Café Citron

DSC_9115.jpgIn a modern hectic world that lacks enough hours, or so it appears, we seem unable to escape from a retail market that has nearly everything that caters to all our whims and wishes, from the mega-markets of Costco and Wegman’s to eating establishments that offer a fare encompassing a wide variety of cuisines, whether it is Global Fusion (I ate at such a place but it was not worth writing about), Pan-Asian (see blogs on Café Asia and Hee Been Bistro), Pan-European, or the many variations out there.  But one cuisine that has resisted such grouping has been the cuisines of Latin America.  Why?  Try calling any Latino a Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Salvadorian without first ascertaining his/her background; the usual acerbic response (“Excuse me, I AM …..) is a good indicator of the nationalistic sentiment that is proudly worn with a certain tinge of defensiveness.   With a huge Latino population in the DC area arriving from different nations and subsequent generations being born locally, this subtle yet well-demarcated border is slowly evaporating away with one group incorporating cultural traits and habits from those once viewed with suspect – look at the current popularity of Dominican Bachata music among all Latino groups.

So, when an online coupon offer popped up for a Pan-Latino restaurant, I knew I had to click BUY and explore this unique establishment.  Café Citron is located a few doors away from Kababji, a recently reviewed Lebanese restaurant, just south of the busy and pedestrian-heavy Dupont Circle, a neighborhood that has been become chic among the young professionals who have homogenized this once gay ghetto – a large Anne Klein store popping up and the demise of a much beloved gay-oriented bookstore pretty much sealed this deal.  From the outside, the restaurant is hardly conspicuous that it is easy to overlook its narrow entrance that seems to be overshadowed by nearby encroaching establishments.  But once pass its entryway, you step into a long room filled with banquets on one side and a long bar on the other.  I chose to plop myself down at a table upstairs that overlooked the main floor, hoping that I would get some sufficient decent light for this review.


Since I arrived during their Happy Hour (4:00-7:30 p.m.) and the place was already packed with young early diners, I decided to make my selections from the Starters/Tapas menu.   I placed my order of 3 meat dishes from the “Qué Rico” (How Tasty) section and an equal amount from the “El Mar” (The Sea) side.  For the first meat dish, I chose a house favorite of Venezuelan Empanadas, of which one was stuffed with beef and the other with chicken.  Taking my first bite, I marveled at the cornflour dough that was crispy on the outside but moist and slightly spongy under its exterior.   Both fillings had moist pieces of meat that were both slightly sweet and savory at the same time, with a hint of cumin to tie in the opposite flavors, much like a Bastilla dish found in Moroccan cuisine (cinnamon is used in this case).  The side of spicy and garlicky cilantro sauce added the necessary acidity and spice kick to these small morsels. No surprise that these tasty bites are a house favorite judging by how quickly I devoured them.


Bolivian Sonso with Beef came as the next meat selection. Cubes of beef have been marinated in “exotic spices” and sautéed; they were tender and had the dark spice notes, but initially seemed a bit under salted until I got accustomed to the flavors.  The patties of yucca mash and cheese were very delectable and these discs more or less stole the beef’s limelight.  The outer part was crisp from the breading and frying, but rich and fluffy in the middle, providing a certain comfort-food quality.  The use of yucca here points to the dish’s origins, most likely from the eastern lowlands bordering Brazil since this tropical root does not grow in the interior highlands.  The side of the same cilantro sauce above added the necessary notes that lightened the rather filling patties.


Another Bolivian starter was the next choice: Bolivian Potato Cake.  A thick pancake made of mashed potato was stuffed with seasoned ground beef and pan-fried, looking much like a Johnny Cake.  It was rather fluffy with bits of seasoned beef in the middle.  I felt transported to this landlocked nation with the potato cake knowing that the tuber is an indigenous staple of the Andean highlands.   Being potato, it was a little stodgy and greasy from the frying.  However, the side of spicy salsa and fresh Pico de Gallo added the necessary relief to the heaviness of the dish; an interesting dish though.


OK, enough meat for me, which seems to be staple of Latin-American cuisine.  Seafood makes the other mainstay in most Latin-American diet due to the many nations that are surrounded by large bodies of water.  My first order was Calamari a la Plancha.  This type of seafood cooking is typical at seaside resorts found in Spain and South America.  Most of the time, I’m quite leery of the way that most restaurants cook this mollusk, which results in a rubbery toughness.  But in this case, it was tender, near fork tender.  The large quantity of these seafood rings exuded smokiness from the high-heat searing on the flat griddle.  The squeeze of lemon juice was all it needed to make this simple clean tasting dish soar.  All this seafood for just $8 during Happy Hour makes it a must-order.


After having recently sampled another restaurant’s rendition of Ceviche and coming out dissatisfied, I decided to give this establishment a try.  It arrived in a beautiful scallop-shaped bowl brimming with pieces of shrimp, fish, and chunks of fresh avocado, surrounded by a pile of fresh nacho chips.  I must say that I was delighted that I ordered this dish since the shrimp and trout pieces (thank goodness it wasn’t the muddy Tilapia used in the last place) carried a clean tasting citrus flavor without being too acidic.  The use of cilantro, fresh tomatoes, sweet red onions, and jalapeño peppers added the extra notes to the seafood, while the nacho scoopers provided the textural contrast to the moist and tender morsels.  My only criticism is the slight iodine flavor in the shrimp which was the result of the use of table salt – sea salt would impart a cleaner taste.  This wonderful version brought my taste buds to the seaside villages of Peru and Chile, renowned for their renditions of this pickled seafood dish.  For $9 during Happy Hour, this would fill your mouth with some seafood joy.


The last dish originates from Mexico, namely Baja California.  Shrimp Corn Tortilla Tacos is a regional specialty that takes advantage of the abundance of seafood in the northwestern coast of that country.  I quite enjoyed this dish with the homemade corn tortillas that had a faint scent of corn and lime, the rather firm but well-seasoned pieces of grilled shrimp, and the pieces of ripe avocado that lent a richness to these wraps.  As with tradition, the tortillas were the soft kind and they came in doubles to be able to support all the bits of seafood goodness.  The cilantro leaves and red onions added some pungency, herbal fragrance, and sweetness to the shrimp, while a squeeze of lemon juice, also customary, gave the tacos the citrus hit that made them even more delectable.

DSC_9170.jpgPan-Latino is here to stay, and I am thrilled that Café Citron is the trailblazer in an over-saturated market of Latino restaurants, especially in the Washington DC area, offering a wide variety of tasty offerings from the myriad of Latin-American cuisines that reflect their unique history and their regional and topographical differences.  Looking through the menu, I am tempted to pay this establishment another visit soon to try their other dishes that are Cuban, Peruvian, Mexican, or Bolivian-inspired that seem to evoke unique flavors and combinations.  Maybe I will end up getting up and shuffling my feet during the free Salsa lessons (offered twice a week) or clapping my hands while the Brazilian Samba dancers were showing off their incredible sensual dexterity during a mid-week visit that livened up the place – as if the delicious food needed a strong supporting actor at all.  Entertainment aside, I will be returning for the great bites, the variety of dishes, and the low prices especially during Happy Hour. ¡Bienvenido Pan-Latino!

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Top Spanish Cafe and Catering

The Petworth neighborhood in DC has a reputation for its share of funkiness and shadiness. It tends to contain characters from lower-income levels that lead a “marginal” lifestyle which would make anyone a bit uneasy walking up and down Georgia Ave, its main thoroughfare. To make matters worse, its reputation for the drug activity during its yesteryears still haunts this part of town. But this is where I chose to go on a Friday night with a dining companion to try out a Spanish-style restaurant. Walking up to the place, the artistically challenged outside sign sadly does not exactly invite the street-walker (not the other kind) to pass through its doors. Furthermore, its location across from “The House” (look at the reflection in the door in the photo below – that’s the telltale sign), had many online bloggers hesitant to visit this eatery. However, in the same sweep of the pen (well, keyboard), they also praised the place for some noteworthy dishes that they claim make the trip worthwhile – I had to check it out.

Top Spanish Cafe and Catering

Upon entering Top Spanish Cafe & Catering, you will notice all the wood everywhere, from the half-paneling on the walls, the small bar across the front door covered in similar fashion, to the high-lacquered solid wood tables and chairs. It is obvious that this place has gone through some renovation, and the end-to-end large windows create the necessary barrier between the observer and the observed (which is which is usually determined by the characters involved). It was quite sparse on a Friday night with only another couple across from us. A sudden storm must have also scared some folks away with its veracity and high winds – it turned out to be a microburst that brought down many trees. However, despite the challenging circumstances and my friend’s uneasiness siting next to the window, I was eagerly anticipating discovering what the other bloggers had been raving about.

Red Wine Sangria>I decided to order a glass of Sangria, which I had read about online. It had the right balance of red wine, fruit juices, a hint of cinnamon and cloves without going overboard, and it came in a large glass with chunks of fresh apples and slice of orange. This was the perfect thirst quencher that I needed after dealing with the challenges of getting to the place. What I appreciated about this sip was that it was not overwhelming with alcohol nor was it too diluted with juice. It reminded me of my college days in Spain when I was sitting in a mesón waiting for an extremely tardy friend who did not show up until nearly an hour later – when he got there I was quite tipsy and I discovered Sangria overconsumption. Time and wisdom have proven to me that all I needed was just one big glass of this juice-wine cocktail, and it was worth the $5 cost.
Mussels a la Romana

For the appetizer, we honed in on a couple of tapas, and the first was Mejillones a la Romana. The bowl arrived filled with medium-sized mussels sitting on a pool of sauce. These mollusks were plump, fresh (not “leathery” when not at their prime), and quite briny to the point of being slightly oversalty – the waitress checked with the chef and he said he did not add any salt to the already saline bivalves. The sauce at the bottom was packed with garlic and slightly acidic from the use of white wine and some tomato sauce. I wished we had pieces of Spanish bread to dip into this wonderful elixir. It was a great start and promising beginning to this experience.

Grilled Squid Salad

The next starter was the Tender Grilled Calamari. Pieces of the shellfish sat on a bed of lettuce, chunks of tomato, and red onion. The seafood was marinated in garlic, soy sauce, herbs, and olive oil. The pieces were so tender and smoky from the grilling, and we both were amazed by its texture and flavor that made these morsels extremely delectable. The green bed underneath was the perfect pairing with the squid, which provided the fresh light contrast to the smoky bites. I only wish there were more pieces of the delectable squid, but the quantity was justified given that it was an appetizer, and costing only $6 like the above mussel dish.

Seafood Paella

What I came here waiting to try was the Spanish Seafood Paella. Many bloggers and reviewers had mentioned that the dish was a must-order, and ever since my first blog about another Spanish eatery, La Churreria de Madrid (see blog), I have been scouting for another locale serving this dish. And this restaurant’s rendition does not disappoint at all. The dish arrived on the table with a ring of opened mussels, surrounding a mound brimming with clams, squid, shrimp, scallops, fish, peas, sweet peppers, and Valencian rice. The kernels of rice were the right kind being the medium-grain starchier type (should only be this varietal, no other), and they were cooked slightly al dente while exuding some starchiness, perfumed by some real saffron and sweet paprika, and enriched by a good seafood stock. My companion and I were totally amazed by the amount of food, the freshness of the seafood (the mussels were equally briny as the appetizer dish), and the rich flavorings that permeated each morsel. It is a pity that another friend did not make it to this gathering, or not we would have ordered a large pan (paellera) of this Spanish delicacy. Upon speaking with the chef, he told us that his parents hail from Spain, and he sure knows what he is doing with authentic Spanish paella. Yes, the bloggers got this call right, and this seafood wonder cannot be overlooked here, especially when priced at $16 per serving!

Churrasco Argentino

The chef has done stints at high-end Spanish and Latin American restaurants (Jaleo, Café Atlántico), hence the hodgepodge presence of some Latin American dishes among the Spanish ones in the menu. I couldn’t help but notice the Churrasco Argentino when perusing the menu and I decided to give it a try. The dish arrived with pieces of beef tenderloin, accompanied with wedges of roast new potatoes and thick slices of sautéed zucchini. The beef had a rich beef flavor from some proper ageing, slight smokiness from a good stay on the grill while remaining tender and juicy, and the chimichurri sauce consisting of a blend of garlic, onion, parsley, vinegar and oil provided the interesting notes that took the meat to another level. The sides were equally impressive: the baked red potatoes were crispy and fragrant from a rub of garlic and parsley with a crispy exterior and soft fluffy interior; the zucchini slices were thick and cooked just right while maintaining some bite while exuding a slight natural sweetness which brought the some lightness to the overall meat dish. I could not get enough of this dish even though I’m not the usual beef lover. But on this night I was nearly made a convert by this tasty and relatively light (in flavor, not quantity) steak dish.

Top Spanish Cafe and Catering offers Spanish-styled dishes that range from the common Tex-Mex fare to some Latin American and Spanish classics. Realizing that this is not downtown DC and in order to survive in their neighborhood, they have to cater to their surroundings with some rather pedestrian sounding dishes – interestingly, some bloggers have given complements to their Texas Nachos and Burritos. However, among them are some star dishes that point to a kitchen with expert hands that prepare some authentic and extremely delectable dishes, as in the Grilled Squid, The Mussels in Wine, Seafood Paella, and the Steak Dish. I’m looking forward to paying it another visit and savouring The Chicken in Chipotle Barbeque Sauce, The Steamed Salmon with Mango Bourbon White Wine Sauce, The Shrimp Asopao (Latin rissotto), and the Spanish Seafood Soup. This is definitely not your typical neighborhood dive with these kinds of offerings. As some bloggers have commented, this is truly a hidden gem that is worth discovering, and I can see myself a regular at this establishment in the future, waiting to dig into some good Spanish Seafood Paella. I’m quite sure you would be too after you have savoured a heavenly bite of that seafood deliciousness.

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