Royal Nepal

Before I begin, a warning about the parking situation here. We pulled into the lot next door, next to an abandoned strip mall. By coincidence, we parked next to my best friend and her husband, who were meeting us here for the kind of mildly-spicy and vegetable-forward cuisine that they can’t find in their native West Virginia. The parking lot to Royal Nepal is completely blocked off for no apparent reason, so we all felt it was reasonable to park in this lot despite the warnings about the enforcement of towing. We’ll come back to this later.

My friend and I both ordered the same house cocktail. I wasn’t intending to drink on a Wednesday night but you can’t put the words “walnut bitters” and “cinnamon syrup” in the same sentence without attracting me. It was, predictably, amazing. And also a little too strong, if that’s even a thing. This drink may have colored the rest of my opinions of Royal Nepal just a little bit.

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Because my best friend is a vegetarian, we asked if they had any meatless momo. Our server first responded that unfortunately, they didn’t, but after he brought our drinks out, he let us know that he had checked and the chef could actually make some. We ordered those and the yak momo because when in Nepal and also I’ve never eaten yak before. When he returned, not only did our server have the two plates of momo, but he brought us out their crispy kale dish just because. This is service that I’ve only experienced at, like, Plume and Masseria. We all wolfed this down. It was crispy and had the tang of yogurt, sweetness from the tamarind, and pungency from fried onions. I don’t go to Nepalese restaurants to order kale, but maybe I should start…

The momo were also quite delicious. I couldn’t tell you what was in the vegetable momo (I’ll blame this on the cocktail), but it was rich and soft, and they were served with two dipping sauces that were slightly spicy and tomato-y, like a Mexican salsa. The yak meat was finely minced with a mild sweetness. I could never have told you it was yak meat.

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We decided to order as a group, and picked the vegetarian thali, plus wild boar curry and chicken tikka masala. Who doesn’t like tikka masala?

The thali included five dishes: cauliflower and potato curry, which was fairly mild, eggplant curry that was out of this world delicious and fragrant, a sauteed spinach that was flavorful and garlicky but a little too salty, a bean dish that reminded me of dal makhani and had a slight spice, and more of their spicy house pickles. It was served with a huge plate of rice and vegetables.

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Next we come to the meat dishes:

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The wild boar (right) was rich and meaty, aromatic but not super spicy, and the meat itself tasted like a leaner pork. This was an all-around crowd-pleaser among us meat eaters. The chicken tikka masala (left) was my absolute favorite, and maybe my favorite tikka masala of all time, owing to the awesome addition of anise which was not overly pungent but still brought this classic to a new plane.

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My bff is all about dessert and there was some disagreement in which I flat-out vetoed chocolate lava cake. We ordered the yogurt sikarni. It was very perfumey on account of the cardamom, and tarter than I feel like is appropriate for dessert, but it tasted very fresh and clean.

Oh–back to the parking situation. We left the restaurant to find that our cars were the only two left in the lot. “Oh, it’s just late and everyone has left already,” we said. Then we saw the guy screaming at the tow truck in the street. It seems that Royal Nepal is our lucky charm, but be forewarned: don’t park here. It may not end well for you.

Price: $35 per person for way too much food.

Bottom line: Royal Nepal falls into the category of Don’t-Pass-Up. It’s the perfect hole in the wall with all the service and interest of a fancy pants place.

Ixtapalpa Taqueria

Grave misfortune (summertime professional development) brought me to the suburban hellscape known as Gaithersburg today. As a teacher, my opportunities for eating a lunch that is anything other than defrosted leftovers shoved in my face during my free 45 minutes is a treat, so I specifically sought out interesting dining options. This stretch of the highway is populated by a lot of mediocre pseudo-Mexican restaurants and peppered with Subways and IHOPs, but then I happened upon Ixtapalpa Taqueria.

Their digs were unexpectedly trendy-looking and industrial, like a wannabe Chipotle, but menu options abounded, each one better sounding than the last. I ordered one pollo taco, one al pastor, and a side of nopales because I had to. I also swung by the salsa bar and was very impressed to see really authentic salsas PLUS sliced limes, julienned radish, and one of my most favorite things in the world: pickled red onion.

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Service was quick, and I was presented with two gorgeous and authentically plain tacos and a substantial portion of tender, juicy cactus pieces. They were peppery and oniony, like juicy green beans.

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The chicken taco was savory with a slightly spicy marinade. It went well with lime and the citrusy mild green salsa from the salsa bar. But with the al pastor, this place shone like the hot desert sun: ample pork, caramelized onions, the slight sweetness of pineapple. I piled this with pickled onions and hot red salsa and savored every bite.

Ixtapalpa was the stuff of dreams and I fear I won’t find a closer taqueria quite this good. This may be my new go-to place when I’m in Gaithersburg (admittedly never), and just a slight detour from 270 (where I drive when I have no other options). They even have margaritas (which I did not get because I want to keep my job).

Price: <$10 per person.

Bottom line: Suburbanites, be advised: Ixtapalpa Taqueria is incredible and worth a small to medium detour for interesting, quality, and cheap tacos and drinks. Every time someone goes to the Chipotle across the street instead of this place, an angel loses its wings.

Ruta del Vino

I was panicked on our too-long rush-hour drive to Ruta del Vino in Petworth. I knew the place was small and refused to take reservations. There were five of us. I really didn’t want to be driving all over town on a Friday night without a clear plan. I did a tuck and roll out of my father-in-law’s car and burst through the door like someone about to object at a wedding to find…a basically empty restaurant.

Now, I feel kind of stupid admitting this, but not one of us drank a drop of wine at this wine bar. How Ruta del Vino can make a profit on $5 happy hour margaritas (or how they managed to be this empty with $5 happy hour margaritas) is totally beyond me, but we took full advantage of that deal. We took so much advantage of that deal that my husband spilled his second one all over me and was immediately brought a third one. The margaritas were great.

Most of us decided to go the share-plates route and we–I mean, I–picked out a few things to try. Let’s get down to business here.

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The first round included the grilled cheese (bottom) which I didn’t try despite my mother-in-law’s pleas. The beet salad (top left) was big enough for four of us to share, and the sweet beets were complemented by tart pineapple and salty cheese, with plenty of greens and cilantro. It tasted so fresh, and I can’t wait to recreate this at home. The empanadas (top right) were stuffed with kale, nuts, pumpkin, and raisins, and the pastry was deliciously flaky, but I feel like the stuffing could have used more sweetness or spice.

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Next came our two seafood dishes: the grilled octopus and chorizo and the tiradito del dia. The octopus was cooked to perfection, not a bit chewy, and went well with the smoky sausage. I wish there had been more of it. The ceviche was again a little small, especially given how delicious it was. It was slightly sweet from mango and grapefruit and simply perfect. One of the best ceviches I’ve had.

Our last share plate was actually an entree: the carne asada. We ordered it medium rare and that is exactly how it came out: a perfect pink throughout despite the thin cut, a good amount of meat to share, a fragrant chimichurri, and some spiced yucca fries that were soft and crispy.

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My husband’s grandmother ordered (or rather, she was forced to order) the pollo a la huancaina. It was a decent size entree and the chicken had a great crispy exterior. Even the potatoes were delicious. I loved everything about this.

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We ended the night with a “bartender’s choice” blind comparison of two mezcals (the $5 margaritas may have played a role in this decision), and we were not disappointed by the two very different and very unique liquors we were brought, one of which was a younger, clear, and bolder flavor, and the other of which had the smoke and burn of oak barrel.

Price: $50 per person.

Bottom line: I don’t know how Ruta del Vino wasn’t more popular on a Friday evening, and even though it was to my distinct pleasure and benefit that we easily found a table, it would be a damn shame to not fill this place up.

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.

Huacatay

If you happen to be walking down 4th Street NE, you can just follow your nose to Huacatay. Seriously, you can smell their chicken roasting from several blocks away, even on a stagnant, rainy night like tonight. You’ll know it’s Huacatay making that yummy smell because you can be sure it’s not any of the sketchballs liquor stores that flank it on all sides.

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I’ll just jump right in here. I hope you like eating chicken like a caveman and getting grease all over your face while you suck juicy meat from the bones because that is exactly what you are going to do here. It’s a good thing we did take-out because nobody deserves to see me eating like that.

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A quarter-chicken meal looks like this:

Yeah. Those green beans are considered a “side.” They are onion-y and peppered, and juuuuuust greasy enough. Don’t worry, the grease isn’t enough to keep you from feeling self-righteous eating vegetables while your significant other ingests an unholy amount of mayonnaise and fried stuff. The side salad is what it is. I added my own dressing at home because I’m pretty sure Huacatay’s dressing is just straight-up mayo.

A half-chicken meal looks like this:

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That is…definitely half of a chicken. The coleslaw side is made to please that person who keeps packets of mayo in their desk drawer. The arroz chaufa is a fantastic salt-bomb (read: exactly the way fried rice is supposed to be, if you’re into that sort of thing). My third-favorite thing about Huacatay is the variety of sides they offer, not just your typical soggy steak-fries that you can find at every other Peruvian pollo joint. My second-favorite thing is their sauces. They offer four: white, green, pink, and yellow. Yellow is great if you want a kick of spice. Green is cilantro-y. White is, I’m pretty sure, just plain mayo again. Pink is a happy medium.

My first-favorite thing about Huacatay is the chicken. I don’t know what they baste the bird with besides magic butter. Is it salty? Definitely. But it has a perfect crisp on the outside while the meat on the inside is insanely juicy.

I almost forgot the alfajor! Sweet but not too sweet, perfectly crumbly in a way I can never capture in my own cookies, and maybe just not quite enough dulce de leche inside. There are few better ways to cap off your dinner than this.

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Price: $12 per person.

Bottom line: In DC, a land saturated with Peruvian chicken restaurants, Huacatay goes beyond with not only their chicken, but also their delicious sides. I know you’ve had pollo a la brasa before, but Huacatay is still worth a detour.

Ivy City Smokehouse

I was not expecting much when we walked up. I’d checked out the menu online and waffled about coming here. I’m a barbecue purist, and when I saw that their back room is set up as a club, I got skeptical. It sounded like a set-up for one of Stefan’s club recommendations on SNL: “If you’re looking to combine loud hip hop and lox, look no further than the Smokehouse club across from Fish Pro Wholesale…”

They quickly redeemed themselves by seating us on the gorgeous roof deck and we were met with probably too many good options. Fortunately, I narrowed it down by deciding to try only house-smoked foods. But first–drinks!

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Despite being served in plastic (an unforgivable offense given that this is not a frat party), my cucumber mojito was a perfect, refreshing mix of flavors and still liquor-y enough. It was everything you would want when you’re drinking something on the roof of a building on a Friday evening. The draft beers are 12 ounces but at $5-6 each, still a deal in DC.

For the appetizer, we ended up with the salmon candy board, one of the five options of house-smoked fish. I couldn’t be happier with this. The fish itself was sweet and smoky without being overpowering, although it didn’t pack the spicy punch I was promised. The chive cream cheese was perfect. Even the tartar sauce, usually my worst seafood nemesis, was inoffensive.

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For my meal, I had the mixed greens salad and paid a whopping $9 to add house-smoked rainbow trout. Now, I love salad, and I will pay $20 for a dinner salad while feeling only a little stupid about it, but you gotta deliver.

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And deliver they did. They had me at candied walnuts and pickled onion. Not only was the salad itself interesting, they did not cut corners in adding this fish which was only slightly less delicious than the salmon we had in the appetizer. It was smoky without being too dry, and definitely not over-salted. As you can see, there is basically an entire fish on here. I was extremely satisfied after eating this.

Now, on to the more important story, and for this we have to backtrack about five years. My husband once went on a business trip to New Orleans, and on his way to the airport he stopped in to a Jewish deli and ordered a Reuben. Now, if you’re like me (aka a normal person), you don’t exactly associate New Orleans with good Jewish delis, but that Reuben became the stuff of legends. Also, personally, I can’t even remember what I ate last week, let alone five years ago. I think it may be time to let go. For years he tried in vain to find an equivalent sandwich in DC (and in Chicago at an actual Jewish deli!) and was so let down that he eventually gave up and moped around. After much argument and pleading, I convinced him to try Ivy City Smokehouse’s Reuben-style pastrami sandwich. It was smoky, it was piled with meat, the bread was buttery, and it had Swiss cheese dripping off of it. And after polishing it off, my husband declared it both “the best Reuben in DC” and “the best Reuben I’ve had besides that one in New Orleans.” Here it is, in all its glory:

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Oh yeah, the fries and slaw were pretty good too. Just get this sandwich.

Service was a little slow, but you’re sitting on a roof deck, so what’s the hurry?

Price: $40 per person.

Bottom line: Ivy City Smokehouse’s unique and delicious offerings of all kinds easily earn it a place at the top of my Favorites list.

Mezcalero

I felt kind of bad about dragging my family in from Virginia just so I could satisfy my craving for tacos, but…I’m not actually sorry. At all.

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Living up to its name, Mezcalero offers all of its margaritas and cocktails with either tequila or mezcal, as well as flights of both. Naturally, my husband ordered a margarita with the mezcal and I had the maracuya (passion fruit) margarita with tequila. The delicious, sour, fruity monstrosity that resulted possibly influenced the way I felt about the meal as a whole. Possibly.

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To start, we ordered the queso fundido with chorizo as well as two kinds of ceviche: the fish and the coctel de mariscos. Have you ever been so drunk and so out of food in your house that you decided to just melt some cheese in a cast iron skillet and eat that? Yeah, we’ve all been there. The queso fundido was like that, but with ample crumbled chorizo and some soft tortillas to boot. I liked both ceviches, although the mariscos was a little too tomato-y for me and I much preferred the simpler, more citrusy fish with red onion.

I ordered three tacos: the pastor, the campechano, and the camarones, and I had the good fortune to also get to sample the nopales from my dear tio. My husband had the torta de chorizo con huevos, and my wonderful cousin went in a completely different direction with the enchiladas mole.

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I can’t choose a clear winner from these three tacos. The camarones were simple and complemented by avocado. The pastor was well-seasoned and savory, and the campechano had a great crunch from shoestring potatoes and a good level of heat. The nopales were also juicy and satisfying.

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Why can’t my mole taste like this mole? It was bitter, nutty, and chocolaty. It was [rightfully] devoured.

The torta de chorizo was a whole other level. Granted, it was no Tortas y Tacos (nothing will ever be Tortas y Tacos), but it was delicious, stuffed with sausage and flavor, and was the perfect hangover food for my spouse after we spent all day at the DC Beer Fest (almost as good as cast iron-fried cheese. Almost).

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Best of all, we got to sit outside on a beautiful evening and eat and drink at a relaxed pace!

Price: $25 per person, at least half of which will be spent on alcohol.

Bottom line: My uncle spent a year driving around rural Mexico and these days is basically a professional Latin American jet-setter and even he gave it his stamp of approval. This one is a keeper for sure.