"There are plenty of bands that mapped inspired paths to greatness, but Big Star’s story, as seen on film and heard on these songs, is a potent reminder of just how beautiful failure can be."
Well, we’ve been on the road in Europe for about a month and a half now, most of that time spent in Spain, but some little trips to Italy and England as well. Much to write about, but very little time and even less Internet access while we’re on the road to do it, hence the neglect over the past few weeks. The good news is that we’re retuning tomorrow and I’m hoping to pick things back up very quickly.
I’ve been somewhat critical of tasting menus in the past. While I agree with the idea that sometimes after three bites you’re ready to move on, I think the trend of multi-course tasting menus has gone a little overboard. Where five or six courses used to be the standard, now it is typically closer to twenty, and some amuse on top of that. It can be excessive, especially when the kitchen is hiding behind luxe ingredients like truffles, caviar and foie gras. And they’re expensive as hell.
So lately (recession, anyone?) I have been far more interested in finding the exciting and extraordinary in the everyday and the affordable.
Which is why I was surprised when on Day 4 of our DC eating tour I wound up at a stellar thirty-course meal, which included wine*, and walked out only fifteen dollars poorer.
The secret? Eat Korean.
As I wrote about in my love letter to DC, City of Great Food, the suburb of Annandale, Virginia, is home to a host of excellent Korean restaurants, from the 24-hour BBQ party Yechon, to the fried chicken chain Bon Chon, to more homestyle places like Gom Ba Woo and the place I finally settled on for a long evening of great Korean eating, Oegadgib.
It was at Oegdadgib, a small, rather uninteresting corner room a little off the main artery of Annadale, where we embarked on a meal that lasted more than two hours and included several dozen courses.
First came the banchan — complimentary snacks from the kitchen that accompany your meal. But this is no single serving of free nuts or stale bread — where Korean cooking is done right, banchan usually means a dozen or so small white bowls filled with a variety of flavors, some spicy, some cool; some crunchy, others that melt in your mouth. If I were better educated in Korean cuisine (and took better notes), I could rattle off all the different tastes for you, but ignorance prevents me from doing so. Besides, part of the fun is not knowing exactly what’s in front of you — pickled zucchini? fern shoots? eggplant? — and allowing yourself to be surprised.
The small saucers keep coming, and soon fill your table — and that is before you have even been served your main course, which could be some peppered beef or spicy pork belly, or steak that is grilled on your table, all accompanied by steamed rice.
Oegadgib in Annadale, VA (Dave Hong/Yelp)
For me, the evening was surprisingly reminiscent of tasting menus past — a constant barrage of new flavor, textures and temperatures: Cold, milky and sweet soju rice wine; endless refills of hot tea; peppered beef, which had the kick of a good beef jerky (that’s meant as a compliment); strange little bottles of rice milk for dessert.
The tab came to $15 a person, including tax and tip. We’ll be back.
7331 Little River Trpk
Annandale, VA 22003
Open 7 days a week
Quarter chicken dark, fries and slaw at El Pollo Rico in Arlington, Virginia
Who doesn’t know about this place? For me, it seems to have a bit of witchcraft. I had a certain family member who had never tried it despite being across the street from it for several years — but after introducing him to it, he ate it every day for a week. Sadly he had to move away a short time after, but when he’s back in town he more or less repeats the process. In a similar vein, a good friend of mine had almost given up on meat a few years back, and then I took him for some of this Peruvian pollo a la brasa goodness. Sickness cured.
This is not a place that’s easy to defend, however. The chickens are bought in bulk from industrial producers, as Tim Carman reported a few years back — this is not a free-range, air-cooled bird outfit. The fries are frozen, and the cole slaw comes pre-made from huge buckets. Their website makes me want to throw chicken carcasses at my laptop screen. And then there is the question of the owners’ money-laundering schemes and unfair labor practices at the El Pollo Rico location in Wheaton, Maryland (the Arlington store operates independently, and hasn’t been accused of anything — yet).
In spite of this, I can’t help myself. Sure, it’s not the only Peruvian chicken game in town, but try some of the others around like Edy’s, Crisp and Juicy or Super Pollo and you may find them lacking compared to El Pollo Rico.
Something fabulous is going on with this chicken, spiked with cumin and a skin you wouldn’t dare discard. It’s delightfully moist, thanks to a 24-hour brine. And in the Peruvian style, it’s accompanied by two dipping sauces — a zippy mayonnaise and a fiery green chili salsa. Put the two together and you have some serious synergy.
Another reason to love Pollo Rico is the simplicity of it all. The menu lists only rotisserie chicken (quarter, half, or whole, and a choice of white or dark meat), and your only choices of sides are those steak fries or calorie-goliath coleslaw. You can either have a little of each, or double up one one — they’re free with the chicken (an order of a quarter chicken costs just $5.30). Lines are frequently out the door during the lunch and dinner hours, so go between the rushes or be prepared to wait.
While the Colonel doesn’t really put an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes you “crave it fortnightly,” the folks behind El Pollo Rico just might.
Open 11 am to 10 pm daily
932 N Kenmore St
Arlington, VA 22201
by tvol (Flickr/CC)
I had given a lot of thought to the first place I wanted to eat when I got back into town. I needed something comforting, flavorful, and a little exotic. I needed some Pho.
The Washington area is blessed with a number of Pho (pronounced “Fuh”) outfits. (I’d caution against getting Pho in the actual city itself, however — for some reason, here this is a dish done right only in the suburbs.) A steaming bowl of the signature Vietnamese soup of slow-simmered broth, rice noodles, thinly-sliced beef and and garnished with thai basil, cliantro, lime, jalapeno and bean sprouts is never far away. There’s Pho 88 in Beltsville, Maryland; Pho Hot in Annandale, Virginia; a whole host of options at the Eden Center in Falls Church; and the one with my favorite name (but far from my favorite soup), Pho King in Del Ray, VA.
But the consensus seems to be that the best is served at Pho 75 in Arlington, and I have to agree.
Stepping in, you may feel as if you’ve just walked into your high school cafeteria, complete with dim fluorescent lighting, long folding tables, and formica floors. And you aren’t likely to encounter a smile from the lunchlady to help warm things up, either — the staff is here only to get you nourished, however cheerlessly.
But while the service may be abrupt (or just efficient, depending on how you look at it), and the interior drab, once a steaming bowl of Pho is set in front of you, your attention can’t possibly lie anywhere else.
A hearty bowl of perfectly soft, melt-in-your mouth rice noodles, swimming in a stock with onions, cilantro and (if you’re lucky) sawtooth herb. The broth almost has a ting to it, a fuzzy feeling that stays on your tongue, probably due to the spices used in its simmering, which can include ginger and clove.
Pho 75 has about twenty different meat combinations available, from soft tendon to brisket to tripe to flank — you simply pick the number of the combo you want, and order a size regular or large (regular is plenty, and costs around six dollars). Some of the beef has been cooked already, others (like the flank) are sliced thin and raw and cook at the last minute before serving in the soup, similar to Japanese sukiyaki or Chinese hot pot.
I like to take the side plate of garnishes (bean sprouts, cilantro and basil) and add them to the soup a little at a time, along with some of the duck sauce and sriracha available at each table. Sometimes — and this may be blasphemy — I take the lime and squeeze it onto the garnish plate, add some duck sauce, and eat it as a side salad. They have yet to eject me for this behavior.
Open daily 9 am to 8 pm
1721 Wilson Blvd
Arlington, VA 22209
Radishes at the Dupont Market, by Travis Truman (Flickr/CC)
The flight from Buenos Aires to Washington, if you’re lucky enough to get on one of the non-stops, takes about ten hours, and is always a red-eye, meaning you arrive in town around 7 am.
While some would go home and head straight to bed (I know my wife did), I saw myself with a unique opportunity: the farmer’s market at Dupont Circle would be opening in a few hours, and since I rarely find myself awake this early on a Sunday, I could actually be there when the opening bell rings at 9 am, first in line.
Peppers at Dupont Market by tvol (Flickr/CC)
When I did arrive, it was all a little bewildering, never mind the jet lag: here, some prized ramps, over there, softshell crabs. I sampled cheeses, breads, some hot-house tomatoes (I’ll wait for the real deal in August, thanks), and vibrant microgreens. I admired the fresh-cut flowers, the breads from Bonaparte that were already drawing a crowd well before opening; I eyed the turnips, radishes and fresh garlic. I hadn’t been to a proper farmers market in Argentina — the city really only has one, and produce is not its strong point (but it’s still worth experiencing, which I’ll be writing about later.)
Tulips at Dupont Market by cfpereda (Flickr/CC)
I’ve long thought that it’s hard to screw up the market-to-table approach. If you take well-made and well-sourced, local, seasonal ingredients, it isn’t difficult to make great food. But I also keep forgetting that what separates many of the chefs from the amateurs is the ability to see in the numerous options at the market what three or four ingredients will really go together. There’s a certain talent there, and I envy it. (If you want to see this in action, both the Dupont and Arlington farmers markets offer regular “Chef at Market” tours — you can find the schedules here for Dupont and for Arlington you’ll need to signup for their e-newsletter here.)
So I was a bit relieved when amid this indecision I passed by Eco Friendly Foods and saw one of my favorite ingredients to work with, the forgiving pork belly. Then I thought back to the ramps. And then I saw a nice little cut of osso bucco. And it was decided: I will make one of my favorite dishes, Bastard’s Cassoulet.
I call it Bastard’s Cassoulet because I make my cassoulet the completely wrong way, at least by traditional standards. That is, I don’t bother with the “7 hours plus two days soaking and resting" way of making cassoulet that has been the standard since the 14th century. I cook nearly all the ingredients separately, then add them together right at the end. Also, unlike one of my heroes, Frank Ruta, I don’t really measure when cooking, so keep in mind that the recipe below is more of an outline open to interpretation and experimentation.
Here’s the recipe I went with that week, but it’s perfectly mallable. The basic components are: beans, braised meats, stock, cider, plenty of onion and shallots, and sausages (mirepoix is also nice).
- Some dry beans, soaked overnight and then cooked (Navy and Great Northerns are good, I like to use at least two different varieties)
- Lots of carmelized onions and shallots (or ramps, if you can get them)
- Cider-braised pork belly (Or Osso Bucco, or Duck Confit, or all of the above); reserve the braising liquid
- A variety of sausages, sauteed (some with some heat, others with more herbs or spices; duck sausage is especially good, and if you want some smokiness add smoked duck or some other smoker meat) — deglaze the pan with some cider or white vermouth and reserve
- Apple Cider
- Plenty of fresh thyme
Take all of your cooked ingredients and add them together. Add the reserved braising liquid (strain the fat), sausage drippings, marrow and fresh thyme and cook about ten minutes or so on medium-low heat.
With a good crusty bread (I prefer the recipe here), you have the perfect dish for a cold day come the fall.
Sundays, year-round, 9 am to 1 pm (starts at 10 am in winter)
1500 block of 20th St., between Massachusetts Ave. and Q St., Washington, DC (Map)
Saturdays, year-round, 8 am to noon (starts at 9 am in the winter)
N. Courthouse Rd. and N. 14th St., Arlington, VA (Map)
"national" by Chuck P Flickr/CC
We have just seven days between adventures. Our time in Buenos Aires has ended, and we are preparing for a month or so of wandering in Spain (more on that soon), and so we’ve decided to have a breather in our hometown of Washington, DC, a wonderful place to eat. Weeks before returning, I started a list of all the places we had to eat, a greatest hits of the DC dining scene, but soon enough it became overstuffed, and I was forced to whittle it down. I managed to finally work it down to seven, but not without cutting out some much-craved destinations (sorry to have missed you, Crispy Squid with Basil at Thai Square).
But there was still one other problem. When we lived in DC before, we had jobs. Now, we are (willingly) without them, and will have to embrace the new frugality. So instead of one night at the tasting room at Palena, followed by an blowout evening at Komi, instead we are imposing a $20 per person limit on all of our meals, and trying as best we can to stay well under that.
So over the next few days, here you’ll find a report on week spent at some of my favorite recession-friendly eats Washington. My only regret was not having too little money, it was having too little time.