Summer Wheaton Restaurant Update: Aiiiiiii!

Mrs. Me and I have not been eatin’ much in Wheaton this summer due to travel, family stuff, yada yada yada.  Will try to rectify that come autumn.

All the new restaurants in Wheaton are Latino.  Surprise!*

* not a surprise

El Taco Loco has been open for a month or so, in the University Avenue strip mall next to El Pollo Rico.  We should call it El Strip Mall?  We ate there recently, review coming soon.

We have still not been to El Catrachito, in the old Irene’s III  microdiner space on University, despite its getting great reviews, but we hope to go soon.

In the old Irene’s (no numerals attached) space on Georgia, a new Latino/”Tex-Mex” restaurant called El Fogon has been open for about two months now.  I am skeptical about the Tex-Mex self-designation, since most places around here don’t really do it right, they just use it as a marketing ploy for people who don’t know better.  But maybe the food is good anyway?  Will check it out at some point.  We used to like Irene’s back in the day, despite the constant too-loud music.

Finally a little culinary variety: Tyler Cowen loves Thai Taste (11315 Fern, behind Hung Phat), his micro-review here (and my original review here). I love it when TC eats in Wheaton, because Wheaton, and also because it helps me calibrate my own restaurant-review palate.  For example, he mentions the mussamun beef as a “very very good” dish, which it is — and yet it isn’t as good as the spectacular version Nava Thai too infrequently trots out as a special.  He’s right about maximizing the condiments at Thai Taste, and I would add for all dishes, not just the soups.  Overall I still think Ruan is at the top of the Wheaton Thai heap at the moment, but Thai Taste is certainly also recommended.  Nava has been uneven lately, but if they have the mussamun available, it is a must-order.

And lastly, a new cheesesteak chainy place (Mike’s?)  is on the way to replace the Quizno’s in the Westfield Wheaton strip that also houses the Starbucks.  I’ve been off Quizno’s ever since their Vegas airport location gave me the worst food poisoning ever, so this is a welcome change (since I also like cheesesteaks). I’d still rather give my sandwich business to Marchone’s, but it’s nice to have options.

Feliz Augusto!

Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Blog and Spam

Just a portion of the H Mart canned luncheon meat selection

Just a portion of the H Mart canned luncheon meat selection

The original plan was to taste-test Spam and various Spam “luncheon meat” knockoffs. Didn’t happen, couldn’t do it.  Even I have my limits (really!).  I’m not excited to eat any Spam, much less sample a bunch of secondary brands.  But a bunch of secondary brands exist, and I’m about to marvel at them, even if I don’t taste them.

First, a bit of context.  Spam can mean many things these days, but here we are talking about the food, or “food” — canned precooked meat product, if you prefer.  I used to think of Spam as a WWII cheap-GI-food product, and I guess it was, but it was invented pre-war in 1937 and really popularized afterward, especially in the South Pacific during U.S. occupation of various far-flung lands and islands. More at the useful Wikipedia entry for Spam, which in this case I think is probably reliable enough.

Spam tastes okay, I guess, if you like that kind of thing, and it should: a 3.5 ounce serving contains nearly half of the average human’s daily allotment of saturated fat, and nearly two-thirds of sodium.  The pasty-meat-byproduct texture is what stops me in my tracks, and also the aspic in which it is packed — reminds me of that time in 6th grade playing D&D when we were attacked by a gelatinous cube.  Also I have to force myself not to think of the provenance of the various ingredients, especially the (allegedly) chopped pork shoulder meat. But if the aspic is thoroughly wiped away and a slice of Spam is pan-fried, with a nice crisp crust forming on the outside, then maybe I could be convinced to eat it. Or maybe if someone competent made me some musubi.  Especially if they flew me to Hawaii first.  I will consume Spam in exchange for a Hawaii trip! Everybody has to draw a line in the sand sometime, and my Spam line is drawn in the hot white sands of the Hawaiian Islands.

Anyway, it continues to be popular, particularly in Asia, and a bunch of knockoffs are available, mostly choosing to call the product “luncheon meat” instead of “spiced ham” — you can still have your luncheon meat for breakfast or dinner, if you want.  Thanks to H Mart, many knockoffs are available right here in Wheaton, plus multiple flavors of actual Spam: Oven Roasted Turkey, Real Hormel Bacon, Black Pepper, Lite, 25% Less Sodium…so many choices of Spam.  Who knew?

But if one wanted to branch out, one could also try the generic luncheon meat offerings from such charming brands as Ligo, Fortune, Celebrity, Roxy, or Oriental Mascot. H Mart carries them all — seeing all the brands together on the shelf is what sparked this post.  I am having trouble understanding how the demand for off-brand canned precooked meat product could be so high that all these brands exist together.  It is possible these same cans have been sitting on the H Mart shelf for years, unpurchased, but I doubt it.  I think someone is buying them, and possibly eating them too. What else could you do with Spam?  Could you build a house out of it?  It may have good insulating properties, and probably a longer shelf life than vinyl siding.  I’m just speculating here.

For more on Spam, here is a recent post from Serious Eats.  And here is an older “post”…



Tarver King and Culinary Enlightenment at Potowmack Farm

Yarrow Sponge Cake dessert at Potowmack Farm

Chamomile Sherbet dessert at Potowmack Farm

You know the joke about the Buddhist monk who told the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything? (sadly, you do) If chef Tarver King were the hot dog vendor, he would have made the monk one with everything (homemade mustard, locally sourced onions, nitrate-free farm-raised dogs, etc.), and then he would have made everything with one, and then he would have made a delicious cocktail, and then he would have moved his cart across town to sell more hot dogs to more monks but in completely different ways.  I am mystified that King did not win the 2014 RAMMY for Chef of the Year.*

* The nevertheless deserving winner was Haidar Karoum — we HAVE to get to Doi Moi soon, okay, Mrs. Me?

And if Tarver King were the monk, he would have achieved enlightenment long ago — instead, we get to experience enlightenment (or close to it) at his current haunt, Potowmack Farm.  We followed him there from the Ashby Inn, which is now off the radar since both King and innkeepers Star and Neil Wavra have moved on. And okay, fine, this is all a little over the top.  But our dinner at PF was phenomenal — not over the top at all, in fact in some ways quite mellow and restrained.  I’m still a little jiggy with it, a couple of weeks later.  Took a while to process it all, for review purposes.

Zen garden of "snacks"

Zen garden of “snacks”

First, the setting is gorgeous, up a bucolic gravel road amongst the trees just on the Virginia side of the Potomac.  You can see a bit of the river from the restaurant, which is sort of a large greenhouse-looking single-room structure, glass and wood everywhere, you feel like you’re out in the wilderness. Someone was playing acoustic guitar across the dining room from our table, at volume perfectly calibrated to provide atmosphere without impeding conversation.  I imagine the place can get loud when it is full — the night we ate there, it was only half-full, fairly shocking on a Saturday night but then again it is kind of out of the way and not exactly inexpensive.

Service is wonderful, from the hosts to our server, who gave us travel tips in addition to menu tips, to the bartender (cocktail whisperer, really), who explained (sort of) how they created the , more about which below.  Farm/restaurant co-owner Beverly Morton Billand dropped by our table to chat not long after we had been seated, even though we’re not anybody in particular, it’s just how they roll.  Tarver King did not stop by the table but that’s only because he was busy in the kitchen turning (farm-raised) duct tape and (organic) hubcaps into culinary gold.

Bacon can make even an already-good crab croquette better!

Bacon can make even an already-good crab croquette better!

And then there was food.  Yes there was!  That would be out of character if I went through all this verbose lunacy about something non-food-related.  Much of the ingredients is grown in their own farm, and most of the rest is sourced super-locally. Potowmack Farm is prix fixe, $88 for five courses, and you can choose among three menus, which they call Found, Grown, and Raised, each changing every night.  We all eschewed Raised, going for Found and Grown.  Highlights:

A selection of “snacks” for the table, a little Zen garden of appetizers, from relatively standard like mini-blini with dill-sour cream, to exotic like spicy fried kimchi pakora (?!).  Wonderfully arranged on iron and rock amidst candles — it was like culinary Settlers of Cataan except without the sheep.  Delicious.

I did the “Found” tasting.  Here are some findings. Snapping turtle mulligatawny: no actual turtles in evidence, which was fine, but turtles aside, it was merely a tasty greenish bisque.  Crab croquette swathed in a bacon jacket atop black raspberry gel with chamomile leaves: lovely presentation, and very good, but otherwise not especially memorable.  Dessert was “Yarrow Sponge Cake with hickory crew, coriander oats, pine nut powder”: gorgeous to look at in a mossy forest-meets-sea kind of way, this is the kind of thing I imagine them serving at Noma.

Yarrow Sponge Cake etc.

Yarrow Sponge Cake etc.

Others went with the “Grown” menu, including roasted escarole (with Surryano ham, grilled onion aioli, nasturtiums), potato gnocchi (with Maitaki mushrooms, sunflower kernels, beef crackling), and chamomile sherbet (with rhubarb, chia seeds, strawberry raisings, lavender).  I can’t vouch for the Grown, but people seemed to like it.  Here’s the thing about the food at Potowmack Farm, though: it is incredibly inventive, and local, with sublime presentation and service, but the portions are kind of small even in the aggregate (one of my dining companions contrasted the experience with Ashby Inn, where we always left feeling quite full — not quite so here, and in fact another of us ate a yogurt when she got home), and while the food is really good…but there wasn’t one particular dish that was OMGood, like a couple of items at Range. Really, the opening “snacks” were the most exciting course. But then again, it’s amazing that the whole menu changes every night, and CLEARLY further research is needed.

As if all that food weren’t enough, the drinks are fabulous too. In particular, a vividly orange-glowing cocktail called Smoke & Fire, made with tequila, lime, honey, and a variety of chilis, some fresh and some maple-smoked. It tasted fresh and earthy, bright and smoky, with just a hint of chili heat. I plan to try to replicate it at home, but I expect the combination and complexity of chilis will be difficult to match. A great drink, one of the best and most interesting I’ve ever had.

All in all, very good food, fantastic drinks, spectacular overall experience, I would say worth it even at the price, just not something we can do with much frequency.  Although we are already looking forward to next time.

Ranging From Good To OMGood

It felt daring, ordering the cheapest bottle of wine on the list at Range, whose food you might expect to pair better with rare Burgundies than low-end whatever.  Range does offer a fine selection of Burgundies, into $2,500 territory (terroir-tory?), which is just a teeny bit beyond our budget. The cheapest bottle was a Ken Forrester pinotage, which like all pinotages smells of tobacco, off-putting to many (including, reportedly, the head sommelier at Range, who stocks it anyway). At $18 — how many nice restaurants even offer any bottle for as low as $18? — it had bright, light fruit and a nice finish and was such a bargain we ordered a second bottle (possibly even a third, who can remember?), to the bemusement of our server.  And it paired just fine with the food, which was so good it probably would have paired just fine with three day old tobacco-marinated pond water.

Range has been open for maybe 18 months now, and has evidently overcome some mixed early reviews and the immediate, overwhelming crowds to become one of the better restaurants in the area; it would be the best restaurant in Montgomery County if it weren’t on the DC side of Western Avenue, in Friendship Heights. Not sure why it took us this long to eat there.  Worth the wait.  Service was excellent – both our server and the sommelier were exceedingly friendly and informational, with perfect pacing.  We were off in a side room by ourselves (clearly they knew with whom they were dealing?), so the usual jet-engine-loud dining room wasn’t factor.

And the food! In approximate ascending order of non-suckitude:

Mixed Field Greens Salad — a fine salad, with strawberry vinaigrette and candied walnuts and blue cheese, well-balanced, no complaints, disappeared quickly, and yet it was the least exciting thing that hit our table all night.

Caesar Salad — apparently this has made some list of the 40 dishes one must eat in DC, and there’s nothing wrong with it, although as an omnivore I can’t agree that any salad could possibly be a top 40 dish.  This one was good, but not even the best Caesar salad I’ve had.  Also not really a Caesar salad at all, since it involves kale, nor did they prepare it tableside. So, again, a fine salad, but not really noteworthy.

Pork Sausage and Rapini Wood Fired Pizza — now we’re getting somewhere. Range does a good pizza, with crisp yeasty crust that remains sturdy even in the middle, and the pork chunks were fresh, unusually pink (looked almost raw but was not), mellow, savory, delicious, and the rapini provided a slightly bitter counterpoint. Not the best pizza in town, but very good.

Baker’s Basket — a mix of four breads, most crucially the cheddar-jalapeno biscuits and cheddar cornbread. Those were both great, but even better for the spreads that came with them, slightly spicy pepper jelly and smoky bacon marmalade, respectively. The “jelly” was really more of a marmalade and the bacon was almost a pate, and I nearly asked for a bowl full of it, which I would have eaten happily with a  spoon.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Succotash — we ordered the “pork duo” special and this was half of it, with perfectly pink sliced pork on a bed of tiny whole onions, lima beans, corn, that kind of thing.  Succotash is not normally my thing but this was very good.  Also did I mention there was grilled pork loin?  Just not enough of it — that’s the only complaint I can think of.

Fried Brussels Sprouts — BS have become the cupcake of upscale restaurant vegetables, i.e. ubiquitous and often disappointing. But Range does them as well as my current favorite Brasserie Beck, but different: larger sprouts, fried not roasted, and in a fish sauce/lime sauce that infuses the burnt-crisp sprouts with all kinds of umamified deliciousness.  Also, Range achieves their Brussels sprouts heights without the aid of bacon, so they get extra points for degree of difficulty. I could have kept eating these crunchy-edged salty-savory nuggets all night. At most dinners, this dish would have been the clear #1 highlight — but not at this dinner.

Pork Belly with Creamy Grits and Crisp Pork Rind — the other half of the pork duo, this small tower of flavor power is one of the best things I have eaten lately, right up there with a couple of Potowmack Farm dishes (PF review coming very very soon, seriously). I guess they roasted the pork belly, I’m not sure, it was sort of caramelized, dark brown outside and still pink inside, and tender to the point of collapse at first fork contact — if the Martians collapse so easily someday, we will be in great shape. The grits were indeed creamy, and sweet, and delicious in their own right although I’m sure being soaked in pork belly juices didn’t hurt much.  The pork rind was indeed crisp, although someone else ate that.  It was a small portion and we all shared a bite or two, but again I could have ordered a dozen more and eaten them all myself. A great combination of textures and flavors, executed perfectly.

So, a nice time was had by all.  No photographic evidence of the meal, alas. I would also note that while Range is a (celebrity chef) Bryan Voltaggio restaurant, they keep the merchandising to a minimum, offering signed copies of his book, VoltInk, but that’s about it, a nice difference from some other celebrity chef restaurants I can think of (*cough* Bobby Flay *cough*).

A Post About Wheaton For a Change

Still finalizing reviews of Range and Potowmack Farm, because there is so much to say.  Coming soon…

In the meantime: we hear the Wheaton Farmers Market is struggling.  I admit I am guilty of never going there, I just don’t ever find myself in the Triangle on Saturday mornings.  My image of the WFM is one sad little table of wilting veggies. Apparently it got bigger and better over the past year or two, but has now shrunk again, with a couple of vendors dropping out.  Unfortunately due to scheduling issues I am unlikely to get there anytime soon, but if you are one of my small handful of local Wheaton readers, maybe go check it out one of these summer Saturdays before it’s too late.  The farmers market — I think just one farm but with lots of goods — over in the parking lot of the Wheaton Forest Local Park on University may also be worth a drop-in, they’re open many hours on the weekends and most weekday evenings.

Downtown Wheaton also has a summer concert-and-movie series on Friday nights that is much better attended than the farmers market.  The 2014 season starts tomorrow at 7pm with a viewing of Frozen.  Let it go?  Or, as Ric Ocasek (or, technically, Ben Orr) might say, Let’s go! I like the nightlife, baby…

Would Bury Kitchen? No, Not Exactly

Rockfish @ Woodberry Kitchen

Rockfish @ Woodberry Kitchen

I’ve been struggling to come up with anything clever* to say about Woodberry Kitchen, one of Baltimore’s newer hot restaurants.  “Newer” in my addled mind, at least – it opened in 2007 and so is hardly new anymore.  We finally went recently (but getting less recent by the day) and our high expectations turned out to be too high, but in ways I’m finding tough to express.

* As this review will surely demonstrate.

There is lots to admire about WK: in particular, the space, which is divided into several large, high-ceilinged rooms with lots of wood and brick. The restaurant is part of the revitalization of the old Clipper Mill site, ravaged by fire in 1995. The redevelopment has maintained the industrial feel, including the facade of the old foundry, and WK fits in beautifully, a sort of rustic elegance.  The upstairs section above the bar looks cool. They also have a nicely appointed outdoor courtyard where, surprisingly, the acoustics are better than the fairly loud indoors, thanks to a wall of trees and shrubs blocking street noise.

Service is also excellent if a little slow at times – they seemed to be a person short, maybe.  But everyone is friendly, knowledgable, helpful, and (sometimes too) unobtrusive.

Cone o' Fries and Pot o' Ketchup @ Woodberry Kitchen

Cone o’ Fries and Pot o’ Ketchup @ Woodberry Kitchen

And the food was fine – good even, and we appreciated many small touches – but not great.  We had been expecting great, and maybe that was unfair, since really Woodberry Kitchen is a neighborhood bistro, it’s not trying to be Charleston or any kind of expense account restaurant.

For example, blackened rockfish was served on a bed of fresh greens in a zesty pool of soy-based broth, and the exterior was nice and dark, but the fish itself lacked much flavor. Rigatoni was fine but not any different than you get at many neighborhood Italian joints. Thin crisp french fries served in a  cute paper cone had good potato flavor and would have been great if they had been served above room temperature (we did also like the mini-mason jar of ketchup on the side).

Sometimes the starters outshine the entrees, but for us it was more of the same. Popcorn could be a fun snack for starters, but as with the fish, it needed more seasoning. The “crab pot” – cheesy sherried crab dip — was, again, fine but not extraordinary, particularly once it started to congeal not long after arriving at the table.  Are we sensing a theme?

Woodberry Kitchen isn’t crazy expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, with most entrees in the $25-30 range.  At those prices, in those surroundings, and given the local-celebrity chef Spike Gjerde hype, the food really should be more exciting.  We do appreciate the local sourcing, farm-to-table thing, but that isn’t enough to overcome…not exactly lack of execution, just lack of excellence.  Good, just not great. In the end we were glad we went, but I don’t think we would rush back.


Happy Independence Day

Aaaaaaaaaaaaand we’re back.

Official July 4, 2014 Potato Salad

Official July 4, 2014 Potato Salad

“Coming soon”: reviews of Range (great), Potowmack Farm (awesome), Woodberry Kitchen (finally), probably a few others I can still dredge out from the old notes.  Also spam spam spam spam spam eggs and spam.

Wheaton’s newest restaurant El Catrachito got a rave review in the Post a couple of weeks ago, although they manage to avoid using the term “Wheaton” (other than being the nearest Metro stop), instead locating it in Silver Spring, which is technically true but totally misleading.  Anyway, I guess I need to try it — I like the Honduran aspect of it, something new around here.  2408 University, in the old Irene’s III hole in the wall just down from New Kam Fong.

For me, July 4 is memories of cherry pie, potato salad, and croquet at my grandmother’s house in Tacoma.  Those things all did happen, sometimes together, maybe not actually on July 4 but at other times in summer…whatever.  Also fireworks over Lake Washington at Sheridan Beach, which clearly did not coincide with Tacoma-based activities.

Mrs. Senior Me taught me how to make potato salad, when I was wee, and while I am always tweaking the recipe — because I am always tweaking all recipes, otherwise I get bored, plus I still haven’t quite achieved the Platonic ideal of potato salad — I still make it more or less the way she taught. Sometimes there is bacon, but not in the original, and not this year. I have always loved potato salad, and even some people who don’t normally like potato salad like this (mayo-free) version.  Thanks Mom! Happy 4th!