Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pacci's Neapolitan Pizzeria

What do you do when you find yourself in an unknown far away kingdom like, say, Silver Spring, and you need a place to eat in a hurry? You could always go with the safe (if unexciting) bets of Potbelly or Chipotle, or put your fate in the hands of the legion of online reviewers on sites like Yelp or Urbanspoon.

We generally choose the latter option, but this is the sort of situation where my uncanny ability to recall restaurants that I've read about comes in handy. I can't do math, I sometimes forget to pack all of my clothes in my gym bag, but if you need to know the name of that restaurant that Tom Sietsema recommended in Elkridge, Maryland, I'm your gal. B is partly amused by it and partly freaked out. We'll be driving through random towns and he'll ask where we should eat and I'll blurt out the name of some place that I read about in some blog or newspaper 4 years ago.

This rambling back story is provided to convey how we ended up eating at Pacci's Neapolitan Pizzeria in Silver Spring. We needed a place to eat before an Ultimate game, and suddenly I remembered people saying great things about Pacci's.

My sister was visiting from LA and we did not want to waste a single meal of her trip on something average. Luckily, the neopolitan pies at Pacci's enjoyed on their sunny patio were far from a wasted effort.

They weren't the most jump up and down amazing pizzas we've ever had but they were solidly in the upper second tier of DC pizzadom. My sister, always the adventurous one, tried the tronchetti, which is basically a pizza wrap. Very unique and fun to try, but I think the lid fell off the top of the oregano shaker. This baby was completely drowning in the Italian herb, and it sadly overpowered the otherwise very fresh and flavorful ingredients. Swing and a miss for Team Tronchetti.

We're not going to make the trek to Silver Spring just to eat at Pacci's but if you're in the area and want a satisfying lunch, we'd recommend stopping in.

Second Thoughts from B

I married the restaurant Rain Man. "Yeah, Tom liked Pacci. Liked the pizza. Hot oven. 870 degrees. Georgia Ave. 8113." To mix movie references, she is a little scary sometimes. Brilliant... but scary.

Unfortunately, her super power didn't save her sister from the tronchetti. In addition to the oregano explosion, the process of eating it resulted in sauce oozing everywhere and turning an otherwise good idea into a sloppy mess.

However, for those of us that got the pizza, it was similar to many of my favorites. Great dough and quality ingredients. Add a quiet patio and one of the last warm days of the year, and B was a happy boy.
Pacci's Neapolitan Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ren's Ramen

I've been on a serious ramen kick lately. From Toki Underground to People's Noodle Bar, I can't get enough. When Tom Sietsema's Fall Dining Guide was released, I scanned the pages for a new place to fill my noodle needs. Luckily, Tom recommended Ren's Ramen in the far away land of Wheaton.

It just so happens that our Ultimate Frisbee team plays frequently in Wheaton. While B would rather drive straight home after a game to shower, stretch, and watch TV, I appreciate that he went along with my zany post-game noodle plan.

Thank goodness Ren's Ramen is casual because we definitely were not sporting our Sunday best. They didn't bat an eye as we took a seat in the small restaurant in our jerseys and shorts.

If the name sounds familiar, Ren's used to be located in the Daruma Japanese Market in Bethesda, but closed that location and opened the Wheaton location earlier this year.

We started things off with the only appetizer on the menu: a five piece set of juicy pork gyoza (dumplings). They were good but have already run together in my mind with the zillions of other gyoza we've had. Nothing particularly memorable about them.

The special ramen of the day was a spicy miso ramen. I love spicy almost as much as I love noodles, so I was all over it. To kick things up a few notches, I ordered extra ramen and a seasoned boiled egg from the list of "add ons."

From the standard menu, B ordered the Sapporo-style Miso Ramen with extra ramen and the daily special add on... pork belly.

Both bowls of ramen were fantastic. The broth was well-seasoned and the noodles had a distinctly chewy texture, which held up well in the bubbling bath of pork broth. For me, the addition of bean sprouts is a bit of a drawback, but B liked the texture contrast they provided. We thought it a bit odd that the "extra" ramen came out on a plate on the side instead of in the bowl. By the time I got my bowl empty enough to add more ramen, the noodles had stuck together into a tangled mass.

The portions were definitely large enough without the extra noodles. I ended up taking half of my ramen home for lunch the next day.

While I've loved all the ramen we've been eating lately, if you forced me to rank them I would say:
  1. Toki Underground

  2. Ren's Ramen

  3. People's Noodle Bar
Anyone have a suggestion for a fourth place to add to our rotation?

Second Thought from B

Last time we wrote about ramen I equated a bowl of noodles to sex and marriage. I'm going to keep it a little more tame this time but that doesn't mean I'm less enthusiastic about Ren's Ramen.

Two things come to mind when I reflect on our trip to Ren's. First, the texture of the noodles. Everyone's preference is a bit different but in my humble noodle-eating opinion, these noodles found the perfect balance of soft and chewy. The second thing I remember would be the amount of noodles. After bringing out a sizeable bowl of ramen that was not wanting for anything, the extra plate of noodles showed up. This was a comically large amount of food that would make Lady and the Tramp proud.

So if I can play Dr. Frankenstein for a moment, here's my perfect bowl of ramen. Ren's chewy noodles, People's heart-warming broth, and the creative zing of Toki's spices and add ons. But since we don't have to choose one, I'm thrilled to have 3 fantastic options!
Ren's Ramen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Black and Orange

In June 2010, we wrote about a newish burger place called Rogue States. We loved the novel concept of taking the bold flavors and placing them inside the burger patty instead of on top. Rogue States branded itself as the "burger grilling company," and it was that grilling part that got them in a bit of trouble. It seems that their exhaust system was venting burger grilling fumes into the law firm offices of Steptoe & Johnson. The firm did what law firms do best and sued, claiming the fumes were making their employees sick. A judge ordered the grilling to stop, and Rogue States closed their doors in October 2010. We were bummed, but drowned our sorrows in the meaty offerings of the many other burger joints in town.

Happily, Rogue States, now called "Black and Orange," reopened this summer in the same space after installing a $90,000 ventilation system. The place looks the same and the burgers taste just as great.

We welcomed them back by ordering a couple of burgers and some sweet potato fries. My Square One burger with sea salt and black pepper cooked into the patty was a wonderful take on the classic burger. I love that you can order a smaller burger (on the left in the photo) that allows you to save some room for the sweet potato fries. B silently and quickly devoured his "No Burger, No Cry" burger cooked with house jerk blend, red onion, and habanero peppers in the patty. This burger was not as spicy as advertised and had more of a sweet/tangy flavor than a mouth-burning fire.

Welcome back Black and Orange. We certainly didn't need another burger joint but we're happy you're back among the very crowded field.

Second Thoughts from B

One year, one law suit, one expensive vent, and one name change later, I still love the Rogue States/Black and Orange concept. Better yet, I love the execution. It could be said that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same and thank goodness for that.

With Ray's and Good Stuff leading the way, DC has become quite the burger-loving city. Add BBP and Black and Orange, and you've got a nice list of top tier options, not to mention the old standby, Five Guys. That Black and Orange features an interesting and flavorful twist on the typical American staple, will certainly help it stand out... as long as they stay in the kitchen rather than the courtroom.
Black and Orange Burger on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Biergarten Haus

During the last weekend of Oktoberfest, B wanted to relive his trip to the actual Oktoberfest in Munich and drink a huge beer and eat roast chicken with his hands. To fulfill this wish, we headed to the only local German biergarten that we know of, the aptly named Biergarten Haus on H Street NE.

Our friends adore the Biergarten Haus with its large outdoor patio area and vibrant groups of rowdy revelers. We figured that during the last weekend of Oktoberfest, right around kickoff of a Redskins game, we'd be fighting the masses for a seat. Instead, when we arrived there were only a couple of people inside, and nobody whooping it up on the patio. A bit disappointed by the sleepy atmosphere, we grabbed a table upstairs by the window with a good view of many large TVs.

Since it was so dead, we got quick service. Shortly after arriving, we were clanging large beers and yelling "prost!" We gobbled down the first order of warm pretzel rolls with beer cheese and mustard, and quickly ordered a second helping. Unfortunately the second helping wasn't warm and it was a chore to finish them.

B was crushed when he learned that roast chicken, an Oktoberfest staple, was only available in the evenings. We settled on a sausage platter featuring three varieties (bratwurst, bauernwurst, and knackwurst) served with a side of potatoes and sauerkraut. Somehow, all three sausages tasted bland. The zippy mustard helped a lot, but I don't think we'd head back to Biergarten Haus for this dish.

After our experience, our Biergarten-loving buddies told us that you need to go only for the beer and the atmosphere, and skip the food. We'll call this one a mulligan and try again during a large sporting event or warm weekend evening.

Second Thoughts from B

Instead of rehashing J's comments (pretzel rolls were great when warm but so-so cold, bland sausages, no chicken, no people), I'll just tell you about my Oktoberfest experience.

In 2002, I was a young graduate student in a laboratory of mostly foreign-born scientists. Because of the travel restrictions in those post-9/11 days, I was selected to give a talk at a scientific meeting in Munich as a replacement for my double-booked professor. Fortunately for me, the meeting started the day after the final day of Oktoberfest.

After flying halfway around the world, I stumbled from the airport directly to the festival. It is very much like a carnival with games and rides for people of all ages. Around the outside are enormous beer tents sponsored by various beer makers. Accompanied by two Americans who I met at my hotel, I went to the smallest of these tents, the one sponsored by Spaten, called the Hippodrome.

First a word about the size of these tents. When Donald Trump or Hugh Hefner throws a party and puts a tent up in their backyard, those are big tents. The Oktoberfest tents laugh at those tents and call them names. You could play a football game in these beer tents. Jerry Jones could erect a jumbo screen in these tents.

Now fill these beer tents with park benches, an oom pah pah band, beer girls in "traditional garb" with a high tolerance for idiots and tremendously strong arms, and thousands of people from around the world with indestructibly large glasses of beer.

So that's the scene. Here's what I remember:
  • Drinking by the quart is crazy. However, everyone was doing it and I didn't see anyone get sick.
  • The laws of physics cease to exist when slamming glasses into each other and yelling Prost! I did not see one glass stein break.
  • Dancing on the table is not just accepted, but encouraged.
  • Drinking songs have never been so universally embraced.
  • Beer has never tasted so good.
  • Salty, roasted chicken or fresh pretzels have never tasted so good.
  • Sitting in the rain for hours with drunk people that I've never met and don't understand has never been so much fun.
The point is, Oktoberfest is not a destination in and of itself, it is an event that requires good-natured people... lots of people. Going to an empty Biergarten Haus had all the elements (minus the chicken until after 4pm), but lacked the energy that can only come from a big crowd. Alas, it was not to be but perhaps we'll get our Prost on with a bigger crowd in the future.
Biergarten Haus on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 6, 2011

People's Noodle Bar

My love for noodles has been exhaustively documented on TwoDC so it should come as no surprise that when I heard there was a semi-secret ramen pop-up restaurant in DC, I let out a squeal.

This informative article from Thrillist tipped me off to the fact that the guy behind People's Bao, who sells his "hot asian buns" (his term, not mine) at farmer's markets in the area, launched a Saturday night only ramen fiesta inside Senor Chicken in Columbia Heights. When B said he needed to go to Target in Columbia Heights, I squealed again. "Oooooooh it's Saturday! We can have nooooodles!" If you're getting the sense that I squeal a lot, you're right. Living with me is a non-stop party.

So after getting our Target and BBB on, and not spying Michelle Obama in the process, we walked around the corner to Senor Chicken. While we could find no evidence of it on our blog, we have eaten Senor Chicken in the past. Neither of us could remember much about it, and we hoped that the ramen would provide a more memorable experience.

We could tell immediately that we were in the right place at the right time (only between 6:30 and 9:30 pm on Saturdays) because the clientele of Senor Chicken skewed heavily to the hipster variety. Our second clue was that there were no chickens being roasted in the giant rotisserie machines. The third clue was that there were people eating ramen out of giant bowls. I'm a regular Sherlock Holmes!

We wait in a very short line and walked up to the man taking the orders. I ask if there is a ramen menu and he laughed and said that there are so many varieties of toppings that he can't name them (I later noticed that the Thrillist article has a link to a menu). He then says that tonight they have pork-style ramen and veggie-style. I order one of each, and let him know we want it spicy, but not mouth-obliterating. We pay and take a seat.

About 5 minutes later, our number is called and I go up to get the two steaming bowls of ramen. The Senor Chicken employee charged with handing out the food doesn't know which bowl is veggie and which bowl is pork. Not a big deal for us since we're not vegetarians, but could be an issue if you have sensitive dietary restrictions. We poked around the bowls until we found pork evidence (there's that detective work again!) and figured out which one is which.

My very first reaction to my veggie ramen was that it could us a little more spice to jazz it up. Every ingredient was delicious (including great chewy/soft ramen), but the flavor was a little more muted than I hoped. B's pork ramen did not suffer the same issue, which goes to show you that pork parts makes everything better.

My first DC ramen crush was on Toki Underground. I still think Toki serves better ramen, but there was something very fun about going into Senor Chicken, eating ramen, and watching passerbys stare, confused, through the window. While I've read about long lines and sell outs, we didn't have to wait long for our ramen, which makes it infinitely easier to deal with than Toki. I suggest going early and making a night out of it. You can roam the aisles of Target after dinner, arm in arm, bellies full of noodles. Who could ask for a better date night?

Second Thoughts from B

It is impossible not to compare People's Bao's ramen to Toki's, and according to their twitter feeds, the battle has begun. They are certainly the gold standard in our book.

Remember the college drinking game "marry, f***, kill"? No? Let me take a moment to explain. Within a coed group of usually inebriated people, each individual must identify the one person in the room that they'd most want to marry, have sex with, and kill. No repeats. You can imagine the thoughtful discussions that follow...

So let's apply this concept to ramen:

Prior to the revelation that was Toki Underground, J and I found plenty of nominees for the "kill" category. When restaurants do not compare favorably to the stuff we ate in our dorm rooms, that is not a good sign.

Toki Underground is sexy, exotic, hip, and fun. I love our visits there, but it might be a little too much for my mother. You see where I'm going with this... a perfect candidate for the f*** category.

Finally, I'd definitely want to marry the bowl of ramen from People's Bao. It had the simple warmth and familiarity to it that is required in any good comfort food. While I'd miss my romps with Toki, I could settle down with this bowl of noodle soup for many happy years.