Tuesday, March 8 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman finds a gas-station taqueria he'd drive 90 minutes to get to, points a reader to great fish and chips, and responds to comments about Central Michel Richard.

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  . . .

   . . .  A couple of months ago in this space, I broke out a concept I called "minute-markers." Minute-markers are a kind of ratings system for restaurants, and in some ways I said I think they can be a more accurate a gauge of the worth of a place than stars. They ask the simple question: How long would you drive to eat at a given restaurant?
   I thought about minute-markers this weekend in the wake of my stunning visit to R&R Taqueria (7894 Washington Blvd., Elkridge; 410-799-0001), which, like Fuel City and Good to Go Taco — both in Dallas, both famed — is in a gas station. No service, no tables and chairs — just a couple of stools and a counter. No matter: I'd drive an hour and a half to eat there, easy. (To put that in context: The Inn at Little Washington, that gastronomic palace, is an hour-and-twenty minute drive from my house.)
   Tyler Cowen, who blogs about ethnic eating in the area, shot me an email about the place on Saturday and the next day I rounded up some friends to join me in Jessup (the post office might say Elkridge, but my friends who live in nearby Savage insist it's Jessup). The three women who run the kitchen combine the speed and efficiency of short-order cooks with the finesse and expertise of long-apprenticed master chefs.
   The menu is not large and would appear to hold few surprises: tacos, chile rellenos, tortas, huevos rancheros — the same items every authentic south-of-the-border restaurant offers.
    But seldom, if ever, are you going to come upon Mexican food this light and elegant — and also with the depth and complexity of sit-down, save-up-your-pennies fare.
   The chile relleno was so far from the heavy, over-cheesed variety we're accustomed to, it seemed like a different dish entirely; it would not have been out of a place on some modish New American bistro menu, except for the fact it had too much character. Its tomato sauce was also unexpectedly fresh and vivid. The best example of the quality of the saucing, here, might be the well-balanced mole; its sweet, chocolatey richness never gained the upper hand over the foundation of roasted red peppers. It coated a plate of enchiladas filled with the tenderest shreds of braised lamb.
   I generally cut dives some slack when it comes to meats, which are often tough or dry. But a generous flap of thin, pounded pork — marinated (probably in sour orange juice, oregano, and garlic), assertively seasoned and perfectly cooked— didn't need apologies. It sliced beautifully with a plastic knife. Chilaquiles came on the side, almost as an afterthought; but these were the best chilaquiles I've ever eaten.
   Part of what makes the chilaquiles so good are the tortillas. They're worthy of the term "artisan" — with the pebbly, variegated surface that tells you they were not stamped out in the factory. They're even better when they&#
39;ve been slapped onto the griddle to toast, which appears to be the starting point for all taco assembly here. I'm still thinking about the versions I had filled with carnitas and al pastor — the best tacos I've ever eaten in the area, and the best I've ever had east of the Mississippi.
   When we were done, one of my friends blew kisses to the cooks. Red Smith said there's no cheering in the press box, so instead I tapped my heart three times with my hand.
   I am already planning a trip north this week to fill the tank — in both senses of the word. …

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Columbia Heights, DC
For some reason I've been in the mood for some fish and chips lately and am wondering if you or the chatters can recommend me a place in DC. I've had them at Central and that was great, but I'm wondering if there are other places in the District that stand out to you for this. Thanks!

Againn is pretty good for fish and chips.

Eamonn's, in Old Town, had been superb, but was somewhat disappointing the last time I was in.

Franklin's, in Hyattsville, does a decent version, but it's nothing you would get in your car and drive for.

Who else out there does a good version? Who's got a recommendation?

CapitolBites
My boyfriend and I recently broke open our change jar and discovered we had close to $120 in pennies, quarters, dimes and nickles. We want to use the money to go out for a nice dinner. Where would you suggest that we splurge? (Ideally we would like the restaurant to be metro accessible since we don't have a car). Thanks so much in advance!

I'd most likely go to Central Michel Richard. It's just a short walk from the Gallery Place metro stop.

$120 means you can eat well, and drink, too, and not have to worry about crossing the line into something more expensive. You might even come back with some change.

It's a mood-lifting place, and the cooking, particularly when it's on, has the lightness and finesse of fine dining, but delivers the rib-sticking satisfactions of simpler fare. 

Our after-wedding lunch
We followed your recommendation and went to RIS for our late lunch, and we are glad we did. We ordered the cheese plate to share. My partner (have to get used to saying husband) had the Monday special meatloaf, and I had sesame crusted salmon with gingered beets, bok choi, soba noodles and red curry coconut broth. We were both very happy with food, the service was friendly without being intrusive, and they brought us a complementary plate of cookies with a little candle. Very nice. (I also asked Tom Sietsema at the Post for a recommendation, and he also recommended RIS. Coincidence–or two great minds thinking alike?)

So, wait — what if he had steered you to Westend Bistro instead? Would you have gone? ; )

I'll cut you a break on the double-dipping since it's such a special occasion …

I'm glad to hear it all worked out so well, that the team at RIS took such good care of you. Many years of happiness to you and your husband-partner …

Arlingtongue
Any reaction to the changes going on over at Pizzeria Orso? The public statements regarding Edan MacQuaid's departure have been rather cryptic.

I didn't find them to be cryptic. Are you referring to this piece in the Post? Because to me, it all sounds pretty typical of what happens when a place cans a high-profile person — talk of a change in philosophy; some diplomatic, say-nothing statements; some empty praise for the outgoing talent.

What I found most interesting, here, is the suggestion that not listening to customers with young children is what caused the divide between MacQuaid and management — and that the new Orso will endeavor to be more responsive to family concerns.

If that's the case, then it sounds as though there was an impasse over whether to be a purist's spot — and to cling tight to that distinction — or to be a family-friendly spot that listens to the needs (wants?) of its customers and responds to those needs/wants.

MacQuaid is a good pizzaiolo, and the pies had improved since the opening weeks to the point that I thought they might well have been the best in the area.

It'll be interesting to see what happens now.

Truly great pizza is often the result of one person with the passion and drive to be great and also consistent.

But you can have very good pizza without that person around, so long as you have a committed, focused team in the kitchen.

DC
I ate at Jackie's last night and there is no way that the food I had would qualify for a listing in your tops. Do you eat there regularly? I ask because it was pretty bad food, the dessert was so stale that I initially thought it was frozen…but it wasn't… Is Monday lef-tover night there? I mean you could tell by just looking at the fries and miniburgers that they should't have left the pass, really.

Are you talking about Jackie's in Silver Spring? Because your description of what you encountered there is so far off the mark of what I've seen of the restaurant in the past year or so there, and I've probably been to Jackie's 8 times in that stretch.

You had a disappointing plate of mini-burgers and fries, it sounds like, along with a bad dessert, and from that you want to generalize that a good, worthy place is pitiable? That might fly on Yelp!, but it's an insult to a restaurant that at the very least deserves more thoughtful, considered criticism.

What was the dessert, by the way? From your description, it sounds as though it might have been a pie or cake, and that it was served straight from the fridge. Nothing I've ever eaten here has ever smacked of being stale, even the desserts, which have improved in the past year; I loved the apple pie that was on the menu this Fall. And the rest of the menu is a kind of showcase of fresh produce and locally grown meats — prepared with intelligence and care by the young, talented chef, Diana Davila-Boldin.

Tamales
I'm always on the hunt for Mexican tamales, especially during the holidays. Did you see Tamales on the savory side of La Mexicana Bakery's menu? Any bulk [2 -3 dozen] Tamale sources in Riverdale, MD? I'd love to have a local source and stop considering mail order from Texas.

I would call either El Tapatio or La Sirenita, both in Bladensburg's Little Mexico, and ask if they could supply you. You could also call La Flor de Puebla Bakery (there's a small location in Bladensburg, and a larger operation in Riverdale) and ask them; they service a lot of parties.

Either way, it would help you immeasurably if your Spanish is good.

La Flor de Puebla, by the way, makes these terrific sugar donuts filled with cream. Has anybody had them? When they're fresh (or fairly fresh), they can't be beat. If I had a list of 100 must-eats in the area, they'd undoubtedly be on there.

The District

As a hotel Concierge I find it challenging to assist last minute requests for the restaurants that always book up weeks in advance. I am constantly being asked for reservations at the more well known top 10 and need to be creative in finding alternates that will provide a first rate dining experience.

That is why I try so hard to know the best alternates that are likely to have availability. It is a challenging but rewarding part of my job and I must say that my guests are usually very happy with my recommendations.

I thank you for your chats which assist me greatly as well as all the monthly articles in the Washingtonian Magazine.

I want to thank you for taking a moment to write in this morning. That's terrific to hear.

I'm curious to know — which sorts of places outside the "well-known top 10" do you find yourself coming back to again and again?

DC
I notice you (and some other critics) always recommend Central. Call me crazy but the two times I have been there I have found it truly mediocore, and even somewhat expensive (moreso their appetizers prices). I typically love Richards food at Citronelle and even the new Michel but for some reason Central just does not do it for me. Am I missing something?

Maybe. I don't know. So much about your experience of a place like this — with a menu this long — depends on what you get.

Do you remember what you had?

That's not to excuse away your comments. I've had friends report back that they had mostly good meals, but that one or two dishes were disappointments, or let me know that they had what they called "hit and miss" meals — i.e., some things were superb, some were only okay. I haven't heard that the entire experience was mediocre, however.

DC
Perhaps a topic for another chat but after the previous mention of BR Myer's foodie article I also read his older Reader's Manifesto. Curious to get your opinions of this older piece. Thanks

I didn't read the book, The Reader's Manifesto, but I did read the long piece in The Atlantic when it came out.

I found it provocative, frustrating, sometimes insightful, and sometimes laughably off-the-mark. I don't think you can cherry pick with novels and long narratives, pullling out passages and saying — aha! look! pretentiousness! What matters is the work in its entirety.

Critics like to talk about "perfect novels." There aren't any. Many great works that have been handed down to us are baggy, windy, sometimes misshapen, and even full of fast, uneven writing. Joyce, Dostoevsky, James, Twain, Steinbeck — to name just a handful. I think many of their greatest works succeed not in spite of their flaws; in a sense, their flaws become them. It's not about surface beauty. It's about intensity of vision, depth of understanding, grasp of life in all its complexity and messiness.

I think this larger context is what Myers' piece is missing.

Reston, VA

Todd,

I've noticed lately that there has been some griping here about experiences at Komi that I'm just finding hard to fathom. It seems more and more that people expect a restaurant and its staff to not only deliver an outstanding meal, but be mind-readers as well.

Both diners suggested that they had read plenty of reviews/done a bunch of "research" on the place, and then complained that they either received the goat (which they didn't want but failed to mention) or didn't receive the goat (the signature dish they expected to be served).

As someone who has enjoyed both of my Komi experiences (dining for two at the 4 top next to the kitchen so I could peek in was just awesome), am I wrong in thinking that if either party had simply let the staff know their respective preferences for entrees it wouldn't have been an issue at all?

It probably wouldn't have, no.

But I can sympathize, in part, with the complains, and I say that as someone who believes that Komi is the most distinctive fine dining meal in the city.

I think it's asking a lot of people to hit the web and desultorily research a restaurant — its mission, its approach to dinner, its idiosyncracies of service — before arriving for dinner.

Cleveland Park

Two things:

1. Trying out Obelisk for the first time– since they don't (seem to) have a website, is there anything I should know beforehand? I've heard that to try to avoid filling up on all of the small plates, and that is a mix of price fixe/tasting? Are there any reasonable bottles of wine on the list (meaing under $45)?

2. I second the earlier comment about Central. It is one of those places I've really tried to like (kind of like my ongoing struggle to develop a taste for olives), but I always leave mildly disappointed. I'm tempted to make my full meals there consist of gougeres.

That's funny about the gougeres …

I can understand not wanting to splurge there, but honestly, do you mean to tell me that nothing else there is in any way satisfying? I mean — the banana split! Pure joy. If only for the superlative chocolate and vanilla ice creams …

As for Obelisk, my advice would be to ignore whoever told you not to fill up on the antipasti. Best part of the meal. Fill up early, I say, and make sure to leave room for dessert. You also ought to be able to find a decent wine for about $35-40 a bottle.

Shaw DC

Good Morning Todd,

I have an inquiry for you and our fellow chatters. Any word on the new Hot & Juicy Crawfish in Woodley Park? As a native Louisianian, I'm completely skeptical, but I'm also desperate!! I, grudingly, read some unhelpful reviews on Yelp, but I was looking for info on where they get their crawfish and such.

Also, any word on where I might be able to find boiled crawfish this season? I remember Acadiana had some last Spring/early Summer (which I didn't get to try), but I haven't heard back from them. Advice from chatters? Thanks!

I keep meaning to get on over to Hot & Juicy but haven't so far. I'm just as curious as you are. Thanks for the reminder …

As for crawfish — you should take a trip out to the Eden Center and a place  called Seaside Crab House, which looks out onto the always-crammed parking lot. They'll have 'em for sure.

The place reminds me of all the little shacks you see in Louisiana. With one difference — it's run by a Vietnamese family. Boiled crawfish, crab, ears of corn, the whole shebang. They've even got the wooden deck.

And if you want it, lime and black pepper for dipping. It's a Vietnamese thing, you wouldn't (being a Louisianan) understand.

Cleveland Park

Hi Todd, due to an unexplained money fairy, my SO found himself with an extra $100. I've decided to match it with my own $100 so we can go out to a special dinner in DC.

We don't normally splurge like this, and like all kinds of food… where should we go? Right now my top choice is Obelisk. Any other suggestions?

Nice! Don't you love found money?

If it were me, I'd probably be thinking The Source. Or even Adour — provided you keep the drinking down.

I'm happy for you both; it's great to treat yourself once in a while.

DC
Any recommendations for a quick meal prior to a weeknight Kennedy Center show?

Subway?

I'm only half-joking. There's no much that's within striking distance that's worth the money.

If it were me, and I were looking for a real, sit-down meal, I'd book a table at Circle Bistro, right at Washington Circle. It's a nice walk to the Kennedy Center from the restaurant, so that's an added benefit.

Germantown MD

Hi Todd.

I recently read an article entitled "Pizza & Donut Love Child: The Panzaretto" on thekitchn.com. I wanted to know if you are familiar with the panzaretto and if you know of a place that makes them in the DC area. Thanks.

I've had panzerotti, but not here.

Strange, I never thought of them as being like a cross between a pizza and a donut — I thought of them as being calzones. I mean, they look like calzones. And they eat like calzones, too. Good stuff.

Has anyone seen them around here? If so, drop me a note for next week … I've got to grab a quick lunch, now, and then head out for a meeting …

Thanks for all the questions, comments and gripes, everyone.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

 

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