Queen Amannisa

Queen Amannisa, Arlington VANot too long ago, I caught wind of an Uyghur restaurant existing in the DMV area that perked my attention. Since I was in Istanbul about a month ago, I was curious about these Asian-looking people and their culture that seems to spread as far from Western China into the far reaches of the Asian continent next to Europe. So, last Sunday, I managed to coral the dinner group to have lunch at Queen Amanissa in Crystal City, Arlington, VA. Walking in, I was impressed by the modern spacious space that was both inviting and appealing to the eye. After much contemplation on the menu, many questions (not me), and with the help of the amiable helpful owner/manager, we placed our orders.

Home-made Samsa, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

The first appetizer was the Home-Made Samsa. The triangular packet came baked with sesame seeds on top, looking appetising for the hungry eyes. One bite into it revealed not a flacky dough but a rather soft one much like some Chinese baked goods I’ve had before. The stuffing was chunks of lamb that were cooked with some onions; the meat was moist and very savory with a slight scent of lamb gaminess that paired well with the sweet onions. This was a good starter, however, I wanted some sauce that would complement these small bites – but, good start indeed.

Tasty Wood Ear Mushroom, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

A salad that caught my curiosity was Tasty Wood Ear Mushrooms. The moment it landed on the table, it grabbed our attention only by its visual appearance but the nutty scent of sesame oil as well. The first bite sent my senses into overdrive, not due to  overwhelming flavors, but by the interesting flavor combinations. Silky soft wood mushrooms (actually fungus) is paired with tomato, red bell pepper, and white onion, which provided some textural contrast and sweetness. But it was the seasoning that made this a success: acidity from a light vinegar, salt, and heat from some chili flakes. The dish was not overwhelming at all as the seasoning was fairly even-handed. No wonder online reviewers highly recommend this dish.

Manti with Meat, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

Cuisines from Central Asia are known for their dumplings, and I had to try this house’s version. The owner warned me that it would take some time since it was made from scratch, and sure enough, it was the last dish to arrive. The skin looked beautifully pleated, an indication that some manual attention went into it, tasting quite chewy, not industrial pasty, much like fresh-made pasta. The filling was a mixture of fairly large chunks of lamb cooked with some leeks (they were more fibrous than onions, unlike what the owner claimed). I quite enjoyed them as these parcels were very savory, but I found the size of the lamb bits too large, and their slightly dry nature did not add to it. I would have wished that the meat was cut into smaller pieces, or hashed, and a pairing sauce would have made them perfect, much like what other dumpling cultures do.

Braised Meat Laghman, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

I had read online that the restaurant made hand-pulled noodles, and I’m glad that a dinner mate ordered Braised Meat Laghman. What arrived was an explosion of colors. After not heeding to my advice, as well as the owner’s, to mix everything up, he complained it was rather bland. I tasted the sauce to check on the flavors and I was amazed at its complexity and baffled at my friend’s remarks. But he did eventually mix it up, with a touch of thick soy sauce, and he started to be effusive about its wonderful flavors. The sauce reminded me of Chinese restaurant sauces that are not found in home cooking, and I kept dipping my fork to taste it. But the star was the hand-pulled noodles that had a bounce only found in such manner of preparation, with a slightly al-dente interior. Although the diner was not fond of spice heat, he could tolerate a tinge of chili in the mix. Based on other reviews, I would also order the Dry Fried Laghman which is popular and supposedly quite fiery.

Polow, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

A couple of my friends ordered a dish similar to the Afghan version – Polow. Touted as the main Uyghur dish, they had to give it a try. What arrived was a bit different to what we were used to. The pieces of lamb were mild and devoid of its gaminess, and falling apart easily. The rice was very savory and full-bodied from cooking with a good stock, albeit the grains were medium grain and not the nutty basmati, which I didn’t really mind. The pieces of carrot were not sweet like in the Afghan version, but extremely savory that they amazed me, paired up with pieces of raisins that added the sweet pop. This meal was made complete by an accompanying salad and a bowl of home-made yoghurt that lightened the meal with its acidic goodness, to which one diner marveled at its well-made quality. I would say that this dish is a sure bet for anyone unsure about the menu.

Lamb Ribs, Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

I was also glad that one of us decided to try the kebab or grilled meats. My friend ordered the Lamb Ribs, and its appearance did not belie its nature. I managed to taste a bit, and the meat was moist, well-seasoned with adequate saltiness and spices, reminding me of Ghanian Chichinga, but with a fairly strong lamb scent, perhaps due to the nature of the cut. But it was fresh-tasting and appetising, especially for the lamb lover. I suspect that here they do well with the other types of kebabs, especially with the less exotic cuts. I’m curious about the Roasted Leg of Lamb which may be my order the next time.

Queen Amannisa, Arlington VA

Queen Amannisa is a great find, especially being one of the first establishments in the DMV area serving Uyghur cuisine. Here we see world history of the Silk Route playing itself out in the offerings, from the Chinese influences of hand-made noodles, to the hand-pleated dumplings, to the use of sesame oil, and the Central Asian influences of Polow and Kebabs. Yes, some of us were hesitant, as well as grouchy, at the beginning of the meal, and the late timing and the long decision-making compounded that anxiety level. But, at the end of the meal, we were calmer, sated, and definitely, if not surprisingly, pleased by this new culinary experience. This place is going into our list of dinner places, for sure.

Queen Amannisa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Highlights 2015

I’m posting this blog to highlight the restaurants and dishes that I enjoyed the past year. Happy New Year to everyone.

Zaytinya (read Blog)

Batijan Bin Laban - Zaytinya, D.C.

Turkish Coffee Chocolate Cake & Matisha Ice Cream - Zaytinya, D.C.

Batijan Bin Laban/Fried Eggplant
Turkish Coffee Chocolate Cake, Matisha Ice Cream

Askale Cafe (Read Blog)

Vegetarian Combination, Askale Cafe, Washington DC

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DC
Askale Vegetarian Combination
Ethiopian Coffee

Yuan Fu (Read Blog)

Chow San Shein

Veggie Duck with Basil & Ginger
Chow San Shein
Veggie Duck with Basil and Ginger

Toki Underground (Read Blog)

Fried Chicken Steamed Buns

Toki Classic Ramen

Fried Chicken Steamed Bun
Toki Classic Ramen

El Patio (Read Blog)

Empanada Tucumana

Grilled Ribeye Steak
Empanada Tucumana
Grilled Ribeye Steak

I Love Pho (Read Blog)

Bo Bun Hue

Crispy Noodle
Bo Bun Hue/Spicy Beef Noodle
Crispy Noodle

Myong Dong (Read Blog)


Be Beam Naeng Myun/Cold Buckwheat Noodles
Mandu/Korean Noodles

Thip Kao (Read Blog)

Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon Wraps

Laab E'kae/Minced Alligator Salad
Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon Wraps
Laab E’kae/Minced Alligator Salad

Thank you for following my blog in 2015.  I hope you will enjoy my new finds and postings for the new year.  Happy Eating.

English Eats

London SightsI recently returned from a week trip to London which gave me the opportunity to catch up with friends and relatives who reside in that part of the world. It also gave me the chance to catch up with some English eats, food that I grew up on during my high school days in a British all-boys boarding school. Most of us would turn our noses up when mentioning this Continental cuisine, and my classmates and I did stage a food strike in school, the only one in its history as a school (it has closed down not too long ago). However, there is a lot to redeem itself from such maligned status, and I indulged in some typical English food which most would take for granted. This was my culinary journey.

Fish, Chips, & Mashed PeasOne single dish that definitely comes to mind when mentioning British food is Fish and Chips which I longed for during my visit. On a day trip to the enormous British Museum, I asked a London Underground employee where I could get some decent lunch. I knew he would lead me to a proper shop liken to  asking a cop where to find some fresh donuts. Entering the shop, it was quite empty since it was still quite early for lunch at it was sweltering outside and inside (most establishments do not have AC). The cook assured me that he was going to make me a fresh batch of fried fish when I placed my order. The plate arrived with some lightly battered moist Cod accompanied with some chips (fries) and my perennial English favorite, Mashed Peas, which conjure up some vile thoughts among most Americans. The fresh tasting house tartar sauce was the perfect partner to the mild fish which was packed with fresh dill. The chips were proper and a heavy dousing of malt vinegar (a must!) hit the right spot for me. As for the mashed peas, I couldn’t get enough of it. This is definitely a must-have for those visiting across the waters. Just don’t be surprised that an immigrant is running the shop, as was the Albanian for my lunch. If you happen to be around the British Museum, check out Alen’s Fish & Chips.

English Pies

Steak and Kidney Pie (and other stuff)For one of my lunches, I met up with an Aussie-Malaysian that has become an expat in this metropolis for the last year. Although we were still struggling with the heat, or the lack of cool places, we elected for a pie shop.  Pieminister has one of their branches located in Farringdon, the heart of London’s Business District.  Looking at the array of pies, I picked something I ate during a rugby trip more than 30 years ago – Steak and Kidney.  Each order of pie came siting on a mound of mashed potato, topped with cheese curds, mashed peas and fried onions, swimming in a pool of savory sauce in a retro enameled metal plate.  The pie was exactly what I expected, meaty with melting chunks of beef, a bit bitter from the organ meat, and savory from the rich thick gravy inside.  The other sides were decent, but they brought this simple dish a bit over the top, especially in this heat.  It would have been the right dish in the cold winter but I had to get this fix in on this trip.

English Sandwiches

Well, something lighter and more digestible for the summer heat is an English Sandwich.  Yes, the simple bread and filling concoction that would make most roll their eyes.  Well, the English are famous for making fantastic combinations of this light meal that are easily available everywhere during these hot months from the Public Houses (aka Pubs) to the grocery stores.  A visit to a pub for a lighter fare after the monstrous pie meal was rewarded by a menu featuring some sandwiches.  My order came with slices of hearty country white bread (not the spongy Wonderbread crap) filled with some quality Wiltshire ham, with a clean and barely salty flavor, and slices of ripe tomato.  But what makes the sandwich British is the slathering of pungent British mustard that is biting enough to clear the sinuses.  Other favorite combinations that I have savored in the past are the classic Buttered Cucumber Sandwich and the Cheese and Chutney version.  Try these different light bites when visiting the Isles in the warmer months.

Tea ServersWhat’s is the next meal after lunch around these areas?  No, it is not dinner but tea.  When it was a bit cooler, my cousin treated me with some of her baking and she made some Scones for teatime.  Round pillows of short and buttery dough have been baked with a firm outer crust but soft and light when split open.  My cousin noted that the secret to making scrumptious ones is the use of a nutmeg in the mix.  To top of this pastry, she added some clotted cream, much like a thick whipped cream akin to mascarpone cream, but more of a buttery flavor.  To sweeten the deal, a huge dollop of fruity jam topped it off.  A good cuppa (cup of tea), stronger than the American version, with a touch of milk makes the perfect drink to go with these tasty bites.  Sorry, but I forgot to take a photo of the scones, but in lieu, I am posting a photo of some tea servers I came across at the British Museum.



Peking Duck and GarnishesChinese Roast and BBQ Pork

Peking Duck PancakeOn my last night, I met up with a former classmate that attended boarding school with me 30 years ago.  He and his girlfriend met me up at the tourist-packed Piccadilly Square, and we walked to Chinatown looking for some quality Chinese food that it is known for.  Looking at a throng of people waiting outside its doors, we decided to chance it and walk into Four Seasons on the busy Gerard Street.  For our appetizer, we ordered the Peking Duck – the meat was flavorful and the lacquered skin, the most important part, well rendered and quite crispy, making the wraps delectable and irresistible.  For the mains, part of the meal was a combination of Chinese Roast Pork and BBQ Pork. My friend and his gal were constantly reaching for this dish during the meal mainly due to the skillful seasoning and cooking of these cuts of meat.  The BBQ version was glazed with a sweet and savory sauce, and the Roast Pork pieces were slightly salty and made crispy from perfectly cooked and crunchy crackling.  The pool of addition sauce under the meaty mound was scooped up and poured over our bowls of rice until its last drop.  These fine dishes took me back to my youthful trips to London in hunt for excellent Chinese food as a relief from the trying boarding school fare that were served (hint – hunger strike).

Cheese and Crackers with PiccalillyWhat comes after the mains around here?  No, not necessarily sweet desserts but a Cheese Plate.  A visit back to my high school brought back lots of memories, from the train station and little village that has not changed in 30 years, to the ride up the hill that I used to trek up with my luggage, to the school that housed a lot of my memories of my early teen years, and the wonderful monks who still remembered me after countless of students that walked through its hallways.  One memory was having a Cheese Plate on special feast days for our lunches.  Different cheeses were usually served with Cream Crackers and a vegetable pickle called Piccalilly, something that I had not touched in 30 years but was resuscitated in my memory bank on this trip.  Somehow, I always manage to fit in a few slices of Stilton, Aged Cheddar, and Brie before dessert.



English Trifle

Summer PuddingFor the pudding or dessert lover, ok, here are a couple of them.  The first is Trifle, a mixture of cut fruit, whipped cream and pastry cream or thick custard.   This is a  combination of the freshness of seasonal fruit, sweetness of the custard, and the richness of the cream, all brought together in one single bite.  Not the most beautiful looking dessert but it is indeed satisfying.  Another sweet ending at this time of the year is Summer Pudding, consisting of white bread that has been soaked by the juices from a compote of different berries.  The bread will have taken the sweetness of the berry juices, holding together the fruit bits that can be topped with some sweetened whip cream or yogurt.  You can get good renditions of these desserts in the local supermarkets if you are too bothered to make them.



Hard CiderWalking around London, I noticed people hanging around outside of pubs while holding a pint of their favorite beverage, trying to stay cool from the uncomfortable heat.  On my few visits for a cool down, I ordered some Hard Cider, a drink that is not easily found on this end of the Atlantic Ocean.  The American version of cider is a dealkalized version of the UK drink, much like unfiltered apple juice. But the Continental version has a bit of alcohol punch and it is served very cold, much to my relief on those warm days.  These days, these apple brews come infused with different fruit flavors which I found revelatory on this trip.  If cider is not your cup of tea, there is always the myriad of beers and ales that would satisfy the thirsty traveler.

My return to the UK was definitely a nostalgic journey, from visiting my old High School, to getting reacquainted with old friends, relatives, and teachers, and to catch up on some British foods that I grew to love. Yes, the food scene has changed considerably in the last 3o years, and various international influences have made roadways into the local eats. So, when you are in this part of the world, discard what you have heard about English eats, and be open-minded to some wonderful culinary creations that can even surprise anyone – you may find a favorite among the many dishes.


A few months back, I decided to visit one of the first places that I had written a blog on, hoping to resavor their Moroccan dishes, but to my dismay, the restaurant was closed, and according to the gentleman outside enjoying his cigarette, it had changed ownership as it was preparing to open as another restaurant serving the same North African fare. I was intrigued about the new establishment and the quality of its food on the upcoming menu.

Marrakech RestaurantWell, a friend was going to turn the big Five-O. Not being one for pomp and circumstance, the reluctant one was not going to do anything to celebrate this milestone (What? Seriously?). Coming from a culture where one finds reasons for cause for celebration (including honoring the Winter Solstice), I took it upon myself to arrange a dinner for this fella. Knowing his affinity for Moroccan cuisine, I initially tried to make a reservation at a large venue that has been a local haunt for many years, until I found out that its shelf life had expired and the place was permanently closed, waiting for developers to raze it down and rebuild on that prime property. With few choices left, I corralled a bunch of his friends and we meet at Marrakech, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of DC.

Walking into the establishment, I noticed nothing had really changed since its former identity as Marrakesh P St. Once everyone, including the celebrant, settled in, we decided to order the $35 8-course dinner. Here we go!

Moroccan Tapenade

Appetizer: Olive Tapenade and Moroccan Bread: This was an awesome start with the moist fluffy bread making the perfect vehicle to sop up the slightly briny olive tapenade made sweet from finely grounded sweet onions, enriched by a layer of olive oil floating on top. I had to remind myself that this was not the first course yet, but I couldn’t refrain from dipping into this bowl constantly – neither could my friends.

Moroccan Soup

First Course: Moroccan House Soup. The bowl came with a broth filled with vermicelli noodles and a certain undistinguishable brown pea, similar to lentils. Most agreed that it was a bit under seasoned and it could have done with a spritz of lemon like how the former management used to serve it. The celebrant loved it though, he being a no-salt kind of guy.

Eggplant, Carrot, Spinach Combo

Second Course: Cooked Vegetable Salads.  A beautiful glass plate arrived like a triptych of three paintings. Each little serving was a true delight and they individually were wrestling for the diner’s attention. The Eggplant was sweet and spicy without a faint of its bitterness. The Carrot salad was spiced by some coriander seeds, lemon juice, and bits of parsley, which complemented the amazing sweetness of this root vegetable. The Spinach salad was mild and devoid of any bitter flavors, made savory with a light spice seasoning that made it homey and soulful.  This was a tantalizing trio indeed.

Chicken Bastilla

Third Course: Chicken Bastilla. This festive dish is a good yardstick of Moroccan restaurant. The phyllo dough was crispy on the outside dusted with some powdered sugar and cinnamon. The moist filling consisted of bits of shredded chicken and almond slivers, spiced with more cinnamon. I quite enjoyed this dish with the savory-sweet flavor combination. However, I could not finish this wedge of pie since it was chockfull of nuts and I was getting a bit full already. Less nuts and it would have been perfect.

Tagine PotsLamb Prune Tagine

Fourth Course: Lamb Tagine. The chunks of lamb were very savory from some spices and seasoning, and they were literally fork tender, which the celebrant raved about. Pieces of prune added a sweetness to the dish along with some fruitiness, while the sesame seeds and shards of toasted almond added some crunchy nuttiness to the dish. Amazingly, there was barely a single ounce of fat in the dish, indicating the quality of meat and the skillful kitchen.

Chicken Lemon Olive Tagine

Fifth Course: Chicken Tagine. Pieces of tender chicken have been cooked in the Tagine earthenware along with spices and seasoning to add lots of flavor while retaining the meat juices. Bits of preserved lemon and olives add their brininess as well as their fruity flavors to the dish. This is one of my favorite Moroccan dishes and they get it right here.

Vegetable Couscous

Sixth Course: Vegetable Couscous. Another Moroccan yardstick here. The semolina grain is well-flavored here without the bits being too mushy or too wet. The vegetables were perfectly cooked and seasoned: batons of carrots and zucchini, wedges of pumpkin, ribbons of cabbage, and a mound of garbanzo beans. I was getting real full but I couldn’t stop! LOL

Mint TeaSeventh Course: Mint Tea. No respectable Moroccan restaurant will serve a meal without this cup of fragrant hot tea. It was poured table side and we enjoyed the spectacle. The tea was not too sweet and it had a hint of the mint essence. However, it was dried mint, of which I would have preferred the fresh version.









Cinnamon Orange

Eighth Course: Orange Salad. The plate arrived with slices of orange that have been dusted with confectioners sugar and some cinnamon powder. Taking a few bites, I would not have imagined that cinnamon went well with this sweet citrus fruit. A light hint of orange blossom water took this simple dessert to a distant place.

White Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake

Bonus Course: White Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake. Just when everyone thought dinner was over, I pulled out this surprise.  The cake came from Desserts by Gerard, hidden in an inconspicuous strip mall in Oxon Hill, MD, and run by the former pastry chef at Jean-Louis Restaurant at the Watergate.   Moist and spongy cake is layered with a custard and chopped strawberry filling, and covered by a slightly sweetened whip cream frosting, which I prefer to the heavy butter cream, and topped with curls of white chocolate.  This is a perennial order for my birthday parties, and as much as you want to refuse a slice, “Resistance is Futile” (the Trekkie celebrant would appreciate this).  Every calorie from this delectable light bite (texture wise) is worth savoring at least more than just one plateful.

Marrakech RestaurantFinale:  A warm night, a not-so-in-denial mid-centurian, the various tasty and exotic dishes from a distant land, a sinfully good cake, an alluring belly dancer, a genial restaurant owner, sated and smiling guests, wonderfully exotic ambience, and finally attentive service.  All these elements made for a perfect celebration for my long-time friend who now has this night to remember.  The visit tonight only confirmed to us that Marrakech is worth paying more visits in the future judging by the wonderful experience we had there.

Marrakesh P Street on Urbanspoon

RG’s BBQ Café

With summer fast approaching, the anticipation for certain seasonal events seems to grow day by day along with the temperature as it inches its way up the thermometer: a trip to the beach, wearing shorts and sandals, indulging in heaps of ice-cream, and finally eating outdoor cooked food especially the American summer classic, barbeque.  With this fore-mentioned cooking style missing from my blog site, I have been quite lost in finding a suitable place to write about, given the large number of places that serve such offerings.

_6000991.jpgWell,  Social Media to the rescue.  I was checking in on one of the food review sites when I noticed a short write-up on a barbeque place in my neck of the neighborhood.  In the quick posting, the reviewer mentioned that an old barbeque house had been taken over by a culinary chef whose CV (link) reads like pedigree background.  He was raving about the different offerings, some traditional and some definitely out of the proverbial box.   Having read this, I knew there was no room for hesitation, doubt, or vacillation to step into this establishment located only a few miles down the road from my front door.

Located on the southbound side of the busy Route 1 (it’s tricky crossing the wide road with dashing traffic) in Laurel, MD, just across PG into Howard county, RG’s Barbeque Café is a small shack dwarfed by some larger business sandwiching this establishment.  I must admit that I had passed by this barbeque house many a times, but not much about its exterior was appealing enough to draw me through its doors.  But it now has a new owner who knows something about the restaurant business (including having competed on Iron Chef), and it has gone through a renovation with a new large sign, bright walls, and flowers beautifying its front.  Well, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, so here we go.


Stepping into the place, you notice a few tables encircled by large windows on three sides, with the order counter on the other end.  The menu is the old style push letter board with all the offerings advertised, while the specials are posted on a board in the dining area.  The first set of listings are Sandwiches which comes with the various barbequed meats: Pit Beef, BBQ Beef, Pulled Pork, Pit Ham, Pit Turkey, and Grilled Chicken – I decided to get the perennial favorite, Pulled Pork.  The sandwich arrived with toasted buns filled with a heaping of shredded pork topped by the house-made sauce.  This version does not disappoint those who are fond of this popular sandwich: the meat was tender and moist with a faint hint of smoke, while the vinegar-based sauce added the bold balance of acid, sweet, salt and quite a hit of spice heat to each bite, delectable enough for me to finish off the mound of meat in one siting.  A side of Baked Beans was the perfect strong partner in this combo – sweet, smoky, soft beans, and spicy from the use of chili heat. Definitely, the sandwich measures up to the high expectations of this classic.

_6001621.jpgThe other sandwich which is not typically a barbeque offering is the New Orleans classic, Fried Fish Po’boy.  The long sandwiched arrived packed with all its goodness – fried whiting, lettuce, tomato, house-made pickle, all slathered with the equally freshly-made remoulade sauce.  The fish had a mild clean flavor, moist yet crispy from its light outer white cornmeal batter.  The lettuce was a combination of mixed greens and the  ripe-red tomato exuding its sweet moisture. The pickles added some of its sweet and sour touch along with a slight crunch.  But what ties all the elements together are the quality bun that is light and soft yet strong enough to hold this heap together, and the “fantabulous” sauce that is rich, tangy, sweet, and packed with bits of pickles that takes each bite to its heavenly stratosphere.  This is Nawlin’s foodgasm!



_6001077.jpgThe house offers more than just the usual smoked offerings – Hamburgers and Hot Dogs.  A dining companion decided to order the Snoop Dog consisting of a half-smoked hot dog, crispy lettuce, ripe tomato, collard greens, pickles, onions and mustard ketchup.  According to the diner, it was quite a tasty bite but it was a bit too much for him to wrap his brain around.  It is definitely a supped up version of your regular hotdog, with its smoked sausage, slightly tangy collard greens, and a topping of the sweet tangy sauce, alongside the usual accouterments.  For my friend, this order had a bit of soul and funk(y) at the same time.  Maybe it is the perfect order for the more adventurous or those with a case of the munchies (Snoop Dog?).





Well, now to the main smoked meats.  On another visit, another dining companion ordered the Half Rack Ribs.  I couldn’t help but take a few bites from his plate.  The meat’s exterior was slightly crispy and well caramelized from the long stay on the oven rack, fragrant from the use of wood smoke, moist in the inside and literally possessing a fall-off-the-bone tenderness.  I enjoyed this classic barbeque prepared the correct way with all the various elements coming together to give you the perfect barbeque.  The topping is the North Carolina-styled vinegar based sauce with its molasses sweet, assertive acidity, and hot pepper piquancy that wakes up the diner an insatiable appetite for this scrumptious perfectly-cooked ribs. Some usual sides of Potato Salad and Coleslaw proved to be adequately good but nothing out of the ordinary.


For those not into red meat, there is the Barbeque Chicken.  The half chicken came smoked and slightly grilled judging from the burn marks on the skin. The flesh was flavorful from being cooked in the smoker, faintly aromatic from the use of fresh rosemary (aha, I found a tiny piece), and tender yet moist (including the breast meat) from the proper treatment.  The sauce topping was a redder and lighter color than the above version with its sweetness, less-assertive vinegar-base, and some chili heat zinging through it.  A couple of sides completed the meal.  The Dirty Rice is not your usual Southern version; this was flavored from mirepoix (fine dices of celery, onion, and peppers) and colored from probably burned sugar (a common Caribbean practice, which the chef’s parents hail from) and a good pinch of cumin that added the initial je-nais-sais-qoui moment which turned into a gentle smile on this reviewer’s face.  The Texas Street Corn is a mélange of slightly crunchy sweet fresh corn, mixed with some vegetal tasting crunchy bell peppers, freshly-cooked black beans, biting jalapeño peppers, fragrant cilantro, a hit of tangy feta cheese, all tied together by a touch of cream.  I enjoyed this bowl full of its fresh quality and the various textural and taste elements that each bite had.  It was more like Texas Chef Corn rather than a street version for me, which is a good thing here.

Bacon Wrapped Barbeque Quail, Collard Greens & Mac & Cheese

From the menu of specials, I chose the Bacon Wrapped BBQ Quail  for lunch.  Pieces of the poultry are filled with a bread stuffing, wrapped with a piece of bacon and slathered with the similar sauce as the chicken.  Wow! The quail was fairly firm but still quite moist, complemented by a bold stuffing packed with flavor from some sausage (the cook didn’t want to divulge the type) and mirepoix.  The outer layer of bacon was slightly crispy adding its porcine smoky flavor to each bite.  The sauce was the perfect complement being the lighter version than the one served with the beef ribs.  A side of collard greens was a good pairing with the meal with its tender leaves made tasty from the use of flavored stock (a minute sliver of smoked meat was the giveaway) and tangy from a good hit of spicy vinegar which is a North Carolinian and Mid-Southern tradition. But what stole the show here was the Mac & Cheese.  The bowl of creamed pasta was not your typical Momma’s.  This came with spiral pasta, white from the sauce that packed a tangy punch with the use of either Gorgonzola or Bleu Cheese which took this pedestrian side dish to another direction with gastronomic interest.  If weren’t for its caloric health warning, another bowl of this rich noodle would have made its way to my table.


_6001087.jpgSitting on the order counter is a display of desserts tempting the diner to save space for these sweet treats. A friend’s order of the Sweet Potato Pie was a homerun for him.  This miniature pie had a firm yet buttery and flaky crust, filled with a not-too-sweet and moist filling spiced up by the usual cinnamon-clove-nutmeg combo that was distinctive but not overpowering.  This sweet bite reminded my friend of a good home-made sweet concoction served on celebrations and holidays.  On another visit, Bread Pudding was my choice for the finale.  The sweet square was denser that what I expected, not too sweet, fragrant from baking spices, and sweetened with soaked raisins.  The topping sauce was literally the icing on the cake.  It was rich from the use of cream, sweet and dark from caramelized sugar, and heady from some vanilla and probably a touch of booze, reminding me of butter scotch sauce.  This dessert was worth following my personal motto that desserts should only be eaten when the calories are worthwhile, and indeed this was the case.  An order of the Glazed Lemon Pound Cake was quite good with the noticeable lemon essence and the rich buttery cake.  However, it was a tad dry for me and its butteriness was too much of a good thing for this reviewer who is trying to shed a few pounds for the summer.


After only a few months under new management, the dining room of RG’s BBQ Café has been filled without a lick of advertisement, relying solely on the word of mouth and online reviews, and deservingly so.  While respecting traditions and injecting some culinary experience and acumen, the offerings in this smoke house cater to those who want the expected (and receiving an excellent product) and those who are willing to go beyond the traditional. With food this good and exciting, I could see myself sitting in their new outdoor patio during the warm months, and with such delectable temptations offered here, such visits will definitely extend beyond the short lazy summer months.

RG's BBQ Cafe on Urbanspoon

San Francisco

After a chilling winter in the East Coast (it snowed in DC on the second day of my SF trip) and a two-year hiatus, I decided to spend my Spring Break holiday in one of my favorite cities, San Francisco.  It is definitely a big change of locale for me as its energy is totally different and refreshing from the East Coast vibe, who tends to get suffocating after a while. Besides the nicer weather and change of scenery, one thing I enjoy and look forward to is a wide variety of restaurants that can be attributed to the cosmopolitan feel of the city and the different culinary influences stemming from the various immigration groups that have landed in the Bay Area.  Without much further ado, here is a quick run down of places that I visited in one week.


Since I was visiting my college buddy dating back to the first day of Graduate school in Maryland 24 years ago, he chose our first meal to celebrate his birthday at Cha Cha Cha in the Haight neighborhood.  This local chain has a few branches in the area and it serves up a menu that represents various Latino culinary traditions, or Pan Latino.  Our opener was the popular pickled seafood, Ceviche, that was brimming with small shrimp, bay scallops (the smaller ones), and squid.  The seafood morsels were sweet and tender, well pickled by the lime juice, and fragrant with some jalapeño pepper and cilantro.  A side of sweet plantains were as good as they get, accompanied by a smooth paste of refried black beans.  The seafood paella was rather decent with pieces of shrimp, tender pieces of fish and some mussels, embedded in some aromatic rice made yellow sans the pricey saffron threads.  However the Jerk Chicken was not close to any authentic version that I have savored – it was tasty but the name was a total misnomer.  Despite the last dish, this meal was a pretty good start to my gastronomic week.


For his birthday dinner, my buddy chose Cafe Ethiopia in the Mission District.   Our orders arrived on a large enameled platter covered with the sourdough injera bread, topped by the various protein and vegetables.  I was quite impressed by the dishes since each was very tasty and held its distinctive flavor and character while setting themselves apart from each other.  The orders that impressed me most were the collard greens, the lentils, and the salmon dish that had moist chunks of the seafood covered by a tasty but not overpowering sauce.  An order of goat was a bit unfortunate as a bit more cooking would have made them less tough.  The extra pieces of injera bread were the perfect vehicle to scoop up the food and the accompanying sauces.  One of the guests exclaimed that this was the best Ethiopian food he has tasted in the Bay Area. and I must agree that it was as good as the ones found in the DC area replete with restaurants of this East African cuisine.


Staying at the Haight district, I stumbled across this little dive serving Thai food – The Best of Thai Noodle.  I must say that such name tends to conjure up some suspicion, but I decided to give them a try for lunch.  I ordered the Combination Of Sliced Rare Beef, Beef Stew, And Beef Meatballs Noodle Soup since I was in the mood for such a noodle soup dish on a cool day.  The bowl arrived with strands of wide rice noodles swimming in a very rich fragrant soup filled with pieces of stewed beef pieces and beef meatballs.  With my first bite, I recognized the dish that I have had recently – Boat Market Noodle Soup.  Upon enquiring, the waitress confirmed my observation.  This bowl was as good as the one I had a few months back in Thai Square with the heady cassia and star-anise laced soup, the tender pieces of beef and meatballs, and the fresh noodles.  Looking at the menu, this small joint offers an amazing array of authentic dishes from this Southeast Asian tradition.  This establishment is definitely worth checking out despite its rather dingy appearance.

The Slanted Door

The Slanted DoorFor lunch the next day, I decided to go Vietnamese, and I stopped by the most reputed Vietnamese restaurant in the area located in the Embarcadero Ferry Terminal – The Slanted Door.  I had eaten at this establishment a few years back and I was looking forward to it again after the absence.  For the starter, I ordered some Chilled Wild Louisiana Gulf Shrimp.  Large pieces of shrimp came with sides of chili spiced cocktail sauce and a Thai basil aioli.  The shellfish were perfectly cooked and their sweetness in each bite was indicative of the freshness and quality, complemented by the irresistible sauces.  For the main course, I ordered the Grilled Pork Belly and Meatball Rice Vermicelli Noodles.  Basically this is the supped up version of the Bun Noodle Salad enhanced by large pieces of moist savory grilled meatballs, tender pieces of tasty pork belly, and pieces of the house Imperial Roll made with chunks of shrimp and ground pork- this was a hearty, satisfactory and flavor-packed bowl.

The Slanted DoorFor dessert, I couldn’t help but hone in on something whimsical listed on the menu despite feeling rather full after the above dishes – Lemongrass Cotton Candy.  A big cloud of this spun sugar arrived at my table that left me bug-eyed by the unexpected size – I guess I have not been to the local fair in a number of years.  When the dessert arrived, I slowly tore pieces away from it, with a bigger amount each time.  It is basically your typical cotton candy with a citrusy and slightly grassy lemongrass flavor that made this childhood favorite as irresistible to the now adult.  I literally had to stop myself from finishing the whole mass and I got the rest packed for home.  The meal at this Modern Vietnamese restaurant was worth every dollar spent with the high level of cooking, the artful presentation, and the authentic flavors that left me satisfied and dreaming of this gastronomic experience.  Btw, don’t forget the Lychee Ice Tea that made the perfect thirst quencher with the above dishes – exotic and refreshing at the same time.

Spicy Eggplant and Mushrooms.Golden Era Lemongrass "Chicken"

No where is better to try Vegan/Vegetarian cuisine than in the West Coast, and I returned to my and BFF’s favorite establishment- Golden Era Vegan Restaurant.  A vegetable dish that we have enjoyed and always ordered is Spicy Eggplant Mushroom.  Pieces of purple skinned Asian eggplant are paired with fresh button mushrooms, crunchy carrots, slivers of onion, and large pieces of green onions, all coated in a slightly sweet spicy sauce that brings all the different elements together harmoniously.  A must order is the house’s most popular dish, and rightfully so – Lemongrass Deluxe.  Pieces of mock chicken have been spiced up by a heady amount of shaved lemongrass and a dry spicy sauce, ringed by crispy bright green broccoli florets that make the perfect mild foil to the herbacious spicy “chicken” bits.  The platter comes with a generous amount of the protein, and this dish always delivers.  I have spent days dreaming before coming to the West to savor this vegan delight.  Word of warning: it is located in the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood but walking distance from downtown, hence the importance of having a dining companion with you for the walk.


Suzu Japanese Noodle HouseWith a large population of Japanese descent, it would be amiss to not savor authentic Japanese cuisine in Japantown, located in the Fillmore neighborhood.  That is where I headed to for lunch one day to savor some Japanese Ramen noodles in Suzu Japanese Noodle House recommended by my college buddy.  Agedashi was the first order, consisting of tofu chunks that have been fried in a light batter, sitting on a pool of dashi sauce and topped with a piece of eggplant tempura, grated daikon and fresh ginger, and slivers of bonito flakes and dried seaweed.  This was a bowl of clean pure flavors that just left a serene contentment within.  For the main course, I ordered Spicy Pork and Egg in Spicy Broth Ramen. The bowl came with a mound of al dente egg Ramen noodles topped by a single sliver of roast pork (meat as a garnish, not main course), half a boiled egg, pieces of bamboo shoot pickle, raw spinach leaves, and topped by a mound of white leek strips.  The soup was a fairly rich meat stock spiced up by some slightly smoky chili paste.  The bamboo spoon to help slurp the soup added a level of authenticity in addition to the small diner that whisked me away to a cramped eatery in the Far East.  Be prepared to be patient for a table in this small establishment, but it is worth the wait.


_6002278.jpgOne of my favorite parts of the city is North Beach where many Italian eateries can be found.  Caffe Greco is a spacious deli that serves Paninis, and my order made with Prosciutto ham, Mozzarella cheese, and Red Pepper was the perfect afternoon bite with the salty meat, mild and slightly creamy cheese, and the pickled red pepper slivers that added the acid touch and herbal oregano flavors to the airy pieces of pressed Foccacia bread that held the fillings together.  My companion’s sandwich made with turkey and large ribbons of zucchini was equally successful, albeit milder in flavor.  The accompanying side salad was well-made with the right amount of balsamic vinaigrette coating the healthy mix of a variety of lettuces, making the lunch complete. To chase the bites down, we ordered the house special, Grecco Sunrise.  A tall glass of Orangina is spiked with a shot of cherry syrup which turned it orangey red at the lower half, hence its name.  It was the perfect sip with our sandwiches in this part of town that evokes the Mediterranean.


_6002353.jpgFor dinner, my college mate invited me for some raw seafood at Sushi Time in the Castro area.  Located in a small mall, this cramped space has only a few tables along with the sushi bar, and when we got there, a line was waiting for a table.  An opener of a Seaweed Salad and a Cooked Spinach Salad were simple but tasty appetizers.  The Avocado Tuna Tartar was delectable with pieces of spicy tune paired with creamy avocado punctuated by pieces of fresh asparagus.  The pieces of sushi tasted clean and fresh, as good as most good sushi joints, and there was a good variety for the diner.  What stood out for us was a serving of Butterfish sashimi which exuded clean yet a rich unctuous texture and flavor.  The set menus are reasonable and priced competitively. Like the ramen eatery, it is worth the wait and the cramp space has that Japanese urban feel.


I was the honored guest of a brunch hosted by a Facebook social group that I am a member of, and we met at Catch in the Castro neighborhood.  This spacious space serves American fare with a heavy emphasis on seafood.  What caught my attention was the Salmon BLT which came with an option of a simple salad, Ceaser salad, or french fries – where else can you find a seafood BLT but in Cali!  My sandwich came with perfect sautéed salmon fillets with a crispy exterior but moist inside, topped by crispy bacon and spicy arugula leaves, moistened by a citrus aioli, enclosed by pieces of crispy french baguette.  I really enjoyed this sandwich with the well cooked and well matched ingredients.  The side Caesar salad was creamy with the rich tangy dressing and shards of Parmesan cheese.  Everyone in the group seemed to enjoy their pasta or seafood dishes.  If only I could have tasted someone’s seafood soup that looked very temptingly rich and brimming with pieces of the sea.


For my last meal before heading to the airport, we walked up to Cole Valley to La Boulange (not Le Boulanger).  This is a local chain that has branches in many parts of town, serving up French pastries, meals, and drinks. My mini sandwich of Smoked Salmon was excellent with the quality fish paired with a slathering of cream cheese and bits of red onion and green chives sandwiched by the well-made roll.  An order of Almond Croissant hit the right spot with the short flakiness of its dough (not stretchy elastic) sweetened by the rich almond paste filling and accentuated by a plethora of toasted almond slivers on top – it is one of the best almond croissants I have tasted in a long time.  My friend’s French Toast was decadent, consisting of a round sponge cake dipped in an eggy custard (real eggs) and cooked gently to produce a light ethereal version of this breakfast staple, washed down by a decent “bol” of roasted Cafe au Lait.  For my flight home, I took out a Walnut Baguette with Prosciutto and Figs, which was an interesting tasty combination.  A dessert of Lemon Custard Turnover was the perfect flaky pastry with the rich sweet lemony filling that made me wish I had another order – it definitely sweetened the long-haul home.  Now, I see why reviewers give this chain an overwhelming thumbs-up, and deserving so.

Ah, San Francisco – The city of Beauty and Great Eats! Here is my photo essay of the city: San Francisco

Pasta Plus

Volterra over Villa IreneRecently I received an e-mail from my cousin, who resides in London, teasing me with her account of a trip to Sienna, Italy, filled with a touch of giddiness since she was visiting during the middle of the coveted truffle season. This correspondence brought back memories of two summers ago when my family and I spent time with her in her expansive villa in the middle of the Tuscan countryside overlooked by the walled Etruscan city of Volterra. On this trip, I learned three things: that time moved slower and less-rushed which made all of us take our experiences in at a leisurely pace, that life still goes on without having to stay in touch with all the world’s goings-on’s (this is attributed to the absence of cellphones, internet, and media), and there was sheer beauty everywhere, whether in the arts, the weathered buildings, the breath-taking vistas, or in the delicious food, which captivated me with its taste, freshness, simplicity, and creativity. The cuisine that I savored across waters opened my eyes to a new-found appreciation for Italian food, beyond the usual Italian-American fare that has become rather average and uninspiring to my palate.

Upon returning back to this side of the world, I was determined to find good restaurants that could replicate that same level of quality that I grew fond of, and I have written on a few Italian restaurants on my blog. Here is an addition to that list.

Pasta Plus lies in the middle of a dead mini strip mall in the heart of traffic-busy Laurel, MD, a suburb off a major highway connecting Washington DC and Baltimore. Located in the middle island dividing the north and south bound lanes of busy Route 1, it is hard to imagine that there is any commercial life there besides an Arby’s and a muffler shop. Walking past its plain-looking glass door, you immediately encounter quite a vibrant life within its four walls, a rather bustling dinner crowd and a brick oven within your line of sight that is exuding the smell of baked yeasty dough and tempting you with crusty pizzas topped with colorful ingredients. Crates of wines hanging above in the walls and the woven rope seats in the dining area immediately transport you to a good Trattoria that is inviting, and it builds up a sense of anticipation for something worth tasting. For this review, I made a several trips to get a good sampling of their offerings.


In addition to a standard menu, Pasta Plus offers daily and seasonal specials that change according to what is available. For the starter, I ordered the seasonal specials of Sautéed Mushrooms and on another visit, Fresh Mozzarella and Marinated Artichokes. Thick slivers of Portabello mushroom have been cooked with lots of garlic, which makes it the natural seasoning partner to this fungi. Pungent pieces of toasted garlic enhanced the woodsiness of the mushroom which made them very tasty. The thick pieces had a rather firm texture and robust flavor that made the dish satisfying, especially paired with pieces of the house-baked sourdough bread. The second appetizer arrived in a beautiful arrangement, all replicating the colors of the Italian flag. Wedges of mozzarella tasted very mild and smooth with its slight creamy freshness teasing the tongue. The artichoke halves were marinated in tangy red wine vinegar (judging by its red tint) and they equally exuded freshness while lacking any tin-flavor found in pre-packaged versions. I marvelled at how the tangy vegetable enhanced the mild cheese, and they made good complementary partners in this dish. Good starters indeed.

DSC_2312.jpgOn one occasion, a dining companion decided to order the seasonal special of Zuppa di Zucca, or Butternut Soup. When I saw it on the menu, it was not a dish that was exactly screaming for my attention since I’ve tried many versions of this recipe. When his bowl arrived at the table, I was curious by the yellow-tinged soup. With the first spoonful, my friend was marvelling how good the sips were, and I knew I had to partake in his bowl. After a taste, I was amazed by the flavors and the first thing came to mind was “butternut chowder”. The hot liquid had the distinctive squash flavor without overwhelming the tongue with its natural sweetness. But what makes the soup delectable is a level of savoriness brought by the use of a good stock that is aromatic and has body, and the use of a touch of cream that brought some smoothness and unctuousness to the humble ingredient. I couldn’t stop at just a few spoonfuls, and I must have drunk at least a third of that bowl.


DSC_2733.jpgEvery entrée at this eatery comes with a complementary salad that is proper and made with a variety of enticing lettuce leafs and slices of vegetables. To break the mould, I decided to order two types of salads. The first is Arugula, Radicchio, Mushroom and Parmigiano Salad. A plate of crispy arugula leaves arrived with slivers of mushroom and Parmigiano ribbons strewn on top. The bitterness of the arugula, a flavor that I enjoy in vegetables like many Italians do, was balanced by the mild button mushrooms and the creamy saltiness of the fresh Parmigiano that tempered the other flavors. As its dressing, the Creamy Italian had the right amount of acidity and sweetness to tie the disparate elements together in a forkful. Another salad on the menu is a favorite appetizer of mine as well as my friends – Seafood Salad. Pieces of whole shrimp, calamari rings, and scallops sit on a mound of red and green oak leaves, surrounded by a ring of mussels in shell. What is truly amazing is the kitchen’s skilfulness in cooking the seafood perfectly – the sweet shrimp not rubbery, the calamari fork tender, the scallops moist and flaky, and the mussels still plump and juicy. What brings these elements together is a marinate of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil that adds some fresh fruitiness to the salad along with a good hit of fresh Italian parsley. This dish brings back wonderful memories of all the wonderful seafood dishes during my Italian trip, and it definitely ranks up there with those dishes. For an appetizer, it is packed with fresh seafood and it is worth the order – Buonissimo!


DSC_2747.jpgNo reputable Italian restaurant will have its breads and pizza missing from its menu, and the restaurant’s strength can be found in the Pizzas and Paninis that they make. A friend’s Vegetarian Pizza arrived with the dough cooked just right with some singed marks from having spent only a short time in the searing wood-burning brick oven. The thin crust had lots of flavor from the yeast fermentation, a tinge of salt, and a faint aroma of the wood, while the tomato sauce tasted fresh and not paste-like commonly found in other versions. The slices of eggplant, zucchini, mushroom and pieces of broccoli still had their textural integrity but without the raw flavors due to the high heat cooking. In true Italian fashion, cheese was absent from the pizza, which I found to be the case in all the pizzas on the Continent, to which a bowl of shaved Parmigiano was left for the diner’s discretion. On another occasion for lunch, I ordered Grilled Panini with Prosciutinni and Mozzarella. Pieces of house-made Foccacia bread sandwiched thin slices of fresh Prosciutinni and fresh Mozzarella, moistened by a red-pepper coulis spread. The spongy bread was yeasty and faintly herbal from some rosemary and oregano, the spread naturally sweet, encompassing the mildly salty Italian ham and the mild-tasting fresh cheese. The grilling under a weighted press compressed the elements together while heating the sandwich up and giving it an outer crispness. Amazingly, the compressed sandwich still felt light to the bite, and the flavors were rather mild with all the elements holding their distinctive characteristics.


DSC_2742.jpgThe true litmus test for an Italian restaurant is its Risotto and Pasta dishes. For the seasonal special, I honed on Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto. This dish was a true delight with the medium-grain rice cooked slightly creamy while holding its integrity and tasting very savory from the use of a good seafood stock and some Parmigiano cheese. The pieces of shrimp were moist and tender, devoid of any rubberiness, and the pieces of asparagus cooked well without being mushy. All the elements were in perfect harmony, and this dish is a true Italian classic combination of ingredients which sang beautifully in my mouth. For lunch, a friend ordered Linguine Frutti di Mare. A nest of dried egg pasta cooked al dente (Continental al dente, which is a bit too firm for most Americans) sat under a heaping mound of calamari rings, scallops, clams, and shrimp, surrounded by opened mussels. The sauce was full-bodied and savory made from garlic, white wine, seafood stock, spiked by a pinch of dried red pepper flakes, and finished with a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Again, we see the kitchen’s skilful treatment of every ingredient especially the seafood elements that were perfectly cooked and tender. The good quality dried pasta and its al dente cooking are what I really appreciated as it added the necessary satisfactory body to the dish. This dish is quite pricey for dinner but worth a splurge; the lunch order is a better deal though. As with all the other meat and seafood entrees, a side dish of fresh egg pasta is served with the light tomato sauce, which again points to the restaurant’s high standards.

Fresh Pasta LasagnaDSC_3064.jpg

After a few visits to Pasta Plus, my friends and I have become fond of a specific dish served in this eatery: Lasagna. Now, you may cringe and wince at the thought of a stodgy and heavy layered pie that most of us have grown up eating in this country. But this version is quite the opposite of what we are accustomed to. Layers of light fresh egg pasta are interspersed by a thin coating of ricotta along with layers of minced beef Bolognese sauce, topped with a coating of fresh tomato sauce. What makes this slice different is the lack of mozzarella and Parmigiano cheese that would weigh the dish down. Furthermore, the use of fresh pasta brings a delicate and light touch to the dish, and you can literally cut it like an airy layered cake; no knife is needed here, just the fork and a hungry mouth. On another visit, I decided to order its vegetarian counterpart – Lasagne Verde or Spinach Lasagna. Sheets of egg spinach pasta alternate in between thin layers of ricotta, with bits of fresh peas studded in between that provided some textural interest. The ricotta had a slight sponginess due to some egg mixed into it, thus there was some structural integrity that was devoid of mushiness. The pasta sheets were slightly green from the use of spinach leaves but it was a bit too thin and soft in certain parts. The fresh tomato sauce was just as good as the meat version, and it added the acidic tanginess to cut through the rich cheese – this is a worthy meatless dish indeed. In addition to this offering, there is a handful of other vegetarian dishes worth ordering.

Torta di ZabaglioneTartufo Gelato

No decent Italian meal is complete without a sampling of the Dolci, or desserts. During most visits, I was rather stuffed from the wonderfully delectable dishes, but on the rare occasion, I ordered a taste of their sweet offerings. For a special, I was curious when Torta Zabaglione was listed on the menu. The cake arrived with layers of sponge cake that has been layered with some Zabaglione sauce made from egg yolks and Marsala wine. The slice was fragrant and quite light, enriched by the rich yet light sauce carrying some sweet oakey notes from the spiced wine. This was an awesome combination, and my friends and I wished we had ordered another slice – a truly inspiring cake, albeit made for the adult. Another occasion called for Tartufo Gelato as the sweet ending. A dark chocolate and vanilla ice-cream ball is studded with a maraschino cherry and shards of slivered almonds, encased by a thin layer of dark chocolate. I enjoyed the good quality ice-cream especially its chocolate intensity, complemented by the crunchy fragrant almond pieces and the sweet cherry center. The thick outer coating echoed the ice-cream’s chocolatiness with its slight bitter tannine like qualities that cut through the rich creaminess, which I appreciated since I’m a chocoholic. What amazed me was the delicate and not over-powering sweetness, which reminded me of the gelatos and desserts in Italy that we inhaled daily. For my friend who was celebrating his birthday, this ice-cream “truffle” was truly a happy ending for him even in the middle of winter!

Pasta Plus is truly a hidden treasure offering an amazing variety of authentic Italian dishes that you may not find in most Italian restaurants, serving up dishes that are refined and tasty due to a skilful and well-seasoned kitchen. What I most appreciate about this establishment is its honoring of what good authentic Italian cooking is about: fresh and top-quality ingredients, creative and seasonal dishes, and a true understanding of its culinary tradition to produce time-tested top quality authentic dishes. The service is congenial and efficient, the rope-woven seats a bit passé and not always comfortable, and the space a bit cramped when the place is packed full. In addition, the restaurant does not take any reservations. But it is worthwhile putting up with a few inconveniences because a meal here will erase the wait for a table, and it will make you dream of the gastronomic delights for the next few days, course by course, and in my case, also bring back wonderful memories of sun-filled Tuscany. Now, that’s worth dreaming about, day and night.

Pasta Plus on Urbanspoon

Huong Viet

Huong VietThis must be some bad economic times that we are going through.  Uncertainty seems to hover over the housing market, the stock market, the job market, a looming sequestration, and undoubtedly the restaurant business.  More than a handful of restaurants that I have reviewed have folded up since I started a year ago.  To make matters worse, both Vietnamese restaurants on my blog have shut their doors, one after nearly 15 years of business, and the other just a mere 8 months.  As you may have read about my elusive search for a good Vietnamese eatery near me and in DC, this series of events was quite a blow.

With such daunting news in  mind, I approached my trusty Vietnamese barber and asked her for a reliable recommendation.  She pointed me to Eden Center, in the Seven Corners neighborhood of Fairfax, VA, where there is a confluence of Vietnamese business that populate that rather expansive plaza.  This was one place that I used to visit quite often to savor some good cooking when the Four Sisters Restaurant ran their business there before moving further out to the boondocks.   After their move, there was little cause to visit that area except when the occasional taste for steamed tofu with ginger syrup propelled me to drive the nearly 30 miles to terra incognito, as it seems that way to me.   But with a strong reference in mind, I coraled my dinner group on the eve of the Lunar New Year, or Tết in Vietnamese, and paid a visit to Huong Viet , a small eatery that has survived all these years since my visit there nearly 20 years ago.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Walking into the establishment, the decor and the set up are not as plush or creative as most modern restaurants, and the regularly spaced long and short tables do bring to mind a nice clean cafeteria.  After a short wait outside in the cold, we were shown to our long table that accommodated my party of five.   Any feeling of doubt or hesitancy was immediately erased by a sense of assurance brought about by the busyness of the restaurant and the number of Vietnamese-speaking customers in the place. With that thought in mind, I plunged into the menu and quickly ordered some common appetizers.  The Summer Rolls came with soft rice crepe paper wrapped around a filling of perfectly cooked moist rice vermicelli noodles, fresh sweet shrimp, mild roast pork, crisp lettuce, fragrant mint leaves, and finished with a long strand of pungent Asian chive.  But what tied all these disparate elements together was the dipping sauce.  This restaurant’s version had only a bare hint of hoisin unlike other versions that overwhelms the palate with its flavor.  Mixed in it was a peanut sauce that made it rich and nutty, and its unique balance pointed towards it being house-made rather than store-bought.  This was a good fresh bite.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls/Cha GioWe also ordered the counterpart to the above – Fried Spring Roll or CHẢ GIÒ.  When it arrived at the table, I noticed a few variations from the norms commonly found in other places.  First, the large bubbles on the fried skin indicated that it was made in a traditional fashion with Vietnamese rice crepe paper and not with Chinese spring roll sheets that are commonly used these days.  The second was that it was cut into two before it was deep-fried, which intrigued me even further.   Sheer hunger or delectable food can produce a certain suspension of analysis of thought as I honestly don’t recall much from this dish.  All I remember was that the stuffing tasted very moist and savory encased by a crispy shell, and these bites disappeared quickly among my friends who snatched them up while piping hot.  The side sweet and salty fish sauce was adequate but not as memorable as the expensive elixir served in the defunct Green Papaya restaurant.   However, this dish was worth a moment of relapse during dinner.

Young Lotus Root Salad

Another common appetizer found in this Southeast Asian cuisine is Young Lotus Root Salad.  Strands of cooked lotus roots have been mixed with pieces of pork and whole shrimp, lightly seasoned by the ubiquitous sweet and salty fish sauce.  Wow, I could barely get a bite of this because it was ferociously attacked by my companions, and deservedly so.  The pieces of lotus were perfectly cooked while maintaining its characteristic light crunch along with its savoriness developed from being marinated.  The sweet shrimp and moist pork provided the unctuous notes to the mild root, while the crushed peanuts and fried shallot rings added the nuttiness and dark flavors to the clean mild tasting salad.  The rounds of addictive shrimp crackers provided some textural interest as well as serving as the perfect scoopers for this melange.  This was definitely a hit for all of us and we should have ordered another serving of it.

Riceflour Pancake/Banh Xeo

For our main courses, we ordered a quartet of dishes.  The first was a classic Vietnamese dish found in any reputable restaurant – Bánh Xèo.  This stuffed crepe dish literally means “sizzling cake” consisting of a rice flour crepe stuffed with pieces of pork, cooked shrimp and a heaping of cooked bean sprouts.  The crepe had a hint of coconut milk and it was quite crispy, however, not rich or crispy enough for my taste, compared to the fabulous version in The Green Papaya.  Like most versions, the crepe is underseasoned for it is the sweet and salty fish sauce that imparts the necessary seasoning to this very mild dish.  Once my companions figured how to attack the dish, they were enjoying every bite of it.  But I could not help but reminiscence the rich delectable version of the aforementioned closed restaurant.

Shakey Beef

While waiting outside, an acquaintance of one of my dining companions recommended that we order Shakey Beef.  The name was odd enough for me and I had never come across a dish with such name.  The order arrived with pieces of cubed beef along with some onion and green pepper squares, plain and assuming.  The first bite revealed a personality beyond its unassuming looks.  The beef was tossed and seared on high heat in the wok, judging by pieces of caramelized bits, while maintaining a tender medium-rare inside.  Surprisingly, every bite tasted well seasoned and very savory from what tastes like soy sauce, bits of garlic, and a hint of sugar that brought the flavors to another level.   This was a truly successful dish for all of the diners and I enjoyed every beefy bite.

Shrimp with VegetablesTo bring some balance to the meat dishes, we ordered Shrimp with Vegetables.  Pieces of celery, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and baby corn are paired with pieces of large shrimp in this dish.  The sweet tender shrimp made the perfect foil to the pieces of sweet al dente pieces of vegetables, while the mushroom adds some earthiness and the baby corn some young sweetness.  What brought all the elements together was the rather rich sauce packed with garlic pieces flavored with oyster sauce and thickened with corn starch.  Although it was a rather light dish, the savory sauce made it seem richer, and it was worth ordering this vegetable seafood dish.  Another hit among my dining group.

Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken

No visit to taste this Southeast Asian cuisine should have a lemongrass dish amiss from the dining table, and we honed on Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken.  The plate arrived with chucks of chicken thigh cooked with large pieces of sweet yellow onions, swimming in a shallow pool of brown sauce.  What truly made this two-ingredient dish delectable and successful was the sauce that was packed with the citrusy lemongrass paired with the seafood salty fish sauce with a tinge of sweetness from the caramel that rounded off the flavors. The pieces of chicken thigh was not the mild breast version so as to stand up to the punchy sauce while adding the necessary body along with the sweet and pungent onion.  Even when the morsels were gone, I was lapping up every drop of sauce with bits of rice as I could not get enough of the sauce that transported me to Indochina.  Another must order here for sure!

Vietnamese Drink Dessert

Despite feeling content with the above dishes, I was curious about the unique Vietnamese sweet servings.  There was not much in terms of solid desserts with the exception of Caramel Flan but the menus listed a list of sweet drinks with bits of “stuff” that are commonly eaten by the locals.  My glass came with a concoction of whole red beans, sweet corn, crushed peanuts, and bits of green agar-agar jelly.  The sweetening agent was a syrup consisting of a mixture of brown sugar and rich coconut milk.  Upon mixing the various elements, things did not look very appetizing at first, but with the first mouthful, it was a revelation of flavors and textures.  Every element spoke for itself: nuttiness from the peanuts, sweetness from the corn, starchiness from the red beans, molasses sweetness from the brown sugar, and vegetal creaminess from the coconut milk.  The green jelly did not add any flavor at all but a jellybean-like texture consistency to the bite, which a couple of my friends found a bit disconcerting – LOL.  Before I knew it, most of my dining companions were partaking in this sweet dish, and we finished it con mucho gusto.

Huong VietComing back to Huong Viet for me was like the return of the prodigal son.   When in doubt, do what the Romans do, or as in this case, what the Vietnamese do.  Thanks to my barber’s infallible suggestion, I’m glad to have made the long trek to Eden Center to taste what has always been there all these years – proper delectable Vietnamese dishes that wowed my dining group even days after our visit.  Never mind the inattentive service at times and the bare ambience.  But what makes up for the shortcomings is the main reason to haul oneself there – the impressive dishes.  Note to diner – they only accept cash but we walked out of there with barely with a dent made since it was around $20/person.   With such good cooking and low prices, I would easily do the 30-mile drive.

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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.

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Bistro D’oc

Bistro D'ocOn New Year’s Day, while walking down 10th St. NW near the heart of the financial district, I came across a quaint looking building, beaming like a sore thumb amidst an ocean of modern glass and steel structures.  When I noticed the large “Bistro” sign in the window, it thrilled me to know that there was a French eatery in the heart of town.  After having reviewed other French establishments in the MD suburbs (See K Town Bistro) and in the VA neighborhood of Alexandria (See Yves Bistro), I was eager to add a downtown locale to the list of restaurants of one of my favorite cuisines.

Located across the street from the infamous Ford’s Theater in which President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Bistro D’oc sits in a wooden and brick structure dating back to the 1830’s.  Walking through its doors you are immediately assaulted by the rich orange walls and deep ocean blue trimmings that evoke the colors of the Mediterranean.  This establishment celebrates the traditions and regional cuisine of Languedoc, hence the restaurant’s name, serving dishes commonly found in that southwest French province that borders Spain and the Mediterranean.  In addition to the bright color scheme, you are immediately transported to a different ambience that is a prelude of what to expect from a dining experience enhanced by the surrounding wooden structure, the old wall sconces, and the side furniture that evoke a yesteryear.


DSC_1720.jpgOn my first visit, I invited my BFF to join me for dinner to celebrate my birthday.  From the moment of taking a seat, the attention to details are noticeable by the diner.  A complementary serving of bread and butter sets itself apart from the usual humdrum.  Here we have a large slab of fresh butter that is a far cry from the chintzy prepackaged little aluminium foil squares.  The French bread is truly veritable in quality with the hard outer crust covering an airy yet hearty flavorful inside.  On another visit, the glass of Burgundy that came as part of the $25 Pre/Post-Theater dinner was decent for a house wine that was low in tannin and rather full in body.  It is the attention to these minor details that sets the right mood for the rest of the meal.




DSC_1305.jpgFor the appetizer on this occasion, I honed in on a vegetarian dish listed as a special, Eggplant Paté.  It arrived in a beautiful Le Creuset mini pot (I looked at its bottom) along with a few home-made croutons.  Digging into the pot, I was incredulous at the dish that consisted of  just roasted eggplant due to the rich flavors that permeated each mouthful.  Smooth bits of roasted eggplant are held in suspension by a rich puree that has been scented by some woodsy-minty thyme that added the note of interest.  Bits of cooked tomato contributed some slight sweetness to the whole dish.  The croutons were thin enough yet crusty to support a mound of this deliciousness but they quickly ran out before I reached the bottom of the pot – thank goodness for the slices of that tasty baguette.  This was truly a wonderfully delicious vegetarian paté, if there were one.




Since my BFF was on his drastic diet for his upcoming Caribbean cruise, he opted for the Salad Languedoc.  The plate arrived with a mound of mixed greens piled on, topped with confit chicken gizzard, surrounded by a couple of paper-thin slices of Bayonne ham, with a truffle of peppered chicken liver pate, and finished with a light dressing of a decent tangy vinaigrette.  BFF and I were amazed at the tender bits of gizzard whose flavor was intensified by the confit (cooked in fat), the liver paté truffle smooth, rich, and pungent from the pepper, and the paper-thin ham tasted aged and musty from the barn that it was cured in, which is a good thing in this instance.  Here, we see in this dish the roots of Modern French cuisine stemming from country fare that are well done and sensitive to quality ingredients – hearty yet sublime.


DSC_1319.jpgFor my main course (let’s not confuse it with the American misuse of the word entrée) I decided to order something that I rarely come across in the menu of most French establishments – Cassoulet Languedoc.  This hearty stew consists of French white haricot beans that have been stewed in a rich sauce and enriched by healthy chunks of duck confit (cooked in duck fat), lamb, pork, and Toulouse sausage.  This is a hearty gut-sticking food that speaks of the humble origins of this unfussy dish.  The beans were cooked just right, being not too soft and maintaining its integrity without being chalky firm, while the sauce it swam in was flavored by some aromatics and a good dose of woodsy thyme.  The various pieces of meat lent their own distinctive flavors to this dish from the rich duck confit, to the slightly gamey lamb, the pieces of porcine delight, and the flavorful and slightly fatty sausage.  The earthen bowl that the dish was served in added to the character of the dish that took this diner to a remote French farm where this stew would often be cooked.   In addition to my fawning over the unctousness of this bean dish, I admired the restaurant’s offering this time-consuming dish that many places would avoid serving.  This is classic Languedoc fare from the Southwest France, and with this dish this restaurant delivers.

DSC_1321.jpgAs a treat for my birthday on my first visit, I decided to indulge in the dessert special for that day.  It was offering an array of macaroons, and my order consisted of a couple made from coffee.  These were two perfectly round crispy yet crumbly discs made from merengue flavored with some coffee essence, stuffed with a creamy filling again flavored with the same heady coffee essence and with some nutty crushed hazelnut bits mixed in.  They were the perfect sweet bites to end the meal after having sated myself with the above rich dishes.  Small, sweet, and satisfying.







As part of the Pre/Post-theater $25 three-course deal, I decided to start my meal with a Duck Rillette Paté.  A small bowl of this rich meat paste came served with a couple of the house-made croutons.  Pieces of shredded duck confit meat have been congealed with duck fat and heavily seasoned with black pepper.  The pate was smooth and quite meaty with a good dose of pepper bite in each bite.  The croutons were not enough to cover the amount of paté but the day was saved by the French bread slices.  However, I got a bit bored by the rich dish as the amount was rather generous, and the addition of some herbs or the heady truffle would have made it more interesting to my palate.  But I appreciated the rusticity in this version of pate which is the hallmark of this regional French cuisine.


For my second course, I order Salmon in a Butter Red Pepper Sauce.  The moderate-size piece of salmon arrived napéd with a butter sauce studded with bits of sweet red and green peppers.  The piece of fish was moist, flaky, and perfectly cooked from having some time in the oven, complemented by a surprisingly light buerre blanc that added a richness to the salmon.  The chiffonade of fresh basil added a surprising anise flavor to the sauce and interesting touch to the dish.  The accompanying white basmati rice was well cooked with a tinge of salt to elevate it beyond pure starch.  A few capers thrown in to the sauce would have made the flavors perfect, but I was very satisfied with this dish and its skilful preparation.


To round off this set of trio, I chose the Rasberry Mousse Bavaroise as my last course.  A glass arrived filled with the egg-cream-gelatine mixture at the bottom topped by a fairly thick layer of rasberry-blueberry compote.   The creamy bottom was filled with the raspberry flavor while its airy lightness somehow managed to defy the richness of the custard.   The topping was packed with soft chunks of cooked fruit providing the sweet fruitiness that paired perfectly with its bottom counterpart.  This was the perfect finale to the three-act meal that was satisfying with the flavors, made with moderate sized portions, and they were a demonstration of the kitchen’s knowledgeable skilful cooking.   This $25 deal is worth driving early to the city or visiting after a night out for a play.


Bistro D’oc is a downtown location that offers unfussy, tasty, and skillfully cooked food that pays tribute to the Southwest region of France, the region from which the owner’s patriarch claims his roots in his homeland.  The dishes possess a level of humble earthiness while exuding a level of sophistication that is expected from French cuisine, a fare that can rarely be found in other places like the hearty Cassoulet, the rich Duck Rillette Paté, and the gizzard studded Salad Languedoc.  This place is replete with a warm and welcoming ambience that makes the diner most welcome without feeling the stuffiness that can be found in some establishments.  With their interesting and enticing offerings,the dinner specials, and the $25 deal, Bistro D’oc will see this diner popping in through their doors quite frequently in the future to savor this delicious French fare that speaks to the soul.

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