Elevation Burger

As I approach the mid-century mark in less fingers than I can count on one hand (Ay, Dios Mio!), the questions that have been haunting me the last few years are ringing louder in my head by each day: Should I eat less meat? Should I touch factory farmed meat and poultry or buy more organic?  Should I go vegetarian or perhaps vegan?  How about dairy products and egg?  And fried foods?  Sugar? Wow, can I eat anything at all besides raw organic vegetables?  Are my gastronomic adventures going to be haunted by the ghost of guilt?  How long can I continue blogging before making this a vegetarian site?

001.jpgThese questions are picking up momentum and soon turning into a vortex in my conscience as we approach summer, a time when I cannot resist one of my seasonal vices (oops, the ugly head of guilt again) – the hamburger.  There is something irresistible about a grilled beef patty sandwiched by two pieces of fluffy buns filled with the various not-so-subtle accoutrements that satisfy the indulgent craving for sweet, salty, sour, and savory (hmmm, all begin with S’s like Sins).  Slices of crisp lettuce and juicy ripe tomatoes are the saving grace and penance that delude us to think that the beef patty ain’t that thick nor so bad after all.  Like a Catholic trying to overcome Sunday guilt, I visit my Amish butcher to purchase antibiotic and hormone-free ground beef to make the patties for my cookouts.  But what do you do when the craving strikes while out in public?  McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Sonic, Five Guys – when Hell freezes over!!

Then appears Elevation Burger (imagine the clouds part at this point ☼ and the heavenly choirs sing ♫).  I discovered this burger-serving joint from one of my online coupon sites. When I read the company philosophy and perused the menu to check out their offerings, I knew that this place was worth visiting and writing about, and I paid it a couple of visits.  A burger chain, you ask?  Yes, a different type of burger chain.  Here are my confessions:

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DSC_7512.jpgBurgers: The beef patties are made from 100% organic, grass-fed and free-range meat.  They are smaller than your usual patty, perhaps around 1/4 pound, and they tasted not overly “beefy” due to the lower fat content, a purer taste than the usual burger.  The slice of cheese had a slightly granular texture for being aged cheddar cut from the block, and not the insipid processed version.  The burgers come in double-patties, single patty with cheese, one patty hamburger, and one patty plus one veggie (“Half The Guilt Burger” – penance?).  The toppings are the usual that one would find anywhere, but specials are offered on any given day, like sautéed mushrooms and bacon (no lesser guilt here) on one visit.  I found the pickles to be brightly and less metallic, perhaps due to local sourcing and not being factory produced.  The Hot Pepper Relish packed some heat, and although I love piquancy, it did overwhelm the subtleties in the burger (a subtle burger, you ask?).  The burgers may not be as humongous and “meaty” as other places but they make up in quality and in taste. Less meat – check.  Organic grass-fed free range meat – check.

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010.jpgVegetarian offerings: There are two vegetarian burgers that are offered here.  Veggie Burger #1 is a patty that is made with pureed vegetables and cheese.  For me it was OK, since the patty did not have any specific taste from the processing that made it a bit nondescript – maybe it is more palatable for those who are not the usual vegetarians.  Veggie Burger #2 comes with a savory vegan patty.  You can see and taste the individual bits of corn, carrots, peas, and rice.  This was more to my liking and it tasted more substantial and flavorful.  Yummy!   Grilled Cheese Sandwich is offered here with that 6-month aged Cheddar for those looking for an alternative to meat or vegetable.  Side and Main Salads are also offered but they looked rather pedestrian to me – at least, these are good substitutes for fries.  Vegetarian and Vegan offerings – check, check.

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French Fries:  The shoes string fries are cut from whole potatoes judging from the skin left on.  However, they are more limp than the fries found in other burger places.  Reason why?  They are cooked in 100% olive oil, and since it has a lower smoking point, they cannot be made very crisp due to the lower cooking temperature.  However, I don’t mind not-so-crisp fries in lieu of whole unprocessed potato bits cooked in healthier oil.  On one visit, I thought they were slightly oversalted, but it was perfectly fine the next visit.  Fried foods, if only in healthy oil – check.

014.jpgDesserts:  We tried the Small Cookies which consisted of 3 chocolate chip, pecan, and oatmeal treats made with organic butter and milk.  They were pretty small (photo – “objects are smaller than they appear in macro shots”) but they were sinfully good with a rich buttery taste.  Like all items on the menu, there is a calorie count with these – nearly 300 calories for all three.  These cookies also come in a larger version. If the amount of calories is a bit intimidating, there are also Mandarin Oranges as a sweet alternative.  Sugar – occasional check; sweet fruit – check.

004.jpgDrinks:  The milk shakes are made with organic milk, organic ice-cream, and “real berries and strawberries” (as listed on the menu).  Bits of fruit are speckled on the cup which confirms the use of “real” fruit, which distinguishes it from the use of fruit syrups found in other places.  However, the over 700 caloric count is pretty daunting and a reminder that this should not be a frequent treat.  The eatery also offers bottled drinks that are low in sugar, no High Fructose Corn Syrup, and are made with healthy green tea and real lemonade.  Milk shake – infrequent check. Healthy bottled drinks – check.

Ambience:  The philosophy of this new direction is not confined to just the food and drinks only.  The napkins are made from 100% recycled paper, the light bulbs are highly efficient, the floor are made from sustainable bamboo, the tabletops are compressed sorghum, and the urinal is waterless (too much information here?).  The used olive oil is also recycled to make biofuel.   All these elements add to the feel-good energy when you step into this place.  Even the cook staff step out from behind the counter to bring your order to the table (using names and not numbers) and to check on the customer.  Low polluting sustainable caring environment – check.

Elevation Burger is offering something quite unique and revolutionary in the fast-food world.  But it is about time that we are challenged beyond our old habits and energies in order to be elevated with a new consciousness and direction, much like our President today announcing his support for equal marriage rights.  Putting philosophy and ethics aside, its offerings are nearly as good, or even better (mos def ethically), as the usual versions that we are accustomed and conditioned to.  Currently, they are available in only 10 states including the MVA area.  But judging by the crowd on my last visit, I’m sure this chain will take off in other states soon, and rightfully so.  With many branches in the area, my future visits to Elevation Burger might bring me closer to Burger Heaven/Nirvana.

Elevation Burger on Urbanspoon

K Town Bistro

During my youthful college days as a Spanish major, I was seriously contemplating running off to Cuba or Nicaragua to spend time perfecting my Spanish and realizing some kind of Socialist mission that filled my sense of idealism.  Knowing that my parents would balk and send an intervention team (aka my siblings), I toned this thought down and ended up in Spain.  In my mid-teens and as a boarder in a British high school, my classmates and I would go on field trips to London to visit the British Museum and the Tate Gallery, and invariably I would end up giving mini tours to my mates explaining the elusive messages hidden within the Modern Masters, albeit off the mark most of the time – again, my sense of reaching to the masses and breaking down the barriers between high art and the common man is evident here.  As an adult, I bring this same sensibility in my approach and search for French cuisine, which I find can be quite inaccessible both gastronomically and financially.

DSC_7486.jpgEver since my discovery of a quaint and irresistible French bistro, Yves’ Bistro (see blog), in the Alexandria, Va area, I have been keeping my eyes, and most surely my appetite, ready and wide open in finding another establishment that is worth visiting and writing about, accessible to the average person on many levels.   Recently, another online offer popped up which urged me to stop in at a new restaurant in the suburb of Kensington, MD.

K Town Bistro is located along the local commuter train tracks, nestled among a bunch of antique shops that appear to have aged nearly as much as the merchandise displayed in the storefront windows.   It is rather easy to bypass it without noticing its presence due to its understated facade and the lack of foot traffic in this quiet part of historic Kensington.  Such quietude only adds to the charm of the area, thus setting up a proper mind frame for a more relaxed and refined meal, as if one were to be transported to a small quaint town on the Continent where time and activity have slowed down by quite a few notches.  A bubbling brook instead of the railroad tracks would have framed the mood and ambience for this gastronomic experience as purely idyllic.

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The restaurant has been opened for just over a year and on my first visit, it was rather busy on a Thursday evening, which was a good sign for what was going to come.  According to the website, the owner had worked for around 20 years at the famed Watergate Hotel, and the chefs had done their stints at high-end restaurants in the area before leaving for further training in France.  With this information in mind and looking at the filled tables, a sense of anticipation started to creep in me, along with a fairly ravenous appetite and a stomach that was speaking its noisy familiar language.

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To start the meal off, I chose the Lobster Bisque, a classic soup which is a good indicator of the kitchen’s skill level.  The soup here is made with sherry and cream, and it arrived in a bowl that was dainty and elegant enough to showcase its luxuriousness.   The broth was packed with the rich crustacean stock, not overly rich by the cream, a slight boozy note from the sherry, and it had some depth from the use of aromatics, the slightly bitter tamale (head matter), and some proper cooking.  It arrived piping hot, as how I like my soups, with some garlic croutons that provided the flavor and textural contrast.  I could not get enough of this satisfactory slurp, and pieces of french bread were used to wipe up every drop in the bowl – it was bowl licking good! On the second visit, a companion’s order of the day’s special, Lentil Soup, was equally delectable.  The soup was rich and creamy, even without the use of diary, as a result of the use of aromatics that added rich flavor and body to these simple legumes.  Instead of a chunky version, it came in a pureed form which further added to the rich silkiness.  With these couple of bowls, we already notice the kitchen’s knowledge and skill in their set of first offerings.

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A couple of salads were the next course.  On one visit, I ordered the House Salad.  It was quite peppery from a combination of field greens and a hefty amount of arugula leaves, balanced by perfectly ripened rich bits of avocado, sweet pungent red onions, slightly tart creamy chevre cheese, sweet and tart tomatoes, all disparate elements perfectly dressed by a slightly sweet and light coating of a proper vinaigrette.  Simple but sumptuous.  A Beet Salad was the order on another visit.  Cubes of sweet yellow beets are paired with equally sweet but more mineral-tasting red beets, topped with slightly sweet fried parsnip shavings coupling up with candied pecans to provide the textural and flavor contrast to the soft beet cubes.   The tangy vinaigrette and nuggets of chevre cheese added some level of acidity to the dish thus avoiding any cloying sweet effect.  This was truly a vegetable delight worth calling a respectable vegetarian entrée.

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On my first visit, an offering of Cod and Crab Cake was my main course.  The piece of cod was amazingly fresh with no hint of ammonia, which cod tends to accumulate quickly.  It was cooked perfectly judging by the moist large flakes of flesh and the slightly golden exterior with the hint of buttery richness.  Perching on top of the fillet is a small crab cake that was decent with large lump meat barely held together by a binder.  The seafood was accompanied by a wonderful Bernaise sauce perfumed by tarragon that added the slight anise flavor thus lightening the butter base sauce – despite its richness, I was lapping up every drop of it.  The sides of mashed potato and greens were quite good but perfunctory in comparison to the staring ingredients.

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The restaurant offers a Prix-Fixe Lunch Menu which consists of 2 courses for $16.  On one visit, my companion ordered Salmon Cakes.  The fish rounds were made with fresh salmon flakes and studded with red and green pepper bits.  As in French cuisine, equal emphasis is placed on the sauce, and the Red Pepper Coulis was the perfect slightly sweet partner to the mild salty cakes.  The side of Spinach Fondue was decent, but the Roasted Potato wedges were quite heavenly with the golden crispy exterior and the fluffy inside, making this starch bites very irresistible.  This was a fulfilling and well-balanced lunch course.

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For my lunch order, I decided to go out on a whim and order something not favored by many – Calf Liver.  The pieces of organ meat were still tender from the proper cooking and not too bitter for being young of age.  Nothing can remove the strong flavors of liver, but the shallot red wine sauce helped to make the liver more palatable and even quite tasty for this reviewer.  The side of vegetables tasted fresh and well-balanced with pieces of sweet carrots, crispy haricot vert (French green beans), and sweet parsnips.  The mash potato was decent but I prefer mine with lots of butter and cream, which this version could have done with more.   However, this was indeed tasty and quite refined for a liver dish.

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A French meal is not complete without savoring the dessert offering.  For dinner, I forced my stuffed and sated stomach to make room for a couple of spoonfuls of the classic Creme Brulée.  The custard was rich, thick, packed with real vanilla flavor (judging by the seeds), and the burnt sugar topping was perfectly executed.  The dessert was doing a number on me at this stage but I had to pull in the reins and hold the horses as the custard came in a decent portion – the following day’s tasting of the leftovers was equally satisfying and I devoured it in a couple of minutes.  For my second visit, the owner was kind enough to offer us a complementary trio of desserts – K Town Bistro Trio.  It consists of the fore mentioned burnt custard, “banana split”, and dark chocolate mousse.  Banana slices have been caramelized and they sit on a pool of rich and irresistible creme anglaise and berry sauce.  The mousse was very rich with a slight bitter-sour aftertaste from the use of good dark chocolate.  Verdict on this trio – C’est tres magnifique!  Despite being stuffed from the savory dishes, we were diving into these sweet offerings like teenagers looking for a sugar high, and we were marvelling with each spoonful.  When you visit, make sure to leave some room for this must-order.

K Town Bistro is a gem of French cuisine due to the skilful kitchen that offers wonderful classic dishes at a moderate price, which fulfils my criteria for good accessible French food.  The charm of its location and the attentive wait staff add to the comfortable and satisfying dining experience.   I see myself becoming a regular at this inviting restaurant, returning back for their delectable courses.  I suspect you will do the same once you have paid it your first visit.

K Town Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tiffin

027.jpgLangley Park is a real funky place in an interesting way.  Where else in the DMV (DC, MD, VA – not the dreaded lines to pay your traffic tickets) can you find a slew of different cuisines within a stone throw of this Maryland suburb – Vietnamese, Pakistani, Chinese, Caribbean, Latin American, African, and countless more.   Since it is located just down the road from my university halls, I used to haul myself down the road for these tasty bites and also head to the different markets that cater to the ethnic population in that area.  Without amiss, there is a slew of Indian eateries and markets dotting that same strip which I have paid my many visits, especially to one of my favorites.

Tiffin is located just off the amazingly busy University Boulevard that never ceases to slow down even on the weekday.  It is sandwiched by other Indian stores that are hawking off either cheap saris or the latest Bollywood DVD.  Not too long ago, Udupi, an Indian vegetarian restaurant, merged with this meat-serving eatery.  But Tiffin still serves the same vegetarian buffet with the adddition of a few meat selections at the end of the line.  What better day than a cool dreary one for me to step in and taste some Indian food.

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My favorite starters are the soups that greet you first.   Without doubt, Samber is what I look forward to to ingratiate my tongue with.  It is a complex concoction of lentils, zucchini, pumpkin, red radish, red chili, long squash, “vegetable drumstick”, curry leaves, bay leaves, mustard seeds, and tamarind pulp that brings the sour element to this light yet flavor-packed vegetable broth.  A Yellow Dahl Soup maybe less complicated than the above but it is not short in flavor and spiciness from both dried red and fresh green chilies, especially the whole cumin seeds that explode in the mouth with their pungent fragrance.

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An array of small bites made some decent appetizers on that day.  Alu Bonda is basically Fried Potato Balls and Medhu Vada are, as the waiter put it, Lentil Donuts.  They are lightly spiced with either some cumin or curry leaves, but they are rather tame in comparison to the other highly spiced offerings.  What elevate them beyond the level of starch are the side sauces of one consisting of cilantro and the other sweat and sour made with tamarind.  Masala Dosai is a crispy fermented rice pancake  stuffed with a potato curry onion mix that is contrasted and complemented by a cooling, slightly sweet and sour, and rich nutty Coconut Chutney that immediately transports you to South Asia with this tasty bite.

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For the vegetarian mains, there is a wide variety and here we see the kitchen’s cooking strength.  This day’s offering were Mixed Vegetables that consisted of cauliflower, corn, spinach, daikon; an Aloo dish made from broccoli, mushroom, potato, carrots, and spiced with cumin, and curry leaves; the omnipresent Chana Masala which are chickpeas cooked in a tomato sauce and various spices; and an exotic Tendli Masala which had the interesting small cucumber-like vegetable cooked with onion and tomato spiced with cumin, mustard seeds and bay leaves.  These offerings were very satisfying due to the skilful manner and the variety in the kitchen’s handling in the spice department.  Such wonderful vegetarian dishes would only change the mind of the skeptic or naysayer.

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Since the merging of both restaurants, Tiffin offers, along with the above dishes, meat dishes to appease the carnivores and their primordial desires (just kidding).  The buffet offerings were Butter Chicken, Goat Curry, Chicken Curry, and Tandoori Chicken.  All the dishes were perfectly spiced and cooked properly – the Butter Chicken was moist and a bit rich from the butter sauce, and the Tandoori Chicken was quite smoky from its high searing in the charcoal tandoor.  But the radioactive red coloring on it, which seems common in most Indian eateries, was quite scary and in my estimation, and quite unnecessary.  Once I could get past this slight eye-sore, I was enjoying the rather moist and tasty bite.

025.jpgThe now-defunct Udupi had near its entrance a sweet and candy display counter, which, regrettably, is missing in its new location. However, the buffet line does have a sweet offering at the end.  I finished my fiery and spicy meal with something rather mild – Rice Pudding and Almonds.  It was only slightly sweet with the rice grains completely cooked and filled with bits of fragrant almond slivers.  The use of cardamom and probably rose-water added some interesting fragrant notes to this simple yet tasty dessert.

With the abundance of Indian restaurants in the metro area, Tiffin stands out for its dishes that are well-spiced and that do not shy away from flavor.  In addition, it is a place where one can indulge in vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices, and the presence of many satisfied Indian or non-Indian customers is a testament to the high quality cooking.  Even if you are not vegetarian, you will walk out of there quite sated from the spicy and tasty offerings, whether made with vegetable or meat.  Just make sure to stop by the counter for a breath mint, or a spoonful of anise seeds from a bowl sitting by the Hindu God Ganesh, before heading back to work, unless you run it at your workplace!

Tiffin on Urbanspoon

Marrakesh P Street

Stairwell to the Blue Light. Note: The restaurant has changed management and name. Read about it – Marrakech.

A couple of weeks back, my BFF Kevin and I stepped into a new Moroccan restaurant in the Adams Morgan area to review its performance.  Simple verdict – disappointing.  The dishes were poorly cooked with barely edible stringy meat, the orders were mixed up, and the food was swimming in a pool of oil.  To make matters worse, Kevin got sick from the food for the next few days – poor bugger!

I was hoping that this visit was going to be en par with a recent visit to another Moroccan eatery in the Dupont Circle area.  Some friends and I had originally planned to have brunch in another location on the same street on a freezing Sunday afternoon.  After being told that the wait was around 40 minutes and in the state of famish that we were in, we hauled ourselves down the street and walked through the doors of Marrakesh P Street Restaurant.  It is located on the former spot of a seedy gay bar that was renowned for its campy drag shows.    However, with some dramatic cosmetic transformation (yes, pun intended), the location has taken on a new look and feel, far from its former life.

Great Moroccan Opener Walking into the foyer, you are immediately whisked away to North Africa with its terra-cotta colored and tiled walls, plush deep-red velvet cushions on a sitting area, and exotic brass ware everywhere including the perforated overhead light fixtures.   The dining rooms are divided into the lower casual eating section and the upper “blue room” reserved for dinners.  Small mosaic fountains and large urns are placed around the space evoking a sense of distant exoticism and beauty.   Perusing the menu, the dishes are divided into simple and understandable sections: Hot Tapas, Cold Tapas, Couscous, Tagines, and Brochettes.

Harira Soup

It is rare that you will come across a restaurant that is open for lunch on Sunday and offering a 3-course lunch special ($12.95) on the weekend.  The first course is a choice of Harira soup or a salad – I chose the soup, suitable for the cold weather.   This traditional soup is made with tomato, lentils, chickpeas, bulgur wheat (I suspect), saffron, cilantro and ginger.  With the first spoonful, the broth tasted rich and complex from the spices and herbs, while the grains and beans added body and heartiness to this wonderful starter – just the perfect entrance to this exotic cuisine.

Combo Salad

On another visit, I decided to try a medley of cold tapas as the starter – the Combo Salad.  It arrived with spinach that had been cooked with garlic and preserved lemon; roasted eggplant cooked with fresh tomato, garlic and cilantro; and a carrot salad prepared with garlic, cilantro, and preserved lemon.  This trio was very flavorful, and the dish points to a kitchen that takes great care in its dish preparation.  There was a level of soulfulness in these simple vegetables that matched perfectly with the crusty yet fluffy Moroccan traditional bread that provided the willing backdrop and vehicle to the savory vegetable dips.

Chicken Bastilla

For the hot tapas, I decided to go the traditional route and order one of Morocco’s most recognizable dishes – Chicken Pastry or Bastilla.  Baked Phylo dough has been stuffed with a mixture of chicken, egg, and almonds, topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon.    This concoction is a study of contrast between the crispy dough and the rather moist filling, the sweet and savory flavors, with the hint of cinnamon adding a certain exotic earthiness to this appetizer.   I have eaten various versions of this dish over the years and although the stuffing was a bit dry (the traditional use of pigeon would make it more moist), it was definitely well-made and worth every bite that I enjoyed.

Chicken Lemon Olive Tagine

Moroccan cooking is renowned for its Tagine dishes that have been cooked in domed clay pots.  With this in mind, I decided to order the Chicken Tagine that was part of the 3-course lunch special (the other choice was Vegetable Couscous).  The breast was cooked in a sauce that was flavored with pickled lemons, olives, and a cornucopia of exotic spices that made the sauce very flavorful and delectable, enough for me to wipe up every drop with the spongy bread.   The slices of pickled lemon rind and olives added the brininess and fruit-like notes to the already flavor-packed dish.  I have had this dish before in other restaurants and this rendition was perhaps one of the best that I have eaten.

Couscous Royal

For the Couscous section, my dining companion ordered the Couscous Royal.  Sitting on a bed of the perfectly steamed pasta grains were spicy Merguez lamb sausage, chicken, lamb, zucchini, squash, carrots, chickpeas and fava beans.  The pieces of meat cooked in a tasty broth were fork-tender, along with the well-cooked large pieces of sweet vegetables that were quite soft but not mushy.  A few forkfuls from this dish confirmed to me that the kitchen really cares about the cooking and is skilful in preparing these traditional Moroccan dishes.  This is another must-order from the menu along with the Chicken Tagine.

Fruit Cocktail

Mint Tea
The final course for the lunch special was a Fruit Cocktail.  In most places, such dessert would be a banal mix of fruits that would leave the taster rather nonplussed.   However, this restaurant’s version was a mixture of fresh cantaloupe, melon, pineapple, sweet strawberries, and plump blackberries.   It is indeed refreshing to have a fresh fruit salad that has been slightly sweetened by a light syrup perfumed by a heady orange blossom water, especially in the midst of winter.   The traditional dessert of Moroccan pastries were not available during the last visit, but I have enjoyed such dessert fare there in the past and the sweets were good.  A cup of the customary sweet mint tea was also a perfect end to this wonderful meal.

The dishes that I tasted at Marrakesh P Street Restaurant were a far cry from those that I tried at the other eatery mentioned in the opening paragraph, which will remain nameless and unreviewed.   However, here the dishes were flavor-packed, skillfully executed, and full of Moroccan tasty exoticness.   With this Northern African soul food, this restaurant managed to stir my taste buds and whole being with its traditional offerings that Moroccan cuisine is known for, very much like a belly dancer with her exotic, smooth, and alluring gyrations.  But unlike its former life as a drag show venue, this restaurant truly delivers the real McCoy, at least food wise.  I will indeed be revisiting this place in the future for more of the real stuff found in its wonderful authentic offerings.

Marrakesh P Street on Urbanspoon

Bangkok 54

You can say that I have had my fair share of Thai food in my lifetime.  Having spent the earlier part of my childhood growing up south of the border (Thailand’s, that is), I was introduced to this exotic Southeast Asian cuisine at a very early age.  Although it resembles my home cuisine in many ways, there are distinctive differences that I learned to discern and appreciate with time.   During my early days, Thai restaurants were still quite rare even though I was growing up in that region of the world.

These days, you could not stroll down a few blocks of a metropolis without coming across at least one Thai restaurant.  In the Dupont Circle area of DC, you can find at least 4 of these restaurants within a quarter-mile radius.  A stone throw away in Arlington, VA, I could drive down Columbia Pike and hit at least 3 of them within three minutes.  When I was living in Sydney, Australia, in 2008, there was at least one Thai restaurant in every corner of its downtown area, and nearly the same density in some rather affluent suburbs.  As the saying goes, you could not avoid them like the plague.

So, with the abundance of this Southeast Asian cuisine in the Washington DC area, how does one know if the restaurant is serving authentic and good eats, and is worth visiting?  I would say that the answer lies in the fine details and in the gestalt, the totality of the dining experience.

Bangkok 54 Decor

Bangkok 54 is one of those locales on that 3-restaurant strip in Arlington.  It has been around for quite a few years and over time I have dropped in there a number of times.  The business was originally a Thai market that sold delicious home-prepared foods to its customers.  In time, it bought over its neighboring lot and renovated it into a swanky Thai bistro.  It was one of the first Thai restaurants that I could recall having a modern interior while serving authentically based food – you can find both classic dishes, along with some updated versions of Thai traditional fare.  Being a bit of a purist, I decided to taste a myriad of typical dishes and evaluate them as the barometer of its kitchen’s cooking.

Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup 2
A good measure of a Thai kitchen is its rendition of the classic hot and sour soup, or Tom Yum.  Although it is a strong-tasting and aromatic soup, there are some finer points to a well-made bowl.  The secret is in the broth that is spiked with citrus lemongrass, rooty and camphor-like galangal, aromatic kaffir lime leaf, biting chili paste, sour lime juice, salty fish sauce, and the addition of a bit of sugar to round of the disparate elements.  The restaurant’s version does some justice to this well-known soup that is filled with plump sweet large shrimp and floating pieces of button mushroom.  The floating chili oil slick on its surface attests to the spice level that the kitchen does not seem to shy away from – Peht, as they say.

Minced Chicken Salad
On one visit, I decided to order a couple of appetizers as my main course.  Larb is a minced chicken salad that has been seasoned by lime juice, fish sauce, red onions, and roasted chili flakes, with a faint hint of sesame oil and served on a bed of lettuce.  It has quite a fiery bite that is tempered by the sauce and the cool lettuce that serves as its edible bowl.  This is not your mother’s chicken salad as it will take you to another place and taste level with its unequivocably strong flavors.  Love it.

Bean Noodle Salad
Yum Woon Sen was the other partner in crime.  It is a shrimp, chicken, and beanthread noodle salad that has been seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce, red onions, and fresh red chilis.  The pieces of chicken were more moist than the previous appetizer, and the beanthread noodle provided a textural difference while having absorbed all the yummy pungent sauce.    I could not help but slurp down all the flavorful noodles with pure satisfaction.

Pad Kee Mao/Drunken Noodles
On a recent visit, I decided to order a couple of standard entrées.  On my way out on my previous visit, I had spied on a noodle dish that was coming out of the kitchen, which made me vow to order it on the next visit.  Pad Kee Mao, or the well-known Drunken Noodles, is one of my all-time favorites and it is a must-order when I eat Thai, especially for weekend lunch.  This kitchen’s rendition comes with a choice of different meats or seafood, and I decided to go full gusto – I went for the seafood combination.  The plate arrived with glossy wide rice noodles that have been well-coated with its slightly sweet brown sauce without any excess grease pooled on the plate, with large chunks of tender squid, shrimp and huge sweet scallops barely hanging on to the noodles as if they are about to roll off a mountain – this was truly a seafood delight.  I relished every strand of noodle with the obligatory splash of vinegared green chili condiment that came in a flourescent-red basket.   I was in noodle heaven.

Pad Phrik Khing
Pad Phrik Khing is a dish of few ingredients, comprised of a choice meat, fresh green beans and a complex spice mix that makes the dish distinctive.  The flavor base is made from various roots like lemongrass and galangal, spices like cumin and coriander seeds, and aromatics like Kaffir lime leaves.  The dish that I ordered came with large pieces of moist pork, fresh turgid green beans, and a fiery and tasty sauce that pulls the ingredients together.  The use of a bit of sugar not only ties in the different flavors  but also tempers the spice mix that comes close to overpowering the dish.  It is well-cooked but I missed the garnish of thin slivers of fresh Kaffir lime leaves that adds that extra flavor oomph, which I have tasted in other places.  However, that did not stop me from spooning all the tasty sauce onto my bowl of fragrant jasmine rice.

During my meal, I could not help but constantly eye at the dishes served at the next table over from mine.  One of them was a bright orange Butternut Squash in Red Curry, which consisted of a large round of the sweet gourd smothered with a rich coconut-milk based fiery red sauce.  Judging by the effusive complements from the lucky recipients, this is going to be on my order list for the next visit.

The menu here is extensive and covers a wide variety of Thai classics of rice, meat, vegetables, and seafood dishes.  There is also a fairly large vegetarian menu that most Thai restaurants feel obligated to offer as respect for their Buddhist tradition.  What sets the dining experience in Bangkok 54 apart from others is the skillful cooking of its dishes (which one can view into the open kitchen), the fine details in its dish presentation and efficient service (including the waitresses’ neatly pressed modern outfits), and the relaxed yet sophisticated well-decorated ambience (large flower sculpture friezes, recessed Buddha statues, deities, and traditional figurines) that allows the diner to relish on along with some good eats.   Just like its market that has survived this recession while other area Thai markets have folded-up, Bangkok 54 seems to have the recipe for success, and it will be around for some time to ingratiate more hungry mouths with its offering of this wonderful Southeast Asian cuisine.

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