The Samantha’s on the outskirts of Takoma Park at 631 East University, near Piney Branch (as opposed to the newer one right in downtown Wheaton on the corner of Georgia and University) has been a local food critic darling for many years, though it gets less attention lately. We ate there years ago and liked but didn’t love the food, which they bill as “fine Mexican and Latin American cuisine,” all of which is true both collectively and separately.
We went back this weekend and I loved it. One of the specials, enchiladas de puerco, sucked me in, and I sucked it in: spicy chocolate-y mole, succulent pulled pork, the right amount of melted cheese, and a refried beans and rice combo that puts a lot of Tex-Mex places to shame. One of the best enchilada platters I have ever had, including plenty in Texas. Delicious.
Surely my judgment was not at all colored by the pitcher of (pretty good) margaritas we all shared. Others in our group tried the pollo saltado, which was deemed very good and disappeared entirely except for a mound of red onions, so maybe the ingredient balance was off a little bit. Beef fajitas and Gallina India (“country chicken soup”) also passed the taste test, though bones and over-large vegetable chunks made the soup somewhat non-user-friendly.
Drawbacks: with most entrees in the $12 to $20 range it isn’t expensive, but isn’t as great a value as it might once have been — I’m pretty sure prices were lower five to ten years ago, though maybe I am misremembering. It gets pretty loud, especially when you are seated next to a family with a six-month-old (I’m guessing) who screams nonstop for an hour and the parents don’t so much as walk the kid outside for a while. Samantha’s, like most Latino restaurants, is kid-friendly, which can be both blessing and curse depending on your situation. Even aside from that, the place was packed and quite loud. The packed-ness also makes for difficult parking, as the lot is not nearly large enough to accomodate a full house.
Despite all that, I thought the food and service were excellent, well worth a visit.
My expectations for Wheaton’s newest Latino restaurant, Asi Es Mi Tierra (2559 Ennalls, next to Little Caesars) were moderate, and were exceeded based on one visit. AEMT is Peru-focused but has the standard Wheatonian pan-Latino array of dishes. Their lomo saltado is an average mix of potatoes, beef, tomato and onion, spruced up by surprisingly tasty cilantro-flecked white rice. Fried yucca and chicharron is also fine, a little dry, no better (but maybe no worse) than the solid version at The Chicken Place on University.
Papas rellenas, on the other hand, were delicioso: a big gloop of mashed potatos, filled with a savory mixture of egg, raisins, and beef in a red sauce, then fried and served with vinegary red onions and tomato, plus a more or less extraneous yellow mild dipping sauce. SO good. I could eat this every day (but I won’t, because I would be dead within the year). I don’t even like raisins, and yet I ate it all; I will not admit to licking the foil wrapper it came in but you are welcome to speculate.
Decor is mostly earth tones plus bright green in two places: the ceiling, and the tablecloths (sometimes the tablecloths are red, not green; presumably the ceiling is always green). I would never have picked that color scheme, but it works, especially with the beige tile floor. The space has seating for about twenty, maybe, plus four or five at a little bar that displays some well-chosen tequilas, rums, etc., plus six beers, mostly domestic but also Peru’s brews Cristal and Cusqueña (the latter allegedly brewed to “the ancient standard of Inca Excellence” — I will take their word for it!). Friendly service too, and bilingual enough for eatin’. I was pleasantly surprised by the place, and will certainly go back to try more of the wide-ranging menu (plus more papas rellenas).
The Culinary Artist Formerly Known as El Boqueron (2311 Price, next to Limerick Pub) is now La Rumba, as of a couple of months ago, but the interior hasn’t changed and perhaps neither has the food. The menu still says “El Boqueron” anyway. They advertise “Tex Mex and Latino” cuisine; I would stick with the Latino (seems to be kind of a Salvadoran-Peruvian hybrid) and skip the Tex Mex. Cheese enchiladas are too cheesy* and red sauce is nowhere to be found. Rice’n'beans are okay, above-average for DC-area Tex Mex but below-average for realz, and not close to Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande (how can Bethesda have the least worst Tex Mex in greater DC? It seems very very wrong, but it’s the truth).
* Too cheesy is a rare complaint from me and almost impossible to achieve, but in this case the ratio of cheese-to-tortilla was at least 12:1, or worse. My arteries quivered just looking at the plate.
But! Pupusas are fabulous, light and fluffy, good corn flavor, filling a perfect molten balance of (in my case) chorizo and cheese. A bit greasy, but hard to avoid grease when frying cheese-filled-dough. Delicious, every bit as good as reigning local pupusa leader Intipuqueño (2504 Ennalls). Chips and salsa are also above average thanks to crisp (though I suspect not house-made) tortilla chips and flavorful salsa in the watery-with-chunks style, mostly tomato and onion but also bits of jalapeño and cilantro, mild with just a bit of fire but plenty of verve. Lomo saltado is also recommended; need to further explore the specialties menu section.
La Rumba has a bar — not sure I’d call it full, it isn’t that big, but they have the basics — and this could be a fun place to have a couple of pupusas and a couple beverages. Service can be a little slow but very friendly. And prices are muy bajo, $1.75 for the pupusas and virtually all entrees are under $10. Some great value here.
Wheaton’s own Irene’s 3 (11300 Georgia) hits the bigtime today with a positive mention in the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler column featuring “cheap, kid-friendly eats in Washington, D.C.” The four and seven-year olds both enjoyed Irene’s pupusas, plantains, and beverages. After tasting the tamale, though, four-year-old Grady said: “it doesn’t sound so good.” Either the kid has synesthesia, or he needs some work on which sense is which. Either way, pretty funny, and great publicity for Irene’s 3 (not to be confused with the much smaller and less boisterous Irene’s Pupusas, around the corner on Georgia, also serving good pupusas) (there is no Irene’s 2). I find I3 too loud sometimes, but the food is authentic and good, and so is the service (knowing some Spanish is helpful but certainly not essential).
The peewee culinary crusaders also try Virginia Vietnamese and DC Ethiopian, Bolivian, and Guatemalan cuisine – and Ben’s Chili Bowl, a category unto itself.
There is, evidently, a phenomenal Mexican restaurant called R&R Taqueria located in an Elkridge, Maryland gas station. I have never been there (clearly need to go!) but HowChow has been blogging about it for at least a couple of years. Suddenly, though, just this week, Todd Kliman is chatting about it at Washingtonian, and Tyler Cowen on his blog. Why the new cluster of attention? I suspect everyone read about it in the Wall Street Journal, which got wind of R&R and included it late last month in an article on gas station taquerias, what they cleverly call Texaco-Mex. It’s an interesting culinary trend, but the news flow also interests me, starting with a local blogger, then suddenly some national attention and whooooo everyone is in the game. Wonder how WSJ found out? Do they read HowChow? (They should, it’s a great local food blog)
Wheaton has no Texaco-Mex but we do have a gas station African restaurant, Global Cafe, in the Exxon at Georgia/University; their food is okay but not WSJ-coverage-quality. But you can get takeout from Global Cafe — does that make it Exxon-Mobile food? Heh heh.
In other news:
- Patch has been hiding its restaurant reviews — how about some home-page love!? — but have been doing a nice job lately with their Bites Nearby column, most recently on Garrett Park’s Black Market Bistro and Kensington’s Continental Pizza.
- Just Up The Pike discusses ensuring public access in the planned Wheaton Town Square.
- Gazette reports on possible DC-style 5-cent bag tax (paper AND plastic, ma’am) in MoCo.
WaPo has a Metro section page one article today on demographic shifts in Wheaton, but their definition of Wheaton seems awfully broad. We had a discussion a year or so ago about whether anything north of Arcola could properly count as Wheaton, but the Post article’s map of “Wheaton” includes only neighborhoods north of Arcola (north of the Connecticut-Judson intersection, really). I suppose maybe this all falls under some official Wheaton boundary as defined by MoCo or the state, but I don’t think it is what most of us think of as Wheaton proper.
Nonetheless, Brigid Schulte’s article is interesting and worth reading, and I expect the general demographics are accurate. The article mentions no restaurants, just La Salvadorenita grocery (which is in downtown Wheaton), but it might well have noted the ethnic diversity (and excellent quality-to-price ratio) of our many dining establishments, which might be plurality Latino but there are so many Asian spots it is hard to say for sure. And with the recently opened Pashion and perpetually coming soon Limerick Pub (in time for St. Patrick’s Day, we can hope?) (updated website!), it’s also hard to say what direction our restaurants are trending.
Red Mesa Cantina (128 3rd Street South) is a stylish neo-Mexican bistro, sleekly dark inside but with a huge outdoor garden-y seating area too. Excellent but somewhat over-self-confident service. Platings are gorgeous, someone in the kitchen has a flair for design, in particular the empanada was served amidst swirls of sour cream and red sauce, maybe even too much, kind of detracting from the (very good) empanada itself. Duck tacos, sweet with pineapple and spicy with chilis, are also delicious; same goes for the simple but satisfying guacamole. Only one real disappointment: the margarita was too heavy on the agave nectar and too small to justify the $10-$20 price tag (depending on your tequila selection). Aside from that, we loved our lunch.
Hey looky, it’s 2011.
Senior Me and Mrs. Senior Me visited for a few days starting on January 1 and naturally we engaged in eatin’ in Wheaton (though I haven’t had time to engage in bloggin’ in Wheaton until now). We hit Caramelo Bakery (11301 Georgia) again, and based on multiple recent visits we prefer the savory offerings to the sweets, which tend to be dry (but still taste good, and look great). Chicken empanadas are winners, beef also good, but the cheese empanadas are mostly hollow, and then the cheese somehow starts leaking like it’s an empanada de leche. Strange. Best of all, the chicken Milanese sandwich, typical of Argentine (and probably other Latin countries) street/cafe food, delicious breaded and baked (I don’t think it was fried though I could be wrong) chicken with tomato and lettuce and mayo on a freshly baked roll. A contender for best Wheaton sandwich, along with the Saigonese banh mi and various Marchone’s Italian sub options.
We also got takeout from Ruan (11407 Amherst), which had an off-night; all the flavors seemed dull, from the mussamun beef curry to the mooh cook foon (grilled pork) to the sweet-and-sour vegetables. Fortunately, an off-night for Ruan is still perfectly edible.
The Me elders also wandered Wheaton on their own for a while, including lunch at El Pulgarcito de Callao (11333 Elkin), where they were seduced by Peruvian food that reminded them of their trip to that country a few years ago. The seduction got a big assist from a friendly manager, who pulled them in as they were considering their options out on the sidewalk, and a friendly server, and the friendly Peruvian chef, who came to their table to chat — despite his limited English and their nonexistent Spanish, sounds like they had a lovely culinary discussion. They also enjoyed their meal, mostly potatoes and fried rice. The lesson: you really can’t go wrong with potatoes at a Peruvian place, and excellent service really matters. My mistake was the tacu tacu, which (at Pulgarcito de Callao at least) was more fun to say than eat.
Our turkey weighed 20.38 pounds this year, easily a personal best.. This is a week of turkey soup, turkey curry, turkey enchiladas. Meanwhile, we give thanks to our wonderful friends who came over to help us eat 20.38 pounds of turkey (alas, they fell down on the job, leaving us with many pounds of leftovers) and brought with them classic green bean casserole, wild rice/cranberry stuffing, smooooth mashed potatoes, squash bisque, and multi-pies. Thanks!
We also give thanks for New Kam Fong, the source of this year’s Thanksgiving Eve meal, a break from the usual Thai food. We ordered Americanized dishes (broccoli beef, eight treasure duck, chicken with shrooms) and they were all fine but uninspired. Like at many ethnic restaurants, best to order the authentic/unusual here, not the Westernized stuff.
Also thanks for Los Chorros, for lunch over the weekend when the turkey still loomed large but we couldn’t stand to be around it anymore. LC is best for main dishes (enchiladas, chimichangas); rice is bland and tamales are a mixed bag; pupusas are good. Need to explore their Salvadoran specialties, I suspect that’s their best food.
I knew I wasn’t hallucinating. Wheaton Patch recently reviewed the “Ulizes” taco truck (on Georgia behind Wheaton Laundromat) and I was sure there is a second truck in Wheaton, on Viers Mill. And there is: Meylin’s Taqueria y Pupuseria, on VM between University and Ennals, backed up against the south side of Pearle Vision. You don’t need eyeglasses to see Meylin’s brightly colored truck.
Meylin's Taqueria y Pupuseria
What could I do but try a taco and pupusa?
Taco, Pupusa, y accoutrements
Meylin’s does not appear to have quite as many options as Ulizes, and though combos may be available, they are not advertised on the truck. I figure a larger, multiperson taste test will have to happen eventually, so for my first visit I stuck to just a taco/pupusa combo. The pork in the taco al pastor was tender and nicely charred; overall good flavor to the taco, which also included onions and a smear of avocado, plus optional radishes, lime juice (from a section of fresh lime) and hot sauce that proved to be quite hot indeed. Pupusa was also good, I got the cheese-pork-beans combo; the balance favored beans, but tasted good, and was less greasy than many pupusas. I like the little bags of slaw and extra hot sauce that come with the food. Excellent value at $3.50 for both items together. Ulizes-Meylin’s taste test will happen.