Great Sage

Great Sage Restaurant

Lately I have been on a Vegan/Vegetarian kick that is surprising me, not just for the meatless fare that I have been partaking, but also the flavors and the sense of satisfaction that the meals have imparted on me. For some time, many of my acquaintances have been mentioning about a vegan restaurant in Clarksville, near Columbia, MD. Being out of my blogging area, I wouldn’t have considered writing about the place. But with so many accolades that it has garnered, I decided to pay it a couple of visits before penning about the establishment.

Red Peppercorn Beet Salad

Carrot Ginger SoupDriving to Great Sage is relatively easy since it is not too far from the Route 32 that is a major thoroughfare of that part of the boonies. Located in a strip mall, it sits at the end of the parking lot dotted by other vegan and New Age establishments. We decided to sit in its outdoor area so that I could get some good light for the photos. Looking through its rather simple menu, we picked out a couple of openers. I started with the Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad. The plate landed with a melange of colors and shapes. The bed consisted of Boston lettuce, topped with large pieces of beet (tasting mild from being boiled), pieces of colorful and crunchy watermelon radish, a ravishingly ripe avocado, all garnished by some sunflower seeds made savory by a sugar-salt mix, and drizzled with a “creamy” pink peppercorn dressing (vegan – really?). I was impressed by this fresh combination and flavors that just hit the right spots. My BFF’s Carrot Ginger soup was quite tasty from the spice root’s zing quality and slight sweetness from the carrot, with a faint background note of fenugreek, which is a departure from the usual cumin. However, I thought it lacked a bit more body and sweetness, thus left me wanting more in this dish.

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

Vegan Spinach Artichoke DipOn another occasion, we went for the houses signature appetizer – Spinach Artichoke Dip. The rather big platter arrived with some toasted whole wheat baguette, which beckoned our hungry stomachs for an immediate tasting. Boy, was it good! The baby spinach were barely wilted without the bitter aftertaste, the pickled artichoke chunky and lending its vinegary quality to the whole mix, and the dressing and “parmesan” topping tasting so creamy that they fooled my taste buds that the dish was purely vegan. Now with a healthier version like this, I could eat this dish more often, or serve it at parties without anyone noticing the difference. Mushroom Bibimbap

Portabello Panini SandwichOn to the main courses. BFF ordered something usually found in Korean restaurants, but made vegan here – Bibimbap. The bowl arrived with brown rice as its base, topped with strips of Portobello mushroom sautéed with ginger, pickled red ginger, carrots, cabbage, sweet and tangy Wakame seaweed salad, young kale leaves, and white and black sesame seeds. This meal was quite hearty and very tasty according to him, but he was breaking out into sweats with the fiery Sriracha/Hoisin sauce, which could have been served on the side. My order was in the Mediterranean vein – Portobello Panini. The focaccia bread had hints of rosemary, reminding me of the ones I had in Italy. The stuffing was grilled portobello that tasting tangy from a vinaigrette marinade, fresh young spinach leaves, and sweet roasted red peppers. Its tangy note was coupled by a creamy tangy dressing. However, it was the side potato salad that got most of my attention with the textural contrast of potato and celery enveloped by a “creamy” tangy dressing that belied its vegan nature.

Pulled Squash Sandwich

Buffalo "Chicken" WrapOn another visit, we both had sandwiches or wraps. BFF went for the house special that day – Pulled Squash Sandwich. It was an attempt to replicate the barbecued pork version. His sandwich was stuffed with strands of spaghetti squash made sweet sour by a sauce with a hint of cumin, which reminded me of chili con carne. The pickled red onions added more of the sour note to the dish, which, unfortunately, could not be balanced by something meaty, I mean, substantial. Sometimes, an attempt to replicate a known meat dish can fall short as in this case. My order was Buffalo Chicken Wrap. The Chili tortilla encased a filling of “chicken” tasting spicy, lettuce, tomato, red onions, all moistened by a “blue cheese” creamy dressing. Despite the protein being a bit softer in texture, I enjoyed this mix and the different textures necessary to bring about some degree of satisfaction, the very thing that squash sandwich lacked with all its “softness.”

Sin Tres Leches Cake

Organic Coconut WaterI had to try its desserts since that is an area that can be tricky with the lack of egg and butter in vegan cooking. We ordered the Sin Tres Leches, a play of words (“sin” meaning without) on the extremely creamy and rich (and calorie-laden) original version. The plate arrived slightly messier than what I expected but all the elements looked very tempting. The pieces of strawberry were fresh and quite sweet, echoed by the rather sweet strawberry coulis that was proper. However, the cake was a bit off due to the use of unbleached flour and the lack of the non-vegan elements that would have added some more body to it; the use of some decent amount vanilla would have helped it too. The “creamy” sauce didn’t hit it for me, it being made with coconut milk, soy milk, and cashew milk, which didn’t add enough richness to the mix. The side of “whipped cream” tasted of just trapped air which perplexed me with its “nothingness”! Maybe another dessert dish would have been successful with its vegan rendition.

Great Sage RestaurantVegan cooking can be very tricky due to its effort in replicating flavors and textures found in non-vegan versions. What Great Sage falls short on are on the dishes that pretty much fall in the domain of meat and dairy desserts. But what it does best are in those that lean heavily in the vegetarian department. Such was the case in the Pink Peppercorn Salad, the Spinach Artichoke Dip, the Bibimbap, and the Portobello Panini. But, I have to admit that I was satisfied by the Buffalo “Chicken” Wrap which nearly caught all the textures and flavors associated with that dish. The cooking at Great Sage is not short on creativity and flavors, especially the ability to produce creamy dishes with no cream or egg. Now, I understand why they have garnered so many accolades, not only from their customers but also from the press. This is a place that I will be heading back often, especially with my vegan BFF.

Great Sage Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Evolve Vegan

I have been inching down the vegan/vegetarian path for some time now.  Being a Buddhist practitioner, one of the Buddhist aspirations (not a commandment) is to eat vegetarian or vegan to minimize the suffering of sentient beings.  Furthermore, more and more friends and colleagues have taken this step, including my best friend who made that big decision last week. With all these signs around me, I couldn’t help but start focusing on more eating establishments that cater to such meatless cuisine. Recently, an online coupon offer showed up on my computer, and I quickly grabbed that opportunity so that I could visit a vegan Soul food restaurant.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant

Evolve Vegan Restaurant is located in the heart of Takoma Park, NW Washington, merely a few steps from the metro station. It is located in a block of eating establishments that has garnered the recognition as the best vegan eating area in the city. Walking into Evolve, the space appears more spacious than its true real estate due to the storefront windows and the soaring ceiling that add lots of light and an airy feeling. Taking a seat by the window, I perused the one page menu, and it is rather short with only a handful of entrees, a similar amount of sandwiches and salads, followed by an interesting plethora of side dishes. The drinks section was filled with sodas and smoothies, which were not exactly what I was looking for as a thirst quencher. The waiter relayed to me that the restaurant was working on the drinks section which seriously needs more light or fruit-infused liquids. Not letting that be a hindrance, I moved on to the main courses.

Fried Chick-un

Candied Yams, Sweet Maple Kale SaladOnline reviewers made mention of the house’s Southern Fried Chick-un, and that was the first order placed on the initial visit. The dishes picked from the list of fourteen sides were Yams and Sweet Maple Kale Salad. The plate arrived with two fairly large patties encrusted with the traditional-looking batter associated with the real thing. One bite into them was completely revelatory. The texture was akin to that of chicken breast and the flavor replete with the fried chicken seasonings. The first time ordering this was a version with a formidable crust but a slightly dry “meat”, whereas the second had a crumbly crust but a moist inside. Nevertheless, the patties fooled my taste buds with the close texture and unmistakable flavors in the seasoning. The side BBQ sauce was a proper one with its smoky sweet and sour qualities that gave the diner that dipping option.  In addition to the tasty patties, the sides were wrestling my attention away from the protein. The Yams were the candied yams that one would find during a Thanksgiving meal, made with a good hit of cinnamon without overpowering the tubers and sweetened by brown sugar, all tasting good enough to slap your….. But the star for me was the kale salad with the young tender leaves made delectable by a well-balanced combination of maple syrup and toasted sesame oil, making each leaf totally irresistible. Now I can see why the online folks highly recommended this entrée, and deservedly so.

Fried Seaweed Soy Fish

Ratatouille, Ginger Kale SaladWrapped Soyfish was the next main dish. The slices of soy protein arrived battered and perfectly fried, just like the above dish, along with Ratatouille and Ginger Kale Salad as the sides. The “fish” also took me by surprise by the rather firm texture, reminding me of tuna or swordfish steaks. Additionally, the flavors were enhanced by the seaweed wrap that exuded seafood umami-ness, boosted by a hint of Old Bay seasoning in the batter – my dining companion and I were quite satisfied by these “seafood” bites. The sides were equally delectable. The Ratatouille was a melange of zucchini, yellow squash, onions, tomato, and eggplant, all looking and tasting more like stewed yellow squash served in the South due to the lack of enough tomato found in the veritable version. Notwithstanding, this mix was so savory and well cooked with each element holding its own identity and enhanced by a faint hint of dried herbs, perhaps thyme or oregano. The other companion of kale salad literally grabbed my taste buds. The mild leaves were coated by a powerful ginger pesto that had a good bite that made each leaf quite piquant, but balanced by a hint of vinegar and sugar. Needless to say, not a single leaf was left on my plate as this dish combination was also a hit for me.

Vegan Macaroni and Cheese, Beet Salad

Sesame Spinach Salad N'Orleans Macaroni SaladOn the second visit, I had to try another oft-mentioned main – Macaroni and Cheese. The main dish arrived with Beet Salad and Sesame Spinach Salad as their chosen accompaniments. The pasta casserole mix was rather interesting yet tasty at the same time. The macaroni was cooked just right, not al dente, neither too mushy. The mix was quite “creamy” rich yet rather moist, with a crust of gratineed vegan cheese . However, there was slight off note of faint bitterness not usually associated with this dish, but that didn’t deter me from enjoying it since I was not expecting this dish to taste exactly like the original version. The beet salad were julienned strips of raw beets, perhaps lightly boiled due its slightly firmness, mixed with a well-balanced mix of vinegar and sugar, making it tasty beyond its mineral goodness. The spinach salad was a bowlful of young leaves tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and topped with some sesame seeds. I enjoyed the salad for the young tender crisp leaves but I wished the seeds were toasted to bring out more of their nuttiness to add another dimension to the combination. Again, the main and sides shone on this occasion, making them quite worthy of an order. Some sides from my friends’ orders deserve some mention: N’Orleans Macaroni Salad wowed its diner with its creamy flavors and the use of spices and seasonings evoking the Southern city, and a stark Steamed Broccoli that was steamed to perfection with its bright green crunchiness made savory with the use of Amino Liquid for that vegan umami-ness.

Vegan Carrotcake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate CheesecakeOn one occasion, our young waiter highly recommended Vegan Carrot Cake and we took on his advice. The slice arrived with speckles of carrot imbedded in the cake topped with some “icing”. The bite tasted of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves, all the appropriate spices and flavors of the real thing. However it was lacking some rich bits of nuts and it was too dense for my liking. Not totally disappointing, but not really a flying success either. However, the amiable chef owner assured me that he would relay my suggestions to the pastry chef. A waitress’ recommendation on another visit was Raw Chocolate Cheesecake. One bite into it raised my eyebrows as well as those of my fellow diner. My immediate reaction was “creamy dark chocolate ice cream.” There was a lusciousness in each bite that belied its dairy-free nature, slightly bitter from a boost of cocoa with a tinge of sourness to cut through the richness. The crust mixture of crushed cashew nut and coconut flake  fooled me that it was raw and vegan. With each bite, my friend and I were “oohing” and “aahing” and we couldn’t stop until the last morsel, even though we were quite sated from the mains and side dishes. This dessert is a must order in my books.

Evolve Vegan RestaurantVegan food is usually associated with plain, bland, textureless, and perhaps pedestrian, all adjectives enough to kill the enthusiasm even before stepping into such establishment. But what my friends and I ordered here far exceeded that mindset, from the “chick-un” and soy fish that had the right textures, seasoning, and flavors that not only made them palatable but sated all my dining friends, to the Mac and Cheese that was creamy and quite “cheesy”, and to the incredible sides of leaf salads, beet salad, yams, and squash stew (ratatouille) that left us wanting more of these tongue-grabbing veggies. This effusiveness extends to the dessert section with that raw chocolate “cheesecake” that just brought out a level ecstasy in me. Sure that the service is a tad slow and sparse at times, but the congenial servers make up for it with their charming personality, helpful suggestions, and funky hair. But what is served by Evolve Vegan does not need any quotation marks or qualifiers; it is just good, tasty and downright soulful, enough to bring out a smile in both vegan and non-vegan.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Curry Leaf

I currently find myself in the throes of change, a period filled with stress, doubts, hope, excitement, and ultimately a need for relief.  Yes, I am in the process of purchasing a new home that is just 6 miles down the road from my current abode.  I have chosen to stay in Laurel, MD, as I find this township quaint with historic homes and accessible to both Washington DC and Baltimore.  Furthermore, I have been mildly surprised by some real good eats located in this part of the suburbs which some may not expect to find in this rather quiet area.  Recently, I have stumbled across one such Indian delight around the corner from me.

Curry Leaf

Curry Leaf has only been opened since the beginning of summer.  It is located on busy Route 1, in a space once occupied by an all-you-can-eat Korean/Japanese restaurant that had a long stint in the area – I was getting slightly leery of its sushi offerings during its last few weeks.  Not much has changed in the furniture setup but the space is warmer with some nature and spice colors along with some exotic prints on the wall, as well as the sushi bar that has taken on a transformation into a drink bar. Initially, I was quite leery of another Indian eatery in the neighborhood that has seen the demise of a couple of them.  But a few visits to this new establishment has proven that it has injected an infusion of South Asia to the local eating scene. My visits were made during the lunch buffet and during dinner service.

Vegetable Samosas, Tamarind and Coriander Sauces

For dinner, my BFF insisted that we tried the Vegetable Samosa which I was not keen on, having tried many versions of these greasy dough balls that have proven to be lackluster on most occasions.  But this version did pique my interest.  The pastry here was crispy, thin and light, speckled with whole cumin seeds that added interest to the outer shell, perhaps baked judging by no trace of oil on the finger or the serving plate.  The stuffing was a tasty mixture of mash potato and whole peas, made fragrant with whole curry leaves, bits of cumin and coriander, and spiked with a tinge of spice heat.  The accompanying sauces were the obligatory partners to these tasty bites: the tamarind sauce was tangy and slightly sweet with a faint hint of its clove-like aftertaste, and the coriander sauce was bright green, spicy and packed with the herbaceous coriander/cilantro, both tasting home-made and fresh.  A fragrant and spicy start.

Indian Appetizers

For my buffet visit, I sampled the Vegetable Pakoras.  Pieces of zucchini, green pepper, and eggplant have been dipped in a yeasty dahl lentil batter and deep-fried, providing a more mealy dough made quite light with pockets of air from the fermentation, a far cry from the uninspired flour-water combination used by most establishments.  But what really grabbed my attention were the delicate pieces of vegetable made puree-like by the frying and tasting vegetal sweet.  The sides of lemon peel pickles and coconut chutney were well-made and worth sampling, tasting fresh and house-made.

Sambar/Rasam

Another starter served on the buffet line were some traditional soups.  Rasam was a light soup, tasting a bit sour from tamarind, and spiced with whole mustard seeds and curry leaves with a nice backthroat bite from the chili.  However, it tasted a little bit insipid compared to other versions that I have sipped before.  In contrast, the Sambar was more satisfying for me, a soup that carried a similar flavor profile as the above soup, but made more substantial by the addition of bits of squash, and made creamy by lentils pureed into the soup.  If weren’t for the main courses coming up, I would have gulped down a couple more steel cups full of this hot liquid.

Vegetarian Plate

On to the main courses.  For my buffet visit, I decided to make a vegetarian/vegan plate.  Spinach Kofta:  The vegetable-ball consisted of slightly crunchy bits of carrots mixed with semolina-like starch coated with a creamy non-bitter spinach sauce that wowed me with its subtlety and a high level of satisfaction.  Egg Curry:  What I enjoyed about the dish was the light handedness in the spicing of the curry sauce that matched the mild egg whites yet creamy enough to pair with the yolk.  Rajma Masala: Again, I appreciated the under spicing of this green bean and potato dish aided by a fairly subtle use of mustard seeds and cumin, enough to allow the green bean’s natural flavor shine through. Vegetable Korma: a medley of very tender peas, cauliflower, carrots and peas, brought together by cream and turmeric, with a hint of chili heat and fragrant spices. Aloo Beans:  I marvelled at this simple yet savory dish with red beans cooked with the skin intact and starch cooked through with a hint of cinnamon wafting through each bite – who knew cinnamon worked with beans!  Throughout my tasting of this plate, I kept going back to the spinach sauce which I couldn’t get enough of.  The above dishes only reaffirmed my affinity for Indian vegetarian/vegan dishes that when prepared well, they are exciting and satisfying to the omnivore.

Meat Plate

On to the meat dishes.  Goat Curry: the gamey pieces of goat were moist and tender coated by a delectable slightly sweet sauce hinting of dark spices and rich without the use of cream.  Tandoori Chicken: the piece of red-stained meat was slightly firm on the outside encasing a moist and tender interior, made tasty from some proper marination with yogurt and spices, and it was far flung from my expectation of a flavorless piece of dried out meat which I usually encounter on some buffet lines.  Butter Chicken (mislabeled Chicken Tikka Masala): The pieces were moist and tender, paired with a creamy buttery sauce that was slightly tangy and sweet that give me an impression that the dish was prepared with care rather than throwing the elements together.  Vegetable Biryani (ok, I had to balance the meat pieces out): What I truly enjoyed about this “simple” dish is that the pieces of peas and green beans felt integrated with the rice spiced with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and bay leaves, further brought together by a faint hint of butteriness from the use of ghee (clarified butter).  This reminded of my BFF’s order of Shrimp Biryani one night that had a similar profile but richer with more sinfully good buttery rice coating the tender plump shrimp – I was amazed by this seafood dish tasting like a unified dish without any element feeling out-of-place.  No wonder it is BFF’s favorite.

Lamb Vindaloo/Basmati Rice

Lamb Vindaloo was my dish on one night’s visit.  Pieces of lamb were properly cooked to a very tender stage without falling apart and partnered with wedges of potato.  But what brought the pieces of meat to another level is the sauce made fiery by dried chili evidenced by the chili seeds throughout the sauce.  The chili heat was tempered with the use of fresh tomato cooked through leaving behind some of its skin.  What was noticeable with this dish is that a skilful hand was behind the production of the balanced sauce, being not too salty, and the bare hint of oil.  The accompanying Basmati rice was cooked to its perfect fluffy state with the random aroma-popping cumin seed running through the mound of grain. This dish, along with BFF’s Shrimp Biryani and Vegetable Samosa, made it an eventful night.

Suji HalwaFor my sweet craving, I helped myself to some Suji Halwa which was the only dessert offering on the buffet line. Initially, I thought that the pudding was too stiff when I cut into it along with the impression that there was too much of the pungent cardamom with the first spoonful.  With subsequent mouthfuls, all the elements came together with the cream of wheat tasting slightly buttery, spicy from the cardamom, and sweet enough without being cloying.  The pieces of ghee-soaked raisins (wow), pistachios and shards of almond slivers added interest to the sugar-laced starch.  Somehow I made room for this sweet finale despite having ingested the above dishes.

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Curry LeafIn a short period of time, Curry Leaf has already made its presence known in the Laurel area, judging by the filled tables (a noticeable South Asian crowd) during the lunch and dinner services, even despite a torrential rain one night. In my estimation, what stands out in their offerings are dishes that taste freshly made, a judicious hand with the spices and seasoning, and a skilful and knowledgeable kitchen staff that cares about the final product. Yes, Indian cuisine can be tired-tasting and predictable. But I think I can count on this new establishment for something beyond the norm that is exciting and worth looking forward to.

P.S.  I just read that the chef comes from the defunct yet successful vegetarian restaurant, Udupi, which was my favorite for a long time.  Now this explains the exceptional quality in the food.

Curry Leaf on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Noodle House

It’s has been nearly a year since my visit to a Chinese restaurant and writing my first blog on this Asian cuisine. I had resisted for some time since starting my blog due to the fact that I was raised on top quality Chinese food in Southeast Asia, and most of my experiences in the DC area with such Far Eastern offerings have been sub par and rather disappointing. But I must admit that I quite enjoyed my experience at Bob’s Noodle 66 (read blog), and enough time has passed by for me to recover from one of the most challenging culinary concoction that has ever traversed across these taste buds – Stinky Tofu.

_6001805.jpgA few weeks ago, I headed up to Rockville, MD, an area that I usually avoid due to the traffic congestion and the equally packed streets with businesses that vie for one’s attention. But the area has a high Asian population, and there are many eating establishments that cater to their gastronomic cravings. So when I picked up a friend for dinner, I suddenly remembered about a place that had rave reviews for their authentic Chinese fare especially their Szechuan dishes. Being a man of travels, my friend agreed to this culinary adventure with me, and we trotted into Joe’s Noodle House.

_6001808.jpgUpon walking into the restaurant, you sense its immediate funkiness indicating a level of authenticity that spells food-for-the-recent-immigrant. After being shown to our table, we had to place our order at the front cashier counter. Next to it is a refrigerated display case filled with various side dishes that peak the curiosity of the diner staring at the not-so-familiar dishes. I immediately recognized an offering that I had not eaten in a long time – Jellyfish Salad. One can easily mistaken the semi-translucent strands as some noodle dish, but knowing what it was, I immediately grabbed it. The long strands were a bit bouncy, slightly crunchy, and at the same time silky smooth. It had quite a bit of salt that this seafood calls for with a good hit of sesame oil that brought some rich nuttiness to each sliver. The bits of green onion added a hint of pungency to this mild dish. I really enjoyed this rare opportunity to savor this small side dish, and it was a delicious opener to the meal.
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_6001812.jpg_6001813.jpgMy dining companion and I could not resist ordering a couple more side dishes. My friend’s order was Spicy Chicken Gizzard. Cold pieces of cooked chicken gizzard were cooked in some chili oil exuding its piquancy to each bite. A level of dark spices, most likely Szechuan peppercorn, left its woodsy trail after each bite, along with a slight mineral-like quality that this organ meat possesses. However, he was not used to a gizzard dish served cold, but I was intrigued by its flavors especially the unique Szechuan spice. Another order was Spicy Sweet and Sour Cabbage. Pieces of pickled cabbage were both sweet and slightly sour with each crunchy cold bite. It was definitely more sweet than sour without being cloying. Hints of fresh ginger punctuated these bites which made it more interesting that its simple appearance –  a delicious hit for both of us.

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For the main course, my order was String Beans Szechuan Style with Pork. Judging by the wrinkly exterior, whole string beans have been flash fried in searing oil that cooked them through while maintaining their slight natural crunch. The savory and garlicky sauce was a salty complementary foil to the natural sweetness of the vegetable which made this flavor combo completely irresistible. The small bits of pork were well seasoned and spiced with some Szechuan peppercorn that turned them into a tasty flavoring element, which meat serves as in most Chinese dishes on the mainland. I enjoyed my leftovers the next day and I still marveled with each mouthful of the string beans with its salty-sweet combination.  A vegetarian version is also available and I’m quite sure that it is equally tasty.

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The other main dish was a house specialty – Dan Dan Noodles. A bowl of ramen-like egg noodles arrived topped with bits of spiced pork and some green onions. As we started to pick at the noodles, our waitress quickly advised us to give it a good mix and warned us that it would be too salty if we didn’t heed her advice. So, we gave it a good mix, and underneath that unassuming mound was a pool of chili oil that tainted the whole bowl like bloody murder. The noodles were spiced by the red oil made interesting by the pork bits that have been made fragrant by the Szechuan peppercorn that seem to transubstantiate into something that belied its porcine nature. We both enjoyed this dish a lot, and now we know why this dish was highly recommended by the Washington Post food critic – good call, Mr. Critic.

_6002147.jpg_6002150.jpgOn another visit with a longtime friend, we choose a couple of different side dish starters. Shredded Radish with Hot Sauce was our first order. Thinly julienned Daikon radish have been pickled in a sweet and sour solution made red by a pool of chili oil. This was a bit funky for me since I was slightly put off by the amount of chili oil used in the dish, which I kept draining off each chopstick full of the vegetable – I have heard a fair deal of complaints of oily dishes in mainland China and there is no exception in this establishment. The other side dish was Beef Tendon in Hot Sauce. This was also a funky cold dish that I warmed up to after a few bites. Pieces of cooked beef tendon were slightly chewy yet quite flavorful made by the Szechuan peppercorn and chili oil. What I liked about this dish was its off-the-beaten-path character that transported me to rural China where tendon is a major source of protein, alongside its slightly funky texture and interesting flavors.

_6002157.jpgMy friend’s main course was from its vegetarian menu – Eggplant with Basil in Garlic Sauce. Pieces of Asian eggplant have been flash fried and paired with basil leaves cooked in a brown garlic sauce. This was quite tasty with the vegetable made soft from the frying and fragrant from whole pieces of basil leaves. The brown sauce was very savory made tastier by a good hit of garlic. However, being an eggplant dish, it was quite oily for my taste but I was quick to overlook the downside of this dish after a few bites.

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Chicken Sesame Noodle unmixedChicken Sesame Noodle mixed

My lunch order was another noodle dish that caught my attention on the previous trip – Spicy Cold Pasta with Sesame Sauce and Chicken. Cold egg Lo Mein noodles came topped with julienne of carrot, beansprouts, and strips of boiled chicken. Having learnt from my last trip with the other noodle dish, I give the dish a good mix to reveal the sesame sauce under the pile of pasta. The thick strands of pasta were enriched by the rich nutty sesame sauce mixed with chili oil and made less stodgy by the fresh vegetables and the cold chicken. This was a quickly filling dish due to the thick pasta and rich sauce, which could have done with a hint of acidity to lighten the mouth feel and flavor (my Southeast Asian gastronomic conditioning kicking in here). However, I found it quite enjoyable and authentic, and I was soon happily slurping the noodles away.

The offerings that I savored at Joe’s Noodle House speak of a level of authenticity that is not found in most Chinese restaurants in the DMV area, offering delicious dishes and some interesting bites to the more adventurous (there’s the pig ear salad!).  The regular and vegetarian menus are extensive, and there is at least a dish that anyone can enjoy.  Never mind the funky-looking place and the pool of oil in some of the dishes – that’s another level of authenticity that comes with the culinary experience.  With this kind of food, I’m looking forward to trying more of their dishes, the familiar and not-so-familiar.  Thank God/Buddha that Stinky Tofu is not on the menu! LOL

Joe's Noodle House on Urbanspoon

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.

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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.
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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Woodlands

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.

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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.

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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!

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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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Casa Oaxaca

DSC_7519.jpgOK, I hear you loud and clear, and I get it – at least, from some of you.  After posting Elevation Burger in the last blog (see blog) and attempting to balance my postings with those on establishments offering a scant number of vegetarian and vegan dishes, a couple of Facebook friends quickly shot back comments requesting me to write on more eateries that focused on a meatless and vegan lifestyle.  Furthermore, a fellow Buddhist on my mass email list also responded by asking herself to be removed from my notices as she stated that her diet had “changed”, which I was not sure exactly what she was alluding to, perhaps a reaction to the photos of meat dishes that could have been “offending” her sensibilities.  I guess for some, Meat Means Murder!

Being a practising Buddhist, I frequently try to aspire towards the ideal of following a vegetarian diet, albeit a mere recommendation and not a permanent personal practice as of yet (the Buddhist thinking is that strict rules/commandments will only create some form of issues around such restrictions or make one even develop a rebellious attitude).  So, when an online offer popped up on my computer for a Mexican eatery that offered both separate meat and vegan menus, I bought both coupons and decided to explore their meatless selections first.  In addition to the lack of a vegetarian/vegan restaurant on my site, I decided to kill two birds with one stone (oops, that doesn’t sound very Buddhist) by penning my first blog on a Latin American establishment.

DSC_7583.jpgCasa Oaxaca touts itself as a Modern Mexican Restaurant,  located in the busy DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan where the streets are literally jam-packed with different eateries that offer a wide variety to entice the roaming palate.  This area went through what I called the “Adams Morgan effect” in which ethnic eateries managed to keep the level of authenticity in their kitchen only for a short moment before losing its identity due to the hiring of non-native cheap labor.  Like everything in life subject to the process of natural selection (or customer selection, in this case), the fittest restaurants survived and they continue to offer high-quality cooking, as in La Churreria de Madrid (see blog) around the corner. Perusing Casa Oaxaca’s website, I was looking forward to savoring and writing about the vegan dishes offered by this Mexican locale.

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DSC_7540.jpgThe restaurant is divided into two floors, and on my visit, I had to enter through the bottom floor into the rather cavernous space.  Knowing that such dark space would not produce flattering photos for the blog, I requested permission to eat in the upper part which was still closed.  The manager, Joana, was gracious enough to open up the upper floor for my needs.  While waiting for the manager to invite me up, I ordered a typical Mexican drink that I am rather fond of, Horchata.  This version is made with almonds, rice, and rice milk (not the usual with cow’s milk), which make it a vegan thirst quencher.  It was rather sweet for me on the first few sips, but the diluting ice cubes brought it to the correct level after a few minutes.  The pieces of almonds and a hit of cinnamon added the right notes to this rice milk concoction.  A satisfying slurp, indeed.

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For the opener, I decided on the Timbal de Nopal.  It consists of layers of fresh tomato, grilled cactus, and vegan cheese, slathered with some Pico de Gallo.  The round of cactus was a bit too crunchy despite the grilling and a bit too smoky from the charring – maybe a short stay in boiling water would make it more fork tender.  The fresh salsa packed some heat punch (perhaps from chile serrano), coupled by the chile ancho oil pool around the plate.  Even for this chile aficionado, it was borderline overwhelming.  Unfortunately, the vegan cheese was lost in the dish due to the piquancy and the overall acidity.   This definitely was an appetite opener but I was hoping for a bit more subtlety.

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My first main course was a Mexican classic, Chiles Rellenos.  A roasted Poblano pepper is stuffed with pieces of zucchini, carrots, grilled corn, spinach, soy meat, and pumpkin seeds.  This concoction was muy delicioso as the various elements were well-balanced by the sweet vegetables and the mild vegan protein, which I would have preferred it a bit more seared (my meat-loving instincts crying out here).  The slightly sweet and spicy green pepper is perfected complemented by a delectable orange tomato sauce that is moderately spiked by chile guajillo.  The accompanying refried black beans was perfectly executed with enough flavor even without the customary lard as its base.  The topping of vegan cheese on both beans and roasted chile even had the distinctive parmesan-like aroma that one can get from the non-vegan version, which lent some further richness and complexity to both items.  The side of Mexican rice was fluffy and equally flavorful.  I truly enjoyed this dish especially that perfect tomato sauce that made this dish sing, of which I lapped every drop on the plate.

Vegan QuesadillasVegan Quesadillas

For the second main, I ordered a trio of bites called Quesadillas Tricolor. This really colorful dish is made with pastel-hued Non Genetically Modified (Non GMO) soft tacos stuffed with squash blossoms, mushroom cooked in a guajillo salsa, and corn cooked with the exotic corn fungus, huitlacoche.   I enjoyed the subtlety of the mild squash blossoms, the meatiness of the sautéed mushrooms, and the interesting note brought by the slightly sour and musty corn fungus on the yellow corn kernels.  But what tied the elements together was the very tasty vegan almond cheese whose savoriness blew my taste buds away especially for not being dairy – I could not get enough of this stringy “creamy” cheese that made these some mean and fulfilling quesadillas. The ring of chile ancho oil provided the necessary heat without overwhelming or complicating the flavors.
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Vegan Tres Leches CakeTo end the meal, I wanted to order a dessert made with papaya, an exotic fruit that I grew up on in the tropics. Unfortunately, the kitchen was out of it and I elected for the Pastel Tres Leches. A dairy-free cupcake has been soaked in coconut milk served on a sauce of coconut milk and berry sauce, topped by non toasted coconut flakes. This dessert was decent but it lacked the unctuousness of the regular version made with milk, condensed milk, and rich whip cream – I guess the original flavors of some desserts cannot be adequately substituted by vegan ingredients. However, my grandmother did make some heavenly vegan desserts with this tropical nut and its creamy milk, so it is possible to come up with a good alternative. Perhaps the papaya dessert or the mango sorbet will be my selection on the next visit.

Casa Oaxaca stands out among the plethora of Mexican-style and Tex-Mex eateries that tend to dilute the integrity of this rich cuisine.  What this establishment brings to the table is a level of sophisticated cooking while recognizing the authentic tradition that shape the unique flavors and ingredients, exemplified by the charred cactus paddle, the pairing of grilled poblano pepper and the perfectly made tomato-guajillo sauce, and the satisfying corn kernels and corn fungus quesadilla stuffing along with that heavenly tasting almond cheese.  If the vegan offerings at this establishment look and taste this good, I’m looking forward to my next trip to try out the non-vegan dishes.  I get a feeling that I will not be disappointed and will leave with a big smile and satisfecho.

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