Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Old Rag Mountain

Being stuck at home for several days thanks to Hurricane Sandy makes us especially appreciative of the power of nature... not just the destructive power, but also its awe-inspiring beauty and therapeutic effects on the soul.  Washington, DC isn't just a city of power and culture, it is also an area surrounded by natural wonders worth exploring.  And since we've been cooped up on telework for the last few days, we thought it would be nice to create a miniseries of posts dedicated to fresh air and stretching your legs in the great outdoors.

Any discussion of hiking in the Mid-Atlantic region should begin with Old Rag Mountain.  Located within a 2 hour drive of DC on the eastern side of Shenandoah National Park, this approximately 9 mile loop tops most nature lovers' to-do lists.  And rightfully so.  The trail is an enjoyable, yet challenging, combination of well-groomed paths, strenuous switch-backs, rocky scrambles, and unparalleled views.  The only downside is the crowds.  Disneyland-sized crowds.

Everything we read about the trail said to arrive no later than 7 am.  Being the overachievers that we are, we arrived at 5 am.  Yeah, you read that right.  5 am.

We were going to do Old Rag on a weekend at the peak of the fall colors.  That meant going down to Culpeper the night before, staying in a motel, and arriving at the trail before the crowds showed up.  On the drive down, however, we learned that there would be a spectacular meteor shower (Orionids).  This altered our plans.  Now the goal was to be on the trail early enough to see the stars and a meteor or two.  In other words, 5 am.

Mission accomplished.  Stumbling out of bed at exactly 3:59 am, we got to the Old Rag parking lot a little after 5, hit the trail (almost a mile from the lot) by headlamp by 5:30, and arrived at the first overlook for sunrise.  Was it worth it?  Oh yeah!  And yes, we saw a few meteors.

We can't tell you much about the loop's 2 miles of switchbacks to get to the overlook (it was dark) but we can tell you that the next 1.5 miles of scrambling was lots of fun.  If you go, be prepared to squeeze and contort your body in yoga-esque ways to get up, over, and through the rocky terrain.  It isn't rock climbing, but you will need to use your hands and knees in many areas.

This is where you'll most appreciate your efforts to arrive early.  The benefits of solitude while in the wilderness are obvious.  Less obvious is the fact that those who sleep in will be in stop and go traffic throughout their climb.  I can't imagine coming all that way to escape the city just to find the frustrations of rush hour traffic on the Beltway.

After you scramble to the summit, the rest of the way is mostly wide open trail and fire road, which is an alternate out and back route for those who want to summit without the scramble.

By the time we were back at our car it was 11:20 am.  There, we were met by hoards of hikers of various ages and physical abilities just arriving at the trail.  After seeing no more than a dozen or so people on our hike, we encountered several hundred on the road between the parking lot and the trailhead.  I think I'd rather endure another few hurricanes than be stuck on a trail with half the Delmarva population in front of me.

J Says

Like B said, Old Rag is a fantastic combination of rock scramble, hiking, and scenic views.  If you want the scenic view to be of the mountain and not the butt of the hiker in front of you, go early.  Did we emphasize this enough?  OK good.

I highly recommend driving out the night before and staying in a cheap motel in Culpeper (the Best Western was clean and comfortable and only $90). Not only does it make the wake-up time more manageable, you can also grab a relaxing dinner in town (for us that meant Taco Bell and Cold Stone Creamery), tour the local Walmart, and go to bed early.

I'll leave you with a wardrobe tip: wear durable pants.  Due to all the scrambling, you're going to be sliding on your behind a lot.  Nobody wants to do the second half of the hike with scraped up legs (from wearing shorts) or a hole in their pants.  A pair of hiking pants or thicker workout pants should do the trick.

Happy hiking!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Palena Contest Results

The results are in and one of our readers is now $100 richer and on their way to a great meal at Palena!  But before we announce who won (as if you won't ignore all this and scroll down to the bottom), a special thanks to everyone who entered.  You certainly made J giggle more than a few times and everyone knows that I appreciated all the lamb love out there.

We spent way too much time selecting a winner.  While cronyism may rule this town, I disqualified myself from any job in local government by de-identifying the comments, having J select the ones she liked, and throwing those into a random number generator.  After all that, we produced our winner.  Congratulations to (drum roll please)... Gabriel Bayley!  Step right up and claim your prize (in other words, email us with your contact information).

Friday, October 19, 2012


Do you want to win $100 toward your dream dinner at Palena? We thought so!  Read on....

Palena is James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Ruta's homage to "cucina genuina" or genuine cooking.  The Cleveland Park restaurant is really 3 spaces in one: 1) the Dining Room (fine dining prix fixe menu); 2) Palena Cafe (more casual a la carte experience); and 3) the Market (featuring imported and artisanal products used in the restaurant, as well as coffee, and ready-to-eat sweets and savories). 

The folks at CityEats recently gave us $50 toward our meal in the Dining Room at Palena. I logged on to CityEats to make our reservation and check out the menu. Palena requires a credit card to confirm the reservation and charges a no-show fee if you don't cancel your reservation 24 hours prior, so make sure you either stick to it or cancel!

If you're not familiar with CityEats, it is an online reservation site that works in collaboration with the Food Network to bring you a one-stop site for your dining needs.  In addition to booking reservations and checking out menus, you can read professional and user-submitted reviews, browse drool-worthy food photos, and get the inside scoop on each restaurant before you book. 

When we arrived for our 8:00 p.m. weeknight reservation, the bar and Cafe area were bustling, but the Dining Room was quiet and sufficiently walled off from the noise next door.  The Dining Room has two menu options:
  1. $75 menu where you select 3 courses from about a dozen options and get to choose a dessert from a list of a half dozen choices; and
  2. $95 set menu of 5 courses plus dessert.  You get the five courses and dessert listed on the menu and you can't substitute things from the 3 course menu to mix and match (we heard a fellow diner ask if he could).
We were impressed that the wine pairing for the 5 course menu is $51.  That's a steal compared to many wine pairing prices around town.  We also loved that they offer half bottles of wine and we were pleased with the one we ordered, but the prices on the half bottles were steep (I think the cheapest was around $55).

For maximum flexibility we ordered from the 3 course + dessert menu.  I had the Fall Salad (butternut squash, mushrooms, greens, cheese); medley of mushrooms (mushrooms, polenta, cheese in a rich tomato sauce); duck breast (with juniper sauce); and the dark chocolate torte. B had the consomme (oxtail broth, mushrooms, vegetables); lobster roe saffron pasta; cod (which he pronounced perfectly cooked but too salty); and a pear dessert.

With the addition of complimentary items including two amuse bouche, a bread basket, a pre-dessert sorbet, and a selection of sweets with the check, Palena put us into a completely blissful food coma. 

Second Thoughts From B

It was certainly a treat to be able to take advantage of CityEats' generous offer at one of the few places that remained on our DC bucket list. At the same time, it is a challenge to provide an unbiased description of our experience.  If we're too complimentary, then people will think we were bought out.  Too harsh and we must be over compensating...

As I sat there enjoying the refined atmosphere and thoughtfully constructed plates of food, I debated how I would characterize my experience.  I apologize to our non-sports loving readers out there but in my mind, Palena seems to be a "professional hitter."  Let me explain.

The title of professional hitter is given to a player who goes to bat with a plan and executes it well.  He knows his strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the other team.  He thinks about the game situation (outs, runners on base, inning, score, etc.) and determines the best approach.  Even if he fails, he makes the other team work during his at bat.

While it may seem that being a "professional hitter" is high praise, it is also somewhat of a backhanded compliment.  Professional hitters sacrifice bunt, allow a runner to steal, hit the ball to the opposite field, or hit a scoring fly ball.  Superstars don't need to do that.  They just hit homeruns.

On this night, I don't think Palena was a homerun.  A month from now, I don't know that I'll remember anything in particular about my meal with the possible exception of the pear dessert.  It was, however, a lovely evening of good food and excellent service that provided the perfect mid-week escape. 
Palena on Urbanspoon

$100 to Palena can be yours!
Now that you've had a chance to check out our thoughts on Palena, it's your chance to win your dream dinner in the Dining Room.  Check out the menu on CityEats here and leave a comment on this post or tweet us (@twodc) by 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, October 23rd a description of what you would order at Palena.  We'll choose a winner and announce it on TwoDC next week!  CityEats will give our lucky winner $100 credit toward their meal in the Dining Room (listed as Palena Fine Dining on the CityEats site).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Nice 'n' Greasy Steak 'n' Cheesy

Michael Landrum, father of the Ray's the Steaks and Ray's Hell Burger empire, is a guy that does what he wants.  He was famous for not having websites for his restaurants (now he does) and not taking credit cards (now he does in some locations, thank you!).  Mr. Landrum's "do what I want" outlook is perhaps nowhere more apparent than this little spot in the strip mall on Wilson Avenue in Arlington.

This place has changed formats more times than I can count.  For a while it was doing take-out for Ray's Hell Burger.  Then it became the sit-down table service version of Ray's Hell Burger.  Then last year he closed the "Hell Burger Too" concept and opened "Steak and Cheese" serving steak and cheese sandwiches (not Philly cheesesteaks, according to Landrum).  Then Landrum closed Steak and Cheese a month later and went back to the "Hell Burger Too" concept.  In May, Landrum opened "Nice 'N' Greasy Steak 'N' Cheesy" in the space but also kept the Hell Burger menu items.  Confused?  Us too.  We never know quite what we're going to get when we walk into this place and that's what's fun about it.

The space is stripped down and focused totally on the food.  They weren't doing table service when we were there, but I don't pretend to know if that's a "normal" thing or if they sometimes do table service.  They do take credit cards and that makes us happy campers.  We ordered at the counter, zoning in on the new menu items (though it was really hard to pass up our favorite burgers).

B ordered the Spicy-As-Hell Chicken Sandwich (chicken breast marinated in Ray's famous blend of burning hot spices with pepper jack cheese, charred jalapenos, hell fire mayo, lettuce and tomato on a potato roll).  It was indeed spicy as hell.  I took one bite and instantly had tears streaming down my face.  Beyond smacking us in the face with spice, it was a good chicken sandwich, but still a chicken sandwich.  The onion fries were as delicious as they look.

I ordered the Shock G steak and cheese sandwich featuring 1/3 lb of sliced "premium heart of rib eye," American and provolone cheeses, and grilled onions on a toasted Lyon Bakery sub roll. Because this wasn't coronary-inducing enough, I added charred jalapenos ($0.50 extra) and "groove grease."  Groove grease is a secret concoction of yumminess that defies proper description.  It's greasy, groovy, a little spicy, and I really don't think I want to know how many calories it has.

This was a truly epic sandwich.  It was messy and hard to eat, but I couldn't keep my eyes from rolling back into my head with each delicious bite.  It's not trying to be a Philly cheese steak, it's trying to be a high quality steak sandwich and from my grease-covered point of view, it succeeds.

Second Thoughts from B

You win some and you lose some.  While I clearly won by ordering the onion fries (more on these in a second), I lost the sandwich battle to J.  Unlike my beloved New Jack Zing at Ray's Hell Burger that uses heat to balance out the creamy, salty, and savory elements in the sandwich, the Spicy-As-Hell Chicken Sandwich was spicy layered upon spicy.  It felt more like a dare than a meal.  And since I'm not an aspiring Fear Factor contestant, all I did was slurp down gallons of water and covet J's plate.

Back to the onion fries though.  Putting a gourmet twist on common foods is not a new idea.  However, the common foods tend to be tired, if not dreadful, foods that inspired childhood nightmares.  Chefs like to embrace the challenge of making mouth watering versions of things that you'd otherwise stay away from.  On the other hand, Nice 'n' Greasy Steak 'n' Cheesy took a guilty pleasure - Outback Steakhouse's Bloomin Onion - and made it better.  How?  No clue.  Like you, my dear reader, I thought the Bloomin Onion was not to be tampered with.  Sent from the Almighty as a gift to us mere mortals who craved a bit of joy in our otherwise drab existence.  To elevate fried and greasy perfection is simply divine.  Now if there was just an anti-coronary option...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hogs on the Hill

Does this sign look familiar?

If you're like us, you've probably passed the sign a zillion times heading down New York Avenue on your way to points north.  We finally decided to stop the car and see if "DC's Best Hickory Smoked Pit BBQ" is anything worth stopping for. 

Hogs on the Hill is a take-out only establishment with an uber-thick plexiglass window separating you from the cashier.  The hickory smoke smell was amazing and it's a good thing we liked it, because it followed us all the way home.  The menu is straightforward: BBQ and sides.

B ordered a half rack of pork ribs (I don't think they had any other kind of ribs).  They offer to keep the sauce on the side if you're one of those sauceless types.  Since we're a saucy pair, we asked them to slather it on.

I got a sampler plate with ribs, chicken, potato salad, mac n' cheese, and corn bread.  This massive amount of food was $9!

For about $20 and 10 minutes of our time, we got a ton of piping hot BBQ.  Yes, it was cheap and fast, but was it good?  I wouldn't say it was the best BBQ we've ever had and it likely wouldn't impress a bona fide BBQ expert, but it was solid.  The ribs fell right off the bone and we liked the slightly-sweet/slightly-tangy sauce.  I actually liked the chicken better than the ribs, but I'm a sucker for a tender BBQ chicken.  I've had better mac n' cheese, but the potato salad had a great vinegar bite to it.  If you're driving down New York Avenue and you're hungry, I'd venture to say that Hogs on the Hill is the best you're going to do.  Skip the Wendy's, McDonald's, and the Checkers (did you know that in CA the Checkers are called Rally's?) and make a turn onto Bladensburg Rd. for a pit stop for cheap and plentiful BBQ.

Second Thoughts from B

If you haven't seen the Hogs on the Hill sign "a zillion times" as J says, that must mean you've got your eyes on the road instead of craning your neck around for the latest and greatest option for lunch.  That's ok, we all have our roles in life and mine is to drive safely.  I guess that is what makes me and J a great team.  

So when J instructed me to take a sharp turn off our route and into a small parking lot behind a gas station, I was more than a bit curious.  Then I opened the car door and was hit with that wonderful smell of BBQ.  I immediately knew J had done well.

BBQ to me is about the BBQ.  You can have the potato salad, mac n' cheese, and corn bread.  While you're at it, keep the knife and fork too.  I want to bury myself in smoky, succulent meat that is falling off the bone with sauce that gets all over my hands and face.  It is a primal experience and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

This isn't a time to be dainty or proper or calorie conscious.  I don't want to analyze things Iron Chef-style.  I want to eat and be satisfied.  By that measure, Hogs on the Hill shined.  Quick, cheap, surprisingly friendly, satisfying, and delicious.  The smokiness that enveloped me in the parking lot was not lost on the ribs, and while J said the sauce wasn't the best she's ever had, I can't remember sauce that was much better.

J's job is to hunt down great eats and Hogs on the Hill proves that she's very good at it.  That makes my job easy.  All I have to do is follow her lead.  I'd suggest you do the same.
Hogs on the Hill III on Urbanspoon