Tuesday, January 18 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman picks his top five pizza places, writes about an unlikely find—delicious food at a gas station—and talks to readers about Valentine's Day and guests on his chat.

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.

Winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country's best newspaper column about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Oxford American, and Men's Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies. He is the author of a recently released work of narrative nonfiction, The Wild Vine.

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T K ' s   2 5:

W h e r e   I ' d   S p e n d   M y   O w n   M o n e y

 
Adour, DC 

2 Amy's, DC 

Bastille, Alexandria

Bayou Bakery, Arlington 

Birch & Barley, DC 

Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Central Michel Richard, DC

Eatonville, DC 

Evo Bistro, McLean 

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Limeña, Rockville 

Level
, Annapolis 

Masala Art, DC 

Minh's, Arlington

Palena Cafe, DC

PassionFish, Reston 

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington 

Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown 

The Source and The Source Lounge, DC

Taqueria La Placita, Riverdale

Yamas Mediterranean Grill, Bethesda 

 

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C R U N C H I N G   N U M B E R S:
T o p   5   P i z z a   J o i n t s

1. Pete's New Haven Style Apizza; DC
2. Pizzeria Orso; Falls Church
3. 2 Amys; DC
4. Moroni & Brother's; DC
5. Tommy Marcos' Ledo Restaurant; College Park

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   W o r d   o f   W o u t h   . . .
 
  … I had a terrific meal not long ago, and it wasn't at a hotel restaurant, a cafe, or a bistro.
   It was at a gas station.
   As you process that piece of information, you are no doubt conjuring up images of those dreary smears of tuna and egg salad on thin, dry triangles of white bread that pass for sandwiches at the local convenience store, the whole sodden thing stuffed inside a plastic container and chilled like a jug of milk.
   I can't blame you. I struggled to reconcile the image of those quickie sandwiches with the excitable words of my emailer, who wrote to chide me for overlooking what he believed to be one of the city's best sandwiches when I posted my most recent edition of "Crunching Numbers."
   "How could you not have included the chivito at Fast Gourmet," wrote my tipster, a man named Tomas, from Woodley Park, referring to the operation at 1400 W St NW; 202-448-9217. "Unless you've never had it, in which case you have two mistakes to correct."
   I'm well-acquainted with can't-miss tips. They often miss. My wife can tell you stories of our far-flung Saturday afternoon trips in pursuit of some superlative dish that I heedlessly overlooked. Invariably, those trips end up with her looking at me across the table with a mixture of weariness and regret: another weekend day squandered on forgettable, sometimes lamentable, food.
   Still, I always give chase, if only because every once in a while a tipster turns out to be right. In this case — gloriously right.
   The Chivito is to Uruguayans what the Cubano is to American Cubans (notice I didn't say to Cuba itself; the Cubano is an invention of homesick Miamians.) It's a massive thing, monstrously sized, calorically fraught —  definitive proof (if any were needed) that when it comes to sandwiches, less is not more, more is more.
   Picture it: tenderloin beef, mozzarella, ham, bacon, hard-boiled egg, olives, mushrooms, plus lettuce, tomato, and onion — all of it stacked inside an extra-wide sub roll, and given a good slathering of mayo. A short stint in the hot grill press makes the outside hot and crunchy.
   If you've ever had one, you'll never
forget it. If you've never had one — well, as Tomas might say, you need to correct that. I'm happy to report that Fast Gourmet's is as authentic a version as I've had.
   Though I'd have a hard time passing on the Chivito, particularly because there's no other restaurant in the area that makes one, Fast Gourmet also makes a very good Cubano. Some will dismiss the substitution of grain mustard for French's as inauthentic, but there can be no arguing about taste. And think about it: When have you ever seen a sandwich in a gas station that attempted to improve upon the original?
   That's not all, here, that's better than it needs to be. The coleslaw is made on the spot, and is perked up with the addition of lemongrass. The empanada resembles a McDonald's apple pie, but its insides belie its fast-food exterior; the version I had featured a fine dice of ham and kernels of corn in a rich bechamel sauce.
   For dessert, something called "chocolate sausage" caught my eye. Clever riffing at a gas station? It's probably more accurately described as a chocolate salami, with dark chocolate and bits of cookie fashioned into an arm-sized log and cut into thick slices. I got it to go and found, to my surprise and amusement, that the kitchen had even plated it. Or should I say "containered" it? Lifting open the eco-friendly cardboard shell, I discovered a shingling of slices atop a Z-like squiggle of chocolate sauce. It was more satisfying than some of the desserts I've had recently at some of the city's most expensive, sit-down restaurants.
   Whether you consider Fast Gourmet a good value depends, in large part, on you point of view. If you think that anything connected to a gas station has no business charging anywhere close to sit-down prices, then you're bound to be aggrieved. Personally, I don't mind paying for good food, wherever I happen to find it. The Chivito costs $13, which sounds like a lot until you consider that the lobster roll from the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck costs $15. The meat isn't Steak-Umm tough and chewy, either; it's real tenderloin. The good news is, nothing else costs nearly as much. The Cubano is $10. The empanadas are $3.
   There are a handful of chairs and tables for eating in, but it's best to think of Fast Gourmet as a kind of glorified food truck. (An actual truck is coming later this year, Fast Gourmet's four owners, Uruguayans all, tell me.) Its quirky, up-through-the-cracks spirit owes everything to the unlikely insurgency of the food truck movement.
   Established restaurateurs are understandably anguished about these renegade restaurants. To hear them tell it, all those mobile units now zipping through the city's streets are putting a real hurt on more conventional, sit-down operations, particularly at lunch time. But the industry's conundrum is the diner's gain. The sass and smarts of these DIY chefs has resulted in a wealth of interesting, exciting options for the food lover. The latest example is also one of the tastiest. …

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Woodbridge,Va

For that individual in last weeks chat looking for a restaurant that is more adult-oriented should consider this.

Possibly the last classic french-influenced restaurant like those from the '80s in the Washington area is L'hermitage Bistro in Occoquan. Classically prepared meals and an ambiance that appeals to quieter dining. Definitely a 45 minute restaurant.

Thanks for writing in and picking up that conversational thread again … I agree with you except for your final sentence.

There aren't that many restaurants that are 45-minute places, and I don't think L'Hermitage is one of them. 

Annapolis, MD

Todd, you missed the boat with stating Bagels & … is the best bagel place in the area. You need to visit Naval Bagel, just down the road.

It knocks the socks off Bagels & … by a long mile. Nevermind, it's got a better, tastier variety of toppings, and better service as well.

I've eaten at Naval Bagel a number of times, and while I can appreciate that you have a lot of affection for it, let's be honest, here: Its bagels are not nearly as good as Bagels and …

A lot of places make a pretty good bagel sandwich. I'm thinking in particular of Ize's Deli and Bagelry, in Rockville. It's an excellent sandwich. The bagels themselves? Eh.

The opposite is Goldberg's, in Silver Spring. It makes a pretty stingy sandwich, and the lox isn't great. But the bagels are terrific.

The place I was wrong to leave out — a slip of memory, let's call it — is Royal Bagel Bakery and Deli, in Germantown. This is a top-tier bagel place for this area. The bagels are excellent, they make their own cream cheese (how many places can say that?), and the pastry case is full of tasty treasures.

Arlington VA

Hello Todd,

In previous chats someone has mentioned the openings of local celebrity chef restaurants in 2011 Elisir, Fiola, Rouge 34 etc Do you know by any chance the opening dates of any of them? Prices?

No word yet on dates, but if you want to read more about these soon-to-be spots, here's a piece we ran in the magazine recently about forthcoming restaurants. Enjoy.
Arlington, Va

In response to the person in last week's chat who asked where to find cheese curds in this area, there is a cheese vendor at the Courthouse Farmer's Market in Arlington that sells delicious cheese curds in several different flavors.

I believe the market is open on Saturdays between 8 am and noon.

I know our despairing curd-seeker is going to be thrilled to hear about this!

Thanks so much for chiming in … 

Silver Spring, MD

Re: those General Store customer "scene recreation" videos …

I considered going to General Store for lunch once last year. I was going to bring my 2 year old daughter as well, so I wanted to make sure it was kid-friendly and called to ask.

Needless to say, the owner was so rude over the phone when she retorted, "Ugh I mean what do you mean by 'child-friendly'? We dont serve chicken fingers here if that's what you're asking…" I said, "Do you have high chairs that's all, I've never been or seen your restaurant…"

She didn't want to be bothered clearly and we would have been a bother so we did not end up going and have never gone.

I can hear Gillian Clark saying every one of those words, except for the first one. I don't buy the "ugh." It doesn't ring true.

And that "ugh" is a powerful word, in context. It absolutely changes how you read what follows. 

I'm not saying that you were wrong in thinking that the restaurant isn't crazy about kids. I don't think it is. (In truth, it's not all that "crazy" about adults, either.)

I think the problem, here, is that Clark — or Robin Smith; who knows who answered — tried to guess where you were going, and guessed wrong. What do they say? Never assume.

But part of the problem is the term itself, "kid-friendly." What does it really mean?

I've called restaurants whose Yelp pages listed them as not kid-friendly, only to discover they have high-chairs. If a place has high chairs, it's accepting and even encouraging of kids — whatever else it wants to think of itself. Then again, there are places that bill themselves as kid-friendly, and are anything but hospitable to a toddler or child.

Restaurants that are, quite literally, friendly to a child, that make sure the child is comfortable and having a good time, that pay attention and even dote — they are very, very rare.

There are only a few American restaurants that I can think of that fall into this category; Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke, in New York, is one of them.

The majority of places that make up this slender category are Asian and Latino restaurants. Different, more expansive notions of family and dining.

Arlington, VA

I see the pizza rankings there. I just need to give a shout-out to Pupatella.

Initially as you pointed out their pizzas were a bit soggy, but over the last 2-3 months it is hands down the best pizza i have had in the area. The crust is great and it is holding the ingredients better..

Good to hear, and now I'll have to see for myself.

I loved the panini I had there last time I was in — maybe the best panini I've had in the area — but the pies were wet and forgettable. A real disappointment, considering the pies they were making in their tiny red truck (fired in an oven made hot by a propane tank) were so fantastic.

Kalorama Triangle, DC

Re: Cheese Curds…

They're also sold at the Dupont Farmer's Market on Sunday. I believe it's the Clear Spring Creamery, located just outside the fenced area off 20th & Q.

Excellent!

That's two sources, now, for fresh curds. Who's got a third?

Thanks for the great tip … 

Flying Solo

Hi Todd,

I hope that you are not tempted to emulate the food critic at WaPo who has recently hosted co-chats with restauranteurs. They have been little more than publicists. I value your skills more than his shills.

Well, to be fair, we have, in the past, brought in restaurateurs and chefs to talk about their forthcoming projects, or to just muse on the local scene — I'm remembering a sort of round-table we conducted a couple of years back after the Cheap Eats issue came out.

And the funny, companionable Dave McIntyre, who used to write a wine column for us and now writes one for the Post, sat in one week, as did Trevor Corson, who wrote a very insightful book on sushi, The Story of Sushi.

So, we have had guests on here. But it's been a while.

If we do it again, it'll be because we have a host or guest who has something to say — or, better yet, something to say and an interesting way of saying it.

Washington, DC

Hi Todd,

First off,

I look forward to following this chat each week. It's always informative and entertaining.

My question is this. Valentine's day is fast approaching, and I hoped you could recommend a nice, quiet restaurant in DC for a grad student watching his wallet. Ideally, dinner for two and wine would remain moderately priced (say, under $200). Thanks in advance for your advice!

I'm basing my rec's off of the places I know last year that were doing prix fixe Valentine's Day menus.

Here's my short list of spots where I think you'd have a great romantic night with good food and good wine, and come in comfortably within budget: Bastille, in Alexandria; Birch & Barley, in DC; and Zentan, in DC. 

I'll be interested to hear which one you pick. Enjoy yourselves …

(By the way: Here's a preliminary list of V-Day menus that the crack research team here at Washingtonian has already assembled. The list will be updated regularly, as more menus become available.)

Washington, DC

Hi Todd,

Heading to Miami next weekend–any recommendations for drinks or dinner? Trying to avoid the "cheesy" spots while still embracing the Miami scene.

Well, I've been to Miami three times in the past seven months, as part of my book tour, and I've eaten three meals at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink.

I love the place. The jazz soundtrack, the locally caught fish, the exuberantly creative menu, the spirited atmosphere, the pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith. There are so many can't-miss dishes here: the homemade pastrami, the ceviche, the Vietnamese-style pork belly, the homemade Oreos. Owner-chef Michael Schwartz has brilliantly tapped into the mood of the moment.

I also like Francesco, in Coral Gables, for terrific Peruvian cooking in a cozy, dimly lit space.

Speaking of Peruvian: It may sound like heresy, but the best, most exciting mom and pops or tiny independents in Miami are not the Cuban joints, as they used to be, ten or so years ago. They're the Peruvian joints. Sabor a Peru, near the Design District, is terrific. I also really like the small, stylish Ceviche 105, downtown.

Clifton, VA

Chef's on the Wa Po chat. Lets be fair Roberto took some heavy hits on his chat. Tom and his guest do not sit in the same room. The chat w/ the sommelier was awful though. You live and work in DC area and you need to do a better job of promoting local wines.

Todd since you like store front sandwiches try the store at the corner of Rt611 and Bristersburg Rd. Great sandwiches and you can avoid the traffic on I95 by using Rt 610. Bristersburg, Elk Run Rd and Rt 28. You can watch the cows. You need a herding dog BTW and you need to try herding to relax.

"Let's be fair"? Is this the same Clifton I think it is? Boy, I never thought I'd read those three words coming from you, of all people, bud. 

Well, hey, it's a new year …

Which of the sandwiches do you recommend? And where is that intersection, exactly?

And as for herding … I'd be a great herder. I just know it.

Washington DC
Family loves good food but don't want them to break the bank. Any recommendations for a good night out in DC for a celabratory dinner? Bibiana seems like an option with the prices, but even lower would work as well…
Central Michel Richard? It's an ideal place for celebrations — maybe the best match of cuisine and ambiance in the city — and I think you'd pay less than you would at Bibiana, too.
Washington, DC
I've heard good things about Eatonville from friends but have yet to go there myself. What is your opinion on the food there?

I hope I'm not damning the place by saying it like this, but I don't go to Eatonville for the food.

That's not to say the food isn't any good. My most recent meal was the best meal I've had there since the place opened. It's not destination dining, and it's not trying to be. It's Southern food, and some of the best of that genre in the city. The new chef, Garret Fleming, has succeeded in lightening the dishes without sacrificing flavor and substance.

But for me, it's everything in totality at Eatonville: the mixed-race (and mixed-age) crowds, the vibrant atmosphere, the wonderfully good value, the loving tributes to an important writer, Zora Neale Hurston, pretty much everywhere you turn …

DC
For Miami, Michael's does top the list but the new Pubbelly in Miami Beach is really tasty and cool. And I also enjoy the food and vibe at Sugarcane in the Midtown area. If you are near South Miami head to Whisk Gourmet!

Thanks for chiming in on this.

I'll have to add them to my own list for the next time I'm down, which, I hope, is soon. If for nothing else, I need an excuse to wear the beautiful handstitched aqua shirt I bought in July. 

You can't wear a thing like that around here. It's too vivid. It'd hurt people's eyes.

So, for now, it sits. At least until April.

Speaking of buying clothes and finding you can't wear them when you return home … I remember being sent to Oklahoma City in the late '80s to write a magazine piece about rodeo clowns. Had a great time, found a great clown to write about, fell in love with a rodeo girl, and ended up staying later than I was supposed to. Well, I wanted so badly to be a part of that world that I ended up buying a cowboy hat, and boots, and a belt with a buckle.

I was wearing all three on the plane ride back home, and I'll never forget walking through the corridors of BWI, and that odd feeling that came over me, of being jolted back to the reality of a world I realized I was delusional to think I'd ever really left.

Arlington, VA
As a former waiter, busboy, chef and bartender Valentine's Day is another night for amateurs. Like Mothers Day and Easter the staffs hate V day. Since you are a grad student cook for her on V day and take her out another night.

Clifton? That you again?

It's true — restaurant staffers all pretty much despise Valentine's Day. But just try telling that to your girlfriend.

The fact is, it's one of those days where, as a man, you simply have to pony up. Even if you know it's not going to be that good a meal. Even if you don't think the cost is going to be worth it.

I have a friend who hates Valentine's Day, thinks it's a sham perpetrated by the greeting card companies, and hates being told when he is supposed to lavish gifts on his girlfriend.

I always tell him to think about the long-term good of the relationship — to accept that a little indulging of cliche, now and again, will keep things good and smooth for the duration. He refuses to listen, preferring to stick to his principles. I don't think Valentine's Day is about principles. Not those principles.

Lunch is calling …

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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