly that is huge and very fresh. I also like their store in Silver Spring.

Great tip re: ramen. But are they making their own at Matuba? Or just serving packaged ramen? It's a lot of work to make your own.

Why do you dislike in particular about Grand Mart? I've had great success at several.

Yes, Lotte. Also good. Thanks for reminding me. I'll have to get out to the one in Chantilly.  

arlington va
what the area's missing…..i feel like you've asked this question before, but I'll bite: good bread (quail creek farm at the farmers market is the best i can find, and its hit or miss) breakfast spots….seriously, is there a single good place to get breakfast…i'd love a hip diner style place with locally sourced food, decent prices and an eclectic lunch and breakfast menu eastern mediterranen..georgian/syrian/stuff from aleppo region-specific ethnic spots….like only bangkok-style thai, only the campania region of italy, only spanish food from valencia….places that focus on one region's cuisine would be welcome newcomers to the area. and, in general, smaller, more focused menus.

Good ones.

You know, I was watching the Adam Richman show the other night, what's it called? — Man vs. Food? Anyway, it occurred to me while I was watching two episodes back to back that what we don't have, here, is exactly the kinds of places he goes to. 

What kinds of places does he go to? Fun places.

And for the most part, we don't have 'em.

We have some places that make the right moves to be fun, but are so calculated, that fun eludes them.

We have a few high-concept places that look fun, that ought to be fun — that practically scream fun — but are too uptight, in the end, to actually be fun.

And I'm not saying that a place has to have some kind of eating challenge on the menu to be fun. Although it couldn't hurt.

I'm saying a fun place. A come-as-you-are place. A place with crazy, distinctive food. A place that is a conversation piece. A place that has been a legend for decades, that exudes character in its crazy, distinctive decor and details.

I can think of only a handful. 

Centerville, VA
Fairfax Wegman's has better produce than Centerville Grand Mart and Whole Paycheck by a significant margin. And their prices are lower their prices are lower and the produce is fresher. Only place in NOVA where you can get fresh shrimp at a decent price.

Oh, yeah. I think that Wegman's is the best grocery store in the area.

But although it's many things, it's not an Asian market, and doesn't have some of the things they do.

Downtown DC
To the person last week who asked for an executive lunch for under $25 dollars, I recommend Oya and Acadiana. I have gone to lunch at Acadiana a handful of times and each time, I am heavier in the gut but not that much lighter in the pocket. The oyster appetizer is so rich, it can be shared by grown men. The shrimp and grits is enough food on its own as is the seafood salad. You don't get quite the same value at Oya, but there's lots to choose from and two different fixe prix menus for sushi and non-sushi lovers. Plus the decor is so beautiful.

Thanks for writing in.

But executives? Sharing food?

I would sooner expect to see an executive begging for change on the street to pay the valet.

Remember, the fact that food can be shared, doesn't mean it will be shared. I've been to many steakhouses, and I've seen many a well-dressed man order a plate of food that was big enough to feed a small village. And I have never, ever seen that man share.

Heck, only rarely have I seen that man ask for a doggie bag to take home what he doesn't finish.

Sharing, doggie bags = unmanly.

Gaithersburg, MD
I would find it very helpful if you'd tell us which of the drop-outs from Cheap Eats are only because of cost.

It's a good suggestion, and as I said last week, we'll consider making this addition for next year.

I can tell you, though, that not very many of the places missed the cut because of their prices. If they missed the cut, it was because they were not good enough, or consistent enough, or because something else came along that was both of these things and knocked them out.

Arlington, VA

I heard that the chef at Matsuba was putting a lot of effort into making ramen. Haven't tried it though, so I can't personally vouch for it.

I've seen rotting produce in the Grand Mart in Alexandria. Also, the fish counter smells, well, like fish (which it shouldn't if the fish is fresh). The fish counter at the Grand Mart in Falls Church also has that odor.

OTOH, I've heard that the quality at the Grand Mart in Sterling is good (no personal experience), and my experience with the store in Centreville has been pretty good.

Well, I like both the Sterling and Centreville Grand Marts a lot.

And the Alexandria store is pretty good, too, even with that smell. I've never bought fish from the counter there. But the frozen stuff is good, and there's a huge selection.

Good to know about the chef at Matuba. Thanks. I'll be sure to give the ramen a spin, soon. 

 

Ballston, VA
Yes Tom but are there any good taco places in VA. I have heard rumors about Manassas? But you won't venture out that way will you?

One, the name's not Tom, and B, I've eaten at four or five taquerias in Manassas. All decent, but nothing that really stood out for me.

What's your place called? Or have you never actually gone there?

In northern Virginia, probably the best taco you can get is at El Charrito Caminante, in Arlington. 

DC
We are moving to North Cleveland Park. We will be in close walking distance to both Tenleytown and Van Ness metro stops. We will now be close enough to Palena cafe to eat there once a week. Are there any other hidden gems in the general neighborhood that we should plan on getting to know?

Nothing that I'd consider a hidden gem, no.

Murasaki is good for sushi. It's on Wisconsin Ave. in Tenleytown. Cafe Ole, a meze and tapas place, is tasty, and, for the city, pretty affordable. Also on Wisconsin.

Sushi Sushi, across from 2 Amys, is also good for sushi, though sometimes uneven (something that never happened when it was a smaller operation, in Bethesda). I really like their eel. Maybe the best broiled eel in the area, when it's on. 

Calvert Liquors, a terrific wine shop, is definitely worth getting to know. It's on Connecticut, not far from the Van Ness metro.

Alexandria, VA
For an executive lunch I strongly suggest the lickity-split menu served in the bar at Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria. It's any two items for under $13 and it's all fabulous.

It is, it's fabulous.

And at that price, and with that degree of care and attention, it amounts to giving away food. 

Vienna, Va

Hi Todd.

So I don't NORMALLY do buffets, but I have a co-worker who just came back from Vegas and claimed that she ate at a marvelous buffet out there called, "TODAI". She also found out that they are nation-wide and have a restaurant in Fairfax. Have you ever heard of it/ate at it? Is it worth a trip? Like I said, I don't due buffets, but I'm willing to branch out,…what the heck.

No, haven't been. Thanks for the tip.

I don't normally do buffets, either — except Indian buffets, which are generally as good and rewarding as their American counterparts are not. 

You've definitely piqued my curiosity, though.

McLean Virginia

Todd,

I was reading the Mid Atlantic Monthly and saw an article about Farm to Table. I understand that Mie N Yu is using it, as is the plan for Blue Ridge. What do you think about restaurants that use these products? Does it effect the way you rate them? I have had local beef, and although the flavor is awesome, it isn't always the most tender meat. Because of that, do you think about that before making a judgement or do you go straight for taste and tenderness?

A chef still has to produce good dishes, and good ingredients are no guarantee of that. 

Can they help? Of course they can.

But sometimes, the quality of ingredients becomes a substitute for imagination, for really cooking with passion and verve and transforming the raw material into something sublime and memorable.

You're right about local beef. But I would say that if you liked the taste, but not the texture, then that is the fault of the chef. It's his or her job to take that great raw ingredient and make it into a delicious dish. 

 

Palisades, Washington DC
Two questions: Is there anywhere to get decent BBQ in the DC area? When is the best time to go the Ray's the Steaks and Ray's Hell Burger? I'm dying to go but don't want to wait forever and/or deal with crowds, a feat I'm thinking will be even tougher given the new Obama glamour of it…

I'd wait until August, when a lot of "official" Washington flees town.

As for BBQ, I'd head to KBQ for the ribs and beef brisket, or to Johnny Boy's in La Plata for the pulled pork sandwich with Mama Sophie's tangy sweet red sauce and coleslaw.

Man, I could go for one of those right about now …

vietnamese rice paper
im pretty sure if you just ask you get get some rice paper with hot water to go along with a platter of grilled meats, vermicelli, and herbs…huong viet, four sisters, minhs….most of these places should do that.

Good thought. 

And certainly worth a try … Thanks for thinking of this … 

Washington DC
A second vote for MeKong in Richmond, They also have an amazing beer list! And the Apple pie at Blue Duck Tavern is as good as ever.

All right, Mekong is a must-do this summer.

And the apple pie at Blue Duck … really? I was never that high on it to begin with. 

ramen & asian supermarkets
coincidentally, many asian supermarkets sell ramen in the small restaurants that are located inside their stores. i believe lotte, h-mart, and gmart all have them!

Another great tip.

You all are full of tips today. I really appreciate it. You've given me some fresh leads.

Lunch calls, so I'm going to wrap this up and get going … Of course, now I've got the image of the Johnny Boy's pulled pork sandwich in my head and I have the feeling that nothing else is quite going to measure up to that! 

Be well, everyone, eat well, and let's do it again next Tuesday at 11 …

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