Tuesday, February 8 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman reviews an underground taqueria in Columbia Heights and talks about Ethiopian restaurants and the identity of Restaurant Refugee, a regular chatter.

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 The Wild Vine, a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its biggest present-day champion, a dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.

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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 

Bar Pilar, DC

Bayou Bakery, Arlington 

Birch & Barley, DC 

Black Market Bistro, Garrett Park

Cafe du Parc, DC 

Central Michel Richard, DC

Eola, DC

Fast Gourmet, DC

Gom Ba Woo, Annandale

Jackie's, Silver Spring

Komi, DC

Kushi, DC

La Limeña, Rockville 

Level
, Annapolis 

Masala Art, DC 

Michel, Tysons Corner

Minh's, Arlington

Palena Cafe, DC

PassionFish, Reston 

Poste Brasserie, DC

Ravi Kabob I and II, Arlington 

Red Pearl, Columbia

Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, Germantown 

 

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   W O R D   O F   M O U T H   . . .

   … Here's how the most interesting dinner I've had in ages began: A man on the second story of a Columbia Heights apartment complex looked down below, found a group of us standing on the street, opened the window and tossed us a key.
   Past the locked double doors we went, up to the second floor, where a door near the stairwell had graciously been left open. Immediately we were standing in a tiny kitchen and eat-in area with a makeshift communal table that seats eight. Outside, it was five degrees above freezing; inside, a man and woman were working frenziedly and in tandem at the stove, and it was so hot that we worked up a sweat in minutes. We joined a party of four, who were chowing down amid a happy clutter of bowls, most of them containing various homemade salsas.
   Most of the underground restaurants I know about make their names serving elaborate, multi-course prix fixe meals. They exist to fulfill the fancies of moonlighting chefs or gourmet-minded homecooks who want to pretend to run a real restaurant. Taqueria Juquilita (http://tiny.cc/lfqk2) is thus an intriguing exception. It's not just a restaurant on the down-low. It's a downscale restaurant on the down-low.
   The inspiration is Oaxaca, birthplace of mole and the source of some of the most exciting regional cooking to be found in Mexico. The smell of frying onions and the promise of unearthing a genuine discovery made us over-order: three sets of tacos, two quesadillas (one filled with huitlacoche, another with pickled squash blossoms), a chicken tamal, a monstrous bowl of goat soup, and a tostada.
   The biggest nit I had to pick all night is that the meats in the tacos (lengua, al pastor, carnitas) tended to be dry, but it's not as if the same can't be said of many commercial restaurants. (It's also not as if this is an apartment kitchen masquerading as a full-service restaurant or anything.)
   And the tortillas and the salsas are so good, it doesn't much matter. The former (handmade, pebbly, tasting of corn) might be the best I've had in the area; the salsas I sampled — including two kinds of salsa verde and a mole — were as good as their counterparts at Jose Andres's upscale Oyamel.
   My favorite dish of the night was a tostada piled high with chicken tinga — a fresh, fried tortilla smeared with refried beans, topped with shredded dark meat chicken doused in a complex and spicy red sauce and finished off with crumbled queso fresco. A goat soup was nearly as good, its tender hunks of meat bobbing in a chili broth so red it looked like borscht.
   When it was over, some two hours later, our eyes were stinging from the onions, our brows were wet (from the heat of the stove, but also from the heat of the chilis), and we were so stuffed that the idea of hitting an actual restaurant for dessert (our pre-meal plan) seemed like overkill.
   We parted — sated, happy, making vag
ue promises to return.
   I would be lying, however, if I didn't say that a part of me left unsatisfied. I had presumed, going in, that my questions about running a restaurant out of an apartment kitchen would have been answered, but I was more curious on leaving, not less. How do they manage to make it work? How are they able to avoid detection from the authorities? Are they able to live off the money?
    But we had an agreement, the owners and I. Writing about the food was OK, but I could not disclose their names — nor could I publish their address. I understood, too, that our little arrangement extended to other matters, complicated matters. I deigned not to probe.
   Which doesn't mean I'm not still wondering. But as the memory of that night lingers on, more than a week later, I've got other questions, too. What's the secret of that marvelous mole, anyway? And what sort of rough magic goes into those tortillas?

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Cleveland Park

Reporting back– Etete/first time Ethiopian eater.

As a lover of samosas, I followed your suggestion and had a Lentil Sambusa to start. I could have eaten several more. I also took suggestion #2 and ordered the Doro Wat. The sauce was rich and slightly spicy, dotted (emphasis on "dotted") throughout with tender chicken. I drank the only Ethiopian beer they had in stock– Harrar– and it complemented the food nicely.

My only complaint… I'm a fairly light eater and sometimes have trouble finishing just an entree at restaurants. I left Etete hungry, even after stealing some bites of my dining companion's (tasty) lamb.

Glad to hear it!

You're really a Washingtonian, now.

I'm surprised, though, to hear you say you left hungry. I don't think I've EVER heard anyone say that at an Ethiopian restaurant. Usually, it's the opposite — a case of over-eating, being too stuffed to squeeze in another bite of injera or wat.

 

Arlington Virginia

Todd – I wanted to pass along a "pre-eaten" tip that might or might not be worth checking out.

My wife and I were for several years devotees of the Thai food at Bangkok Siam at the intersection of Glebe and Pershing in Arlington. The food was complex and fiery and well, just better, than other Thai restaurants we'd tried — which include the original Thai Room on upper Connecticut Avenue from the early 80s (their "fire beef" had leftover napalm as its secret ingredient), Duangrat's (where we decided I need to leave the big law firm life), Thai Square, Nava Thai, and the Buddhist thanksgiving ceremony that Crystal Thai put on for neighbors and friends in 1993 to celebrate its first anniversary, and many others. When Bangkok Siam changed owners (and cooks), we tracked our former waitress from Bangkok Siam to Neisha Thai on Leesburg Pike (excellent on first visit, slowly declining on subsequent trips) and she told us the cook from Bangkok Siam was still looking for work (a condemnation of the free market system).

Jump forward to a couple of weeks ago — I'm registering new students for the ESL (English as a Second Language) class I've now taught on the weekends for 20 years. For the first time (oddly), I now have a Thai student and he's a server at Crystal Thai (walking distance from my house). His wife is also a server there, so they never cook at home and have, in their five years in the USA, turned into "foodies" (recommendations for Korean, Yechon Palace, and for American, Sweetwater Tavern).

So, of course, I asked him for their favorite local Thai restaurant and if he had any idea where the cook from Bangkok Siam ended up. The answer was the same: Burapa Thai.

Two drawbacks. (1) It's in Ashburn, Virginia (a major hike) and (2) you have to know about the "secret" Thai menu, which has no English translations on it. Fortunately, my new student also told me how to get the secret Thai menu — ask for the crab that is allowed to sit for three days to ferment and then lightly fried. He also gave me the Thai name for this dish, which I've since lost (but will ask him for on Saturday).

Anyway, if you're in the neighborhood, I'd check out Burapa Thai and insist on the secret Thai menu. On a different topic, I'm sure it's too late to influence your review of Bangkok Golden, but they did a wonderful job for a group of my friends who like to try different ethnic restaurants. Seng, one of the co-owners, worked with us to come up with a list of on-menu and off-menu dishes that would please a large group.

To my surprise, absolutely everybody was delighted with both the service and the food — (but not including the bull penis stew, which was not well received). Here's the menu Seng put together for us (she apologized because she could only get small tree ant eggs due to the recent flooding in Laos):

Kaonom Yad Sai Kali- Lao curry puff – curried potato and chicken wrapped with pastry dough

Sai Oua – Lao spicy sausage (pork), stuffed with lemongrass, herbs & fresh dill

Tum Marg Huong (“Lao hot”) – Salad with julienned green papaya, tomato, lime juice, and a Laotian spicy sauce (very very hot)

Larb Seen (cooked, sour)-

Beef larb (minced), cooked, sour taste, with kaffir lime leaves, rice powder, shallots, garlic, green onion, cilantro & mint. Larb Seen (raw, bitter) –

Beef larb (minced), raw, bitter taste (marinated in bile), with kaffir lime leaves, rice powder, shallots, garlic, green onion, cilantro & mint.

Koi Pah (medium rare) -Minced fish, texture similar to ceviche, with kaffir lime leaves, rice powder, shallots, garlic, green onion, cilantro & mint.

Koi Tub – Minced beef liver, with kaffir lime leaves, rice powder, shallots, garlic, green onion, cilantro & mint.

Ping Kai – Grilled chicken breast, with dipping sauce and broccoli Ping Seen – Grilled beef, lightly marinated, with dipping sauce and broccoli

Moak Pha -Steamed fish in fresh banana leaf, with lemongrass and fresh dill

Orm (beef)-Beef stew with chili paste, lemongrass, galangal, Asian eggplant & fresh dill

Kao Piak Sen (chicken)- Vermicelli rice noodles with chicken, ginger, scallion, cilantro, coconut milk, lemon grass, ginger, chili, cabbage, bean sprouts, carrots, crispy garlic, and shallots

Nam Khao- Crispy rice salad, with herbs and shredded coconut, seasoned with lime juice, onion, and ham. Eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves

Mieng Muang Luang- Wrap with savory ground rice paste & lemongrass, ginger, tomato, chili & peanuts Som Pah- Fermented/pickled tilapia

Ob Hum Ngua- Bull penis stew

Pon Pah – Pounded fish Yum Marg Pee- Banana flower salad Ping Lin – Grilled beef tongue Kang kee lek – Cassia fistula with tree ant eggs & cow skin Jeo Bong- Spicy dipping sauce made with chilis, galangal, pork & cow skin

Hope this is interesting.

Doug Herbert 

Aw, come on, who's not up for some bull penis stew every now and again?

(To the inevitable question, "What's it taste like?" always, ALWAYS, answer: "It tastes like chicken.")

Doug, you're my kind of eater. It's a little after 11, and already I'm hungry, reading your dish list.

Thanks so very much for this, and for the great tip, too. My take on the place is coming, soon. 

 

Washington D.C.

Hi Todd,

I am one of three 'food keen', normally DC metro bound girls who have a car for a night! We want to take advantage of the amazing restaurants outside our usual parameters- we have enjoyed your posts for a long time… we've been to La Limena, Bastille, Minhs, La Placita etc

Any other stellar suggestions from you for a great location for fabulous food (whatever price, location or decor)? We are all about the food 😉

Thank you so much!

I love it! Thank you. It sounds like you know how to have a great time, wherever you are. I'd love to tag along with the "food keen" crew some time …

I'd say, really, any of the places I list above — the 25 places I'm most enthusiastic about at the moment.

Gom Ba Woo would be a good bet, if you haven't been, and if you're also jonesing for some good Korean. If you're looking for a small plates + drinks sort of night, I'd think about Bar Pilar. If you want a bit of a getaway, and a chance to stroll down by the water after dinner, maybe Level, in Annapolis — also a small plates and drinks sort of night (I love their smoked honey Manhattan). The best Thai I've had in a while is at Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, in Germantown — bright and alive. Finally, how about Jackie's, in Silver Spring, for a fine dining meal drained of all pomp and pretension.

Hope that helps, and I'd love to hear how the night went. Keep us posted, please … 

 

Arlington, VA

Echoing what Cleveland Park said about Etete – It used to be my favorite Ethiopian place in DC, starting several years ago.

I always felt the food was extremely flavorful and the portions generous. The last two or three times I went, though, prices had gone up, portions had shrunk, and the food seemed less aggressively seasoned. I figured that the restaurant owners assumed they could get away with it, since the restaurant was always packed.

Needless to say, I've since switched "allegiances" to Ethiopic. It's not as convenient, but eating there reminds me of why I loved Etete a few years ago.

Thanks for writing in.

I didn't notice a less-aggressive spicing on my last visit, but I have seen the prices go up, and the portions are not what they used to be.

Of the myriad ways a restaurant can change for the worst, becoming less generous — becoming less about value — is the one that bothers me most. Particularly when it's a place that built its name on generosity and value.

I'm with you on Ethiopic. They've got a very good thing going there. 

 

Clifton, VA

One of these days I am going to open a restaurant with a secret menu in Southernese.

In order to get access your have to your flip flops, board shorts, Siky Cams T shirt and be able to recite quote from a James Delaney Buffett song I am looking for a smart …..

A smart — … what? Don't leave us hanging like that, Clifton.

What would be on the secret menu? Possum? Squirrel?

Speaking of which, my mom loves to tell the following story about the time she and my father were living in Blacksburg, in the mid-'50s, before it became, well — civilized. (Her word, not mine. They were city slickers, my parents — Jews — and no doubt stuck out like a couple of herrings in a vat of grits.)

One day, a neighbor passed along a cookbook, a volume of recipes of the old South, and that night my mom went looking for something to try. There was one that caught her eye, a recipe for "Cooter Soup."

This is how it began: "First, you get yourself a cooter …"

Would You Spend Your Money?
Todd, Would you spend your money at Evo Bistro? Thanks, A desperate McLeanian

A desperate McLeanian? Isn't that like an underfed sumo wrestler? …

But to answer your question: Yes, I would. I like the place. 

I think you give it the best chance to succeed if you think of it as a place for sampling a few plates and indulging in a couple of glasses of wine, rather than trying to make it adhere to the conventions of a more traditional meal. 

Del Ray

Who is the Restaurant Refugee? I can't take it any longer.

It's clearly a man. Women typically don't tend to the fireplace at public restaurants. I am guessing a Baby Boomer. Let's play a game and see if we can figure out his stats by his writing… We need a compilation.

I couldn't take it any longer, either, and so I invited RR to dinner not too terribly long ago.

I assured RR that I would keep his or her (ha) identity a secret, so I unfortunately can't play along — though it's fun to hear the speculation.

(Boy, a day of secrets here on the chat.)

I can tell you this: RR is real, and is about as serious as they come in matters gastronomical and oenological. But RR is not merely food-obsessed. He — or she — can discourse on books, music, race, politics, culture, etc.

In short, a pretty wonderful dinner guest, if you ask me.

Goldvein
You should have sent the DC girls with a car for the night to the Gun Club of Goldvein or Patowmack Farms in Lovettesville.

So let me guess … because I reviewed a Oaxacan restaurant in an apartment building, you think it's time to break out a mention of the Gun Club of Goldvein again?

I assure you: Juquilita is real. 

(Though the Gun Club, were it real, WOULD be mind-blowing. Probably literally, too.)

Ballston, VA

Mr Kliman,

Not sure if you are old enough to remember but back before we had Szechuan and Hunan and then dm sum Chinese restaurants used to serve Chicken Chow Mein and breaded veal cutlet in a tomato sauce. The veal was pretty decent and the quality better then many an Italian restaurant. Do you know any Chinese restaurants that still serve veal cutlet in tomato sauce,

I don't remember the veal cutlet, but I do remember chicken chow mein … Boy, those days are long, long gone.

I can tell you where you can find the same thing, though. Not at Chinese restaurants — but at Ethiopian restaurants. OK, it's seldom a veal cutlet — usually a chicken cutlet, but the same thing otherwise. 

If you go to, say, Axum, in Adams Morgan, in the middle of the afternoon you'll see a couple of cabbies gorging on plates of cutlet topped with tomato sauce, along with maybe a side of spaghetti.

I was sitting at the bar at an Ethiopian restaurant once, and I asked a cabbie why he wasn't eating what I was eating — tibs, wats, etc. He looked up from his plate of cutlet and smiled: "That? I can get that at home."

Speaking of Chinese food, that reminds me … I want to take a second here to let everyone know I'll be a guest of the Kojo Nnamdi show tomorrow (NPR, 88.5 AM) in the noon hour, talking about Chinese restaurants. 

I hope you'll tune in, and, even better, ask a question or two …

Re: Food, Wine and Co. Review

Todd,

I didn't get a chance to check in on the chat until after it was over last week, but really wanted to put in my two cents about your Food, Wine and Co. review.

I had frequented it when it first opened, and initally, I was thrilled. It was a welcome addition to the Bethesda restaurant scene, and had some delicious, simple menu items, including the best caesar salad I had ever eaten. It also had a solid beer and wine list.

After enjoying it for two or three visits, I began to notice a signifciant deterioration in the quality of the food, and the overall experience.

The caesar salad I had raved about to friends, embarrassed me when I brought them in to try it.

Further, when their web site went up, it said that they were offering wine at just a few dollars above retail. This was, and remains 100% false. In fact, just recently they raised their wine prices, and the cheapest bottle is now $35, around double, if not more, than what the bottles retail for.

I really, really wanted to like that place, and am tempted to go back again (they mailed out $25 dollar gift certificates to local residents) but the food quality, and the straight up inaccuracy about their wine pricing philosophy make me feel as if I am getting ripped off whenever I dine there.

On a positive food note in Bethesda, Cava Grill is now open, and it truly delicious (for what it is). They use all of the same, high quality dips that Cava has at it's full service restaurants and in Whole Foods, and add simply prepared meats and falafel to it. I love the rice bowl, which, at 6.90, is a amazing bargain. Cava is a great new option for a quick lunch in Bethesda!

Thanks for chiming in on Food Wine and Co. …

I think rip-off is about right. Why waste your money on mediocre, overpriced food when there's so much else around?

As for Cava Grill, I'm with you there, too. I had the rice bowl there the other day with a couple of spoonfuls of the long-cooked lamb, and enjoyed it (despite the toughness of some of the meat; the loukaniko, a Greek sausage, was better, more flavorful.)

What's funny (and also a little disconcerting) about the place is, it's literally a note-for-note rendition of Chipotle: same line, same options to start (here, it's pita, rice or salad; there, it's tortilla, rice or salad), same selection of meats, same dispensing and ordering of toppings, same emphasis on good ingredients, same speediness and efficiency, same pricing.

Call it Grecotle.

Since we're on the subject of Bethesda, I followed up my meal with a yogurt at Sweetgreen, across the street, and left disappointed — especially after telling my friend what a treat it would be. This was not the yogurt I'd come to love. Icy, uncreamy, ordinary.

And for $4.24, a — you guessed it — ripoff.

Falls Church, VA

Hi Todd,

I hear about all these great Ethiopian joints in DC, but have never ventured out as I prefer to stay closer to home most of the time.

I have discovered Meaza in Falls Church, which is mostly wonderful, but any other suggestions for good Ethiopian in the VA suburbs?

There are two I'd recommend, and they're just a few doors down from one another.

The first is Abay, but it's not for the squeamish. You'd better be up for adventure. You'd also better be up for a different kind of meal, even a different kind of Ethiopian meal.

The focus here is on raw meat — not kitfo, but slices from hanging slabs in the back, which are then dipped into awaze, a very strong-flavored sauce; think of it as an Ethiopian version of A-1.

Is it good? It is. But I've never seen anybody eat a lot of it at one sitting. And a beer is a necessity with a meal like this. Actually, a lot of Ethiopians I know like to have a whiskey on hand when they eat raw meat with awaze.

The last time I had the dish, I was at a friend's house, and when I asked for a beer she shook me off and brought me a glass of Jack Daniels. 

The other place, just down from Abay, is Eyo. It's a restaurant and sports bar, and the menu is more like the ones you're used to. It's a good place. I think you'd have a good time.

If you decide to hit either of these — or both — let me know, ok?

For recipe sleuth

Todd,

I'm wondering if you could please help me secure the recipe for Zaytinya's "Crispy Brussel Sprouts?" I'd like to try making them at home. I'm sure Brussel Sprouts get a bad rap but these just melt-on-your-tongue AND taste delicious.

Thank you

Sure. We'll chase it down for you.

I want to say, though, that crispy brussels sprouts are really, really easy to make. I did a very simple version last Friday, at home.

I'd been planning on a salad to go with a chicken dish and some rice, but my wife brought home some gorgeous looking brussels sprouts — really, the best raw ones I've ever seen — and so I abruptly switched gears.

Here's what I did. Cut the ends, cut the sprouts in half lengthwise, laid them out on a cookie sheet, drizzled them very heavily with extra virgin olive oil, and hit them with lots of Kosher salt and cracked black pepper. Then, into the oven at 425 or so degrees until they got dark — until they looked, in places, nearly burnt.

That's it. What could be easier? 

 

Arlington, VA

Todd,

I had the beef head to tail menu at Palena Cafe last weekend. Can I just say this might be the best dining meal and or deal in Washington right now.

Every course was just amazing. Between the oxtail stew, the carpaccio, the steak, the soup. One course after another of just amazing attention to detail done so well it all just tasted comforting and delicious, not complex or overdone. I felt we ate all this for a steal of a price too. You have to be a party of six, but it is well worth that challenge, we went with people we had never dined with and made some great new friends.

This is really a worth it experience.

I've been eager to try it.

$60/person for a minimum of 6 people, I believe.

Not cheap, but given the range and, I take it, the quality, it sounds very, very intriguing. And I really like what you say, that it tasted "comforting and delicious, not complex or overdone." There are many times, in the hands of a talented chef, where you're aware of the effort. Of the effort, of the technique, of the various conceptual tropes in play.

Not that that doesn't sometimes work. But when it doesn't, it's pretentious, and you feel that you're there to serve the chef, and not the other way around.

I think about books much the same way. DeLillo is great, and I love what he can do with his sentences, I love the way his mind works. But sometimes, it leaves me cold, this headiness. I want characters. I want story. Sometimes, all I really want to do is to slip into the world of someone like Aharon Appelfeld — simple, seamless, unselfconscious.

Logan Circle

Hey Todd,

I have no questions today, but I do want to comment. So far this is one of my top favorite chats in a long time.

What a great Tuesday lunch hour – cold leftovers from last night's attempt at making cashew tofu (big mistake biting into the huge chunk of dried red chili at work…), Stevie Nicks Pandora station and an overload of secrets on the chat.

Thanks!

I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Weird, isn't it, how that theme of secrets is woven throughout the whole transcript today? A conspiracy theorist might think it was all planned. (Ha, there we go again with the patterns … Delillo, conspiracy theorist … )

Anyway, enjoy the cashew tofu … I'm off to have lunch with a man who some claim to have the largest collection of bourbon and whiskey in the country …

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

(And don't forget to tune in to Kojo tomorrow, 88.5 AM, in the noon hour.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(missing you, TEK … )

 

 

 

 

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