Thursday, February 23, 2012


Is there anything more hipster than serving sandwiches made with local, gourmet ingredients in a converted garage in an alley? Hipster or not, the sandwiches are tasty and the location makes you feel like you're in on a big secret.

When I dragged B and our buddy M to SUNdeVICH, they gave me the "where the heck are you taking us?" look. The sandwich shop is tucked in the Naylor Court alley off 9th Street, NW between N and O. A sign next to the restaurant says "Do Not Urinate in the Alley." Good to know!

It's a small space that's likely to be packed with hungry hungry hipsters (and hungry non-hipsters too).

Zack Morris-style timeout: who loved the Hungry Hungry Hippos game as a kid? I certainly did. Did you know that the hippos names are Henry, Homer, Harry, and Happy? Ok, time-in.

Even on a Monday at lunch, SUNdeVICH was packed. We couldn't figure out where all the people came from since the neighborhood isn't exactly home to a lot of offices. It's a good idea to follow SUNdeVICH on Facebook or Twitter to make sure they haven't sold out of your favorite items. Apparently sellouts are very common. They even have a list on the left side of the menu of all the items that have been "86'd" for the day.

The menu features sandwiches made with local ingredients but inspired by cuisine from around the world. B ordered the Buenos Aires with steak, chimichurri, and sauteed onions. The flavors were powerful and the steak was tender, but the showstopper was the bread. We loved the crispy on the outside, soft on the inside baguette.

I tried the Kingston with jerk chicken, pineapple salsa, greens, slaw, and garlic mayo. The pairing of the firey jerk chicken with the sweet pineapple was fantastic. If you don't like spicy food, do not order this sandwich. I had tears running down my face by the time I reached the second half.

Like all good hipster spots, SUNdeVICH has fancy sodas (we liked the Fizzy Izzy and the ginger ale). They also serve side salads and dips, such as hummus and lentil salad.

For an average price of $10 a sandwich, this is not the cheapest eat in town, but we did feel we got our money's worth with the large size of the sandwich and high quality ingredients.

We're not cool enough to be hipsters, but we're glad SUNdeVICH serves the uncool crowd too. If you can find your way down the alley, a delicious sandwich awaits you.

Second Thoughts from B

I am not cool. The only people on the planet who think that I am cool are my dad and people under the age of 4. I do know people who are cool though. They look cool, they talk cool, they act cool. It isn't that I have low self esteem. It is more that I have a high level of self awareness. I know who I am, and I am not cool. In fact, the coolest thing about me is that I know I'm not cool.

I have a hat that is cool. I like the hat... it fits me and it looks good, but every time I wear it I say to J, "I'm not cool enough to wear this hat."

SUNdeVICH is like my hat. I like it and it fits me, but as I sat there eating my hipster sandwich, all I could think about was how cool the place was. Great food, great space, great concept, great execution. I looked at my fellow patrons and admired them just for being there, and I thought to myself that these people must be really cool.

But the reality is that SUNdeVICH is not trying to be cool. It isn't trying to be hipster. It is only trying to serve great sandwiches that are fresh, tasty, and diverse in flavor. And in my world, that's very cool.
SUNdeVICH on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bistro Cacao

Our buddies M and A recently moved from Capitol Hill to Adams Morgan. They invited us to help them say goodbye to the Hill at one of their favorite restaurants: Bistro Cacao. The restaurant is in a historic rowhouse on Massachusetts Ave., NE that oozes charm out of every corner.

If you ask for a table in the Red Room, you might luck out and get one of the private tables with big cushy chairs and curtains. Then again, you might also end up waiting an hour past your reservation time for said table. Luckily Bistro Cacao just opened a bar area where we were able to pass the hour. They also gave us a complimentary cheese plate to keep us from gnawing on the bar.

Once seated, we wasted no time ordering wine and appetizers. M and A have a favorite waiter who remembers what kind of wine they like. Don't you just love neighborhood places like that?

Bistro Cacao serves bistro-style French cuisine and we opted for two classic French bistro dishes: foie gras with fig compote/warm brioche and escargots.

This is not the place to come on a diet, but it is the perfect place for a little indulgence. The snails were swimming in their own little jacuzzi of garlic butter that we sopped up with the bread. Just the way we like it.

I ordered the hanger steak with caramelized shallots, red wine sauce and french fries. While the steak was a little challenging to cut (I think it was user error: always cut against the grain), once I got the hang of it, I was rewarded with a tender and flavorful cut of meat paired perfectly with the tangy red wine reduction and sweet shallots. I may also have ordered this dish just to try the french fries. Who can say no to skinny, crispy fries?

This apatosaurus leg lookalike is B's entree: herb and mustard crusted rack of lamb with roasted potatoes, mushrooms, and asparagus. The dish was finished with a rosemary jus. He must have loved it because I didn't get a bite and he polished off the whole thing (sans bone and the rosemary bush garnish growing out of the lamb).

During dinner, our waiter asked us to taste two new wines that the restaurant was contemplating adding to its list. Always happy to be guinea pigs, we gladly accepted his generous pours of both wines. This was yet another gesture that makes Bistro Cacao feel like a friendly neighbor.

Feeling pretty good after a bottle of wine and two sample glasses, we moved on to dessert. We shared the flourless warm chocolate cake and the profiteroles.

While not innovative, both desserts were very good. I usually don't go back for more than a bite or two of warm chocolate cake, but I couldn't keep my spoon out of this one.

M and A rave about Bistro Cacao and its cozy feel and personalized service. I'm thankful that they included us in their farewell tour so that we could experience the restaurant's warmth and great food for ourselves. If they ever want to make the transatlantic crossing from Adams Morgan to Capitol Hill for dinner, I hope they call us!

Second Thoughts from B

Bistro Cacao's ambiance and menu may have you reaching for your passport and Berlitz French-English dictionary, but I'm pretty sure we had not been magically transported to Paris. You know how I know? Exceedingly warm and attentive service.

I've been to Paris on three different occasions. I've been there during the highest of high seasons with a large group of American tourists and I've been there during the lowest of low seasons with a couple of local Parisians. I've eaten in small neighborhood kitchens and famous Michelin-rated restaurants. In my experience, the reputation that French service is rude and aloof is generally overblown, but not completely unfounded.

Bistro Cacao maintained an elegance and sophistication that the French are correctly known for, while still being inviting and comfortable. There is a general warmth about the place that is uncommon in fine dining establishments that would rather impress you with polish and refinement. And keep in mind that I'm saying this after we had to wait over an hour for a table despite having a reservation. Mistakes and slow diners happen, but I never felt ignored.

Granted, we were dining with regular customers who seem to have a little black book of wait staff who love them (see our trip to The Queen Vic as evidence). We often talk about how we like to try a new place before revisiting a good one. The upside is that we've experienced, at least superficially, most of what this town has to offer. However, it prevents us from growing relationships with neighborhood establishments like M and A have (or growing relationships with that amazing mustard crust on my rack of lamb that is making my mouth water as I type). I don't know that we'd choose to do it any other way, but it is nice to have M and A around when we want to see how the other half lives.
Bistro Cacao on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 17, 2012

Talkin' Baseball at the Smithsonian with Joe Torre

When I was young, my mother and I would spend summers at "mommy and me" events at various museums where I could dig up fossils, be confused by modern art, and play with various sea creatures. While I can't say that all of these events hit the mark, something positive must have rubbed off because I love museums. In fact, one of the things I was most excited about when moving to DC was becoming a member of the Smithsonian.

For several years now, J and I have been part of the Smithsonian Associates program. In addition to giving to a great cause (FREE museums!), we receive discounts at Smithsonian programs and occasionally attend members-only events.

We've seen the stars with Smithsonian astronomers, slept through a lecture on Van Gogh's Giverny (the garden with the water lilies), heard Mario Batali and Marisa Tomei discuss food, saw Tommy Lasorda and Joe Torre (more on him later) talk baseball, got a behind the scenes tour of the zoo and several other museums, and attended a couple of cocktail parties.

Last Wednesday was probably the best of all. Being able to hear from Joe Torre about his experience as a player (borderline Hall of Famer) and manager (definite Hall of Famer) was, not surprisingly, a lot of fun for two lifelong baseball fans.

We were treated to stories about legends (Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron), goofballs (Ruben Sierra, Jose Canseco, and David Wells), "tragedy" (2004 ALCS - depending on which side you're on), and real life tragedy (9/11, prostate cancer, domestic violence).

When the panel discussion was over, "donors," who also got front row seats, were led to a private reception to meet Joe Torre. As we enjoyed the baseball themed appetizers and open bar, I wondered how we were associated with this well-heeled crowd. It seemed like we were rubbing elbows with people who have business cards that say "philanthropist" on them. While the Smithsonian probably names wings after these people, they couldn't get much more than a box of Kleenex with our measly donation. I guess every dollar counts?

Being the baseball nerd that I am, we waited patiently behind Daddy Warbucks, Thurston Howell III, and the Monopoly Man to chat with Joe Torre. Maybe I'm delusional, but he seemed genuinely happy to discuss baseball with us rather than continue playing the "you've heard of me because..." game. We even had time for a brief (and yes, mother, respectful) debate about his favorite ballplayer (Willie Mays) and mine (Jackie Robinson).

We started donating to the Smithsonian because we believe in its mission and visit the museums regularly. Doing something good for the country is enough reward. But getting to meet Joe Torre sure is icing on the cake.

J Says

I've always liked baseball but it wasn't until I met B that I began to appreciate baseball for its history and its quirks. I'm a sucker for stories of superstitions and traditions. Most of the time I'm convinced B is pulling my leg.

A typical exchange:

J: You want me to believe that they take mud from the bank of some old river in New Jersey and rub it on every Major League baseball?

B: Yes.

J: Are you sure? I'm going to Wikipedia it. . . . Darn, you're right!

That's a long way of telling you that B didn't have to drag me to see Joe Torre. I went willingly and was truly captivated by his stories. When he thoughtfully answered B's question (How do you honor baseball's history and traditions while keeping it relevant and "hip" for the younger generation?), I thought I might keel over from excitement.

At the reception, I got a chance to shake his hand and thank him for answering our question. (If you're curious, the question sort of stumped him, but he suggested the game needs to be sped up and we need to put faces on each franchise that people can get behind and root for) He really could not have been more gracious. He looked us in the eye and took his time speaking with us in a way that I'll treasure. He didn't even roll his eyes when B asked him the silly question I was too shy to ask: how does he decide which World Series ring to wear each day? (Answer: the first win is the most special so he always wears that one).

Thank you to the Smithsonian for making moments like this possible. We say all the time that DC is a special town. It's nights like this that make us thankful for the chance to live here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Michael's Noodles

We're always willing to travel for great Chinese food. Particularly, if the place is known for their noodles. When I heard Tom Sietsema telling Kojo Nnamdi that one of his favorite Chinese restaurants is Michael's Noodles, I decreed that we were going to Rockville.

Michael's Noodles is a small place tucked in the back of a strip mall. Manager Wai Wang can be seen darting around the dining room, greeting guests and offering suggestions on the expansive menu. If you're lost or just want to try something new, ask for a recommendation.

The table behind us didn't ask for suggestions and each ordered individual servings (not family style) of kung pao chicken and General Tso's chicken. I have a Barney Stinson-style rule about ordering in Chinese restaurants: never trust a person who refuses to order family style. I'm sure there are a few exceptions to that rule, but not many.

Every review we read told us to try the spicy slow roasted beef noodle soup. We enjoyed every slurp of the thick house-made wheat noodles in a spicy (but not that spicy) broth.

Tom's review steered us in the direction of the shredded pork with bean curd. It had a surprisingly light yet flavorful sauce and a fun, somewhat squishy texture thanks to the tofu.

Our waitress recommended the walnut shrimp. While B would normally press the waitress to recommend something she would order for herself (translation: not such an Americanized dish), we just really like walnut shrimp. We went with her suggestion and we're glad we did. Unlike the white, creamy concoction that normally falls under the title of walnut shrimp, this dish was lightly-sauced and tangy. Definitely a splurge in the calorie department, but worth it.

We left Michael's Noodles with a bag full of leftovers and skip in our step. Finding a good Chinese restaurant is a special event, best celebrated with a high five...and a nap.

Second Thoughts from B

In honor of Valentine's Day, I'm going to write a post emblematic of the love of my life; short and sweet.

Growing up with a Chinese grandmother who was not short of opinions when it came to Chinese food (this is a very good thing), I never had to pick a restaurant and seldom had to open a menu. Then in college and grad school, I was surrounded by friends, colleagues, and mentors who were born and raised in China. Again, no need to drive the Chinese food train. However, when I'm not among either of these two circles, I'm the half Chinese guy who is the de facto authority and culinary tour guide.

As comfortable as I am teaching someone how to use chopsticks, I'm equally tentative about being assertive with my Chinese friends when it comes to picking a restaurant. So the highest compliment I can give to Michael's Noodles is that I would not hesitate to recommend, and even advocate, a trip there... no matter who I'm going to be dining with.
Michael's Noodles on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 10, 2012

TwoDC Turns Three!

Happy 3rd Blogoversary to us! For 3 years we've been writing about our exploration of this wonderful, dynamic, and world-class city. We're happy to report that we've discovered exceptional food and culture that we'd label as simply the best. Not just the best of DC (which you can read about in this 2009 post), but the best we've ever had. So as a special birthday gift, here's a list of our favorite things in the whole wide world that just happen to be in DC.

B's Favorites

Peking Duck: I've had it in Chinatowns up and down California and in China itself, but I don't remember ever liking it as much as when we had it at Mark's Duck House.

Fried Shrimp: Tacklebox has elevated this Sizzler staple to fine dining.

Grits: Best grits ever were with jalapeno cheese at a friend's friend's friend's (not a typo) house in Atlanta. Best in a restaurant (both with shrimp) were found at Firefly and Art and Soul.

Burger: It doesn't get better than the New Jack Zing at Ray's Hell Burger. Not opinion. Fact.

Beet Salad: Canned beets made me think I hated beets. Hook made me love them.

Fish Tacos: Surfside not only brings San Diego east, it may have also bested the original.

Public Transportation: Being an LA kid, the Metro system, despite its flaws, is still a wonder. Twice a day I get to sit back and read the newspaper. That's how I see my commute. People like to complain about 10 minute single tracking delays. Try a commute that takes 2 hours in stop and go traffic over the course of 7 miles. Been there, done that. Just ask my therapist.

Free Stuff: Where else in the world can you do so much and spend so little? Museums filled with iconic art and historic artifacts... free. Monuments to great leaders or fallen heroes... free. Architectural wonders that are home to the debates and decisions that govern the country, and often times, the world... free. Lectures, tours, concerts, games, and even a couple of famous pandas... free.

J's Favorites

Mac n Cheese: I am a blue box girl through and through but Oohhs & Aahhs' mac n' cheese is the only stuff I've liked more than the classic.

Risotto Balls: I tried them in three different cities in Italy, and I still like Taylor Gourmet's Linkrisotto balls best.

French Fries: My all time favorite were McDonald's fries dipped in sweet and sour sauce. Brasserie Beck's frites dipped in curry mayo are a more respectable version of this guilty pleasure.

Fried Chicken: My Dad's Uncle Boyd makes the best fried chicken, but Kerrigan's Corner Deli (an unassuming looking gas station) is giving him a run for his money.

Recreational Activity: Flying trapeze at TSNY DC. Sure you can fly through the air in other cities, but the friends I've made make the DC location number one in my heart.

Noodles: Though the spicy noodle soup we ate for breakfast at our hotel in Cambodia still calls out to me, the classic ramen at Toki Underground just makes me giddy.

Walkable City: We've explored many of the world's cities on foot but we still love walking through DC. Walking to work, to the gym, to dinner, to a concert . . . I absolutely love it.

We have a blast sharing our DC adventures with you. Our tag line has always been "A new couple exploring a new city." We aren't exactly a new couple anymore (we've been married for 1637 days which is 22.74 Kim Kardashian marriages!) and DC isn't exactly a new city to us now (5 years in this transient town practically qualifies us for native status).

However, the tag line reminds us to keep looking at this city and each other with fresh eyes. Also, "A somewhat older couple exploring a city they've lived in for 5 years" just doesn't have as nice of a ring to it.

We look forward to another year of food, fun, and exploration. We love hearing your suggestions, so please, keep them coming! It reminds us that there are people out there who actually read this thing.

We're off to follow B's best advice: "Be a tourist in your hometown."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Are we the only ones still watching Top Chef? With the in-your-face and completely awkward product placement (hello random shot of the GE Profile fridge label every five seconds) and sometimes tired story lines, it is safe to say the show is not what it once was. We still watch and will probably keep watching, but sometimes we yearn for the glory days of Top Chef: Las Vegas.

Oh how we loved the epic battles between the avant-garde Michael Voltaggio and his more reserved brother Bryan. I've always had a soft spot for Bryan and root for him in the much-hyped sibling rivalry. When Michael opened a sandwich shop (ink.sack) in LA last year, I was hoping Bryan would try to one-up him with an East Coast sandwich shop. Imagine my delight when Bryan opened Lunchbox on Carroll Creek in Frederick, Maryland at the end of the year.

We were on our way to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and hit Frederick around lunch time. As we neared Frederick and my stomach rumbled, I remembered my dear Bryan and his new sandwich shop. Not trying to set myself up for disappointment, I mentioned Lunchbox to B and asked him to check whether it was open on Sundays. Relieved when he told me it was indeed open, I aimed the car for darling Carroll Creek in Frederick.

From the second we walked in to Lunchbox, I knew I was going to like it. Every detail brings you right back to carefree childhood days. From the lunch-bench style picnic tables to the milk in the fridge, it just feels nice. And who else is giving out free apples with purchase these days?

I did an awkward little jig when I saw the daily special sandwich: nutella, peanut butter, and banana melted into heaven between two slices of bread. Yes, it was as good as it sounds, but how can you mess those ingredients up?

B went with the childhood classic grilled cheese. Bryan, (or B-Volt as the hip kids call him . . . ok maybe nobody calls him that) elevates the grilled cheese by adding a sprinkle of salt and herbs. It also helps that he's using top-notch ingredients in every sandwich.

So with the Top Chef name and the high-end ingredients, you probably assume you need to fork over about $10 per sandwich. Wrong! I don't see an item on his menu that is over $5. We stuffed ourselves silly with two sandwiches, a cup of butternut squash soup, two chocolate chip cookies (not as good as I dreamed), and two Cheerwines for $19.50. Oh, and we also shared a free apple.

Should you drop everything and drive over an hour to Frederick for lunch? No. Come on people, it's just a sandwich. It's not going to change your world and you'll probably be very annoyed at me for causing you to go out of your way for a grilled cheese.

I do highly recommend that you plan a little road trip to Harpers Ferry or Gettysburg or any of the local wonders of history and nature and include a stop in Frederick on the way. You could even hit Lunchbox on the way out and Volt on the way home (with a reservation) and get twice the Voltaggio.

Second Thoughts from B

I'm quite particular about my grilled cheese. In fact, there was a time in my life that "cooking to impress" meant two slices of whole wheat bread, a schmear of butter, a generous amount of extra sharp cheddar, and a hot pan. With an apple on the side of course. Oh, how the ladies swooned!

Though my culinary skills (and waistline) have certainly expanded since then, I still love going back to that reliably delicious combination with a few personalized modifications for J (read: ketchup for dipping). I have a feeling Bryan Voltaggio is no different. While he's a world-class culinary master and innovator, you can tell that he enjoyed creating Lunchbox. It is a warm childhood memory wrapped in wax paper. And while memories sometimes get sugarcoated over the years, Bryan's use of local, high quality ingredients ensures us that reality won't destroy the nostalgia of our youthful bliss. All that for less than the cost of the couple gallons of gas it'll take to get there...
Lunchbox on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 3, 2012

El Charrito Caminante

When we raved about the tacos at Taqueria Poblano, a kindly reader from chowDC pointed us in the direction of El Charrito Caminante. El Charrito is located in a little strip mall in that part of Arlington that is sort of near Clarendon, sort of near Courthouse, and sort of near Fort Meyer. Since Arlingtonians like to make mashed-up names for their neighborhoods (see, e.g., Arlandria), I'm going to call it Clarecourtmeyer.

If you want table service, margaritas, and balloon animals, go to Lauriol Plaza. If you want super cheap, very authentic Mexican tacos, go to El Charrito.

The restaurant consists of a small counter with a half dozen stools. While we ate on stools about two feet from the cash register, we watched a steady stream of Clarecourtmeyerians ordering takeout.

The menu consists of mostly tacos and pupusas with a few burritos thrown in for the gringos. I ordered two beef tacos and a horchata (a dreamy, creamy cinnamon rice milk beverage of wonder). B tried a combination consisting of a pupusa, a beef and a chicken taco, with rice and beans all washed down with a Jarritos Mandarin soda.

If the tacos at Taqueria Poblano are authentic LA street food tacos, the tacos at El Charrito are authentic Mexico street food tacos. They have the chewy double corn tortillas and the requisite onions and cilantro. No cheese, no sour cream, no guacamole. Just simple and very tasty taco goodness . . . all for a whopping $2! And if you like goat or lengua (tongue) tacos, El Charrito can hook you up.

While I thought the beef taco was a little skimpy on the beef, for $2 I'm not complaining too loudly. B's pupusa was served piping hot with melty cheese oozing out of the pillowy dough blanket.

We exited El Charrito full and happy for about $12. With comparable tacos at Taqueria Distrito Federal closer to home, we may not schlep all the way to Clarecourtmeyer for tacos. But, if we're in the neighborhood (probably on our way to REI) we won't hesitate to stop in for the cheap eats.

Thank you chowDC for the tip! Anyone else have a must-try taco place? I promise we'll go if it is in reasonable driving distance.

Second Thoughts from B

It is fun to work with J on this blog because on our food posts she's happy to do the play by play allowing me to provide the color commentary. I don't know how colorful I am but I do like telling stories...

Growing up in Southern California, I spent many summers across the Mexican boarder building houses for the poor. To be clear, we're talking Bear Grylls-quality construction and not Bob Villa. These trips allowed me ample time to immerse myself in the most humble Mexican food and culture.

Trips like these always reminded me of how much could be made out of so little. Those dusty taco stands always surpassed the fancy kitchens and formal training of high-end Mexican restaurants back home. I think that's why I've so enjoyed the current food revolution that has moved us towards simple, local, and traditional preparations.

El Charrito isn't a fad. It isn't trying to be simple, local, and traditional. It IS all of those things. The real deal... the real good deal.
El Charrito Caminante on Urbanspoon