George Pelecanos has written a bunch of stuff, perhaps most notably HBO’s The Wire (with David Simon) but also a series of novels, mostly crime fiction, set in greater Washington, D.C. Among Pelecanos’ strong points are his seamless injections of accurate local color into his plots. I have only just begun exploring Pelecanos’ books, but the first one I picked up, The Way Home, includes visits to two loosely-described yet clearly recognizable Wheaton restaurants.
First, two characters go on a date to Wheaton for pho at a restaurant “in a commercial strip of Landromats and Kosher and Chinese grocers…diners sat communally at tables similar to those found in school cafeterias.” This brief description obviously refers to the strip on University from Max’s Kosher Deli to Shalom Kosher grocery to (no longer there) Asian Foods grocery to a laundromat to Full Key Chinese restaurant (to liquore store) to, on the East end, Pho Hiep Hoa, which is indeed cafeteria-like and nearly ambience-free (which, in a way, is perfect cheap pho house ambience). Despite (or maybe thanks to) the atmosphere, Pho Hiep Hoa serves pretty decent soup, though I prefer Song Phat — but the characters in The Way Home are absolutely the kind of folks who would visit Pho Hiep Hoa on a date. Ring of truth, for sure.
About 25 pages later, a real estate agent holds court at “a Thai restaurant up in Wheaton, off University Boulevard, in an area heavy with Hispanics and Orthodox Jews…the restaurant itself had little ambience, holding eight four-tops and a half-dozen deuces, with the standard royal family portraits hung on plain blue walls.” Again, a no-frills description that is totally accurate, and clearly the restaurant (“Thai Feast” in the book) is Ruan Thai, which was a little pastel-blue-walled dive before it was renovated last year (The Way Home was published in 2009). The passage continues, noting that “the food was clean, the service mostly efficient, and the specials went for four dollars and ninety-five cents” — not sure the specials are that cheap anymore, but the rest still holds true (and of course the food is better than clean, it is fantastic!). I’m looking forward to reading more Pelecanos, both because he tells a good story, but also to see what other local spots pop up. If anyone knows of any other instances of Wheaton restaurants showing up in works of fiction, please post in the comments. I love this kind of thing.
Things that make you go “yummmm”…
We’ve been dining at Ruan Thai (11407 Amherst) for years, and actual bonafide restaurant critics have been raving about Ruan’s Yum Watercress appetizer for even longer. We tried to order it once, but it turned out we were doing it wrong: pad watercress (what we ordered) and yum watercress (what we should have ordered) are not the same thing. Pad watercress, by the way, is stir-fried in a black bean sauce and is pretty good in its own right, but it isn’t quite yum.
We finally, successfully, ordered yum watercress last week, and I can see why it gets so much love. Watercress, shrimp, squid, shallots, and cashews are deep-fried, almost like tempura but with less batter, just enough to coat each piece and make it crisp. The seafood is tender, and it all has wonderful texture, but really it is the sauce that makes you go yum: tangy with fresh lime juice, fish sauce, just a hint of sugar, and peppery heat, it has that distinct Thai sweet-salty-sour-spicy balance, and is the kind of dish that makes me want to lick the plate once the food has been consumed. I restrained myself, barely.
We also feasted on pad prik khing — we are incapable of eating at Ruan without the PPK — and tom yum soup, which we rarely order, but we enjoyed the clear fiery broth, rife with chicken and shrooms, hinting of lime and galangal. Great stuff. I know I’ve been on the Nava bandwagon, but this visit puts Ruan right back on a par with Nava in my mind. Wheaton is so lucky to have (at least) two great Thai restaurants. I really should hit Dusit again one of these days, I’ve not been for more than a year (and, other than that, not since about 2007) and I’d like to remind myself how they compare.
Washingtonian magazine’s annual “100 very best restaurants” issue (January 2012) is out (on newsstands, possibly in your mailbox, but not online) and both Nava Thai and Ruan Thai made the list. This is not the best cheap restaurant list, this is the best list. Inn at Little Washington…Komi…Ashby Inn…Nava and Ruan! I still think Ruan has slipped just a bit, but it’s nice to see both places continue to get more or less well-deserved attention. Washingtonian continues to taunt me, though, in their capsule review of Ruan, where they highlight that dang Yum Watercress dish again. I really need to get in there and order that.
Ruan Thai (11407 Amherst) has settled nicely into its expanded and renovated digs — looks great, although seems a bit cavernous when uncrowded – and continues to churn out good food, but the beef mussamun curry in particular has slipped a bit. It was never as authentic or amazing as the only-sometimes-available Nava version, but it used to have rich if overly sweet flavor. Lately it hasn’t gotten the old taste buds jumping much at all. Ruan’s pad prik khing (spicy green beans with choice of meat) remains excellent, the local standard. Recently we also branched out and tried a dish we hadn’t before (what!?), chicken with cashews and spring onions: good savory flavor, although it was more broth than sauce, surprisingly watery. Not bad but probably wouldn’t order it again. Need to eat in rather than take out like we usually do so we can try the lauded yum watercress, which I suspect would not travel well.
I think Ruan has also taken the opportunity to raise its prices — bigger, nicer space, new full color menus, why not? Most main dishes used to be in the $8-$10 range and now entrees are a couple bucks more across the board. Still not a bad value, but not as fabulous as before; appetizers are the best value at Ruan these days.
Beyond Russo’s and H Mart:
- Takeout from Minerva in Natick. Pretty good except for not getting what we ordered. Our double order of lamb biryani arrived as lamb vindaloo, good thing Mrs. Me wasn’t there! The vindaloo was suitably spicy at least. Solid butter chicken, lamb rogan josh, something else I’ve forgotten. They also completely forgot our curried chickpeas. Nice samosas. Average or better quality, normal quantity, bad accuracy.
- Lunch at Pho and I in Boston. Nice lunch specials, maybe a dozen to choose from at $7.50 apiece. Carl got the ho fun — how could at least one of us not? — and liked it well enough but we both preferred my basil fried rice, fragrant and a bit spicy, full of flavor. Fairly large portions. Good service. Unusual curving space with a bar snaking along one side, actually a pretty good use of an awkward space for a restaurant.
- Lunch at Johnny Rockets in Logan Terminal C. I was desperate. I can’t review JR because I have already wiped the entire sordid affair from my memory (although I may still be digesting the cheeseburger).
Mixed results in both cases, for a change. At Moby Dick, I tried the unagi rice bowl, and while the barbecued eel was fine, the dish didn’t have much else going on. Best to stick to raw fish and tempura at MD, in my experience. We did try a roll whose name I forget but it involved tuna, spicy sauce, and I think it was fried: delicious. The one-two meal-starting punch of salad (love the peanut dressing) and miso soup also remains a winner.
We intended to order lunch over the weekend from Ruan, but they didn’t answer their phone. Shut down due to hurricane? Or maybe they’re taking their annual weeklong vacation? I’m guessing the latter, did not bother driving by to confirm (they always put a sign up front when they’re on vacation). Anway, we fixated on Thai, so it was Nava’s gain. Making further, uncharacteristic effort to branch out at my favorite mainstays, we tried the Thai fried rice from Nava, which though replete with pork and onions was unexciting (though the leftovers made a pretty good lunch). Pad thai and crispy duck kaprow were as good as ever.
There hasn’t been much eatin’ (out) in Wheaton over the past month, a deficit that must be remedied over the rest of 2011, but there was some eatin’ out elsewhere. For example: we tried Silver Spring’s relatively new Kao Thai (8650 Colesville), which turns out to be no threat to Wheaton’s Thai restaurant dominance. KT has pretty good pad prik khing, but not as good as Ruan’s exemplary version. Pra Ram, a dish not offered in Wheaton as far as I know, is okay, kind of bland peanut sauce. KT’s Panang curry is thin and wan, not close to Nava’s league. Pad Thai is fine. Overall not bad, but not worth leaving Wheaton for.
Todd Kliman’s weekly Washingtonian chat strikes again: two mentions of Ren’s Ramen this week, once at the top among his summer highlights, once more at the bottom in response to a question. As he says, he is “still thinking about the marvelous bowl of miso ramen” he had at Ren’s weeks ago. Me too! Also if I focus I can still smell the wonderful miso-soy-umami aroma of the place. Ren’s next-door-neighbor Ruan Thai also makes the summer highlights list, specifically for the Angel wings, which I haven’t tried yet. Guess I’ll add that to my list.
So yesterday ended Ren 2 Ruan 1. But Ruan tied it up this morning when Tom Sietsema, in his WaPo chat, responded to a “best Thai in DC?” question by citing his “love” for Ruan, and also for Silver Spring’s new Kao Thai, which will get reviewed in this Sunday’s Post Magazine.
I would love to be able to say the WSJ, NYT, NPR, or some other national acronym broke the tie, but I would be making it up. Ren and Ruan are even for now, and will have to go to delicious penalty kicks. It is a small strip mall, and yet there are those who love it…
Happy Independence Day, and what better way to celebrate our melting pot than eat great Thai food? Not that we need an excuse. I am on a mission to try a new dish from time to time at Nava (11301 Fern), and today that dish (new to me that is) was crispy mussels. They were very crisp indeed, in a savory egg batter atop a bed of sprouts, tasting of the sea but not too fishy or salty, and the mussel-eaters in our group (4 of 6) enjoyed them. We also tried a fish curry and the lemon beef salad appetizer, our first time ordering both, and I wasn’t as crazy about them but both disappeared fast enough.
As usual, we also got the twice-cooked crispy duck appetizer, which was even more crisp and delicious than usual. And a couple of noodle dishes and a curry, and the renowned duck kaprow, which is like fireworks in your mouth. I like to think Thomas Jefferson would have approved. Kaprow!
The Washingtonian’s “Best Of” issue (aka July 2011) is now on newsstands (I assume — it was in my mailbox on Friday) (not yet online) and Wheaton has once again infiltrated the magazine’s pages. Hollywood East is one of three “Best Midnight Snacks” — ’til 1 AM Friday and Saturday! That’s our only local Best Of listing. What, we don’t qualify for Best Celebrity Spotting? Stevie Wonder shops at Chuck Levin’s!* Criminy.
In the regular food section, Nava Thai is mentioned along with Germantown’s Sabai Sabai Simply Thai as “two of the area’s best Thai restaurants” amidst the positive review of Silver Spring’s new Kao Thai. So much great Thai food, so little thaime. (sorry)
Ah, Kenny Bania. Gold, Jerry. Gold!
* This is true about Stevie and Chuck, but I am just kidding about Wheaton being good for celebrity spotting. Just in case it wasn’t glaringly obvious…