ArepaZone

When I first placed ArepaZone on my extensive “to-eat” list, I didn’t realize it was located basically around the corner from me in Union Market. It was too close to miss, and the perfect bike ride for such a nice evening. As we pulled our bikes in and parked, I suddenly remembered why I never come to Union Market:

  1. It’s packed. The streets around it are basically the lawless wild west of DC where anything goes and stop signs are mere suggestions.
  2. Sensory overload. Even–or maybe especially–at dinnertime, there were too many options, and I already knew where I wanted to eat! I can’t imagine coming here and trying to choose between all the kiosks.
  3. Whyyyyyy does this even exist? It’s just a giant, overpriced hipster food court!*

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But I came for arepas and I found them. We ordered one thing from each category (arepa, cachapa, tequeno) and set about finding alcohol. It took an awfully long time for our food to come up given that everything is just some variation of a griddled corn cake sandwich.

We started with the tequenos. I knew I was getting fancy mozzarella sticks but these were atypical–much less stringy and gooey than mozza, but with a nice pastry crust. The stand-out was the cilantro-garlic mayo dipping sauce which I probably would have just eaten with a spoon if nobody was around to judge me.

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mvimg_20180824_173153.jpgI ordered the Pabellon arepa because, in case you’d never noticed, I can be convinced to order anything if it contains the word “sweet,” “plantain,” and, to a lesser extent, “beef.” This arepa had them all! The meat was pulled well but not super flavorful, plantains were not quite as good as expected, and it was all encased in a slightly difficult-to-eat soft, saline arepa wrapping. It was good, and after a couple of tequenos, I saved half my arepa for tomorrow’s lunch. Just kidding, I’m totally going to eat it at 1 a.m.

My husband got the Primera Dama cachapa. The shredded chicken was soaking in tomato sauce, and melty queso de mano oozed out. The cachapas have the added benefit of the sweet corn wrapper that you would think would be exactly the same was the arepa but was actually completely different, like the crispy corners of a pan of cornbread. My husband also boxed up half of this. I assure you he will also be eating his at 1 a.m.

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Price: $15 per person.

Bottom line: ArepaZone is good for what it is, which is food truck food trying desperately to break into the overpriced hipster food court scene. If you’re at Union Market anyway and you want some FANTASTIC drunk food, go for it. If you just want a classed-up cheesy carb-bomb, find literally any pupuseria. At least pupusas come with vegetables.

*Except you, Harvey’s Butcher Shop. Your brisket is amazing and I love you.

Mi Cuba Cafe

I’ve been mourning the loss of Eastern Market’s Banana Cafe, that beacon of beef and plantains, ever since its untimely closing last year. I showed up to work hungover on at least two occasions after an ill-fated pitcher of mojitos. I also sorely miss being serenaded with Michael Jackson singles from the blind pianist at piano bar upstairs. Nothing can replace the old Banana Cafe in my heart, but dammit if Mi Cuba Cafe isn’t going to try.

Not exactly our usual fancy Friday night fodder, I’d had my heart set on this neighborhood hotspot in Columbia Heights for months. We walked in around 6 and got a table for four in the back; ten minutes later the entire place was packed to the gills. Service was a little slow, but they did come by early to drop off a basket of toasty, garlicky flat bread that made all of us moan with pleasure. I ordered my drink: “A mojito please!”

“Dos!” said my husband.

“Tres!” said my father-in-law.

“Um…the frozen one!” said my mother-in-law.

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Delightfully minty, generous size, and adorned with sugar cane, these weren’t Banana Cafe pitcher-worthy, but that’s probably for the best. After we left the restaurant I was still tipsy enough to lose track of my entire family as we crossed 14th Street. Note: I’m not sure I recommend the frozen one, which had the mint blended in and was, shall we say, alcoholic toothpaste.

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On a total whim, I ordered the guava and cheese empanadas, and I am sooooooo happy I did. They were piping hot with a bubbly skin like an eggroll, with sweet guava jam and tangy cream cheese inside. I think I could spend my whole life chasing down another empanada experience this good, like Captain Ahab, but…you know…for pastries.

My father-in-law got the special of the day: Ropa Vieja. It’s something they offer every day, it’s just cheaper on Fridays. I ordered the Aporreado, which is basically the exact same thing as the Ropa Vieja, just with chicken instead of beef. Cuban cuisine…so creative. Because they’re so creative, each entree comes with two side dishes. You can choose from rice and black beans, rice and red beans, or congri, which is rice and beans mixed together. Then you can choose from three different types of plantains. I feel like maybe I should be impressed by all the ways they’ve come up with to cook what are essentially bitter bananas. You gotta work with what you got, I guess.mvimg_20180817_184824.jpgHere’s my Aporreado with congri and platanos maduros (and a fried egg because I know what’s up, yo). The chicken was moist and tomato-y. Contrary to the millions of green plantain tostones I ate on my recent vacation in Nicaragua, these plantains were of the more sweet, plush variety that I prefer, and so crispy and caramelized on the outside that my dentist will probably have to pick them out of my molars during my next visit. Fried eggs make everything better, although in this case, as in my general experience, Latin American restaurants have a tendency to overcook them. Numerous Central American acquaintances have asked me how Americans can stomach “undercooked” meat (read: anything less than sliced thin and well-done), and I think the avoidance of runny eggs stems from the same place. When you cook this at home, go for the egg. At Mi Cuba, just skip it.

My mother-in-law had the Pollo Mi Cuba, which was crisp outside without tasting overwhelmingly of char. She ordered the yuca frita but received plantain tostones and, honestly, I think this was the better option anyway.

My husband, who loves Cubanos almost as much as he loves Reubens, shocked all of us by ordering…the Cubano!

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It was, in a word, enormous. It also came with an adorable Cuban flag so what’s not to love here? If there is one single complaint to be made about it, it was a little heavy on the ham. I can’t believe I have to live in a world where my husband complains that a sandwich has too much ham, but it’s 2018, Donald Trump is our president, black is white, up is down, and this Cubano had too much ham. Apparently.

All four of us received take-away boxes and packed up literally half our meals. My mother-in-law and I ordered some delectable cafe con leche and I’m not going to say this was the best con leche I’ve ever had, but… it was up there.

Price: $25 per person.

Bottom line: I’m in love. Mi Cuba is no-reservations and no-frills, but yes-flavor and yes-ham.

Meats and Foods

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Yes, Meats and Foods might be the most unimaginative name ever for a restaurant. Ever. And yes, their menu is…sparse. But what they lack in cool names and menu options, they make up for in heart. And collectible Garfield mugs from McDonald’s. But mostly heart.

Meats and Foods features five unique sausages and four toppings, which, if my sixth grade math skills serve me correctly, means there are exactly twenty menu combinations (assuming a safe one topping per sausage) or 120* menu options if you could choose as many toppings as possible, which is inadvisable. Because their sausages are served a la carte, my husband and I not only ordered our two, but also ordered a chilito. It looked like this:

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It may not look like much, but oooooh my god, the chili inside was fantastic. Just a big roll of meaty, cheesy, toasty goodness right here. Good job, Meats and Foods. Set yourself up for success. That was some good meat. And food.

I had the chicken-jalapeno sausage with sauerkraut, while my husband ordered the chorizo with pickles. The chicken-jalapeno actually had the grainy texture of real sausage, not the nasty, too-smooth texture that chicken sausage often gets. It had pieces of vegetables inside, and a strong infusion of turmeric. It was absolutely and unexpectedly great. The chorizo was also an excellent blend of spicy and gentle sweetness. I’m not sure pickles were the best pairing, but that’s all on my husband. Their house-made hot sauce is an excellent, vegetal, and spicy companion to all sausages.

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My complaints are small:

  1. These are served on Martin’s potato rolls. I am normally all about that shit, but they just didn’t hold up to the fats in the sausage and the juices in the pickle-y things. They need pretzel buns or, at the very least, toasted rolls.
  2. I wish they had sides. I don’t require a lot of food to live but I needed more than one tiny sausage. Hit me up with some coleslaw.
  3. I would love to see more toppings with recommendations of combinations. Maybe some quirky names? You can name a sandwich** after me. Think about it. They might also want to visit Yang’s Market for some advice in this arena.

Price: $10 per person.

Bottom line: Great, unique sausages with untapped potential. Bonus: mozy on over to Truxton Inn next door for some post-sausage cocktails.

*5 x 4! = 120

**Yeah, I called a hot dog a sandwich. I also tagged this post as “sandwiches.” I am one of those people who believe that both burgers and hot dogs are sandwiches and I will absolutely fight you over this opinion.