Queen Amannisa

Queen Amannisa, Arlington VANot too long ago, I caught wind of an Uyghur restaurant existing in the DMV area that perked my attention. Since I was in Istanbul about a month ago, I was curious about these Asian-looking people and their culture that seems to spread as far from Western China into the far reaches of the Asian continent next to Europe. So, last Sunday, I managed to coral the dinner group to have lunch at Queen Amanissa in Crystal City, Arlington, VA. Walking in, I was impressed by the modern spacious space that was both inviting and appealing to the eye. After much contemplation on the menu, many questions (not me), and with the help of the amiable helpful owner/manager, we placed our orders.

Home-made Samsa, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

The first appetizer was the Home-Made Samsa. The triangular packet came baked with sesame seeds on top, looking appetising for the hungry eyes. One bite into it revealed not a flacky dough but a rather soft one much like some Chinese baked goods I’ve had before. The stuffing was chunks of lamb that were cooked with some onions; the meat was moist and very savory with a slight scent of lamb gaminess that paired well with the sweet onions. This was a good starter, however, I wanted some sauce that would complement these small bites – but, good start indeed.

Tasty Wood Ear Mushroom, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

A salad that caught my curiosity was Tasty Wood Ear Mushrooms. The moment it landed on the table, it grabbed our attention only by its visual appearance but the nutty scent of sesame oil as well. The first bite sent my senses into overdrive, not due to  overwhelming flavors, but by the interesting flavor combinations. Silky soft wood mushrooms (actually fungus) is paired with tomato, red bell pepper, and white onion, which provided some textural contrast and sweetness. But it was the seasoning that made this a success: acidity from a light vinegar, salt, and heat from some chili flakes. The dish was not overwhelming at all as the seasoning was fairly even-handed. No wonder online reviewers highly recommend this dish.

Manti with Meat, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

Cuisines from Central Asia are known for their dumplings, and I had to try this house’s version. The owner warned me that it would take some time since it was made from scratch, and sure enough, it was the last dish to arrive. The skin looked beautifully pleated, an indication that some manual attention went into it, tasting quite chewy, not industrial pasty, much like fresh-made pasta. The filling was a mixture of fairly large chunks of lamb cooked with some leeks (they were more fibrous than onions, unlike what the owner claimed). I quite enjoyed them as these parcels were very savory, but I found the size of the lamb bits too large, and their slightly dry nature did not add to it. I would have wished that the meat was cut into smaller pieces, or hashed, and a pairing sauce would have made them perfect, much like what other dumpling cultures do.

Braised Meat Laghman, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

I had read online that the restaurant made hand-pulled noodles, and I’m glad that a dinner mate ordered Braised Meat Laghman. What arrived was an explosion of colors. After not heeding to my advice, as well as the owner’s, to mix everything up, he complained it was rather bland. I tasted the sauce to check on the flavors and I was amazed at its complexity and baffled at my friend’s remarks. But he did eventually mix it up, with a touch of thick soy sauce, and he started to be effusive about its wonderful flavors. The sauce reminded me of Chinese restaurant sauces that are not found in home cooking, and I kept dipping my fork to taste it. But the star was the hand-pulled noodles that had a bounce only found in such manner of preparation, with a slightly al-dente interior. Although the diner was not fond of spice heat, he could tolerate a tinge of chili in the mix. Based on other reviews, I would also order the Dry Fried Laghman which is popular and supposedly quite fiery.

Polow, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

A couple of my friends ordered a dish similar to the Afghan version – Polow. Touted as the main Uyghur dish, they had to give it a try. What arrived was a bit different to what we were used to. The pieces of lamb were mild and devoid of its gaminess, and falling apart easily. The rice was very savory and full-bodied from cooking with a good stock, albeit the grains were medium grain and not the nutty basmati, which I didn’t really mind. The pieces of carrot were not sweet like in the Afghan version, but extremely savory that they amazed me, paired up with pieces of raisins that added the sweet pop. This meal was made complete by an accompanying salad and a bowl of home-made yoghurt that lightened the meal with its acidic goodness, to which one diner marveled at its well-made quality. I would say that this dish is a sure bet for anyone unsure about the menu.

Lamb Ribs, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

I was also glad that one of us decided to try the kebab or grilled meats. My friend ordered the Lamb Ribs, and its appearance did not belie its nature. I managed to taste a bit, and the meat was moist, well-seasoned with adequate saltiness and spices, reminding me of Ghanian Chichinga, but with a fairly strong lamb scent, perhaps due to the nature of the cut. But it was fresh-tasting and appetising, especially for the lamb lover. I suspect that here they do well with the other types of kebabs, especially with the less exotic cuts. I’m curious about the Roasted Leg of Lamb which may be my order the next time.

Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

Queen Amannisa is a great find, especially being one of the first establishments in the DMV area serving Uyghur cuisine. Here we see world history of the Silk Route playing itself out in the offerings, from the Chinese influences of hand-made noodles, to the hand-pleated dumplings, to the use of sesame oil, and the Central Asian influences of Polow and Kebabs. Yes, some of us were hesitant, as well as grouchy, at the beginning of the meal, and the late timing and the long decision-making compounded that anxiety level. But, at the end of the meal, we were calmer, sated, and definitely, if not surprisingly, pleased by this new culinary experience. This place is going into our list of dinner places, for sure.

Queen Amannisa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mazagan

Mazagan RestaurantOne evening after dinner with my usual Friday group in a Japanese restaurant in Arlington, VA, we noticed that a shop space a few doors down had been renovated into a new eating establishment, a conversion from its nondescript former life. A quick peek through its storefront indicated that it was now a Moroccan eatery to which we exclaimed that we were going to make it a point to pay it visit. With the daunting thought that a number of places serving this North African cuisine had closed their shutters in the latest economic downspiral, we were eager to discover what this newbie had to offer.  So, over the last weekend, my groupies and I sauntered through its doors. . . . . Chakchouka, Zaalouk and Bakoula Olives and Moroccan BreadWalking in Mazagan, one notices the space with its open concept with the dining area in the front, a bar to the left, a hookah lounge to the back and an open kitchen across from the smoking den.  We took our seats around a round table with one half protected by a curvy banquette, lowly lit by some Moroccan-inspired modern lamps – every decor detail had a nod to North Africa without being stuck in the traditional.  For our appetizers, I chose to go the traditional route to ascertain how the kitchen handles the staples.  The first was a trio of cold vegetable dips listed as Taste of Morocco. Chakchouka consists of wood-grilled green peppers and tomatoes mixed with olive oil, hand ground cumin and paprika, exuding its slightly bitter green pepper vegetal notes, some grill smokiness, and tomato sweetness.  Bakoula is listed as sautéed spinach with olives, preserved lemons, garlic, cumin, paprika and olive oil. The spinach was fresh-tasting studded with a whole clove of caramelized garlic, but missing the listed spice flavors which would have added another note of interest; the slices of preserved lemons stood out as not wanting to join the spinach’s company, thus seemed out-of-place.  Zaâlouk is made of wood-grilled eggplant and tomatoes with olive oil, hand ground cumin and paprika, which I quite enjoyed the smoky vegetable marrying with the spices and slightly sweet tomato, this combination reminding me of Italian Caponata.  Overall, this trio was well-executed and a wonderful way to open up the meal, albeit a bit pricey for the small amounts.  The complementary spiced green olives, grassy olive oil, and Moroccan bread were of excellent quality which we couldn’t stop munching on. Harira SoupA couple of dining companions decided to open their meal with the classic Moroccan soup – Harira.  The menu list it as made with tomato, lentil, lamb cubes and chickpea.  The bowl arrived steaming with a fairly thick soup in it.  After allowing the orderers a few spoonfuls, I was curious to trying a few sips from it.  What I could taste from the soup was the gestalt of an alchemy of cooking all the different ingredients producing something that was delicate without any of the ingredients exerting their unique personality.  This was a very tasty sip that was beckoning me to continue tasting it either to figure out the subtle spice use in it or merely to savor this warming and soulful bowlful.  The use of grain was sufficient to give it body without it becoming porridge like.  A faint lemon juice note in the background further added interest and a balance to this slightly starchy soup.  This is an example of what good soup is, a final product that is savory and a transformation as the result of the chemistry of cooking the right ingredients. Chicken Bastilla Another standard fare from this cuisine is Bastilla.  The menu lists two types, chicken and seafood, the latter being a novelty for this diner.  However, I chose to go with the traditional version made with chicken, or pigeon in that North African country.  The “cake” arrived dressed with a fairly light sprinkling of powdered sugar punctuated by lines of cinnamon powder.  One cut into it revealed its true nature.  The phyllo dough was fully cooked but still a bit supple, an indication that it was not baked too long.  But it was the stuffing that was the appealing star with its moist finely shredded (very) chicken meat, a light sprinkling of fine bits of almond, and a hint of nutmeg permeating through the mixture.  What I appreciated about this sweet/savory mixture is that its savoriness was never detracted by the powdered sugar or the nuts, which has occurred in other versions that I have tasted with the heavy amounts of the sweet and equal amount of nuts.  Here, we have an exotic cake reminding you that it’s a savory appetizer with hints of sweet and spice.  The seafood version will indeed be on my order during my next visit in order to quell my curiosity of this untried stuffing. Chicken Tagine Mazagan RestaurantFor the main courses, everyone decided to go with the true-and-tested traditional dishes from this North African cuisine.  A couple of my dining mates went for the Chicken Tagine.  The dish arrived in the traditional earthenware, and its top was removed once placed on the table, letting steam escape after sitting on the charcoal grill visible from the dining room.  What was revealed was a bit of a surprise – bits of slow cooked chicken were topped with a sprinkling of french fries, which raised our curiosity since we were not used to it being served in this fashion.  A quick query to our waiter enlightened us that it was common for tagines to be served this way even though we were used to seeing potato and carrots as the dish’s usual partners.   A taste of my companion’s dish pointed towards fork-tender moist chicken cooked with preserved lemon and green olives, made yellow by cumin and slightly fragrant by a light use of spices.  Despite the other flavor elements, I found the dish slightly under-salted, but better less than more.  A slight resin-like after-note in the sauce was intriguing, and after biting into some preserved lemon, I realized that that flavor came from the citrus itself – that must be some super lemons with such a strong flavor in the rind.  However, I felt the spicing could have been a bit stronger to pull all the elements together and to keep my interest a bit longer.  Nevertheless, my friends truly enjoyed their dishes, notwithstanding the fries that soaked up all the flavors. Lamb Couscous Another diner’s entrée was Lamb Couscous.  A wonderful oval bowl arrived with a large mound of the pasta grain, with large chunks of lamb shank and large pieces of carrots, zucchini, pumpkin, and onion wedges sitting on top.  The chunks of lamb shank were moist and fork-tender that exuded a fresh taste with an interesting note akin to fresh leather, and by this, I mean it in a good way, reminding me of my youth when my father would order a whole kid lamb that was grilled in the yard for the annual office dinners that exuded similar qualities and flavor.  I just couldn’t get enough of this flavor along with the lamb’s tenderness.  The bed of couscous underneath was very decent, being fully cooked and moistened with the stock enriched by the meats and vegetables.  The pieces of vegetable appeared fully cooked since I did not have a chance to dig my fork into them.  My dining companion seemed very content with his order and he was making quite a dent on it.

After our savory courses, we inquired about the sweet offerings.  Everything on the menu was French-inspired desserts with the exception of the ubiquitous Baklava and Orange with Cinnamon, both of which I was very familiar with.  Despite not having a sweet ending, we were quite pleased with the cooking from this new kitchen, starting with the trio of cold vegetable dishes, the enticing Harira soup, the fairly well executed Chicken Tagine, and the as-good-as-it-gets Lamb Couscous.  With cooking this impressive a midst the swanky decor of this new space, I see my dining group and I coming back for more of their offerings.

Mazagan Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

Chasin Tails

While as a university student in Memphis, TN, my friends would coral a gang of fellow students and we would make a 6-hour drive to New Orleans, LA, as a day getaway from college.  We would fall into the tourist trap of walking around the French Quarter and stopping by some watering hole, or a fellow in the group would walk into one of those seedy strip bars shamelessly luring the curious onlooker.  However, I was more interested in the Jazz music, the architecture and ultimately the Creole and Cajun cuisine that I had heard so much about as a newcomer to the country.  And did I get my hands on the regional classics which I savored with much contentment and gastronomic curiosity.

Chasin Tails

Well, I have not been back to New Orleans since my last trip there more than 10 years ago.  When I got wind that a new establishment serving such fare had opened up in the city, I knew that this was going to be my first blog on regional American cuisine, which is noticebly lacking from this blog page.  Chasin’ Tails is located in Falls Church/Arlington, VA, just off the busy Route 66, and it is owned by the sons of Vietnamese immigrants who called New Orleans their new home when they landed here.  With the family relocating to the DMV area, the younger ones opened up the restaurant serving the popular Creole and Cajun fare that they mastered while back in the South. With online coupons in hand, I paid it a couple of visits for this review.

Fried Green Tomato

On my first visit, I ordered the Fried Green Tomatoes which are rarely found in this Mid-Atlantic region.  The basket arrived with the slices breaded, deep-fried, and lightly slathered with the quintessential Creole sauce, Remoulade, and some mayo-based sauce.  The vegetable was still a bit firm, coated with a well-seasoned breadcrumb batter, and perfectly cooked with little trace of oil.  I enjoyed the tanginess exuded by the unripen tomato which was compounded by the same quality found in the sauces, balanced out by some of their sweet notes.  These opening bites were so tempting that I managed to finished the whole order before my mains arrived.  Good tasty start.

Gator BitesFor another visit, my opener was Gator Bites.  Usually it comes with fries to complete it as meal, but my waiter told that I could order it sans frites and it was cheaper (yay!).  The basket arrived with bite-size pieces, flour-battered and deep-fried, accompanied by some Remoulade sauce on the side.  Again the kitchen knows something good about battered foods and frying them since each bite was well-seasoned and flawlessly fried.  But what got my wheels going was the taste and texture of alligator.  Contrary to popular saying that it tastes like chicken, it was more like catfish without the muddiness associated with it, and its slight bouncy texture was more akin to soft calamari. I must say that I quite enjoyed these reptilian bites despite the imagery of that water predator flashing in my mind with each chew.

Salad with Squid
My dining companion decided to go for something lighter and atypical – Salad with Fried Calamari.  The salad looked decent but I took a couple of stabs only at the seafood.  Biting into it, I immediately sensed that fresh pieces were hand-battered judging by the irregularities of the coating and the slightly bouncy feel in the mouth.  Again, the kitchen flawless batter-deep-fry technique is evident here.  But why order this dish which is served in most places?  Save it for another place and just go for the real regional offerings here.
Boiled Crawfish

This house is known for its Boiled Seafood, and I honed in on a pound of Crawfish while perusing the menu.  The cooked pieces arrived in a plastic bag sitting in a metal pail which was to be dumped on the brown paper covered table.  Although there are options of Lemon-Pepper and Garlic Butter seasoning in the boiling liquid, I decided to stick to something more authentic: Original Cajun.   My selection was the right choice for me with its herbal bay leaf and celery seed flavors boosted by a good hint of cayenne pepper that left its presence on me evidenced by a front bucal zing.  I enjoyed sucking the sauce on the critters, twisting their heads off and sucking more juice there, and eventually working the tiny tails out – a waitress’ t-shirt said it all: “Suck my head and pinch my tail.” The crawfish was not at its prime on this day but it was decent, and finishing the mound reminded me of buying a bucketful from the French Market and working on it overlooking the Mississippi river; its earthy flavors did not belie its nickname of “mud bug”.   The sides of boiled corn and potato were barely sufficient but tasty.

Crawfish Etouffée

Still on my “mud bug” kick, I ordered Crawfish Etoufée on the second visit.  The bowl arrived with a pool of thick greenish stew with an island of white rice in the middle with a whole crawfish perched on top.  The stew’s grayish color was a bit off-putting, but one spoonful in this mouth made me fall in love with it instantly.  The stew was made aromatic by a chokeful of the Holy Trinity (celery, green pepper, and onion), rich by a seafood stock, and made even richer by the buerre manie thickener, a butter and flour mixture.  Under the surface lied pieces of perfectly cooked crawfish tails finished off by the perfectly boiled spicy crawfish as the garnish.  This place knows how to prepare this dish right, and I finished off this bowlful despite the other courses I had already placed.

Jambalaya

Another Creole classic that I could not forego was Jambalaya.  The mound of rice was not exactly very telling by its first appearance. But digging into it with a fork revealed its true nature.  In addition to being perfectly cooked, the rice was perfectly seasoned, replete with the typical Holy Trinity, tasting slightly sweet from the pieces of tomato, and aromatic with bay leaf flavor.  The pieces of chicken strips and shrimp made this a complete dish in addition to the pieces of Andouille sausage that exuded its spiciness and porcine unctiousness to every rice morsel.   This was a dish that I enjoyed immensely equally both in the restaurant and as leftovers at home.

Andouille Sausage and Seafood Gumbo

The final Creole classic is the regional favorite stew, Seafood and Sausage Gumbo.  Again, appearance is deceiving.  Beyond the murky looks was a well-made stew consisting of the Holy Trinity aromatics, a rich stock, and a flavor  produced by the de rigueur dark roux that added a depth of flavor that is necessary for this quintessential dish.  The pieces of seafood, chicken and Andouille sausage made this bowlful richer, and the slices of okra have been cooked long enough to a point of bare presence.  The menu states that the above classic dishes are made from scratch and cooked for hours to bring out its bold flavors “that would make Louisiana natives homesick.” Well, I may not be from there, but this version definitely evoked beautiful thoughts of the Bayou, Spanish Moss, and Mint Julep.  I guess I would feel homesick if I were from the South and enjoying this wonderful bowl.

Beignets & Strawberry CoulisUsually not one for desserts, I could not miss the opportunity to order some Beignets on my second visit.  Large pillows of fried dough arrived covered by a mound of powdered sugar.  One bite into it revealed a fried exterior covering an airy and spongy inside, with a slight hint of yeastiness from the levening process.  The powdery sugar was a bit excessive but easily remedied.  The side of strawberry “jam” was the perfect accompaniment since it was not too sweet and it was a looser coulis consistency packed with strawberry pulp and seeds.  This definitely brought back memories of sitting at Café Du Monde by the Mississippi river and enjoying these fried dough bites along with some chickory-roasted café au lait (also served here).  Ah, sweet memories.

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Chasin TailsFinally I have found an establishment that serves my favorite American regional cuisine without any form of pretension or hype.  All you get here is well-cooked and well-seasoned Creole and Cajun dishes, from the well-seasoned boiled seafood, to the interesting alligator bites, to the soul-stirring Jamabalaya, Gumbo and Etouffée dishes, and to the sweet finish of Beignets perfectly matched with the in-house strawberry coulis.  This is a popular and well-visited establishment, and I can understand why especially after savoring their tasty offerings.  So when I am in the mood for some Creole/Cajun cuisine, I know where I will heading to take care of this Nawlins fix.

Chasin' Tails: Cajun Seafood & Bar on Urbanspoon

Taste of Tunisia

Taste of TunisiaThe cyber world of online coupons is a fleeting one, just like most personal profiles and some Facebook connections.  When I came across an offer for a Tunisian restaurant more than a year ago, I grabbed it quickly, only to be quickly disappointed by an email stating that the restaurant had closed down.  But a couple of months ago, another came up for this North African cuisine and this time, hesitation had no time to register in my mind and on my finger before tapping on “purchase” on the website.

Taste of Tunisia is located on the busy Wilson Boulevard near the Courthouse Metro, Arlington, VA, and its storefront awning can be easily missed within the blink of an eye due to its inconspicuous appearance.   Stepping in, you immediately confront a large wraparound counter shielding an open kitchen, reminiscent of the old-style diner.  On the other side of the room was a simply painted mural of a North African doorway lit by multi-colored Tunisian lamps.  Even though the décor is a bit sparse and furniture rather basic, I was reserving my assessment for the cooking and the dishes that I was going to order.

Tunisian Mint TeaUpon taking our seat, our charming waiter first served us some Sweet Mint Tea while we perused the menu, trying to decipher this unchartered culinary terrain although I was already quite familiar with another cuisine from this region – Moroccan.  Seeing that there were some similarities between these two neighbors, I detected that there were some subtle differences between the two, and I used that as a guide in making my choices.  Sipping the tea helped me to ease the mind and soul as I became more comfortable with this culinary map.  It was not too sweet, not too piping hot, and made fragrant by a spring of fresh mint that elevated this basic cuppa to its exotic level.  This was the perfect foray to the meal despite it being a sweet drink, and we could not resist asking for a refill during the meal.

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Tunisian Tuna Egg Breek

Our first appetizer was unequivocably Tunisian – Breek.  It arrived as a large triangular pastry filled with potato, capers, tuna, egg, and parsley, fried until crispy and golden brown.  We were not sure what to expect from this large patty but it peaked our interest.  With a squeeze of lemon juice, this dish was both revealing and delicious.  The pastry, although listed as phyllo dough, was Breek pastry, more like a wonton skin, encasing the interesting and savory combination that was spiked by the capers, and moistened by a sunny-side-up egg that spilled its yolk with the first fork digging.  The yellow liquid provided the rich flavor and sauce to each bite which I enjoyed very much.  According to Tunisian tradition, a mother-in-law would serve this to the potential bridegroom, and if he eats it without spilling a drop of the yolk, he is worthy of marriage – my companion and I were definitely not up-to-par for such proposition that night judging by the yellow mess on the plate.

An order of salad as the next course was unfortunately uninspiring despite a mound of lettuce leaves topped by almond slivers, canned olives, sultanas, Tunisian sheep cheese (like feta), and tomatoes, served with grain mustard as the dressing (interesting!).  I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations for this raw vegetable dish from this regional cuisine.

Taste of Tunisia Couscous

For our main dishes, the first was Taste of Tunisia Couscous. A beautiful painted earthenware bowl arrived brimming with some couscous grain topped with Merguez sausage, lamb chops, chickpeas, a wedge of potato, and a thick slice of zucchini and carrot.  Although I have had my share of this grain dish, there were some unique touches to this dish.  First, the couscous was an orangey yellow hue and it still had a slight bite to it, which the waiter pointed as a main difference from the Moroccan version.  The next was the spice level of the dish coming from the use of the red pepper Harissa sauce in the gravy and also in the small Merguez lamb sausages that packed a wallop in the flavor department.  The chickpeas and vegetables were perfectly cooked tender and the lamb chops, young lamb judging from the size, was literally falling of the bone when cut into.  We dug into this dish enjoying this soulful dish that spoke to us with its authenticity and well-executed cooking and flavors. This was both tasty and soul-stirring at the same time, especially for my eating companion.

Tunisian Musli Chicken

Our second entrée was Musli Chicken which was recommended by our waiter.  The chicken breast was oven baked with a mound of sweet onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, and the exotic pickled lemon, ubiquitous in this North African region.  The cut of poultry was still moist, flavorful from the yellow sauce that was savory and slightly citrusy from the use of the pickled lemon that also added some brininess.  Soft thick slices of the lemon further enhanced this unique flavor profile, allowing this diner to add it with each bite of chicken, which satisfied this reviewer who enjoys pickles of all kinds.  The side of rice was a strong co-actor with its strong perfume of cardamom, and savoriness from shallots, punctuated  with bits of browned pasta looking like orzo.  This dish is akin to the Lemon Chicken Tagine which I reviewed in another Moroccan restaurant last year, but the cooking style was distinctively different.  Unfortunately, the side potato wedges were slightly undercooked, but they were at the same time savory from the tangy sauce. A single cooked green hot pepper, looking like a baby zucchini but unrecognizable to me, was an interesting touch that only confirmed to me that heat spice is an integral part of this North African cuisine, unlike its neighbor Morocco.

Tunisian Pastries

Even though we were quite sated from the appetizers and main courses, we did not finish everything on our dishes as we had been eyeing the pastries sitting on the counter from the moment we walked in.  We ordered a plateful of all the different treats displayed and we were glad for having done so.  Makrouch is made with date puree covered by a crumbly nutty dough, soaked with a not-too-sweet syrup perfumed with orange blossom water, and dotted with fragrant sesame seeds.  On the first bite, my friend remarked that this was a better exotic version of Figs Newton, and I concurred with him.  Another triangular pastry made with pistachio and walnuts was packed with a compact nut mixture, sweetened by the same syrup as above, and flakey from the outer shell of phyllo dough – this was my favorite since I’m nutty over pistachio.  The last was Baklava, which I did not expect any different from any other versions that I’ve had before.  But this one was nut-packed with barely any hint of the phyllo dough separating the layers.  What I appreciated from all the desserts was they were not too sweet, and we were told that they were house-made on site.  Each bite of these sweet delights only pointed to the hands of a skillful pastry maker and my kudos to him or her.

Taste of Tunisia is a hidden gem of a restaurant (a common comment from other online reviewers) in a sea of other eating establishments in the busy Arlington area. The dishes that are served here speak of a culinary tradition that is worth exploring and that point towards a knowledgeable kitchen steeped in this cuisine – the sight of an old man behind the stove somehow was quite reassuring for me. Do not be put off by the small space and lack of a plush setting.  But after a meal there, the wonderful food and desserts make up for such a lack. In this instance, you cannot judge the food by its cover.

Taste of Tunisia on Urbanspoon

Thai Square

DSC_4133.jpgWith a plethora of Thai restaurants dotting nearly every corner of the DMV area, and the number of blogs that I have written about this type of eateries, why another one on this cuisine? Simple: because this establishment has been on my radar for some time since my first visit many moons ago, and the reputation that precedes it. Thai Square is a small joint with only around 10 tables, located in Arlington, VA on a strip filled with other restaurants that I have written about (See Maruko and Bangkok 54). Many a times, there was a small waiting line when we arrived there, which has been a slight deterrence from visiting it more often. But we keep going back to it, taking our chances, to savor some of the dishes that make this place stand out among others.

Tom Yum Goong

One of my favorite openers to a Thai meal is Tom Yum Goong, or Spicy Sour Shrimp Soup. This establishment serves this classic sip in a unique way. It comes in a metal pot that has a flame shooting through the middle in the opening. The Tom Yum style here is not quite like the other versions that I have savored – the broth is quite clear and devoid of the normal aromatics of lemongrass, galangal root, and Kaffir lime leaves: a Thai-Chinese style. It is rather flavorful even without the usual aromatics, quite sour from a good squeeze of lime juice, and rather piquant from the slivers of fresh green chilies that provide both spice heat and a slight vegetal fragrant note. The customary straw mushrooms adds the contrasting flavor and texture to the soup along with the pieces of mild sweet shrimp. It takes some time to adjust to this style of this soup but it is worth the order. Just make sure to order it quite spicy since not-too-spicy was a bit too tame for my taste buds. This offering is one of the many traditional hot and cold appetizers that this eatery seems to handle well despite its small kitchen.

Chicken Ginger in Bean SauceKai Pad Khing Sod is another favorite of ours. It is chicken cooked with wood fungus, ginger slices, and green onions in an oyster and bean paste sauce. The pieces of chicken are tender, the wood fungus a bit crunchy, green onions still firm but not raw, and the slices of ginger provide the bite that lifts the dish. In addition, the gravy made from both sauces is sufficiently flavorful yet complex at the same time. Brown bits of soybeans add a slight fermented salty element to the dish that adds interest to this simple dish. This is definitely a favorite of one of my dinner mates who cannot get enough of the ginger flavor that this dish packs.

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Crispy Honey Duck with Basil

Here is a dish that we cannot resist: Crispy Honey Roasted Duck with Basil. Pieces of roasted duck have been battered and deep-fried, then cooked with pieces of dried chili, and flavored with honey. The pieces are crispy from the frying, sweet from the honey, piquant from the dried chilies, and slightly fragrant from the crispy leaves of deep-fried basil. Although we try to stay away from deep-fried dishes in most restaurants, there seems to be some kind of holy gastronomic dispensation that permits us to continuously order this dish on every visit – it is that good! This is a must order since I have not come across any other restaurant serving this delectable dish. A healthier squid version is equally highly recommended.

Yellow Curry

A curry dish is a must order at any Thai establishment. Since one of my dinner mates has a low tolerance for spice heat, we chose to order the Yellow Curry. It arrived in a bowl brimming with pieces of chicken breast accompanied by large pieces of potato and slivers of sweet onion. The bird meat was still moist and the tuber well cooked and permeated with the sauce flavors. Despite lacking some chili heat, the curry sauce was quite fragrant from the aromatics and spices while the coconut milk added the necessary smooth richness that tied the elements together. The other curry offerings come in the red, green, country, and Panang versions. It also serves the Roasted Duck in Red Curry Sauce that carries pieces of pineapple and basil leaves along with the aforementioned meat – I recall its spiciness along with the strong flavors of the ingredients that do a good job balancing each other out – quite a spicy treat.

Lump Crab Meat Fried Rice

Another must-order here is the Lump Crab Meat Fried Rice. It is rice fried a la Thai with pieces of egg, green onions, sweet onions, carrots, and the star item, jumbo lump crab meat. The rice is flavored with a combination of soy sauce and the slightly seafood-tinged fish sauce that adds an amazing savoriness to this plain grain. The large pieces of crab meat are fresh, adding a moist and sweet flavor to this dish. With some good wok-searing, this dish arrives filled with a complex level of flavors that belies the ingredients’ simplicity. Normally not a huge fan of fried rice dishes, I find this version truly delicious and completely irresistible.

Another seafood dish that I have ordered in the past is Sukiyaki. Yes, it is a Japanese dish but it has been adapted to the Thai palate. The dish consists of pieces of shrimp, scallop, squid, chicken that have been stir-fried with bean thread noodles, Napa cabbage, celery and scallions, served with a slightly sweet and spicy sauce. This dish tastes far from the Japanese version with its level of savoriness that spells clearly Thai. Furthermore, the sauce adds the sweet and spicy notes to the dish. Yes, sweetness is an important and integral flavor element in Thai cuisine.

Mango and Sticky Rice

For dessert, we elected for the true and tested that would hardly disappoint the diner – Mango and Sticky Rice. Since it was the middle of summer, it was the perfect order for the pieces of mango were ripe and sweet. Such fruitiness was paired up and complemented by the rich coconut-laced steamed sticky rice that was further enriched by more salty coconut cream, punctuated by pieces of fragrant sesame seeds. How can you go wrong with this classic Thai combination? On other visits to this locale, we have ordered a sweet stew of Taro root, Yam, and Tapioca Pearls, coated by a coconut cream sauce and sweetened by palm sugar. These dessert dishes are not listed on the menu since they must be seasonal and offered occasionally. Make sure to leave some room for these sweet treats at the end of the meal.

Thai Square is a quaint little eatery that attracts as many Thai customers as the farang, non-Thai. In the many years that I have visited it, I have hardly walked away disappointed but always glad that I took the chance on a quiet night or was patient enough to brave the lines and wait for one of the few tables to clear up. No matter the circumstance, I have always left with a sated stomach and wide smile, vowing to return in the near future. With the really modest prices and wonderfully authentic skilful cooking, there are no excuses not to make the journey, wait in line, and fill the senses with satisfying Thai flavors found in the long listed menu. You’ll know what I mean when you make it there one day.

Thai Boat Market Beef Noodle SoupAddendum: Upon the recommendation of my Thai doctor, I stopped by Thai Square to sample a lunch dish that is not served anywhere else which carries quite a reputation among the cognoscenti – Boat Market Beef Noodle Soup. The large bowl arrived with a mound of rice noodles inundated in a dark rich fragrant beef broth scented with some cinnamon and star anise. The large beef balls were floating like buoys, alongside bits of tender beef, all made fragrant by some fried garlic and fresh cilantro and green onions. Bits of pork crackling added to the lusciousness of this dish. Digging into it, I was transported to the boat markets of Thailand imagining this bowl handed to me by a cook from her floating vessel. It was the perfect noodle soup dish on a cold wet day. My doctor was delighted to receive a take-out order from me during my visit after. This is a must-order during the lunch hours.

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Cafe Asia

On a wet Saturday afternoon that was brightened by a sea of delicate pink-hued blooming cherry blossoms around the Monuments and the Tidal Basin area, I met up for the first time with two Facebook friends that were in town for the Reason Rally, a confluence of Atheists in the Mall marching for their beliefs and cause (they should have at least consulted a Weather God before setting their date).  It was a rather impromptu meeting, and with a quick decision to be made, I decided to take them to one of my regular haunts.

I have been going to Cafe Asia ever since it opened its doors in the 18th Street location in 1991.  My former roommate and I stumbled across this 3-storey townhouse restaurant after working out in a gym, and ever since then, we have been paying regular visits to the place.  We got to know the owner, who hails from Hong Kong, and forged a close long-term friendship.  Ever since then, they have moved to their new locales on I St downtown and Rosslyn, Va, just across the river from DC.  It was to this last location that I decided to bring my newly made friends.

Cafe Asia 003.jpgSince my Jamaica-born and China-born friends were not familiar with the menu, they left it to me to make some suggestions and order for all.  One of my favorites is the Crispy Fried Calamari.  This is not your regular fried calamari that appears in most menus.  Here, they are tender pieces of squid that have been coated by a well-seasoned batter that is amazingly light, crispy and nearly greaseless – according to the owner, the secret is the use of Asian squid that provides that level of tenderness.   The Thai sweet chili sauce on the side provide the perfect foil of sweetness and spice to the mild pieces of seafood.  I have friends that swear that this restaurant’s rendition is the best in town, and my Jamaican friend was devouring so much of it that I was afraid that the former Pentecostal was going to get up and speak in tongues, or even worse, roll down the aisles in ecstatic joy.

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Since my other friend was from China, I decided to order the Spicy Chinese Ravioli.  They are basically boiled wantons with a pork stuffing and submerged in a tasty sauce made with soy sauce, black vinegar, chili oil, and sesame oil.  The stuffing was quite tasty, but the sauce took these dumplings to another level with its soy brininess, the vinegar dark acid notes, the chili heat, and the sesame oil nuttiness.   My Chinese friend seemed to be enjoying it and I insisted that he finished the last one in the bowl.

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For the mains, I thought that my friends would enjoy some of my favorite dishes.  The first is Curry Laksa, a Malaysian dish that I grew up on and was regularly cooked by my maternal grandmother for our weekly Saturday lunch gatherings.  It comes in a huge bowl filled with a sea of a light coconut milk curry broth, a flotilla of fried tofu squares, little islands of chicken and shrimp, all hiding a huge mound of egg noodles and rice vermicelli noodles.  My friends exclaimed that it was interesting as it tasted like a lighter version of Thai food as they expected a richer creamier dish.  But it has to be this light since it is basically a noodle soup, thus the large quantity which would be difficult to finish if it were richer.  That day’s serving was lacking enough lime juice which is necessary to cut through the richness.  But I still enjoyed it thoroughly which made it the perfect dish for a Saturday afternoon, much like during my childhood – it nearly made this former Catholic want to praise one of the Saints for this bowl of heaven.

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Another main that I chose from the menu was Nasi Uduk, an Indonesian staple.  Surrounding a mound of rice cooked with coconut milk is Rendang beef stew, chicken satay, cooked vegetables with peanut sauce, spicy pickled vegetables, fried dried fish and peanuts, fried fish chips, and a fiery chili paste.  This is truly a Southeast Asian smogarsbord of different flavors and textures: the fragrant rich coconut rice, the spicy and aromatic beef stew, the smokey grilled satay, the irresistible fried dried fish and peanuts, the addictive fish chips, and the mouth-searing chili paste.  The sides of cooked vegetable salad and pickles provide a relief from the richness and spice-heat in the other elements.  This kitchen delivers a good rendition of this dish, and we were all picking through all the different parts of the platter.

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The last main dish was a Singaporean/Malaysian favorite – Gway Tio. Wide ribbons of rice noodle are paired with chicken, egg, crunchy fresh beansprouts, large pieces of pungent scallion, all brought together by a thick soy sauce with its slight caramel-like sweetness along with some soy saltiness.  Pieces of green chili provide a kick of heat that elevate the dish to another level.  Some serious hot wok searing has contributed a level of smokey caramelization that is the key to success in this dish as it adds a depth of flavor to the rice noodles.   My Chinese friend seemed to enjoying it the most by his constant stabbing at the dish with his chopsticks.  He was probably silently thanking Confucius or Mao for this soulful bite that pays its tribute to the dish’s Chinese roots flavored with Southeast Asian seasonings.

004.jpgOn a previous occasion, a dining companion had the Salmon Teriyaki as part of his meal.  It is a fillet of salmon that has been seared on the grill and slathered with teriyaki sauce.  The fish was still moist from the cooking, and the sauce provided a sweet and salty element to the protein. The side of tasty Asian cabbage slaw was the crispy and cool contrast to the fish.  The piece of salmon is usually very generous here, and it is well-cooked with the right amount of seasoning in the sauce without being cloying sweet.   The restaurant truly delivers on this Japanese seafood dish.

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On this same visit, we were “rewarded” with some Asian ice-creams – the perks of being friends with the owner and as long-term customers.  One portion was made with Red Beans, and the other made with Crystallized Ginger.  The red bean version is an acquired taste, which I grew up on, with its, how can I put it, “beaniness” and distinctive flavor.  The crystallized ginger one would appeal to most palates with its slightly biting yet sweet flavors.  These made the perfect ending to the meal, especially after a few spicy and rich dishes.

Cafe Asia is a Pan Asian restaurant that has been very successful in the DC area for a many years now, and it is consistently rated highly by online readers for its quality and value.  This is what I know: Facebook friends do exist and they will show-up in real life when planned; Cafe Asia delivers consistent and well-cooked Asian dishes that you can always rely on; and that my Atheist friends have a great sense of humor and will forgive me and will meet me again after reading this blog (I’m counting on my lucky stars this time for this!).

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