Category Archives: Local Dives

Golly, Ollie’s Trolley

Ollie's Reuben & Fries

Ollie’s Reuben & Fries

I admit, I couldn’t think of anything more creative for a headline.  But “golly” is kind of a retro word and Ollie’s Trolley (425 12th Street, Metro Center) is a retro restaurant, classic old DC with its bright colors and kitschy gewgaws and all-original everything as far as I can tell.  Like, at the counter, where you would normally put your tray — about the only place possible to put your tray — there is a sign warning not to put your tray down because the surface is uneven.  The surface IS uneven, and neon orange, and should have been replaced years ago, but that ain’t Ollie’s way.  And that’s okay.

After a couple of recent visits, I have concluded that my previous visit 30 or so months ago was an anomaly, and the fries (which were mushy and blah then) are actually pretty good.   Lately they have been crisp and spice-resplendent. The menu says the fries are “sprinkled with our blend of 26 herbs and spices” — they are certainly sprinkled with stuff, but 26 kinds?  That’s more than double what Colonel Sanders came up with!  I discerned salt, pepper, sugar, cayenne, paprika, sesame seeds, cumin seeds…maybe poppy seeds…are we at 26 yet?  No idea what else is in there.  MSG?  Anyway, very different from Five Guys or KFC or most other places, but they’re above average if you like that style.

Look closely, do you see 26 herbs and/or spices?

Look closely, do you see 26 herbs and/or spices?

Friends like Ollie’s burgers, which I think are only okay.  Another friend loves the steak and cheese. I prefer the reuben, which is excellent in a greasy fast food way; the thousand island dressing might have been imported from Chernobyl, its light orange glow matching the counters that one’s tray dare not touch; the rye could be toasted a bit more; the sauerkraut and swiss are fine; the flavors and textures all blend into something much better than the parts might suggest.

The bbq ribs — I think a limited time special, not on the regular menu — are also reportedly good, although the slab I saw looked more like an oversized gelatinous Swanson Hungry Man Salisbury steak. While I waited for my reuben, a dude was yelling loudly but (at first) unintelligably at Ollie’s staff.  Turned out he was ecstatically happy about the bbq ribs.

Someone pointed to the grill man, and Ribs Dude yelled at him: “you made these ribs? you my new best friend!”  Must be some good ribs!

Then: “I’ma start a gang and put you in it!” Okayyyy…

And then: “I’ma get some girl pregnant and when she have the baby, that baby name gonna be your name!”  what

That statement seems just so so wrong on multiple levels, and yet as a testament to the quality of the bbq ribs, it could hardly be stronger.  Ribs Dude looked like a slightly younger, slightly heavier Cedric the Entertainer, and sounded kinda like Cedric too, or maybe more like Cookie Monster after a long weekend of chainsmoking and bourbon shots.  In other words, someone whose opinion on bbq ribs should be taken seriously.

I was tempted to say “I’ll have what he’s having” but decided against it.  Maybe next time.

Note: Ollie’s takes cash only.

Recent Returns: Woodside Deli

The Woodside Deli website is strange: despite their longstanding location just south of the Beltway, across from Snider’s — is that Forest Glen, or Silver Spring or Woodside, or All of the Above, or…whatever.  Despite that location, the website focuses nearly exclusively on the Rockville catering arm of the company, and lists the deli menu for “historical value” only, as though the original restaurant no longer exists.  The actual hard copy menu, which does in fact exist, has a different design but all the same items, and prices don’t seem far off. No mention online of the restaurant address, hours, etc.  Which makes me think this isn’t the right website…but if there’s another one, I can’t find it, and this is the one linked to by Yelp and its ilk. So my first unsolicited recommendation (aren’t they all?) is to upgrade the website.

On the other hand, the apparent fact that they are focusing on the catering at the expense of the restaurant kind of came through in our meal this time.  We have liked Woodside in the past, and our recent visit wasn’t bad, but the food wasn’t particularly good either: uninspired salads, big but bland sandwiches, corned beef hash that clearly came from a can. The pancakes are decently fluffy, though, and HUGE, like the greasy-but-good potato latkes and also every other item we’ve ever ordered or seen ordered there. If you’re sick of the small plate trend gripping greater DC, Woodside could be the antidote. Hard to avoid leftovers at Woodside — but do we really want them?

Service can be good or indifferent, depending who you get. The best part of brunch was the people-watching. Most Wheaton restaurants, especially the Thai and Chinese places, have a diverse ethnic clientele.  But Woodside Deli’s customers seem more diverse, in terms of not only ethnicity, but also age, and economic status (judging by attire, personal sanitation, dental work), than any other restaurant I’ve been in lately.  That’s intended as an observation, not a judgment, and if (like me) you don’t mind eating at a table next to the occasional person dressed like she earned her brunch money by turning tricks the night before, and on the other side a kid throwing his utensils all over the place…well, if you like this sort of cross-section of America and you like leftovers, but you prefer a local dive to a generic national chain, then you’ll dig Woodside Deli the most.

How Food News Travels

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.


Ollie’s Trolley

Decades-old DC landmark restaurant next to the Hotel Harrington near Metro Center, I had never been until today. Ollie’s Trolley makes a good burger but no better than Five Guys, and the fries are mushy and weak despite bold seasoning. Prices are a bit higher than 5G too, and wait time is about the same. Ollie’s wins points for garishly divey decor and more diverse menu (chicken, fish, cheesesteaks, chili), but the overall burger value isn’t there for repeat visits when Five Guys is only a block away.

Road Trip: Twisted Tarpon (St. Pete Beach, Fla.)

The Twisted Tarpon (678 75th Ave.), until late 2010 called Philthy Phil’s, across the street from the Sloppy Pelican…you get the idea. Beach shack dive with fried stuff (though surprisingly few seafood options), a mix of locals (but not those who complain about the noise) and tourists (only some of whom are fried), and surprisingly good food and service. $3 margaritas: winners, despite plenty of sour mix. Crab nachos are a good spin on the traditional, with lots of crab (real, not surimi), green onions, gloopy white American cheese, fresh-ish chips, it all sort of works.  Asian salad with grilled tuna was good, and while the “fish bucket” wasn’t the best fried fish I’ve ever had, it was decent, and at $7.95 was the best deal we ate all week.

Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Jay’s

Especially Jay’s. A recent, rare surgical strike into the wilds of NoVa to meet friends led us to Clarendon and dinner at The Liberty Tavern (3195 Wilson Blvd.), about which we had heard good things. Bar downstairs, dining tables upstairs, and despite the separation, conversation was still difficult over the constant ambient noise.  We were glad for the separation, though; the bar was packed full of twentysomethings there to drink and see and be seen and drink some more and hook up and regret and continue drinking — you had to throw lots of elbows in order to get to the restroom, partly due to sheer number of people and partly because not a single one of them appeared to have any self-awareness at all, or any interest in normal social cues like moving even a few inches to let someone slide past.

Happily, the food was great.  Bread basket with several varieties, all good; short but well-chosen beer list — Mrs. Me enjoyed her Dale’s Pale Ale and I loved my Bell’s Winter White.  $2.50 for a Diet Coke seems steep, but hey, Clarendon (except, no — see below). Best dish was a grilled octopus starter: tender, perfectly cooked, lots of flavor, on a bed of greens, olives, and shaved fennel.  A fabulous plate of food, though not much of it.

Mrs. Me ordered the popular Amish Chicken, which disappeared along with the mashed potatoes, but not the reportedly too-bitter braised greens. My lamb special was perfectly medium-rare and very good, but the bed of baked beans that the server claimed were “savory, not sweet” were in fact too sweet, and cloves dominated the sauce more than they should.  Lots of bacon/pork fat was also involved, and that worked out pretty well. Friends enjoyed the skirt steak, scalloped potatoes, trout, and gnocchi: not a disappointment in the bunch.

So: fine dining, but not really our scene, so to recalibrate we walked two frigid blocks to Jay’s Saloon & Grille (3114 10th Street), a total dive — an oasis of Wheatonian ferality in Clarendon! — that doesn’t even have a website despite being around for many years (here’s some Yelpage).  Jay’s doesn’t have much seating, and the beer list could be bigger and/or better, and the ceiling needs work, and when food falls to the carpet you’d better observe the zero-second rule and throw that morsel right out, but we loved it anyway (or maybe exactly because of those things).  We loved the efficient, friendly staff; we loved the scruffy regulars hanging out at the bar while the much younger, less scruffy semi-regulars hung out at tables; we loved monitoring the (casual, not all Libertyed-up) twentysomethings playing a rollicking game of quarters at the next table.  We loved the fun cover band (can’t go wrong with Greg Kihn covers! Seriously! They just don’t write ’em like that anymore!), though admittedly that’s why we were there in the first place. We didn’t order food, but will next time. Not sure how much a Diet Coke costs, but can’t possibly be over $2.

Not that we’re likely to return to Clarendon anytime soon.  But if we do, we will probably skip Liberty and head straight for Jay’s.  Liberty is the Omegas and Jay’s is Delta house, and we’ll hang with Bluto over Marmalard any night.

Putt Putt *Sputter*

This is not food-related, though golf is sustenence for many (though not for me) (I am categorizing this post under “Local Dives” because you’ll see).  We tried to play mini-golf at Columbia Sports Park this weekend, but they closed early, so we found ourselves at Rocky Gorge (also in Columbia, or Laurel — somewhere in there, by the side of Rte. 29), home of driving range and batting cages and mini-golf, including the self-proclaimed world’s-longest mini-golf hole.  Indeed, the 19th hole is long and swoopy and would make for good sledding if it ices over…but the prior 18 holes have seen better days. They are a collective slice of Nixonian, suburban America, frozen in time for decades, except not frozen in time because boy has the complex deteriorated. This is a photo from RG’s website:

Rocky Gorge back in the day

Brightly painted lighthouse!

Striking blue-and-white paint, shimmering water below, just like Crete.  Corfu?  Okay, not quite, but still a fine looking Vietnam-era U.S.  putt putt course. Rocky Gorge dates back to 1965 and this photo was likely taken closer to 1965 than to today. Here is the same lighthouse, this past weekend:


Blue in mood if not in color

No more Greek Isles. Rusty. Kind of sad.  But not as sad as Needles the once-animatronic “singing lonesome pine,” who no longer moves or talks. Didn’t get a good shot of Needles, who was shrouded in darkness, but here is his par sign:


Poor Par 3 Needles

No longer singing, but more lonesome than ever. The whole course is like that: dry beds where once water hazards lay; (rain)water hazards where they shouldn’t be; misaligned tracks; wheels struggling unsuccessfully to turn; broken pieces (lawsuits waiting to happen); and rust, rust, rust. I think they’ve given up maintaining the place. But I don’t want to be too negative, because we actually had a great time. The kitsch factor is ridiculously high; nearly every hole had something uniquely askew or awry or bedraggled. We couldn’t stop laughing.  And despite the condition of the course, it still plays mostly fine, and we got the usual assortment of holes-in-one and pars and bogeys. We plan to make the RG course a post-Thanksgiving ritual.

The Barking Dog (Bethesda)

We came for the skeeball, and had to come back for the skeeball. In the end, there was skeeball, and that’s what counts.

The Barking Dog (4723 Elm, Bethesda) is known for its hot dogs (maybe?), and its skeeball league, and its sort of comfortable grunginess. A league isn’t our thing, but Mrs. Me has been agitating for a skeeball outing for some time, so finally we visited BD in hopes of a tasty food-and-skeeball adventure.  The $1-off various drinks-and-apps happy hour special is solid, as are the nachos; the dogs are good, based on a single, unadventurous sample of the Down Home Dog (onions, cheese, lettuce, tomato).  Okay beer selection, big menu, food seems better than I remember from my last visit several years ago.

The skeeball is upstairs next to the dance floor — go on up, said the friendly bartender — but it turns out the upstairs doesn’t open up until 8pm.  We were there at around 7:30 I think, no earlier than 7:00; the lights were all on upstairs, the air conditioning was on, several employees were up there…nevertheless, they wouldn’t let us play skeeball.  Highly lame!  Off we went, still happy from the hour but suddenly less so.

I wanted to boycott but Mrs. Me insisted on a return trip so, even more recently, we went back to BD and successfully skeeballed for a while, and also watched, amused, as a few dozen birthday partiers danced (a bit) and milled about (a lot) and drank (a LOT) and listened to the music (good mix of alt-rock but OH MY GOD LOUD) (or maybe I am just old? too true).  So in the end the skeeballing was good, though for me it gets old kind of quick.   BD is solid enough overall. I think I would rank restaurants at Elm/Woodmont: (1) Jaleo (2) Taylor Gourmet (beware Flash) (3) Barking Dog (4) American Tap Room. Overall nice collection for one intersection, and that’s not to mention Mussel Bar next door to ATR, which I haven’t yet tried and isn’t technically at the intersection, but close enough and I hear great things. Ranking subject to change at any time (on any given day TG could easily be #1).


We heard, following visits to The Chicken Place and El Pulgarcito de Callao, that Wheaton’s best Peruvian food lives at Cabanita (11305 Elkin), so I lunched there recently (following on Wheaton Calling’s recent review).



Cabanita’s lomo saltado features dense-in-a-good-way fried potatoes, fresh tomato/red onion, only okay beef strips (not supertender, but one doesn’t expect high-grade beef in this kind of dish), and plate-licking-good sauce.  The sauce was so good, I used every last grain of white rice to sop up every last drop of sauce. I didn’t really lick the plate — I do that only in rare, exceptional circumstances, when Mrs. Me isn’t looking — but the rice and potatoes did their job so I didn’t have to.

Cabanita Lomo Saltado

Cabanita Lomo Saltado

Only one negative: my diet coke was flat. Service was good, which is no surprise because I’m not too much trouble and the small restaurant — maybe 10 tables for max 30 people — had only two other customers. My server did humor my mediocre Spanish without resorting to too much English, which is always appreciated. Cabanita’s menu is much shorter than, say, The Chicken Place, but the food is at least as good if the lomo saltado is any indication. One of the other two customers ordered the seafood soup special and it looked goood. Will branch out from the good-but-non-adventurous lomo saltado next time.

What else? Red/yellow/white walls with Peruvian photos and artifacts, lots of laminate, drop ceiling, a typical Wheaton family-run dive — less divey than El Pulgarcito but less ambience than Chicken Place. I like it, and kind of amazing that all three are within a block of each other. Another point in Cabanita’s favor: spotless restrooms, unfortunately an uncommon feature (the spotlessness that is). We will return, and not just to use the facilities or lick the plates.

Nick’s Diner

A nice note on Nick’s Diner (11199 Viers Mill, at University) at What’s Up Wheaton — I should probably be embarrassed to admit I have been to Nick’s only once. It is a total dive, and I mean that in a positive, classic retro Greek-American diner way, and the food is good (I wouldn’t say great), certainly a good value for the price.

The main reason I don’t go more often is that they are open for breakfast and lunch only (and closed Tuesdays), and they are always packed for weekend breakfast/brunch, often with waits of a half hour or more if you don’t get there really early. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it’s always so crowded that nobody goes there anymore. But I’m glad business is good, they are an asset to the Wheaton eatin’ scene for sure, and I will try to get back there in 2010.  As What’s Up says, if you haven’t been, you should go, especially if you like classic divey diners.