Thip Khao: a lot of heat for a Friday night

It was a beautiful Friday night in the District, and I was at my friend/ex bf’s place on 14th street when we realized we truly had a #firstworldproblem. We were hungry, it was time for dinner, but it seemed like every good restaurant within walking distance would probably have a wait because our neighborhoods are just too damn popular. Room 11 is the only place on 11th in Columbia Heights Ben was willing to eat at but we knew there would be a wait, going south on 14th street during the weekend just means battling crowds of yuppies, and we were not in the mood for cheap Mexican food in Mount Pleasant. Then I remembered Thip Khao! This Laotioan restaurant opened at the end of last year on the first floor of the Allegro apartment building in Columbia Heights, and is Chef Seng Luangrath’s second restaurant in the DMV. While I had yet to visit either spot, my parents have consistently praised Bangkok Golden in Falls Church, and Bon Appetit just named Thip Khao one of the best new restaurants of 2015. The Washington City Paper had a wonderful write-up explaining Chef Seng’s background and I have been excited to have another authentic Southeast Asian restaurant in my city!

When we arrived around 8:30pm, it was crowded and the hostess let us know it would be about a 45 minute for a table for two. We decided to hang out at the bar while we waited, and it gave me a few minutes to look around and appreciate the warm atmosphere and beautiful decor. About 10 minutes later, a couple got up from the corner of the bar so we quickly snagged those seats. Once we sat down, we took a look at the menu, which is separated into a regular menu and a traditional Lao menu titled “Let’s Go to the Jungle!!” I suppose “traditional” also could mean “exotic” since alligator, snakehead fish, and blood sausage were some of the listed ingredients, but the word “exotic” just always reminds of some weird compliment a white guy tries to give Asian girls without realizing he’s being racist (wow, Tinder has really made me cynical).

To start, we ordered the raved-about the crispy rice salad (Naem Khao), which A (fake roomie) has insisted I have to try, as well as every single restaurant review I have read. This appetizer came out quickly (or as Tom Sietsema says, “speed date fast”), and served with fresh, crispy lettuce leaves to make wraps. The crunchy rice, pickled pork ham and peanuts were flavored with coconut, lime scallions, hot peppers, and cilantro, Ben’s worst enemy. After two and a half years of dating, I have realized that just the sight of these green leaves is enough to change my hilarious friend into a whiny, pouty man-child. However, he did not seem to mind the cilantro here, since the other ingredients have such powerful flavors. This dish was perfect mix of sweet, slightly sour (from the ham), and savory. The crunchy texture of the rice and peanuts was amazing.

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For our main courses, I had my heart set on the Laab Pah Kaw (minced crispy snakehead fish), but the bartender let me know they were completely out of snakehead fish. Now it was my turn to turn into a pouty child, but then I saw that they had a crispy minced alligator dish (Laab E’Kae) listed on the “Let’s Go to the Jungle!!” menu. We also ordered the Muu Som, a braised cured pork belly dish. These two entrees arrived with balls of sticky rice, delivered to the table in adorable bamboo baskets. It was not until I was googling about Lao food that I realized the restaurant is named after these baskets. From the Thip Khao website:

“Sticky rice is an integral part of daily life in Laos.  One batch is steamed in the morning and another at night, typically, is eaten intermittently as  snacked upon or used in accompanying meals throughout the day. After sticky rice is cooked, it’s placed on a flat surface and a wooden paddle is used to press the steam out. Then, it is placed in a large woven bamboo basket called a “thip khao.” The thip khao is regarded as a communal vessel. Family and guests are welcome to remove its lid,and help themselves. In Lao culture sticky rice is the staple to every meal that complements the main dishes. In order to eat the sticky rice, traditionally you form it into a ball, and pair that with a bite from the other dishes.”

The laab e’kae was extremely spicy, the kind of make-you-sweat, deep heat. Ben, due to his health issues, cannot no longer stomach super spicy food, and I felt bad that he could only handle a couple of bites of this dish because this was my absolutely favorite thing that we ordered that evening. The salty meat, green mango, toasted rice, mint made every bite bursting with sensational flavors. Luckily, Ben loved the pork belly, which was cooked with red bell peppers, shimeji mushrooms, onions, ginger and kaffir lime leaves. The meat was a little too fatty for my taste, but I loved the sauce and the vegetables. Of course, our dishes was eaten with the slightly sweet sticky rice. What I loved about the food here is the intensity of the flavors. I can clearly taste the pungency, the heat, the sweetness, the saltiness of every single bite. The boldness in the cooking here is the kind of cooking that hits your senses, wakes up your taste buds and makes you sit up a little straighter.

To cool down after our amazing meal, we decided to skip out on the traditional Lao desserts and opted for frozen yogurt on our walk back down 14th street instead. Understandably, I definitely had a small stomachache by the time I got back to my apartment, but that has not deterred me from declaring that I absolutely have to return to Thip Khao to make my way through more of their incredible “exotic” dishes.

 

A rainy Monday at Lupo Verde

In college, I quit the University’s cross country and track team my sophomore year. Then I went and joined a sorority, which horrified my parents who could not believe their hard-working first generation Asian-American daughter would now be a sorority girl. In their minds, it was almost the equivalent of dropping out of college and becoming one of those women selling their bodies on K street at 6am (note: these are very friendly ladies who wave to me during my morning runs now). Shockingly, I managed to make it through three years of Greek life just fine, and left with a group of the most wonderful friends. One of these friends is my incredible big sister, Kerry. She is one of the sweetest, kindest and smartest people I have ever encountered, and I sincerely hope she is a friend I will be privileged enough to have throughout my whole life. After living in Arlington for years, then heading to North Carolina for business school, Kerry and her boyfriend finally moved to the District over the summer which has just made my life 100x better. For her 29th birthday, since her boyfriend was going to be out of town for work, her sister and I decided to take her out to dinner.

I suggested Lupo Verde, a Southern Italian restaurant located on 14th street that neither Kerry nor Kristine had tried yet. I first tried Lupo Verde when it opened last year, and while I thought it was decent, did not find it memorable enough to compete with the other Italian restaurants on 14th (Etto, Ghibellina). But when I returned in May with TBM for dinner on their outdoor patio, we both thought the meal was fantastic. I was excited to go back and see if it lived up to the high standards set by my second dinner there.

It ended up being a slightly cold (first one of the fall), rainy Monday evening, perfect for a night of wine and comforting carbs. I arrived before Kerry and her sister, so I sat at the bar and ordered a Lupo Alberto (rye, fennel liquer, fennel bitters, tonic). It was a light whiskey drink, slightly watery but easy to go down. While reading yelp reviews earlier that day, I laughed because several people specifically made a point of mentioning the hot bartenders. Ruth C said, “The bartender was so fine that I blushed and nearly tripped over a barstool, so it’s a good thing we opted to dine on the patio where I could retain some semblance of wit.” Kimberly S noted in her review, “There have been whisperings that Lupo Verde is home to the hottest bartenders in town. Being the skeptic I am, I had to check it out for myself and I would like to happily report that yes,the barkeeps here do look like they all walked out of a Ferrari ad.” First of all, “whisperings?” Who is whispering? What else are they whispering about??? I want in on the DC whispers! Is there a newsletter I can sign up for? Second, this was now my third time to Lupo Verde, and while I have no complaints about the bar staff, I either have different taste than the whisperers, or I have not been lucky enough to be in the presence of these “hottest bartenders in town.” I failed to trip over any barstools, and this is coming from the most uncoordinated, graceless runner you will ever encounter.

The birthday girl and sister got there a few minutes later, and the hostess seated us at a communal table by the front of the restaurant. While I do like the cozy atmosphere of Lupo Verde, I need to remember that in the future I should note or request a non-communal table because they are pretty small and it can feel extremely tight if you end up at a table with a couple trying to make it a romantic evening. This time we were lucky enough to be at a table with two other women who ended their meal shortly after we sat down.

Our wonderful (and authentically Italian) server started us off with the incredible focaccia bread, which we dipped into their smooth olive oil. We decided to get a meat and cheese board, and left it up to our waiter to put together our selection of two cheeses and one meat. I love the selection here, which is not surprising since the restaurant has its own cheese shop on the first floor. The presentation of the platter is incredible. These trays are labeled (greatly appreciated), and served with fresh figs, apricots, grapes, nuts, thick slices of bread and crispy bread sticks. Jam and honey are included, and it is easy to go crazy before your first appetizer even arrives.

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I always get the Carciofi alla Giudea as an appetizer, and after pushing my rave reviews on Kerry and Kristine, this time was no different. These artichokes are fried to perfection, and served with a tangy green sauce that tastes faintly like anchovies (so I am obviously a fan). The crispy vegetables and the tart sauce are a great combination. We also ordered the Capasante Scottate. The seared scallops were perfectly cooked, and the artichoke cream sauce was brightened by the lemon zest.

We were starting to fill up after these dishes, but I was looking forward to our two shared entrees, especially the Agnello Stufato Non Stufato. As soon as I saw that they had pulled seared lamb, my heart fluttered. Kerry and Kristine were also eager to try this dish, and luckily it did not disappoint. The lamb was so incredibly tender, and fell apart as soon as the fork pierced it. The white asparagus was sliced so that it resembled al dente noodles and the grilled, slightly smokey, cherry tomatoes seemed impossibly plump and juicy. We also ordered the Orichiette (small round pasta) dish, which included their housemade pasta, along with housemade sausage, tomatoes and Barilotto di Bufala (buffalo milk ricotta). The hearty pasta dish was rich, warm, flavorful (although my heart was definitely rolling around the plate with the seared lamb). We all agreed that every thing we had ordered was a hit.

Our friendly and knowledgeable waiter returned to our table with a beautiful tiramisu, topped with a candle for Kerry. It was an incredibly thoughtful touch, and even though we were stuffed, we dug into the creamy and delicious dessert. This definitely was a perfectly sweet note to end a fantastic birthday dinner. Such a wonderful friend deserves to be celebrated, and I’m glad we picked Lupo Verde for such an impressive meal.

 

Finally, first date at Ghibellina

Right after TBM and I ended things, I was at El Rey with some friends, pretending to be interested in women’s soccer, when I saw an old acquintance of mine who had recently moved to NYC, out of the corner of my eye. Z, who went to law school with my ex-bf, came over to say hello to our group and as we chatted, I saw that he was sitting with a tall, stunning guy who I had met briefly during a party over a year ago. We both were in relationships at the time, and had bonded over our respective partners being in law school (and actually in the same classes). He happened to be sitting without his equally stunning blonde girlfriend, so I asked Z where the other half of the gorgeous couple was. Z turned to me, and then said those magic words that make you feel both happy and guilty for being happy at the same time: “They broke up.”

There is a small part of me that wanted to break into a song and dance because that meant this foiiiiine man was on the market, but of course did not want to seem smug so had to make some fake cooing noise and respond with an insincere, “awwwwww that is so sad.” I jokingly (except by jokingly I mean, totally seriously) told Z to set us up, but Z just said, “he does not really go for non-blondes.” Well, dagger. Straight to the point, Z. After this get shut down quicker than a girl at a gay gym, I munched on a couple (okay so a platter. I ate a frickin platter of nachos) of chips, I decided I could not fake my interest in soccer for much longer and headed home. I pretty much forgot about that encounter until over a month later when I ran into the supposedly blonde-obsessed stud at my friend’s pool party in mid-August. I thought it was a little strange when we seem to hit it off and my spider sense was telling me that there was a hint of chemistry between us. Then, my jaw hit the floor when Daniel (had to stop just referring to him as “the stud” at some point) asked me, “So Z told me that you started seeing Shay… how long have you guys been dating?”

Excuse me? EXCUSE ME? I had to quickly correct him and let him know that I have never dated Shay, or have ever considered dating Shay, we are obviously just friends and that I am single. I put as much emphasis on the word “single” as I could without actually screaming. What a little dick, Z. He’s like the bad guy everyone roots against in some rom com, darting in and out and trying to mess up what is clearly the beginning of a magical moment between this tall, tanned, stud (yeah he’s so hot I just had to go back to referring to him as “stud” instead of by his actual name) and me. I guess I managed to fully establish my single status, and we exchanged numbers before I headed home. Take that, Z.

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After a couple of chatty texts during the following week, I eagerly waited for Daniel to ask me out. You know what I am talking about. I would jump every time my phone buzzed and frantically try to get my thumbprint correct on the first try so I would be able to see the text ASAP. So I was very confused when he kind of asked me out…. but not really:

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He did not bother to follow up about hanging out once I said I would be out of town, and I was perplexed by his refusal to schedule anything during the work week. I assumed this half-hearted attempt to go on a date just meant he was not that enthusiastic about spending time together and I let the idea of “the stud & me” (great name for a rom com right? Z would obviously play the role of the villain) go.

Until.

Until.

Until the second weekend of September when he invited me to his birthday party. I figured I had nothing to lose, and convinced my wonderful friend Allie to be my wingwoman on that Friday evening. After a couple glasses of wine, I told her we would just pop in to say hi and then could rejoin our other friends at another bar on 14th street. When we arrived, Daniel enthusiastically greeted us and threw his arms around me, but I could tell he was dahhh-runk. He disappeared from the roof into the dark dance floor a few minutes later, and Allie told me not to hope for too much attention on someone’s birthday. I agreed, and decided not to put too much pressure on this situation, especially when he had yet to really express interest in hanging out one-on-one. So I told Allie we could meet up with our other friends and popped inside to say good-bye and wish him a happy birthday. The next couple of minutes were definitely not what I was expecting: he pulled me into him and kissed me. And maybe it was because the pitch-black, crowded floor made me feel like some carefree 22 year old, or because this was the last thing I was anticipating, or because he is….. just….. so….. damn…. fine, but I went with it and there we were, just two kids making out on the dance floor while Demi Lovato played in the background. I finally pulled away, and he looked down at me, smiled and said, “So dinner next weekend?” I knew it wasn’t my birthday, but I certainly felt like celebrating in that moment.

The next day, I knew I should not get my hopes too high because well, I once was a 22 year old making out on dance floors and I remembered that the chance of a post-make-out-follow-up is slim. Also, the chances of him actually recalling the make out could also be slim. And then there’s also the fact that our favorite rom com antagonist had to make a reappearance with the following texts:

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But then, against all drunken make-out odds, the stud’s name appeared on my phone the following day:

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He suggested having dinner at Ghibellina the following Sunday. That also happened to be the day of my second half marathon, and I had already made plans with a group of my girlfriends for brunch, but I did not want to spook him (what if he just never asks me out again????), and agreed to dinner. After an especially boozy, indulgent bottomless brunch and some more hydration (errrr, okay, wine) at El Centro, I made my way home, re-showered, re-applied my make-up, and told myself that I needed to seriously calm down. The combination of exhaustion from the half marathon, my buzz from the afternoon of drinks, and the added of anticipation of actually, finally going on a date with someone you have been crushing on for a month made me a complete nervous mess. It had been awhile since I was this anxious before a date.

Daniel was already sitting at the bar when I arrived, looking absolutely delectable in a long-sleeve, plaid button up and fitted jeans. I ordered a manhattan, and we chatted for a little bit before the hostess seated us, which helped calm down my nerves a little. While I have been to Ghibellina for many pizza happy hours and a couple of brunches, I have never been for a sit-down dinner, and I took a moment to appreciate the warm, cozy dining room and the perfect date lighting (uh, this just means it was pretty dark and I did not feel self-conscious). As we perused the menu, he suggested splitting a starter, which I am always down for since I love sharing food. I asked him if he had any food preferences, and he then told me something that made me pause. He said, “I don’t eat red meat, or pork.” Oh shit. Then he followed that statement up with, “And I try not to eat cheese.” Oh god. This was serious stuff he had just shared, serious stuff that required a lot of processing. And this is coming from me, someone whose last two boyfriends let me know about previous marriages, and I still kept dating them. This coming from me, someone who once had a boyfriend reveal to her he had owed a quarter million dollars in debt. I also kept dating that dude. But here I have a man who eats no red meat? No cheese? I looked down at the menu and sadly realized we would not be sharing the burrata.

He suggested the Insalata Di Farro, a farro salad with roasted beets, shaved fennel, hazelnuts and ricotta (apparently just a sprinkling of cheese is okay in his book). He went with the brick chicken, and while I had originally debated ordering the lamb chops, I decided I did not want him to be staring at me tearing away at some baby sheep, so I went with that evening’s special, seared tuna over white cannellini beans. The farro salad actually turned out to be delicious, despite its major flaw: that it was not a giant ball of burrata. The roasted beets and hazelnuts added some sweetness while the sherry vinegar dressing balanced everything out by adding some tangy acidity.

After a bottomless brunch, I was feeling slightly full after our shared app, but the tuna arrived in front of me and looked stunning. It was perfect seared the way I like it: very rare. I could cut into the sweet, tender meat with a butter knife and knew I would be powering through my fullness because this was a dish that was worth it. Daniel enjoyed his non-redmeat, cheese-free dish, guilt-free dish as we continued to talk, and I of course had to ask him about his break-up. He had dated his ex for four years, moving to the east coast when she transferred to GWU, and living with her and their dog for the last three of those years. That is some heavy stuff, especially when you consider that they just broke up in the spring, and I know he went to go visit her in San Francisco just eight weeks before our first date (thanks open social media accounts!). I’m not actually sure if he’s ready to be dating again, or even interested in really dating again, but that is not my decision to make so I am fine just seeing where it goes and how he feels.

For dessert, Daniel dropped another bomb on me: he does not like ice cream. I tried not to act offended when he told me, since there’s no real reason why disliking ice cream hurts me personally, but I was just in shock. Luckily, he voiced no dislike for hazelnut or chocolate, so we got a hazelnut chocolate cake. It was a little on the dry side, which was a blessing in disguise since I could easily resist eating more than two bites. Afterwards, Daniel asked if we could walk me home, and I invited him upstairs to the rooftop for drinks (water). We hung out for a little bit more but the race and the day drinking finally caught up to me and I struggled to stay engaged. I’m still not sure how much we have in common, or if he’s actually interested in me, or if I could ever spent significant time with someone who does not salivate at the idea of steak frites or bathing in gelato… but maybe that does not matter that much when the guy looks so. damn. good.

Post-half marathon rehydration at Agora

 

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My second half marathon was, as expected, extremely painful. But it was over before 9am, and after a long bubble bath, quick nap, and two thick slices of my (real) roommate’s homemade sourdough bread, I was ready for Sunday Funday. My friend Lisa was in town from Chicago, and we made plans for a big girls’ brunch at Agora.

Agora is located on 17th street by Dupont, and offers a brunch consisting of Mediterranean mezze plates. They have a bottomless brunch option for $32.99, which includes all-you-can-drink bloodies, mimosas and champagne. After 13 painful miles of running, there was nothing I wanted to do more than get a little buzzed with six of my most wonderful girlfriends. We were seated upstairs, and after taking our drink orders, the server brought out all of the spreads, plus piping hot, fluffy pita bread for us to start with.

I began my rehydration process with a bloody mary, but it was a little too heavy on the Old Bay and slightly more watery than I usually prefer, so I switched to straight champagne after one. Out of the spreads, the hummus was my least favorite (too oily), and the baba ghanouj was my favorite. We ordered two orders of each of the flatbreads next, along with the bacon. The sujuklu pide, with the Turkish sausage and pesto, was good .

For my main dish, I went with the Pastrima eggs benedict, which had cured beef loin instead of the Canadian bacon found in traditional eggs benefit. The eggs were perfectly runny and overall it was a pretty good dish, although I left the english muffins untouched to get more food into my belly. Instead, for my carbs, I inhaled the grilled cheese, which was served with a big bowl of tomato soup. I loved this dish, which was came out crunchy, with a generous spread of Swiss cheese between the slices of sourdough bread (no one wants a poor cheese to bread ratio).

Although the food service was off to a slow start because there was only one waitress for the entire upstairs dining room, there was server who specifically focused just on refilling drinks so we literally never did get to the bottom of our glasses. So my thoughts on the later half of the meal is definitely influenced by alcohol. I took a few bites of Lisa’s dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, tomatoes, parsley) but they were slightly too salty for my taste. Since I figured I needed some form of vegetables, I finished the food portion of brunch with the arugula salad and beet & orange salad. Even though my stomach was definitely hitting its limit, the beet & orange salad was the best dish of the meal so I do not regret trying to squeeze a few more bites of food into my mouth.

We spent the rest of our two hours at Agora drinking champagne and laughing hysterically over the most cringe-worthy stories. It was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon when your body is total pain, but your stomach hurts from laughing so much. I have give shout-out to my group of wonderful female friends. Having a supportive and wonderful group of girlfriends who have similar values to you is the most important thing a woman can find in this fucked up world. The feeling of comfort with my girlfriends who truly want the best for each other makes all the difference. With this group, time always seems to fly impossibly fast and suddenly hours have passed but there was nothing else I would have rather been doing.

In the [edited] words of Jay-Z, “All I need in in this life of sin, is me and my girlfriend[s].”

Taco Bar work day craving

The week between the two half marathons earlier this month was rough. Well, rough in a #firstworldproblem kind of way. My body was sore, but I was still trying to push myself to go on a few runs to maintain my stamina, I could not seem to get a good night of sleep because my joins ached every time I turned over in my bed, and despite having a crazy load of work, I had scheduled something every night of the week.

By Thursday, I was feeling pretty worn out but had my first Bumble (the dating app where females have to initiate contact with males first) date that evening so I knew it would be awhile before I was reunited with my bed and comforter. I decided that I needed Taco Bar to get me through the afternoon. Taco Bar is the little taco/mexican spot located in a gas station outside of the Washingtonian shopping center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Since my office is located in the heart of surburbia, I don’t get the food truck options and power lunch spots that all of my friends working in DC have. So I usually pack my lunch and eat a sad desk meal around noon. But occasionally, when I have the time or I need something different than my usual stir-fried vegetables and tofu, I make the drive to the raved-about Taco Bar for lunch. While they offer quesadillas, burritos, and taquitos, I have actually only ordered the tacos. But they are just so satisfying that I have not been tempted to eat anything else, plus the toppings bar for these tacos is so incredible.

I drove over to the gas station during my lunch break and ordered 1 taco de suadero (grilled rib meat) and 1 taco de pastor (pork marinated with pineapple), then went over to the taco bar and completely loaded up on the pico de gallo, pickled onions, raw onions, and hot green salsa. When I say load up, I mean I completely pile on these toppings until I can barely see the meat underneath all of the vegetables. My goal is to just make a taco salad out of everything.

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When I got back to the office, I removed the tortillas and mixed everything together. The generous servings of both meats, the light and bright toppings made an incredibly juicy and flavorful combination that both filled me but also did not make me feel heavy or gross despite the massive quantity of food in my stomach. It was the perfect thing to get me through the day and to the evening date.

Half marathon recovery binge

Sometimes, I can be a bit of a space cadet. About eight months ago, I signed up for the Navy Air Force Half Marathon on 9/20 and then promptly forgot about it since fall seemed like a whole other world away. A few months later, I decided fall would be a great time for a half marathon and signed up for the Parks Half Marathon for 9/13. After telling my mother about this, she seemed a little confused and asked me, “So are you not doing the other half marathon a week later?” Well shit. Looks like I just will just be running two half marathons in the span of a week.

Unfortunately, my running prep went a little awry when I fell during a long run in August and skinned a large part of my left knee. I could not even sleep for the first week after my tumble because my entire leg hurt, and running was definitely a little tough for the next couple of weeks. So by the time the first half marathon rolled around mid-September, I knew it was going to be a painful 13.1 miles. I definitely did not make things easier for myself by heading out the Friday before the race for a birthday party of the boy I’ve been crushing on for the past two months. After telling myself I would be “taking it easy” that night, I found myself making out on the dance floor of Local 16 like some 23 year old, followed by several drinks at Bar Pilar, and then before I knew it, it was 2:30am and I was still not in bed yet. The next morning (the day before the race), I woke up with a pounding headache that lasted the entire day. Since the race started in Rockville, I headed home to my parents’ house in Gaithersburg that afternoon and had some Vietnamese food for dinner before passing out at 8:45pm, hoping that nine hours of sleep would leave me hangover-free and well-rested before the long run. Instead, I woke up at 10:30pm and was completely unable to fall back asleep until 1:30am. Half marathon prep complete fail.

The next morning, I woke up exhausted, and very apprehensive about how the next couple of hours would go. My wonderful father dropped me off by the start, and I started in the third wave. The run ended being very painful after 9 miles due to my completely inadequate training, and my legs felt like heavy lead by the end but I was happy to have finished around 8:30min/mile pace. My adorable mother met up with me at the finisher’s tent, and we grabbed some watermelon and snacks before walking over to the Mama Lucia’s breakfast tent where they were providing eggs, sausages and pizzas to everyone. I was too exhausted to enjoy the food, and headed back to my parents’ house for a long, hot shower and laid down for a half hour. I started to feel a little bit more of a human being after closing my eyes for a few minutes, and so my father suggested we grab pho for lunch before I made my way back to DC. I knew at some point I would have to eat, and a nice light bowl of noodles sounded like the perfect way to tide me over until the real hunger hit.

Our family’s go-to spot in the suburbs is Pho 81 in Germantown, a small little restaurant located in a strip mall next to Honey Pig. As usual, there were plenty of open tables, we immediately put in our orders (this is after my mom asked if I wanted to split a small bowl and I asked if she was a crazy lady). I got my own small bowl with chin (well done beef) and bo vien (vietnamese meatballs), topped with blanched bean sprouts and thai basil. As usual, the fragrant broth and delicate noodles hit the spot, and I dipped each piece of meat into a generous scoop of sriracha and hoisin sauce to make each bite a perfect mix of salty, sweet and spicy. I had no problem finishing off the bowl, and we were out of the restaurant in less than thirty minutes. Talk about efficient!

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After packing my stuff back up, I swung by SM’s parents’ house to pick her up, which made me feel like a 17 year old again, picking up my high school friend for a day in the suburbs. Instead of hanging around MoCo, we went back to DC for an afternoon of day drinking. I thought that a bowl of pho would be the perfect recovery meal, but I realized after parking the car that I was ravenously hungry again. I needed food stat, and I need carbs to be a heavy player in this meal.

Even though we had just brunched at Etto a few weeks, that light, sweet crust and their high quality toppings were exactly what I was craving. Luckily SM and N were totally down for pizza, and we got seated on the beautiful and surprisingly empty outside patio immediately. Although ordering their mind-blowingly good breakfast pizza again was definitely a tempting option, I decided wanted to try something different today. Their cotechino pizza with fontina and egg seemed like the perfect way to pad my stomach before some afternoon brews. I also added anchovies to the pizza.

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The pizza arrived shortly, and our attentive waitress sliced up our pies for us. The egg was perfectly runny, so I popped it open and spread the creamy yolk all over the surface. As I bit into my first slice, I could feel my body start to (slowly) forget about the pain inflicted on it earlier than morning. The thin crust was, as always, remarkably soft and chewy. The thick slices of pork sausage were incredibly satisfying while the white cheese kept the pizza relatively light. I polished off the entire pizza with no problem, while SM and N both enjoyed their breakfast pizzas. It was another incredibly satisfying meal at Etto, and I felt like I was slowly coming back to life.

Next, we headed a few blocks down to the Standard beer garden, which I will continue to refer to as “Standard” despite their name change to “Garden District.” It was a beautiful day, and we managed to snag a picnic table outside. I ordered a hefe-weissbier, which was light, wheaty, and perfect fuel for basking in the sunlight.

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I got a text Tinder Will, who after watching the Redskins lose, wanted to meet up. I told him that we had no immediate plans to move from our sweet spot in the sun, and he came from Virginia to join us (major points for crossing the river). It’s always interesting to see how a new guy vibes with your friends, and in this case, it went well! We spent the next couple of hours telling ridiculous stories about Dewey and sitting in the warm sunlight. My legs appreciated the rest, and my body appreciated the afternoon of delicious eats and great company.

The barbecue speakeasy

Full disclosure: this post is coming about six months late after sitting in my draft posts for about 5 months. Back in March, I had read about a “secret” bbq spot operated by the folks from Wagshal’s Market and Wagshal’s Delicatessen. Pitmasters Back Alley BBQ is a small take-out joint located in the alley directly behind the Wagshal’s shopping plaza, and first got my attention when I read an article in the Washington Post about the non-disclosure agreement the cooks must sign. I immediately emailed my (real) roommate about ordering dinner from there one evening since it was on my route back to DC. He enthusiastically, agreed, and the following Thursday I called ahead to place in our order since the food is made to order:

Pork ribs + “mother in law” + cheddar biscuits
Prime brisket + apple slaw + mac ‘n cheese
Fried okra
I had no trouble locating the shopping plaza, but Google Maps took me through the back alley where I could not seem to find parking or the entrance so I went back to park in the Spring Valley Shopping Center in front of Wagshal’s. The kind folks at Wagshal’s directed me through the back of the shop and pointed out the door, which is beneath a large green canopy right across the back kitchen door. Once I got closer, I noticed the adorable little pig sign on the door that simply says, “Come in We are OPEN.”

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Inside, I found a narrow hallway and followed the signs that directed me around the corner to the pick-up counter.

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The guys at Pitmasters packed up my order for me, and let me know that there were reheating instructions inside. While I waited, I noticed the display case of beautiful looking pies. Since I’m a sucker for desserts, I figured we should at least try one and the guys suggested the key lime pie. They threw that into the big paper tote and sent me on my way. I could smell the barbecue the entire 30 minute drive back to the apartment and by the time I hit 11th street, I was lightheaded with hunger and had sent several hysterical texts to my roommate about my stomach pains.

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Luckily, Jason had set up plates, knives and all necessary eating tools when I walked in and so we just spread out our bounty and dug in. The pork ribs were wonderfully tender and came off of the bones easily. The smokey meat was juicy and tasted fantastic on its own, even though the meats came with several different sauces. The thick slices of brisket had the perfect fat to meat ratio, I finished my portion of this meat despite my stomach warning me that it was starting to reach its limit.

The sides were all solid. The fried okra help up surprisingly well, staying relatively crispy and the mac & cheese tasted buttery and decadent. My favorite side was the cheddar biscuits, which were just fluffy, savory pillows of dough. These were perfect carbs, created the way God intended them to be. We managed to put away a sizeable portion of the order, but definitely had plenty leftover for the next day.

Once I filled my belly and gotten over my hunger hysteria, I was able to appreciate the care put into the packaging of the orders. The meat is placed in sturdy cardboard containers, the sides and sauces are all packaged individually in plastic and everything is clearly labeled. This is definitely a place that takes all the steps to ensure you enjoy your meal. After getting our fill of the savory dishes, I had a slice of the key lime pie. While it was pretty good, the whipped cream topping was a little too sweet and thick for me. Next time, I will be trying the chocolate pecan pie.

The problem was that I immediately felt guilty for inhaling all of this, so I put on my running shoes and tried to go for a run. I only lasted about 20 minutes before I started feeling nauseous. So lesson learned, just wait and enjoy the butter and animal fat seeping into your blood. Don’t try to sweat it out.

Navigating a second date at Room 11

A couple of days after our first date at 2birds/Doi Moi, Will texted me and asked me if I was free the following week for dinner. I suggested Columbia Heights, and he asked me to pick a spot since he had never really spent time there (Virginites, amirite?). I suggested Room 11, because obviously that’s just the date spot. For anyone who has never made it up the hill to Columbia Heights like inexperienced William here: Room 11 is a place that contains anything and everything you could want for a summer night date: great cocktails, great bartenders, chill atmosphere, a beautiful outdoor patio, cozy inside, and absolutely delicious food (and also – not too far from my apartment since I am lazy and usually running 5-10 minutes late).

Room 11 opened about six years ago and is the brainchild of Dan Searing (formerly of Punch Club) and Paul Ruppert (Crane & Turtle, The Columbia Room, Petworth Citizen). The perfect mix between a neighborhood bar and cocktail lounge, it obviously was immediately a big hit and the place seemed almost always packed. The tiny restaurant expanded with 24 more seats in 2012 and added daily breakfast and lunch service. Even with these additions, Room 11 remains a popular spot despite all of the new openings in Columbia Heights in the past few years.

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The evening of the second date was a hot, steamy night so I ubered up 11th street. The patio looked pretty packed, but luckily Will had arrived before me and snagged two seats at the small inside. After we ordered our drinks (manhattan for him, Biz Marquee for me), we decided to stay at the bar for dinner instead of heading back out into the heat. I also actually prefer eating at the bar when I’m with someone because it feels more casual and less stiff than sitting across a table staring at them. You’re actually sitting next to them, and plus the service is better when you’re just chilling right in front of the bartender.

We started with the burrata over strawberry relish, spring blossom, and pistachio puree. While I usually love burrata, I did not like this dish that much. This is also maybe the first time I have ever not loved something I ordered at Room 11. The burrata was a little on the stiff side, and I was hoping for some creamy cheese that just ooooooozed as soon as I cut into it. The strawberries and pistachios made each bite a little nauseatingly sweet and the texture of everything together was not really going down my throat easily. Luckily, our main courses arrived shortly after.

I was pretty hungry and craving something meaty so I got the Four Barrel coffee burger with BBQ sauce, bacon, cheddar with ranch salad. Will ordered the grilled pork chop with honey gastrique over tongue of fire beans, chard, pea shoots, pickled pearl onions. The burger was excellent: slightly crunchy on the outside, slightly pink on the inside, and smokey, with a kind of earthy taste from the coffee. Will approved of his pork, which looked like it was grilled perfectly (so tired of restaurants overcooking pork!). We managed to polish off both of our dishes completely in a short amount of time, so we hung around for another drink at the bar (beer for Will, another Old Fashioned for me) and kept chatting.

On our first date, I had noticed that I was talking more than him, and asking the bulk of the questions. But I figured that was just because 1) I just talk nonstop to anyone and everyone if they do not stop me and 2) it’s so easy to find things to ask about someone on the first date when you know absolutely nothing about them (besides what Google tells you). This second date, I noticed that I was, again, steering the conversation and asking him a lot of questions. A couple of times, I wanted to see if he could take over the talking, so I just did not say anything after he answered a question. Both of those times, he just looked at me, and I felt crickets hop into the tiny room and start some melodious chirping. Normally, I would take that as a sign that a guy is maybe not that interested in me, but he stayed engaged and seemed talkative when I asked him questions. After we finished our second drinks and he got the bill, he offered me a ride back down 11th street since he was heading home to Virginia, which was so sweet. As he dropped me off, we had a very sweet good bye kiss which was, just like the date, very nice and pleasant. But both the date and the kiss left me wondering whether there is an actual real connection between us, and if he was too reserved for me. I had no reason to dislike him, but was not sure if I actually liked him yet.

The following weekend, I headed to Rehoboth Beach with a couple of girlfriends. We met up with some of our guy friends for a bachelor party one afternoon in Dewey Beach, where Will also happened to be. We decided to meet up during an outdoor cover band show, and when he texted me to let me know he was across the crowd from me, I was surprised to see the reserved, put-together guy from the two dates (who had always been dressed in a button up and slacks), standing in front of me in a neon cut-off thank top, a backwards baseball cap, and bright green sunglasses. WHO is this? We ended up having a blast dancing and drinking cheap beer, and he was so friendly with my girlfriends. It was a shock to see this side of him, but I definitely appreciated it and was intrigued by these two different sides of Will. I guess the only way to learn more is to keep spending time with him….

Sunday brunch at Etto

On beautiful Sunday morning, I woke up craving carbs. At times like, I cannot believe I actually did paleo twice for a month each time. Anyway, while still laying in bed, I sent a text out to my version of Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood #squad: A (fake roomie), N (from across the street), AC (hilarious badass with a great collection of crop tops). Luckily, they were all down to stuff their faces with me,  and after AC invited her roommate, we decided on Etto. Alright, that’s not totally true. I decided I needed Etto’s pizza, and they were all nice enough to appease me. After a long run, I met up with these beautiful friends on the outside patio of Etto since the sun was out and we wanted to soak in the weather for a bit.

One of the (many) things that I love about Etto is the minimal vibe, for both the decor and the menu. And everything I have ordered off of their straightforward menu has been amazing (although I am partial to the cauliflower and anchovy pizza). For brunch, Etto serves a lot of their smaller plates and pizzas from the dinner menu, in addition to some breakfast options like frittatas and a breakfast pizza. We decided to split the burrata to start, which was brought out quickly and along with their house bread. The burrata here is simple: just incredibly fresh cheese served on a plate with some olive oil. No toppings to distract you from the slight sweet, rich, cream.

For my entree, I definitely wanted to get one of the Neapolitan-style pizzas (made with house-milled flour). I decided to forgo the cauliflower and anchovy pizza this day for their breakfast pizza. When it arrived, I had regrets about going a different path:

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This pizza had all the right things: potatoes (extra carbs!), bacon (protein! sodium!), eggs (extra protein!), cheese (dairy!). The egg was cooked perfectly, and runny enough for me to spread the creamy yolk all over the surface. The softy, chewy crust somehow manages to hold together under the wondrous combination of toppings, and is light enough so that you don’t feel like you are just filling your belly up with breading. This was one of the best pizzas I have had. (Disclaimer: I feel like I make a similar statement every time I eat at Etto). I managed to polish off all but 2 slices, which just meant I would have a great breakfast option the next morning. Word to the wise: Etto pizza tastes fantastic when it’s cold.

After such a fantastic meal, we wanted to sit out on the patio and let our stomachs digest a little so we decided to order a round of drinks. I ordered a bloody mary (only $6!), which turned out to be one of the better bloody marys that I have had. The tomato juice was very thick and slightly salty, just the way I prefer it, and the pickled vegetables were a great garnish. It was the perfect end to a good brunch: my favorite babes soaking in the sun with me, pizza in my tummy, and a fresh cocktail in my hand.

Tinder Potential at 2birds and Doi Moi

Sometimes, you just see something that speaks to your soul. This basically represents my life right now:

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Tinder so far, after TBM, has been on giant bust. There’s a small, irrational part of me that believes I have used up all my good Tinder karma on TBM and now I will be forever cursed with guys who say things like, “Are you going to be naughtiest girl on my nice list or the nicest girl on my naughty list?” And of course, because I am stuck comparing every guy I come across to the intense chemistry I felt between TBM, no one measures up. So I am just constantly suppressing the urge to send a (sober) text to TBM demanding to know how he could screw up something with so much potential. Now the rational part understands that this is not smart because it’s not even like TBM and I worked out so why am I comparing every male to this situation? Also, I keep meeting guys who seem promising and then completely ghost before I even have the chance to decide there’s no spark. I mean, hey don’t you even want to get to know me before you find a legit reason to reject me?

Anyway, after a month and a half of weird messages, exhausting first dates that go nowhere, I got a fairly normal message from Will:

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Finally, just a normal opening. After chatting a bit about our travels, he asked me if I wanted to grab a drink. He first suggested Bar Pilar, but I happened to remember that the sweet Bar Pilar bartender, who I had gone on a few dates with last spring, works on Wednesday, which makes it a little awkward (and also rude for me to show up with some other random dude), so I attempted to not sound too pushy and suggested 2 Birds 1 Stone across the street. Luckily, he was totally fine with the idea and we met up on a beautiful Wednesday in the basement bar. He looked like his pictures (tall, longish blonde hair, boyish good looking face), which is always a good start. We ordered a round of Manhattans and started talking. It was the basic first date conversation and we seemed to have enough in common to keep it going at least until he suggested heading upstairs to Doi Moi for dinner.

Since it was such a pleasant night, we decided to eat outside on the patio. The only food aversions he listed were duck and lamb (debating right now if that’s a deal breaker since these happen to be two animals I love shoving into my mouth). We started off with the Mức Rang Muối (fried salt & pepper squid). The baby squid were seasoned with salt, pepper, a little garlic and ginger, and were crunchy little bites of savory deliciousness. This crispy mouthwatering dish is a great way to kick off your meal and to quell your empty stomach after the whiskey hits it.

We decided to split two entrees between the two of us: the Bún Bò Xào (stir fried lemongrass beef with vermicelli noodles) and the Chiang Mai Chicken & Noodle Curry. The lemongrass beef was good, but in my biased (and experienced!!!) opinion, nothing compared to what you can get in Eden Center. I really enjoyed the chicken and noodle curry, which was topped with crispy noodles. The curry is incredibly flavorful, slightly spicy and satisfyingly creamy. The chicken is on the bone, but so tender that it basically falls right off. We worked our way through the two dishes, and continued to talk although I did notice that while he was definitely able to talk once I asked the questions, he was not very good at steering the conversations or asking me questions. At one point I wondered if it was because I was not giving him the chance to ask questions so I just paused a couple times…. and got crickets and a nice smile from back in return. Maybe it just takes him a little bit of time to warm up to someone. Dinner went well enough and he seems normal enough (god, I am at the point where seeming normal enough earns a guy points) to get the benefit of the doubt.

Note: while I have enjoyed the last two meals at Doi Moi immensely, I continue to this the service is very lacking here, which is disappointing for such a great spot. The servers just are not attentive, I find myself having to wave someone down to put in food orders, to refill my water glass, and clear the table. The patio was not even packed that evening, so I wish the staff could pay just a little bit more attention to the diners. Anyway, these two entrees were enough to fill us up, and I was getting a little tired at this point so we decided to call it a night after dinner. Will kindly offered to drive me home, since he was heading back to Fairfax where he was dog-sitting his parents golden retrievers (yes, we can all say “awwwww” in unison here). Of course, I took a look at his preset radio stations once I was in his car (what? what if we are not musically compatible? what if he thinks Justin Bieber is a dealbreaker??), and was relieved we like the same standard, basic white girl tunes: country, country, top 40, and a mix radio station to keep things interesting. So far, pretty good. After a hug and kiss on the check goodbye, I figured there was enough potential there for us to actually exchange numbers so I messaged him on Tinder to thank him for taking me out, along with my cell. A minute later, we had our first official text exchange:

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Conclusion: So, maybe there is some hope for Tinder after all.