After completely giving up on finding good Chinese food in DC, I was finally introduced to the most authentic Chinese restaurant I’ve been to probably since I was in China. It was completely unexpected and in the strangest place, but isn’t that often the way?
So an incredibly nice acquaintance of ours had taken us shopping at Costco (more on this another time), and then proved even further how amazing he is by taking us to this gem of a restaurant. Luckily, he speaks Mandarin, so he could get the wait staff to keep our meat items from Costco in their fridge for us so they didn’t spoil. While the staff weren’t exactly friendly, they were very quick and efficient, and did do us the favour of keeping our meat for us. I imagine they could be even less friendly to groups that don’t speak Chinese… Our friend mentioned that the restaurant has a pretty ordinary take-out menu, but the menu we were ordering from was far more like something you would find in London’s China town. Lots of Chinese lettering and pictures of the food. We were already impressed, and then the food began to arrive.
The thing R and I loved about Chinese food in China was the variety of vegetable dishes, and we found all our favourites again here. The way they do green beans just turns what can be a boring side into something so savoury I just can’t get enough of it. And then there was a really wonderfully sticky and tasty garlic baby egg plant dish, which also looked so beautiful – the egg plant a lovely pale purple.
We started off though with Dan Dan noodles, and as soon as that chili oil hit my palate I knew it was going to be a good meal. Then the Szechuan pepper corns did their thing and I was hooked. Chili oil was the predominant ingredient – the chili stops it tasting greasy and the oil base keeps things relatively light – and formed part of a cooking liquor for a tofu dish (the only time in my life I’ve enjoyed tofu) and a sort of stew of pork and cabbage.
We all had a great meal, served with plenty of good tea (apparently the British drink tea like the Chinese – though I might say it was the other way around!). So if you ever find yourself on New York Avenue, near the Arboretum, check out Panda Gourmet at the Day’s Inn. You’ll be surprised.
It’s not the Cantonese I grew up with, but I’ll take it!
Welcome to my first ever guest-post on 18 months in DC! This was written for me by my good friend Kate (who also writes a great blog about books, over at http://bloggingaroundmybookcase.com/) about her ‘vacation’ with us last autumn.
“I’ve got friends in low places, where the whisky drowns and the beer chases my blues away” the growling refrain came up on my iTunes recently and I was immediately transported to the back of a car on Skyline Drive with four grown adults giggling uncontrollably and trying to sing along.
But that is, perhaps, getting ahead of myself. Last autumn E and I were very excited to head to DC to visit R and A, two of our best friends, who have decamped from London to live in DC for a few years.
I was unexpectedly charmed by DC. In its own, low-key way it is quite lovely. R&A live in an area called Adams Morgan which is home to a classic American diner, a number of great restaurants and a degenerate bar called Madam’s Organ.
Our first encounter with Madam’s Organ involved a riotous night of karaoke of which one of the highlights was a performance of ‘Friends in Low Places’. I had first come across the piece during a summer spent working on a ranch in Wyoming so when I heard it again it was like rediscovering an old friend. If you aren’t familiar with the song, you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvCgSqPZ4EM and it would be excellent background music for the rest of this blog.
Other highlights of DC were canoeing on the Potomac in the autumn sunshine, watching the Washington Wizards in action, R’s informative and beautiful walking tour of the war memorials and hours spent in DC’s brilliant museums. Watching E scrambling through air ducts in the spy museum will stay with me for a long time.
However, that wasn’t the main point of our trip. After a few days in DC we headed off on a road trip taking in Virginia, Shenandoah and Skyline Drive. We visited the sites of the original English settlers, learnt a lot about Pocohontas and the civil war, talked to lots of people dressed up as settlers and gorged on the fascinating history of this new nation.
I also had grits for the first and last time; collared greens and catfish were much more to my taste.
Then we headed off to Shenandoah, which was the highlight of the trip for me.
Skyline Drive is a road that weaves along the mountaintops through the Shenandoah Forest. It is a stunning drive that we hit at sunset on the first day when the fading sun brought the autumn colours to life in a spectacular, fiery display. We were there on the last week in the season and it was the perfect cold, crisp, clear weather – perfect for hiking.
So we stayed the night in a log cabin and the next day tied up our hiking boots and set off on a spectacular walk that that involved some time on the Appalachian Trail, waterfalls, startled deer and more autumn colours than I’ve ever seen. ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t do autumn in Shenandoah justice. It really is one for your bucket list.
Those of you who have taken my advice and listened to the suggested soundtrack to this blog will have noticed two things a) it is quite long and repetitive and b) that it is an earworm that you will be humming for the rest of the week.
It was after a week of us humming this song, singing snatches here and there and that some members of our merry band couldn’t take any more. So, when halfway up Skyline Drive, another rendition started up, one particular passenger turned the radio on in protest… only then to find that the song they were playing on that radio station at precisely that moment was…Friends in Low Places. At which point we all dissolved into giggles. There is no escape!
Growing up, takeaways (as we call take-out in the UK) were always a special treat. They would only be bought on special occasions, or on the way home from the beach if we had stayed too late to think about cooking. Sometimes on these evenings it was fish and chips, but my favourite was always Chinese. We would come home, call to order our usual dishes (chicken and cashew, chicken chow mein, prawn chop suey, egg fried rice), and then about 15 minutes later my parents would head out to collect it, leaving my sister and me in a frenzy of excitement, listening for the car in the driveway and the sound of the back gate to announce that dinner had arrived. My parents would dish everything out fairly, piling food on top of the rice (except in my sister’s case – she had her rice separately, in a bowl), and we would sit, in front of a film, enjoying that post-beach feeling of sun-baked skin and sleepiness along with the salty goodness of gravy-soaked noodles and rice. Sometimes, when the takeaway was in honor of guests, we’d add another dish, like sweet and sour chicken balls. Later on I remember they started adding free prawn crackers to our order. As I moved away from home, to university and then to London, I discovered the wide range of Chinese dishes available – and that they could be delivered straight to your door. But however different they might have been, they still retained that special quality of a rare and happy occasion.
In the States it’s so much more usual to get take-out than it was when I was young in the UK. The other day the boy I tutor said that he had picked up a Subway sandwich for his dinner; a couple of weeks before his mother picked him up a Chipotle burrito when she dropped me back at the metro. But so far it’s been difficult to get hold of the same sort of Chinese takeaways as we got in the UK. Perhaps it’s because so much of the Chinese food in the UK is specifically Cantonese food, whereas here it’s more likely to be Szechuan or some other variety. There also seems to have been a turn to healthy Chinese in some DC restaurants and you’re more likely to find steamed rice and broccoli than fried noodles and chicken balls. I also heard that much of the DC Chinese population moved out to Virginia and Maryland, and that you’re therefore more likely to find good Chinese a bit further out of the city.
As I have mentioned here before, prawn crackers do not seem to be an American thing. A neighbour of mine, hearing of how traumatic I was finding this withdrawal recently made them for me – which was completely amazing. Sadly, she was not converted and described them as prawn flavoured cardboard. I find the deep-fried noodle crisp things DC takeaways serve instead of prawn crackers far more tasteless, but I guess it’s what you’re used to.
One thing I had expected here – and had been somewhat looking forward to – was Chinese food in cardboard cartons, like they get in the West Wing.
But so far I’ve not found this – I wonder if anywhere still does it or if they’ve all gone over to microwaveable plastic containers…
What DC takeaways have in their favour is value. Many of the restaurants do incredible meal deals, where you can get a double serving of soup, a spring roll and a large main course with rice for under $10 (£7). All main dishes come with complimentary rice, which you can substitute with fried rice for about a dollar. And once you realise that you can ask for dishes to be made ‘extra spicy’, they’re really very tasty.
Finally, at the end of the year, with R’s family, we followed a friend’s advice and found a pretty good restaurant. And I found myself ringing in 2015 with that communal Chinese takeaway I remembered.
Before I moved here, when I thought of American food, I thought of burgers and pizza, and diners serving pancakes. I didn’t think of seafood. But since I’ve lived here and traveled around a bit, I’ve discovered that seafood in America can be found all over, in all sorts of places, and is not only delicious but also excellent value.
In the UK you’d probably think twice about having oysters in a pub – unless the pub was very much in the area for them and was known to be good. Probably you wouldn’t be able to find oysters on most pub menus. But here on the East Coast you’ll find them fresh by the dozen or fried in a po-boy in all sorts of pubs and bars, and it’s a safe bet to go for them. Even our local sports bar on 18th Street advertises oysters for a dollar each.
I had difficulty working out how to organize this piece, as we’ve had such good seafood on so many wonderful parts of the east coast, and each experience reminds me of another. But in the end I decided to take each type of seafood in turn.
Enjoying lobster my two favourite ways in Maine.
I mentioned the lobster shacks of Maine in a recent post. Lobster certainly is plentiful in this state! You could get it in lobster rolls of slightly sweet brioche-type bread stuffed with cold sweet meat and slathered with mayo. Or steamed and served hot with melted butter, with biscuits and corn cobs on the side. Or even as an ingredient in Mac and Cheese. This was probably my least favourite way to treat lobster – while I can’t really choose between lobster rolls and steamed. But if I thought this was just a Maine thing, I was corrected when we went to Boston and I discovered that you could get a lobster roll for a comparable price at Faneuil Hall, along with excellent clam chowder (I wrote about our trip to Boston here). I’ve also heard that the lobster is similarly great in Connecticut, though they make their lobster rolls with warm meat, tossed in melted butter.
Clams (more specifically, clam chowder)
When we were in Maine we decided to try to find the best clam chowder. We tried an award-winning one in a small cafe in Freeport (home of the outdoors store LL Bean), but in actual fact found one in a small pub in Boothbay harbour that beat it in our opinion. Both were creamy and had plenty of clam meat in them, but both also had slightly too much bacon taste for us. And we couldn’t seem to find any that used whole clams. Finally the clam chowder in a bread bowl from Fanueil Hall in Boston came into our lives and turned every other clam chowder into a distant memory. It might just have been that we were cold and needed it – but I don’t think so.
Incidentally, when we got back from Maine I found this recipe for clam chowder which I always use now. I like the fact that it doesn’t use cream (always a flavour-killer in my experience) and that it gives such clear instructions for really cleaning the clams to avoid your diners crunching on sand and silt. We had some really badly-cleaned sandy large clams in Maine (they’re known as Steamers because they’re just steamed), and that almost put me off clams for life.
So I wrote a while ago about how I am enamoured of crab, especially in crab cakes and crab dip. Here in DC we live pretty much on the Chesapeake, so crab is a local delicacy. Everywhere serves crab dip, and crab cakes are a very usual alternative to a burger in many bars in the area. Recently though, R and I discovered the fun that is beating up whole crabs to eat their legs like lolly-pops. We learnt the art of hammering and cracking and fishing about in the shards of shell for tiny morsels of sweet, sweet crab meat on the dock of a water-side bar in Deale on the Chesapeake. Just an hour away from DC, after a day on the beach, we felt like we were on holiday as we ate and drank beer in this beautiful spot. We ordered half a dozen medium crabs, along with a side of hush puppies, and were delighted when the crabs arrived covered in old bay seasoning. While it was hard work (especially when the sun had set) for not very much meat, what we got out of them was completely delicious.
We discovered oysters in Boston. Did you know that oysters from different places taste different? Well we’d never found this until we went to Boston and found that oyster menus are more like wine menus, practically coming with tasting notes. We have learnt that the more Northern oysters from the coast are usually saltier than the ones that come from the Chesapeake or the Virginia river estuaries. Once we’d had our education in Boston (at their Legal Seafood and the wonderful Neptune Oyster) we found that Pop’s Seabar on our street in DC also has fresh oysters daily in at least three varieties, so we’ve been continuing to enjoy tastings.
We haven’t made such a comprehensive survey of other seafood such as scallops, shrimp and mussels. And I’ve not really had much straight fish. However, we’ve had excellent meals including scallops, in both DC and Boston. Cashion’s Eat Place does nice things with scallops but it was at Boston’s tiny Neptune Oyster that we had the stand-out dish of our time here. R had amazing scallops tossed with perfectly cooked sprouts, and I had one of the best seafood stews I’ve had outside of France.
I have noticed a tendency in DC to overcook mussels. This was not a problem at Neptune Oyster.
One place we have not visited yet is New Orleans, where I’m told they have amazing shrimp. So far the shrimp I’ve had in shrimp and grits has been excellent, but I’ve heard that in New Orleans they get Gulf Shrimp, which I need to try. I’m also looking forward to finally travelling to the West coast this fall – R has been and has brought back reports of amazing sushi and fish dishes.
There’s probably lots of American seafood we still haven’t tried – the combination of a lot of coast and numerous culinary styles is a guarantee of that. I just hope the fish stocks hold out. Luckily there are some fish so plentiful they’re actually considered a pest – a local seafood bar hosts a regular all-you-can-eat blue catfish night to do its bit to ‘save the seas’ (see their facebook page). I think I need to get down there!
If you asked many Americans, especially Texans, to come to your barbecue they would probably be confused. When we in the UK think of barbecuing we think of what the Americans call grilling. Or tailgating if it happens in the parking lot before a sports event. Barbecue is a word reserved for the cuisine that results from cooking meat slowly in a barbecue smoker oven
We’ve done quite a bit of grilling now in the States. There’s a gas grill on our rooftop, but because that was a bit hit and miss, we bought a little smoky joe charcoal grill, which we’ve used to grill mainly steak so far; we’ve tried out various marinades, chopped it up for sandwiches to feed a crowd on July 4th, and added it to salad. It’s been good.
Barbecue though, has been a revelation. For starters, there’s a different kind of barbecue in pretty much every state (and according to this Wikipedia article, even in different parts of Texas). So far we’ve both tried barbecue in Texas and South Carolina, and R has had barbecue in Oklahoma and Kansas too.
The main thing to remember is that Texas is a beef producing state, so Texas barbecue focuses largely on beef brisket. They dry rub the meat and cook it slowly in a smoker until it practically falls apart. Their sauces are rich, sweet and can be hot. Our most memorable experiences of this barbecue were in Austin last year. First we went to House Park Bar-B-Q in the West of Downtown Austin, near the graffiti wall at Castle Hills. This place was a real old barbecue shack, with a hunting and fishing theme to the interior decoration. We were a bit nervous as to how they would react to two Brits on vacation from DC, but we needn’t have worried. They were really friendly and happy to explain their menu, recommend a can of Big Red (incredibly sweet) to go with our brisket sandwiches, and even show us their 50-year-old barbecue oven. The next day we queued at la Barbecue (as I mentioned in a previous post) and ate brisket in the open air from a trestle table, dousing it liberally with bbq sauce.
In North Carolina we stopped on the way back from our road trip at a proper barbecue place – Fullers Old Fashioned Barbecue. It was buffet style, and felt both authentic and wonderfully democratic. People from all walks of life were there having lunch. We queued for a short time, paid for two buffet meals with sweet tea, were seated, and then investigated the buffet. There was a salad bar, but like most people we skipped that and went straight for the hot food, where we found collared greens and fried okra, biscuits, and of course the meat. There were two kinds of chicken – crispy fried and smothered with barbecue sauce – but the main draw was the pork. South Carolina is pig country, and they do their barbecued pulled pork in a vinegar/mustard dressing, which was just delicious, especially with the biscuits.
In DC it’s often said you can’t get good barbecue. [People always ask me about Freddie’s place in House of Cards, but the truth is there’s very few places like that left in DC – they filmed those bits in Baltimore.] However, we’ve found two good places, and one comes with the seal of approval from Texans. Smoke and Barrel on 18th street is a great place to try barbecue for the first time, and has become our place to take visitors. You can get a sampler to share which includes chicken, sausage, pulled pork, brisket, ribs and sides. Sides include smoked asparagus, coleslaw, potato salad, sweet potato wedges, and grit cake. You can of course order extra of anything you particularly like. They ask you how you want the chicken barbecued – dry rubbed, wet with sauce or ‘muddy’ in a mixture of rub and sauce (I never understand why anyone would go for anything other than muddy) – and then there’s a range of barbecue sauces, including hot, sweet, and sweet and sour mixtures of maple syrup, honey, and chilies.
Fat Pete’s up in Cleveland Park turns out to be the choice of the few Texans we know. They have a similar range of barbecued meats to Smoke and Barrel, which you can get in a sandwich or as a platter with sides, and the traditional barbecue sauces. The only thing that raised eyebrows was the white barbecue sauce. I think it was made with horseradish, but our friends were highly suspicious of this innovation, so we avoided it. Still the beef brisket was pronounced pretty good – and from Texans that’s high praise.
Apparently you can now get authentic American barbecue in London. I’ll believe it when I taste it though, because at the moment the Camden Blues Kitchen’s ‘Texan pulled pork’ is ringing some alarm bells…