Monday, July 30, 2012

South China Restaurant

This is another one of those "We're out running errands, we're hungry, let's eat ASAP" restaurants.  We were heading toward the Potomac Yards Target and looking for a quick spot for a late lunch.  We had success last time we tried a restaurant in Del Ray (Taqueria Poblano), so we gave South China Restaurant a shot.  It's a no frills place with quick service, reasonable prices, and large portions.

We started with a delicious but utterly unphotogenic cup of hot and sour soup.  The sesame beef pictured below is definitely not diet friendly, but we liked it.  Let's just pretend that those pieces of steamed broccoli on the side offset the calories in the beef.

The house special crispy chow mein was such a massive portion that we took most of it home for lunch the next day.  I think it tasted even better on Day 2 as the sauce had a chance to soften up the crispy noodles and the flavors developed a bit more.

When you need quick and easy Chinese food, South China fits the bill.  If you need quick and easy Malaysian food, they do that too.  We didn't branch out into the Malaysian side of the menu so I guess we have a reason to head back to Del Ray.

Second Thoughts from B

This meal was about great gravy. This was stick to your bones gravy.  Thick and flavorful, there was nothing subtle about it.  It was Chinese comfort food on a plate.  A little gravy on some rice and I'm in heaven.

I love rice.  Let me say it again, I LOVE rice.  When finances were tight in grad school, a bowl of rice with some butter and salt was a rather satisfying alternative to a proper meal.  It wouldn't make the My Plate hall of fame, but it did the trick.

And while we're speaking of rice, have I told you about the old wives tale about eating all of your rice? If so, my apologies. If not, here you go.  Every time I ate Chinese food with my grandparents, my grandmother would remind me that every grain of rice that I left in my bowl would be a pock mark on my future bride.  In all my life, I can say confidently that I can't remember an occasion that I have left a speck of rice behind.  Whether you want to say that I'm obedient, superstitious, or just plain stubborn, J has clearly benefited from my dedication.

In addition to making me love rice, this wives tale made me very good with chopsticks.  After all, those last few grains are difficult to grab.  Which brings me back around to why I'm telling you all of this (I'm sure you were wondering).  When you love rice and when you feel a need to clean your bowl, having a thick gravy is key.  Not only does it add flavor, it is the perfect rice-catching glue at the end of your chopsticks.  Just a friendly tip for all of you single folks out there.  You're welcome.
South China Carry Out on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Veranda on P

I love it when a friend takes the pressure of choosing a restaurant off my shoulders.  Even better when that restaurant turns out to be pretty good.  That was the case with Veranda on P, a little Mediterranean restaurant on 11th and (you guessed it) P street. 

We started the evening on Veranda's patio, enjoying a 50% off bottle of wine (Tuesdays) and catching up with our friends.  As tends to happen in DC in July, the skies opened up and we hustled to a table inside to escape a monumental downpour.

The inside of the restaurant was quaint and cozy, and the staff (including our very sweet waitress) adjusted to the sudden influx of patio diners well.
Once settled inside, we started the meal with warm dates stuffed with black pepper boursin cheese and drizzled with local honey.  Probably too sweet for most people, but I'm a date lover and had no trouble eating the lion's share of this dish.

I ordered the penne with broccoli rabe, spicy tomato sauce and mozzarella.  Not going to win any awards for creativity, but a pleasingly spicy and comforting dish.  Major sad face when I saved half of it to take home and the bus boy tossed it out instead of wrapping it up.  Don't you hate it when that happens?

If there's one thing B orders as often as lamb, it's salmon.  Veranda's version with a tapenade and french lentils got a thumbs up from B the salmon king.
While nothing we tried was jump-up-and-down amazing, it was all solidly executed and had a homey, comforting feel.  This isn't the kind of place you travel across town for, but it is the kind of place that's nice to have in your neighborhood... especially on half price wine night.

Second Thoughts from B

I really admire the hosts of various food/cooking shows.  How many different ways can you describe food day in and day out?  My personal challenge is not only to describe yet another satisfying salmon dish, but do so without echoing J.  After all, this section is entitled, "second thoughts" not "rehashed thoughts" from B...

Let's see... when I think of Veranda on P, what comes to mind?  Pleasant patio dining interrupted by a downpour.  Check.  Cozy, homey, European feeling to the dining room.  Check.  Not particularly inventive but certainly satisfying fare.  Check.  Neighborhood favorite but not necessarily a dining destination.  Check.

I'm racking my brain and not a single original thought comes to mind.  J pretty much covered it.  So as Forrest Gump would say, "That's all I have to say about that."
Veranda on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thai X-Ing

Authentic family-style thai food, cooked by a Thai guy, served in his rowhouse, with no corkage fee?  Sign me up!!!

The signing up process at Thai X-Ing (Thai Crossing) is what took us so long to check it out.  You have to call in advance, leave a message on their voicemail with your preferred date and party size, and wait for them to call you back.  I called two weeks before our preferred Friday night date and received a return call about 5 days later (right about when I was sure they were never going to call me).  I don't think you need to call that far in advance but if you know a date you want to go, it can't hurt.  Note that the price ranges from $30 to $40 per person depending on the day of the week, and that Tuesday and Sunday are vegetarian nights (with some vegan dishes on Sunday).

I worried that Thai X-Ing would be hard to find.  However, as we walked down Florida Avenue, we smelled delicious Thai food before we ever saw the sign.  We followed our noses into the basement door and saw a few tables of people in Thai food bliss and a busy Chef Taw Vigsittaboot in the kitchen.  A waitress asked us to go outside and head up the stairs to the main level to be seated.  The main level had maybe a half dozen tables of varying sizes and a mish mash of chairs, couches and ottomans to sit on.  If you've ever wondered what it'd be like to eat in someone's living room that they randomly turned into a restaurant, this is your place. 

Once seated, our waitress immediately brought us water and glasses for the bottle of wine we had placed on the table.

Before leaving our house, I grabbed the bottle of wine and a wine opener because I wasn't sure if they had wine openers at Thai X-Ing since they don't charge a corkage fee.  B laughed at me so hard that I sheepishly tucked the wine opener in the glove compartment of the car and took the wine into the restaurant.

A smug smile crept over my face as I realized there was no wine opener in sight at Thai-Xing.  B, looking nervous that he was going to have to admit that I was right, flagged down our waitress who returned with a wine opener.  So, you don't need to bring a wine opener with you.  Lesson learned.

After we poured the wine and settled in, the following parade of dishes hit the table in quick succession:
  • Cucumber soup (unexpectedly amazingly delicious)
  • Papaya salad (light but packed a mean - in a good way - flavor punch)
  • Lime chicken (SPICY! but awesome)
  • Salmon and pumpkin curry (B loved the salmon, I loved the pumpkin.  Perfect.)
  • Chicken stir fry (complex flavors made this much more exciting than a normal stir fry)
  • Pad see ew with tofu  (I was in noodle heaven)
  • Mango sticky rice (A strong finish to a fantastic meal).

We managed to polish off all of these dishes and a bottle of wine in about 45 minutes flat.  It wasn't that Thai X-Ing wasn't conducive to lingering over our meal, we just liked the food so much we couldn't slow down!  I also loved that you don't have to order from a menu.  This caused us to try dishes we may not have ever ordered (cucumber soup definitely) and gave us a broad taste of the Chef's talents.  What are you waiting for?  Call Thai X-Ing immediately and make your reservation.

Second Thoughts from B

There's nothing like a home cooked meal. When you ask what someone would eat for their last meal, don't they usually say something that they grew up with at home?  When you watch famous chefs discuss the merits of some remarkable dish, don't they usually equate it to a childhood memory?  The home cooked meal is comforting, familiar, and always delicious. Except when it isn't your home.  The not-your-home, home cooked meal is exciting and novel. And in the case of Thai X-Ing, it is still delicious.

Several years ago (wow, we've been doing this a long time!) we told you about our friend from Afghanistan whose mother is a wizard in the kitchen.  We've come to refer to her as Mama Loynab and have enjoyed learning about her homeland through our taste buds.  Receiving an invite to a dinner in her home makes you run around the room in pure joy a la Charlie Bucket when he finds the last golden ticket.

I couldn't help but feel like Thai X-Ing was the Thai equivalent to a night in Mama Loynab's house.  We showed up with nothing but our appetites, were welcomed into the home, and were transported to another world. As best I could tell, this wasn't food that was influenced by Thai flavors and modified to appeal to the American palate. I'm no expert, but this seemed to be the real thing... and it was really good.

You can travel around the world looking for authentic cuisine and still find yourself stuck in restaurants that cater to Americans.  J and I spend much of our travel prep time working to find that home cooked meal abroad but have often encountered nothing more than the dreaded tourist menu. That Washingtonians have the real deal tucked away in a brightly colored rowhouse next to Howard University, is just another reason to love DC.
Thai X-Ing on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 9, 2012

Back Alley Waffles

The alley restaurant trend is taking DC by storm.  First it was fine dining in an alley, then gourmet sandwiches.  Now, it's waffles. 

To find Back Alley Waffles, walk down 10th Street NW between M and N and look for this driveway.  The little orange waffle stickers on this post are your clue that you're in the right place.

Continue down the driveway until you come to an alley.  On your immediate left you'll see Back Alley Waffles.
The space is small yet (thankfully) air conditioned and homey feeling. It started as a space for the owner to showcase his artwork (mosaic) and evolved into a waffle wonderland. As you walk in, you can't help but feel like you've stumbled on to a magical new world:  that is, a magical new world that serves only waffles.  If you don't like waffles, do not go to Back Alley Waffles.  Other than a single smoothie, chai or coffee to drink, there is nothing else on the menu.
If you're worried about having to select between dozens of kinds of waffles and toppings, don't fret.  Back Alley Waffles serves one kind of waffle: a belgian-style waffle with house-churned butter and real maple syrup.

If you're going to serve only one waffle and charge $8 for it, it better be a damn good waffle.  It was.  We make a lot of waffles at home, and this beat the pants off ours (what, your waffles don't wear pants? Weird). Fluffy, flavorful, and gone in about 2.6 minutes.  Yum.

Second Thoughts from B

J and I love waffles.  So much so that it could be argued that our relationship was partially built on a foundation of waffles (as noted here).  We also recently booked a trip to Europe that will include a stop off in Belgium, partially because of the waffles.  Did I make it clear that we love waffles?

So it stands to reason that we'd also love Back Alley Waffles.  The problem is, I'm cheap and don't like paying money for something I can (and do) make at home.  And $8 for a waffle seems like a lot until you think of how much it would cost at your favorite breakfast place not called IHOP.  Add the real maple syrup and freshly churned butter, and it is a more reasonable price than initially thought.

For me, waffles should be judged by the sweetness and vanillainess of the batter and the ability to soak up toppings.  In both cases, Back Alley's version was off the charts.  In fact, staff at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has informed us that they'll be recalculating the measurement system for waffle awesomeness in light of this new discovery.

To answer the question that I asked myself as I handed over $24 for a pair of waffle/smoothie breakfasts, yes, a simple waffle can be worth $8... and probably much more.

EDITED 7/26/12:  Don't bother trying to get your waffle on.  Back Alley Waffles has closed its doors.  You can read about all the craziness here.
Back Alley Waffles on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 6, 2012

Golf at East Potomac Park

In life, there are things that we make happen regardless of the obstacles and there are things that we will never do without a gun pointed at our head.  Most things, however, lie somewhere in between those two extremes.

When J made her 30 Before 30 list (for more, see here and here), the intention was to push herself to do those things that she always wanted to do yet, for whatever reason, had not.  Playing nine holes at East Potomac Park was a perfect example.

The appeal is clear and goes like this: location, location, location.  The course is bordered by the Potomac to the west, the Jefferson Memorial to the north, and Hains Point to the east.  Looking for a target for your tee shot?  Try the Washington Monument.  So why has it taken this long for us to play a round out there? I guess there was that pesky obstacle of teaching J how to play.

I was lucky enough to grow up with the game. My grandfather was one of the first members of the Los Angeles Chinese Golf Club and passed the sport down to my whole family.  As J likes to point out, we've gone on family golf vacations together.  That's how engrained it is in my childhood.  (Yikes, how snobby does that sound? Let me be clear, when I say I grew up with the game, I don't mean on a country club. I'm talking Danny Noonan, not Judge Smails).

Regardless, marrying into my family without knowing a tee from a two-iron can be intimidating.  All credit goes to J for even attempting to pick up a golf club.  Thankfully, whether you are learning to play like J or dusting off considerable rust like me, East Potomac Park is worth a trip.

There are three courses.  The Red Course is a 9-hole par 3 "pitch and putt" for beginners.  The White Course is a 9-hole executive track (3 and 4 par holes).  The Blue Course is the regulation 18-hole course.  The facility has a double deck driving range (invest in the discount card), chipping area, and multiple putting greens.  The pro shop is small but serviceable (they did a nice job regripping my clubs), and the online reservation system has been great.

As for the course, if the Red Course is any indication, East Potomac is quite the hidden gem.  The crowds are low (we've seen plenty of twosomes), the pace is good, and the condition of the greens and tee boxes is surprisingly high.  Keeping in mind that this course caters to people learning to play and that greens fees are only $10-13, it is quite a bargain.

After a handful of amateur lessons at the driving range (under the cover of darkness), J more than held her own on the Red Course and was able to check off the most intimidating item of her 30 Before 30 list.  Not only have we been back (on her request), we even played nine with my parents.

J Says

Like swing dancing, golf scared the crap out of me.  I'm not big on being "new" at things, particularly when being new could mean sending an errant ball careening into a crowd of people or (more likely) whiffing entirely while people are waiting for you to tee off.  Like B said, I insisted we go to the driving range when it was late at night and nobody would notice me.  When I finally got the nerve to try the Red Course, I found friends to book all the spots in our foursome so that we wouldn't get paired with any strangers.  I was a total nervous wreck but ended up having a blast (and an allergy attack), and was excited to go back and try again.  I even managed to overcome my fears and play a round with B's parents on Father's Day.  After the initial anxiety attack subsided, I got into the groove and actually hit some decent shots. 

The Red Course at East Potomac is just my speed.  Not at all intimidating, and cheap enough that I feel like I can go out and try without breaking the bank.  I also really love the setting near the monuments and the proximity to the ever-important post-golf brunch options (Eastern Market, for example).  I'm still a bundle of nerves and still secretly hope that we won't get paired with strangers, but I am becoming more confident, nine holes at a time.

If you're new to golf, I recommend checking out their Get Golf Ready classes for just $99.  If I wasn't such a giant chicken (and didn't have a private coach in B), I would sign up in a heartbeat.  Another great and affordable DC hidden gem.