Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot


Last weekend, I invited my gang to a dinner a la Chinese, Hot Pot style.  For them, one was familiar with it due to his visits with me to Southeast Asia.  However, for the rest of the quartet, this was terra incognito culinary wise.  Located in Falls Church, VA, Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot is located in a strip mall off the main drag.  But finding it was quite difficult due to its ensconced location, and the fact that only the Chinese sign, not the English, had its lights functioning.  After the travel challenge, we entered its doors and after a slight wait, we got a table with a hole in the middle.


Hot Pot Soup – mild (left), Szechuan spicy (right).


Bean thread Noodle, Chinese Spinach, and Shrimp.


Enoki Mushrooms, Soft Tofu, Flounder, and Lean Pork.

The heart of a Hot Pot meal is the stock that the raw ingredients are cooked in.  For that, we chose a ying yang of a mild bone stock on one side and spicy Szechuan on the other, much alike what I had seen on travel channels about this fadish dish in China.  The mild soup had pieces of tomatoes and green onions along with the common Chinese Goji berries that provided some mild sweetness as well as its antioxidant properties.  The spicy stock had bits of dried chili peppers and Szechuan peppercorns floating on a rather thick layer of fiery oil, a common trait of this dish.   The secret to partaking in this meal is cooking more or less one plate of ingredients at a time so that the diners could savor one type of dish.  After helping ourselves to the different sauces at the buffet table, we started the process.

The different ingredients were very fresh and most didn’t not take too long to cook due to their vegetable nature or the thinness of their slices.  The usual order of cooking the ingredients starts with the mildest tasting ones, proceeding to bolder tasting elements like meat.  So, we started with Flounder which was quite spongy from a thick coating of corn starch, followed by shelled shrimp (I prefer with shell) which was quite sweet. Following that was tofu which was silky smooth, and some Spinach leaves that were nice and turgid before wilting in the soup.  We ordered a plate of tomato pieces since the group was fond of it being cooked by the mild soup.  It was followed by the Enoki mushrooms with its mild and delicate taste, and some Snowpea shoots which imparted a mild yet discernible vegetal quality.  I introduced the lean pork earlier since I sensed some impatience on the part of the novices with the meat tasting mild for pork yet quite tasty.  The various sauces (Hoisin, oyster, sesame, bean) added the flavor to the naked flavors, and a special mixture of Hoisin, oyster, and green onions made by the owner was the highlight, but I still missed the Malaysian version made with crushed chilies, vinegar, sugar, salt and sesame seeds.  The noodles are usually cooked last so as to sop up all the richness of the stock after cooking the various ingredients.  This time we cooked them in the mild stock as my friend and I were getting bludgeoned by the searing dried chilies and numbing Szechuan peppercorns in the fiery stock.

This meal was an example of Cultural Gastronomic Relativity.  Firstly, the cooking in two stocks was the veritable cooking method, and the fiery spicy one was no way a dilution of the authentic version, although we were starting to suffer its effects towards the end of the meal.  The ingredients were fresh and the usual ones associated with this meal.  The cooking of single dishes was also the way to go, albeit a bit frustrating to some.  The serving of starch at the end is the common practice even though my friends were perplexed why they couldn’t have some of it earlier – they were tempted to order some rice which is not common with this style.  The meal was more vegetarian and pescatarian which was a bit challenging for the meat-minded eater.  All in all, we pretty much towed the authentic line with this meet-up.

Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot offers the veritable thing.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea especially for the uninitiated ones.  However, it did convert one of my friends despite his initial trepidation.  If you are willing to try a new gastronomic experience, an authentic one it is, here is the place to visit, and you may enjoy this new style of cooking/eating.  Don’t blame me for suffering from the fiery stock – you have been forewarned!

Uncle Liu's Hot Pot Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bamian Restaurant

IMG127Buying numerous online coupon offers to make my food blog pursuits more economical has a down side – forgetting to use them before their expiration date.  This has happened to me a few times now due to my forgetfulness or getting busy with the million and one things that life demands out of us, not to mention trying to get enough rest from being a hamster on the wheel.  Fortunately, some of these coupon companies allow the full value on the offer way past the special cut-off date.  Last weekend, after a Buddhist meeting, I remembered such coupon in my glove compartment to an Afghani restaurant close to the meeting point, and I plugged in the address.  After the long-winded instructions (GPS always takes you on the most crowded roads), I arrived at Bamian Afghanistan Restaurant in Falls Church, VA, on the busy Route 7.  Having patronized another restaurant of this Middle Eastern cuisine for many years, I was familiar with the cuisine, and I walked into the place with much anticipation.


I opened my meal with a favorite Afghani appetizer – Mantu.  A quartet of these dumplings arrived covered with a lentil sauce, slathered with some yogurt sauce and a sprinkling of dry mint.  The dough skin was perfectly cooked, being not too thick or thin, strong enough to hold in a filling of ground beef and slivers of leek.  The meat pieces were mild in flavor and pieces of leek soft but still with a slight bite, complemented by the lentil sauce that boosted the dumpling flavor especially with the occasional burst of coriander seed found in the top sauce.  The yogurt sauce added a zing while the dried mint a clearing fresh flavor to all below it.  The side of house hot sauce was very intriguing, and it tasted like a pureed form of spicy Italian Giardiniera pickles which I kept dipping my spoon into.  I went through these pockets with no hesitation and with lots of gastronomic appreciation.  Great start.


For my main courses, I ordered a couple of my favorites.  The first was the Vegetarian Platter.  The plate arrived with pools of sautéed pumpkin (Kadu), stir-fried eggplant (Baunjan), and stir-fried spinach (Subzi).   Each element on this plate was a different cast member (yeah, I’m watching the Oscars while I’m writing this).  The pumpkin was naturally sweet and bright orange without any sugar or coloring enhancement, tasting slightly rich from a tinge of clarified butter.  The eggplant was slightly sweet and tangy with hints of smoke wafting through this silky mixture.  The spinach was a shade of dark green with a dose of bitter notes, some from the leaves, but mostly from a Middle Eastern herb that I have tasted in Lebanese dishes, compensated by a good deliberate and necessary hit of salt calculated by an expert hand.  The basket of Nan bread had slices that were fresh, slightly yeasty and pillowy inside, making them the perfect vehicle to mop up all these vegetarian delights.


The second main course was Kabob Murgh – Chicken Breast Kabob.  A mound of oiled Basmati rice was surrounded by a ring of chicken breast pieces.  The beauty in the presentation was echoed by my reaction within the first bite.  The pieces of poultry were perfectly executed both in the seasoning as well as in the marination of yogurt and spices, both subtle and present at the same time, hinting of cumin and other seed spices, producing moist morsels with a slightly charred exterior.  The rice was a slight assault on the taste buds initially with a big hit of cardamon and cumin within the first mouthful.  But once I got accustomed to the flavor, I started to appreciate the flavor along with the hay-like aroma of this mountain rice.  Despite being oilier than what I was used to, there was barely a hint of oil on the plate, and each grain was perfectly cooked.

IMG118I had not planned to write a blog on this establishment (excuse the smartphone photos).  But after savoring their wonderful offerings, it would be remiss not to mention this hidden treasure.  Starting from the delicately made yet flavor packed Mantu, to the Vegetarian Platter that would satisfy both the vegetarian eater and not-so, to the Chicken Kabob that was skilfully made with the flavorful and moist pieces of poultry  accompanied by a side of spice-packed oiled rice.   I had a clear view of the kitchen during the whole meal, and I was constantly eyeing the elderly cook plying his masterful trade.  “Hand Flavor” is rarely found in many eating places, but the cook in this place does impart that extra je-ne-sais-qoui to these Afghan staples.  If it weren’t for the long distance from my residence, I would be at this joint more often to enjoy the wonderful cooking.

Bamian 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.


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.




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