Marco and Polo

Marco and Polo Restaurant, Hyattsville, MD

In my last blog, I reviewed an Uyghur restaurant in Northern Virginia where I found its cuisine alluring and rather exotic. However, it is temporarily closed due to its building is for sale while the eatery looks for a new location. Coincidently, I got wind of another Uyghur and Turkish restaurant closer to me, in Hyattsville. Marco and Polo Restaurant is located in the fairly new University Town Center, to the side of the huge library. Walking into the space, its dining room is rather spacious that leads to a colorful performance platform. As I got a good view of the open kitchen, I perused the menu with my sight on many dishes listed.

Chuchura Soup, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

Lentil Soup, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MDFor starters, I was curious about the Chuchura Soup that the amiable owner touted about. It was only on my third trip that I managed to get a taste of it. And my goodness – what a soup! The broth was weighty and well-seasoned with a meaty flavor that belied its nearly clear broth, yet devoid of extraneous flavors usually associated with lamb. The equal partner was the small dumplings that were characterized by a silky smooth and tender dough encapsulating a mild and tasty soft meaty filling that made me return for more. The hint of herbaciousness from the dried mint added a slight note of exotica to this already beguiling soup that pointed towards skill, love, and pride, qualities that would definitely make this a must-order. On another trip, an order of lentil soup proved to be interesting. The dried-bean soup was velvety smooth, punctuated by some chili heat, dried mint, and enriched by a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. However, for me, it lacked a lemon wedge that would have lifted the sip a bit more.

Mixed Meze Platter, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

Uyghur Samsa, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MDOn one visit, we ordered the Mixed Meze Platter. What arrived was an array of stuffed grape leaves, hummus, and tsatsiki.  The grape leaves were properly made and seasoned with its mild vinegary note with a fully-cooked rice filling, the hummus smooth that reminded me of what I have tasted in Istanbul (but not quite as punchy as the Lebanese version), and the tsatskiki that was creamy, tangy and filled with bits of feta-like cheese that added a brininess that made it quite exciting. The bread was the ideal canvas to these dips with its crusty outer but pillowy and warm inside, exuding hint of yeast and sweetness, making it carb-worthy. An order of Samsa was also made on that visit. The baked dough was stuffed with a lamb filling that was meaty, not too “lamby”, and fragrant from some onion. But I wished that the they were not baked so long as some parts of the dough became rather stiff – I’m sure this was a simple oversight that could be easily rectified.

Sdwuck Pide, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

Borek, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MDFrom the bakery section, one visit’s order was Sdwuck Pide. The boat-shaped pizza arrived with large pieces of Turkish sausage that was quite spicy, meaty, balanced with a tangy note. The dusting of oregano on top (organic according to the chef) was the perfect foil to this rich yet light bite, and the dough was perfectly baked with a crustiness over a bouncy inside, making it a perfect lunch bite with the side salad that was slightly punchy from olives and pickles. Another baked dish was Borek which consisted of crispy dough wrapped around a stuffing of a creamy cheese mixed with a stringy one, mixed with some parsley. It was quite tasty with a tangy tone in the cheese mixture.

Home Style Leghmen, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

Liang Mian, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MDUyghur cuisine is known for its noodle dishes, and I had to try a couple of them. Home Style Leghmen consisted of pieces of meat (the beef in this order was quite tender), and a plethora of Chinese long bean, celery, green onions, and red peppers that added their individual character to each bite. The sauce was quite savory with a hint of spice heat and a tinge of vinegar to balance the profile. The noodles was the hand-pulled kind (witnessed from the dining room) that were unfortunately slightly overcooked since I prefer it more al dente, but it did not deter me from liking the dish. The other noodle dish was Liang Mian.  The noodles were cooked perfectly al dente (organic gluten-free noodles, shown to me by the chef), mixed with a combination of a chilled cooked sauce and amazingly finely-chopped parsley, and red and green peppers as its topping. The flavors were a mixture of vegetable flavors, a rather strident vinegar note that was not too overpowering, and some chili heat that produced a gestalt effect that beckoned me over and over again. This is a perfect summer cold dish, even though I was thoroughly enjoying it mid-winter.

Uyghur Polo, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD Chicken Kebab, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD
Uyghur Polo was one of the meat dishes that I tasted. Pieces of lamb was cooked tender,  tasting mild, and devoid of the extraneous flavors, sitting above medium-grain rice that was perfectly cooked and tasting savory, studded with soft pieces of carrot exuding some sweetness left over after being cooked in the broth. It reminded me of the Afghan meat-rice dish, but this was more savory without the cloying carrot-sweetness in the latter version. The other meat dish was Chicken Kebab. The chunks of chicken breast were well-seasoned through and through with a little bit of spice heat, smokey from grilling over coals, but maybe a bit dry from some folks since super moist breast is an American obsession. The side rice was the basmati kind that was savory but a tad dry, accompanied by the grilled vegetables and the wonderful salad. Judging by these dishes, grilled meats are definitely a strong suit in this house.

Döner Kebab, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD Salmon Dish, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

At the end of one of my visits, the chef ingratiated us with a serving of Döner Kebab. I was quite full from the meal, and I was not sure if I was up to it. But one bite of it was revelatory. The meat exuded some dark spices yet tasting mild for this type of gyro preparation. Each piece had a slight crispiness from the rotisserie spit roast, holding on to moist meat, which made this dish appealing enough as an order in the future. On another visit, a neighbor’s dish was so visually appealing that I couldn’t help staring at them and eventually asking them their opinion of that dish. The pieces of salmon, rice and asparagus spears were served on a piece of tree trunk that enhanced the visual. The ladies noted that the fish was crispy on the exterior yet moist inside, the vegetable perfectly cooked without being mushy, and the rice savory studded with carrots and small dark raisins. Judging from the women’s effusive reaction of the dish, I wouldn’t pass it over on future visits.

Baklava, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD The array of desserts looked appealing sitting in the display counter next to the kitchen. One of the duo Baklavas was the pistachio kind.  It was quite buttery, not cloyingly sweet, exuding honey notes and hints of the pistachio nut. Its partner was the walnut kind. This bite was more buttery and crispier in the layers of phyllo, with a mild astringency from the use of roasted black walnuts that was the perfect foil to the honey-based syrup.  Although they were not as floral as the Lebanese ones that I am used to, these bites were well-made, and I appreciated its subtleties in each mouthful. I’m looking forward to trying the other desserts, including the rice pudding that was amiss on my few visits.

What I discovered at Marco and Polo Restaurant mostly impressed me with the interesting dishes that reflected skillful cooking, a caring hand, and lots of heart. These qualities were evident in many dishes, from that amazing dumpling soup, the cheesy and tangy tsatsiki, the yeasty and crusty bread, the well-baked Turkish sausage pide, the full-flavored and brow-raising noodles, the well-seasoned and quality meats in the rice dishes and grilled dishes, the impressive-looking salmon dish, and finally the understated but charming desserts. Having spoken to the chef-owner during each visit, one senses his knowledge married with his soul inbued in his proud wonderful offerings. With such cooking and care, I will certainly be making many more trips to this newfound establishment.

La Sirenita

La Sirenita
Authentic Mexican cuisine falls under the same category as Chinese: elusive in the DMV area, corrupted (at least most of the versions served here), and revelatory to the uninitiated. For a long time, I have kept a deep secret – a Mexican restaurant serving REAL Mexican food, located in the heart of Mexican immigrant community in the Edmonston neighborhood, PG County. I discovered La Sirenita during my teaching breaks from a Catholic girls school just uphill, and I had inquired the store owners of a Mexican grocery store where to eat after purchasing some home-made Mole sauce. Without hesitation, they pointed me towards her doors and it is where I entered numerous of times when I was in the mood for the veritable thing, staying away from Tex-Mex versions assuming such guise. Finally, I have decided to divulge this well-guarded information. So here are some of my favorites in this locale.

Jarrito/Mexican SodaAgua de Tamarindo

Walking into this establishment, you know you have stepped into a different world. English is a minority language here (the waitresses are perfectly bilingual) and the non-Mexican face scarce. The menu is written in both languages but remains a bit inaccessible for those unfamiliar with the cuisine. What adds to the ambience is the jukebox pumping out loud Ranchera music with its characteristic polka-like beats interspersed by equally loud Mariachi music wailing out one’s miseries like the Blues. This would make one reach for a Corona or Dos Equis to either revel in the festive mood or drown one’s sorrow.  But on nearly all occasions, my friends and I choose the non-alcoholic versions. Jarrito is the Mexican soda made with natural flavors and most importantly, natural cane sugar, unlike the high fructose corn syrup found in American soda. They come in all different fruit flavors along with their day-glo color which probably is the only non-natural element in it. This soft drink is more satisfying for its fruity element as well as the naturally filling sugars found in it. For a non-gaseous drink, I prefer to order Agua de Tamarindo. A mini jug arrived to the table filled with a concoction made from tamarind pulp, tasting slightly sour, quite fruity with a clove-like note, and slightly sweet from a judicious addition of sugar. A previous order has been Horchata which is a sweet rice and milk drink punctuated by notes of interest brought by cinnamon powder. There is a selection of fruit shakes that are worth venturing also.

Tostada de Ceviche

Coctel de CamaronThere are a few appetizers or small-bites worth starting off your meal here and they are seafood based. The first is Tostada de Ceviche. A crispy fried corn tortilla is topped with a melange of squid, scallop, and faux crabmeat, all brought together by a tomato-based sauce spiked with a good hit of hot sauce, made tart with some lime juice, and fragrant with some cilantro. All the pieces of seafood were well-cooked without being tough or chewy and they tasted well-marinated in the spicy tart sauce. The perfectly ripe avocado slices provided the rich element to each bite as well as a softer contrast to the seafood and crunchy tortilla. This is definitely a very satisfactory meal-opener. An equally appealing order is Coctel de Camaron. This is a far cry from the Shrimp Cocktail that most have grown up on. Here fresh tasting small-sized shrimp are paired with cubes of soft and rich avocado, swimming in a pool of sweet and tart tomato sauce, spiked with hot sauce, and made slightly pungent with bits of fresh onion. Saltines are provided to add some starch to the seafood as well as add some relief (along with the rich avocado) to the bold sauce that tends to envelop all the taste buds. Another worthwhile order.

Tacos de Puerco y Pollo

Taco de LenguaTacos here are the order of the day. Again, this dish made the authentic way will dispel one’s notion of what it is. They arrive with a double layer of fresh and soft tortilla tasting recently made and exuding its corn-goodness much like ground hominy. The filling is made with marinated chunks of meat, not the usual ground meat, cooked on the flat grill and nearly greaseless but tasting savory. Here, these wraps are served with some limes and topped with a generous amount of sweet onion and green onions and cilantro – that simple. Maybe a touch of the fiery red chili or green chili sauces would be the additional dressing, but not the slathering of salsa that we are accustomed to. The pork and chicken versions hit the spot for my BFF who loves their rendition here and makes it a point to join my group when we visit here. Other versions made with barbecued goat, Barbacoa, and cow’s tongue, Lengua, are indicative of the level of authenticity one finds here. I quite enjoy the slight gaminess and chewy texture of my order made with tongue despite it being a bit fattier than the usual cuts.

Huarache de PolloA couple of other small bites are worth considering. Huarache is a grilled white corn cake much like a Johnny cake found in the South. The topping is a slathering of refried beans, some meat (chicken, beef, or no meat), some shredded lettuce and onion, and finished with a drizzle of Mexican sour cream, crema, and crumbly cheese, queso fresco. I enjoyed this plateful with the texture and taste of the corn cake, the smooth refried beans, and the milk products, with the mild crema and equally mild crumbled cheese tasting innocuous from not being aged. A few drops of the red and green chili sauces added the necessary punch for this diner, and it was satisfying indeed.

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Tamal de PolloAn order of Tamal was made on one occasion. They come either with a stuffing of pork and red chili sauce or chicken with green chili sauce. The cake arrived wrapped in corn husk, exuding more of its corn goodness into the savory cornmeal cake. The stuffing of chicken and green chili was a bit dry but sufficient to balance out the starch and it had a bit of piquancy to it. However, the cornmeal was quite dense compared to the Salvadoran versions that I have a penchant for. The slightly dry corners were an indication that they had been microwaved, thus making them drier than what they are supposed to be. Maybe spending some time in the steamer would have made these more enjoyable.

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Mole Poblano

For the main course, one of my favorites is Mole Poblano. Pieces of chicken arrived slathered with the Pre-Columbian sauce that is quintessential to authentic Mexican cuisine with the use of ingredients indigenous to Meso-America: dried chilies, several types of roasted seeds including pumpkin and sesame seeds, and finally a surprising ingredient – chocolate. With this dish, the chicken plays the supporting role to this incredibly complex sauce with its nuttiness, spiciness, and a depth from the unsweetened chocolate, tasting fresh and house made. The side of steamy tortillas is necessary to mop up every drop of that elixir that I cannot get enough of. The other sides of Mexican rice and cooked pinto beans are decent and tasty, but overshadowed by the Mole. Another version of this dish is Enchiladas de Mole. Tortillas are stuffed with shredded chicken mixed with the Mole sauce and topped with lettuce, crema, and queso fresco, fresh Mexican cheese. This dish is a definite hit for me and my friends. When in a good Mexican restaurant, go for the Mole dishes when the sauce is this delicioso!

Camarones a la Plancha

A seafood main course that we have tried is Camarones a la Plancha. Shrimp is cooked on the flat grill with pieces of onion, shell-on or off.  A strong point in this house is the freshness of its seafood and this dish does not fail on that count. The butterflied and deveined shrimp tasted well=seasoned and still moist from the grilling with slivers of cooked onion adding some sweetness to each bite. My friend prefers his order with the shells on since he finds it too salty without the shells. In addition, cooking shrimp with shell on helps to keep it moist. This dish is worth digging your fingers into it, tasting the seasoning on the shell, and enjoying the seafood sweetness of each morsel. Another dish worth ordering is Camarones a la Mexicana. Pieces of butterflied and shelled shrimp come covered with a tomato-based sauce that is devoid of its acidic nature and enriched by a good dose of garlic that makes each drop worth savoring. Seafood dishes are strong suits here since the cooks execute the fresh sea ingredients skilfully in their offerings.

Everything at La Sirenita is Puro Mexicano – unadulterated, authentic, well-cooked, a bit of a dive, loud music, a bit garish decor, non-gringo, and inviting at the same time.  It maybe a bit intimidating stepping though its doors the first few times.  But with the delicious and fresh seafood like the Tostada de Ceviche, Coctel de Camaron, and the shrimp main courses, along with the veritable and oh-so-tasty Tacos made the real way, along with the star dishes made with the to-die-for Mole sauce, one is willing to overcome such trepidation and realize that this is the real deal, a far cry from what we have thought what Mexican cuisine is about.   So, when you are in the mood for some good Mexican fare, plan a trip to this establishment, and stepping through its doors will feel like “Bienvenido a Mexico.”

La Sirenita on Urbanspoon

Just Jerk

OK, you have read my quibble about local DC folks dismissing the county that I live in, Prince George’s, as a culinary wasteland.  But such disrespect has only spurred me to increase my efforts in finding decent eateries to disprove that, such as my blogs on Asian Wings Cafe (see blog) and Tiffin (see blog).  The DMV area is a magnet for attracting different immigrant groups to the area, and PG is no exception.  With this migration, groups of newcomers have formed pockets in the various suburbs, and along with this, there has been a burgeoning of various ethnic cuisine eateries, especially those that cater to folks of African descent from the Caribbean and Africa.  The county may not boast as many high-end restaurants as in the wealthier counties or downtown DC, but this fact does not dampen the discerning palates of the local folks, and this is evident in some of the eateries that I have encountered recently.

Conversing with a gentleman who hails from Guyana in a house party, I was querying him about some of his favorite local eats.  He mentioned of a Jamaican jerk shack in PG that many from the Caribbean have raved about, which I became quite excited about.  I have had my fair share of Caribbean eats around my area, especially from Mom-and-Pop eateries and a local Caribbean food chain.  However, many of my visits have been marred by uninspired cooking that has been watered down to cater to the American palate, or the food has been lacking in authentic seasoning or even cooked improperly (and unfortunately) in the oven.  With this new recommendation in mind, I was looking forward to checking this new eatery out.

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Just Jerk is tucked away in the corner of the parking lot of a sad-looking strip mall, opposite from an equally nearly lifeless Red Roof Inn in Lanham.  My first trip to it was very frustrating as I had a hard time locating it and maneuvering in the area whose roads made turnarounds close to impossible.  Walking into the deep-green and bright yellow wooden shack which immediately livens up its drap surroundings, you will notice a large order counter across from a long eating counter, along with a donation box requesting contributions of crayons and “composition” books (haven’t seen that word since my English school days) for Jamaican school children.  The air is filled with sounds of Jamaican radio, either the pulsating Reggae beats or the local crime report (“suspect had dark complection” – that wouldn’t fly here at all).  A large poster hung next to the order counter spelled out the simple menu with its short list of offerings.  This joint exudes Jamaica without even trying.

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As an appetizer, Jamaican patties make the perfect small bite, and this place offers their versions made with beef, chicken, or spinach.  The Beef Patty had a crust that flaked easily under the fork, exposing the beef stuffing that had a strong flavor very much like oxtail.  It was perfectly seasoned, and the “beefiness” was not off-putting but very savory and tempting to any beef lover.  For the vegetarians, the Spinach Patty had an equally flaky pastry even though it was a bit milder than the meat version.  The spinach stuffing was perfectly seasoned without the bitterness of the spinach leaf, tasting much like the Caribbean leaf, Callaloo.  There was a certain unctiousness and smoothness in this bite that I did not expect from a vegetarian offering.  Both the patties tasted fresh and well-made, having a subtle quality that put them above those I have tasted in other establishments.

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DSC_7796.jpgTouting itself as a Jerk House, the house’s special of Jerk Chicken was the first main course that I ordered.  I was looking forward with great anticipation to this dish, and each bite was a revelation in savouring proper Jerk cooking after having tasted less-satisfactory versions elsewhere.  This place really gets this food preparation right.  The meat had the flavorings and seasonings well-penetrated into every morsel while remaining moist and succulent.  The skin was crispy and smoky from the charcoal grilling, with the fat completely rendered, which is the only way Jerk should be cooked, unlike the baked versions.  But it is the jerk spice flavorings on top that make this dish truly successful and spectacular, tasting of the fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers, the dark sweet notes of allspice, the woodsy and minty Caribbean thyme,  and the depth of flavor brought by vegetable aromatics.  On another visit, an order of the Jerk Kingfish had similar treatment but I found the fish a bit too dry for my taste, which is common in seafood cooking outside of North America.  The accompanying sides were equally well-cooked and well-seasoned, attempting to steal the show from the main star: the rice and peas filled with flavor with al dente and not mushy pigeon peas (obviously house cooked and not tinned), the fried sweet plantains cooked at the right stage of sweet ripeness which should be called dessert, and the stewed cabbage made fragrant from fresh thyme and still slightly crunchy from the light cooking.  The portions were big and I could make two meals out of each order.  As I write this blog those fantastic jerk flavors are still haunting my taste buds.

DSC_7780.jpgJamaican cuisine has a long history of vegetarian/vegan  cuisine as many eating establishments try to cater to the Rastafarian community who follow such a diet.  It was interesting to see on the menu a Jerk Portabello mushroom sandwich named after the Jamaican Black Nationalist, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and I had to try it.  The huge caps of mushroom were properly grilled with a slathering of the jerk which tended to overwhelm the subtle mushroom caps with its strong seasoning.  However, I enjoyed the “meaty” texture sandwiched by the pieces of fluffy Coco bread that had a slightly sweet and rich quality.  The Cassava/Yucca fries that accompanied the sandwich blew me away with the crispy exterior and soft mash-potato texture inside – obviously, the roots have been boiled and pureed, before being extruded into the deep fryer.  This brought back memories of the Churros I ate for my first blog, La Churreria de Madrid (see blog).  What a wonderful Caribbean version of fries!

DSC_7837.jpgNo decent Caribbean eatery would have Curry Chicken amiss from its menu, and Just Jerk is no exception.  Its version was quite tasty and decent, but a bit dry for me.  It could have done with a bit more sauce and more heat in the curry spices.  I have to remind myself often that Caribbean Curry is not quite as fragrant and spicy as South Indian curry dishes that I grew up tasting from Indian restaurants in Southeast Asia.  It always amazes me to see this Indian-influenced dish cooked in Caribbean establishments, pointing to the history of British colonization and the importing of East Indians to the region.   As for another dish, Brown Stew, a friend’s verdict on this Jamaican staple was thumbs-up with the chicken well-seasoned and falling off the bone -it is definitely high on the next order list.

DSC_7856.jpgThere is only one choice for dessert in this small eatery – Sweet Potato Cake.  I could not resist ordering a slice of this during one of my visits since the offering of a single dessert by any establishment only spells  “Must be good.”  And it sure was!  The cake was moist and light, with subtle but discernible notes of molasses, cinnamon, cloves, and dry ginger.  The white frosting coating was light, not too sweet, and slightly tangy.  I  could have this for snack any day, which would transport me to taking High Tea on a Caribbean plantation.

Just Jerk truly delivers on the expectations based on its name.  Finally, I have found a Jerk place that is veritable with its delectable offerings, pointing to how this dish is truly savored on the Caribbean island.  Yes, the orders can be a bit slow, the jerk may run out before closing (they cook just enough in small batches), and the offerings are limited.  But what they do and offer, they get it just right.

Just Jerk on Urbanspoon

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Asian Wings Cafe

I feel ignored, deprived, and somewhat a little disrespected.  By this, I am expressing a common sentiment felt by the residents of my county, Prince George’s county, MD, a nearby suburb of Washington DC.  As the richest county in the country where minorities make up the majority, PG (as we call it) has not seen as many businesses, investments, and high-paying jobs as in the neighboring Maryland and Virginia counties.  In addition, another area that is glaringly lacking is the number of good ethnic restaurants that heavily dot the other suburbs.  I always have to trek quite some distance to meet my Friday night dinner group in order to savor good ethnic cuisine in Washington DC, Northern Virginia, or other Maryland counties.

The one and only full-fledged Thai restaurant in PG county has been in operation for quite a few years.  However, it is located even further away from me in the neighborhood of Fort Washington, Southern MD.   So, when I came across another Thai restaurant that was closer to me (only 15 mins drive) a few weeks ago, I was thrilled and very eager to give it a couple of visits before writing this review.   Stumbling across Asian Wings Cafe occurred only by happenstance.  I was meeting an old friend of mine, a casualty of the current depressed economy, for brunch at IHOP in his neighborhood during the weekday.  After the meal, I was walking back to my car and I noticed a sidewalk board with names of familiar Thai dishes written on it.  I quickly stepped in the place, had a quick look at the display menu, and left with a take-out copy.  I could not wait for the weekend to head back and check it out.

Sunday came around, and I chose to visit Asian Wings Cafe for lunch with a couple of friends.  It is located in the middle of a rather nondescript strip mall just off the Beltway in New Carrolton.  Across the street from it are sad-looking all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet joints.   It is easy to pass by this cafe without noticing its presence at all, nor does a take-out cafe filled with only four tables brings about the sense of high expectation.   With these thoughts running through my mind, I was not very sure what I was going to expect from this eatery.

The menu here is quite extensive, consisting of fried wings, ribs, noodle dishes, hot wok dishes, vegetarian plates, fries and coleslaw, and a good number of Thai dishes.   With so much to choose from, I decided to narrow my choices to what the place touts itself for – Thai food, fried wings and ribs.

Garlic Fries & Thai Spring Rolls

After a brief discussion with the owner, a young Thai lady who hails from Bangkok, I placed my order upon her recommendations.  I started with the Thai Spring Rolls appetizer.  It arrived at the table piping hot along with some complementary Garlic Fries, which the owner claims are very popular here.  The spring rolls are sheets of thin crispy dough (thank God, not the thick nasty eggroll skin) covering a tasty stuffing of carrots, cabbage, and bean threadnoodle.  These nearly greaseless batonettes, served with its usual accompanying sweet sauce, were as good as those I have tasted in larger Thai restaurants.  The garlic fries had the similar skilful treatment in the hot oil, and they were covered with specks of chopped garlic and parsley, which elevated them beyond their usual guise.  A good start indeed.

A bowl of Shrimp Tom Yum Soup came next.  It was satisfactory but not quite as fragrant as I have had in other places, since it seemed to be missing the usual aromatics of lemongrass and lime leaves.  The use of fish sauce was a bit too heavy, which the owner said could be easily adjusted in the kitchen.  However, the soup had the right spice kick, sweet plump shrimp, and a handful of straw mushrooms, good enough for me to order it on any given winter’s day.

Asian Chicken Wings

I decided to try the fried wings that the cafe is known for.  These small chicken wings, not the Buffalo-sized ones, had a light coating of batter and were fried golden-brown.  One bite into them immediately raised my eyebrows.  The chicken was crispy on the exterior yet moist in the inside, well-seasoned throughout, and had only a hint of grease to the touch.   My dining partner, who has travelled extensively to Thailand, was also amazed by these bites, and he exclaimed that these tasted like those he had eaten in Thailand.  The 14 types of dipping sauces come in combinations of Honey, Garlic, Spicy, and Sweet and Sour.  For me, these wings were good enough without the sauces, which is a testament of this good eat.

Drunken Noodles

My order of wings came with a side order of Drunken Noodles.  The Drunken Noodles were filled with strips of green and red peppers, chunks of chicken, and leaves of fresh aromatic Thai basil peeking through sheets of wide rice noodles.  Signs of high heat wok searing were evident on the noodles which added to its flavor profile.  The dish had the right heat-intensity (peht) and good amount of garlic, with the noodles well-coated with the salty and slightly sweet brown sauce without any evidence of oil pooling on the plate.  This dish was as good as I have eaten in bigger establishments, and I was smiling after a few mouthfuls – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Fried Pork Ribs

My friend’s order of Pork Ribs with Honey Garlic sauce shared the plate (well, take-out box) with some Thai Fried Rice.  The meat comes on bite-size rib bones covered in the sweet sauce.  I must admit that I did not initially find the dish appealing.  But upon hearing the complements from him, I tried a couple of pieces and I was slightly taken aback.  The meat was flavorful and quite crispy, and the sweet sauce made the ribs quite irresistible.   The fried rice, with pieces of egg, carrots, peas, and onions, is seasoned with Thai soy sauce, which with its slight fish sauce flavor sets it apart from the Chinese version.   Normally, I would avoid any form of fried rice, especially from a take-out joint, but with this kitchen’s rendition, I could not stop digging my fork into my friend’s plate, which probably annoyed him slightly.

Pad Thai

On my next visit, I wanted to discover more of their Thai standard fare.   Pad Thai is offered by most Thai kitchens but they have become such common fare, to the point that some of their versions are so banal, sloppy in their treatment, and lackluster in flavor that they taste like the Thai version of bad fast food.   So, when a plate of these famous noodles from Asian Wings Cafe landed on my table, I was eager to dig into it due to its high visual appeal.  The dish arrived with the noodles cooked with slivers of roast pork, bits of scrambled eggs, large pieces of pungent green onions, topped with a mound of fresh crunchy beansprouts, and crowned with huge sweet shrimps that were just perfectly cooked and not rubbery at all.  The noodles had the right amount of the sweet and sour sauce with pieces of sweet pickled turnip (usually missing in other restaurant versions) which added that crunchy sweet salty element that made the dish successful.  The sides of crushed peanut and slice of lime on the plate allow the diner to control these extra textural and flavor elements.   I must admit that this was one of the best plates of Pad Thai I have eaten in a long time, and I cannot wait to order it on the next visit.

Crispy Chicken Basil

Another dish on the menu that caught my eye was the Crispy Chicken Basil.  Pieces of lightly battered chicken are cooked in a spicy garlicky brown sauce with sweet onions and peppers, topped with fragrant crispy Thai basil.   The pieces of chicken were not overly battered and remained a bit crispy despite being coated by the wonderful tasty sauce.  The fried basil leaves added more to the dish’s crispy element while bringing more fragrance to the dish.  I thoroughly enjoyed this authentic-tasting dish along with a bowl of aromatic jasmine rice.  The chili heat-level added to its irresistibility and scrumptiousness.

Chicken Shrimp Lo Mein

Throughout my meal I was eyeing an order of Chicken and Shrimp Lo Mein that my friend, mentioned earlier, was devouring with gusto.  Initially, when he placed his order, I chuckled to myself and thought that this was typical farang (foreigner) fare that Americans would order in an Asian take-out joint.  My aversion for this dish is a result of tasting many substandard versions that I have come across in many Chinese restaurants.  Due to its visual appeal and the level of pleasure he seemed to have with the dish, I had to try a couple of mouthfuls of the Lo Mein – this version was an eye-opener.  The noodles were quite fresh and still al dente, mixed in with tender pieces of chicken and shrimp, crispy and barely cooked broccoli, cabbage, snow peas, and carrots, straw mushrooms, covered in a light tasty sauce that was not thickened like others.   I have not enjoyed Lo Mein as much as I did with this order, and it is definitely worth considering in future visits.

Fried Banana Dessert
A complementary order of Fried Banana Dessert was delivered to my table after I finished my savory dishes.  Pieces of sweet ripe banana are wrapped with thin spring roll pastry, greaseless from the kitchen’s usual skilful hot oil frying, and topped with honey and fragrant sesame seeds.  These small sweet bites were just the perfect and quite a surprisingly good dessert to end the meal.

Asian Wings Cafe is not your run-of-the-mill neighborhood Asian take-out joint despite its unassuming outside appearance.  Its strengths lie in the knowledgable kitchen that is capable of producing good authentic Thai dishes alongside its perfectly fried and tasty wings and ribs.   The cafe just celebrated its second anniversary a couple of weeks ago, and it seems to have established itself firmly in the area judging by the friendly customers that I saw coming and going during my visits.  I will be a regular customer due to its close proximity to my home and the delectable dishes that I have enjoyed there.  Welcome to Prince George’s County, and I am sure that your wonderful food will be the real reason for a long stay in our neighborhood.

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