Join us Friday, March 23, at 11 AM to chat with our food critic Ann Limpert. Do you have questions about where Mike Isabella goes from here? Places to eat near the Mall if you’re going to this Saturday’s march? Are you curious about vegan food but not sure how to dive in? Leave a question below, and Ann will get to as many as she can on Friday morning.
Ann: Good morning! Man, it’s been a week, hasn’t it? Eesh. Onto your questions… (And a reminder that if you want to ask one, the submission form is at the bottom of this page.)
Kate: It seems like there are a ton of Mexican restaurants opening in DC (Mi Vida, Mayahuel, Taqueria Local, TacoArepa) with more coming soon. Why the sudden boom? And which ones are you most excited about?
Ann: Yeah, there really are—the places you mentioned opened in the span of a month. Mexican food, outside the taqueria realm, has generally been one of our region’s weaker spots. Maybe these restaurateurs see it as reliably crowd-pleasing (plus cocktails like margaritas, often ordered en masse, always help the bottom line), or maybe, hopefully, the cuisine is something they and their chefs are truly passionate about.
That remains to be seen with this new wave, but I was pleasantly surprised by Mi Vida, the latest opening at the Wharf. It’s massive—and it feels kind of corporate, like Rosa Mexicano or Zengo—but I had a really good, fresh shrimp ceviche, tasty fried fish tacos, and a frozen mango margarita that wasn’t achingly sweet. I’ve only been to Mayahuel once, but beyond the hard-to-screw-up queso fundido, I didn’t find much to recommend, and the service was cheerful but pretty bumbling.
I’m looking forward to trying TacoArepa—Bethesda really needs something fresh, and I liked TapaBar, from the same owners, while it lasted.
Mark: My wife did Whole 30 in January and has decided she wants to stick to it all the time. We mostly eat at home but I miss going out. Is there anywhere I can take her where she can eat comfortably?
Ann: Mark, I feel your pain. My husband eats the same way. Which is great for him and all, but what about when his gluten-and-dairy-loving restaurant-critic wife needs a plus-one? I took him to Chloe, which was easier to navigate than I thought it would be (he stuck with the whole fish with salsa verde and the simple and delicious bok choy with sake and ginger).
One place Whole 30-ers can eat with abandon is the new Urban Hotpot, a great spot in Rockville that —shameless plug—I review in our brand new April issue. It’s completely DIY and all you can eat—you get a soup broth that bubbles away on the table (there are a few to choose from but all should be OK), then cook as many ingredients as you want inside the roiling liquid. Shavings of lamb and beef. Tons of greens and mushrooms and other veggies. You also create your own dipping sauce from nut pastes, vinegars, chili pastes, and herbs. It’s the one place I can think of that folks on the diet (sorry, lifestyle change) won’t feel like they have to watch out for tons of no-nos.
If that’s not her bag though, here are a few more spots that are doable, too.
Where would you go for Easter Brunch this year?
Ann: I’d check out Blue Duck Tavern, which always puts on lovely holiday brunches (bonus if it’s warm enough to sit on the pretty patio), or Iron Gate for seasonal Mediterranean. And if you want something over-the-top fancy, there’s always the lavish Seasons inside the Georgetown Four Seasons.
I recently had the pleasure of having Del Mar’s seafood paella. It was fabulous, but so expensive–not something you can order every day. Are there other places here that serve a great paella? Now that we’ve tried that, we’re curious to compare.
Ann: Agreed—it’s so good, and a great celebratory dish. I haven’t had the one at Jaleo in a very long time, but I’d imagine it’s worth checking out. And Taberna del Alabardero, too.
Marisa: Hey Ann! Curious why Oyamel didn’t make 100 Best. I don’t think it made it last year, either. It’s one of the few spots I go back to again and again, because I’ve never had a disappointing meal there.
Ann: Hi Marisa! Oyamel was right on the cusp of making the list. We had some really good dishes—and the cocktails are always great—but also enough average ones that including it gave us pause. Especially when you consider that for small plates, the prices aren’t so gentle. But I agree that it’s a good spot. It was just edged out by the competition this year.
What do you think will happen with Mike Isabella? Will you continue to review his restaurants?
Ann: Ah, the elephant in the chatroom arrives.
It’s an ugly situation—and whatever happens, especially if there is a trial, it’s bound to get even uglier. If the she in this he said/she said back-and-forth is right, there was a disgusting, misogynist culture that was accepted and encouraged. If the allegations are true, that’s on Mike, no matter who participated—or felt pressured to participate in order to succeed in the company. Is this unique to Isabella’s kitchens/restaurants? Not by a mile.
How we handle his restaurants is something we are still wrestling with. I just reviewed Isabella Eatery in the March issue—there were lots of big, splashy photos and a two-page spread. Had this news dropped before the review went to print I probably would have scrambled to write about something else for the print magazine but run the review online, while adding a lot of context about the allegations. Pulling it entirely wouldn’t have made sense—it’s an important restaurant that readers are curious about, and it would have felt like shrinking from the story.
But what about our Cheap Eats issue? Or 100 Best Restaurants? Both are places where Isabella’s restaurants have shown up in the past. We’re still figuring that out while we wait to see what happens with the legal situation. And while we wait to see who sticks around his restaurant group and who, if anyone, leaves, which will could affect the restaurants’ quality and consistency.
Mark: There seem to be a ton of mid-priced neighborhood Italian restaurants in DC (just look around Dupont!), but apart from pizzerias, are any of them good? I’m not talking Sfoglina and its $26 pastas–something a little less expensive.
Ann: It’s been a while since I’ve knocked around the old-school Dupont places like La Tomate or Al Tiramisu. Floriana is pretty good. When I have a parm’ craving, I head to All-Purpose (a pizzeria, yeah, but it also has a big chunk of Italian-American dishes). For pasta, I’d hit Osteria Al Volo in Adams Morgan or its sister trattoria, Al Volo, in Cleveland Park. It’s nothing fancy—manicotti with cheese, spinach agnolotti—but the owners are expert pasta makers (I first became fans of their fresh noodles at their stall in Union Market). Much easier on the wallet than Sfoglina, too.
Helen: What’s your favorite fast food?
Ann: For me, it’s all about burgers. I love, love, love Shake Shack. The Martin’s potato roll. The skinny, greasy patty of not-scary meat. The special sauce. Instead of fries I get a Chicago-style hot dog. That’s right, a hot dog as a side. I like Five Guys, too.
But real-real fast food? There was one summer in high school where I ate McDonald’s pretty much every day (man, if only I’d thought to turn that into a doc). It’s been a while since I’ve been back but my order would be the same: two cheeseburgers, fries, and a mix of sweet and sour and hot mustard sauces to dip them in.
Oh, and if I’m ever in a mall or train station I literally cannot resist the buttery perfume of an Auntie Anne’s pretzel with sweet mustard.
I’m craving a Cuban sandwich. Where should I go?
Ann: Colada Shop does a pretty good one—and while you’re there you should absolutely pick up a guava pastelito for dessert. Also, Mi Cuba Cafe, a little further up 14th Street. And it’s kind of unexpected, but the Cuban with pulled pork, grilled ham, and smoked bacon at Epic Smokehouse in Arlington is really tasty.
Jean: The annual James Beard Awards honor interesting cookbooks but are most of them one-year wonders? How often do you find one that may be worth keeping in a home library and still be useful in five or ten years?
Ann: Hi Jean (aka Mom). You don’t have room for any more cookbooks! There are so many of the nominees I still need to dive into, but the one that I think will be a keeper for many years is Dinner: Changing the Game, by New York Times writer Melissa Clark. It’s a collection of fantastic, eclectic, unfussy dishes that can work alone as dinner—jalapeno-honey steak, cold sesame noodles. Things that you really want to eat on a weeknight. If you’re looking for a workhorse book that you’ll actually use and not just flip and fantasize through, that’d be the one.
Ann: Thanks for all your great questions, folks. Now I’m hungry. Gonna grab something fast (if I didn’t have to write for the rest of the day it would totally be Shake Shack, but alas…). Have a great weekend, and I hope to see you here next week.