Thursday, December 22, 2011

Peking Gourmet Inn

Happy Holidays to you! If you're like us and like to celebrate the holidays with Chinese food (one of the many stereotypical traits shared by our Chinese and Jewish heritage), Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church, VA will be right up your alley. We first heard about the restaurant when Duff Goldman (of Ace of Cakes fame) said on Best Thing I Ever Ate that he goes to Peking Gourmet Inn during the holidays with his family for the Peking duck.

Though you can't tell from the strip mall front, Peking Gourmet Inn is a huge, bustling palace of Peking duck wonders. Signed photos of pseudo-celebrities and military brass peer down at you as you eat.

We ordered the house specialty Peking Duck which is carved table-side.

While the duck was being carved, our waiter brought out thin pancakes, sliced spring onions, and hoisin sauce. He proceeded to bundle up the duck into moo-shu style wraps with expert precision. Novices will appreciate that they create the first wrap for you so you know how to do it.

We thought the duck was very nicely cooked with crispy skin and tender flesh. The pancake/hoisin/onion/duck combo was well balanced. My biggest complaint is that for $39, we did not get a whole lot of duck. B and I managed to polish off the whole plate in about 5 minutes.

Since we like to over-order and take Chinese leftovers home, we tried the other signature dish: garlic sprouts with shrimp. The garlic sprouts are grown locally and a unique twist on the standard shrimp with vegetables dish. I liked the garlic sprouts a lot but the shrimp wasn't de-veined. As a general rule of thumb, I don't want to eat shrimp poop.

Peking Gourmet Inn advertises its noodles as house-made, so I couldn't say no. We ordered the Singapore rice noodles because they were listed as "spicy" (that was the only descriptor beyond the name of the dish). We expected a Sriracha-style or peppery spice, so we were a bit surprised when the dish was tossed in a mild yellow curry sauce. The noodles were also under-cooked and a bit hard to bite through. Skip this one and focus on the duck.

Overall, Peking Gourmet Inn was a fun experience with some culinary bright spots. In his 2011 Spring Dining Guide, Post food critic Tom Sietsema said the restaurant had a "Beijing-size ego" and was snoozing on its laurels. While we liked the food better than Tom did, given the prices, I think you're much better off getting your quack on at Mark's Duck House.

Second Thoughts from B

I'm going to make this very easy for you... the best thing about Peking Gourmet Inn was the friendly and attentive service and the fact that J was able to check another thing off of our DC Bucket List (she sings a celebratory song when she crosses something off, which makes things especially fun).

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed our lunch. I just didn't enjoy it and the ample leftovers enough to justify the equally ample bill. It's a stereotype that the Chinese and Jewish communities congregate at Chinese food restaurants during the holidays and that they also share a love of bargains. J and I fit the stereotype perfectly... and this was no bargain.
Peking Gourmet Inn on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Burger Tap & Shake

Lately it feels like there is a new burger joint opening on every block. Bobby's Burger Palace opened on K Street in late summer and shortly after that, Burger Tap & Shake opened right down the street on Washington Circle. The folks behind Acadiana, Ceiba, DC Coast, and Passionfish decided to throw their hat into the burger ring. In addition to BT&S, they opened District Commons right next door.

I've always thought of Washington Circle as just another roundabout that stands in the way of us getting to Trader Joes. With the recent opening of Whole Foods and a slew of new restaurants, it is becoming hipper and more action-packed. Since it is set basically in the middle of the GW campus, these places are filled to the brim with college students.

As we entered BT&S and started to place our order at the counter, the cashier told us that we could take two open seats at the bar and order right from the bartender. We took a stool in between exhausted-looking students in the midst of finals week. You know the look: sweats and wrinkled shirts that normally would serve as PJs but, during finals week, become a convenient 24-hour wardrobe staple. The people watching was pretty great.

If you're into beer, the "tap" part of BT&S means they have a lot of interesting beers on tap. They also blend "shaketails" which are boozy milkshake concoctions that look a lot like those served up at Ted's Bulletin. We skipped the alcohol and split the BT&S shake (Butterfinger, Twix & Snickers). While packed with candy fun, the shake itself was a little on the thin and icy side. Not the best in town, but solidly above average.

B ordered the Apache Sweat Lodge burger ($8) with fire-roasted green chiles, pepperjack cheese, smoked onions, and spicy XXX sauce. He was afraid it would be all spicy and no flavor, but was impressed by its depth. The XXX sauce did not wipe out the other subtle flavors and B gave it two messy thumbs up. We split an order of onion rings and they were a big disappointment. Not particularly crunchy or interesting, just "meh."

I ordered the house burger called the Six Buck Chuck. It comes topped with lettuce, pickles, onions, tomato, "Government Cheese (aka American)," and their signature AP sauce (a blend of ketchup, mayo, mustard, BBQ, and chipotle). I asked them to add some jalapenos for extra zing. The first thing I noticed about the burger was the quality of the bun. They make them fresh every day and you can tell. Buttery and perfectly toasted, it made a very nice vehicle for getting the juicy burger to my mouth. About half way through however, the juices from the burger won their battle with the fluffy bun and I resorted to eating the last bits with a knife and fork. Luckily they serve their burgers on paper-covered trays so I didn't make a ginormous mess.

All of the burger places run together in my head but I'll remember BT&S for the great bun, big and juicy patty, and the friendliness of the bartender/waiter. Next time I'd skip the onion rings and order a different shake. Have you checked out BT&S? Where do you think it ranks in DC's oversaturated burger market?

Second Thoughts from B

Because of the prevalent gourmetization of the all-American hamburger and our need to try every place in town, it is hard to resist the urge to rank our favorites. At the same time, it is hard to separate so many great offerings. But as we sat at the bar, watched the scene, and stuffed our faces, we couldn't come up with a burger joint in the city that we definitively liked more.

The selling point for BT&S would be perfectly-seasoned and cooked patties and fantastic buns. (Internal debate: do I make a joke about my wife having fantastic buns too?) The trick to fantastic hamburger buns is texture and proportion. Many places get the texture right but are so infatuated by their achievement that they forget that the role of the bun is to complement, not consume, the patty. BT&S nailed it.

Unfortunately, the onion rings were as disappointing as the burger was impressive. The shake wasn't bad but they looked so good on the menu that I think our expectations were too high. The service and the scene were both very good, which is certainly factored in when we decide where to go.

I still think Good Stuff is the best all around burger joint in the city (burgers, fries, and shakes considered) but I'd not be upset if runs to Whole Foods included a stop at BT&S.
Burger Tap & Shake on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 16, 2011

Library of Congress: Inside the Main Reading Room

Anyone who visits us and participates in our infamous DC Death March... errr... tour of the sites, will attest that I think the Library of Congress is the most underrated building in our Nation's Capital. And no, this has nothing to do with the National Treasure sequel.

J and I have made it our mission to experience as much of DC, and this world for that matter, as we can. We've been on more tours of iconic buildings than I can count, and it is clear that I'm a sucker for grand architecture and historical symbolism. The Library of Congress has these in spades. It is a library after all, and telling the story of civilization is its jam. Unfortunately, I've met far more people in DC that have never entered the building, taken the time to marvel at the iconography, and enjoyed the free tour. 'For shame' I say to you, as I waggle my finger.

One of the tour's highlights is a glimpse into the Main Reading Room (where no photos are allowed much to the chagrin of this blog post). This is the Sugar Ray Robinson of interior spaces; pound for pound, it can't be beat. I love the grandeur created by the traditional columns and arches. I love the openness from the building's height and the natural light that flows in. I love the 3 different colors of marble and the history lesson painted on the ceiling. I love the categorical luminaries hovering over users and providing inspiration. I just love it.

Any time we're in the area and have an extra 10 minutes, I jump at the opportunity to sneak a peak. But, pressing my face against the plexiglass wasn't doing it for me (or the window washers). Going into the Main Reading Room was added to the top of our DC Bucket List.

While intimidating, this is actually really easy. First, you must obtain a library card from the Madison building across the street. You fill out a form and get your picture taken. That's it. I've heard that there can be lines, but we lucked out. 20 minutes tops. And yes, it is free.

Entering the Library and passing the information desk, you flash your newly minted card and warder through an endless maze of halls and up an elevator (don't forget to check coats and bags). Flash your card again, sign your name on a sheet, and there you are... in the Library of Congress' Main Reading Room.

Some people are legitimately studying (it seemed like the majority were law school students), but I just wandered around and tried not to say "Wow!" too loudly. Can you imagine the shush I would get? We stayed for over an hour, not doing anything other than taking it all in. Just another hidden gem in this great city of ours and another check off our bucket list.

J Says

You know those people who can just "act like they belong" and wander into any room or setting without fear? I'm not one of them. I'm generally convinced I'm going to get into trouble and get kicked out of places. I'm a rule follower and will check the policies and procedures before visiting a new museum, going to a concert, etc. Don't I sound like fun?

With this background, you'll understand that I was nervous about going into the Main Reading Room. I searched online for details of the experience but found little other than that the room is reserved for people doing actual research. Yikes!

Before our visit, we came up with elaborate reasons for needing to go into the Main Reading Room. We were rehearsed and ready. When we walked past the security guard and flashed our library cards, I was ready to launch into my research explanation. However, much to my comfort, nobody ever asked why we were there. In fact, since we were quiet, nobody paid any attention to us at all. Whew.

So, while I'm not advocating that you scoff at the Main Reading Room's rules and use it for you own personal hangout spot, I do think you can get your library card and visit the beautiful space (quietly and respectfully) without having a legit research reason. As B so often tells me: "See? There was no reason to be worried!" Lesson learned.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that we watched the first (and only) season of America's Next Great Restaurant. The runner-up on the show was a guy named Sudhir who wanted to create a fast casual Indian restaurant. Basically, his goal was to create the Indian Chipotle. As we watched, I kept telling B "there is a new restaurant in Penn Quarter that is already doing this!" Merzi, on 7th Street, looks to be a lot like what Sudhir wanted to bring to cities all across the U.S.

Merzi's fresh and modern decor (and use of some standing-room-only tables) looks a lot like a jazzed up Chipotle.

The similarities continue when you get to the counter to order. You choose a base for your meal (naan, rice, roti wrap, salad, or chaat), then pick a protein (chicken, lamb, tandisserie chicken, shrimp, beef, or veggies only), then choose some veggies, and finally pick a warm sauce or cold chutney to top it all off.

My naan topped with chicken, veggies, tikka masala sauce with a side of spicy red chili chutney was a flavor and texture party. Merzi has not dumbed down the bold Indian flavors and a couple of bites of the spicy chutney had me wiping away tears.

B enjoyed his lamb rice bowl and was impressed with the freshness of the ingredients, but felt that he could get more food at our local Kabab House for a slightly lower price.

I don't think Merzi is a substitute for your favorite local Indian restaurant, but it is a healthier (so they claim... less butter used + calorie counts on the menu) and faster option. I like having it in the neighborhood as a lunch option because its in-your-face flavors spice up a work day better than any deli sandwich can. Sudhir didn't win the glory (or the chance to have his restaurants shuttered within a few months), but you can get a taste of the concept in DC any day of the week.

Second Thoughts from B

When my father was 19, he traveled around the world with a budget appropriate for a 19 year old. He hitched rides on barges with murderous thieves, found shelter in rat-infested monasteries, and ate whatever was cheap and available. In short, he had the time of his life.

However, after 9 months, his stomach quit on him somewhere in India. He never trusted spicy food again.

The point is, I didn't grow up with Indian food. I had only heard about how it turns my dad's stomach inside out. I was scared of it. In fact, I still remember my apprehension when I first went to an Indian restaurant with my high school girlfriend's family. Thankfully I was brave enough to try it and from that day on, I've craved Indian food.

People from India probably view Merzi the same way people from Mexico see Chipotle, or the way I look at Panda Express. It is more Indian-inspired than true Indian food. But if Merzi can be that entry point for great Indian flavors to be appreciated by American palates, it will open up a whole new world for many people. I'll still frequent Kabab House, but would encourage anyone looking to spice up the usual meal of a hamburger and fries, to check out Merzi.
Merzi on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pitango Gelato

As our trip to Italy draws near, we're preparing by brushing up on our Roman history, watching (bad) movies set in Italy, and preparing our gelato tastebuds. I want to make sure I'm in prime gelato-tasting form when I arrive in Italy. As a training run, we went to Pitango Gelato in Penn Quarter.

Pitango is a local group of 5 stores dishing up gelato made with the highest quality ingredients. Their inventive flavors run the gamut from Spicy Chocolate to Cardamom. Intrigued by a flavor but afraid to order it? The friendly Pitango folks will let you try a few samples. Just don't be that person who asks to try lots of flavors then doesn't order gelato. You know who you are!

B and I shared a cup of Gianduja (chocolate hazelnut) and Pistachio. No freaky bright green food coloring or artificial flavors here. Just real food blended into creamy perfection. One regular size gelato (two flavors) was plenty for B and I to share. This stuff is rich and the little tiny spoons help you slow down and savor each bite.

I look forward to my scientific analysis of Italian gelato to see how it stacks up to our own local favorite.

Second Thoughts From B

Anyone who knows me knows that I lived/studied in Rome for a summer while in college. To say that I loved my experience and love telling and retelling stories about that trip would be an understatement. And my poor wife - who has never been to Italy - has endured the "When I was in Rome..." lead-in for way too long.

So taking what we learned from our weekender in Paris last winter, we've planned another low-season trip to Europe. Sure it might be a little chilly but the crowds will be minimal and the prices are great. That sounds like a good trade-off when we're in the land of museums and churches. After all, the Sistine Chapel looks the same every month of the year.

I do wonder, however, how this will affect our relationship with gelato. When you're in the Roman oven that is July and August (and have the metabolism of a 21 year old), a run for a cup of delicious frozen relief happens multiple times a day. When it is 45 and raining? I don't know... but I look forward to figuring it out.

My memories of gelato are sweetened by memories of a life-changing experience. Pitango cannot possibly compete with that. But based solely on the gelato, I think it holds its own. The selection is robust (I tend to like the fruit/tart flavors while J likes the richer ones), and the quality and freshness is clear. It might not be my favorite shop off the Piazza di Montecitorio, but for the next couple of weeks, it'll have to do.
Pitango Gelato on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tout de Sweet

I love that B reads the Express on the Metro every day and brings home all the fun food articles for me. When he brought an article about Tout de Sweet, a new pastry shop in Bethesda that makes French macarons, I was pumped to check it out. The stars finally aligned recently when we were dropping off shoes to be repaired next door. We just had to stop in and take some treats home.

I was excited by all of the fun macaron and cupcake flavors, and B was excited by the prices. At $1.50 (cheaper if you buy a dozen), the macarons were less than half the price of those at the famed Laduree in Paris. We ordered a sleeve of a dozen macarons. The Hawaiian Colada cupcake looked lonely so I invited it to come home with us too.

While the macarons were not as cloud-like as those in Paris, they were very, very good. The cupcake was moist and packed with chunks of pineapple. The frosting was tangy and it was topped off with a fun artistic chocolate piece.

If you can't get away to France and want a taste of the City of Light, Tout de Sweet is just the ticket.

Second Thoughts From B

Even at a dollar a piece (when buying a dozen), these are expensive cookies. But when our first exposure at Laduree cost a whopping 3 euros a pop, these were a bargain. It is all relative, isn't it?

So are they worth it? That depends on if you prefer quality or quantity. Since I don't have much of a sweet tooth, I'd rather savor the delicate texture and punchy flavors of a gourmet macaron or two over a bag of Chips Ahoy any day.

Most would agree that the famed Laduree in Paris sets the standard for macarons. In my opinion, Tout de Sweet's versions were just as beautiful, flavorful, and fun to eat as any that I've had in France. The significant difference was in the texture of the cookies. While Laduree's were light and brittle (though still moist), Tout de Sweet's were a bit chewy. If forced to choose, I might lean towards Laduree, but you simply can't beat having Tout de Sweet in your neighborhood at non-Parisian prices!
Tout de Sweet on Urbanspoon