Thai Orchid Kitchen

Thai Orchid Kitchen

Thai restaurants abound in the DMV area in which such establishments can be found in most neighborhoods, particularly dotting affluent or ethnically-populated ones.  As much as they make their presence in these parts of town, they are not as visible in the eastern sections like Prince George’s County, MD and Southeast DC, for which I have griped about in previous blogs.  Since last summer, I have been noticing Thai Orchid Kitchen located in an improbable spot, at one of the busiest intersection in Anacostia, DC.  Since a friend, with whom I would meet up once in a while, lived fairly close by, we paid it a visit during lunch one afternoon, and I was quite impressed by the meal.  Subsequent meals there enticed me to drop in a number of times, hence enough dishes were sampled for this most tardy blog.

Tom Ka Soup

Tom Yum SoupFrom the outside, the windows bars can be a bit unnerving to the uninitiated, and walking in, the dining area  appears rather spacious despite the building’s shotgun-like appearance.  After perusing the rather large menu, I decided to open my meal with a couple of classic soups.  The first was Tom Ka.  The bowl arrived filled with a whitish coconut cream-based liquid stained by some chili oil covering bits of chicken and mushrooms, and made aromatic by pieces of the obligatory lemongrass and galangal root. After giving the soup a stir since the cream tends to rise to the top, I took a good sip.  Creamy and aromatic it was, but I was taken aback by a good hit of sourness and saltiness coming from both fish sauce and lime juice. Alternating sips with bites of my main dish only confirmed the overwhelming seasoning which begged for some taming.  The other soup was the recognizable Tom Yum Shrimp.  The hot liquid was perfumed by lemongrass, galangal root, and thin slivers of Kaffir lime leaf.  Pieces of shrimp were both sweet and plump and the bowl was chockfull with straw mushroom and tomatoes.  However, the disappointment lied in the seasoning, which, like the above, was replete with too much fish sauce and lime juice, this further exacerbated by too much sugar in this case.  Although both soups require bold flavor ingredients, finesse in the balancing act of their elements is the secret to their success – the owner noted that his customers love fish sauce, but this was an overkill.  In this kitchen, all the elements are there but the soups need some tweaking. However, these openers did not damper my curiosity of discovering the rest of the kitchen’s menu.

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Thai Chicken SatayA favorite appetizer of mine from this Southeast Asian cuisine is Steamed Dumplings.  One bite into them was revelatory.  They tasted freshly made with the skins supple from the steaming, and the stuffing enticing with a savory mix of ground pork and shrimp, exuding an a la minute quality in each mouthful.  The side of dark soy sauce was the perfect accompaniment with its slightly sweet dark molasses alongside its soy umami saltiness.  The owner exclaimed that this was a big seller hence their freshly-made quality and flavor, which my dining companions raved about.  Admittedly, this is one of the best versions I have eaten in the area.  Another meat appetizer that equally impressed me was Chicken Satay.  The skewers of meat were not the plainly seasoned ones found in most establishments.  Here, the meat was properly grilled but still moist with hints of root herbs of galangal and lemongrass, colored by a hit of yellow turmeric.  But it was the peanut sauce that sealed the deal with its nutty sweet and creamy mix echoing the use of the root herbs in the bites.  Two good appetizers indeed.

Grilled Shrimp Salad

Larb Gai/Thai Chicken SaladThai cuisine is known for their salads, and I had to taste a couple of them here.  The first was Pla Goong or Grilled Shrimp Salad.  The butterflied seafood came grilled and paired with carrots, lettuce, cilantro, and lemongrass, all brought together by a rather spicy, sweet and sour dressing.  The salad was fairly tasty and each bite was made interesting by the bits of lemongrass that exuded a root citrus flavor.  However, the dish was marred by the unseasoned and dried out shrimp that was crying out for some marinade that would have added flavor and moisture to the protein.  Larb Kai was the other order.  This traditional salad consists of minced chicken seasoned with dried chili flakes, lime juice, and toasted rice powder.  The dish was still warm from the freshly cooked chicken but it tasted slightly under seasoned upon the first spoonful.  Perhaps my tastebuds were slightly numb by the heavily seasoned grilled shrimp salad, but after a while, I was beginning to appreciate the subtleties of the chicken salad.  With a bit more chili flakes and toasted rice powder, the dish would have scored highly in my books.

Fried Calamari & Fried Seafood

A couple of fried seafood dishes were also sampled.  The first was the Fried Calamari appetizer.  Rings of battered squid rings arrived with a florescent red sweet sauce.  The pieces of seafood were a bit heavily battered despite it description of “lightly battered” in the menu.  Despite this issue, the squid was quite tender, this being quite a tall feet for most kitchens.  The main order of Crispy Seafood Basil suffered the same treatment as the calamari.  The pieces of shrimp and fish were also heavy from both the batter and frying which made the dish a bit overwhelming and quickly filling.  But I appreciated the pieces of battered green beans and carrots paired with a decent spicy garlic basil sauce, albeit a bit over thickened.

Drunken Noodles

The dish that impressed me about this kitchen during my first visit was Drunken Noodles.  The version here is a good mix of fresh wide rice noodles, sweet white onion, green onion, ripe tomato, and a choice protein.  The slices of pork I chose each time were fresh and devoid of the “porky” scent usually found in that meat.  But what pulls the elements together is the sauce that moistens the dish as well as the high-heat wok searing imparting a slightly char flavor.  The sides of chili pickles and paste are the obligatory accoutrements to add more acid and spicy interest, as if the dish were not flavorful enough.  This dish is definitely a lunch favorite of mine, including the well-made version here.

Kaprow BasilAnother lunch dish I tried that caught my attention was the classic Kaprow Basil. However, during a dinner visit with a friend, his order was not quite what I had eaten for lunch.  The dinner version was made with slices of chicken breast, sweet pepper, sweet onion, and green onion, sitting on a pool of brown sauce, devoid of basil leaves, reminding one of Chinese food.  On another visit, I spoke to the cook’s sister and I asked for the traditional version.  This time, minced chicken and shrimp were paired with long beans, sweet onions, and a handful of fragrant basil, sitting on a bare pool of proper sauce made with fish sauce and some soy.  This version was more delectable although it yearned for a bit more chili heat and saltiness, which would have made the dish soar.

Salmon Pumpkin Curry
Crispy Salmon and Chili Basil Sauce

Seafood Prik PraoA trio of other seafood dishes caught the attention of me and my dinner companions during our visits.   Salmon Curry with Pumpkin arrived with the bowl filled with large chunks of salmon and pieces of Kabocha pumpkin, covered in a slightly sweet yellow curry that was spiced by its usual suspects of cinnamon and cloves, all made velvety by some rich coconut cream.  The pieces of fish were amazingly moist and fresh-tasting and the pumpkin being the kind that didn’t overwhelm the palate with its sweetness, which complemented the whole dish.  The various elements in the dish came together beautifully and my friend seemed very pleased with his order.  Another order placed by him was a similar fish dish – Crispy Salmon.   When the dish arrived, it took him by surprise.  The fillet was quite heavily battered and it was fried crispy, which was unexpected and to his dismay since he has an aversion for anything deep fried.  After much griping, he managed to scrape the top off and started to appreciate the moist salmon and the flavors of the sauce despite its over-thickened consistency.  My order one night was Seafood Prik Prao which was listed as a special on a hand-written menu.  Wow!  Everything on this dish impressed me starting with the freshness of the seafood (shrimp, tender squid, perfectly cooked sweet scallops, and mussels (not frozen)), to the red chili paste that made each bite tantalizing with its spice heat and well-balanced seasoning.  The pieces of cashew nuts added another layer of taste and textural interest along with the fresh oyster mushrooms that exuded some silky lusciousness.  It was assuring for me to know that the kitchen will cook any of the specials even if the special menu was not on display, for which I will be ordering in the future based on this offering.

Mango Sticky RiceAfter our meal one night and feeling very sated, we were recommended by our waitress to try Mango and Sticky Rice.  Reluctantly, I probed her about the ripeness of the mango, and she reassured me that they were the smaller ones that were at their prime.  Taking her word, we placed the order and the dish indeed echoed her thoughts.  One bite reminded my senses what a good ripe mango tastes like, especially after a winter of unripen tropical fruits.  But it was its accompanying sticky rice that was doing its darnest to wrestle my attention with its perfectly steamed grains (a tall feet for most kitchens), perfectly seasoned with salty coconut cream that made it the perfect foil to the sweet fruit.  The obligatory yellow lentils added the crunch to the pairing of soft elements, making each bite more irresistible.  This dessert was a definite hit and perfect sweet ending for all those present at my table, and I’m looking forward to more of its order in the upcoming summer months.

There were many highlights at Thai Orchid Restaurant, from the Chicken Satay and Steamed Dumplings appetizers, to the Larb Kai Salad, the Drunken Noodles, the traditional style of Kaprow Basil, the Salmon Pumpkin Curry and Seafood Prik Prao, and the quintessential and perfectly-made Thai ending – Mango and Sticky Rice.  There were some dishes that left us nonplussed due to either their over seasoning or a lack of traditional approach in order to cater to the locals in the area.  But once one can overlook some of these dishes, the diner can appreciate the well-seasoned and properly cooked aforementioned dishes that make this place worth recommending, especially in this part of town that has made this establishment very popular with delivery orders.  Time to head back there soon and end the next meal with that scrumptious mango dessert!

Thai Orchid's Kitchen restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Yia Yia’s Kitchen

My foray into Greek cuisine has not been one of a traditional route.  In addition to frequenting a popular take-out diner in the Dupont Circle area for many years as a young adult, I would scout out Greek Festivals to find cookouts hosted yearly by the myriad of Greek Orthodox churches in the Washington DC area.  It was there that I could get a true sense of what traditional Greek cuisine was about.  However, I have not come across many Greek restaurants in the area beyond the gyro counter, thus the absence of a blog on this culinary tradition uptil today.

Yia Yia's Kitchen

However, recently as I was driving up Route 1 heading to Beltsville, I noticed this new establishment tucked in a strip mall, just north of IKEA and the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.  After a couple of weeks, I decided to pay Yia Yia’s Kitchen a visit, and admittedly, with a bit of lowered expectation stemming from my experiences with similar style places.  But walking in, I was impressed by the place that looks very neat and well-kept, bright from being a corner shop lot bathed in natural light coming through the large windows facing the traffic-laden highway.  Within my first bite, I knew that this was not the usual joint serving this Mediterranean cuisine.  After a handful of visits, I decided to write this blog.

Tyropita/Ricotta Feta Pie

Spanakopita/Spinach Feta PieSome of the highlights of tasting food at Greek Festivals were new dishes that I could explore and enjoy, and savory pastries were some of my favorites.   My first order here was Tyropita.  The pies were airy and crispy from the well-baked Phylo sheets, enclosing an equally light yet rich stuffing of ricotta and feta cheeses.  The tanginess of the feta was not too pronounced, tampered by the smooth ricotta, and it was the perfect foil to the mild tasting crispy exterior that literally flaked apart between my fingers – a light and flavorful starter indeed.   Another visit’s order was Spanakopita.  The dough of these pies were quite different from the above, being equally light but softer akin to a crispy croissant, encasing a stuffing of spinach, leeks and feta cheese.  I really enjoyed these savory bites with the feta tanginess tasting creamy, perfectly matched by the sweet onion notes of the leeks which seemed to be more prominent than the spinach.  Both types of pies were made to order judging by the flaky warm dough and their fresh quality, and they were the perfect meal opener due to their savoriness and lightness.

Fried Calamari

Looking at the menu, I knew I had to sample a couple of types of appetizers.  The Fried Calamari definitely called my name on each occasion.  The plate arrived with thick rings of squid, along with a few tentacle blooms, lightly battered and served with lemon and Tastziki yoghurt sauce.  One bite into the seafood was revealing.  The batter was lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, crispy but lightly coating the squid rings that were quite tender to the bite.  Being made from whole squid, this was as good as it gets, and at one visit, they literally disintegrated with a couple of chews.  The frying was nearly greaseless and the seasoning right as to not overwhelm the mild mollusks.  A squirt of the lemon wedges took me to the Mediterranean seaside with these bites.  Even though the yoghurt sauce was well-made and flavored with fresh dill, I didn’t feel that it added much to the seafood.  The portion was quite huge as an appetizer, but it is worth ordering and sharing with others.

Avgolemono/Lemon Egg SoupA visit on a cold day called for the classic Greek soup – Avgolemono.  The first mouthful brought a smile to my face.  It is basically a well-made chicken soup, full of flavor of vegetable aromatics of onions and carrots, and without artificial flavor enhancers, laced with pieces of carrot and strands of chicken, and thickened with cooked rice and egg.  But what takes this basic soup to another level is a tinge of lemon juice mixed in with the richness of the egg.  I must say that I enjoyed these sips very much with the lemon tang beckoning my tongue for more each time.  It may not be a cup of tea, or bowl of soup, for the uninitiated, but I really enjoyed this classic soup, me being one with an affinity for the sour and tangy flavors.  Even without the lemon, this is a damn good soup.




Pork GyroGreek Salad with Feta

Walking into the eatery, you immediately notice three gyro spit roasters behind the counter heating away different types of meat judging by the colors of each meat cylinder.  An order one day was made with pork, which is a popular choice on the Greek islands.  The meat pocket was a combination of pita bread wrapping together a filling of shaved roasted pork (not processed pressed meat), fries, bits of tomato, onions and lettuce, moistened by some yoghurt sauce.  The bits of meat were slightly crispy on the outside with more moist bits seasoned by a mild concoction hinting of oregano and thyme.  The pita was amazingly soft and pillowy tasting freshly made.   I found the fries stuffed into the gyro unnecessary and I removed them quickly.  A friend’s order made with beef and lamb was equally satisfying for him, and I could taste some of the unique and mild gaminess associated with these cuts.  Another day’s order of the Souvlaki was equally tasty with cubes of pork being well-marinated and well-seasoned but perhaps a bit dry due to that lean cut of meat.  A side of Greek Salad was the perfect accompaniment for its fresh quality ingredients and flavors found in the vegetables and leaves, the block of quality feta perfectly brined and sprinkled with some dry oregano, all moistened by a lemony vinaigrette made with good olive oil.  As a side salad, the quantity is a good healthy portion for most.

Moussaka Platter

Greek main dishes have always had much appeal to me due to their refineness in preparation and flavors as I have savored in those Greek festivals.  A friend’s order of Moussaka was a revelation on a visit.  The pie is made with layers of Bechamel sauce, eggplant, meat sauce and slices of potato, all cooked to form a single lasagna-like entity.  This version blew me away on many levels: the bechamel sauce was the right amount of creamy richness hinting of some nutmeg in it, the eggplant moist and thin, the meat sauce perfumed with some cinnamon and clove, and the potato still a bit firm but cooked.  The seasoning was perfect and the use of spices subtle yet present.  The pie could be cut with a fork and there was a lightness to it pointing towards to a delicate and knowledgeable hand.  The green beans side was also well-executed with the whole vegetable fully cooked (Mediterraneans prefer their veggies this way) without turning to mush, slightly acidic from the whole tomatoes, sweet from the onions, and seasoned with fresh mint (not dry mint like some do) that added a fresh bright quality to this side.  The side of potato wedges was mildly seasoned and still a bit firm from the roasting.  Another friend’s order of Pastichio was very much like the Moussaka but made with cooked macaroni added to the meat sauce and topped with the Bechamel sauce, which he found equally savory and satisfying.  I have to admit that that is the best Moussaka that I have bitten into, enough to give any Yia Yia a run for the money.

Kokkinisto/Beef Red Wine StewAfter the urging of the owner on a couple of occasions, I decided to try the Kokkinisto dish.  The plate arrived with pieces of short ribs sitting on a mound of mashed potato.  Admittedly, I was not too impressed by this rather gray looking dish, but the first forkful spoke another language.  The pieces of meat tasted full-flavored from some pan-searing and simmered in red wine and probably some rich stock.  There was a subtle back note seasoning that I could not discern, but the gestalt in flavor was tongue-tickling.  The background player was not insignificant; the mashed potato was made from scratch tasting freshly made and a bit rough in texture, enriched by some stock and a hint of garlic, and it provided the perfect companion to the beefy bits.  The portion was very generous and I could not finish but half of the serving, to which I savored it delightfully encore the next day.


I knew I couldn’t write this blog without including at least one of their desserts, and I decided to order the most recognizable sweet bite, Baklava.  This healthy serving was full of roasted nuts separated by layers of Phylo and soaked with syrup to provide the sweet and moisture to each bite.  What raised my eyebrows and brought a smile to my face was the use of cinnamon which tasted extremely fresh and zingy.  The Phylo on top was flaky but the middle layer of pastry was a bit too thick and was not thoroughly cooked.  However, the flavors were spot on and I appreciated the right amount of sweetness without being cloyingly sweet like other versions I have tasted.

Yia Yia's KitchenYia Yia’s Kitchen is a great find in the DMV area where Greek food is not common and it’s quality cooking hard to find.  The freshness in the ingredients and the cooking are consistent in this place, from the simple Greek Salad with the tasty and briny Feta, to the amazingly light and flavor-packed Spinach and Feta pies, to the well-seasoned roasted meat in the Gyros, to that oh-so-good Moussaka that can be eaten any day, to the oh-so-beefy meat-red wine stew matched with an equally tasty mashed potato.  And that corner dedicated to all the Yia Yia’s and their cooking is so endearing.  I think the superb cooking here would bring a smile to the photo of each of the grandmothers, making them proud that the name of the restaurant is in honor of these great cooks.

Yia Yia's Kitchen 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

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.


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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