Yuan Fu

Yuan Fu Vegetarian Restaurant

I have always had an affinity, and still do, for vegetarian/vegan cuisine.  However, I have found that the best forms of this meatless realm are the ones tucked among the meat and seafood dishes, notably in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian restaurants. My experience has proven that vegetarian cuisine is very tricky in sustaining the interest of the diner, especially the omnivore, and that many exclusive vegetarian establishments don’t quite “get it”.  But there is one place that has kept my taste buds curious with their offerings over the last few years.  I paid the eatery my first visit many moons ago, and I left with a favorable impression by what I had that night.  Due to the long distance from my former home to it, I did not return until my recent move closer, and this also made easier by the monthly meetings that I have to attend at a nearby school.

Hot & Sour SoupYuan Fu Vegetarian Restaurant is located on the busy Rockville Pike in Rockville, MD, at the end of a 4-business strip mall that has been left unscathed by the rapid development around it – it is very easy to miss it especially due its location on the service road off the main road.  Inside, the space is rather small without feeling cramped. The menu lists quite a number of appetizers and soups, and a few were sampled. On a number of occasions, I started my meal with the Hot and Sour Soup. The first spoonful was a bit of a surprise but it said it all.  I was expecting a good hit of vinegar but what I tasted was milder.  As my tongue adjusted to the flavor levels of vinegar, salt, chili heat, and savory stock, I was appreciating the fine balance that did not steer my tongue too far in any direction.  The bits of button mushroom, Shiitake mushroom, Chinese mushroom, wood fungus, bamboo shoot, and tofu pieces added the “meaty” body and different textures to this thick bowl.  The side of crispy dough bits tasted fresh and nearly greaseless.  For me, this rendition will put any of the meat versions to shame with the well-balanced flavors and the bowl chokeful of mushroom and fungus.

Crispy Black Mushrooms

Continuing the mushroom theme, I ordered the Crispy Black Mushroom on one occasion.  Pieces of dark sinuous pieces arrived on some lettuce with a hint of a sticky sauce.  Biting into them, the slightly crispy batter gave way to pieces of rather thick and chewy mushroom strands.  I was truly amazed at the texture that was quite “meaty” and the flavors of the forest since I’m fond of these fungi, and I can never get enough of their flavors.  The batter was made from rice batter, evidenced by the firm texture and slight bouncy give.  The dark sweet sauce had hints of sugar, vinegar, and orange peel that made these pieces irresistible.  Never mind that they are deep-fried since they were not greasy and the flavors enticing.  This is a must-order in my books.

Sesame Spinach PancakeAn appetizer on another occasion was Sesame Spinach Pancake.  Triangles of pan-fried dough arrived with a deep green spinach stuffing peaking through.  The outer layer was crispy tasting fragrant from whole sesame seeds toasted by the hot oil and slightly bouncy from the rice flour, much like Chinese sesame doughnuts I grew up on.  The spinach filling tasted fresh and wholesome, but it was devoid of any salt which made them a bit underwhelming.  But with the help of some condiments, Chinese mustard and sweet sauce, my interest was perked up with the sinus-clearing mustard and the sugar in the red sauce.  Not exactly the most flavorful bite, but I appreciated the healthy elements in this pancake.

Tan Tan Noodles

Still within the realm of dough and spinach, I ordered Tan Tan Noodles on one night.  A bowlful of green noodles arrived topped with carrots, beansprouts, Inochi mushrooms, snowpeas, and shredded carrots.   The star in the dish is definitely the noodles which were thick as udon, stained with spinach and cooked al dente, which made these dough strings slightly chewy and healthy tasting.  The flavoring to the whole mix comprised of bits of salted radish and chili flakes that added the necessary saltiness and heat to each slurp.  In addition, a small pool of broth at the bottom added the moisture and more savoriness to the mix.  Not quite comparable to the real version that is heavily flavored with chili oil and seasoned chopped meat, I was yearning for a bit more flavor.  But I appreciated this much healthier version as well as that bright green noodles whose every strand was worth slurping .

Pan-Fried DumplingsI was curious how the house would stand up to a Chinese classic – Pan-fried Dumplings.  Four dumplings arrived with one side pan-fried and the rest steamed, signs of being cooked the proper way.  One bite into the first bundle pointed my tongue in the right direction.  The skin was thin and slightly elastic, encasing a stuffing of chopped Napa cabbage, bits of mushrooms, a good dose of ginger that added a fresh zing to the slightly dark flavors of the filling partners.  The dipping sauce had notes of oakey black vinegar and chili oil that took these little parcels to another level, and I could have eaten the whole order easily before my main course – but I had to refrain from indulging in these wonderful  bite-size packets.

Veggie Duck & Cilantro Rolls

The last dish that I savored from the appetizer section was Veggie Duck and Cilantro Rolls.   Two halves of a wheat wrap arrived stuffed with mock duck, lettuce, cilantro leaves, and crushed peanuts.  One bite into them revealed a rather firm but fresh wheat pancake, reminding me of the ones used for Peking Duck.  The “meat” was made with pressed soy sheets and it was rather soft and moist, much like fowl meat, and exuding notes of dusky spices.  The greens and herb were vibrant and they added the fresh notes to the meat, along with the fresh-tasting crushed peanuts that added some rich nuttiness to the whole mix.  The sweet plum and Hoisin sauce was the perfect accompaniment with its sweet and sour notes.  Although these bites were rather filling, it did not take much time to finish them off before the other courses due to the fresh and satisfying flavors and textures.

Veggie Duck with Basil & GingerFor the mains, one of the first dishes that I tried years ago, and is one of my favorites, is Veggie Duck with Basil and Ginger.  A hot metal pot arrived boiling with a mound of brownness topped with some fragrant fresh basil.  Pieces of “duck” (pressed soy sheets) are paired with button mushroom, fresh Shiitake mushroom, dried ginger, and mock smoked ham.  This dish was a hit with me and friend from the first bite with the fragrant 5-spiced infused “poultry”, the depth of flavor from the dried ginger, the firm texture of the fungi, and the “meaty” smokiness from the “ham”.  It was the gestalt effect of these elements that brought a lot of satisfaction to this diner and made this hot bowl totally irresistible for me. Not only is it a popular Chef’s Special but a must-order in my books.

3 Kinds of Crispy Delight

Another dish on one night was Three Kinds of Crispy.  The platter arrived with a mound of brown pieces that were not easily discernible at first sight.  I started off with the dark strands sitting on top, and immediately I recognized it as the Crispy Black Mushroom appetizer that I was fond off – one down.  The second bite was one of the battered rounds.  The crispy and fairly exterior gave way to the silkiest and mildest eggplant piece that impressed me right away.  Underneath this layer, I found pieces of battered mock chicken that mocked me for its meat-like texture and poultry-like flavor – three down.  What brought these disparate elements together is the similar sweet dark sauce found in the mushroom appetizer that tantalized the taste buds with the fragrance of dried orange peel and heat from whole dried chilies.  This is definitely a vegetarian version of the ubiquitious Orange Chicken, but tasting supped up with the chewy mushroom and melt-in-the-mouth eggplant pieces which kept me marveling at each bite.  The batter got to be a bit filling, making the side rice bowl a bit redundant in the fill-the-stomach category.

Crispy Hunan "Fish" FilletAnother fried battered dish that caught my attention one night was Crispy Hunan Fish Fillet.  The colorful plate comprised of large pieces of “fish” and some parboiled fresh vegetables on the side.  The “fish” pieces had a soft texture and appearance of crab meat, while the seaweed wrapping imparting a scent of the sea.  I found the protein pieces a bit stodgy due to a thin piece of taro root used to hold the “fish” together, but by removing it, it didn’t taste as “heavy”.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked as well as the pieces of pea and carrot on top of the fish.  But no Hunan dish is really veritable if were not for its sauce.  Here, we have a perfectly executed one with the right amount of vinegar, sugar, chili heat, salt, and spicy bean paste – the proper elements to make the right Hunan sauce.  I would order this again just for that well-executed sauce that made this dish sing.

Chow San Shein

Another Chef’s Special was the last dish I savored on my trips there – Chow San Shein.  The plate arrived glowing bright with colorful pieces of sweet pepper, broccoli, snowpeas, yellow squash, and three types of main elements.  The smoked “ham” like in the Veggie Duck dish was present, exuding its savory smokiness and having a meat-like bite.  The oval bites of “baby abalone” had a slightly firm texture reminding me of fish cakes and tasting of seafood notes.  But it was the “carved and curved” Shiitake mushroom that screamed for my gastronomic attention. These pieces were slighty “meaty” in texture, reminding me of the consistency of squid, and replete with its forest goodness that made me look for more of it among all the other goodness.  The brown sauce, probably vegetarian oyster sauce, was the right balance of flavors that brought all the elements together without being gloopy or overwhelming the integrity of each ingredient including the fresh-tasting perfectly cooked vegetables.  I must say I couldn’t get enough of this flavorful and healthy looking dish and I’m looking forward to another order of this dish.

Yuan Fu Vegetarian RestaurantFinally, I have found a vegetarian restaurant that not only serves dishes that are well-executed and properly seasoned, but they are inventive enough to keep me wanting to try more of its offerings despite the lack of animal protein.  At times, I could not believe that I was enjoying them as much as I did, with the wonderful perfectly balanced Hot and Sour Soup, the crispy “meaty” bites in the Crispy Black Mushroom, the al dente spinach-colored Tan Tan Noodles, the gingery and savory Dumplings, and the flavorful and equally tempting mains made with mock duck, seafood, ham and chicken.  Putting aside the lack of meat and seafood protein, the kitchen here understands what it takes to serve exciting and flavorful dishes, pointing towards the history of vegetarian cuisine in the Far East as the result of  practicing the Buddhist faith. No wonder an article published yesterday named it the top Chinese restaurant in Maryland (read article) – maybe a slight hyperbole, but a quite fair estimation in my books.

Yuan Fu Vegetarian on Urbanspoon

La Casa del Mofongo

It was 5 degrees Farenheit this morning with at least 5 inches of powdery snow turning the DMV landscape into a Winter Wonderland.  With the Federal Government and Schools closed due to the second visit of a Polar Vortex, a new weather-related vocabulary for our region, I have some extra time to catch-up with some household duties and some needed rest, as well as to pen this blog on a Dominican restaurant.

La Casa del Mofongo

La Casa del Mofongo is located in Silver Spring, MD on the super busy Georgia Ave., just a stone-throw away from the Beltway exits.  I had noticed it around a year ago when passing by there for some business, and its large self-promoting storefront piqued my curiosity with its bright colors and large photos of its dishes.  Dominican food establishments are few and far in between in an area where the Latino community is dominated by immigrants from Central America especially from El Salvador.  But the metropolitan area has seen waves of new Latino immigrants from other parts of the Spanish-speaking world especially from the Caribbean.  So when I eyed La Casa del Mofongo, I knew I had to step into it to learn more about this type of cuisine and taste their dishes.  I paid it a couple of visits, one with a couple of DC natives, and another accompanied by a long-term acquaintance from the island.

Chinola/Passion Fruit Juice

Guanabana/Soursop-Milk drinkWalking in, you notice the deep-colored walls more befitting for the Caribbean sun, covered with large flat screens with direct transmission of Dominican baseball games, along with a ceiling looking like a checkerboard.  The place is quite spacious covered with high tables on the sides and cafeteria-style furniture in the middle.  Taking our seat, the waitress took our order of drinks consisting of a glass of Chinola, or Passion Fruit Juice, and Guanábana, or Soursop Juice.  The Passion Fruit was quite tart and sweet at the same time, tasting rather concentrated in flavor while waiting for the ice cubes to dilute it down – definitely a good dose of exotic fruit and Vitamin C.  The Soursop was not so mouth-puckering since it is a milder fruit as well it was mixed with some milk, which is a version I have never tried before; I must say that I enjoyed this fruit-dairy mix, and my friend stated that it was common to mix fruit juices with milk on the island.  A similar concoction is mixed with orange juice, bearing the intriguing moniker of Morir Soñando or Die Dreaming.  Initially, I was hesitant to taste the impossible combination of orange juice and milk, but a sample of it convinced me that this was a tasty combination reminding me of orange sherbet.  Unfortunately, they had run out of this drink, but a glass of it will be an order on the next visit.

Pastelitos/Meat PattiesAfter finding out that the establishment served the Dominican meat pastry, Pastelitos, which was curiously not on the menu, we ordered one filled with chicken, and the other with beef.  The chicken patty was flaky and quite greaseless to the touch, with the chicken well shredded, quite tasty but just a tad too dry for my taste.  The side condiment of Dominican ketchup was a tasty helper made up of the tomato condiment and mayonnaise.  The beef version was also tasty, stuffed with ground meat cooked with a bit of vinegar.   My Dominican friend remarked that it was customary to cook the beef with that acidic liquid, which I find to be rather odd at first.  The other appetizers listed on the menu are Fried Salami, Longaniza Sausage, and Fried Cheese, but I prefer to have these fried pastries as my meal opener.

Pollo Guisado/Chicken Stew

An order for the main course for a friend of mine was Pollo Guisado, or Stewed Chicken (poorly translated as Sautéed Chicken on the menu).  A big bowl arrived filled with pieces of the poultry sitting in a pool of reddish sauce, served along with the Dominican staple rice and beans.  I had a taste from my friend’s bowl, and the chicken was literally falling off the bone, perhaps a bit overcooked (judging by some brown bits on the meat) and slightly stringy, but well-seasoned from the use of the latino mirepoux, sofrito, tomato sauce, and a good hit of the ubiquitous latino seasoning, sazón.  It was a bit overseasoned and oversalted for me, but it is meant to be eaten with plain rice which would temper the flavor.  My friend seems to enjoy this poultry dish, along the side of beans that seemed to have the same generous sazón treatment as the above dish.

Bacalao/Salt Fish StewA main dish on another trip for my Dominican trip was Bacalao, or Salted Fish Stew (again poorly translated as Catfish on the menu).  Dried salted cod has been rehydrated and cooked until flaking off the skin, then furthered cooked in a light tomato sauce.  Again, I had to dip my spoon into my friend’s bowl (they don’t seem to mind since they know my MO) and had a good tasting of it.  The codfish was properly cooked and quite moist from the rehydration and cooking with the light sauce, but I would have preferred a bolder tomato sauce with more depth in flavor and with a bit more seasoning.  However, we both appreciated the fact that it was slightly undersalted which made this fish dish very palatable; the contrary is more common in other versions that I have savored.   Again, the stew is served along the side of rice and beans.

Fried King Fish

Continuing with the seafood motif, another friend targeted the King Fish dish on the menu.  The piece of fish arrived well fried without any batter and nearly greaseless, topped by sautéed sweet peppers and onions slices.  I initially found the steak overcooked judging by the extra firm outer layer (a common trait in Caribbean cooking), but after a few bites, I was starting to enjoy the rather moist interior portions and the proper seasoning throughout each bite.  Furthermore, the fish flakes were akin to a steak with their firm and meaty quality, reinforcing the notion why the Caribbeans call this fish its royal name. The topping added some sweetness to the fish without detracting it from its spotlight; however, I would have preferred a light sauce alongside to add moisture to the fish steak.

Mofongo de Camarones/Shrimp MofongoComing to La Casa del Mofongo, one has to have at least a plate of its signature dish sitting on the dinner table – Mofongo.  This dish traces its roots back to West Africa and it was brought over to the Caribbean by African slaves.  Interestingly, the Cubans still use its African name, Fufu, for its version of this starch dish.  In the islands, instead of yam, the dish is made with fried green plantains, and mashed well into a pulp.  And this place knows its Mofongo.  Mine was well-seasoned with a mojo of olive oil that has been well-spiked by a good hit of garlic.  Furthermore, pieces of crushed chicharrón, fried pork belly, has been thrown into the mix, which added more unctiousness to the plain starch.  The topping of shrimp in red sauce (also comes in a white sauce) was the right order with its seafood sweetness, and the savoriness and moisture from the tomato-based sauce made the rather dry mound of starch more palatable.  The ring of lettuce and tomato slices around the dish was unfortunately soggy and unnecessary, but it was not enough to distract my tongue from this Piece de Resistance. A side order of fried ripe plantains was a satisfying sweet accompaniment to the meal.

Sancocho/Meat Stew

Going against my customary ways, I forgoed a seafood order on the second trip for a popular Dominican meat dish, Sancocho.  The large bowl landed on my table with chunks of pork ribs and beef, cooked just right to fall apart in the mouth.  But the element that impressed me the most was the broth that was filled with the right flavors produced by some sazón and some recaito, a latino wet seasoning, and tasting full of depth calling my taste buds to revisit its flavors with more spoonfuls.  The pieces of yucca, a common island staple, and green plantain, provided the starch and body to the flavorful soup and meat pieces, enough for me to ignore the side of white rice.  This bowl was satisfactory both for the soul and the stomach, and I now know why this is perhaps the island’s national dish.  The side of Haas avocado provided the necessary balance with its fresh creamy ripe state.

Dominican DessertsLa Casa del Mofongo is one of the few Dominican eating establishments in the area providing tasty authentic dishes from the island, a cuisine that is not familiar to most tongues around here.  Its strengths are found in the seafood dishes like the King Fish and Bacalao dishes, the meaty Sancocho stew, and ultimately the dish that this eatery is most known for, Mofongo.  The tower of desserts in the dining room, consisting of flan, rice pudding, and sweetened beans, are equally enticing, so long as one has more room for them after ingesting the healthy-portion dishes.  But this place will whisk the diner away from the current bitterly frigid Polar Vortex with a sip of its exotic juices, including the odd combo Morir Soñando, the Dominican Baseball league in the background, and the flavor-packed dishes hailing from the island.  Polar Vortex or not, this place is the right locale to be transported away through its island offerings.

Bob’s Shanghai 66

No holds barred:  I struggle with and shy away from Chinese food especially the insipid and bastardized versions served in this country.  You may have read that I went back to my birth place for my parents 50th anniversary over last summer, and I took the opportunity to literally stuff my face with all the dishes holding childhood memories and gastronomic reveries.  The highlight of this epicurean trip was visiting a number of fine-dining Chinese restaurants to remind myself of what veritable dishes of this grand cuisine taste like.

Bob's Shanghai 66

From aversion to affinity.  Having returned from my Southeast Asian trip, my hunt for decent Chinese restaurants has been reinvigorated, and I quickly went back to an old haunt that had not seen my face for many moons (read Full Key).  Shortly after such a memorable trip, my laptop screen flashed an online coupon offer for a restaurant offering cuisine from the mainland.  With coupons in hand, I made a couple of trips to Bob’s Shanghai 66 located on the same location where Bob’s Noodle 66 (read blog) used to be located before moving itself merely across the street, once by myself, and the other with a friend from the mainland in tow.

Bob's Shanghai 66Xiao Long Bao/Soup Dumpling

Xiao Long Bao/Soup DumplingWalking into the space, you are immediately impressed by the sheer busyness created by  customers packing the restaurant sitting at the tables or standing in line, and the large glass-enclosed assembly line of workers producing (and overtly advertising) the restaurant’s signature dish – Xiao Long Bao or Soup Dumpling. So without any hesitation, we ordered a bamboo basket full of these small beauties from the section listed as Shanghainese Tapas.  One bite into these Shanghai delicacies said it all.  The dumpling skin was slightly firm but thin enough to be both completely cooked and able to hold the ingredients of a meat filling that was well-seasoned and tasted multi-dimensional, bursting with a rich soup produced by the pieces of gelatinized stock (I noticed the little glowing cubes imbedded in the meat mixture in the production line) melting during the cooking process.  The secret is to place one dumpling in a spoon, piercing it to let the soup pour out, drink the rich liquor, and ingest the dumpling – instructions are not included there.  The side sauce of ginger slivers in earthy Chinese black vinegar is the perfect acidic and flavor counterpoint to the mouth-sticking soup and the rich pork stuffing.  These bites were worthy enough for my friend to state that he would bring his mother there just for this dish (Chinese love  their mothers too).  Another trip entailed an order made with pork and crab roe – the subtle crab flavor married well with the mild pork.  The perfect palate cleanser was the hot tea with its bitter tannins to wash away all the good richness from each little purse. Being the only restaurant in the DMV area serving this dish, they have got their act right for this house speciality.

Sticky Rice Shiu MaiAnother steamed item that I was curious to try was Sticky Rice Shiu Mai.  The shrimp version was what I am accustomed to having had enough of it in Cantonese Dim Sum houses.  But these Shanghai bites were not what I really expected.  Thin egg pasta skin has been stuffed with cooked glutinous sticky rice and steamed to bring the elements together.  The rice filling had bits of  Shiitake mushroom imparting its oakey woodsiness into each grain, along with a faint fragrance of bamboo leaf which the rice was steamed in.  But for me it was just starch on starch, and my interest in it quickly faded – my Southeast Asian conditioning was screaming for more salt and flavor interests.  Maybe a side of soy sauce and more ingredients in the stuffing would have made them a success for me.  However, my friend seemed to enjoy them, and I appreciated the dish’s veritability.



Scallion Pancake

Another Shanghainese small bite that I had read about was Scallion Pancake, and an order made it to the table.  Flat pieces of dough containing pieces of green onion have been fried crisp, filled  with a mild pungency from bits of green onion in each bite.  Again, my Southeast Asian sensibility was screaming for more in the areas of flavor, salt, and taste interest.  After a few bites, I was beginning to appreciate this simple dish especially the light crispy texture.

Leek Fried CrescentsAnother fried small bite was Leek Fried Crescents.  Semi-circular pastries made from glutinous rice flour arrived at the table looking a bit drab and lack luster.  But one bite into it called my attention. The stuffing was a soft concoction of Chinese chives and soft fluffy scrambled eggs that  exuded savoriness that belied the simple ingredients.  As I was marvelling with each bite, my Chinese friend stated that sometimes bits of dried shrimp can be found in the stuffing.  Sound the gong!  Yes, the Umami-ness is from the use of finely shredded dried shrimp that brought each bite to another level – I could not get enough of these bites.





Spicy WontonsThe last order from the “tapas” section was Spicy Wontons.  I grew up on these Cantonese style dumplings either in a mild-sauced noodles or in a clear broth.  In this case, these bites came swimming in a pool of redness, ringing out its fieriness with its Szechuan identity.  Sure enough, each bite was spicy hot from the chili oil and made more incendiary by the use of Szechuan spicy bean sauce, Doubanjian, which added the necessary saltiness to a well-flavored meat filling that could have stood by itself.  After a few bites, the chili heat was making my mouth slightly numb from its sting, but this salty meaty combination was completely irresistible for both of us, breaking my friend into a sweat which didn’t slow him down at all.




Ja Jang Mien

Having read online customer reviews, Ja Jiang Mien was mentioned a number of times, and I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to try it.  My dining companion had mentioned that this Beijing dish is usually salty and plain.  A bowl of thin wheat noodles arrived with a topping of minced pork seasoned with fermented beans sauce, soy, and garlic.    Salty it was; plain it wasn’t.  After giving the noodles a good mix, it tempered the salt content, and the meat sauce imparted its savoriness to the bland starch.  The presence of couple of pieces of Edamame was a nice surprise.  My friend further exclaimed that this version was a supped-up version of the original, which was to our benefit for this sitting –  a slightly salty but savory slurp indeed.  Hint: follow the advice of cyber critics.

Mapo TofuMoving on to the main courses.  I decided to taste their version of Ma Po Tofu.  This ubiquitous  dish can be found in most so-called Szechuan eateries but I have always longed for something that give me a good sense of the true dish.  Well, this one did.  A glass bowl arrived with silky smooth tofu cubes covered in a thin pool of fiery chili oil, furthered spiked by bits of dried red chili bits, and bits of fresh-shucked peas (judging from its granular texture and myriad of sizes) and carrot that provided textural and flavour contrast to the slipperiness.  A good stock and some bean sauce provided the necessary body to what could have been a two-note dish, boosted by large slices of fresh garlic. What I thought was a sprinkling of white pepper on top totally misled me.  It was the regional Szechuan peppercorn spice that added to the singe quality in my mouth with its lip and mouth-numbing effect, compounding the back throat burn from the chili oil.  Having a penchant for gastronomic pain, I couldn’t put my spoon down, and I was enjoying every mouthful curiously waiting for the five-alarm bell to sound!

Fried Flounder in Hot Chili Sauce

Being a bit of a masochist for chili heat, I also ordered another fiery dish at the same sitting (Yeah, I know) – Flounder Fillet in Hot Chili Sauce.  Pieces of mild-tasting flounder have been battered in corn flour to produce a silky coating after being smothered by a stock-sauce filled with bits of pickled red chilies, which added some sourness, along with some scorch, and dried chilies. Like the above dish, I was enjoying the heat level that was just right, even with the mild tasting fish, and this was further aided by large slivers of pungent garlic.  The mound of blanched broad bean sprouts and Napa cabbage not only provided textural counterpoint but also some necessary relief to the sweat-inducing notes.  A tasty and satisfying fish dish indeed, but not for the faint of tongue.

Eating at Bob’s Shanghai 66 was like a study abroad lesson in Chinese culinary topography, from the rarely served and tasty Soup Dumpling, alongside a bit flavor-lacking but authentic small bites, to the fiery Szechuan tapas and main dishes that did a number on my taste buds that kept me coming back for more for its complexity and not-so-suble mouth-numbing flavors.  This is what true Chinese cuisine is about – unadulterated, revelatory, and uncompromising.  With a large Chinese population in the DMV, more restaurants are stepping up to the demand from customers and knowledge of the initiated.  Places like this puts the cognoscenti like me many steps closer to attaining the Holy Grail of this grand Asian cuisine.

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Beef wrap with Scallions

A recent visit to this place gave me a chance to try some new dishes. A Chinese “tapa” ordered was Beef Wrap with Scallions.  It was like a burrito wrap with a strong wheat skin encasing thin slices of beef and lettuce leaves. The beef slices tasted seasoned, made even more savory by a copious amount of Hoisin sauce that made each bite delectable.  The use of wheat and beef meat points toward the northern origin of this small bite, akin to the Southern Fujian version of Popiah (see blog).  Unfortunately, I could not detect the use of scallions which would have added a slightly pungent note and more interest to these mild bites.

Salt and Peppered Squid

For a seafood dish, we honed in on Salt and Peppered Squid.  I had tasted this dish before in another Chinese restaurant recently (see blog) that I have grown fond of.  The pieces arrived battered and deep fried, with slices of green onion and red pepper softened by a short trip to the hot oil.  However, this plate was quite lame compared to the aforementioned version.  The batter was a bit too thick and not crisp enough due to either a lack of sufficient time in the oil or the oil not being hot enough.  What a shame.

Shredded Pork and Bamboo ShootsThe last main dish was Shredded Pork and Bamboo Shoots.  Slivers of young bamboo shoots are paired with slivers of pork, tofu and green onions, all brought together by a savory sauce made of oyster sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  I enjoyed the tenderness of the bamboo shoots, the mild moist slivers of pork, and the healthy mild tasting tofu that provided more soft texture to each spoonful.  And that sauce – it was enough to whet the appetite and to beckon the mouth to get another mouthful.  This was definitely a dish that is a vestige of its former identity as Bob’s Noodle 66 (see blog).  A dish worth ordering, in my estimation.


IMG048.jpgThe Lunar New Year has arrived already and as an annual custom, I would put up a fairly much-to-do about this occasion, especially given the fact that it is The Year of the Snake, my zodiac year.  Such cause for celebration has propelled me to recreate some dishes that reflect my background and the customs that I grew up with during this festivity.  In pursuit for some difficult-to-find ingredients for the Nyonya dishes that I’m about to cook this weekend, I had to visit some Indian stores in the heart of immigrant city, Langley Park, MD, in search of fresh curry leaves and dried red chilies.

Stepping out of the hallway of a strip mall that exuded a combination whaft of heady incense, exotic dried spices, and fragrant fresh strange herbs, I was about to head to my car when I suddenly recalled that a responder to my blog of a close-by Indian restaurant, Tiffin, recommended another establishment in that plaza that was pure vegetarian.  I looked around and walked past it in the rather busy run-down strip mall before stumbling across it on my way back.  Woodlands has been around for a number of years, back when I first visited it one night in the early 90’s.  I recall that my experience that night was quite memorable but unfortunately I never went back to pay it another visit until this serendipitous encounter, hence the cellphone photos unlike those from the Nikon.  Standing at the door, the restaurant had just opened its door for customers, and after a quick perusal of the lunch buffet line, I quickly took a seat in the half empty space.

When a buffet line is being served, there is no time for waiting and I went straight to it.  The starter was the Rasam Sambar which is a soup consisting of chunks of squash swimming in a light sour broth made spicy with dried chili and fragrant from curry leaves.  The buffet line offers two version, one with whole yellow lentils, and the other with pureed lentils that gives it a thicker consistency.  I enjoyed the biting spiciness along with the tasty bits of vegetable along with the lentils, which I preferred whole since this version’s broth was lighter for me – this hot sip always sets the right tone for me.


When approaching the buffet line, you are assaulted by a humongous circular flat cast-iron pan serving the dish called Pav Baiji .  In the middle of the flatpan is a mound of potato curry surrounded by a ring of bits of raw cabbage and onion, followed by an outer ring of slices of baked bread loaf. I was not sure how to eat this dish since it was very novel to me, but upon research online, it is a typical lunch fare in Mumbai that has been made lighter for the back-breaking worker who has to return to menial labor after lunch.  I appreciated the authenticity of this dish and found the combination of the raw bites of vegetable complementary to the mild potato curry.  I did not touch the bread since I wanted to make room for the other good stuff.

IMG040.jpgA typical South Indian vegetarian fare is Masala Dosa which is rice flour pancake with a stuffing in the middle.  This restaurant’s version is as crispy as in others but it is not overstuffed with a heavy potato mixture.  Instead it is rather light with a thin layer in the middle.  The customary accompaniment of Coconut chutney made it more irresistible with its nuttiness punctuated with some fragrant curry leaves and spicy dried chilies.

There were many highlights from the buffet line.  Beetroot Poriyal is a combination of fine cubes of red beets cooked with fragrant cumin seeds that produced a dish devoid of the earthiness associated with this root vegetable.  Pala Paneer is a dish combining fresh firm cheese with a spinach puree.  What sets it apart from the more known Saag Paneer is that this version is not mixed with mustard green and it is not enriched with cream like the latter.  I enjoyed the smooth green puree that did not taste too bitter from the pure spinach and the cheese was mild but rather firm.  One dish that I could not get enough of was Avial, which consisted of tendli, which tasted like a chayote squash, “drumstick vegetable”, and potato that is thickened with some yogurt that provided a mild sourness which I enjoyed thoroughly.  Chickpeas are prominently featured in Indian vegetarian cuisine and one version offered here is Chana Chaat.  It is a melange of chickpeas and mashed potato seasoned with tamarind sauce, cilantro sauce, and tomato ketchup, elevating this dish beyond pure starch.  The bits of puffed vermicelli on top provided the necessary crispy texture to the mushy consistency.  It was one of my favorite dishes.


The first serving was not enough since another plateful revealed more wonders.  Another common Indian appetizer was the first bite from this plate – Medu Wada.  These small savory lentil doughnuts were lighter than the ones I have savored, packed with some spice fragrance and a slight sourness that was complimented by the typical sauces.  The tamarind sauce was thick and dark, an indication of it being house-made with its sourness well tamed, and the cilantro sauce was flourescent creamy green replete with its herbaciousness – here we see the restaurant paying close details to the background players.  A couple of bites of the Fried Noodles dispelled any doubts of the dish’s appearance and I quite enjoyed the sweet and sour tomato-based sauce coating the delicate strands of noodles.  The Veggie Biryani was a heady rice dish spiked with whole pieces of cinnamon, cloves, and whole curry leaves.  The bits of pumpkin added the sweet element to this savory dish along with bits of rich cashew nut, which added a bit of unctousness to the mouthful.  Veggie Manchu are bits of whole vegetables that have been battered and deep-fried and lightly coated with a slightly sweet dark sauce, paying homage to its meat version, General Tso Chicken, which left me sated as if having eaten its original meat version.  A couple of servings of Chana Bandar sealed the deal for me about this restaurant’s authenticity and quality cooking.  Puffed dough shells are available for the customer to be stuffed with cooked chickpeas, further topped with fresh tomato and onion, puffed rice crispy, and moistened by a gravy or the tamarind or cilantro sauces.  I had only seen this dish on travel and culinary channels, and I was excited to finally savor this multi-flavored and textured dish – Yumm!


Despite the level of satedness I was feeling, I could not resist having a few bites of dessert.  The first offering was Vermicelli Kheer made with  strands of fine vermicelli and tapioca pearls swimming in a pool of sweetened cooked milk.  I enjoyed a few spoonfuls of it before deciding that it was a bit too sweet for me.  Just when I thought I was eating some Halwa, a sweet carrot puree, it turned out to be Rava Kesari, a thick sweet cream of wheat orange mixture, filled with surprising chunks of sweet pineapple and almond slivers that made it difficult to put the spoon down.  Note to the diner – leave some room for these sweet dishes.

I walked out of Woodlands feeling both gastronomically satisfied and pleased that I had a chance encounter with this wonderful establishment, especially one serving authentic Southern Indian vegetarian fare.  An hour after my entrance, I passed by a long line of customers waiting for a table for Sunday lunch, hungrily anticipating the delicious offerings on the buffet line.  I walked past them noting to myself, “Why have I not been back all these years?” Now I know what I have been missing all these years.  Neither should you.

Woodlands on Urbanspoon

Vietnam Palace

Note: Unfortunately, this establishment has closed down.

The hunt for a decent Vietnamese restaurant serving more than just Pho noodles is like searching for the culinary Holy Grail. In the past, my friends and I used to visit Eden Center, a confluence of Vietnamese businesses in the heart of the immigrant community in Seven Corners, VA, to relish in the delectable offerings in our favorite eatery. However, it has moved further away into the boonies, and according to my Vietnamese hair stylist, it is now catering to a more American palate. In replacement, I discovered another eatery, Green Papaya, but to my dismay it folded up a couple of months later after being in business for over a decade. Another favorite haunt in DC also met the same fate after struggling in a part of town that saw gentrification moving slower that it would have liked. With all the Vietnamese noodle joints around me, I was nearly about to resign to  my fate of settling for only this type of offering, pho real.

Around the beginning of this year, I noticed some renovations taking place in a store located in a strip mall near my favorite Costco. As I passed by it a number of times, I was anxiously waiting for the storefront sign to be put up so I could ascertain what type of cuisine it was going to serve. In May, I was thrilled to see its large name – finally a full-fledged Vietnamese restaurant a few miles down the road from me. I couldn’t wait for the Open sign to glow for my first visit, and I even stopped in and asked about their opening day.

Vietnam Palace

One Sunday, I walked into Vietnam Palace eagerly anticipating my first meal there. However, a gentleman quickly told me that it was not officially open but only to invited guests. However, another man appeared from the kitchen and asked me to take a seat as one of the guests. Since that first warm welcome, I have paid them a few more visits before doing this write-up.

Jelly, Longan, and Lotus Seed DrinkOn the first visit when I was treated so graciously, I knew I was entering into a place different from the other Vietnamese establishments that I had visited. This was immediately evident from the drink that was placed on my table without my ordering. It is listed as “Longan in Syrup” in the drinks section of the menu. It comprises of a slightly sweet drink mixed with bits of agar-agar jelly, reconstituted dried longan fruit, and lotus or longan seeds. I was amazed by the combination of ingredients and flavors, reminiscent of a similar concoction that my grandmother used to prepare to cool the body down during the hot dry season in tropical Asia. The different elements in the sweet liquid made it taste more like dessert than a drink. This is definitely a different offering than the usual but a satisfying thirst quencher.



Durian SmoothieAmong the usual drink choices of Vietnamese coffee, Lemonade and Soda Water, and Avocado Smoothie, there is another unexpected offering – Durian Smoothie. When I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to get my hands on a tall glass of it. Mine literally was filled to the brim and I had to quickly take a sip before it started to trickle down the sides. It was rich, slightly sweet, and ice-cold, packed with the distinctive and pungent flavors of the custard-like Durian fruit. It brought me back to my past summer trip to Malaysia when I got my fill of the fresh fruit that overwhelmed my taste buds with its unique pungent flavor. This smoothie had a similar effect on me without the strong aftertaste that the fresh fruit leaves. What a good alternative to the real thing, especially in this part of the world!



Vietnamese Spring RollsThe first bite I took in this establishment was on a Spring Roll that you will find in most Vietnamese eateries. This rendition was as good as you would find anywhere else with its light and flaky wrap, a tasty filling that is made with wood fungus and carrot, minced pork and shrimp, and fine bean thread noodles that make up the customary stuffing. But what sets it apart is its accompanying fish sauce that woke up my senses immediately by the smooth refined flavor that you don’t find in other establishments. It reminded me of the fore mentioned closed down restaurant, Green Papaya, whose fish sauce tasted like a prized elixir. With the flavors lingering in my mouth, I knew that I have discovered a place where attention is paid to the details.




Sweet and Sour Shrimp SoupAnother opener that we tried on a couple of visits is the Sweet and Sour Soup (Cahn Lau) that was part of the set course dinner.  Pieces of fish or whole shrimp are cooked in a light broth along with pieces of tomato, bean sprouts, pineapple, whole okra and celery.  The soup has a unique combination of sweet from sugar and the sour piquancy from the pieces of pineapple which I enjoyed quite a bit.  The pieces of vegetable were perfectly cooked with the okra slightly firm and not slimy, bean sprouts still turgid but not raw, and the pieces of seafood plump and moist.  The sprinkling of Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram) adds the herbal fragrance along with some caramelized shallots that brought another level of complexity to this rather simple soup.  This light yet tasty soup pointed to a direction of Vietnamese cuisine that I had not savored before, which not only was pleasing to my senses but also peaked my gastronomic curiosity.

Chicken Pho Noodles

Beef Pho NoodlesNo respectable Vietnamese restaurant will have Pho noodles amiss from its menu, and this is the case with Vietnam Palace. But instead of the usual bowl of beef noodles on my first visit, mine came with strips of chicken amidst large chunks of daikon root. The mild root was tender yet savory from having absorbed all the flavors from the rich broth, a clear soup, clean in flavor, sweet without the customary use of MSG, and I could distinguish the distinctive spices used to make the key element in the bowl: cassia bark (Asian cinnamon) and star-anise. On another visit, the beef version came with paper-thin discs of raw meat that cooked quickly in that wonderful broth. Large pieces of green onion and fine rings of sweet onion added the mild pungency that complemented the rather sweet broth. Getting to know the owner, he told me that the broth changes in the amount of spices according to the time of the year – more cassia and star-anise in the winter time. This is definitely not your everyday bowl of Pho noodle.

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo HueAnother bowl of noodle that shouldn’t be overlooked is one that you would probably not find in other Pho establishments – Bo Bun Hue. The bowl is covered with round long rice noodles, bits of beef, and sweet onions, all enveloped by a spicy beef broth made fragrant with lemongrass and reddish from some chili that is the basis of this noodle dish. The pieces of lean meat are joined by cooked skin, hunks of cartilage (a common source of protein in that part of the world), and squares made from congealed blood – this is not a dish for everyone especially for the squeamish. However, what I enjoy about the dish is the level of uncompromising authenticity along with that fragrant and fiery broth as well as the sprinkling of herbaceous Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram). The sides of fermented shrimp paste and dried chili paste add to the experience and its unique flavors. This is a must order for the adventurous especially if you are looking for a noodle dish beyond the usual Pho.

Egg Noodle with Vegetables and Seafood

Another noodle dish that we have ordered a few times, albeit in a less soupy state, is Egg Noodle with Vegetables and Seafood.  Dried egg noodles have been parboiled and cooked with brocoli, cauliflower, carrots, whole shrimp, fish balls, and shiitake mushrooms.   The noodles were still al dente, the vegetables cooked similarly and still fresh tasting, the seafood sweet and moist, and the sauce flavorful and light that was effective enough to coat the pasta.  What I enjoyed most was the generous amount of meaty shiitake mushrooms that added a hit of boskiness and a depth of flavor to this satisfying dish.  A good sprinkling of biting pepper on the top was the finishing touch that titillated the taste buds, mine at least.

Pork Chop, Shredded Pork, Egg Quiche and Rice

In addition to noodle dishes, Vietnam Palace has an extensive list of rice dishes that I don’t usually see in the usual eatery.  On one occasion, I ordered Charbroiled Pork Chop, Shredded Pork, Egg Quiche on Steamed Broken Rice.  A large piece of lightly seasoned Pork Chop is cooked with a slightly sweet and peppery coating until slightly brown yet remaining still quite moist.  The accompanying quiche was something that I had not had before; bits of minced pork were mixed with egg white and topped by a mixture made with egg yolk.  I found it quite tasty and amazing slightly spongy and rather light, aided by perfect seasoning and well-timed cooking.  The other side of Shredded Pork was equally interesting but not necessarily in the same direction as the Quiche.  It is cooked pork skin that has been shredded and mixed with toasted rice flour and seasoning.  The texture was a bit off-putting by its soft chewiness along with a slight fermented flavor – definitely something authentic yet one needs getting used to.  Mostly, I appreciate the restaurant’s offering of set rice platters that are not usually found in most eateries.

Caramelized FishA couple of dishes beyond the rice and noodle dishes were tasted and are worth mentioning.  Caramelized Fish comes served in a clay pot swimming in a dark chocolaty sauce coating the fish morsels.   The basic flavor components are made from caramelized sugar that provides the slight sweetness and the slight burnt flavor, and the fish sauce that injects the brininess and a breath of ocean into the sauce.  The pieces of fish were fresh and still quite moist.  However, I thought that the use of fish sauce was a bit heavy-handed which overpowered the subtle caramel element.  Upon bringing this to the waiter/owner’s attention, he agreed with me and quickly joked that he was going to fire the cooks, notably his parents in the kitchen.  I felt a bit guilty for mentioning this but I’m not shy to help an establishment fix their faux pas.  Another try of this dish is planned for the future.


Sauteed GoatBack to my first “invitation” to this establishment.  After having sated myself with their wonderful dishes, the owner mentioned that they are offering a family special cooked only on the weekends – Sautéed Goat.  When it arrived on my table, the waft that reached my nose instantly told me that this was no ordinary dish.  Pieces of goat have been stewed with onion, curry powder, and coconut milk.  In addition to the spice elements and rich coconut, it is heavily infused with some heady lemongrass that adds that Southeast Asian zing, along with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and herbaceous Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram).  A thick slice of French bread made the perfect sopping tool for that rich and flavor-packed sauce.  Even though the pieces goat were a bit bony, which it tends to be, the bits of flesh were quite tender and well-flavored.  This restaurant never ceases to amaze me with the authenticity of flavors and each visit turned into an adventure into this Southeast Asian cuisine.

Vietnam Palace is a restaurant worth trekking into the Maryland suburbs for anyone who is salivating for well-made dishes representing this Southeast Asian culture, beyond the noodle bowls that have over saturated the various neighborhoods as well as our taste buds.  I still miss some dishes that are not served there, namely Grilled Lemongrass Beef and Salt Pepper Seafood that I used to relish in the closed fore mentioned eateries.  However, what this place does well compensates for the missing dishes, and the dishes have broadened my horizon on this wonderful cuisine.  Who would think that such gastronomic adventure could be found in a quiet strip mall off the beaten path.  It is worth checking this place out!

Vietnam Palace on Urbanspoon