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Eating Through the DC area: holes, dives and joints

I love to cook and love to eat. Love innovative dishes, especially healthy ones. Live in Arlington, VA, so I eat there and in DC all the time. Also love my former hometown, Ann Arbor, and it’s super eateries too! Read my food blog, www.autofoodography.com

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Harar Mesob

 542 23rd St S
Arlington, VA
 

WAT's so good about Ethiopian?

Whether or not you’re in the DC/NoVA area, you should definitely try out an Ethiopian restaurant. If you are in the area, then you can try out Ethiopian at a very impressive little joint in Crystal City: Harar Mesob. It is located in the block of 23rd and Eads in Crystal City (Arlington neighborhood) known to some as Restaurant Row. It is an eclectic strip of good quality neighborhood restaurants, and Mesob really adds to both the character and the quality of the area.

Julia introduced traditional Ethiopian cuisine to me over four years ago, something that she and her family had been enjoying in Ann Arbor for many years, at a place called Blue Nile. Ethiopian is very vegetarian-friendly, which was great for them, as vegetable dishes hold nearly if not a higher regard than meat dishes in that cuisine. Now that I have been eating Ethiopian for quite a while, I would definitely be missing one of my favorite cultural cuisines if I had not been introduced.

The key to Ethiopian, if you’re unfamiliar, is the plate and the utensils. They are one and the same — a flat, yet pillowy bread called injera. It is very simple, with a slight tang and is very often made with whole wheat flours. The food is served either family style or individually on a large tray or basket covered in injera. Simultaneously, you are served more injera on the side, which you literally use instead of a fork or spoon to scoop up and eat the various items on the injera-covered plate or basket. I found that Harar Mesob had one of the moistest and most “whole-wheaty” injeras that I have tried, which was very enjoyable. It makes for some pretty fun eating, but incredibly tasty as well.

What makes this relatively plain bread such a tasty messenger? It’s all in the wat! The what? The wat! Yes, that is the name of the different stew-like morsels of food that are served up atop the injera. The vegetable offerings found at Harar Mesob include spicy red lentils, mild yellow lentils, succulent collard greens, flavorful cabbage, a little potato salad, a cool, tangy tomato-onion-jalapeño-vinaigrette salad and various others. They are all very rich in spices and flavors and not rich due to excessive fat in their base. That’s what I love about Ethiopian cuisine, and Harar Mesob does it exquisitely.

I didn’t even get around to mentioning the meat wat yet. At Mesob, lean chunks of beef or lamb are used in most of the dishes. While several have clarified butter or vegetable oil in the base, many of them are simply sautéed in an amazing spice blend along with some jalapeño, garlic and onion. The meat sampler includes a chicken dish, called doro wat which is Ethiopia’s national dish. It is spicy and has chicken on the bone, stewed with a red sauce, and with a peeled hard boiled egg. It is quite a departure from a normal Ethiopian wat, which all seem a bit simpler, but is really quite a treat. All of the meat wat are filled with tenderness and flavor and really are to-die-for.

At a small price of $9-$14 for an absolutely filling portion of food, Harar Mesob not only does Ethiopian extraordinarily well, but quite affordably, cozily and pretty healthily. Not bad in my book. Maybe that’s why we walk up there at least once every couple weeks for dinner – probably the best endorsement I can give a place.

So in case you’re still in the dark about Ethiopian food and its finger-licking goodness, head to Harar Mesob, tear yourself off a piece of injera, scoop up some wat and eat it all in one bite. You will enjoy it immensely, and you won’t stop thinking about it. I sure can’t!

Read this and other reviews as well as my recipes at autofoodography.com.

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Cafe Asia - DC

 1720 I St NW
Washington, DC
 

Second Review: Sticky Situation

Adversity is something that all restaurants face by nature, sometimes more so than others. Restaurants’ customers can have issues with just about anything, there is a strict health code that needs to be followed at all times, plus the industry is just tough to compete in. That is why excellent customer service at an eatery is a unique accent to a restaurant that helps it stand out in my mind. The rare times that I actually have a problem with my experience at a restaurant, action above and beyond the typical service expectations for a restaurant can quickly make me forgive and forget.

Like the other day.

Café Asia is a restaurant I really like. It’s a place I happily go for lunch or dinner to get sushi, plus I love their Happy Hour. So it was a bit disheartening when there was an issue with the sushi I ordered there recently. It wasn’t really their fault, as it could happen to any fish in any sushi restaurant and maybe it was just a rough day for an otherwise consistent joint, but let’s just say it was a little unsettling. Their reputation was suddenly on the ropes for me.

As I beckoned to the first waiter I saw, I relayed the information to him and he promptly imparted me a stony look of understanding and removed my untouched plate. After some time he came back and apologized, indicating that he had made sure that it was taken care of and was taking over our table. He offered to bring me a new plate of sushi or to bring me a cooked entree and then assured me that this type of thing had not happened before to his knowledge. At this point I wanted sushi and I wanted to complete my investigation, so I asked him for the sushi. He brought it, and it appeared he had brought me the best whitefish and tuna that they had. And upon noticing the sheer size and quality of the sushi, I ate the best plate of nigiri I have ever had at Cafe Asia. Nice bounce back for them.

But it gets better. After apologizing another ten-ish times, comping us the whitefish nigiri, bringing a dessert “on him” and taking another twenty percent off the entire bill, I wasn’t even that upset when I left. I actually felt better about Café Asia.

One of my biggest fears is having a fish-related problem at a restaurant because I love sushi so much. I’ve heard that once you have a bad fish experience, there is no turning back. That is why I tend to only eat sushi at reputable places. To think that Café Asia was heading down that road but used impeccable customer service to even improve my opinion of their restaurant speaks more wonder about their restaurant than any great dish. There will be a next time at Café Asia for me, and I recommend that there be a next time for you too.

Read reviews for this and other restaurants plus my own recipes at my blog, autofoodography.com

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Tortilla Coast

 400 1st St Se
Washington, DC
 

Tortilla Roast

Just kidding, but wouldn’t that be a classic title for a horrible and sarcastic review of a restaurant near the Capitol South metro station whose name is Tortilla Coast? (He grins widely to himself.) Luckily for Tortilla Coast, I quite enjoyed their place. It was a convenient one-metro-stop ride from Eastern Market, and the service was fast enough that Julia and I were able to enjoy a post-market lunch with friends Kate and Francisco without worry that our wares would spoil pre-fridge.

This place came highly recommended from none other than our market/lunch buddies themselves. This is one of their favorite places in DC for Mexican. However, Kate had me at hello, well actually barbecued chicken. As soon as I heard that they made quesadillas (and burritos and fajitas) with barbecued chicken, I was hooked to the idea of trying this place. Even if the rest of the menu was fairly mundane Mexican (which it was), I knew there would be at least a few items that were creative and intriguing and definitely order-worthy. I just had to try that barbecued chicken.

The place had a nice game-day/group gathering feel, which was good since it allowed me to catch the closest and most interesting part of the OSU trouncing of my Michigan boys without it being too loud to enjoy a conversation with my table. They had quite a few different beers and drinks and good chips and salsa too. But I might as well fast forward to the inevitable – my order of the barbecued chicken quesadilla.

What arrived looked like any other good quesadilla – crispy, flaky tortilla; cut into triangles; a little ooze; a little oil evidence (this one perhaps a little above average on the oil). But on further examination, there was the beautiful sight of the contents – cheese, chicken, barbecue sauce, red peppers. Even despite the oil, this was a treat to remember. It was that combination of smoky, tangy, salty, savory, spicy and just a slight bit of sweet that leaves you feeling wholly satisfied. The best part was probably the smokiness of the barbecue sauce – it had a lot of depth and wasn’t too sweet like some BBQ sauces can be. It just sort of melted in my mouth, so much more so than a traditional quesadilla, which I will rarely if ever order. This one was killer, no doubt about it. And that’s probably the reason why both Tortilla Coast veterans at my table went straight for the barbecued chicken selections as well.

There is nothing really left to say about Tortilla Coast. A pretty good place with a little niche that is probably just unique enough and darn delicious enough to get me remembering it and returning. Probably even good enough for me to rename this review, Tortilla Boast.

Nah. Just not as funny.

Read my reviews in more detail and other foodie articles at autofoodography.com.

Barbecue Chicken Quesadilla at Tortilla Coast

Barbecue Chicken Quesadilla

 

Chips and Salsa

 

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Ashley's Restaurant

 338 S State St
Ann Arbor, MI
 

A beer place (and a food place)

Ashley’s, located on State Street near North University in Ann Arbor, is a surprisingly good Irish pub with surprisingly good food. The surprising part is that although it is “Irish,” its selection of imported beers, ranging from high-quality Belgium beers to Irish to local Michigan microbreweries, is astonishingly vast and cheap. They have a book of beers (with extensive lists of wines, liquors and mixed drinks in the back) that has beer descriptions, a taste guide and even flights. It is a fun place to go, which is likely why it is packed to max most evenings and nights. I even enjoyed having dinner at Ashley’s sometimes – it was a little pubby of course, but they manage to sneak quite a few interesting (and even healthy) dishes on their menu. Nothing spectacular like the beers, but definitely worth eating at if you’re trying to decide.

Read this and other reviews as well as my own recipes at www.autofoodography.com

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Pizza House

 618 Church St
Ann Arbor, MI
 

Food good, Place great

This one is not so much for the pizza, although the pizza is actually very good. It’s about the atmosphere. Pizza House (Church Street near South University) is that comfortable, campus place that everyone loves. It’s huge so you can almost always get a table for any party; it’s open and delivers until 4AM every night; it’s got a huge menu filled with pizzas, bar foods and a full bar, desserts, salads, sandwiches, their famous chapattis (huge fresh pita stuffed with salad) and even steaks and other dinner entrees; oh and it’s pretty darn cheap. The place is hopping in the middle of the day, the middle of the evening and the middle of the night, and we used to go there whenever we needed to just get out for a little comfort and relaxation. Whether it was meeting friends or just us, this was our little hangout for years, and it will take quite a lot for another place in a big city like DC to quite have all that it would take to be our next Pizza House.

Read this and other reviews as well as my own recipes at www.autofoodography.com

Super Thin Crust Pizza

Like eating a boodle of cheese on a little cracker. Good for the carb-conscious but that’s about it. Not a big fan.

Thin Crust Pizza

Nice happy medium here between too crusty and too little crust. I believe this is one of the crusts that can be whole wheat, so that is a plus.

Traditional Crust Pizza

Love this one for its simplicity, speed with which they can get it to you, nice crunch and chew and the fact that you can get it whole wheat. I don’t recommend “wetter” toppings like fresh mozzarella or fresh tomatoes as it can kind of make the crust soggy.

Deep Dish Pizza

So deep and so crispy and flaky and good. Tons of cheese too with all that crust. Not something you want to eat every day (or every year), and we didn’t. If this came in whole wheat, I’d give it that 5th star.

Chicago Stuffed Deep Dish

Ok this one’s a bit much. Only ever got it a few times. They say it take 40 minutes to cook this gargantuan mass of sauce, cheese, topping and crust, and that’s generous. I think I waited an hour once. For something that might cut a year or two off my life, I’d rather not wait an hour to eat it. That’s just wasted time!

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Silvio's Organic Pizza

 715 N University Ave
Ann Arbor, MI
 

Ann Arbor's Best and Most Underrated Pizza

Authentic Italian organic pizza can be found on North University near State Street in Ann Arbor at Silvio’s. And this place is a hidden gem. Competing with endless bland campus pizzerias, this place is special. The taste of the pizza is, well, real. The crust is chewy and crunchy and endlessly flavorful. The sauce and cheese actually taste fresh and flavorful and interesting. A list of over 40 organic toppings range from shiitake mushrooms and raw fresh arugula to bacon, fennel and truffle oil. You can even get grapes or carrots, but most of the ingredients are organic variations on classic ingredients. Bottom line is this pizza place is unparalleled by any I have seen and is vastly underrated, even in Ann Arbor. Needless to say I have not found a pizza place that can match up in DC as of yet, but if I ever do, it will be good enough that you will be hearing about it.

Read this and other reviews as well as my own recipes at www.autofoodography.com

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Mr Spot's

 808 S State St
Ann Arbor, MI
 

Wings to fly home for

Best wings out there that I’ve tried. They have the reputation as being the best and lived up to it each and every time during my three years of Mr. Spot’s patronage. The little dive on State Street just past Hill in Ann Arbor employs some of the rudest individuals that I have ever encountered in the service industry. That didn’t matter because these are not people you are tipping. They know how to make Buffalo wings, plain and simple. Crispy and meaty wings, the perfect amount of addictively flavorful, Buffalo spicy sauce. Plenty of chunky bleu cheese dressing (unless you get a really really rude employee and then they give you one tiny little cup of dressing). Many a cold winters night after an economics exam I would treat myself to a dozen wings, and they never disappointed. In DC all the wings I have had so far have tried to do too much – be too fancy, too sweet, too sticky, too spicy, or sometimes just too bland. I think I’ll find some wings to rival Spots someday, but until then I’ll just try to score some when I’m in A2.

Read this and other reviews as well as my own recipes at www.autofoodography.com

Classic Buffalo Wings

Perfect and amazing. I dream about them, which is good, since I shouldn’t (and don’t) eat wings nearly as much as I would want to.

Mild Barbecue Wings

Big drop off after the classics. The sauce is too sweet even for a barbecue sauce. Just ordinary.

Super hot wings.

These are too hot. The classic are quite hot. These are just overboard in my opinion.

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Zingerman's Delicatessen

 422 Detroit St
Ann Arbor, MI
 

A Deli with Love

Best deli in the country (and yes I have been to many New York delis); best specialty food store I have been to as well. Located at the corner of Detroit and Kingsley Streets, Zingerman’s has a reputation beyond compare and it is a singular draw in Ann Arbor for many. Its sandwiches are unique, fresh and loaded, and are complemented by two whole buildings filled with house made breads, cheese, gelatos and pastries; house cured meats and olives; a pantheon of rare olive oils, vinegars, mustards, sauces, spices and other specialty goodies. The dill pickles alone with their emphasis on the dill and the garlic and the salt and not on the vinegar (re: jarred dill pickles) are unrivaled by ant. I have tried about 25 different pickles in DC and none have even come remotely close to Zing’s. I have tried a bunch of deli sandwiches here too and none yet have been awful, but none have had the love that Zingerman’s packs into their sandwiches, which make them the best. At a DC or NY deli, if you order pastrami or ham or whatever, they slap a heaping portion between two slices of rye bread and “badda-bing.” Nice sandwich, no love. At Zingerman’s, you might end up with Jimmy Wants Rosemary’s Baby, piles of thin sliced country ham with house made fresh mozzarella and tomato slices, with a beautiful combination of olive oil and balsamic vinegar from their stores, all between two thick slices of house made sesame semolina bread. Makes my mouth water. But hey, you want that corned beef on rye or the turkey Reuben at Zingerman’s? They’ve got you covered. And still manage to pack in the love.

Read this and other reviews as well as my own recipes at www.autofoodography.com

Jimmy Wants Rosemary's Baby

Sesame semolina bread, fresh mozzarella, country ham, tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. My absolute favorite!

Roger's Big Picnic

Farmhouse bread with grilled asparagus and portobello mushrooms grilled with cheddar cheese and dijon mustard. A tangy, salty delight for the vegetarians!

Zingerman's Gelato

SO creamy. SO flavorful. SO homemade. The flavors rotate by season usually and they will give you as many tastes as you want. Mostly because they know that you can never get enough, so you’ll be buying eventually.

Zingerman's Pickles

I consider myself a pickle snob and these dill pickles (“old” in deli speak) are creme de la creme de la pickle. No briny vinegar that make many pickles taste like vlasicks — understated and divine in their salty, garlicky goodness. When they ran out for a month or so last year, I was visibly depressed (well, not really, but it felt that way).

Corned Beef Reuben

I’m not a big reuben fan, but my mother and brother swear by this one. Their mouths literally water when they mention it. I would normally give a Reuben 2 stars, but this kraut is actually great with the corned beef. Literally piles of that Corned Beef. So tasty. Not my first choice anywhere, but here it is pretty yummy.

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Saica Restaurant

 1733 Plymouth Rd
Ann Arbor, MI
 

My Japanese Comfort Food

Saica is an awesome little sushi joint in Ann Arbor, just off of North Campus of the University of Michigan on Plymouth Road. I frequented this place at least once a month since 2003, either with Julia or other roommates or friends. It is casual, open seating, very unpretentious and high quality. Above all, it’s high value. I am so sick of sushi places in DC, a great one I have still yet to find, that is not entirely overpriced. Pair that with a lack of creativity to make up for the high prices, and I yearn for my far less expensive Saica classics like the Spicy Shrimp Roll, Chicken Teriyaki Roll, the most crispy, delectable shrimp tempura roll I have ever had, great tuna and whitefish Nigiri, a super spicy sashimi-rice bowl (hae dup bop), Julia’s favorite rich, goma dressing over a crispy tofu salad, their over-the-top bento box. The list goes on. It’s like Japanese comfort food, and I do miss it.

Read this and other reviews as well as my own recipes at www.autofoodography.com

Hae Dup Bop

Tons of sashimi, vegetables and spicy sauce all over a big mound of sushi rice — for around $10, a super value.

Nigiri

Some thought it was cut a little thick; I always thought it was some of the best cut sashimi I’ve tried.

Deluxe Bento Dinner

So over the top it’s unbelievable. I think they give you: salad, miso, rice, sashimi appetizer, agedashi, edamame, chicken teriyaki, shrimp tempura, california roll, potato pancake, traditional Bento pickles, fruit. And maybe even a few more things. It’s outrageous for 20 bucks.

Shrimp Tempura Roll

Great sauce, super crispy, no annoying tails. Each piece is like a truffle.

Crispy Tofu Salad with Goma Dressing

Huge salad with tons of little nuggets of Tofu Tempura all with a great sesame dressing.

Tekka Don

Beautifully cut and presented in flower-like forms over rice. Probably could afford to give you a little more, as it’s not the cheapest dish.

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Dan & Brad's

 950 N Stafford St
Arlington, VA
 

Restaurant Week - Dan & Brad's

Our Restaurant Week explorations and adventures culminated in an early weekend evening dinner at Dan & Brad’s, the restaurant of the Arlington Hilton in Ballston. It was very quiet for a nice place for dinner on a weekend, but it was just six PM, so I didn’t think too much of it.

For what was lacking in crowds, it made up for in service and ambiance. The look of the place is very homey, with a twisting layout to the dining room, and little private nooks overhanging the lobby below. The decor was English-feeling-Euro and was very sharp. Despite being the only ones there, we were sat in the middle of the most open dining room rather than a private nook for two, and I was admittedly a little disappointed.

Our waitress was very attentive, knowledgeable and elegant, winning me over with the bits of proper French she threw into her descriptions. She started us with some crunchy, warm bread and fresh butter, a simple, rustic pairing that outclassed the bread and butter/oil that the vast majority of places ever offer.

The prix fixe RW menu was very intriguing, but had almost nothing to do with the normal menu. This was a little bit of a letdown, since the menu had seemed filled with unique dishes, but at the typical $35.08 for dinner, offering a selection for three courses, I still couldn’t pass up the RW menu. RW at D&B’s also had the option for an additional flight of three wines (a Cabernet, a Chardonnay and a disgustingly sweet, undrinkable ice wine) for $10. We decided to sample the sampler together and got almost three glasses for the price of 1.

The menu for the first course included a seared ahi tuna with a bean and olive salad, a warm ancho chili-rubbed beef tenderloin and fig salad, an heirloom tomato Carpaccio salad, a crab and corn chowder and a fresh chilled gazpacho. A hard choice, no? Julia chose the tomato Carpaccio, which had a bright, country feeling and tasted extremely tangy and fresh, but it was huge slices of tomatoes — nothing near how I would envision a Carpaccio of tomatoes. It had some nice greens on top and was deliciously dressed with olive vinaigrette and some gorgeous, cool goat cheese, so I still found it to be a very unique salad.

I, on the other hand, was apparently in a very “meaty” mood and ordered the tenderloin salad. It was rightfully far smaller and daintier than the more robust tomatoes, which is a rare feat for a meat dish up against a vegetarian one. However dainty it might have looked though, it didn’t matter. The perfectly medium tenderloin with the ever so slightly sweet sauce of sour cherries and the soft, melt-in-your-mouth figs was a warming and winning combination. It was one of those dishes that is just enough food and goes down so smoothly that you want to kiss the plate after. Yes, that was this dish. You never know when they’re coming, but I refrained from actually kissing the plate.

I had to save the plate-kissing for the entrees. The dinner choices were equally if not more interesting than the salads. There was a pancetta-wrapped beef filet with caramelized onion grits, a loin of lamb with warm Swiss chard and mint-pesto gnocchi, a seared black cod with carrots and fingerling potatoes, an Alaskan salmon with fennel apple slaw, and a sage-pumpkin ravioli. To continue in my unusually “meaty” mood that day, I decided to try the lamb. And I was not disappointed one bit. The meat was perfectly done, with just enough pink in the middle. The taste was just a little peppery and was juicy and tender. I also really enjoyed the presentation, with a few small slices accompanying the rest of the mini loin. It was flanked by some very flavorful and crispy chard with amazingly light gnocchi and pesto on top. I loved how a dish that could seem so heavy was actually quite light. I was thrilled by this dish and would have likely thought about kissing THIS plate, were I not so distracted by the most innovative dish I have seen in some time.

I am speaking, of course, of Julia’s unsettlingly good entree of bright orange pumpkin ravioli, with crispy sage, a brown butter sauce, pumpkin seeds and bittersweet, crunchy chocolate shavings. Was it savory or was it sweet? Quite hard to tell, but the taste blew my mind. The smallest amount of chocolate turned a dish I would never bother ordering (gourd-filled pasta) into a dish I’ll never forget. Simply put, creative innovation and a penchant for sparkling the palette can turn a typical dish into a mouth-watering treasure. I know, since my mouth quite literally watered. I was completely content after these two courses, and barely noticed the pretty good crème brulee I had for dessert.

I was so overwhelmed by the last entrée that I completely forgot to kiss THAT plate either. So instead, on the way out, I kissed the girl who had brought me to this wonderfully elegant and underrated restaurant.

Read this and other reviews and my recipes at www.autofoodography.com

Heirloom Tomato Carpaccio Salad

 

Warm ancho chili-rubbed beef tenderloin and fig salad

 

Loin of lamb with warm Swiss chard and mint-pesto gnocchi at Dan & Brad's

Loin of lamb with warm Swiss chard and mint-pesto gnocchi

 

Sage-pumpkin ravioli with bittersweet chocolate at Dan & Brad's

Sage-pumpkin ravioli with bittersweet chocolate

 

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