Anh Dao

Anh Dao, Washington DC

12 years ago, my Friday dinner group used to meet up for dinner at a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant near Eastern Market, DC, since it was the halfway point between the MD and VA folks. However, it met its demise a couple of years later, and we lamented the loss of its wonderful offerings as well as its convenient location. Recently, I saw the sign of another Vietnamese eatery as this location and my group decided to meet up there. Walking into the familiar space, although chopped up to smaller real estate, I was greeted by a familiar face who called me by my name – the owners of the former eatery. Wow, they decided to reopen in the same space, Anh-Dao, and what a happy reacquaintance it was with some familiar faces.Summer Rolls / Goui Coun, Anh Dao, Washington DC
Spring Rolls / Cha Gio, Anh Dao, Washington DCAfter our smiling faces settled down from the warm effusive greetings, we perused the menu, albeit pared down from that of the last location. We started off with the usual Vietnamese appetizers. The first was Summer Rolls. The fresh wrap rolls was stuffed with the usual combination of rice vermicelli, sliced pork, sliced shrimp, and crispy lettuce leaves. It tasted like most that I have eaten in other places but I would have liked some fragrant basil leaves in the mix. The peanut sauce reminded me what I had in Vietnam, with the sauce not tasting too sweet or hoisin-like, allowing the peanut flavors to make its presence known in the peanut butter and bits used in the sauce. The next appetizer was Spring Rolls. The fried small bites were delicately made with a  stuffing that tasted savory from minced meat and a refined seasoning that was noticeable but subtle at the same time. The pieces were greaseless to the touch, pointing to a kitchen that knows oil temperature for frying. This was a good start indeed.

Steamed Chicken Dumplings, Anh Dao, Washington DCA non-Vietnamese appetizer was written in the menu and that struck my curiosity – Steamed Chicken Dumplings. What arrived looked very much like Japanese gyozas.  One bite revealed its nature. The skin was the usual quite thin dough encasing a delicious filling. Notes of finely minced chicken were mixed in with finely shredded vegetables and punctuated by notes of green onion and garlic. This savory mix made every bite pleasurable along with the dark soy dip that was bit sourish, sweet, and salty at the same time.

Shrimp Papaya Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother appetizer that caught my eye was not the usual – Shrimp Papaya Salad. What arrived was a plate of green papaya strands, julienned carrot, sliced shrimp, topped with basil and cilantro leaves that added their herbaceous notes. But what made this dish sing were the details in the dish. The fried shallots added a caramelized dark note and the crushed peanuts its nutty rich crunch. But the magic in the dish was the sauce that was perfectly balanced with its salty and umami fish sauce, and the right balance of sugar and lime juice. I kept coming back to that elixir sauce throughout the whole meal for its-so-goodness.

Shrimp Crispy Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCI recalled that the former establishment had a delicious Shrimp Crispy Noodle dish and a companion went for this order.  The large plate was replete with the crunchy brittle pasta, topped with a light sauce and pieces of medium size shrimp and lots of vegetables. But the key to the dishes is both the noodles and the sauce. The former was greaseless and perfectly crispy with a clean taste (fresh oil was used), and the sauce was both savory and slightly full-bodied, which when mixed with the noodles, it had a tinge of smokiness that I found very appealing. I wouldn’t hesitate to order this at all.

Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll Bun Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCGrilled Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother noodle dish is the Combination Noodle Salad. What arrived was a huge bowl of rice vermicelli, paired with some finely sliced vegetables and topped with grilled chicken, grilled shrimp and a chopped up spring roll. The chicken and shrimp were slightly sweet and salty, pointing to a good seasoning and marination, and grilled with some slight char to its ends. The spring roll was as good as the appetizer.  This was a huge bowl that my friend was thoroughly enjoying since its his Vietnamese favorite. Another companion’s order on another night had the noodles changed for steamed rice, which he seemed to be content with.

Shaky Beef, Anh Dao, Washington DCShaky Beef was my order on my “first” visit. It’s name comes with the tossing action when it is cooked in the wok. What arrived were small cubes of beef cooked with some white onions. A whiff of it was a good indicator of the dish’s quality. The beef was quite tender, tasting uber savory with a soy/sugar sauce made sweeter by the onions. I enjoyed not only the incredible flavor but also the size of each morsel that made you appreciate the meal without feeling that you are biting into the side of the cow. The moderate portion was just right for me, and I was left complete sated by this dish.

Pho Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCThe real litmus test of a Vietnamese pho place is it soup noodles.  Since the owner knows me well, she decided to place a special order for me. What arrived was a combination of raw steak (the usual), flank steak, meat balls, and tripe.  The meats were of good quality especially the beef balls that tasted home made, and the usual for the noodles. But the key ingredient is the soup that was where my focus was throughout this meal.  It tasted full-bodied, an indication of use of lots of bones, slightly sweet from onions, and slightly woodsy (cinnamon, star-anise) with their evenly calibrated tones without jarring the senses.  I was thoroughly enjoying this bowl until the last drop of clean-tasting (no msg) broth, and I would stop in here for that hot bowl when in town.

Complementary Orange, Anh Dao, Washington DCYes, it has been a decade since I saw the owners in the same establishment, albeit reopened but smaller. But somethings have not changed. The high quality cooking is evident especially in the shrimp papaya salad, shaky beef, shrimp crispy noodles, the combination noodles or rice, and the pho noodles. So has the warm and friendly service from the owners whose husband-cook came out to greet me.  The complementary dessert confirmed another unchanged variable – incredibly sweet oranges to end the meal that never departed from this superior quality (Where do they find them consistently sweet?). This place has been definitely added back to our dinner rotations, and we all are glad to have them back in business again.

Anh-Dao Taste of Vietnam Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

JDS Shanghai Famous Food

JDS Shanghai Famous Food

Early in the year, I visited an eatery serving typical mainland Chinese food which I enjoyed due to its authenticity and its gastronomic revelation (read blog).  But more importantly, I managed to savor a culinary import that has become a delight for foodies for me – Xiao Long Bao or Soup Dumpling.  So, when I got wind that another establishment had opened up serving this steamed bundles, I knew I had to go off my usual trek into the hinterland, at least for me, to have a bite of their offerings.   JDS Shanghai Famous Food is located in Gaithersburg, MD, an area not quite known for exotic cuisine, compared to the closer suburbs like Rockville where the aforementioned restaurant is located.  But due to the expansion of the suburbs and burgeoning immigrant communities, places like this have popped up to cater to the needs of such segments of population.  Thus, I walked into JDS Shanghai (its full name is way too long and quite presumptuous) with a longtime friend living in that area for dinner recently.

Xiao Long Bao/Soup Dumpling

Xiao Long Bao/Soup DumplingThe space is rather modern with clean lines and lots of space between booths and tables.  Perusing the menu was a bit daunting since there were many dish categories with a number of offerings in each.  But we came here for mainly one item – Xiao Long Bao.  The menu lists three kinds of stuffing: Pork, Shrimp and Pork, and the latter mix with Okra added to it – we chose the second type.  The bamboo basket arrived with 8 dumplings exuding their steamy heat when the lid was removed.  Just like the other place mentioned above, the dumplings looked perfectly round with delicate pleats as their crown.  We waited a few minutes while I took a couple of photos and let them cool down a bit.  One bite into them revealed their true nature.  The outer wrapping was a fairly light and spongy skin that was not too thick or starchy, strong enough to hold in the soup and the meat/crab filling (some broke easily when we waited until the end to finish them).  The soup produced from the melted gelatin was just the right amount for the diner to taste without overwhelming the experience.  What I liked most about this version is the seafood sweetness from the crab that was subtle yet present in the whole mix, with a hint of ginger to mask any extraneous seafood flavors, this being a common Chinese pairing.  The young ginger and black vinegar sauce is a must-have seasoning with these dumplings, providing the root bite and an acidic foil to these rich mouth-sticking bundles.  However, when tasting the vinegar by itself, it exuded a tannin note that was borderline metallic and a bit of a letdown; obviously, the vinegar was lacking in quality.  But with such tasty and well-made dumplings, I was satisfied with this order, and I will definitely have to try the version with okra in the filling.

Salt Pepper Shrimp

To balance off the meaty delights, we went to the ocean, not literally, but in the menu – Salt Pepper Shrimp. A long plate arrived with pieces of large shrimp neatly stacked together with a heaping of accouterments.  One bite into the seafood brought a smile to my mouth.  The shrimp had a light coating of rice flour batter, and it was crispy from a good high-heat frying,  yet brittle enough to be consumed whole with shell intact with the flesh still quite moist and non-rubbery.  The seasoning was just right with the salt although I couldn’t detect much in the pepper department.  The toppings added more flavor with the softened onion and garlic, as well as the sweet red and vegetal green peppers.  The sprinkling of fried vermicelli noodles added more crunch to each bite which I was thoroughly enjoying.  This was a winning combination with very fresh seafood (and large pieces) cooked perfectly with the right seasoning, and the portion was generous to boot.

Shanghai Fried Noodles

For the final dish, we ordered Shanghai Style Pan Fried Noodles.  Again, the portion was rather large and it was the first dish to arrive from the kitchen after only a short wait – hmmm.  One mouthful of the dish left me a bit nonplussed.  The seasoning was quite lacking not just in the salt content but also in the wok flavor, an indication that this dish was hastily cooked or the wok was not hot enough.  The bits of Napa cabbage, shrimp, and beef were adequate but rather bland.  We managed to avoid abandoning this dish with a help of some soy sauce (strangely, none at the table) and chili oil, as well as the al dente udon-like thick noodles that provided some good body and firm bite to each forkful.  Interestingly, my check came with this dish listed as Pan Fried Udon, which is not listed on the menu.

Although this visit cannot be representative of this new Chinese eatery due to the few dishes that I ordered on a single trip, I must say that this place peaked my interest, as well as the crowd of Chinese customers who arrived near the end of the meal that drove the din level close to stratosphere.  Never mind the misstep with the Fried Noodles.  What I came here for is the Soup Dumpling that I thoroughly enjoyed with the right combination of wrapping skin thinness and the ginger-spiked crab/pork mixture.  Yes, I will probably throw in the order of Salt Pepper Shrimp that won me over on this trip with the wonderful crispy shells protecting the sweet fresh flesh, topped by the textural and tasty toppings (4 t’s in a row – wow!).  So, when I am in the mood for Xiao Long Bao and not wanting to deal with the long lines and packed space in the other place in Rockville, I will be heading here to Gaithersburg instead.

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Afghan Restaurant

My former roommate is an avid traveller mainly due to the exigencies of his job and a sense of wanderlust to see the world.  One of the perks for him is having the opportunity to visit a myriad of restaurants in various parts of the world.  One year, back from a trip to San Francisco, he was exuding with delight about having a wonderful meal in an Afghan restaurant.  Back then I was quite a connoisseur of Indian and Pakistani cuisine, but Afghan food was terra incognito within the realm of this palate.  One for gastronomic adventure, I knew I had to delve into this cuisine and find a restaurant serving such offerings after hearing my friend speak about his meal.

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Being the kind and considerate roommie that I was, I would pick my mate up from the airport back from his frequent trips.  For many years, we had driven by a nondescript building off the main road, with a large drap-looking sign that barely made an effort to entice passersby into its dining room.   After hearing my friend’s exuberant remarks about this exotic cuisine, we decided to pay a visit to Afghan Restaurant in Crystal City, VA, a stone throw away from Reagan National Airport (No, it is NOT “Reagan Airport” as some folks seem to truncate the name to – that irks me!). It took a bit of suspension of first impression judgement to enter its doors, and since then, we have not stopped returning to this establishment for over 15 years.

DSC_1088.jpgAlways up for something unique and out of the common, the adventure for me starts with the first bite, or in this case, the first sip.  Dogh is a fermented yogurt drink that has been lightened with some soda water and slightly brined by a touch of salt.  It has the slight creamy taste of whole-milk yogurt but this richness is cut by the mild sourness from the fermentation.  In addition, flecks of dried mint add the bite and slight herbaciouness to compensate the dairy flavor.  This drink is not for the novice and it is an acquired taste, of which my friends would wince and remark that it tastes like toothpaste.  Not for me – it is uniquely delish!

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DSC_1085.jpgAs for an appetizer, a favorite order is Mantu.  These are steamed dumplings that are filled with scallions and bits of minced beef.  The silky dough makes the perfect purse for the stuffing without being too thick or too delicate, providing support to the bits of not overly cooked scallion and morsels of tasty beef.  The slathering of  yogurt sauce along with a meat sauce made with a tasty tomato sauce and bits of vegetables makes this opener a tasty treat.  What amazes me is the resemblance of this dish to the Mandu dumplings popular in Korean eateries.  According to Wikipedia, the Mongols brought these meat purses from the Middle East to the Far East along the Silk Road in the 14th century – tasty bites with an interesting history.  Along with the steamed dumplings, a baked version, Boolawnee, proved to be equally tasty during past visits.

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The mainstay in Afghan cuisine are the meat dishes, especially the Kebabs that dominate a large portion of the menu.  The menu offers a variety to choose from: Chicken, Beef, Lamb, and Fish, in either whole pieces or in ground meat form.  Over the years we have zoned in on a couple of them in part due to their savouriness and in other part due to personal tastes of the other sharers: Boneless Chicken Thigh Kebab and Shami Kebab.  The chicken thigh version comes with pieces of chicken that have been marinated in a seasoning and perhaps in some yogurt to helps to tenderize these bits of dark meat.  The chunks come slightly charred and with a light smoky taste from having been grilled over charcoal while the meat remains moist and savory from the seasoning.   The Chicken Breast version is equally tasty and moist, but my dining mates prefer the stronger tasting dark meat.  The Shami Kebab is made from ground beef with some seasoning, grated sweet onions, and a bit of garlic.  These pieces of beef make a tasty bite due to the seasonings and it will even entice the not-so-beef eater.  But one can’t forget the humongous piece of freshly baked naan bread that makes the obligatory partner to this meal.  Pieces of dough have been cooked in the tandoor oven, providing a crispy outer shell with a moist stretchy fluffy inside.  The customary way of eating the pieces of chicken and beef is wrapping them with Naan bread and slathering the sandwiches with the accompanying spicy cilantro yogurt sauce.  This is a perfect combo that has you coming back  and wanting more with each bite.  A skewer of grilled onions, green peppers and tomatoes can be added to round off these meat dishes.

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Meat dishes definitely abound in this establishment.  However, we have discovered that Afghan cuisine is not all about meat like in many Middle Eastern dishes.  A section in the menu is dedicated to vegetarian dishes and they are worth discovering.  The Vegetarian Rice Platter is the perfect partner to balance out the above meat dishes and it is a must order.  This quartet comprises of sautéed spinach, roasted eggplant, stewed pumpkin, and Rice Palau.  The chopped spinach is well-seasoned with a tinge of sourness to counterbalance any bitter taste (none btw), the soft eggplant still in chunks and amazingly slightly sweet, the pumpkin soft and naturally sweet sitting in a small pool of rich ghee, and the grains of basmati rice fluffy, a bit oily and heavily scented by large cardamom pods that add some exotica to the lean looking grain.  The topping of caramelized carrot shreds and plump raisins brings more interest to this starch and it attempts to steal the highlight.  For my friends and me, our kebab dishes would not be complete without an order of this divine combination of vegetables and rice.  This easily would satisfy the most finicky vegetarian/vegan customer who would not think finding something worth ordering in a meat-laden menu.

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As for my former roommie, he seems to order only one dish: Super Combo.  It is definitely a combo that comes with a skewer each of chicken, lamb, and shami kebab, Rice Palau, along with a Qurma, a well-seasoned lamb stew.  This is truly a meat delight for the die-hard carnivore to which my friend has taken his vows.  The Qurma is very tasty with only a slight hint of the lamb gaminess that makes it palatable for the sensitive eater.  It is a dish worth ordering to get a sampling of the different meat offerings in this restaurant and for the famished diner.

The desserts are limited in the offerings.  However, apart from the predictable Baqlawa (Baklava), there is Ferni.  It is made with milk and cornstarch, and it is served chilled and topped with a dusting of pistachio bits.  It is akin to the usual rice pudding except the texture is a bit funky, much like an over-starched sauce that has congealed up.  Aside from this textural issue, it is a tasty dessert with a slight hint of Orange Blossom essence in the pudding.  Definitely a favorite of my mega-canivore friend.

In the best-selling novel, The Kite Runner, in which the author chronicles life during pre-Taliban Afghanistan, we see a frequently appearing character, Ali, who is the family’s long-time servant.  He was faithful, constant, unassuming, and ever-pleasing.  In more than the 15 years that we have been visiting Afghan Restaurant, it has demonstrated the very same qualities in the food that we relish in during our meals, never dipping in food quality or warmth in service.  Just like the Ali character’s demure personality, or display sign in the restaurant’s case, one cannot discern beyond the looks, or in this case, how wonderful and enticing Afghan cuisine is unless he or she walks through those double doors.  Or you may be invited to the wedding dinner in the banquet hall if you accidentally enter the adjoining room.  Either way, the experience is never disappointing.

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