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.
W o r d o f M o u t h . . .
. . . You expect a detail-minded operation when you stroll into a three-star restaurant with a grocery list-sized cocktail menu, dishes that demand a waiter's detailed explication, and a splashy design that invites you to explore its particulars as if it were an exhibition meant to stand for all time. But at an unassuming strip-mall joint like Tortacos (9629 Lost Knife Rd., Gaithersburg; 240-632-9423)?
Exhibit A is the fixins' bar. All taco toppings — which include several kinds of homemade salsa, sliced radishes and chopped cilantro — are stowed away in a compact, lidded apparatus that keeps everything fresh. No digging into a tub of pale and watery pico.
Guacamole can't be found at the fixins' bar — you have to order it — but it shows the same care in prepping, particularly in its wonderfully pronounced acidity; this is one guac that doesn't stint on the lemon.
The standout taco is the al pastor, one of those fascinating dishes that arises from unexpected cultural collision — in this case, the influx of Lebanese immigrants into Mexico City. The glistening, spice-rubbed pork is sliced from a vertical spit and piled thickly into a two-ply corn tortilla. You have to ask for the thin, grilled slices of pineapple that are traditional to the dish, but the staff is happy to accommodate the request — happy to see a diner know and love what they know and love. The addition is important, introducing sweet, acidic notes that balance the spice and fat.
The other taco to get is the carnitas, thin, crisp-edged slices of pork that retain a good bit of juiciness.
The chicken is skippable, and though the tortas (small sub sandwiches with your choice of meat, smashed avocado and mayo) are tasty they're not particularly memorable — it's the al pastor I'm still thinking about, the al pastor that has me thinking about making the 40-minute trip up 270.
One last detail to single out: The bathroom is immaculate. I would say that it's like being at a friends' house, except that I have friends who are not nearly so conscientious. …
Todd, last week you recommended Captain Pell's. The one time I went there the crabs were mushy and precooked–(despite what they said on the phone).
I'm not inclined to try it again. What am I missing? We've always had good luck at Quarterdeck—where the crabs are cooked to order.
PS: Love your chats
Thank you; I'm really glad to hear that. And thank you for writing in …
In my experience I haven't seen all that great a difference between the two, between Captain Pell's and Quarterdeck.
It's a funny thing about recommendations. I did, I recommended it to a reader looking for a place to eat crabs without having to drive out to the bay. That recommendation, I want to say, was largely premised on accessibility. I think Pell's is very decent. Quarterdeck, too. But I'm not enthusiastic about them. I'm enthusiastic about Cantler's. I think it's got it all — the total package — when it comes to crab-picking and eating. Setting, food, service, the whole shebang.
I've been a lingerer on these chats for a couple of years now and always enjoy them. I guess it was only a matter of time before talk of barbecue finally drew a comment/question out of me.
When these barbecue debates come up, I'm always a little surprised that Dixie Bones down in Woodbridge never gets mentioned. Granted, when a lot of people mention barbecue, they're thinking of ribs, while I always pass judgment on BBQ joints based on their pulled pork sandwich.
Over time, I've gotten where I can enjoy Red Hot & Blue and similar establishments for what they are, but Dixie Bones is the only place in the area that I think is legitimately GOOD — as in, I'd take my family members who grew up on great North Carolina-style barbecue and not have to worry about being laughed at.
By the way, I think Dixie Bones says its barbecue is "Alabama style." Whatever it is, it's good. And the buns the pulled pork is served on are top notch, too. Thanks for always entertaining and enlightening me with these chats.
My last experience there wasn't all that great, but I have always enjoyed going to Dixie Bones.
Dixie Bones is not about any one dish. The ribs aren't so hot. The pulled pork is better. The smoked chicken, generally, has been even better than that.
I like the sides. I think they do a good job with most of them.
The pecan pie is tremendous. One of the best pecan pies you're going to find in these parts. I might not drive out there for the ribs, but I might for the pecan pie.
And the atmosphere is great. It's everything a barbecue joint ought to be.
As for "Alabama-style," that's news to me. Alabama-style usually means a sweeter, thicker sauce, and a slew of pickles on top. I love this style. I wish there were an Alabama-style rib joint up this way.
It having been the 4th and all, can we talk fried chicken?
Soul Flavors is good-not-amazing and takes forever (not really a good stop for take-out). We tried and loved Pollo Camparo, but going to a chain for fried chicken feels like a cop-out (though this one was about 12 times better than KFC or Popeye's). Other ideas?
I hear you, but I think Campero can be pretty great for fast food.
Given that you liked it so much, you've got to follow that visit up with a trek out to Bonchon, another multi-national chicken chain, in Annandale's Koreatown. Every bit as addictive as Campero. Maybe more so. And I think even tastier.
Non-chains? I think all of the following are pretty wonderful: Central Michel Richard, Oohhs & Aahhs, Jackie's (Mondays only), Ray's the Steaks at East River, and The Hitching Post.
Just fyi: The best crabs in the area (aside from Cantler's in NapTown) are no doubt at the Bethesda Crab House.
Crazy expensive, but there are no better crabs in the area. Cooked perfectly, spiced with J&O, and served without any silly accountrements – just spice & vinegar.
I know the place has its fans, but I've never been that crazy about it.
Expensive, as you say, and the atmosphere is lacking in comparison to the scruffier crab houses like Cantler's or like the places in Pope's Creek.
I'll be popping by sometime this summer, though, and hope to be persuaded, finally.
Here's my quickie Rehoboth Beach dining guide …
* Salt Air Kitchen. I think this is the best place at the beach, right now, for a good and relaxing dinner out. The dishes are built with local produce and, often, local fishes and meats, and the kitchen is smart to get out of the way and not fuss too much with the bounty.
* Espuma. More creative cooking, with hits and misses. I've had terrific dishes here, and some not-so, but I don't think I've ever left here feeling disappointed. And sometimes, I've left quietly elated.
* Nage. Better than the DC location. A vast array of wines available in small pours, and the cooking, when it's on, can be very good. Creative comfort food.
* Eden. I like it best for composing a meal of small plates. Good grilled things. The wine list isn't gouging, and there are some interesting picks.
* Northeast Seafood Kitchen, in Bethany. Focus on the top half of the menu, like the fried Ipswich clams. The rewards aren't as great when it comes to the bigger plates. And save room for the chocolate cake with a pitcher of chocolate sauce.
* Cafe Azafran, Lewes, for tapas. Cozy setting, very inviting, and the cooking, while not exacting as you might like, is generally very satisfying.
* Kindle, in Lewes. I like that it doesn't try too hard. Uncomplicated, uncluttered plates, and it generally pulls off what it attempts. Steak tartare, steak frites. At lunch, an excellent BLT with avocado.
* Bethany Blues BBQ. Pretty prefab, and service is scattered, but I like the ribs. And I like the long list of bourbons.
* Casapulla South. Superlative hoagies. Even the tuna fish hoagie is fantastic.
* Louie's. For pizza by the slice only. Make it pepperoni.
I loved your article about food authenticity in the first issue of Lucky Peach magazine. I have dined at Torrisi and love restaurants that are constantly pushing the food envelope, whether "authentic" or not. One of my other favorites is Commonwealth in San Fransisco.
What is your favorite restaurant in the DC/MD/VA serving creatively innovative food?
It's really early, but in that vein I really like what Mike Isabella is doing so far at Graffiato.
There are several dishes there that read as though the chef is too conscious of needing to be different, but then out they come and you dig in and think: You know? It makes sense. There's a logic here. It's not just grasping or posturing.
Restaurant Eve? Sure.
There's not just a tasting menu, there's a tasting room. A separate, sectioned-off dining area they call the Tasting Room (why overthink these things?).
From cocktails to petits fours, it's one of the most attentive, thoughtful dining experiences you're going to find in the area. In any area, for that matter.
Jimbo's — yeah, you know, I've heard some promising things. Thanks for the reminder …
As for Willard's … Doesn't make my heart go pitter-patter. I've had some good bites there over the years, but it's an up and down kind of place, and nothing really stands out for me there.
Yeah? I'll have to try it.
You know, I've gotta say, Clifton — as the preeminent anonymous flamethrower of the DC dining scene, you don't tend to venture much, if at all, beyond the basics, if your comments and rants over the weeks and months and years are an accurate reflection of the eating you do.
Italian food, fried chicken, barbecue, pizza, sandwiches. And yeah, local wine.
How often do you make it into DC to eat at the new or new-ish restaurants? How often do you venture inside the Beltway?
What do you think of Bryan Voltaggio's new restaurant concept for Frederick? It's supposed to be like Eataly in NYC?!? Do you think this will fly north of DC?
I think it can, although I agree with you — it's a very urban idea, the Eataly idea, and I would think that it would make the most sense in a place like Penn Quarter or Georgetown.
But Frederick is Voltaggio's declared "base." So instead of serving the urban foodies flush with disposable income who make up his target audience by building an operation in the heart of the city, he is taking the opposite tack: He is going to try to woo them to come to him.
It'll be interesting to see if it works.
The new venture, by the way, will be called North Market Kitchen, and like Mario Batali's massive gourmet foods emporium in NY, will combine a market and a restaurant.
Well, the back patio at Poste is pretty wonderful. Especially if you're sitting at the long marble communal table and gorging on roasted pig — crackling skin, creamy brains, tender ribs, and all.
And I have always loved sitting out at Cafe du Parc, under an umbrella, with a pot of steamed mussels, a cone of fries and a glass of wine and people-watching.
Far cheaper than either of those two, but with people-watching that's every bit as good, if not better — the front patio at Zorba's Cafe, off Dupont Circle. Snag a table, and you can sit for hours with a gyro, some chickpea salad and hummus, and a square of baklava.
Gotta run, everyone … Thanks for all the questions and comments and complaints …
Before I sign off, I want to say a final goodbye to my friend and neighbor, Brian Benson, who was killed last week when a car hit him head on on his way back from work one night at Wolf Trap. Brian was a beautiful guy, big-hearted, kind, generous, loving, with a great sense of humor and a zest for life. All of us who knew him are diminished by his passing. I hope his wife and daughter can find the strength and courage and resources to carry on. …
… Be well, everyone, eat well, give all those you love a big embracing hug, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]