Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Band"Wagon" Fan at Chuck's BBQ

A few weeks ago, Elyse asked me on a random Saturday if I wanted to go out to a new place on H Street. "Not today," I told her. "I kind of just want to stay at home." The next day, though, I was getting hungry and feeling adventurous. So I asked her if she wanted to go out to the new place then. "We can't. It's only open on Fridays and Saturdays." That got my attention.

The place in question was Chuck's Wagon, a new barbecue outfit that opened on H Street about a month ago. It's a minimal outfit, only a walk up counter with no seating provided. And though the Wagon hasn't fully settled in to its new surroundings (the former tenant's decor still lines the walls), it's already producing food well worth attention.

When Elyse and I visited this weekend, we decided to eschew sides in the hopes of eating more barbecue itself. I ordered the chopped brisket sandwich while Elyse opted for the rib sandwich; each costs $7. Our orders arrived in white foam to-go boxes (a good sign) and we headed off. When we got home, we opened our boxes to discover that while our sandwiches were on the smaller side, they looked delicious and, importantly, came on plain white bread! I was elated.

Biting into our sandwiches provided another good perspective. The meat was mildly sweet with a good balance of smoke. The ribs were coated in a sweet crust and cooked incredibly well, proven by the fact that the meat fell off the bone. The sauce wasn't necessarily my cup of tea, but I still appreciated the fact that it was barbecue sauce. (An explanatory parallel: Sierra Nevada may not be among my favorite beers, but I still acknowledge that it is beer.) The meat was a bit cooler than is customary, but we'd walked home from the restaurant before eating it, so that was to be expected. In the future, ordering a full slab of ribs or order of brisket ahead of time might be a good idea.

So while having the ability to dine in would be nice (how great would it be to have a picnic table or two on H Street during service?), I am still quite content to have located an actual barbecue place so close to the heart of the city!

ADDENDUM: As of this weekend, Chuck's Wagon appears to be extending its operating hours into the week. So if you're on or near H Street during your lunch hour, stop by!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Raise Hell at Ray's

It’s that time again. No, I’m not thinking of Halloween or autumn or even breast cancer awareness month. As an unabashed wonk, I can take pride in saying that it is once again election season. There aren’t many things that we can all agree on, but I like to believe that Democrats and Republicans can concur that President Obama has great taste in food. President Obama has now visited Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington twice since taking office. He even brought Russian president Demitry Medvev for lunch too. And if the commander-in-chief is sharing such closely loved national secrets with the Russians, I think we can agree the cat's out of the bag.

The president has a team of accomplished chefs stationed in the White House to serve his every want and need. Yet there must be a lack of good burgers, as he has visited Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, VA, twice since taking office.

After my first Ray’s experience, I was hooked. This is no ordinary burger. In fact it’s about as upscale as you can get without using the expensive kobe beef. Ray’s burgers are made with top-grade sirloin that could have been taken from an amazing steak. Yet, somewhere along the way the meat took a serendipitous turn only to wind up in your magnificent burger. As Elliot likes to point out, eating a Hell Burger is a bit like having a religious experience on a bun. Every single time we've sat down to enjoy our burgers, very little discussion actually happened because we are so immersed in the flavors of the beef and the magnificent toppings.

You can have your burgers cooked one of 4 different ways. Elliot and are both fans of the traditional grilled and au-poivre, but they also offer Cajun seasoning and Diablo style. The next decision you have to make it what you want to put on top of that wonderful patty. There are the usual suspects like lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles. Then you have the other freebies like sherry mushrooms, roasted garlic spread, charred jalapenos and Ray’s heck sauce (a mixture of ketchup, horseradish and mayo). If you want to upgrade your burger (and spend a bit extra) you can add foie gras, bone marrow, black forest ham, guacamole and any number of different and unusual cheeses. If you want a traditional burger with the standard toppings you can order that, but if you want to “raise” the bar it’s absolutely encouraged.

There are two seating options at Ray’s and they are a mere two doors apart in the same strip mall. At the original location of Ray’s Hell Burger you stand in line to order and then sit down, whereas at Ray’s Hell Burger Too you sit down and are waited on and also have the option of paying by credit card. I prefer Ray’s Too because I find the experience less stressful, but to each his or her own.

Both locations also offer a few sides including a mac & cheese, regular and sweet potato fries. All three are good, but I don’t find that any of them knock your socks off. But, then again, I do have to give Ray’s props for offering fries, since up until earlier this year they were nowhere to be found on the menu. The closest thing you could find to satisfy the salty craving was a bag of chips.

No matter if you want to be original (bone marrow!) or boring (cheddar cheese), just be sure to get to Ray’s before President Obama or any other heads of state. The lines are long enough without a motorcade and extra publicity.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Element of Surprise at Ted's Bulletin

In the world of food, concretely defined expectations are dangerous. Projections are pretty volatile, too. When we walk into a restaurant with preconceived notions about what we should eat, we're closing ourselves off to whatever possibilities may lie outside the realm of our thought. Now, that's not to say I believe everyone should be completely open-minded; raw meat is still raw meat, after all. But to enter a setting with no knowledge, no preconceived notions can be truly liberating.

The night I first dined at Ted's, I was completely prepared to eat in. But as soon as Elyse arrived home from work, I knew that wasn't going to happen. It had been a rough day at the office -mostly spent on her feet - and the last thing on her mind was what she could make for dinner. Completely understandable. (There may be those among you wondering why I didn't step up in cook myself. I can assure you, my decision not to cook that night had nothing to do with unwillingness and everything to do with wanting to make sure that everyone survived to eat breakfast. Cooking is not my forte.)

So we decided to head over to Capitol Hill and see what might make for a painless dinner. Prior to that night, I'd heard very little about Ted's Bulletin. I knew it was owned and operated by the same people who started Matchbox, and I'd heard a few murmurs about house-made Pop Tarts. Aside from that, I was flying blind. Elyse and I wanted to split something as neither of us were that hungry. And a full rack of ribs seemed like the perfect choice.

Flying blind (no knowledge that Ted's even served ribs) paired with my willingness to just go with it provided the most surprising dining experience I've had in quite some time. The ribs were awesome. The were well-cooked and accompanied by an interestingly tangy sauce, slightly sweet with a mildly spicy aftertaste. They didn't adhere to my aforementioned Rules of Barbecue, but that's beside the point. They were referenced as Kansas City ribs on the menu but did not (by the nature of the recipe) seek to replicate that experience; they were an homage, not a carbon copy. Therein lies the difference, friends.

Paired with the ribs were spot-on sides of gravy fries and mac 'n cheese. The servings were small (we were, after all, sharing a meal meant for one person) but quite tasty. The mac 'n cheese in particular was delightfully layered with pasta, three cheeses, and bread crumbs for added crunch.

To cool off from the heat of the ribs and fries, we decided on the Peanut Butter, Chocolate, and Banana Shake. The only hint of skepticism of the night, I wasn't sure how banana (a flavor I do not greatly enjoy) would mesh with peanut butter and chocolate (my favorite flavors on the planet). To my surprise, it was great. Peanut butter and chocolate came through on the initial sip, but hints of banana melded nicely with the finish of every sip.

We finished with a Pop Tart, also delicious. And to think, we almost ate at home. Once again, as someone who blogs about food, I'm not saying judgment of food is a bad thing. But we need to allow ourselves to let go every now and then. What you find out there may surprise you.

P.S. A few weeks later, Elyse and I went back to Ted's to make sure what we experienced the first time around wasn't a fluke. She had grilled cheese and tomato soup. A classic combo, to be certain, but also one that provides significant room for improvisation and expansion. Our waitress suggested she add bacon and tomato to the sandwich to add a little more substance and depth to the flavors. As soon as she took her first bite and spoonful, Elyse lit up like Christmas. She barely said a word until the plate was empty. This is how you know my girlfriend is truly contented with a meal.

As for myself, the braised beef short rib sandwich was totally irresistible. And though I wasn't fully prepared for how rich the dish would be, I still enjoyed every bite. Bravo, Mr. Ted. We'll be back.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Yamas - It's All Greek to Me

There nothing better than being greeted with a bite of baklava while walking to work. How can anyone say no to the sticky and nutty pastry that hails from the Middle East? The dessert makes you want to lick your fingers to ensure you can savor every sweet morsel. That was my serendipitous introduction to Yamas, a new family-owned Mediterranean spot in Bethesda. Since then, it has become my go-to lunch spot.

The first day I went to Yamas I was treated to a sampling of their side dishes and I ordered a side opa fries, which are topped with feta. When I took my first bite of the roasted vegetable orzo, I was immediately transported back to the shore of the Mediterranean. The vegetables were clearly fresh and not at all mushy (a common problem). Although the fries were a tad mushy, the seasoning and the feta gave them the extra kick they needed.

Yamas (which means “to our health” in Greek) is quite proud of how they prepare their gyros. The menu proclaims there is no pressed meat in the restaurant (unlike what you find at most other Greek restaurants in DC and around the country). Instead they create their own meat cones which are made with naturally raised beef and lamb. The difference is apparent from your first bite of the ubiquitous sandwich. The flavors are much more pronounced, especially when coupled with fresh tomato, lettuce and onion and served wrapped in fresh pita. And do you want to know the best part about this version of the fresh Greek sandwich? It will set you back a mere $6.95.

If you head to the restaurant between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday – Friday you will be greeted with $5 mezze. Be prepared to gobble down fresh spanakopita, calamari, kolokithokeftedes (a.k.a. zucchini fritters) and other dishes. All of the offerings live up to the fresh label and are a good value since you can easily make a dinner out of the small plates.

I think that Yamas is still a bit off the beaten path, but something tells me it won’t be that way for long. They have already appeared on Todd Kliman’s 25 places he would spend his own money and Washington City Paper had a nice piece on the meat at Yamas. So get there sooner rather than later and be prepared to be transported to the Greek Isles.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Capital City Diner is not a Drive-In, but it is a Dive

Not far from the shadow of the Capitol, right past the Atlas District is a classic 1940’s diner that has been plopped in an abandoned used car parking lot. If you didn’t know it was there, you'd completely overlook this small, silver modular structure; if you can even call it that. Despite everything stacked against this restaurant, Capital City Diner fills a neighborhood need and goes above and beyond expectations.

I didn’t grow up on diners in Ohio, the closest things that we had were the Waffle Houses and Steak and Shake locations. Elliot grew up with a hometown favorite called Winsteads, but it wasn't really a true diner, architecturally speaking. Our friends who grew up on the East coast, however, speak of diners in hushed tones as if they are holy houses of food that need to be revered by one and all. They live for scoops of ice cream on top of fluffy waffles and slices of meatloaf served with mashed potatoes (that may or may not have come from a box).

My first trip to Capital City Diner was with Elliot and our friend Abby, who is product of New Jersey. She tells me that she grew up with a handful of diners within 10 minutes of her childhood home. To Abby, diners are a part of life, as integral to NJ life as traffic and the smell of Newark. Luckily, this old-school diner off of Bladensburg won over Abby’s NJ heart and my Midwestern one.

I knew that dinner was going to be a success from the moment we walked in the door. The place is what my dad would call “sticky,” aka it’s been lived in and loved. There was tape over rips in the cloth on the booths. Even the waffle irons look like they came out of Donna Reed’s kitchen.

I find it to be a “best practice” to ask any waiter what their favorite items are on the menu. More than likely they will be able to tell you what they personally enjoy as well as the crowd pleasing dishes that other patrons have tried. Our waiter suggested the ever popular chicken and waffles and the chicken fried steak. Abby chose to go for the steak, Elliot opted for the chicken and waffles and I decided to try Capital City Diner’s version of the BLT. Needless to say, we were a clean plate club.

The waffles had the perfect ratio of crust to fluffy insides and the chicken was seasoned to perfection, allowing it pair perfectly with the sweetness of the maple syrup. All 3 ingredients in the BLT were fresh and married wonderfully with the toasted white bread to make up the classic sandwich. Even though Abby didn’t love her collared greens, she enjoyed every last bite of the steak.

We got the bill and it came to less than $25 with tax. I don’t know how you can beat that. This diner is perfect for an easy dinner, a late night snack, brunch or just a good milkshake. Your mouth and your wallet will thank you.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dr. Granville's Mussels

I’ve now lived in the H Street corridor (or Atlas District or NoMa or Trinidad or whatever you want to call it) for over a year. I’ve eaten my way down the street, consuming plenty of pie, pizza, Italian ice and sushi along the way. Yet I somehow have missed going to what may be H Street’s most famous establishment – Granville Moore’s.

Granville Moore’s, a gastropub, is named for a neighborhood doctor that worked pro-bono a couple times a week to care for the neighborhood’s less fortunate members. This little hole-in-the-wall has been attracting neighbors, area residents and TV cameras since it opened in 2007. The restaurant has been named one of the best restaurants numerous years in a row by both the Washingtonian and Washington City Paper. In addition to that, Teddy Folkman, the restaurant's chef, was challenged to a “throwdown” by Bobby Flay and was a competitor on the Next Food Network Star. That is a lot of publicity for a restaurant that is barely larger than my one bedroom apartment.

I went into this dining experience with high expectations and thankfully was not let down. My friend Jess and I started with the risotto cakes. The outsides were crunchy and the insides were fluffy and warm. Each bite contained all the flavors of the risotto, cheese and balsamic vinegar reduction. The portion was far from huge but - needless to say - it was a wonderful palette teaser.

Our waiter was quite knowledgeable about the menu and steered us toward his favorite mussel preparations. Unfortunately, neither of us like blue cheese (a main ingredient in Chef Teddy’s most famous preparation) so I went for the traditional marinere with white wine, garlic, herbs and butter. Jess chose the jalfrezi with onions, red peppers, tomato, coconut milk and red curry. We also got a small order of frites and one of the house-made dipping sauces. Deciding which sauce to order was a hard decision, but I think choosing the truffle aioli was the way to go.

We were both served a generous portion of mussels. The sauces they were served in were flavorful and perfect when sopped up with the soft bread. With only a few exceptions, most of the mussels were open and ready to eat. The frites had clearly been hand cut and went well with the very truffle-y aioli.

Although I chose not to try one of the many Belgian beers that fill an entire menu, I plan to return soon and take advantage of their happy hour. Monday- Thursday they offer specials on mussels from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., leaving a few extra dollars in my pocket for a beer.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cuba Not-So-Libre

Fill in the blank: Cuban______.

What did you come up with? Cigars? Sandwich? Missile crisis? Yeah, me too. When I think of the country, not much comes to mind beside the aforementioned items and
everyone's favorite dictator. There is a group of restaurateurs that hopes the limited knowledge of Cuba and its cuisine is about to change. Cuba Libre, the newest Penn Quarter (projected) hot spot, opened early this week serving “nuevo Latino” food and cocktails to the overflowing crowds.

Walking into the restaurant feels a bit like walking into another world. The salsa beats pulsate throughout the restaurant, which features stained glass, cobblestones and re-creations of Havana buildings. Once inside, one can almost forget the corporate neon world of Chinatown that resides just outside.The menu re-imagines Cuban food by wondering what could have developed if the embargo had never taken place and flavors from other parts of the globe had made their way into the cuisine. You will find influences from places as far flung as St. Louis, Spain, and even China. Each dish brings something a little different to the table while managing to remain true to what the Cubans know and love.

There were three of us at the table, so we were able to try a fairly wide variety of menu items. Our waiter suggested that we go with a few piqueos (small tasting plates) to start and then each order an entree. Two of the three hit the mark, while one completely failed. The guacamole with fresh pineapple was outstanding, but didn’t quite sing the song of the original. All three of us really liked the Cesar de oriente, which was a crispy spring roll that was filled with short rib and served with a small Caesar salad. I was skeptical about the flavors coming together, but they absolutely did. And although the executive chef at Cuba Libre is known for his ceviches, the salmon one we had was far too sweet for it’s own good.

For our entrees, we chose extremely different dishes. I chose to try the arepa rellena (one of the larger appetizers), which was a corn cake filled with spiced short ribs and mozzarella cheese. Elliot couldn’t resist the paella neuva which had mahi-mahi, clams and mussels atop black rice. Our friend chose to try the camarones con cana, which contained the interesting mix of shrimp, bbq glaze, spicy peppers, sweet potato, and Mascarpone. Unfortunately, we waited almost 45 minutes for our food to come out, putting a damper on everything before even taking a bite. The hit of the evening was absolutely the arepa rellena. Each of the flavors came together to create a delicate balance on the plate and on the tastebuds. According to Elliot, the paella was a bit of a mess. By the time the dish made it to our table, the rice had become incredibly gloppy and the mahi-mahi was totally overcooked. The mussels were unimpressive and the clams in the dish blended in so well with the smoky rice that they were rendered tasteless. No complaints about the camarones, but it was not quite the out of the park home run that had been hoped for.

Dessert, on the other hand, was outstanding. Our waiter suggested the tres leches de banana as well as the arroz con leche (rice pudding). Needless to say, he did not steer us wrong. The tres leches embodied all the subtleties of the banana without bringing up memories of Willy Wonka’s Runts. Rice pudding is something fairly mundane, but the pastry chef at Cuba Libre was able to turn it into something so much more. The rice had been cooked perfectly and held hints of vanilla, caramel and other aromatics.

You can’t go to Cuba without talking about rum, and the same holds true at this DC outpost. Cuba Libre features over 75 different types of rum, which was unfathomable to me until I saw each of them behind the bar. Bartenders also take said rum and make it into some pretty fantastic mojitos. We tried the traditional and the passion fruit versions and both were outstanding. Although I may not come back to eat in the dining room, I certainly could see myself at the bar having a cocktail and munching on some plantain chips... and probably saving room for dessert. Hopefully, in time, the outpost will learn to grow beyond its early shortcomings and become a little mas libre.

Note: All food served 4-11pm now through October 7 is 50% off, and from Oct 8-13 it is 25% off.