Highlights 2016

Despite a rather tumultuous year, personally, professionally, and politically, I managed to squeeze in some great restaurant finds during my moments of respite.  Here is a quick rundown of the top dishes that I sampled throughout the year. Happy New Year 2017!

1. Thai Orchid (read Blog)

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Seafood Prik Prao

Seafood Prik Prao

2.Taqueria Los Primos (read Blog)

Tacos Al Pastor/Carnitas

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Quesadillas

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3. Chez Dior (read Blog)

Thiebou Diene

Thiebou Diene - Senegalese Stewed Fish

Accra/Black Eye Pea Fritters

Accra - Black Eye Pea Fritters

4. Panda Gourmet (read Blog)

Shanghai Bok Choy and Winter Mushrooms

Shanghai Bok Choy and Braised Mushroom

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

5. Evolve Vegan (read Blog)

Southern Fried Chick-un/Yams/Sweet Maple Kale Salad

Fried Chick-un

Raw Chocolate Cheesecake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

6. Woomi Garden (read Blog)

Jap Chae

Jap Chae

Beef Bulgogi

Beef Bulgogi

7. Great Sage (read Blog)

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Spinach Artichoke Dip

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

8. Jerusalem Restaurant (read Blog)

Hannet – Stewed Lamb

Hannet - Stewed Lamb

Makdous/Stuffed Eggplant

Makdous - Eggplant stuffed with Walnuts, Red Pepper, Garlic

9. Swahili Village (read Blog)

Grilled Goat, Beef, Chicken, Chapati Bread, Collard Greens, Spinach, and Rice Pilaf.

Group Platter - Swahili Village

Samaki Wa Nazi/Fish in Coconut Sauce Samaki Wa Nazi - Fish in Coconut Curry

10. Yekta Kabobi (read Blog)

Chicken Soltani Combination Kabob

Chicken Soltani Beef Kabobs

Bastanee Nooni/Saffron Ice-cream Wafer

Bastanee/Saffron Ice Cream

11.Baan Thai (read Blog)

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Northern Thai Pork Curry

Northern Thai Pork Curry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading my blogs throughout 2016. Happy Eating in the New Year!

Baan Thai

Baan ThaiThe time was right to write another restaurant blog. My cousin was visiting from the other side of the world, literally, with his family and father-in-law in tow. I was tempted to invite them back to my place for some home-cooked food, which I’m sure they would have appreciated, but they couldn’t have fitted into my jalopy with 200,000 miles accrued. So, I decided on meeting them at a Thai restaurant near their hotel that I had heard about. Located on the busy and tourist-laden 14th St. NW corridor, Baan Thai sits on top of another Thai restaurant. But perusing through its online menu, the dishes hinted of a different direction that most Thai restaurants take with their dishes, a more notably Northern Thai one. So with this in mind, I was looking forward to my taste buds being challenged from their offerings. Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites
Thai Money Bags

Walking into the shotgun-style former row house, I was escorted to the floor above the restaurant level, to the bar/lounge area, perhaps used to serve to accommodate the overflow (glad I made a reservation). We quickly honed on a couple of appetizers. The first was an unfamiliar one to this diner – Pineapple Chicken Bites. The pretty dish arrived with pieces of beautifully carved fruit dressed with cilantro, a curious-looking ball, and a slice of red chili. One bite into it raised my eyebrows. The ball consisted of battered chicken pieces mixed with chopped peanuts and tasting sweet and savory at the same time. The fresh fruitiness of the pineapple echoed the sweetness of the nutty chicken ball and simultaneously added the counterfoil to it. This was an exciting bite to start off the meal. The next small bite was Golden Fried Pockets, also called Money Bags in other Thai joints. The dumplings were well fried and nearly greaseless to the touch. However, the mix, although quite savory, was nothing out of the ordinary and the filling a tad beyond its prime, especially the minced shrimp in the mix exuding a slight off-note. Anyway, it was just ok.

Stir-fried Asian Pumpkin and Shrimp

Since my folks were in the mood for food to remind them of home, the first main course was Stir-fried Asian Pumpkin with Shrimp. The dish arrived on a plate, rather than a bowl, with pieces of pumpkin, shrimp, and Thai basil, all sitting on a bare pool of sauce. The pumpkin was not too sweet, more a squash kind, cooked perfectly and tasting savory from having absorbed the sauce flavors, and the shrimp was cooked firm, all brought together by the flavorful and slightly sweet light chili garlic sauce. Things were made more interesting by the fragrant Thai basil and the use of slices of red and green chilies, adding more heat and their vegetal notes. My folks and I quite enjoyed this dish, and its quite fiery heat was warming us up in this cold weather.

Northern Thai Pork Curry

The other main course was a nod to the Northern Thai Eesan region that this restaurant takes its inspiration from – Northern Thai Pork Curry. The first spoonful commanded my attention. The large meat pieces were fork tender, tasting moist and replete with an unusual “curry” flavors of fragrant root herbs and chili heat. There was no specific spice or herb flavor that stood out, but the sum of it all produced an inviting je-ne-sais-qoui along with its tempting spice heat. I kept digging at the dish as I could not get enough of its unctuousness. To top it off, the pickled garlic and julienne of young ginger added some more bite and complimentary spikes to this dish. A beautiful Eesan dish indeed.

Norther Thai Pork Tomato Chili Dip

My cousin’s father-in-law honed in on another Eesan offering. Northern Thailand Pork and Chili Dip was a trio consisting of a mini mortar of minced pork dip, large batons of fried pork, and a traditional Thai basket of steamed sticky rice. The fried pork was quite savory from some seasoning but it was quite dry being it was pieces of loin, I suspect, that was lacking the touch of fat to bring back some moisture to the rather dry bits. This would probably be more appropriate for the North American but not for this Asian who loves a cut like pork belly. The basket of sticky rice was perfectly cooked, albeit lacking any seasoning, but it was the perfect vehicle for the pieces of pork. But it was the pork chili dip that grabbed my attention. It was moist and made alluring by  a tinge of sweetness, a blazing heat, and an interesting note that I could only attribute to the dried chili powder used to spice it up. The leaves of lettuce and tomato pieces were the necessary canvas to bring some freshness and relief to this fiery dip, which I kept coming back to. If weren’t for the lean cut of pork in the fried bits, this would have been a home run.

Glass Noodle Chicken

Not all dishes consist of curry or meat, and with this in mind, we had a tough time finding a purely vegetable offering on the menu; perhaps this is a trait of Northern Thai cuisine. Eventually we settled on Stir Fried Glass Noodle with Chicken and Shrimp. The plate came with a melange of bean noodles cooked with Napa cabbage, green onions, Chinese greens, eggs, chicken and shrimp. Although the ingredients were well-cooked with a fermented red bean curd sauce, it was a bit too sweet for all diners at the table. But it provided the necessary relief from the above spicy dishes that were doing a masochistic number on our mouths.

Baan Thai is  a breath of fresh air from your usual run-of-the-mill Thai establishment that offers mostly a Bangkok style menu with the usual well-known offerings.  What I appreciated here was the unapologetic spiciness and seasoning that whisked the diner to the Northern part of the Southeast Asian country with the authentic offerings like the Pineapple Chicken Bites, the Pumpkin Shrimp, the Pork Curry, and the Northern Thai Pork Chili Dip.  The dishes maybe a bit too overwhelming for the average diner, but if you are looking for something challenging yet tasty, beyond the usual Thai offerings, here is the place for your adventurous taste buds.

Baan Thai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thai Orchid Kitchen

Thai Orchid Kitchen

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

Tom Ka Soup

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

Thai Steamed Dumplings

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

Grilled Shrimp Salad

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

Fried Calamari & Fried Seafood

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

Drunken Noodles

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

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

Salmon Pumpkin Curry
Crispy Salmon and Chili Basil Sauce

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

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

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

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

Aroy Thai

 

Aroy ThaiWith quite a few blogs on Thai cuisine on my site, it is hard to justify writing another one on this Southeast Asian cuisine.  However, when I heard that there was a new restaurant not far from my neighborhood serving this Asian cuisine, I knew I had to check it out after getting over my initial surprise  (“What? In Prince George’s county?”)  Reading my previous blog on another Thai establishment (see blog), you sense my frustration that my county is not as “blessed” as the neighboring ones when it comes to international cuisine, especially Thai.  Furthermore, it is located in the heart of College Park, MD  (aka Party Town) which is known for mediocre cheap eats,  drinking holes, and rambunctious fraternities – I graduated from there more than 20 years ago, so I know.  With these thoughts in mind, I knew I had to check this new place out and see whether the positive online reviews (100% on one site) were written by reviewers in a sober state.

Located just off the main drag Route 1,  Aroy is squeezed into a narrow building in a short block lined with metered parking on both sides of the street. The window is displayed with plastic rendition of their dishes that brings to mind Japanese sushi models popular in the 90’s.  Walking into the narrow building, you notice that it is a small 7-table establishment with a counter separating the dining room from the kitchen.  The bright orange walls and the long wood banquette makes the place welcoming and warm.  Having a lifetime experience with this cuisine since I was a child, I recognized many dishes on the menu and I decided to check-out their offerings by ordering some standard dishes.
Vegetarian Spring Rolls
Tom Yum GaiAs part of their lunch menu, the main dishes come with Thai Spring Rolls or Tom Yum Chicken Soup.  I must say I did not expect much from these appetizers since they were part of the lunch deal, but I was proven wrong.  The spring rolls were crispy and nearly greaseless, light from the thin wrapper, and delicious from a filling made with bean thread noodle, fine cabbage, and a surprisingly flavorful ingredient, oaky shiitake mushrooms, which elevated these bites to another level beyond its pedestrian flavor.  The soup was unexpected for me also.  Instead of an insipid sip, it was flavor packed with aromatics like lemongrass, and balanced with enough chili heat, lime tartness, fish sauce saltiness, and sweet from a pinch of sugar.  The bowl had a fair amount of mushrooms, tomatoes, and slivers of chicken breast to make it quite satisfying.  A good start to the meal, indeed.

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Larb Gai/Spicy Chicken Salad

Green Papaya Salad/Som TumOn a couple of occasions, I decided to try out their traditional salads.  The first was Larb Gai.  Pieces of minced chicken are paired with sweet onions, roasted chili powder, toasted rice powder, and moistened with lime juice, fish sauce, and a hint of sugar.  This was a delicious spicy salad with the chili powder and rice powder adding a level of smokiness and heat to the sour, salty and sweet flavors of this warm bite.  If it weren’t for a couple of sinewy pieces of chicken, this would have been flawless.  The other salad was Som Tum, or Green Papaya Salad.  Thin julienned strands of the young fruit are paired with carrot, tomato, and green beans, flavored by a sauce made of fish sauce, lime juice, and fresh chilies.  What I enjoyed about the dish is the freshness of the ingredients and the balance of the bold flavors as well as the assertive spice heat – the kitchen is not holding back here.  The whole peanuts in the dish added a rich nuttiness that balanced out some of the acidity in the dish.  This was refreshing for me despite the fieriness of the chili heat – definitely, very close to Ped (Thai chili hot).

Sate Chicken

Another appetizer that is a good litmus test of a Thai kitchen is its rendition of Sate Chicken.  This restaurant’s version was out of the ordinary and it definitely wowed me.  Unlike many versions that I have eaten before, here the pieces of chicken were well marinated in turmeric and root aromatics like galangal making each moist piece full of flavor and aromatic, enough to stand by itself.  The accompanying sauce was also revelatory.  Most restaurants serve a bland version made with peanut butter but here, I tasted a version made with crushed peanuts, root aromatics, palm sugar as the sweetener, and tamarind juice as the sour element, an authentic sauce that I have tasted on the other side of the world.  The toasted pieces of bread were the perfect vehicle to mop up the sauce to its last drop.  The bowl of sweet pickles was probably a bit too fresh and they could have done with a longer pickling.  But that was very minor compared to the main players of this opening dish.  Yummm!

Pad See YuPad Kee Mao/Drunken Noodles

Noodle dishes seem to be calling my name every time I visit a Thai restaurant and I had to sample their offerings.  A friend’s order of Pad See Euw was his lunch on one occasion.  The wide pieces of rice noodles were slightly bouncy fresh and adequately sauced without being drowned by it, tasting savory from Thai soy and quite sweet that made each bite irresistible.  The crunchy broccoli, moist chicken slices, and wispy clouds of egg added the necessary tasty elements to the dish, which made this version pleasurable for my friend.  My order of Pad Kee Mao, or Drunken Noodle, was totally up my alley.  The wide noodles were fresh and not oily, adequately covered by a savory sauce (which remains a secret enigma to me to this day), mixed with slightly crunchy sweet peppers and onion strips, fragrant fresh purple basil, biting fresh bird chilies, moist meat, and pieces of sweet tomato.  This was an damn good version of my favorite Thai noodle dish, and it hit the right spots for me.

Thai Shrimp Fried Rice

Very few fried rice dishes impress me these days but my friend’s order here was something else.  The fresh tasting rice was cooked with bits of slightly crunchy carrot bits, sweet white onions, juicy tomato, topped with perfectly cooked shrimp, pungent green onions, bits of scrambled eggs, and served with fresh cucumber slices.  But what ties these disparate elements together is the flavoring added to the mixture, made from Thai soy sauce, containing a je-ne-sai-quoi added to regular soy, and a hint of fish sauce.  Despite being engrossed in my delicious noodle dish I couldn’t help but spoon from his rice place and enjoy the flavor profile of this dish.  When it is done right, this dish sings in the mouth, and it did in this case.

Green CurryRed Curry

No meal in a Thai restaurant would be complete without ordering a curry dish, or a couple of them.  On one visit, I ordered the Green Curry.  My bowl arrived with lean pork, Thai eggplant, bamboo shoots, sweet peppers, and purple basil.  Being a curry dish, the main player is the curry sauce, and this version was outstanding for me.  It had a slight peppery quality with a vegetal green chili fragrance, made more aromatic with root herbs and the basil.  But the cooking of the curry paste with fresh tasting coconut milk resulted in a well amalgamated mixture that stands out from other versions.  It was slightly sweet which points to the Thai sensibility for this seasoning as integral to the authentic palate.  Another visit’s order of the Red Curry was equally superb with the same ingredients as the above dish with exception of the curry paste.  The sauce was a bit more fiery with the use of red chilies in the paste with a darker leaf aroma from the use of Kaffir lime leaf – the evidence of a soften leaf points to adequate cooking to render all its flavor into the sauce.  I was again impressed by the skillful cooking that gave the curry a magical quality that I have not experienced often with this dish.

Mango and Sticky Rice

Fried Bananas with HoneyAlthough the sweet offerings here are sparse, I had to give them a try since they were some of my favorites.  The Fried Bananas came as mini spring rolls stuffed with pieces of banana, and topped with some honey and toasted sesame seeds.  The dough was fried crispy and nearly greaseless, encasing a filling of soft sweet banana, made even sweeter by the honey and fragrant from the sesame seeds.  An order of Mango and Sticky Rice was a special on another visit.  After getting a confirmation from the cook that the mangoes were prime and sweet, I received a plate with pieces in such heavenly state.  The side of sticky glutinous rice topped with coconut cream was an equal partner to the ripe fruit.  It had enough saltiness to match the sweet fruit and rich from some quality coconut crème made nutty from a topping of fried mung beans, an addition that wavers from the usual sesame seeds.  What impressed me the most of this dish was the rice, which was perfectly cooked and matched in seasoning and creaminess.  I know how tricky it is to cook this grain well, and that is why most restaurants can’t get it right.  However, this is the best rendition (yes!) of this dessert I have ever tasted, and its delicious ghost aftertaste still haunts my taste buds.

Something good is going on here, especially in that small kitchen: woodsy shiitake mushrooms in perfectly wrapped spring rolls, well-seasoned Tom Yum soup, fiery and smoky chicken salad, spicy and nutty papaya salad, the well-marinated Sate chicken and irresistible sauce, perfectly seasoned noodles with barely a trace of oil,  savory fried rice that puts all others to shame, curries with an aromatic sauce perfectly balanced with quality coconut milk and paired with fragrant jasmine rice, the best sticky rice ever tasted along with sweet ripe mangoes, and sweet soft bananas encased in sticky crispy dough.  Looking at the photos that I took, you see an undivided attention given to each dish even in the simple garnishes on the plate.  In Korean, this is called “hand flavor” which is indescribable but only can be felt or tasted.  Well, this place sure has it, and when I am this inspired, I want to get a glimpse of Mrs. Chef in the kitchen.  One day I hope to personally thank her for such skillful cooking.  This place is most definitely Aroy! (Tasty!)

Aroy 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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_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.

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_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.
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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.

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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

Thai Square

DSC_4133.jpgWith a plethora of Thai restaurants dotting nearly every corner of the DMV area, and the number of blogs that I have written about this type of eateries, why another one on this cuisine? Simple: because this establishment has been on my radar for some time since my first visit many moons ago, and the reputation that precedes it. Thai Square is a small joint with only around 10 tables, located in Arlington, VA on a strip filled with other restaurants that I have written about (See Maruko and Bangkok 54). Many a times, there was a small waiting line when we arrived there, which has been a slight deterrence from visiting it more often. But we keep going back to it, taking our chances, to savor some of the dishes that make this place stand out among others.

Tom Yum Goong

One of my favorite openers to a Thai meal is Tom Yum Goong, or Spicy Sour Shrimp Soup. This establishment serves this classic sip in a unique way. It comes in a metal pot that has a flame shooting through the middle in the opening. The Tom Yum style here is not quite like the other versions that I have savored – the broth is quite clear and devoid of the normal aromatics of lemongrass, galangal root, and Kaffir lime leaves: a Thai-Chinese style. It is rather flavorful even without the usual aromatics, quite sour from a good squeeze of lime juice, and rather piquant from the slivers of fresh green chilies that provide both spice heat and a slight vegetal fragrant note. The customary straw mushrooms adds the contrasting flavor and texture to the soup along with the pieces of mild sweet shrimp. It takes some time to adjust to this style of this soup but it is worth the order. Just make sure to order it quite spicy since not-too-spicy was a bit too tame for my taste buds. This offering is one of the many traditional hot and cold appetizers that this eatery seems to handle well despite its small kitchen.

Chicken Ginger in Bean SauceKai Pad Khing Sod is another favorite of ours. It is chicken cooked with wood fungus, ginger slices, and green onions in an oyster and bean paste sauce. The pieces of chicken are tender, the wood fungus a bit crunchy, green onions still firm but not raw, and the slices of ginger provide the bite that lifts the dish. In addition, the gravy made from both sauces is sufficiently flavorful yet complex at the same time. Brown bits of soybeans add a slight fermented salty element to the dish that adds interest to this simple dish. This is definitely a favorite of one of my dinner mates who cannot get enough of the ginger flavor that this dish packs.

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Crispy Honey Duck with Basil

Here is a dish that we cannot resist: Crispy Honey Roasted Duck with Basil. Pieces of roasted duck have been battered and deep-fried, then cooked with pieces of dried chili, and flavored with honey. The pieces are crispy from the frying, sweet from the honey, piquant from the dried chilies, and slightly fragrant from the crispy leaves of deep-fried basil. Although we try to stay away from deep-fried dishes in most restaurants, there seems to be some kind of holy gastronomic dispensation that permits us to continuously order this dish on every visit – it is that good! This is a must order since I have not come across any other restaurant serving this delectable dish. A healthier squid version is equally highly recommended.

Yellow Curry

A curry dish is a must order at any Thai establishment. Since one of my dinner mates has a low tolerance for spice heat, we chose to order the Yellow Curry. It arrived in a bowl brimming with pieces of chicken breast accompanied by large pieces of potato and slivers of sweet onion. The bird meat was still moist and the tuber well cooked and permeated with the sauce flavors. Despite lacking some chili heat, the curry sauce was quite fragrant from the aromatics and spices while the coconut milk added the necessary smooth richness that tied the elements together. The other curry offerings come in the red, green, country, and Panang versions. It also serves the Roasted Duck in Red Curry Sauce that carries pieces of pineapple and basil leaves along with the aforementioned meat – I recall its spiciness along with the strong flavors of the ingredients that do a good job balancing each other out – quite a spicy treat.

Lump Crab Meat Fried Rice

Another must-order here is the Lump Crab Meat Fried Rice. It is rice fried a la Thai with pieces of egg, green onions, sweet onions, carrots, and the star item, jumbo lump crab meat. The rice is flavored with a combination of soy sauce and the slightly seafood-tinged fish sauce that adds an amazing savoriness to this plain grain. The large pieces of crab meat are fresh, adding a moist and sweet flavor to this dish. With some good wok-searing, this dish arrives filled with a complex level of flavors that belies the ingredients’ simplicity. Normally not a huge fan of fried rice dishes, I find this version truly delicious and completely irresistible.

Another seafood dish that I have ordered in the past is Sukiyaki. Yes, it is a Japanese dish but it has been adapted to the Thai palate. The dish consists of pieces of shrimp, scallop, squid, chicken that have been stir-fried with bean thread noodles, Napa cabbage, celery and scallions, served with a slightly sweet and spicy sauce. This dish tastes far from the Japanese version with its level of savoriness that spells clearly Thai. Furthermore, the sauce adds the sweet and spicy notes to the dish. Yes, sweetness is an important and integral flavor element in Thai cuisine.

Mango and Sticky Rice

For dessert, we elected for the true and tested that would hardly disappoint the diner – Mango and Sticky Rice. Since it was the middle of summer, it was the perfect order for the pieces of mango were ripe and sweet. Such fruitiness was paired up and complemented by the rich coconut-laced steamed sticky rice that was further enriched by more salty coconut cream, punctuated by pieces of fragrant sesame seeds. How can you go wrong with this classic Thai combination? On other visits to this locale, we have ordered a sweet stew of Taro root, Yam, and Tapioca Pearls, coated by a coconut cream sauce and sweetened by palm sugar. These dessert dishes are not listed on the menu since they must be seasonal and offered occasionally. Make sure to leave some room for these sweet treats at the end of the meal.

Thai Square is a quaint little eatery that attracts as many Thai customers as the farang, non-Thai. In the many years that I have visited it, I have hardly walked away disappointed but always glad that I took the chance on a quiet night or was patient enough to brave the lines and wait for one of the few tables to clear up. No matter the circumstance, I have always left with a sated stomach and wide smile, vowing to return in the near future. With the really modest prices and wonderfully authentic skilful cooking, there are no excuses not to make the journey, wait in line, and fill the senses with satisfying Thai flavors found in the long listed menu. You’ll know what I mean when you make it there one day.

Thai Boat Market Beef Noodle SoupAddendum: Upon the recommendation of my Thai doctor, I stopped by Thai Square to sample a lunch dish that is not served anywhere else which carries quite a reputation among the cognoscenti – Boat Market Beef Noodle Soup. The large bowl arrived with a mound of rice noodles inundated in a dark rich fragrant beef broth scented with some cinnamon and star anise. The large beef balls were floating like buoys, alongside bits of tender beef, all made fragrant by some fried garlic and fresh cilantro and green onions. Bits of pork crackling added to the lusciousness of this dish. Digging into it, I was transported to the boat markets of Thailand imagining this bowl handed to me by a cook from her floating vessel. It was the perfect noodle soup dish on a cold wet day. My doctor was delighted to receive a take-out order from me during my visit after. This is a must-order during the lunch hours.

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