Book club brunch at Boqueria

Things have been going relatively well with Larry aka The Beautiful Man (TBM). There was a rocky period after his law school’s barrister’s ball, where I had a business trip, he started his finals prep and I was convinced he was starting to phase me out because we just could not seem to make time to see each other. During this span of three weeks, we just sporadically texted and I spent way too much trying to convince myself that it did not really matter if he did not want to continue seeing me because whatever, this is totally chill and I really did not even like him that much (all lies, by the way). He finally got his head above water enough to have dinner at DBGB one Saturday at the end of April and as soon as I saw him, I immediately reverted back to a giggling prepubescent tween with a schoolgirl crush. We had a fantastic meal consisting of fried burrata, steak tartare, Atlantic cod, and profiteroles (definitely recommend this dessert), followed by drinks at Poste and Denson. Afterwards, he dropped me off at my place before heading home to finish up some papers and I was left wondering if I had been friend-zoned again because of his quick good-bye peck. I did not see him again for another two weeks, this time for a quick patio dinner at Lupo Verde before he went back to his papers. It was another wonderful date with delicious food (fried artichokes, seared scallops, short ribs, an insane amount of charcuterie and cheese, and some kind of nutella-flavored ice cream dessert served in a giant grandma mug) and hilarious stories. I left this date feeling high from the sunshine, bourbon, carbs, and TBM’s smile (I mean, the man literally has perfect teeth). The problem was that the high from each of our dates only lasts for so long. Then it’s followed up by all of this time in between where I think about wanting more from him but also trying to convince myself that I should not even like him that much. We are in the vague space between casual dating, and something more. And there is nothing that screws with my mind quite like waiting. It creates expectations; it builds up fantasies; it puts me on pause, and it just allows too much down time where my mind goes crazy. And I understand a lot of this space and uncertainty can be attributed to his busy school and work schedule. Well, the build up has finally led to the completion of his program, and I am still trying to not get all of my hopes up that things will be different (failing miserably at this) now that he is not balancing work, school, fellowship and various other life factors that are not as important as me (sleeping, eating, breathing, etc). Well, he finally finished up his finals and papers the second weekend of May, and met up with me to celebrate. After a long night of bar hopping all around U street, I passed out hard in his incredibly comfortable bed (of course the perfect man has a perfect bed), and woke up a few hours later still exhausted, with an impressive hangover. TBM dropped me of at my place around 11am, and I desperately needed some sodium and nourishment to take the edge off of my headache. Luckily, I had brunch plans with my “book club” at Boqueria, an NYC implant located in Dupont. After a quick shower, I walked over to the tapas bar with SBS and N where we waited at the bar for the rest of the group to arrive. I had already started sweating during the walk over to 19th street and all I could think in my pounding head was filling my stomach back up. Of course, when you have a group of 12 females getting together on a sunny Saturday morning, you are definitely not going to start the brunch festivities on time. By the time everyone arrived and the Boqueria staff seated us at a long table in the back, I was in rough shape. As everyone put in their drink order, I turned to the waiter and pleaded for him to bring me a serving of bacon, stat. IMG_2853 This was exactly what I needed to slowly bring me back to the land of the living. The thick, salty slices of bacon are cooked until they as crispy as a chip, which is just the way I like it. After munching away on a few slices, I reverted to a functioning, social human being again and rejoined the conversation. We all decided to go with the bottomless food and drink option for $39, and told the waiter to just bring us out all of the brunch dishes in whatever order he saw fit. We started with the Surtido de Tapas, which actually was one of my favorite dishes. Each board consisted of Jamón Serrano, Spanish omelet, olives, and was served with country bread and aioli. The thick squares of creamy Spanish omelet had large, silky chunks of potatoes in it, perfect for dipping into the delicious, garlicky aioli. After polishing off these boards, I ordered another plate of bacon for the table while the main dishes kept rolling out. One of the highlights of the meal was the Albóndigas (lamb meatballs with tomato sauce and sheep’s milk cheese). I love lamb meatballs because I think lamb gives the dish an earthier flavor, and the fresh herbs sprinkled on top add to this effect. The Soldaditos de Pollo, potato chip crusted chicken breast, also hit the spot for me, and reminded me… in a good way…. of chicken nuggets. The Mejillones con Salsa Verde was also enjoyable, and the mussels tasted very fresh while the garlic and white wine broth was light. At this point, my stomach was starting to fill up, but that did not prevent from flagging down the waiter for another plate of bacon. I had mentioned to him at the beginning of the meal that he should just keep bacon coming, but he must have thought I was kidding. I was not. I wanted a bite of bacon after every dish. IMG_2854By the time the Revuelto de Setas de Temporada came out, I was beginning to reach my limit of savory dishes. This soft, creamy scramble of eggs, wild mushrooms, goat cheese, Idiazábal cheese, basil was so fragrant and delicious but I could only manage about a bite and a half. I wish they had brought this out at the beginning, because we were all starting to fade a little and could not enjoy this simple and lovely dish as much as we wished we could have. Out of all the savory dishes, my least favorite dish was the Cocido de Garbanzos, which was a Garbanzo bean cassoulet with chorizo, pork sausage and pancetta, served in a mini cast-iron skillet. The garbanzo beans tasted a little chalky, and the sparse chorizo and pancetta pieces were overly salty. The other brunch dishes were good, and we appreciated the variety. Finally, we moved onto the desserts. First came the Churros con Chocolate Traditional, which were freshly fried churros served with a deacdently thick, hot chocolate dipping sauce. As soon as I saw the chocolate sauce, I knew what I had to do. I ordered yet another plate of bacon from the waiter and dipped it into the sauce. It tasted like perfection. Basically it tasted like TBM in the form of a dessert. IMG_2855   The kitchen was kind enough to also send out a few orders of the Churros Rellenos, which are churros filled with Nutella. Of course, this is right up my alley, and if I had not woken up beside TBM, I would say that this dish would have been the absolutely highlight of my day. These churros are crispy on the outside, and soft and fluffy on the inside. Each bite was oozing with warm hazelnut spread, and sent me into a near orgasmic coma. IMG_2856 The bottomless option is a really good deal, and I was glad we got to sample all of the dishes which are relatively simple, and well-executed. It is a good spot for big groups, and the servers were responsive and attentive, which is fantastic when you are dealing with a dozen, buzzed, starving females. Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I immediately went home and passed out in a hazy food coma for the next few hours before attempting to do an 8 mile in order to burn off about 1/8th of my meal.

Eden Center recommendation: Rice Paper

I love Vietnamese food. I am not biased or anything. I just have great taste, and I know Vietnamese food is the best (slightly kidding here). My favorite spot to hit for great, authentic Viet dishes is Eden Center, in Falls Church, VA.

There are several go-to restaurants in Eden Center: Viet Huong, Hai Duong and now Rice Paper. The food is delicious and inexpensive, and the restaurant is modern and stylish, at least for Eden Center standards. My parents tried Rice Paper when it first opened, and liked it so much they picked it as the lunch spot for the first time they met my then-boyfriend Ben. This extremely white Midwestern boy was so nervous about meeting my parents, and so eager to try all the ethnic food they ordered that he accidentally snapped his chopstick in half while trying to eat his snail appetizer. Rice Paper is also my go-to Eden Center with the fake roomie, A. Our tradition during the warmer months consist of me attempting to do a long run at the ass-crack of drawn (by “ass-crack of dawn,” I just mean before 9am, which is approximately 3.5 hours after dawn), followed by a drive to Eden Center for lunch and bubble tea, and then a grocery shopping session at the nearest international supermarket for things such as fish sauce, quail eggs, kimchi, and dried anchovies.

In terms of my favorite dishes at Rice Paper (which is hard to do, since I have actually never ordered something I did not enjoy scarfing down):

  • I love the quail appetizer (Chim Cút Quay). This is my absolutely favorite dish in all of Eden Center. The roasted quail comes out on a pile of vegetables which has soaked up the meat juices so they just slightly wilted. The quail is so incredibly crispy that I find myself munching away on most of the bones as I devour the plump meat.

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  • My second favorite appetizer is the minced clams (Hến Xúc Bánh Đa) with pork. The baby clams are sauteed with pork, onions and greens, and served with giant pieces of sesame rice crackers. This dish is so satisfyingly salty and goes well with the crispy rice crackers. I like breaking up the rice crackers into chip-sized pieces and dipping it into the warm clams. I should warn you that this dish is definitely on the pungent side from the salty fish sauce, but who’s trying to have a make-out session in the middle of Eden Center anyway?
  • For entrees, I also love any of the numerous soup options (the Hủ Tiếu hoặc Mì Đồ Biển is pictured). The aromatic, steaming bowls of broth are filled with meat, and their perfectly cooked noodles always satisfy me. I like to dump all of the vegetables and greens (bean sprouts, lettuce, mint, basil) into the broth and let it sit for a few minutes while everything cooks.

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  • Now my favorite entree is the Beef Wrapped in Grape Leaves (Bánh Hỏi Bò Nướng Lá Nho). The marinated ground pork is wrapped in grape leaves and charbroiled, then served with Banh Hoi, which are thin white noodles that are squeezed through tiny holes of a metal tool and steamed until they are springy/bouncy and soft. The combination is perfect: I like wrapping up half of a beef roll up with some banh hoi, along with mint leaves and lettuce in the provided rice paper. That way, I get a little bit of everything in each bite, and the oil from the meat and grape leaves covers the banh hoi, adding flavor to every piece of food going into my mouth.

I haven’t even mentioned the Nem Nướng, Banh Xeo, or Chạo Tôm, or any of the other handful of menu items that I have enjoyed here. The best thing to do is just gather up a group of friends, head here after 1pm on a weekend and order as many things as you are in the mood for. Follow this up with some bubble tea next door, and some banh mi’s for your breakfast/lunch/dinner the following day(s). and you are SET!

 

Favorite neighborhood bar: SpiritsBar at Rogue 24

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Rogue 24 opened back in 2011, before Blagden Alley become so trendy, before every chef announced they would be opening up a restaurant in Shaw, before the laundromat across the street from my building was on the verge of collapse. For the first few years after it opened,  despite its great reviews and incredibly close proximity to my apartment (it is literally a block away), I did not even think about trying it. I’m not quite sure it was not even on my radar. Perhaps it was because the owner/chef, RJ Cooper, does not have the most positive reputation. Perhaps because they were actually making people sign contracts before eating a meal there at first. Then last spring, my (real) roommate took me there for my birthday after realizing I still had never been. It was awesome! We sat in the SpiritsBar, the four seat bar in the far end of the dining room, where the wonderfully talented (and good looking) “chef-tender” Bryan Tetorakis prepared us some small plates from the bar menu and a few drinks. One of those drinks was a Boulavardier, which is a Negroni with bourbon. This drink basically changed my life. It honestly was the best drink I have ever had (which is probably not a hard title to come by since I spent college drinking rail vodka out of plastic bottles). My first experience at Rogue 24 there was so wonderful that I made it my go-to neighborhood spot with my then-boyfriend. It is the perfect place to pop-in for a great cocktail (probably a boulavardier) before a night out, and also the best place to end an early night (also probably with a boulavardier). It got to the point where Bryan eventually refused to make me boulavardiers anymore, telling me that he worked too hard on the cocktail menu for me to be such a one-note drinker. Of course, every drink I have ordered from him since then has been spectacular as well.

Recently, Bryan announced that he would be moving to San Diego in mid-May, so my roommate decided we had to go back for one last round of Boulavardiers. On the day of our roomie date, I could feel myself coming down with a cold, but told myself that alcohol probably just kills the germs causing my sore throat, right? The bar was booked up for the evening, so we sat in the front lounge area where the couches are incredibly comfortable, and I find myself accidentally molesting these giant white fluffy pillows. We both got boulavardiers to start, and they were just as good as the first time Bryan made me one. The drink is just so simple and delicious, slightly woodsy, a little syrupy, perfect for slow sipping. My second drink was slightly more tropical: bourbon, coconut and ginger beer. I sipped on this until I realized my blinks were getting longer and longer, and I was sinking deeper and deeper into the couch. I told my roommate I would have to bow out, and went to meet Stephan at my apartment where I made him massage my scalp while I continuously blew my nose, because my foreplay game is tight like that.

Hopefully, Bryan’s replacement will be just as accomodating and patient with me. Good thing so few people read this blog, because with just four seats at the back bar… I’m hoping this little secret neighborhood stays that way.

Maketto: three years in the making

Some people come into your life and you just never want them to leave. My ex-boyfriend, Ben, is one of those people. Four years ago, I went on a horrible first date to Churchkey, and was instantly smitten by a green-eyed, blonde guy working at the bar. I ended up leaving the awful date, and spent the rest of the night bar hopping down 14th street with this man instead, which then led to a two and a half year relationship. It is a great “how we met story”, but in reality we were completely incompatible for each other, and fought for the majority of the relationship. When we finally broke up, we both realized that it had been a very long time coming. And of course, we did not stay very involved in each other’s lives once I started dating someone else a few months later. But this does not mean that I do not appreciate his love for me, or that I do not still feel a connection with him. After my ex-bf and I broke up, Ben and I occasionally checked up on each other, and my feelings for him transitioned to a strange form of a brotherly affection. Recently, he found out he is not doing so well, health-wise, and so we have started spending a lot more time together as we try to get his mind off of this strange new reality. Last week, between two of his treatments, we made plans to get dinner and I had Maketto all over my mind.

One of the most anticipated openings this year has been Maketto, a mixed-use spot from Toki Underground’s Eric Bruner-Yang, Durkl’s Will Sharp, and Vigilante Coffee’s Chris Vigilante. Actually, Maketto has been on the “Most Anticipated Openings of the Year” lists every single year since 2013. The H Street restaurant/cafe/Durkl retailer finally opened at the beginning of April, and I instantly put it on my personal list of places I need to make it to ASAP. The Washington Post then published a wonderful review the day of my scheduled dinner with Ben, which pumped me up even more.

Ben and I got to Maketto around 6:45pm, and found it relatively empty. In terms of first impressions, we found the space absolutely beautiful and incredibly unique. Stepping inside Maketto made me feel as though I was leaving DC and walking into a downtown LA spot. The first part is the retail space (selling Durkl shoes in a giant display case), followed by the downstairs bar, where we were greeted by a host. The host was definitely a bit odd, and he only got odder after he asked what we would like. We explained that we wanted to sit down for dinner, and he warned us that the outdoor patio had been reserved for a private party. I then asked if we could still order dinner, and he said yes. It literally took us to five minutes to figure out where we were going to sit, since the host did not seem to understand and left us standing awkwardly holding menus in the middle of the bar with no real explanation. Eventually, we found our way to some bar stools near the open kitchen after wandering through the beautiful outdoor patio between the bar and kitchen.

We decided to order three appetizers (the Pork Steam Bao, Khmer Tamarind Salad, and Pickled Vegetables), but were torn between the Taiwanese Fried Chicken and the American Wagyu Bao Platter for our shared entree. We decided to ask our waitress for help, but when we asked for her recommendation, she robotically went into an explanation of how the menu works (“On this side you have small plates. Then there is the family style options..”). Ben responded, “Yes, we understand that. Do you recommend the Wagyu bao platter or the fried chicken to share?” She then started at us awkwardly for an additional five seconds (which felt like an hour) and replied, “I dunno. I guess they are both good. I’ll give you guys more time to decide,” before spinning around and walking away. Ben and I just looked at each other, dumbfounded after she so quickly disappeared. As someone who has been in the DC bar/service industry for seven years, Ben was totally confused. Had the staff just not been trained, or did Maketto just want to hire the least helpful staff possible? Did the staff just not know anything about the menu? Or had we totally offended this waitress for some unknown reason? We decided to just go with the Wagyu Bao Platter (I love all forms of bao) and placed our orders with significantly less trouble once she returned.

The first dish to arrive was the Pork Steam Bao. I love the steamed buns at Toki, and these buns did not disappoint me. I hate when the buns are overly chewy or thick, but these slightly sweet buns are very thin, and contain incredibly tender and flavorful shredded pork inside. Of course, I slathered the tangy Hoisin sauce all over each bite.

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Next up came the Pickled Vegetables, which were so unmemorable I did not even think about snapping a picture. Really, though, it was just a plain plate of pickled vegetables (which I considered overpriced for $6). The Khmer Tamarind Salad arrived shortly after, and was similarly unremarkable. The salad looked bright and beautiful, with fresh lettuce, pea shoots and watercress flowers but just tasted like a something from a Whole Foods salad bar. I could not actually taste any tamarind in the dish. Perhaps it was in the dressing, which was light and citrusy.

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Ben and I were disappointed with the two vegetable appetizers so we were really looking forward to our final dish. Our giant platter arrived with a generous amount of American Wagyu steak slices, five bao buns and traditional accompaniments which included chopped cabbage, greens, and more pickled vegetables.

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We then built our own buns by sliding the tender meat into the clam-shaped steamed bao. I love the combination of the slightly sweet, pillowy bao combined with the rich, salty meat and the crunchy vegetables. While I was a fan of the fluffy bao buns, Ben did not like it as much and just ate the meat with the vegetables and fried onions. shredded cabbage. The meat was extremely tender, and the crunchy fried onions made each bite satisfyingly salty.

Our meal was good, but not outstanding. Perhaps I had just overhyped Maketto in my mind. While the two bun dishes were decent, I would not go out of my way (and H street NE is usually out of the way) to make it back to Maketto. One of the things that really stood out to me is the actual space: the set up is the most unique set up in DC. Perhaps if I lived on H street I would make a point to return for coffee. But living in Shaw, I would hesitate to return to Maketto for a meal, unless they consisted solely of the bao buns.

Detox fail: Peter Chang Arlington

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After I got back from NYC, I decided I needed to get into detox mode, stat. After over two days of indulgent eating, my body definitely needed a break from carbs and sugar. I was off to a good start the following Monday. However, my detox had to take a break on Tuesday evening for our cousins’ gathering in Arlington. As I have mentioned before, my family shares an intense love for eating good food. Every few months, my cousins and I get together for a meal and to scare the waitstaff of a local restaurant. This time, we decided to go with the recently opened Peter Chang Arlington.

A former Chinese Embassy chef, Peter Chang has amassed a cult-like following wherever he goes. As the NYT profile stated, “devotees will travel hundreds of miles on a rumor that he may be cooking in some far-off town.” I had never actually been to any of his restaurants, but was excited when I first heard rumors that he was considering a Northern Virginia location. I was not the only one: the opening of his first DC-area spot was eagerly anticipated and within a day of the Washington Post article announcing the news, the Peter Chang Arlington restaurant crashed from all of the traffic. Once opened, people reported extremely long waits during the first few weeks. Because the buzz has decreased slightly since then, I did not have a difficult time making a reservation two weeks ahead of time for our group.

The 8 of us, including my cousin Ivy who was in town from Barcelona, arrived hungry and ready for serious business. Everyone was prepared, having read reviews (both the food critic and yelp kind), and offered suggestions of what to order. Of course we had to get the famous Scallion Bubble Pancakes. My cousin Cynthia, who is one of those people that has driven hours to eat at one of his spots, insisted that they were so delicious we needed to order one pancake for each person, so we put in four orders. They came out of the kitchen freshly fried, with a cilantro curry dipping sauce. These giant air-filled puffs (literally huge bubbles) were even more delicious than expected, and we tore into them quickly. So much for taking a break for carbs. In the words of Regina George, “I’m on an all carb-diet!”

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Next up was the Beef Tendon and Tripe in Szechuan Sauce. I actually do not like tendon that much in general, but love it when it is prepared Szechuan style. This did not disappoint, and ended up being my favorite appetizer of the night. As soon as we each got a spoonful of this, we agreed that we needed more for the table and flagged down a waiter for another order. The spicy sauce with soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil was insanely good. I wanted to pour it straight down my throat. The thinly sliced beef tendon was soft, gelatinous, and the perfect amount of chewy.

We also ordered the pan-fried sesame pancake, which was slightly bland but crispy. I dipped my piece into the left-over chili oil from the beef tendon, which was an excellent combination. I actually wanted to drip the oil from the beef tendon over everything on my plate, and we joked about refilling our tea glasses with this oil instead of actual drinks. I probably could have guzzled a few cups of this, but my cholesterol would probably suffer some harsh consequences.

My other favorite appetizer was the dry-fried eggplant, topped with cilantro, chiles and cumin. This is unlike anything I have ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant. The lightly battered slices of eggplant tastes so sweet and creamy on the inside while the outside is crusty like the perfect French fry. This was also so quickly devoured by our table that we put in an additional order. I did not hesitate to dunk a few in the beef tendon chili oil. The word “detox” was a distant memory as my throat was coated in beef grease and fried vegetables.

From here, we moved onto our entrees. The Double-Cooked Szechuan Pork Belly was my favorite entree. The pork is first steamed, and then pan-fried with leeks and cabbage. This salty, rich dish of tender pork and soft spicy greens. Double cooking the pork belly meant that the fat was rendered, while the outside of each piece was slightly charred and crispy. The pork soaked up the flavors of the black bean sauce, and tasted slightly sweet and spicy. The Stir-Fried Shredded Duck in Szechuan chili powder, with celery, bell peppers and onions was also a solidly good dish. The duck was not too fatty, well seasoned, and the crunchy vegetables picked up the deep smokey flavor of the meat. It was a nice change from the tea-smoked duck that I find myself ordering at Chinese restaurants. We agreed that we needed at least one vegetable, and went with the Wood Ear Mushrooms & Snowpeas. The stir-fried vegetables were good with an interesting texture, but unmemorable. The Cumin Lamb Chops were generously coated in a spice rub that was earthy and slightly bitter, and the meat was tender. While I liked this dish, I think I actually prefer cumin lamb when it is prepared by being cubed and stir-fried with vegetables.

As we worked our way through the piles of food over the next two hours, we caught up on each other’s busy lives. My cousin Cynthia is the first among us to become a parent, and she shared hilarious stories about balancing motherhood with her incredibly successful career and her “hobby” of flipping homes (seriously? I don’t have any children, just balance one job and my current “hobby” is watching Netflix). I always love finding great eating companions, and the fact that these people are family makes every meal even better.

Overall, this spot is the real deal. Despite all the commotion over Peter Chang, I do not consider his restaurant over-hyped. Another pro: this is an extremely budget-friendly spot for big groups. We ordered plenty of food, covered my cousin’s fiance’s dinner (for his birthday) and only paid $24 per person. The menu was over seven pages long, and we made a very small dent in it, so I will just have to make a point of returning here (this is the closest location to me) to explore more of Peter Chang’s cooking.