North America Dispatch #12: Virginia Chowconnaissance: Two Days in High Gear
There are three modes of dining:
• Going to a known place (for many, this means a chain) or a place you’ve been guided to
• Taking a random stab and hoping for the best
• Chowconnaissance, whereby an area is methodically gauged and charted via herculean onslaught in an afternoon or two
For non-chowhounds, those options appear in declining order of appeal. Familiarity is paramount, going off the map is worrisome, and the sampling of multiple places in quick succession is completely daft.
For chowhounds, it’s the opposite. Familiarity is boring, trying someplace new is exciting, and massive exploration is … well, the most rewarding pastime one could imagine.
Rewarding though it is, chowconnaissance is not easy, and no one would choose to do it often. It’s a grueling undertaking that offers none of the standard pleasures of dining out. The pace is frenetic, food combinations are unharmonious, and energy expenditure is mighty. And the result, even if one diligently paces oneself, is exhausted dyspepsia.
So why do it? Because chowconnaissance is how we build knowledge. By plunging in, we’re able to compare similar venues to suss out superior options. The drill is to dash in and out of places, parsing takeout menus and strategizing orders to efficiently reveal benchmark quality. Hopefully, grandeur can be ferreted out in short order. And then, having attained the knowledge of Where’s Good, we can one day return to the hottest spots for leisurely, exultant meals.
This rigorous, unnatural style of grazing used to be the exclusive domain of restaurant critics, but more and more amateur food sleuths are taking the iron-hound route. What it lacks in physical comfort and immediate satisfaction it more than makes up for in the quick accrual of massively useful chow know-how. Like saving a portion of your paycheck or freezing spaghetti sauce, this is a kindness one does one’s future self. And the fact that my future self must get itself to Falls Church, Virginia, to partake of the fruits of this research matters not. Such knowledge is treasure, and I horde treasure reflexively.
I hit all the following in two afternoons, rarely taking a second bite of anything. And while it left me groaning, I was able to speedily go from deeming northern Virginia a mysterious, vaguely enticing chow area to thinking of it as an old stomping ground. I’ve got a portfolio of great places to return to, plus tempting leads for future investigation.
How did my streak affect things? It’s all about the winnowing. There were probably something like 300 eateries in the area, and around 20 piqued my attention. I actually ordered something at the following 10 places, all of which had something quite noteworthy to offer. I used nothing but my chow-dar intuition to find the following:
Original Pancake House
370 West Broad Street
Falls Church, Virginia
(Also branches in Bethesda and Rockville.)
The Original Pancake House shows the patina of a great place devolved into ennui. These pumpkin pancakes were merely above average, and I suspect that’s true of much of their offerings. But the menu includes two dishes too wacky and distinctive for the kitchen to have eroded: the apple pancake and the Dutch baby. I don’t need to describe them, because they taste precisely as they look in the following photos.
From the looks of their website, the Original Pancake people seem to agree that these items are the highlights. I didn’t know that when I ordered … which goes to show that ordermanship is an integral part of the chowconnaissance process.
3405 Payne Street
Falls Church, Virginia
This was an extremely difficult puzzle. Initially, I pulled over because I hoped I’d find Palestinian kunefe (a rare and prized thing) here. Any restaurant called “Jerusalem” is likely to be either Palestinian or Israeli, and it certainly wasn’t the latter. I didn’t expect to see explicit Palestinian references, because Palestinians tend to identify their restaurants as Jordanian.
The menu lists mostly Lebanese dishes, though, which is a whole different thing. And just to confuse me further, the menu included some serious Egyptian dishes.
I ordered a chicken shwarma sandwich, described on the menu as served with garlic sauce and pickles—which is very Lebanese. So I asked for extra toom—the Lebanese term for garlic sauce. The waitress stared at me blankly, and the sandwich came completely toomless; it tasted fine but somehow off. Everything tasted off, in fact. Finally, I chatted up the waitress and learned the present staff is Moroccan!
So they’re trying valiantly to keep up the restaurant’s legacy dishes, though Morocco is a long way, culinarily, from Lebanon. I ordered some Moroccan baked pastries (see photo below), which were wonderful. And I noticed a few errant Moroccan gestures on the menu, including harira (lamb soup) and couscous. I bet they’re real good. Must try next trip.
Bread & Kabob Restaurant
3407-B Payne Street
Falls Church, Virginia
Too full to even sample. But I’m quite certain it’s top-notch. Hopefully chowhounds will try it and report back on our message boards.
Yas Bakery and Gourmet Foods
131a West Maple Avenue
• Saffron ice cream
• Cookies, almond/pistachio
Devastatingly delicious and potent saffron ice cream. More rife with saffron than any other saffron ice cream I’ve had, and they go easy on the rosewater (which, to my taste, tends to overly complicate the flavor). Cookies are good-not-great. Ask for the lemon-washed pistachio nuts, a must-buy in any Iranian grocery. I bet there’s other great stuff here, too. Disclosure: Rob (the military wine geek) told me there’s an Iranian bakery thereabouts, so I was not entirely flying blind, though I will take credit for uncovering the saffron ice cream, which has now become a holy grail must-eat on all future trips to the area.
This tiny Bolivian cabin is so intensely insular that you feel like you’ve been transported to La Paz. Things are different in Bolivia, so things can be disorienting here. We walked in at 1:30 p.m., and the waiter approached us gravely. “Lunch is over,” he said (in Spanish), with merciless finality. “Lunch is over?” I repeated, deflated and unbelieving. “Yes. It’s over. No more lunch.” He waited for me to turn and walk out the door, but my panic prompted a creative response. “Then may we have dinner?”
Yes, we may. We were seated and handed menus (the dinner menu, quite inexplicably, is the lunch menu), and we ordered falso conejo (faux rabbit: sauced breaded beef cutlet in a spicy sauce with rice and boiled potatoes) and picante de pollo (spicy chicken: chicken with spicy sauce, boiled potatoes, and rice, served with cut tomatoes and onions). They were out of salteñas (Bolivian baked empanadas) and sopa de maní (spicy peanut soup), but that may be emblematic of the lunch/dinner divide.
To drink, I got a phenomenally unrefreshing glass of refresco de durazno, a tepid, syrupy sweet beverage clobbered with countless tablespoons of cinnamon and containing what appears to be a desiccated llama testicle (actually a dried peach) lying sunken on the bottom.
The food was amazing. I was transported not just to La Paz, but to La Paz 300 years ago. Each plate was an enormous mountain with its own microclimate and gravity (I think I saw the salt and pepper shakers tremblingly pull in as the weighty load was deposited on our table). One could eat and eat and never make a dent. And the cooking is unrepentant. The falso conejo (see photo below), a fiercely oniony delight, uncompromising in every respect, asks, “Can you really handle unstinting authenticity? Can you really face down this blast of spice, this sheer load of unvariegated meat, so primal, so intense? Can you ever hope to so much as run your fork through this quantity of rice?”
The picante de pollo (see photo below) dared me to maintain my notion that I really love chicken. Do I love chicken this much?
I felt like a four-year-old presented with Daddy’s plate (and Daddy lays train tracks in the Bolivian jungle). I ate and ate and ate, made no headway at all, and, with flop sweat on my brow, asked for the rest packed up to go. Defeated, I was expelled from the joint like the clueless pasty gringo I am.
I hadn’t intended this recording for public consumption … it’s just me noting down the items I’d tried for future reference. But the background sounds are transportive, so I’m throwing it in. Don’t listen to me … just catch the vibe: MP3 file.
There were two other great places in the same strip as Victor’s Grill. I regret not sampling the other two, having been knocked nearly unconscious by the experience at Victor’s:
418 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia
A walk-through revealed fresh tortillas and everything super homemade and alluring. They are Salvadoran but make mostly Mexican. The owner, asked about their pupusas (Salvadoran fried corn pucks stuffed with meat, cheese, or meat and cheese), gleamed at me and said (in Spanish), “Dude, if you’re into pupusas, you’ve just got to try ours.” Not hype. This place rocks. I don’t need to eat there to be sure.
422 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia
Killer-looking Peruvian chicken, done over live coals. Even the sides look great. See photos.
Pure poultry porn.
Pure plantain porn.
Feel the high-energy bustle!
Cool mural on the side of the building.
The following two reports don’t stem from chowconnaissance, strictly speaking. Pho 75 is a place Dave had shown me once before, years ago, and Elevation Burger was shown me by Robert.
1711 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia<br / 703-525-7355
Pho 75, unsurprisingly, makes pho—Vietnamese meaty soup, pronounced like “funk” without the “nk,” and with voice rising as if asking a question. They are expanding wildly (including branches in Philly, which I reported a few installments ago). The big news of this trip is that Vietnamese seems to be springing up everywhere, often beneath the radar. Look for, and get used to, pho, because we’re all going to be eating lots of Vietnamese!
I’d sampled the original location years ago and loved it. This time I tried a more downtown branch, and while the soup’s excellent, it’s a bit less intensely seasoned than I remember. The star anise is particularly reduced—I realized this as I walked in the door (aficionados can distinguish a good pho place with a single sniff). But, hey, I still really liked my soup—soulful broth generously stocked with quality meat. Beware the chili peppers on the condiment platter, which are beyond hot. They produce what feels like a nasty electrical fire on your tongue (pepper heat varies seasonally, though).
442 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia
Elevation Burger is around the corner from Victor’s Grill (which I actually tried the following day). These guys talk a good game: burgers made from Kobe beef … yadda yadda … fries fried in olive oil … yadda. Prices are high. And, much like the lauded Five Guys in Arlington, Elevation Burger produces merely a pretty good burger and fries. Though, in these days of total chain dominance, an honest, pretty good burger and fries probably truly is a gourmet treat worth a premium price.
What I did not check out was the Vietnamese shopping/eating cluster at Seven Corners. The food’s got to be good in this amazing-looking plaza, because it’s so dense with immigrant-patronized restaurants that slackers would never survive. But it’d take days to thoroughly investigate, and I just didn’t have time. I see that Tyler Cowen is trying to catalog some of these venues on his website.
Because I’d managed to have only microbites at the places above, I was able to have an actual (late) dinner. I was very disappointed not to have found any Cambodian or Laotian, which I still suspect exist in northern Virginia, but I consoled myself with a Thai blowout at a newish restaurant that Dave Sit discovered in a remote shopping mall. Dave’s correct—this is a terrific place.
Rice and Spice Thai
6466 Landsdowne Court
Just a dumb suburban shopping strip … but such strips can contain hidden treasure!
Dave is baffled by the sheer font size of their table sign.
Chicken larb, full of complexity and rice flour. And yes, that’s a whole lot of chile, son. This stuff was hot ... and as good as any larb I’ve ever had.
Penang curry with chicken (very good, but missing a few elements in the curry sauce).
Basil crispy duck (wonderful, though perhaps—dare I say it?—too spicy).
Siam beef (oh-so-tender and rich).
It takes time to fully decompress from a serious binge of chowconnaissance, so, caught up in the inertia, I felt obliged to sneak in one post-meal bite, a morsel of sashimi from the sushi joint across from Rice and Spice in this unassuming (yet chow-rife) shopping strip. Matsui Sushi, 6408 Landsdowne Centre, Alexandria, Virginia, 703-550-6100, is, as Dave had reported, much better than you’d expect in a suburban shopping strip. I’d never order prepared food there, but the raw fish is quite good.