Food Corner

Like any red-blooded American, I get all my best restaurant recommendations from Uber drivers. On this occasion, our driver overheard me talking to my husband about a friend taking a Pashto language class and ended up telling us his life story of coming to this country from Afghanistan at 20 years old. Naturally, my next question was: “What’s the best place to get Afghan food in DC?” Enter Food Corner…

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This unassuming carry-out near Howard kind of…looks like a place you shouldn’t eat. Unappetizing amateur photos of their food adorn the walls. There are straw wrappers strewn around the floor. The cashier stirred up a big dish of oily spinach sitting under a heat lamp. We were the only ones in the restaurant. It is, in a word, grody. I probably would have high-tailed it out of there were it not for that Uber driver.

I ordered the chicken breast kabob, my husband got the beef/seekh combo, and on a whim I ordered a plate of samosas. It was a test. I can’t lie; I was pretty nervous. Food Corner pretty much defines “hole in the wall.” There were probably literal holes in the walls. Seriously, they have put zero effort into general aesthetic upkeep.  However, the bathroom was equipped with a makeshift bidet (aka a pitcher of water), and that’s when I knew this place was legit.

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We got our samosas shortly after my bathroom jaunt and that’s when I discovered that it wasn’t just the bathroom that knew what was up. The samosas were crispy on the outside with fluffy potatoes inside, and had the spices exactly right, including the whole fennel seed. They were served with a thin raita.

When the cashier called me up to pick up the kabobs, he asked which side I’d like: spinach or chickpeas. I asked for half-and-half (gotta try ’em all!) and the guy heaped both sides on. Also, here’s my chicken platter and have you actually ever seen such an absurd amount of naan? I couldn’t even fit the whole thing in my picture (and I ate about a fourth of it).

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The chicken had a delicious tandoori spice and was cooked perfectly, with a nice char-grilled crust on the outside. The chickpeas were soupy and fragrant, but just a little bland. The spinach, on the other hand, was both creamy and bitter, and I had trouble putting it down, even as my stomach threatened to explode. Even the naan was super airy and soft.

My husband’s beef had the same delicious ratio of crispy exterior to tender, meaty interior, and had a strong steak flavor and no extraneous fatty or chewy bites. The seekh was very herbal and fragrant, with little bits of veggies and heaps of turmeric mixed in with the ground chicken.

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We basically had to roll home because we were so full. I keep telling myself that I’ll work it all off during my triathlon tomorrow, but we all know that’s a lie.

Price: $15 per person MAXIMUM.

Bottom line: Trust your Uber driver when it comes to international food and don’t be scared away by the fluorescent lighting and surly cashiers; Food Corner is the king of cheap, messy, no frills Pakistani food.

Dolan

From the moment I noticed Dolan on Google maps, I knew I had to go there. I’ve had Uyghur food once before–in Arlington–and although it was somewhat lacking that time, the cuisine felt like it had potential. I love cultural mashups! Just like how eating Burmese food at Mandalay always feels like the greatest ever combination of Thai and Indian with a little je ne sais quoi thrown in, my thinking on Uyghur food was this: Afghan + Chinese = Delicious! How could it not be? Dolan claims to be “the best Uyghur food in DC” which, even before eating there, I suspected may have been like the way my grandma always referred to me as her “favorite granddaughter.” Her other six grandchildren are boys.

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I invited my friend Amanda to tag along. She lived in Western China and generally knows her shit. About everything. She is also a spicy food enthusiast.

My husband and I arrived early, so we grabbed a drink at the bar. He had their house Old Fashioned, and I had a drink that included vodka and green tea. Their liquor prices were reasonable and the drinks were…about what you’d expect given the price. It got the job done, I guess.

Bonus for Dolan: their restaurant is adorable. Their fireplace and fake lamppost made me feel like I was simultaneously inside and outside in…Paris, maybe? It was very homey and cute.

So, back to the food. What happens when you have two modern, assertive women eating dinner with their accommodating spouses is that the menfolk don’t even need to crack the menu. I might feel slightly bad about steamrolling every single small-plates meal we ever eat, but what can I say? I have superior taste. You’re welcome, husbands. Amanda and I ordered korma chop, pumpkin manta, fried green beans, and the goshnan, which bills itself as “Uyghur pizza.” I crossed  my fingers that it wasn’t actually just pizza and took the plunge.

Without further ado, here is our meal:

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The green beans were oniony and well-cooked but I could have made this at home. I guess I was expecting the incredible Sichuan dry-rubbed green beans we get at Panda Gourmet, and this was just regular green beans. Similar to the alcohol, it did the job. By which I mean that it was green and it was edible. On the right of the photo is the korma chop, which had the semi-numbing spice of Sichuan peppercorns and really well-cooked lamb. This dish was the highlight of the meal for sure. Above those dishes you will notice a tiny bowl of rice. We didn’t need much rice, but it somehow seems more bizarre that they gave us such a small quantity. Why even bother at that point?

The pumpkin manta were alright. I don’t have major regrets about ordering them since they sounded interesting but they weren’t well-seasoned and were generally poorly-constructed for dumplings. They were larger than bite-size, begging to be cut in half, but all the filling fell out as soon as you cut into them as if to mock you. The whole idea was badly-conceived.

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The goshnan looked great and tasted pretty good. It was the first thing that seemed more Afghan than Chinese. Actually, it seemed more like a shepherd’s pie than a pizza, and the pastry crust was soft and deliciously greasy. The meat was good and spiced well.

When we finished these four things, we all agreed that we were still slightly hungry, and, after not being hooked by anything on the dessert menu [side note: two nights without dessert? I don’t even know who I am anymore!], begrudgingly decided to order the lamb kabobs in a last-ditch effort to fill our bellies.

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They were solid. The meat was, for the most part, very tender and flavorful, but the seasoning wasn’t particularly interesting. It was the perfect summation of this meal: fine, edible, and a gustatory snooze-fest. Come on, Uyghurs! Just because China tried to quash your culture doesn’t mean you have to suppress all the flavor in your food. I thought I was going to be transported on a magic carpet ride to a whole new world of flavor but I really just got some bland lamb.

Price: $25 per person, which at least seemed completely reasonable.

Bottom line: Dolan might be the best–or only–Uyghur food in DC. And maybe I’m not an expert on Uyghur food after eating it twice. But I feel like you could do better than this without trying very hard. Step 1: Pick up some actual delicious green beans from Panda Gourmet. Step 2: Grab some kabobs from Shamshirry. Step 3: Profit.

Lapis Bistro

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It’s a shame that I didn’t want to embarrass myself taking a picture of the interior of Lapis. This place is gorgeous, decorated with refurbished furniture, Persian rugs, and modern maps of Kabul. We were seated downstairs, which boasted a bar on one side and a full-service coffee counter on the other. My in-laws were noticeably absent, but I could just hear my mother-in-law’s voice echoing in my head: “I LOVE THIS PLACE!”

Both the drink menu and food menu are large and tasty-looking. My husband got a Founder’s porter. I had the Lapis Manhattan. They said it would taste like cardamom, but….ehhh. It was good, though, and I was looking forward to the two home-preserved maraschino cherries at the bottom. In case you were wondering, yes, I was that kid who ate my PB&J’s in the round so that I could savor the crustless sandwich innards last. Who am I kidding; I still do this. So. Maraschino cherries. Remember that. This would come back to haunt me.

We ordered four dishes between us, even knowing that it was probably too much: pakowra, the sambosa trio, the cauliflower, and lamb tikka. The first two starters came out first.

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The pakowra were un-oily, maybe to a fault. They were very falafel-like and kind of dry, but large and filling. The sambosa were quite good, particularly the shrimp, which was a very original flavor and worth the hype. I also really liked the leek one, which was very savory and herbal. The unsung hero of the starter round was the spicy green sauce that accompanied both dishes. Next up: veggie and meat!

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The cauliflower was pleasantly soft and served in rich tomato sauce. It was a large side dish, and probably would have sufficed instead of the two appetizers. It was mildly spicy and very fragrant. Its partner, the lamb tikka, was surprisingly unsauced, under-spiced, but had a strong lamb-y flavor and contained a couple of tender bites. Was this $20 worth of lamb? You tell me. They also served it with a fragrant, cinnamon-spiced rice, some flat bread, pickled onions, and more of that green sauce. Just give me the green sauce.

Around this time, we noticed a young man in his early 20’s having an awkward dinner with his parents in which each person picked at their separate meat platters silently. I sometimes like to imagine what people’s stories are, and my guess is that none of these people understood the idea of small plates. Maybe they’re from some small town somewhere and sharing your restaurant dish is considered a form of socialism? In order to avoid a political confrontation, this family kept their dinners and their opinions separate.

Our server came by to clear our plates and offer us dessert, which we opted for just to say we did. It wasn’t until I came back from the bathroom that I discovered that along with our dinner plates, they had cleared away my Manhattan glass with the cherries still in it. Taking my drink before I’m done is a cardinal sin in my book. Everyone knows that’s why anyone orders a Manhattan! It’s basically just a Shirley Temple for adults. (On an unrelated note, they may want to consider putting larger signs on the bathroom doors. Requesting for a friend).

We had the firnee cardamom custard for dessert. I finally got the cardamom flavor that was lacking in my Manhattan, the pistachios were good, and the texture was somewhere between Greek yogurt and jello. It had the necessary spice, but was ultimately probably not worth the calories.

Price: $35 per person.

Bottom line: I’d come back to Lapis, but mostly for the ambiance, and definitely for coffee only. The food was high-quality and everything except the lamb was worth the price, but there is better Afghan food around. If your parents have ever considered going on the Diane Rehm cruise, make them drive you to Baltimore for The Helmand. If you’re a cheapskate, hit up Maiwand Kabob. But maybe if your conservative, xenophobic Minnesotan parents are in town and you want to give them a mild introduction to ethnic food, you could come here. Make sure their selections trickle down to you, steer them away from the likely-too-spicy green sauce, don’t tell them it’s food from Afghanistan, and they’ll be fine.