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.

Mark’s Kitchen

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I was in need of a little wholesome TLC in the form of some creative salad, so I stopped off at Mark’s Kitchen in Takoma on my way home from work. I’ve walked past this place a million times but never knew what it was about, and the name is so vague as to not give any hints about cuisine or cost. They have a huge menu of Korean-American fusion-y things and a cute storefront that sells artisanal jams alongside all kinds of muffins and Asian candies. Hoping for something light but also tasty, I ordered the seaweed salad with Korean steak to go.

By the time I got my food, I was just ready to grab it, go, and gobble it down at home, and at first glance through the plastic lid it looked fabulous, with a soy-ginger dressing and lots of gochujang sauce to make me happy.

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However. My plans for a delicious meal were quickly thwarted when I removed the three containers of dressing and noted the total dearth of food before me. I think the sauces actually weighed more than the other ingredients. I added a couple handfuls of baby spinach I happened to have sitting in my fridge and started digging in.

The meat was marinated, tasty, and well-cooked, but there was barely any. The seaweed was crunchy and savory. It was fishy at times, but I feel like that’s par for the course considering that it’s basically fish food. I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of my bonus avocado slices, although they were not exactly plentiful either. Gochujang is good, always.

I wanted a light meal and Mark’s Kitchen gave me a light meal. Then I ate a cup of yogurt. Then I was still hungry, so I just suffered.

Price: $15 per person for wimpy baby salad.

Bottom line: Considering I paid the same amount on a per-person basis for an enormous amount of bulgogi last Sunday, I think I can live without Mark’s Kitchen.

Hwa Gea Jang Tuh

I’ve shamefully been rocking the suburbs a lot this weekend, so I once again apologize for this extremely un-DC post, but it’s worth it. Besides, Rockville is basically synonymous with Korean BBQ and DC is synonymous with terrible Asian cuisine, so this was the only way I was going to get my fix.

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Hwa Gea Jang Tuh had the dubious honor of being in the exact vicinity I needed it to be. Upon arrival, we found that we were the only non-Koreans in the entire restaurant, which is always a good sign. This ain’t Mandu on K Street. Oh no, people. This is real Korean food. This is the kind of Korean BBQ that led me and my husband to engage in a lengthy debate about who would be the unlucky person who would have to timidly ask when we could eat our dinner. These are the issues you face when you’re an introvert married to another introvert. Who will invite people to our party? (Me). Who will call Comcast to yell at them? (Me). Who will be home when the AC repairman comes? (9 times out of 10: me). Who will ask the Korean BBQ waitress an embarrassing question? (Probably also me).

Everything is ordered for a group of 2+ people. If you want to try multiple meats, TOO BAD. Bring some friends, I guess? We ordered the bulgogi, as you do. We also got an order of shrimp shumai to start. Our server brought out the shumai along with all the meat and fixings and got to work. I have never seen a place bring out so many individual bowls of yum-yums, which included miso soup and salad. Few restaurant experiences are better than watching someone cook your food right in front of you, so Hwa Gea Jang Tuh totally delivers. From the time our server brought out the domed griddle to the time I pulled my meat off of it, I was mesmerized by the whole experience. She also–thankfully–told us when the meat was ready to eat, so our whole argument was for naught.

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The bulgogi was served as DIY lettuce wraps, although there was a small bowl of rice included. Here is my finished product:

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The shrimp shumai were delicate and lightly flavored but still shrimpy, and a good size for an appetizer. The meat was seasoned and cooked perfectly with a soft texture and tons of flavor. The bean sprouts and kimchi added good crunch and heat, and the bean paste was salty-umami goodness. I like the lettuce wrap concept too. My biggest complaint is that there wasn’t quite enough of all the fixings for two people, particulary the kimchi. I could have eaten three bowls of it by myself, so it was kind of painful for me to share. I also would have liked something spicy to top my wrap.

Although I’m happy with this meal and the service, I’m not sure what differentiates it from any of the twenty other Korean BBQ joints in Rockville. It’s great but not life-changing.

Price: $20 per person.

Bottom line: Ultimately, this place was a good deal on a good-sized meal with hot tea and a spectator experience thrown in to boot. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by, but don’t make a special trip (it is super far away).

El Catrachito

El Catrachito is nestled between the Dominican hair salons, Central America bakeries, pho shops, and, yes, even a very shady looking adult bookstore in Wheaton, a place whose diversity is matched only by its depressive vibe. There aren’t many reasons to go to Wheaton unless you are interested in visiting its metro station, which features the longest escalators in the Western Hemisphere (This is actually true. They are 230 feet long in case you were wondering. You weren’t? Oh.) You would never notice El Catrachito from the street because it blends in so well with its sad surroundings, but it looks like what I imagine the coffee shop from Seinfeld would be if it existed in Tegucigalpa instead of Manhattan.

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This is DC and we have about a thousand Salvadoran restaurants but this is the only place I’ve seen Honduran food. And, as I was made painfully aware a few weeks ago, there’s a reason why you don’t find many Guatemalan restaurants either. For the uninitiated, “El Catrachito” means “The Little Honduran,” and it’s surprisingly not even the only Honduran restaurant in Wheaton.

The inside has classic diner decor complete with the full-service counter and round stools fixed to the floor. It even has one of those old-fashioned candy machines where you have to carefully cup your hands over the exit to avoid dropping your five year-old M&Ms. If nothing else, this place was guaranteed to be a great dive.

Their menu is very extensive and I was pleased that it was almost entirely Honduran specialties. I ordered the Baleadas Catrachas (with beans, cheese, and sour cream), and my husband got Tajadas con Carne Asada, which I’d never had before. Sadly, El Catrachito doesn’t serve alcohol of any kind.

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My baleadas were huge, freshly grilled, and stuffed with smoky, dripping refried beans. The tortillas were warm and soft, and they tasted even better with the hot sauce that the restaurant kindly provides. They were simple but delicious.

We didn’t know what to expect with the tajadas. Our only clue was the faded picture inside the menu. We ordered the carne asada thinking that the steak would be a good litmus test for the restaurant–chewy meat is a no-go. But upon its arrival, we knew it was the right move. Tajadas is basically Honduras’s answer to the garbage plate. It contains fried bananas topped with meat, cabbage slaw, and a mayo-based dressing. I don’t know who first had the idea to combine fruit, meat, and mayonnaise, but may god bless that person every day of his life. Nobody knows why, but everything about it works. And even better–El Catrachito passed the meat test because that carne asada was soft and scrumptious. My only complaint is that I couldn’t wash it all down with a margarita.

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Price: $10 per person.

Bottom line: Honduran food gets no respect and it should. El Catrachito gets it right, and the price tag ain’t bad either. You may even learn some Honduran geography from their giant wall map!

Mandalay

Mandalay hardly needs a plebe like me to review it. But here I am, and I’ll try to do it justice.

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We ordered the ginger salad and my husband got his old standby, nan jhi thoke. I was in the mood for something new, so I got the chicken #12: chicken with pickled mango. “How spicy do you want it?” asked our waitress brusquely. “Very spicy,” I said. She leaned in ominously: “Are you SURE?” “Yes,” I said confidently. “I’ve been here before.” I know what to expect when I come to Mandalay: food so hot that you won’t be able to taste anything but spice for days afterward. Due to a necessary overconsumption of water there, I have found myself in some regrettable situations during a post-Mandalay lag in Metro service. Plan accordingly. Whatever you think is spicy now, you are wrong.

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The ginger salad came first. “It smells like old socks,” remarked my husband, reacting to the copious fish sauce (though he will have you know that he didn’t find the stench of socks offensive). Don’t be afraid of the stink; as with all Southeast Asian food, the fish sauce adds a critical savoriness. Mandalay also offers a vegetarian version of all fish sauce-containing dishes, but don’t be fooled by their kindness. Embrace the smell. The ginger salad tastes of fresh cabbage and spicy ginger, with peanuts and crispy fried shallots. It’s a perfect appetizer.

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My chicken with pickled mango is not a letdown. A part of me feels ashamed that I talked a good game about my desired spiciness and I’ve now been served something that is unequivocally very spicy. I’m not sure that there’s any verbal warning that I can issue that could prepare the masses for Mandalay-level spicy. By my own doing, this dish is now so spicy that I have a hard time picking out any other flavors. The chicken is cooked in a deep red curry. I think there’s onion in there? And something Christmas-y, like cinnamon or allspice maybe? The bits of pickled mango are salty and sour all at once. I proceeded to drink approximately a half-gallon of water while I ate tiny bits of rice to try to alleviate the burn. It was all for naught.

Years ago, the first time my husband and I came to Mandalay, he ordered Nan jhi thoke. As a creature of habit, he continues to get it exclusively every single time we come here, and usually refuses to share. Like, actually, when we bring our friends here, we have to order two plates of it just so my husband can have his own. I wish I could fault him for this. Nan jhi thoke is served room-temperature with a thin fish sauce-based dressing, crushed peanuts, and bits of dark meat chicken. He also ordered this very spicy, but it was somehow mild enough for me to use to cool off my mouth after my chicken curry. I could probably eat this every day for the rest of my life.

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Price: $20 per person.

Bottom line: I’m never disappointed by Mandalay in terms of their variety, quality, or the seriousness with which they add spiciness. This place is not for the faint of heart or the heartburn-prone, but it is the standard by which I judge all other Southeast Asian restaurants (Ahem, Bad Saint) as well as the jewel of Downtown Silver Spring. Word to the wise: if you, like me, consume massive quantities of water during this meal, make sure you make a pit-stop before you leave.

Fresh Greek Grill

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The setting: the day before Thanksgiving, 11 a.m. I need to ditch work, shove some food in my face, and hit the road fast. Enter Fresh Greek Grill, which happened to exist in the correct location (near my work) and serve the correct food (portable meat). My husband, a veritable gyro connoisseur, was beyond excited, arrived early, and sent me a rapidfire stream of increasingly worried texts when he thought that Fresh Greek Grill wasn’t going to open at 11 as promised. When you need a gyro, you need a gyro.

But open they did, and we waited in their no-nonsense shack-sized diner until they quickly delivered our two gyros–his with lamb gyro meat and mine with chicken.

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The gyros are served one way–soupy tzatziki, tomatoes, and red onions, and they didn’t skimp on any of these ingredients. In fact, it was veritably dripping with tzatziki. The pita was warm and fluffy, which was pleasant, although maybe not the sturdiest vehicle for this many toppings and sauce. The chicken was surprisingly tender too. While the gyro meat was extremely flavorful on account of being lamb, the chicken was under-seasoned. The only other qualm I have with this magnificent sandwich is that it should contain lettuce and/or cucumbers.

Then dessert:

20171122_113149.jpgWe couldn’t help ourselves. The baklava was moist, nutty, sweet, and the size of my entire hand. Perhaps a little on the soggy side. But still, it hit the spot.

Although we didn’t order any, Fresh Greek Grill also serves a wide selection of beers, most of which are IPAs indistinguishable from one another, and also 40’s of malt liquor. There’s nothing like washing down baklava with some Steel Reserve. I need to remember this place when I’m having a particularly bad day at work.

Price: $10 per person, or $13.99 if you want to include some Steel Reserve.

Bottom line: Fresh Greek Grill is efficient, tasty, and worth your time for a quick stop or a weekday lunch.

Woodlands

Is it just me or is it hard to find good Indian food in DC proper? I’ve been searching for it basically my entire adult life. Rasika is obviously amazing, but if you don’t want to schlep across town and cough up $100, your options are rather limited.

Knowing I’d be in Maryland, I suggested Indian for lunch with a friend, and she was eager to try it. I chose Woodlands for the low price point, not realizing it would be Sunday buffet, although in retrospect, duh it was Sunday buffet. It’s actually surprising that it exists here, nestled amongst the pupuserias and the Latino markets and the pollo a la brasa and more pupuserias.

Woodlands bills itself as South Indian, which I always knew abstractly was different than North Indian cuisine, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the buffet offerings were unrecognizable to me. No boring-ass naan here; if Woodlands is any indication, the specialty of Southern India is fried fried fried things. Fried bread, fried potatoes, fried lentils, fried pancakes, fried dhosa. I ain’t mad. There were so many things and there is no way I would ever get their names right, but I’ll try to describe the dishes.

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My first plate included yellow dal on the left, the adjoining red cauliflower curry, the veggie pancake, the lentil donut, the yellow pumpkin curry, the cold chickpeas, and the iceberg salad that was a waste of plate space and I’m not sure why I believed that getting one spoonful of salad would negate all the fried things on my plate. The winners on this plate were definitely the red cauliflower, which was well sauced and fragrant, the pumpkin curry that was richly coconutty and full of soft-cooked pumpkin, and the lentil donut which was surprisingly savory and flavorful. The dal was too thin and not the best ever so I didn’t get any on the next go-around.

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Second plate: as you can see, a re-upping of lentil donut, pumpkin curry, red cauliflower, and saag paneer, which was good but standard, plus the two desserts: the sweet kheer-like pudding made with noodles instead of rice which had the tinge of cardamom but the overwhelming sweetness of condensed milk, plus the gulab jamoon which was exactly the fried ball of sweet cheese I needed to close out this meal.

My wonderful dining partner was a friend who happens to be an immigrant from El Salvador. For her first experience with Indian food, this was a good pick. “I’m in love with the pumpkin,” she said repeatedly. I agree, it was wonderful.

Price: $15 per person.

Bottom line: Woodlands is a great place to try something new even if you are already well-acquainted with Indian food. And if you want to convert someone else, it’s all the better.