Tuesday, May 22, 2012

DC Food Tour 2012: At Home with Hidden Thai

Pumpkin stewed in coconut at Thai X-ing
Hidden restaurants are all the rage right now- chefs who can’t afford to open storefronts are working out of their own homes, offering invite-only dinners with BYO policies.  But if Thai X-ing is hidden it’s because it chooses to be, not because it cannot afford a space.   It is a restaurant in a house, so covert I would have walked right by the foliage covered façade with the “X-ing” carved vertically into a single wooden beam were it not for John’s nose- he sniffed out our destination several houses before arriving at the discreet front door.

This was Paul and Lisa’s second time eating at Thai X-ing and our first.  The Sunday night vegetarian dinners had first attracted my brother and his meat-free girlfriend.  Learning that the omnivore set menu Monday through Saturday could be adjusted to accommodate vegetarians in a group, Thai X-ing earned its spot as our second destination on DC Food Tour 2012. 

Cucumber soup with sausage stuffing
Papaya salad, Stir fried beef with mint
After walking into the cramped ground floor dining room where neighbors rubbed elbows while jostling to pass plates around the table, we were quickly ushered out and up the wooden stairs to a far more spacious and airy second floor dining room.  The place of honor, a low table with seats ranging from plush footstools to a wooden bench, was waiting for us along with a superb view of street nightlife through the bay window.

Water glasses and utensils were placed in a pile in the table and along with cheap wine glasses at our request.  Knowing the restaurant is BYO, we pulled out several bottles of wine we had brought along.  (Note: some minor moments of amusement were gleaned from this policy.  As we sipped on white Burgundy and French malbec, we tried hard not to stare as our nearest neighbors took a bottle of Yellow Tail Chardonnay very seriously.)

Flounder with lemongrass and basil
When the food started coming it didn’t stop.  First a bowl of cucumber soup we almost dismissed as a pleasant, anodyne starter until an excavation of the large hunk of floating vegetable revealed a meat-filled center.  A plate of green papaya salad was refreshing for a muggy DC night but not as spicy as I would have liked.  Minutes later the heat problem was resolved with a mouth-numbing dish of stir fried beef with a minty zip and chili kick.

About that point we realized that though we had alerted the staff to the vegetarian in our midst, each of the plates brought out at up till then came with some sort of fish or animal product.  This was resolved quickly, not by reducing our portion size on the meat dishes or exchanging one fish dish for a vegetable one, but simply by bringing more food. 

Mango with sticky rice
There were meaty pork knuckles in an aromatic paste of kaffir lime. Flounder steamed in banana leaves was fragrant from a cavity stuffed with lemongrass but was otherwise plain until dipped into the accompanying pungent chili sauce.  For the vegetarian there were wide flat noodles with tofu and large chunks of pumpkin braised in coconut milk.   
Crying mercy, the stealthy staff whisked away the remains of our dinner plates and in their place left one dish of ripe mango and sticky rice.  It was a simple, sweet ending to the sort of basic yet abundant, home-style Thai food I wish I could eat more of outside of Thailand.

As we walked back out into the District night, I leaned a bit harder on John than usual, so full was my belly.  With dish after dish of delicious food placed in front of us I had failed to show restraint.  A mistake, perhaps, because the night was still young: a late night reservation at the Columbia Room and nearly three hours of handcrafted cocktails were still to come. 

Stay Tuned!  DC Food Tour continues with a visit to DC speakeasy, The Columbia Room.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

DC Food Tour 2012: Ramen Goes Tawainese

Me. Happy. Full of ramen.

 About once a year my brother beckons me to Washington DC intent to prove the nation’s capital is not just a sea of drab gray suits with law degrees, but a vibrant city full of gustatory pleasures just waiting to be discovered.  After about eight years of these trips, by plane, train, and automobile, I am finally starting to doubt less.  After all, he’s made his point time and again. 

This past weekend John and I met up with my brother, Paul, and his girlfriend Lisa to see what had been happening in DC since our last visit.  Our culinary tour spanned the distance from new and delicious, to old but yet to be discovered.  We started the weekend with Taiwanese ramen.  Stay tuned for full coverage over the days to come.

Toki Underground
Street view from my stool.
I was pretty sure between New York and Los Angeles I had covered the best ramen joints this side of the Pacific.  Toki Underground proved me wrong.  A seat at one of the counter stools that line the walls of this small upstairs dining room is a hot ticket in the District.  Waits easily run an hour or longer even late into the night.  When we finally settled into our chairs around eleven pm. on a Friday, the kitchen was still running at full steam. 

Plump dumplings stuffed with pork and chicken, or shredded vegetables arrived first in individual steamer baskets.  Because we could, an order of the pan-fried pork dumpling appeared as well, crisp and golden but not too greasy, a good foil for the Koshihikari Echigo Japanese rice lager John and I split to start.

Dining room, still busy at midnight.
Of course the reason to eat at Toki is the ramen.  The restaurant bills its ramen as “Taiwanese” (this is not to be confused with “Taiwan ramen”, a Chinese-Japanese hybrid native to Nagoya Japan), tonkotsu ramen modeled on what Chef Yang used to cook at Hakata Ramen in Taipei.  In the Kimchi Hakata, pork-based broth bathed a tangle of thin, toothsome noodles.  Homemade kimchi was briny and crisp though not especially spicy. However when combined with a roll of steamed seasonal greens, the vegetables cut strokes of brightness through the rich broth, a pleasant balance of flavors for what is normally a weighty dish.
Kimchi Hakata ramen at Toki Underground

For my taste, the broth could have used a bit more depth and the kimchi much more spice.  But for $1.50 I remedied that problem with a small saucer of “Endorphin Sauce”, Toki’s excellent homemade sriracha.

Noodles devoured, broth slurped, I waved my white paper napkin in defeat. Raising a glass of dry Hakushika Kuromatsu Chokara sake, John and I toasted Paul’s first food stop of the weekend.  DC Food Tour 2012 was off to an excellent start.

Stay tuned!  Next up our food foursome needs expandable pants for a visit to Thai X-ing, a barely marked home converted into family style, BYO, Thai food destination.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hidden Soho: 3 Retreats from the Maddening Crowd

This is the time of year when those of us who live in New York begin to avoid Soho like the plague.  If the throngs of tourists are bad September to April, they are doubly so once warm weather hits in May.  But sometimes, even the most jaded of us residents need to head down that direction to load up on hiking gear at the new REI, stock up on basics from Japanese transplant Uniqlo, or, if we are feeling ambitious, browse the boutiques on the outskirts of the neighborhood looking for unique summer dresses.

Shopping always works up my appetite and hoards of tourists work up my irritation.  To unwind and recharge I’ve filed away a few hidden spots outside of the Soho norm to take a break, relax, and recharge before heading back out to the mean city streets.

Ceci-Cela: Located adjacent to one of the busiest intersections in the neighborhood, it might be hard to fathom this little café as a peaceful retreat.  Perhaps it is that from the front, Ceci-Cela appears to be nothing more than a bakery serving cappuccinos to go.  But make your way past the glass case filled with football-sized croissants and pain au raisin, and you find a small back room set up with a half dozen tables.  Not a place to spend an entire afternoon but Ceci-Cela is great for a morning coffee break or afternoon tea before heading back out into the maddening crowd.

Sunrise Mart:  You are probably wondering why a Japanese food store made the list.  What can I say, I find a certain zen wandering through neatly stacked rows of nori and soba noodles. As for food, this is no ordinary market.  Sushi, curry, and noodles are made to order.  If you are in a rush, bento boxes prepared the same day are stacked in the open cooler.  Grab a $2 Ito-En iced tea from the cooler, pull up a seat at one of the wooden tables at the front of the store, and you have excellent lunch plus great people watching on par with the fancy restaurants around the corner, minus the long wait.

Despaña:  Just to the east of Sunshine a few blocks is another market-meets-café, this time of the Spanish variety. Crossing the threshold of Despaña I feel my angst fade away followed by the recognizable grumbling in my belly.  The cheese!  Mahon and garrotxa call to me.  The meat!  Dark red chorizo and glistening pink Iberico jamon bekon. But those are for later.  My tired body needs food stat and Despana delivers.  A case of bite-sized pinxtos tempts with skewered stacks of peppers and cured anchovies on rounds of bread.  But for those days where blood sugar levels hover precipitously low, I go right for one of the large bocadillos.  On a recent weekday I settled into a stool at a communal table methodically munched on the El Quijote- a sandwich layered with dried cured pork loin, manchego cheese, quince paste, and drizzled with olive oil.  Washed down with a sweet and sour Spanish lemon soda, I was once again ready to face the crowds.  

Ceci-Cela: 55 Spring St., New York, NY
Sunrise Mart: 494 Broome St., New York, NY
Despaña: 405 Broome St., New York, NY

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell