Pizza Vinoteca, Ballston

I’m upgrading Pizza Vinoteca to Italic.

I didn’t feel like venturing out to lunch today, so I ordered delivery through GrubHub, ordering a House Pizza (a bargain at $8) with tomato, fontina, mozzarella, and basil and a Tarte Flambée ($12) with crème fraîche, fromage blanc, bacon, and onion. Both pizzas were delicious, grilled, and reminded me of the old Pizza Zero in Bethesda (Argentine).

Even more of a bargain: Pizza Vinoteca has 1/2-price pizzas at the bar for happy hour, Mon-Fri, 4-7PM. Assuming they’re all available, this House Pizza for $4 would be ridiculous.

The restaurant offers 36 wines by the glass all for $10 or less every day (and they have drink specials during happy hour which I suspect include wine).

When you order, you’ll get a coupon good for $5 off your first online order of $10 or more (to be used at Pizza Vinoteca) through GrubHub (which will actually be your second order, since you have to order once to get the coupon). I’d give you my discount code, but I worry that would be ripping off the restaurant. The coupon is supposed to only be good for your first GrubHub order, so theoretically I can’t use it – why would they give it to me then? I’m sure it will be fine.

Pupatella has nothing to worry about, but Pizza Vinoteca poses a challenge to Willow’s flatbreads. I still give Willow the nod, but for delivery? This is by far the best delivery pizza I’ve found in the area.

One suggestion to Pizza Vinoteca: There’s a fine line between having really nice delivery boxes (and yours are really nice!) and being environmentally conscious. While these boxes are both novel and very attractive, you might want to reconsider them once you get established (after you’ve hooked the fish, there’s no need to keep fishing). This is a tough situation for restaurants, because you want to put your product in something decent (just like serving wine in a crystal decanter), so I understand the push-and-pull here.

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Fried Chicken

the downtown place with the hard descending steps and reputation for the best fried chicken in town

Your reference to Boss Shepherd’s made me realize (to my surprise) that we had no thread for Fried Chicken. I think people are always up to hear about who is currently doing a good job with this American classic.

So let me begin by throwing one out for you: Hong Kong Palace.

Sheila: “Did he say ‘Hong Kong Palace?'”

Carla: “I think he did!”

The other evening, I ordered the Fried Chicken with Spicy Potato ($11.95, item C19 on their carryout menu), and got some of the best fried chicken I’ve had in a long, long time. Cut into bite-sized morsels and served mixed in with bite-sized cubes of potato, this is a spicy dish, but not excessively spicy, and not oily in the least – in fact, it’s quite dry in terms of presentation, and that’s exactly the way you want it. The chicken itself was about as perfect as fried chicken can be – with wonderful seasoning and a perfect chew (dare I say it’s toothsome?) – and most of the spice lies in the potato rub which you can eat around (but you won’t want to).

Try this dish, and you’ll be both shocked and addicted. If you want a well-balanced meal, add a green; if you want great fried chicken, this will do you.

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Oki Bowl and Sake Bar, Downtown

Porcupine, on 20 Nov 2014 – 8:16 AM, said: I had an excellent miso ramen, with flavorful broth, springy noodles, awesomely porky and not too fatty chashu [I think that’s the spelling they used].  Definitely one of the better ramens I’ve had in awhile.

Gadarene, on 20 Nov 2014 – 10:30 AM, said: Yeah, I ate here for lunch a couple of days ago and was VERY impressed by the miso ramen.  The noodles were wonderfully chewy and tasty, and the broth was rich and delicious; I finished every drop.  The corn was also very nicely cooked.  I’d say the other toppings, including the chashu, were only okay, but on the whole I’m already comfortable ranking them above Sakuramen and most other non-Toki places in DC.

I had dinner at Oki Bowl and Sake Bar recently, and liked it in a Dickson Wine Bar sort of way.

When you walk into the restaurant, you feel like you’re part of an Erector Set.

I started with a small Sapporo ($6), whimsically served in a Mason jar, as I looked around me in a childlike awe – using the restroom here is a must.

For starters, I got the Fried Oyster Tempura ($10.95) and the Lotus Root Ship ($7), and I’m still not quite sure if “Ship” is a typo or not, but it says the same thing on Oki’s website. These were rectangular plates with a line of fried oysters, and thick-cut lotus root, respectively – the thickest-cut lotus root I think I’ve ever had, and although I enjoyed them both, I would give the nod to the lotus root which went spectacularly well with the ponzu-like dipping sauce.

Then I ordered the Miso Ramen ($10), and can only rate it in the “good, not great” category, the noodles being dried and ordinary, and the half-egg too hard for its own good (I’m not looking for a runny egg, but this was a little overcooked). The decent broth elevated this ramen from something close to middling, from where I was sitting.

I had a pretty good laugh when, sitting at the bar, I was able to see through the pass at the person assembling my ramen (but only the torso), and the entire bowl was assembled with the left hand while sitting down, as the cook was typing in text messages with the right – the entire assemblage took place while texting or surfing. and it was pretty funny to watch.

There was an initial grimey, 1980s, Times-Square feeling having just walked by Camelot and Bell’s before slinking down into a basement to sneak into Oki Bowl, but it passed after a few sips of beer, Erector Set notwithstanding.

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Soi 38, Downtown

If you read all the reviews in our Soi 38 thread, you’ll notice that they’re 100% positive. There’s a reason for that.

On a Sunday evening, I sallied up to the bar in a relatively empty Soi 38, only to be greeted by a wonderfully friendly server (who looked as if she was doubling as bartender in case any customers came) – it was getting towards Christmas, and many downtown restaurants were fairly empty in the evenings, so for awhile, it was just me at the bar, me and two TVs at this large, delightfully decorated restaurant with extremely friendly and knowledgeable FOH staff. My delightful server, was from Bangkok, and knew Thai food seemingly very well (at one point we began discussing Thai restaurants we enjoy, and she recommended Sawatdee and also, somewhat surprisingly, Thai Square. I asked her if she’d tried Little Serow, and she said no, but it was something she very much wanted to try because she’d heard great things about it (even from her Thai friends). Her name, I believe (and I wouldn’t say this if she wasn’t outstanding in every way), was Mui.

I began with the oh-so-Thai beer Estella Damm ($6) – I’m sorry, I like it! Plus they had a folding sign outside listing that as a happy-hour special (it was a mistake – there were no happy hour specials that evening, but we’re talking two bucks, so no big deal). Then, after sipping my beer for awhile and watching basketball, I ordered an appetizer, an entree, and lunch the next day.

Mee Krob ($7) was just what I wanted to start with. The name literally means “crispy noodles” (visualize medium-thin, white, rice-based noodles that you’d love to eat like potato chips as a snack). These were presented with several lovely shrimp, cooked well enough where I didn’t bother removing the shell, along with a little bit of uncondescending sweet-and-sour sauce (something like a thin, homemade, Indian, <— am I supposed to use the Harvard comma here? tamarind chutney), bits of pork, some beaten egg, thinly sliced shallots, and some jalapeños, onions, etc. as a garnish for the bold and daring. The plate was small, and it might be a better idea (since this should really all be mixed together at some point in the dish) to use a bowl in which to serve it – you don’t want any precious noodles to go plummeting over the edges, nor to be using your finger as a food stop.

About halfway through the Mee Krob, my Kua Kling ($15) arrived (I asked Mui to go ahead and have it fired, and bring it whenever it was ready). She raised an eyebrow when I ordered this, but issued no warnings which I appreciated. Oh damn it was hot. I had never seen this dish before, and had absolutely no idea what to expect; only that it was described as a ¨dried curry,”and I knew it was from the South. It was ground pork, and arrived looking something like this. After one bite, I knew I could only take a few (I wasn’t that hungry to begin with, and also knew that I could doctor it a bit at home). It’s a *great* dish, and I said as much to Mui when she noticed I wasn’t eating much of it – my suggestion is to share it with someone, and eat it with other dishes; not by itself as a stand-alone: You’ll be happy if you do.

To take home for lunch, a Pad See Ew ($14, no lunch discount when you order to go at dinnertime!) with stir-fried pork loin, wide rice noodles, Chinese broccoli, egg, and sweet soy sauce.

Even though I’d ordered quite a bit of food, I hadn’t actually eaten all that much, so a little dessert sounded perfect, and nothing is ever more perfect than Khao Neaw Mamuang ($7), the classic Thai dessert, mango with sticky rice – delicious, sliced fresh mangos (I’d love to know where they got these), served on a plate next to a thin layer of sticky rice, and topped with warm coconut milk, and pinched with sugar and salt – for me, this is the perfect “comfort dessert,” and one which I actually crave sometimes when I’m sitting home and working. There isn’t much unhealthy about it, either. I remember the first time I ever tried this was with Member Number One at Bangkok-Vientiane (which became Bangkok Blues, but used to have an excellent Thai cook as Bangkok-Vientiane). It was “love at first bite” with this dish, and I haven’t stopped loving it – I don’t think it would be possible for me to ever get tired of it, and I would travel to Thailand just to do a culinary tour of this with different, fresh mangos. Gosh, what a vacation that would be.

Lunch the next day was *perfect*. After trying a few nibbles of the excellent Pad See Ew, I dumped the rest of the Kua Kling into it, stirred it altogether, and microwaved it for several minutes. The heat of the Kua Kling complimented the sweet, salty Pad See Ew, and vice-versa – it was a fantastic mixture of flavors, and for those bold enough to experiment like this, I cannot recommend the combination of the two dishes any more than I do. Everything was in balance, and even though I felt like a heathen (this is like mixing Bordeaux and Burgundy), synergy took two very good dishes, and made them into an outstanding one.

Soi 38 is the best Thai food I’ve ever had in DC that wasn’t from Little Serow (I haven’t yet been to Thip Kao). It’s better than anything I’ve had in Maryland except possibly the first dinner I ever had at Sabai Sabai Simply Thai, and in Virginia, only Thai Square from the 90s can approach its level of quality, although the style of cooking is completely different (there was also one amazing dinner the first time I tried the now-closed Burapa Thai in Clarendon). I’m certainly not trying to play the silly game of “ranking” these restaurants against each other; merely suggesting that we have a major Thai restaurant on our hands with Soi 38, one which you’ll like, and might just love.

And thank you very much, Mui, for a lovely meal.

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Mala Tang, Virginia Square

Following goodeats’ recommendation about Chinese dining on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I wanted to remind Christmas diners that Mala Tang is open until 10 PM tonight (I called and verified this, although don’t be surprised if they close a bit early).

Last night, on Christmas Eve, I got delivery from GrubHub (an unappetizing name, but a service I really like), and it came right when they said it would – in less than one hour. I like GrubHub because you can order everything online, including putting the tip on the credit card, all without even speaking to a live person if you’re inclined not to. For me, the ability to put a tip on the credit card is an asset because it minimizes “door time” when there’s inclement weather.

Early on, Mala Tang got typecast in my mind as “Szechuan Hot Pot,” but it really is so much more than that. Witness:

Salt And Pepper Jumbo Shrimp ($14.95) – Judiciously battered and wok-fried, this would, of course, work better as a dine-in order, but if you know in advance that the batter will lose a bit in the delivery process, you won’t be disappointed at all. A wonderful dish, scattered here and there with bits of peppers, tiny diced bits of vegetables, and served on a small amount of finely stripped iceberg lettuce (which I actually enjoy when it has marinated and warmed). This comes with steamed rice, but that’s best reserved for the next course (unless, of course, you want to mix everything together):

Chengdu Mouth-Watering Marinated Chicken ($7.95) – Oh my goodness, get this! I couldn’t find it on Mala Tang’s website, but it’s on GrubHub’s. In general, I don’t love poultry dishes served at room temperature, but this was a huge exception. I suspect in the restaurant, this is served at room temperature, or perhaps a few degrees warmer, maybe at 80 degrees; after the delivery, it had chilled to perhaps 65, so I zapped it for 20 seconds in the microwave (lid on), and that was just enough to take the chill off. Now, as for the dish: I don’t see how they can serve this for $7.95 – it’s an appetizer, but it’s got to be the equivalent of half a chicken, or close to it – and somehow, it seemed like it was all dark meat even though the large, thin slices would indicate breast meat. Whatever it was, this was a *great* dish – a large portion of uniformly sliced chicken, seemingly an impossible task – positively bathing in a thin, Chengdu red chili sauce with a few scallions, some celery-like root (after the marination, sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly what the vegetables are). For me, I got the perfect amount of sauce when I dumped my white rice into a bowl, and used a fork to flip the chicken (and vegetables) over the side of the tray – you’ll get probably 25% of the sauce if you use this method; any more than that, and it’s dine at your own risk. But regardless of whether or not you’re a chili-head, you’ll be delighted at this wonderful dish, doubly so when you blink and realize that it only set you back $7.95.

I was so happy with both of these dishes that I’m going to explore the Chengdu and Szechuan items on Mala Tang’s menu in more depth. Their hot pot is fine, it’s fun, it’s a wonderful date dish for two, but this is where the heart of the restaurant lies. If you have an inkling for Chinese tonight in Northern Virginia, consider going through GrubHub and getting both of these items from Mala Tang – no matter whatever else you order, get both of these.

I was so happy with both of these dishes that I just ordered them again, along with some further Chengdu and Szechuan explorations. All in the name of strict journalistic professionalism, of course. You know, just to make sure things are consistent.

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Stachowski Market, Georgetown

I phoned Stachowski’s the other day and ordered a couple Pastrami Sandwiches ($14.99 each), and when I opened them, was surprised to find out that they were on thick-cut pumpernickel; not rye. Looking at the online menu, there’s apparently a choice between the two, and I didn’t realize the “default” was going to be pumpernickel (we had kind of a sketchy phone connection, and the gentleman on the other end seemed to be doing two things at once).

Regardless, this was good pumpernickel, and you don’t order these massive sandwiches for the bread – at $14.99, they’re *easily* enough for two people, maybe even three. On one side of each sandwich was two slices of bread, so you had three slices of thick bread per sandwich. The pastrami was as good as ever, although it’s amazing just how fatty the meat is – even the pieces that look lean. There was a nominal slathering of mustard on each sandwich, and each one came with a full, sliced dill pickle.

Does anyone actually eat these as sandwiches? I’ve always opened them up on a plate (or in the foil), and picked up the meat, occasionally taking a bite of bread (I figure most people do this, and that’s why they come with three slices of pumpernickel).

Still the best pastrami sandwich in the area – gluttonous, New York-like, enormous, delicious, fattening – everything that’s so right and so wrong about a great pastrami sandwich. It had probably been a year since I’ve had one, and they haven’t changed a bit with the possible exception of the fattiness in the meat (but that varies on a slab-by-slab basis).

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Pupatella, Ballston

(See the July 25, 2014, Review here.)

For a long time – over a year – whenever I went to Pupatella, both Enzo and Anastasiya were both there, every single time without exception. Then, life for them progressed, they had a baby, and word of the quality had spread enough so that the business grew substantially.

Now, it’s almost the exact opposite – Out of the past, say, ten visits, I’ve seen neither at the restaurant probably eight times.

But how has the pizza been?

First of all, I *always* take advantage of the “$10 off” any bottle of wine with purchase of two pizzas offer – if I’m there alone, I’ll invariably buy a second pizza to go, just so I can get a $30 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or Vermentino for $20 – I’ll have a couple glasses there, and take the rest home. It’s a really good deal on some very drinkable wines, and one which you should be enjoying.

A few days ago, I ordered four pizzas, and I’d say they were pretty representative of my recent experiences there. They’re slightly different than they used to be – not better, not worse, but different. The crust is perhaps a millimeter (but only a millimeter) thicker, and the crust coming out of the oven is slightly more soft than it used to be (but only slightly). The flavors in the dough are still right there, and the toppings – which have never been the same quality as what you’d get at 2 Amys, for example, are about the same. In other words, the pizzas have been pretty consistent over the years, and are among the best in the area if not still *the* best.

But I’ve developed what is nearly a fetish for their Mimosa ($12): Italian cream, roasted corn, prosciutto cotto, and fresh mozzarella. And on this recent visit, I ordered two of them – that’s how much I like them. In fact, I think I’ve gotten the Mimosa on each of my last several visits. This time, I also got two red pizzas (with San Marzano tomato sauce) to go along with my two white pizzas: a Ham and Mushroom ($11), with prosciutto cotto, sautéed mushrooms, and fresh mozzarella, and for the first time ever, a Pepperoni Pizza ($10.50) with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and beef pepperoni. For “personal-sized” pizzas, these are technically 11 inches, but they seem slightly larger, and the four pieces they’re cut into are enough for a meal unless I’m really hungry – there are always leftovers for the next day, and I’m still trying to master the art of reheating these. Even if I put them into a pre-heated oven, directly on the rack, the crust comes out softer than I’d like – if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears.

Pupatella remains in Italic in the Dining Guide (as it always has been), remains the top-ranked restaurant in Ballston, and remains one of the best, if not *the* best, pizza in the DC area.

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Oriental Gourmet, North Arlington

A few days ago, I was reading over this thread, and combining its general tone with my own experiences, I made the hypothesis that Oriental Gourmet might just be the best “white-carton,” Americanized Chinese restaurant in the area.

I decided to take some people’s favorites, add my own into the mix, and then change up the meats and sauces, coming up with this:

P5 Pork w/ Black Bean Sauce ($10.95)

S27 Fish Filet w/ Black Pepper Sauce ($14.95)

V8 Spinach Stir-Fried w/ Garlic ($8.95)

Patting myself on the back, the combination of flavors, ingredients, and balance was just right – more importantly, this meal was fantastic as far as Americanized Chinese meals go. At Oriental Gourmet, you’re not going to get the lip-curdling, palate-numbing flavors of a Hong Kong Palace Szechuan crippler, nothing of the sort – this is straight-on, full-bore, unapologetic Chinese food for American palates. But, the ever-important difference is that it’s done well!

How well?

Well, well enough to have another go at it.

A few days later, I went as soon as they opened for lunch, and got the exact same order, the only difference being that I got the lunch-sized Pork w/ Black Bean Sauce ($7.95, and a noticeably smaller portion than the dinner version).

The only difference was one you might expect: the prime-time dinner meal was more perfectly cooked. In particular, the onions that accompany the stir-fry were ever-so-slightly undercooked, producing a slightly crunchy texture (which, in turn, doesn’t release all of the sweetness); other than that, the fish could have seen another twenty seconds of wok time – it was hot, but not *piping* hot. These two things would not have been noticeable unless I was doing an active comparison. But I was, so I noticed.

Regardless, my hypothesis – that Oriental Gourmet may just be the best white-carton Americanized Chinese restaurant in the area – stood the test of two versions of the exact same meal at dramatically different times.

Raised to Italic in the Dining Guide, and elevated several notches to where it should have been all along.

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Bayou, West End

Bastards Who Brunched

My young dining companion and I gave up after a futile search for parking in Georgetown (where we were heading towards Leopold), so we escaped and headed eastbound on Pennsylvania, only to notice The Bayou. Well, why not? Bayou serves brunch 11-3 Saturday and Sunday, and we got the two-top right by the host stand.

I was dying for some a cup of Coffee ($3), and Bayou’s is better than the norm. Our server told me the brand, but it was a name I didn’t recognize, and I’ve forgotten it. Still, it’s not the watered-down liquid you so often get at bar brunches – it’s respectable coffee.

We ended up splitting most everything, including a side order of Jalapeño Cheddar Grits ($3.95), and Matt got a Marigny Po’ Boy ($15.95) which was half fried shrimp, half fried oysters (you can also choose half catfish), lettuce tomatoes, pickles, remoulade, and the side of your choice – in this case, Collard Greens with Bacon (normally $5.95).

What I got sounds like a mess, but it wasn’t at all. Grand Marshal Benedict ($19.95) was a variant on a classic Eggs Benedict: poached eggs on an English muffin, fried green tomatoes, Tasso ham, fried oysters (2), corn salsa, and Cajun Hollandaise – plus, some unadvertised home fries. It was a large plate, large enough so everything wasn’t clustered together, and all the ingredients went together very nicely.

I would have cut the tomatoes a little thinner because they tended to dominate the Benedict, and I’d also add a couple less pickle chips to the Po’ Boy, but other than that, this food was pretty much as good as you could possibly expect. I’m batting 1.000 at Bayou – I’ve been here several times now, and have enjoyed it each time. In fact, Bayou may be my favorite of Bo Blair’s restaurants (which include Surfside, Jetties, etc.) – I’m not sure where Executive Chef Rusty Holman actually spends his time, but someone here is running a consistent kitchen.

Incidentally, Bayou gets added to our Half-Priced Wine Nights thread for active members of donrockwell.com.

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Saffron, Falls Church

I ordered from the new Falls Church Saffron (they deliver through GrubHub), and unfortunately, can only find two positive things to say. However, do note that this could easily have been the primary chef’s night off, so don’t draw any universal conclusion from this little disaster.

Saffron has a plug-and-play curry menu where you pick your meat and pick your sauce. With thoughts of KN Vinod dancing around in the back of my mind, I ordered the Chicken Chettinad ($14). Since it was my first time eating here, I got one of my Indian standards, Palak Panner ($13, and yes that’s how they spell it), and completed my order with a Paneer Kulcha ($4).

Let me start with a couple of compliements: the Kulcha was properly baked, and I suspect they might have gotten Curry Mantra 2’s tandoor when they took over the restaurant. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was correct (these breads can also be made on a griddle or a tawa, and I don’t know for a fact that it’s done in a tandoor, but it was pretty evenly (and properly) charred.

More importantly, the quality of the chicken meat was fantastic. The Chettinad came with a generous portion of boneless, dark meat, and I wonder if this might be Halal based on the quality of the chicken. Meat-wise, you just can’t ask for anything more than this.

Okay, that said, the overriding characteristic of this meal was oil. Oil, oil, and more oil. The Chettinad was the most oily dish that I’ve had in a long, long time, and I ended up just picking the pieces of chicken out, and discarding the rest. Although the Palak Paneer wasn’t “oily” per se, the menu said it was made with spinach, tomato, ginger, and garlic, and maybe it was, but if so, it was ridden with ginger, and had an off-putting taste as well as the impression of cheap, frozen greens. I don’t know that this was frozen, but I’ve had several frozen versions of Palak Paneer that are much better than this (you’d be surprised how good frozen Palak Paneer can be).

The bread, while fine, seemed like more of a Naan than a Kulcha – I just couldn’t find any Paneer in it at all. There may have been a sprinkling, but I looked pretty thoroughly, and didn’t detect any.

Well-made Indian food is a sublime experience; poorly made Indian food is nauseating, and this meal makes me not want to have Indian anytime soon. Although I’m hoping (and assuming) that this was simply an off night for Saffron, it’s going to be very difficult for me to order from here a second time – but if I do, I’m going to search the menu for a more simple recipe that uses their wonderful chicken.

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