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Alexandria Farmers' Markets
Here is a list of farmers' markets in Alexandria:
Old Town, Market Square, Saturdays, 7:00 am to noon year round. This is the oldest and largest.
Old Town North, Montgomery Park, Thursdays, 3:00-7:00 pm year round. This is the newest and smallest.
Four Mile Run, Four Mile Run Park, Mount Vernon Avenue, Sundays, 9:00 am to 1:00 pm, outdoors from April to October, and indoors from November to March. This is the only one billed as a farmers' and artisans' market.
Do you truly savor coffee? If so, here are two local recommendations. Both are coffee roasters with embedded coffee houses, offering single-origin, single-varietal, single-estate and house-blended beans, grounds and served coffees. Plus custom roasts, articulate tasting notes to help you decide what to try, bakery munchies, and free wireless Internet. Both want you to hunker down and stay for a spell. These are terrific neighborhood joints.
In North Old Town, go to Del Ray Coffee Bar at Swing's Coffee Roasters, located at 501 East Monroe Avenue. Large open modern space with a calm vibe, reclaimed furniture, and two-story floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Eugene Simpson Stadium Park across the street. Try the pour-over coffee ("water is poured in a thin, steady, slow streem over a filter cone" and brewing "takes as long as three minutes") or the nitro iced coffee/iced latte (cold-brewed, dispensed from a tap, and served in a brandy snifter). From Watergate, head west to U.S. Route 1 northbound, cross over the railroad tracks on Monroe Avenue Bridge, take three immediate right turns to loop back under the bridge, and you are there. Ample free parking. It's also a nice 20-minute walk from Watergate.
On King Street, go to Misha's Coffeehouse and Roaster, located at the southeast corner of King and South Patrick Streets. Intimate rooms with charged energy, vintage found furniture, and picture-window views onto the chaotic streets of Old Town. If you order at least 10 pounds (the minimum load for the shop's roasters), they will custom roast whatever beans you select. To get there from Watergate, head south, turn right on King Street, and it's 5-6 blocks on the left. It's Old Town parking. Another leisurely 20-minute walk.
L'Auberge Chez François Named Most Romantic Restaurant in Virginia
Throughout history, there have existed public waystops offering travelers respite from their journeys with shelter and victuals. They are known by different names -- an inn or bed and breakfast in many places, a roadhouse in the U.S., a stopping house in Canada, a coaching inn in the U.K., a ryokan in Japan, and an auberge in France.
In 1954, François Haeringer opened a classic French restaurant, Chez François, in the Claridge Hotel on Connecticut Avenue near the White House in Washington, D.C. He wanted a place with, as he put it, “a nice ambiance and good honest food at affordable prices.”
In 1975-76, redevelopment in the city forced him to close his downtown restaurant and open a French country inn of the type found in his native Alsace. The family-run inn, L'Auberge Chez François, is located in Great Falls, Virginia, a tree-lined drive to the west of the District on the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
From the beginning, L'Auberge, as it is known to all, offered a prix-fixe meal -- amuse-bouche, appetizer, simple salad, sorbet intermezzo, entrée, dessert, coffee or tea, and little end-of-meal sweets at a fixed price.
In later years, the inn began to offer upgraded menu choices -- for example, a more luxuriant appetizer like seared fois gras with wine jelly, an elaborate roquefort salad, a decadent main course, or a grand marnier soufflé for dessert -- each with a montant supplementaire or added amount. For a long time, L'Auberge was the place to kindle romances or celebrate milestones and other special occasions.
L'Auberge faced possibly its darkest moment on October 1, 2000, when an electrical short in a vent fan caused a two-alarm fire that severely damaged the kitchen and other parts of the 85-year-old structure. The day after the fire, François Haeringer personally called every guest who held a reservation in the days immediately after the fire to apologize for the restaurant's unexpected closure. In those days, reservations were highly sought-after and made a month in advance. The inn's rebuilding and restoration took six months.
On February 6, 2017, USA Today published its list of "the most romantic restaurant in each state." L'Auberge was the restaurant selected in Virginia.
Relocated ABC Store
The ABC Store moved from its old location at 901 North St. Asaph Street to its new space a couple blocks down the street at 686 North St. Asaph Street for the duration of the Giant/ABC redevelopment project at 500 First Street. The liquor store's new digs are next to Sunday in Saigon.
Express Lanes at Grocery Stores
I was standing in an express checkout lane at a Kroger supermarket in a North Carolina college town some years back, waiting to pay for my groceries, when the woman behind me looked at my shopping basket and quipped, "either you are an English major that can't count or a math major that can't read." She then glanced demonstrably at the sign above my head that read "15 items or less." There was no doubt that my cart held a few more items than that. I smiled at her and stood my ground, letting her imagine that I spoke no English at all.
So I smirked when I read a recent article published by the Detroit Free Press reporting that a number of grocery store chains, including Kroger, are moving to a more relaxed model for express lanes that now suggests "about 15 items" to shoppers who might want to avail themselves of the breezier check-out option.
According to the news story, the main reason for the change is that the rigid cap on grocery items for access to the popular fast lanes tends to limit the amount of stuff that people grab off the shelves, which in turn cuts into a store's profits. Generally speaking, the more shoppers buy the more grocers earn. Most folks, my earlier self included, understand that express lanes are for the use of shoppers with fewer items, even if the qualifying number is approximated, and are fairly reasonable in assessing whether or not they qualify.
By the way, I was a history major who understood that "The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves." And if you think that this news doesn't apply to us because we don't have a Kroger in Old Town, you should know that Kroger bought Harris Teeter in January 2014.
For several years now the Alexandria nomenklatura have had a hate-hate relationship with food trucks in the city. It's a mystery why they bother wasting their time and ours on a proposition that they obviously loathe, but our city government thrives on political theatre (or keeping with Russian tropes, the politicians love a good maskirovka).
Alexandria's two-year city food truck pilot program ended badly but predictably – only eight participants in 2014 and seven in 2015 because food trucks were charged high fees, burdened with onerous rules, and kept well away from places where hungry people gather. Said one city councilor, “I don’t know why we bothered.” That’s what most voters think on election days.
Then in a surprise move at the start of 2016, city staffers "identified three potential on-street food truck locations, using criteria that provide a way to meet the demand for food trucks, while minimizing impact to city streets." This is a welcome improvement over the prior two-year goal of selecting spots that seemed to support a robust food truck program while actually protecting established brick-and-mortar eateries whose owners pay local taxes and offer political support.
Proponents of the trucks want more food choices and the hip vibe that they often bring to sassy urban neighborhoods. Opponents are concerned that food trucks will take away already-scarce on-street parking spaces, generate unwanted trash and noise, encourage undesireable loitering, and, let's be honest, bring a hip vibe to otherwise bland, we-like-it-that-way neighborhoods.
One of the three street locations under consideration by the city is at the intersection of First and North Fairfax Streets adjacent to the northeast corner of Montgomery Park, across the street from The Perfect Pita, and a block away from Watergate. As you may know, Alexandria's evolving small area plan for North Old Town seeks to refashion Montgomery Park into a community hub (the city-planning equivalent of the everything bagel). The bureaucrati are soliciting public input on the proposed food truck locations via an online survey that closes on April 3, 2016.
Of the five food truck sites considered, the city council chose three -- one located a block from the Braddock Road Metro station, another a block from the Eisenhower Avenue Metro station, and the last a block from the King Street Metro station. While the pattern here is as plain as those found in the newly-popular coloring books for adults, it's unclear why the Van Dorn Metro station was excluded. The two food truck sites proposed for Old Town North -- one on North Fairfax Street on the other side of Montgomery Park from Watergate, and the other on Madison Street near Alexandria House -- were rejected due to concerns about limited on-street parking and congestion.
Interestingly, the results from the city's recent online poll show that 56 percent of the 738 respondents (there were actually 2,375 attempted responses, but 1,135 failed to complete the elaborate multi-step survey process, and 500 were deemed "uncivil") supported food trucks next to Montgomery Park, 17 percent opposed food trucks there, and 22 percent were indifferent. With the new neighborhood farmer's market to sustain you during your long coloring stretches, who really cares about food trucks anyway?
Marcus at MGM National Harbor
I finally had an opportunity over Memorial Day weekend 2017 to visit the new MGM National Harbor.
An out-of-town friend and I avoided an hour-long wait for a table throughout the casino-resort by finding corner seats at the bar of celebrity chef-restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson's eponymous restaurant located in the Conservatory. The eatery boasts "classic American dishes with Marcus’s unique twist, as well as local Maryland ingredients and traditions."
We were hoping for fairly good food. Thankfully, we got that, but what really excited us were the kitchen's surprising culinary riffs on fairly common dishes. Here is what we ordered and my take on them:
We started with a shaken cocktail called Yes, Chef!, composed of Tito’s Handmade Vodka from Austin, Texas, fresh pineapple and lemon juice, honey syrup, mint, ginger beer, and berbere (an Ethiopian spice mix). This is Marcus' version of the circa-1940s Moscow Mule or Vodka Buck. Retro drinks like this one evoke a Colonial-Amercian vibe that I like. We also sampled a crisp and tart chilled pear cider that hinted at the same origins-story era.
This is The Wedge, Marcus's version of an iceberg wedge salad that was first deconstructed, then re-engineered and reassembled. The reinvented steakhouse mainstay includes stacked bowls of petite iceberg, crispy shallots, diced tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, bacon and "wayback dressing." I have no idea what wayback dressing is, but it is sublime, creamy, delicate, citrusy and elegant -- it truly makes the gorgeous salad sing. This was the best dish we sampled, and I would return to Marcus just for the salad and a cocktail.
I introduce the Salmon Poke, Marcus's take on the popular Hawaiian raw fish or seafood salad (think Japanese-Peruvian ceviche). His version starts with cubed belly salmon tossed in a light sesame-soy dressing, with olive oil, toban djan (a Sichuan-style chili pepper and broad bean sauce), yuzukosho (a fermented chili pepper and citrus peel paste), fresh minced ginger and lime zest, Jalapeño pepper and green onion slivers, grated red onion, shaved radish, and rough-chopped roasted macadamia nuts.
Unadvertised and completely hidden from view until you dig down into the dish a bit was a bed of what appeared to be charred and slightly bitter greens like watercress or radish tops. The unexpected peppery-tasting greens were a welcome surprise. The pan-Asian fusionistas in Hawaii would love this east-meets-south dish. We did.
Here is Marcus's Saint Hill's Shrimp & Grits, featuring creamy grits, shoebox ham, canned tomato (yes, you read this correctly, tomatoes from a can), and shrimp broth. Even though I lived in the south for several years, I'm not the biggest fan of grits (which are traditionally made from alkali-processed hominy corn that is dried and stone-ground), particularly when they are served simply with just butter, salt and pepper. However, when the grits are luxuriously creamy and indulgently overlaid with smothered shrimp like Marcus's version was, they become truly exuberant and uplifting. This was a well-executed and yummy dish, and I would happily order it again.
Marcus calls this The Low Country Cat -- blackened catfish, lump crabmeat, carolina coconut coriander rice, canned tomato and cilantro. The big pink garnish on top is a thin slice of an unidentified root vegetable (I'm guessing a watermelon radish) that was dropped into hot oil to crispen. This was a pleasant dish, and the fish was perfectly seasoned and cooked and moist throughout, but it was a bit too ordinary compared to everything else that was strikingly not.
One of the friendly folks sitting next to us at the bar ordered an entrée that we had seriously considered for ourselves, The Fried Yardbird, a hugely monstrous fried chicken thigh and drumstick accompanied by mashed potatoes, saw mill gravy, and collard greens. We feared that that dish would be too pedestrian. But from what we observed, I would swap the fowl for the fish to address any hankering for southern fried food.
Mia's Italian Kitchen
Alexandria Restaurant Partners -- which operates Lena's Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap near the Braddock Road Metro Station, The Majestic on King Street, Palette 22 in Arlington, Virtue Feed & Grain near Waterfront Park, Vola's Dockside Grill & Hi-Tide Lounge at the Alexandria Pier, and Café Tu-Tu Tango in Orlando, Florida) -- plans to open a 180-seat Italian restaurant to be called Mia's Italian Kitchen in the supposedly cursed retail space located at the corner of King and South Union Streets officially known as 100 King Street, which has been occupied in recent years by Carluccio's (upscale Italian), Red Curry (Thai), New American Bistro, The Alamo (southwestern), The Gaslight (upscale), Heidleburg Restaurant (German), and Pellicano (Italian).
The concept for the new place is still under development, but it seems to be an amalgam, mélange or extension of ARP's prior efforts. Four months out, they are considering a very casual walk-in eatery on the ground floor and a somewhat nicer restaurant upstairs. As for food, they are looking at house-crafted pasta and sauces, Sicilian-style wood-fired square pizzas, sandwiches, and meat and cheese boards. They are striving to create an everyday neighborhood joint for locals, not a restaurant intended for tourists and special occasions.
Not Necessarily New, But New For Me
Here are several small eats on my current list of places to try:
Junction Bakery & Bistro, to try the chicken livers and onion jam for breakfast, 1508 Mount Vernon Avenue (Del Ray neighborhood). Opened July 6, 2016.
Stomping Ground, to try the Fried Chicken Biscuit Not So Classic Style, 2309 Mount Vernon Avenue (Del Ray neighborhood). Opened May 14, 2015.
Hummingbird Bar & Kitchen
The Hotel Indigo, which opened on May 5, 2017, announced that Irish-born French-trained local celebrity restaurateur Cathal Armstrong (Restaurant Eve, Society Fair, Eammon's A Dublin Chipper, PX) is opening a new restaurant in June 2017 on the hotel's ground floor facing the waterfront. The fancy eatery will be called Hummingbird Bar & Kitchen, have 80 seats in the dining room and 40 seats on the walkout terrace, and serve fresh seafood and (hello, it's a Cathal Armstrong field-to-table restaurant) locally sourced ingredients.
Oddly, a June 9, 2017 craigslist job posting for the new restaurant offers the following insights: "Hummingbird''s menu will follow the rhythm of the seasons and celebrate the seafood pride of favorite coastal waters from Chesapeake Blue Crabs to Dublin Bay Prawns. The 'Blackboard Fish' will change daily and will be served with your choice of dipping sauces that arrive table-side in antique caddies. Surf and Turf finds a home in burger-form, local ribeye steak drizzled with aioli and piled high with buttery lobster meat. Meat lovers can opt for the Brick Lemony Chicken or A Mick's Grill, the Irish chef's humor at play on his version of a Mixed Grill, a platter of grilled meats and sublime vegetables -- all from the BBQ."
Warning, past performance is not indicative of future results. Click here to see a May 2, 2017 article published by DC Eater.
In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, two local dudes named Bill and Newt opened a barbeque joint in Maryland with a couple basic goals in mind -- serve "authentic BBQ made from the freshest, most delectable ingredients" and honor "the brave men and women who have sworn to protect and serve our communities and our country . . . our soldiers, firefighters, police officers, first responders."
Even as Mission BBQ has spread out to encompass 50 stores in Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, the chain has remained incredibly faithful to its core values of great food and respect for those who have served. Regarding the former, Mission BBQ serves some of the very best BBQ out there. As to the latter, all activity and conversation in the restaurant comes to a brief halt each day at noon as everyone stands for a rousing version of the National Anthem.
Mission BBQ's 51st store is opening soon in Alexandria at the intersection of Telegraph Road and Beulah Street near Fort Belvoir. Here are a few food notes -- when you order the beef brisket you are given the choice of "dry and lean" or "juicy with fat" (who does that anymore?), they offer sliced BBQ turkey which my friends love, the baked beans are made with bits of brisket, they brew southern sweet tea in kettles, and each table has a six-pack of regional BBQ sauces that you honestly do not need. This is an affordable, sincere, must-try eatery.
Whole Foods Wine Bar and Café
On April 22, 2017, the Alexandria City Council approved a modest proposal submitted by upscale grocer Whole Foods Market to modify its existing 4,300-square-foot store at 1700 Duke Street, first opened in 2004, to put a new 43-seat wine bar and café near the front entrance of the store where its florist shop now operates. Customers will be able to purchase food and alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption and take-away until 11:00 pm on school nights and midnight on date night.
In recent years, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods has been battling against intense public criticism of its absurdly high prices ($6 bottled asparagus-infused tap water anyone?) and fierce competition from mainstream retailers -- including market leaders Costco and Walmart -- in the organic foods segment that it created in 1980 and has dominated for many years. Serious speculation continues to circulate in the financial and business press that Whole Foods itself is now ripe for purchase. Purported shoppers wandering the aisles with empty carts include Kroger (Harris Teeter, Ralphs, Fry's, etc.), Amazon and, most recently, Albertsons (Safeway, Vons, etc.). Maybe they are waiting for double-coupon day, which some folks refer to as bankruptcy reorganization.
The Halal Guys
Traveling to New York City on business over the years, I often stayed at the New York Hilton Midtown on Avenue of the Americas. Many a late night after work, and usually after gorging at a Manhattan steakhouse with clients, I would return to the hotel and see a very long and animated line of locals and tourists stretching down the sidewalk and ending at a food cart entrenched at the southwest corner of 6th Avenue and West 53rd Street.
Every now and then there would be a television news crew interviewing customers standing on line. In nice weather, folks would be strewn about a one-block radius of the food cart, sitting on curbs or steps, silently and methodically tearing into the contents of shiny round tin foil take-away pans of . . . Chicken & Gyro Combo Platter. Even in New York where weird is often the new normal, you have to ask yourself, "What the f***!"
Welcome to the heady world of The Halal Guys. Who? Three Egyptians who set up a hot dog stand at this Hilton street corner in 1990 and soon saw huge interest from Muslim cab drivers looking for tasty and filling halal food. They started serving their now-legendary carry-out platters of grilled and chopped chicken and gyro over rice, with a side salad, pita triangles, and the gents' famous and much-speculated upon red (spicy) and white (creamy) sauces.
If I had to pick two places to eat in New York City, located geographically less than a block apart and culinarily a world apart, both awesome yet sublime, each exceptional in its own right, the first would be at The Modern, a Guide Michelin two-star restaurant adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art, and the other would be The Halal Guys food cart.
Now you can try the Chicken & Gyro Combo Platter for yourself without having to ride Amtrak up the Northeast Corridor, as a franchise recently opened in nearby Springfield Plaza located off of Backlick and Old Keene Mill Roads just south of the Washington Beltway. Other locations are soon opening in the District's NoMa neighborhood and elsewhere in Northern Virginia. Here are links to what the Washington Post and New York Times have to say about these dudes.
As our Arab neighbors are fond of saying, "May you have your meal with gladness and health."
Alexandrian Megg Baroody has worked stints as a bartender and caterer, and now sells fusion gourmet egg rolls out of the side of a food truck under the tradename Meggrolls. Having won several food awards and drawn a passel of fans, she now plans to fire up her first brick-and-mortar-based fryer in the space being vacated by Five Guys near the corner of King and North Fayette Streets. In an interview in the Washingtonian, Ms. Baroody reveals that she and her boyfriend came up with the updated egg roll concept at a bar, because grease and booze is a classic combination.
The Nicecream Factory combines milk and cream from local grass-fed dairy cows, cane sugar and farm-to-table add-ins to customer order. Then it flash-freezes the concoctions "on the spot in front of our guests" with liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -321° Fahrenheit. The store claims that this produces better flavors and smaller ice crystals, "leaving a final product that is denser and creamier than traditionally crafted ice cream." And it also provides much better food theatre.
Founded in 2013 following a successful Kickstarter funding campaign, the company is about to open its second location (the original storefront is in Clarendon) next to Eammon's A Dublin Chipper at the corner of King and Columbus Streets, one block west of Washington Street.
The ice creamery offers 6 to 8 seasonal flavors at a time. For example, in early February 2017, you could get cinnamon candied walnut, orange is the new black, peanut butter cup (they roast their own peanuts and use both white and dark chocolate!), dark chocolate chunk, vanilla bean, and caramel latte. On a visit in mid-May 2017, I tried a $5 scoop of sea salt dark chocolate and it was fabulicious. The business's two young owners, Sandra Tran and Gilbert Welsford, show how their ice cream is hand crafted in this two-minute professionally produced YouTube video.
Sunday in Saigon
Vietnamese restaurant Sunday in Saigon is taking over the space previously occupied by Teaism at 682 North St. Asaph Street. The owner-chef, My Huynh, operates another Vietnamese eatery, Caphe Banh Mi, at 407 Cameron Street, diagonally opposite the northwest corner of City Hall in space previously occupied by The Pita House.
As previously reported on the 2016 Headlines page of this website, after four years of trying to make a go of it, Old Town's branch of Teaism permanently closed its doors on April 24, 2016. According to its owners, sales were flat with no growth in sight despite the fact that the corner-turning storefront on North St. Asaph Street directly faces a flourishing Trader Joe's on one side, is virtually across the street from Harris Teeter on the other side, and is at ground zero of a recent explosion of hundreds of new luxury condominiums and apartments.
The closure may surprise some since the eatery's three DC locations (Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter and Lafayette Park) all seem to be doing well. But then again, this is the third failed business in this particular retail space since the Saul Center at Washington Square opened. Teaism's owners seemed a bit bitter about the closing, probably because they spent three-quarters of a million dollars on the restaurant's build-out, an investment not recouped, and because the city did little to help them succeed even though the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, with $5.3 million in city funds to spend on local business advancement in 2016, maintains offices in the same complex. Ouch, someone needs to post new definitions of "irony" and "failure to launch" to Wikipedia.
Caphe Banh Mi specializes in its namesake east-meets-west sliced-pork-on-French-baguette sandwiches, and Pho, a hearty Vietnamese vermicelli soup. The owners have not yet announced the menu for Sunday in Saigon. For some hints, here is a recent (December 22, 2016) and off-beat review of Caphe Banh Mi written by Tim Carmen at the Washington Post.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries
Bertucci's opened its first brick oven pizza restaurant in Sommerville, Massachusetts in 1981. The chain went on to open nearly 100 storefronts mostly along the eastern seaboard from New England to Virginia. 35 years in business is a long time in an industry that rewards novelty, and Bertucci's journey has had its challenges.
In 1998, Bertucci's founder was ousted in a hostile takeover by a New York private equity firm. For the past ten years, the eatery has faced several industry-wide problems, including a fall-off in growth, Millennials replacing Baby Boomers as the country's and the restaurant's largest demographic group, the increasing popularity of fast-casual restaurants over casual-dining restaurants, and the saturation and staleness of Italian cuisine in the market. By September 2016, Bertucci's was down to 86 restaurants, including closures in Clarendon, Tysons Corner and Herndon. Its Old Town Store at the northeast corner of King and North Columbus Streets closed earlier this year, and Five Guys Burgers and Fries plans to move into the renovated space from its current much smaller location four blocks away at the intersection of King and North Fayette Streets.
Oddly, Five Guys is not a new chain. The made-to-order burger joint was founded in Arlington, Virginia in 1986 by a family with four boys (with dad that made five guys). Within five years, the restaurant added four more D.C. metro area locations, and the family added a fifth son. In 2003, Five Guys moved to a franchise model to turbocharge its growth. Today, Five Guys has more than 1,000 locations in 47 states and 6 Canadian provinces, with an additional 1,500 outlets in active development.
As compared to Bertucci's, Five Guys remains successful after these many years because its original food concept focuses on the very three things that today's Millennials crave -- quality ingredients, customizable food experiences and affordability. In this regard, Five Guys uses fresh never frozen ground beef for its burgers, 100 percent peanut oil to cook its French fries, and potatoes whose provenance (e.g., Wisconsin Russet) is listed in the store each day like featured products in high-end coffee shops (e.g., Rwanda Hingakawa) and sushi restaurants (e.g., Baja California Sur yellowfin tuna). And the chain claims that, with its extensive list of add-ons and condiments, there "are over 250,000 possible ways to order a burger at Five Guys."
Millennials supposedly don't eat breakfast but Baby Boomers certainly do, and Five Guys has the best-on-the-planet bacon-egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich, served only at the store located at the far end of Terminal C at Washington National Airport and supposedly at the store sitting atop the McPherson Square Metro Station at the corner of 14th and I Streets, N.W.
Not for nothing, annual sales at Five Guys exceeds $1 billion.
Myron Mixon's Pitmaster Barbeque
When I first moved to Watergate and for a decade thereafter, my favorite neighborhood restaurant, hands down, was Ecco Cafe, located at 220 North Lee Street at the northern edge of the Old Town commercial district. The restaurant had a lively bar in the front room, a wood-fired pizza oven in the back room, and a line out the door most nights. Restaurateur Dominique D'Ermo and his business partner, Diana Damewood, opened Ecco in 1990 and operated it until shortly after D'Ermo's death in 2002.
D'Ermo's eponymous French restaurant, Dominique, ruled the celebrity-as-customer restaurant-as-entertainment scene in Washington, D.C., for most of its 20-year run from 1974 to 1994. D'Ermo was a French Resistance fighter during his youth in WWII, an avid hunter throughout his life, a former head pastry chef at the historic Auberge du Père Bise in Talloires, France, and the director of food and beverage at the Shoreham Hotel. In the day, he produced his own wine in the French Loire Valley and sold a line of gourmet canned soups at several upscale grocery stores.
My favorite dish at Ecco, the one that I returned to time-and-again, was their version of the Italian classic, Straw and Hay Pasta, which combined daily-made egg and spinach fettuccine, butter, heavy cream, grated parmesan cheese, nutmeg, prosciutto, fresh peas and house-crafted sage sausage. It was served with garlic toast. The subtly seasoned peasant sausage was what set Ecco's version apart from all others. Yum, the dish still stalks my food memories. Here is Wolfgang Puck's version of the dish . . . but without the sausage.
For the past dozen years or so, Ecco's former retail space on North Lee Street has been occupied by a not unpleasant yet somewhat bland restaurant called Overwood. It's like when Dick Sargent replaced Dick York for the final three seasons of Bewitched's eight-year television broadcast. Just not the same, and a bit hard to get past the change.
But Overwood is now gone, and its two co-owners, Joe Corey and Bill McFadden, have teamed up with celebrity pitmaster, barbeque champion and self-proclaimed Dark Lord of Q (okay, I added the "Dark" part) Myron Mixon to open Myron Mixon's Pitmaster Barbeque in its place. Mixon, a judge on Destination America's reality television competition program BBQ Pitmasters, has been dubbed "the winningest man in barbecue." He and his team compete under the name Jack's Old South, an homage to Mixon's father.
Here's hoping that the grub served on Lee Street is as good as the championship stuff. The Washington Post has its doubts, focusing on the fact the restaurant will be using a 1,500-pound pellet cooker fueled by small cylindrical tubes of compressed food-grade hardwood sawdust rather than using the traditional all-wood smokers. The Post cautions that pellet cookers "are notorious for not providing a deep, penetrating smoke." Mixon concedes that “it’s hard to get good smoke from pellets," but after 12 months of working at it he says that "we figured it out.” Plus, he says that “the rubs and sauces that we’re using is my competition stuff. The recipes will be all mine."
Based on a recent visit, I can tell you that the smoked meats are very tasty, and the side dishes are well done. I could sip the house-made barbeque sauce with a straw all day long. This is a higher-end restaurant that uses quality ingredients, evident skill and the necessary care to forge delicious food. It's worth trying. Click here to see a May 31, 2017 article published by WTOP news.
Southside 815 is a popular and enduring local hangout anchoring the southern end of Old Town. To my mind, the restaurant is blessed with three commercial advantages -- a prime location on South Washington Street away from the heavily trafficked King Street corridor, a tidy interior space that smartly separates an energized tavern area from a fairly sedate dining room, and a menu that offers terrific and moderately priced southern fare. What amazes me is that, as crowded as the place can be on any given day, there always seems to be a seat at the bar or an open table.
Last fall, in October 2015, Steve Lecureux, the son of the original owners of Chez Andrée, announced that the popular and enduring French neighborhood restaurant would be closing after 50 years in business in the Del Ray neighborhood of Arlandria. Sadly, his mother, the inspirational chef behind Chez Andrée, had passed away, and his wife had been diagnosed with cancer.
Meridian Place Foods Group, an Alexandria-based restaurateur that owns Southside 815, announced that, on January 3, 2017, the company would be opening a northern cousin, Northside 10, at the renovated site of Chez Andrée, located at 10 East Glebe Road. Meridian reportedly spent $500,000 and nine months to renovate the existing space. Many favorite foods served at Southside 815 are migrating North for the winter..
EatsPlace Launches at the Torpedo Factory
EatsPlace is a pop-uppery, food incubator and restaurant accelerator, among other things. Say what, now? It's a commercial kitchen and neighborhood restaurant and bar that opened on October 8, 2014 at 3607 Georgia Avenue, NW, in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It offers professional chefs who do not currently have an established location an opportunity to try out and refine new culinary concepts, share their food with local diners, sharpen their skills, introduce themselves to the public, gather critical feedback and build an enduring fan base. Chefs are in residence and run their temporary eateries for periods as short as one day and as long as six months.
To ensure day-to-day continuity, the restaurant and bar are open every day even if a guest chef is not in residence. EatsPlace also provides consulting services to chefs and restaurateurs, rents out space for private events, and offers catering, cooking classes and demonstrations.
On January 12, 2017, EatsPlace opened its second location at Alexandria's historic Torpedo Factory Art Center next to the city pier at 105 North Union Street. The Old Town spot swaps a cafe and small market promoting local foods for the restaurant and bar, but otherwise offers many of the same services available at the Petworth location.
Flat Top Burgers
Blink and you'll miss it. That's how fast the food scene changes in our area.
In early May 2016, DRP Food Group (Del Ray Pizzeria and Stomping Ground) quietly opened Chickpea Mediterranean Grill, a fast-casual healthier-foods grains-and-greens eatery located at the corner of Jefferson Davis Highway (U.S. Route 1 South) and East Howell Avenue just north of the Monroe Avenue Bridge. Apparently, lots of moms and dads in the Del Ray neighborhood loved the veggie-forward, lower-calorie fare, but their kids wouldn't touch the stuff with a grilled pita wedge.
So barely eight months later, Chickpea is gone and its evil-opposite twin, Flat Top Burgers, takes its place within a week. The new joint swaps out specialty salads for house-ground sirloin burgers, hand-cut fries and onion rings, and milkshakes crafted from frozen custard that is churned onsite. The kids love the new place.
But, parents, not to worry. Flat Top serves a quinoa-cashew-bulger-mushroom burger; an arugula-beet salad with feta, walnuts and a blood orange vinaigrette; and an homage-to-Chickpea salad with organic greens, lemon grilled chicken, toasted quinoa, tomato, cucumber, mint, feta, red onion, and tatziki dressing but no real chickpeas. See, you can have your Mediterranean salad and your cup of delicious frozen custard too (the latter comes in chocolate, vanilla, mocha and cookies & cream).
Personally, I'm going to wait a bit before trying Flat Top. It's quite possible that the restaurant concept will morph once more by the end of summer. I'm hoping for a Taiwanese-French bakery.
On September 26, 2016, fast-growing South Florida-based upscale burger franchiser Burger Fi -- known for its all-natural Angus burgers with the company's logo fire-stamped on the top bun -- is opening its newest eatery, the second in Virginia after Leesburg, at 111 North Pitt Street, the former location of Ireland's Own, which went bust in May 2014 after 34 years.
On September 8, 2016, a tidy new specialty grocer and sandwich shop, The Italian Place, opened four blocks from Watergate at 621 Wythe Street (between North Washington and North Saint Asaph Streets). The store is a sun-drenched hole-in-the-wall -- modern luxury motorhomes with slideouts provide more interior space. The cold cuts served in their subs are terrific, but the accompaniments and condiments are sparse and the bread is chewy and flavorless. For the same money, grab a steak-and-cheese Perfect Pita at the corner of First and North Fairfax Streets a block from Watergate.
Vola's Dockside Grill & Hi-Tide Lounge
Vola's Dockside Grill & Hi-Tide Lounge, a waterfront seafood eatery named after long-time city manager Vola Lawson, formally opened on August 22, 2016 at the City Marina next to the Torpedo Factory. Click or tap on the following links to read restaurant reviews by the Washington Post (October 16, 2016) and the Old Town Alexandria Patch (August 21, 2016). Vola's is part of Alexandria Restaurant Partners, which is behind Virtue Food & Grain (2013) on Wales Alley, The Majestic (acquired December 2015) on King Street, and Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap (October 2015) a stone's throw from the Braddock Road Metro Station.
Tex-Mex eatery Austin Grill, which for years anchored the retail corner at King and North Columbus Streets in Old Town, permanently closed on May 30, 2016. On August 10, 2016, its owner, Reston, Virginia-based Thompson Hospitality, opened HenQuarter, a downhome/upscale Southern comfort food restaurant, in its place. Austin Grill was launched 20 years ago, and the Alexandria outpost was one of four in the metro area. HenQuarter is Thompson's newest concept, and the Old Town storefront is the first to break an egg. On June 2, 2017, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema body-slammed the new Hen Quarter in Penn Quarter for dreadful, untrained and oblivious service and middling food. But it does not appear that he tried the deviled eggs.
Thanida Thai Finds a Chair When the Music Stops Playing
In 2000, restaurateurs Phil & Kem McCombie opened Perks, a small neighborhood coffee shop located at 822 North Fairax Street. When they expanded next door in 2009, their business became Extra Perks Coffee Shop & Cafe. Ever the entrepreneurs, they also opened Royal Thai & Sushi Restaurant on the other side of the block at 835 North Royal Street. Then, looking for more space for Royal Thai, the McCombies moved the Asian restaurant to a building across the street from Extra Perks at 801 North Fairfax Street, and opened Casa Felipe Mexican Restaurant in Royal Thai's original location.
In the summer of 2016, Songyodh & Jaruvan Tantiyangkul acquired Royal Thai, moved it back to its original location at 835 North Royal Street, and renamed it Thanida Thai. The space at 801 North Fairfax Street and Casa Felipe were both abandoned.
I can't vouch for the food at Thanida Thai, but the best Thai food in Northern Virginia is found at Rincome, housed since 1985 in the Days Inn Arlington Pentagon at 3030 Columbia Pike. It's the only place in the metro area where you can order Heavenly Stuffed Chicken Wings, which are chicken lollipops -- the drumstick meat is pulled back over the fat end of the bone so that it's inside out, then stuffed with minced shrimp and crab, ground pork, and vegetables, and then fried in oil. The dish transcends its name, and as my friends like to say, "It's so good!"
Hank's Pasta Bar
This week, Bon Appétit named Washington, D.C. its 2016 Restaurant City of the Year, and hailed Bad Saint, a dinner-only no-reservations closed-on-Tuesdays line-down-the-street 24-seat Filipino hole-in-the-wall in Columbia Heights, as the 2nd Best New Restaurant in America. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema ranked the restaurant 4th on his spring 2016 list of the 10 Best New Restaurants in the D.C. metro area. Hank's Pasta Bar, located around the corner from Watergate, is 10th on that list.
The Pakistani-born and Northern California-raised owner of Alexandria Cupcake says that his tiny storefront on King Street cannot fully contain his 27 varieties of baked-daily-from-scratch edibles, and he is branching out to several new locations, possibly including Germany and Belgium.
His business, opened in 2010, recently won the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce's award for small business of the year. The shop bakes between 6,500 and 9,000 of the $3 cupcakes (vegans, Celiac sufferers and carrot lovers pay slightly more) every week.
MGM National Harbor
In late December 2015, MGM Resorts announced that its National Harbor Meccasino, now nearing completition and set to open in late 2016, will host a trio of celebrity chef restaurants: "Chef [José] Andrés will introduce his first seafood-focused concept, featuring locally sourced ingredients. Making his Capital Region debut, Chef [Marcus] Samuelsson's menu will honor his diverse cultural roots, with Ethiopian and Swedish influences, while showcasing the distinct coastal flavors of the local landscape. The Voltaggio brothers [Bryan and Michael] will join culinary forces for the first time and create a contemporary steak house, drawing inspiration from their home state of Maryland." Warning, this is not your parents' buffet line!
The food options at the MGM became clearer by mid-summer 2016. In addition to the three celebrity chef restaurants (Fish by José Andrés, Marcus by Marcus Samuelsson, and Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse by Bryan and Michael Voltaggio), there will be a pan-asian restaurant, a sports bar, and a casual food court (Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches, Japanese bento boxes, tacos, pizza and vintage-style ice cream shop).
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