Thursday, March 31, 2011


I have strong feelings on lots of things: cilantro, whether the color of a college basketball player's undershirt clashes with his jersey, etc. However, I've never had strong feelings on falafel. I usually see it on a menu and move on to other things. It's not that I've had a particularly bad falafel experience, I just feel kind of "eh" about it. Our friend Budak, on the other hand, is a falafel kind of guy. Whenever we travel to a new city he tells us where we can find good falafel. When he suggested we meet him at vFalafel near Dupont Circle, I was ready to give falafel a fresh start.

First, I love the tile awning. If a massive indoor rainstorm ever threatens the falafel topping bar, it is fully protected. Second, the owner (Man in the Yellow Hat) is really nice. He bears an uncanny resemblance to our favorite picture framer at Picasso Gallery and is equally friendly. When we looked a little overwhelmed by the variety of toppings on the salad bar, he offered to put the toppings on our falafel for us.

What makes vFalafel stand out in the world of falafelness is its all-vegetarian salad bar. You choose either a regular or a junior falafel sandwich and then can go to town adding toppings such as hummus and pickled veggies. Man in the Yellow Hat said that his wife makes a lot of the salads herself, but she just had a baby, so wasn't back to salad making yet. We also missed out on her bean brownies (hopefully they taste better than they sound) but I wish her congratulations on her new baby and a speedy return to brownie baking.

While Budak, the Falafel Fan went the do-it-yourself route with the salad bar, B and I let Man in the Yellow Hat work his magic.

We ended up with a tangy, creamy, messy concoction that was good enough to make me interested in falafel. Budak gave high marks to the topping selection but said the falafel balls themselves were a bit on the dry side. I hardly noticed since my pita was bursting at the seams with about 45 different kinds of toppings.

If you're a falafel purist, this might not be your cup of tea. We've gotten a lot of blog comments directing us to Amsterdam Falafel in Adams Morgan. My general falafel doldrums have prevented us from trying it thus far so I can't tell you how vFalafel stacks up. However, it's going to take some good falafel to tear me away from the Man in the Yellow Hat dishing out falafel under the awning.

Second Thoughts from B

Clearly, people are trending away from national chains and embracing smaller, local restaurants. J and I are no exception. While the argument usually centers around fresh ingredients and unique recipes, not much is made about the connection that can develop between a small business and its customers.

vFalafel is the perfect example. I won't remember the food so much as the Man in the Yellow Hat. People talk about chefs putting "love" into a dish. It was clear that every aspect of vFalafel was the product of the hopes, dreams, and yes, love, of the Man in the Yellow Hat. He was sharing his food with us, but also his passion and his culture. vFalafel represented him.

Eating out is sometimes more than food. It can be an experience that excites much more than your sense of taste and smell. By going to vFalafel, I felt like I was going into a person's home to hear his story... and that can be so much more fulfilling than any meal.
v Falafel on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sprinkles Cupcakes

I hear you. DC didn't need another cupcake place. I know. Baked and Wired has the best cupcakes in town. Yes. The line outside Georgetown Cupcake makes me nauseous, too. However, when California native Sprinkles Cupcakes opened on M Street in Georgetown, we couldn't resist popping in to show them some California Love.

Sprinkles calls itself the world's first cupcake bakery and while I can't verify that statement, I can say that I've been enjoying Sprinkles cupcakes since they opened in Beverly Hills in 2003. Back in 2003 the world was a different place. B and I first caught each other's eye, the Washington Nationals were dropping baseballs in Canada as the Montreal Expos, and it was a huge novelty to find a place specializing in cupcakes (and frosting shots!). Sprinkles was my first cupcake love.

This past Saturday, B found a way to combine two of my loves: cupcakes and Target. Isn't he so dreamy? We raced out the door needing to eat breakfast and run some errands, so we popped into Sprinkles, scooped up some cupcakes, and made our way to Target's food court to devour them. Why didn't we just eat them at Sprinkles? Have you tried dealing with parking on M Street? Target parking is so much easier.

So we sat in Target twirling in our plastic chairs and licking frosting off our fingers. I was the picture of happiness. To me, Sprinkles has just the right balance of moist cake and decadent frosting. Their coconut cupcake (bottom of the photo) is my idea of cupcake perfection.

I was so excited to have a taste of home that I allowed myself to get talked into buying 4 cupcakes. We demolished two of them in Target and then packed up the other two for eating a few hours later (I couldn't wait!). As I pushed my red cart around the store, I kept a very close eye on the precious cupcake cargo sitting on the child's seat. People steal my cart in Target all the time, but if someone had stolen my cupcake cart, there would have been quite a scene. Don't get between a girl and her nostalgic cupcakes.

Second Thoughts From B

J mentioned the coconut cupcake. It was joined by (going clockwise), strawberry, a special cherry flavor to honor the cherry blossoms, and peanut butter chocolate. Now, everyone in their best Cookie Monster voice*, repeat after me: Mmummm, mmummm, mmummm, mmummm, mmummm!

While all of our friends in LA (and the folks at US Weekly that turned Sprinkles and cupcakes into a starlet-driven fad) probably like hearing this West coast shout out, we know what all of you DC readers want to know. How does Sprinkles compare to other local offerings? As the one without the nostalgia bias, let me take a stab at this one...

The cake is uniformly moist and light, and as good as anything we've tasted in DC. As for the flavor, some were bolder than others, but none were lacking. The frosting is always fabulously vibrant and light, and as J said, the ratio to cake is spot on. And the size and price is even appropriate. I guess it is no surprise that the owner of Sprinkles is a judge on Food Network's Cupcake Wars (which was recently won by our favorite vegan bakery, Sticky Fingers Bakery).

So imagine you're in the heart of Georgetown and in need of a cupcake. Where do you go? Hello Cupcake (one of my favorites) in Dupont is too far. Up the street is the cupcake shop you've heard a lot of buzz about. However, you're a savvy TwoDC reader and know that Georgetown Cupcake guarantees long lines and small, hype-powered cupcakes. Down a side street (Thomas Jefferson) is Baked & Wired (J's favorite), the cool coffee bar with awesome (taste and size) cupcakes and Hippie Crack. But to get there you have to pass Sprinkles. What to do?

Honestly, you can't go wrong with either. While they are both equally good, they are by no means the same thing. One embraces the off-the-beaten-path location and lifestyle with an emphasis on natural ingredients and a laid back atmosphere. The other is chic, cool, and beautiful, and more similar to Hello Cupcake. My advice, find a friend and get one of each.
Sprinkles Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

*Really? You're going to call me out on my cupcake-eating Cookie Monster reference? If our favorite dessert eating monster can incorporate broccoli into his diet, you think it is such a stretch that cupcakes would make it?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Casa Blanca

We found ourselves walking down L Street in downtown on a weeknight and hungry for a quick dinner. Since much of downtown turns into a wasteland of closed restaurants by 6 p.m., we were gearing up to settle for Quiznos. However, as we passed Vermont, I remembered a little restaurant tucked between K and L called Casa Blanca. We rounded the corner expecting to find it closed, but instead did an awkward happy dance when we saw the glow of a neon "open" sign. I was ready to hug the nice woman behind the counter when she told me they stay open until 10 p.m. on weekdays.

Since we had basketball to watch, we ordered our food to go. However, if you're inclined to sit for a spell, Casa Blanca offers table service complete with the requisite telenovela blaring from a large TV. We ordered our food and B asked if we could purchase a bag of chips to eat while we waited. Big high five to Casa Blanca for giving us chips and salsa on the house to satisfy the rumbling hunger monsters in our stomachs.

Since we were nearly delirious with hunger, I went way overboard in the ordering department. I thought ordering 4 pupusas as an appetizer seemed reasonable until we got home and saw that they were big and fat and served with a mountain of tangy slaw. We would've been very satisfied to have eaten these for our dinner.

But since we like to go big or go home, we each ordered a burrito. B tried the burrito mojado which means "wet burrito" for those that took German instead of Spanish in high school. It was massive and completely gringofied, but hit the spot. The rice, often a throwaway dish, was perfectly cooked and had a nice zing to it.

I test drove the beef burrito which was similarly massive. While all of the ingredients were good, it was a little blah in the flavor department. I piled on some of Casa Blanca's very spicy green sauce and was in tongue tingling heaven.

Is my opinion of Casa Blanca colored by my excitement that they were open late on a weeknight and the fact that I was starving? Probably, but sometimes all you need is a smiling face to serve you a reasonably priced burrito. For that, Casa Blanca fits the bill.

Second Thoughts from B

A couple of days ago I told you about CFITA restaurants (that's cheap, fast, and in the area). Casa Blanca is now the latest to earn this title. The difference though is that for those of us who work and/or live in downtown, we're always in the area.

If I didn't live nearby, I don't think the memory - or lack thereof - of my massive burrito would bring me back. But the pupusas might. They were both light and fluffy while being packed with enough cheese to sink a ship. How they produce such a culinary paradox is a mystery to me. All I know is that four was without a doubt too many, but that doesn't mean we didn't eat them.

So let's check the scorecard. Local CFITA restaurant. Noteworthy menu item. Friendly, casual atmosphere. Add it all up and you get the return visit guarantee.
Casa Blanca on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

El Pollo Rico

You can't drive very far in the Arlington, Virginia area without running into a restaurant serving pollo a la brasa, a.k.a. Peruvian chicken. As many times as we've seen the signs, we'd never made it into a restaurant to check out the chicken hype. Opportunity struck last week as we played the "where should we eat?" game with visiting family and someone suggested Peruvian food. 388 mostly positive Yelp reviews led us to a packed parking lot in Arlington to try El Pollo Rico.

El Pollo Rico is a no-frills cavernous room featuring several rotisseries for roasting the famous birds. It's a good thing they have so many rotisseries because people come in and order chicken like it was going out of style. The ladies in front of me ordered six chickens to go. The staff keeps the line moving quickly and before we knew it, we were carrying our trays to a table in the dining area.

The menu is short and keeps the focus on the chicken. Chicken comes with a choice of two sides (rice, beans, tortillas, french fries, or coleslaw). The rice is standard steamed rice, which is helped in the flavor department by a generous dash of their green hot sauce. The fries and coleslaw were nothing to get excited about. The chicken, however, was juicy and flavorful and worth a return visit.

I can see El Pollo Rico being a great stop before a picnic or as an easy meal for a group. A whole chicken (with 2 sides) will only set you back $14 so you can feed a lot of hungry mouths on the cheap. Our group of 4 ordered one and a half chickens and it was almost more than we could handle.

Second Thoughts from B

On a dark and stormy night, four intrepid souls ventured outside the city gates in search of sustenance. Their journey of peril and heroic perseverance led them to an oasis of exotic and worldly cuisine of the highest order. In their moment of triumph, the victors sang hymns of exaltation to the heavens to celebrate their good fortune.

OK, back to reality. We found a chicken joint in Arlington and in the words of Miley Cyrus (or at least what I know of her from SNL), it was pretty cool.

I just don't know how excited I can get about chicken. It was good but as a staple of home cooking, I'll never associate it was fine dining or something that I crave. Still, as a reliable and irreplaceable part of my diet, I'm happy to have stumbled across another good option. And I guess that is what El Pollo Rico is... another good option. File it under the "cheap, fast, and in the area" category. (That's CFITA for you government folks)
El Pollo Rico on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Noodles on 11

It's no secret that I love noodles. I've also mentioned my quest to try every restaurant within a several block radius of our house. So, when a noodle shop opened up near our house, I couldn't wait to get there.

You might recognize this as the old Sushi Aoi space. The owners closed neighboring Mazu, moved Sushi Aoi into the Mazu space, and opened Noodles on 11 in Sushi Aoi's old locale. The sushi bar is still there but now you can sit and slurp noodles instead of nigiri.

Since I'm an equal opportunity noodle lover, I had a really hard time settling on what to order. After bouncing around the menu (and the Asian continent) from pho to tom yum to Hong Kong style noodles, I decided on the Suki (Thai-style sukiyaki with shrimp, beef, chicken, and egg in a house special sriracha sauce with bean cellophane noodles). At first sniff, I knew the broth was going to be packed with flavor and the taste matched the smell. However, for a dish that lists so many ingredients, it just felt kind of sparse. I'd prefer to have them pick one protein and give me more of it than have a single shrimp, a few pieces of chicken, and no identifiable beef. The noodles, made in house, were pleasantly soft but either B ate most of them when I gave him a few bites or they didn't put too many in the bowl. At $11.95 (lunch price) and with a bowl the size of Pete Carroll's ego, I just expected more oomph.

B, following the suggestion of the framed article on the wall and hoping to recreate the quacktastic magic of Mark's Duck House, ordered the Hong Kong style noodles with roast duck. Don't worry Mark, you're safe at the top of the duck heap. The duck had a nice flavor but was on the tough side. The noodles were a big, stuck-together clump. Maybe the addition of some sauce would've softened things up and made it easier to eat? When your bite didn't include a piece of duck, you were left with a glump of sticky noodles. I know glump isn't even a word but it's the best way to describe these noodles.

Somebody please tell me that we just didn't order the right things. I can't bear the thought of having a noodle shop so close to my house that leaves me feeling so...glumpy.

Second Thoughts from B

In the government we seldom call things outright "failures." Instead, we focus on the "challenges" or "obstacles," but my favorite piece of governmentese is "missed opportunity." Noodles on 11 was the ultimate missed opportunity. As J described, everything was there for us to have a new local favorite but when you're paying $10+ for a noodle dish that needs better noodles, this is not a business model we can get behind.

To expand on the vocabulary lesson, let's go a little deeper into J's "glump." For those of you who were once teenage boys, there are two type of noodles: the ones you eat by the pound and the ones you throw at your buddies because they'll stick to their face. Glumpy noodles are the latter.
I'm tempted in this space to tell a story about a certain member of my family being confused about how to cook noodles, but I'll spare this kitchen-limited loved one. However, I will say that there was anxiety over how much water should be boiled and for how long. Now, if I was served a glump of noodles from this unnamed family member, I'd probably give them a pass. But when you're paying for a dried-out sticky mess from a place with noodles in the name, that's a missed opportunity. Some would even call it a failure.
Noodles on 11 on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mussel Bar

Sometimes we do silly things to save money. We live next to Brasserie Beck and love their mussels and frites. So when Robert Wiedmaier opened the more casual Mussel Bar in Bethesda, we were intrigued but couldn't see a reason to schlep out to Bethesda to try the food we can get about 50 paces from our door. However, when an offer for a 50% off Groupon hit my inbox, I took it as a sign that we needed to go to Bethesda.

Mussel Bar is like Brasserie Beck's younger, tattooed, rocker brother. The servers wear t-shirts, they don't take reservations, and they blast different concert DVDs during dinner service. We were treated to U2's 360 tour. If you don't want a side of Bono (or similar rock icon) with your mussels, it's probably better to come during lunch.

On a Friday evening, I metroed up to Bethesda to meet B after work. I knew we'd be in for a wait but I still was a bit taken aback by the 1 hour and 20 minute prediction. Who says people aren't eating out in this economy?

We found some chairs near the bar and waited while sipping on a beer from Mussel Bar's impressive collection. After about an hour and 10 minutes, we were directed to our table beneath Bono and The Edge.

We started off the meal with a salad listed on the daily specials chalkboard. The citrus salad with romaine, orange, and grapefruit supremes sounded light and refreshing. Unfortunately, the salad was a little lighter than we'd anticipated as it was brought to the table completely undressed. After several bites of tasting nothing but watery romaine with fruit, we asked the waiter for some dressing. The dressing helped but I wouldn't go running to Bethesda for this salad.

At an emphatic suggestion (or three) from our waiter, we tried the mushroom Belgian pizza with wild mushrooms, gruyere, bacon, arugula, and "essence of truffle" (Does that mean it is channeling the wisdom of the wise truffle king?) So many times flatbreads resemble packing material, but Mussel Bar has figured out how to make them pleasantly chewy with a crackly crust. The flavors were bold and it was a creamy contrast to the spicy mussel dish that was to come.

We were anxious to see how the mussels at Mussel Bar would stack up to our favorites at Beck. Though served in the same pan and presented with the same flourish (as the waiter removes the glass lid and allows the delicious-smelling steam to escape), we found the mussels here to be more plump and more flavorful than their cousins at Beck. Sticking to the daily specials, we tried the grilled shrimp mussels with cilantro, scallions, and a spicy tomato fondue. The broth was rich and packed a punch without being overwhelming. As promised by the waiter, the cilantro flavor was subtle and did not overpower the dish the way that that silly soapy weed can. Our only complaint about the dish? There were three measly shrimp! Three! This reminds me of a classic nursery rhyme:

Three grilled shrimp. Three grilled shrimp
See them in there? See them in there?
You better savor each bite carefully,
Because there aren't enough for your tummy,
For $16 we'd expect a few more,
Than three grilled shrimp.

Kidding aside, we were impressed by the complexity of flavors in the mussels and, as always, I swooned over the frites.

So was it worth it to trek to Bethesda and wait over an hour for food very similar to what's served in our hood? Yes, because we loved the mussels and, more importantly, because we had a coupon! Would we go again without a coupon? Perhaps, if we happened to be in Bethesda. In the meantime, I think we'll stick to the older, more buttoned up brother Mr. Brasserie Beck. He takes reservations.

Second Thoughts from B

I don't know how much reader overlap there is between our little local blog that mostly talks about food and ESPN, but I'll give this analogy a shot anyway. ESPN's most read columnist, Bill Simmons, a.k.a. the Sports Guy, has a theory about NBA players. To put it simply, as long as you excel at one thing - be it defense, outside shooting, rebounding, waving a towel and cheering for your teammates, etc. - there is a place for you in the NBA. Teams will overlook holes in all other aspects of your game so long as you are outstanding at that one thing.

And that leads me from muscles to Mussel Bar. You see, the wait was long, the room was loud (which would have been a problem if I didn't love U2), the salad was undressed, the pizza was good but rather generic (which makes it forgettable in my book), and the shrimp were mostly missing. But the thing I'll remember is the plump, tender, and juicy mussels.

As with all of the different mussel preparations at Brasserie Beck (and we've tried them all), the spicy tomato fondue was wonderfully bold and complex. But at Mussel Bar, the mussels were not just a vehicle by which we would enjoy the sauce. Simply put, they surpassed Beck on my personal best ever list, and despite any other flaws, that alone will make me want to come back.
Mussel Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Banana Leaves

Well this is a first...and hopefully a last. After intending to try Banana Leaves for months, we finally made it there for dinner on Saturday night. Only hours after we left, tragedy struck in the form of a defective water heater and Banana Leaves burned. Thankfully, the restaurant had closed for the night and nobody was hurt, but I feel very saddened by the destruction that the owners are faced with. Here's our take on Banana Leaves in hopes that it will rise from the ashes.

Riding high following a dramatic regular season college basketball finale, we wandered north of Dupont Circle to Banana Leaves. We were joined by Budak, loyal dining companion and official co-tester of whatever generic pan-Asian place we covet. After sipping on a respectable pomegranate lemonade, we kicked the party off with a trio of appetizers.

While the edamame and seaweed salad were solid, the Roti Canai (Malaysian-Indian pancakes with spicy potato curry sauce) were high-five worthy. B, after drinking the rest of the potato curry (which was meant for dipping, not slurping like a soup), said he could order 18 of these and call it a night. It was a ridiculously good combination of textures and flavors. The super soft and doughy roti pancake made the perfect vehicle for the spicy curry. Before the fire, we were making plans for a return trip to Banana Leaves just to order this dish. I think I'll be dreaming of it every day until they come back. If they don't reopen, I'm tracking down the chef for the recipe. Budak didn't share our love for the dish but that's because he ate 255 straight Indian meals while studying abroad, and curry still makes him shake in his boots. This is the same guy who thought Wok and Roll was a good idea, so take his opinion with a grain of salt.

After the Roti Canai, I knew I'd be let down by my main course but I was pleasantly surprised by the honey peanut noodles that had a fun coconutty sweetness with just the right amount of heat.

B's Banana Leaves rice was more confusing than anything else. The plate combined sweet and sour fried shrimp, curry chicken, an egg, and coconut rice in a banana leaf. Since the plate was flat, you couldn't really mix things together without them falling off. Even if you could, the flavors of the shrimp and chicken didn't match. Anyone know how to eat this dish?

I truly hope Banana Leaves will rise up phoenix-style and bring that Roti Canai back to Dupont's hungry masses.

Second Thoughts From B

It is hard not to mask my heartache following the fire by making inappropriate puns using descriptions like "hot" or "on fire" to describe Banana Leaves. It is also hard to write this post without it turning into an obituary. I think I've succeeded on one account and failed on the other.

Those in mourning often turn to the phrase, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." But where does that leave those of us who had just discovered their new love?

Is "love" too strong a word this early in our relationship? Yeah, probably. The reality is that I loved the
Roti Canai, liked the pomegranate lemonade, and was confused by my sampler plate entree. Would I be using the word "love" without the fire? Probably not, but like all of those who left us too early, our feelings are sweetened by nostalgia. So let me say so long to my latest lost love with a tender ode.

Has anybody here, seen my old friends at Banana Leaves -
Can you tell me where they've gone?
They fed a lot of people,
But it seems the good, they die young

I just looked around and they're gone.

Banana Leaves Asian Restaurant & Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon