Andrene’s Cafe

It’s a Thursday when I find myself returning to “up and coming” Kennedy Street for a place that’s been on my list since…well, since the last time I was sorely let down by a Jamaican carry-out (looking at you, Spice). During the summer, my husband frequently badgers me to come visit and bring him a tasty lunch, like his own personal Red Riding Hood, and it’s our last day before another vacation, so I needed a break.

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Kennedy Street may be deserted during the day (and night–let’s be real), but inside Andrene’s it is hopping! The cashier manages to stay warm and friendly even while simultaneously taking my order, taking a phone order, calling out the food that’s ready, and gossiping with another West Indian man from the neighborhood. It’s pretty impressive. And, even though the combo menu specifies that there are no substitutions to the side orders of rice, plantains, and cabbage, she still gives me the option to change all of those. I leave with a bag, not knowing what magic is in store for me, and venture off through the woods…I mean…I-95…

I have to sit in traffic for close to an hour, so by the time arrive, I’m sure someone is about to comment about what big teeth I have because I am ready to eat anything that crosses my path. We pop the big platter in the microwave. Here’s how we made out for $27:

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Huge piece of coco bread, two beef patties, stewed green cabbage, rice and beans, plantains, oxtail, and jerk chicken. I will be upfront and let everyone know that we didn’t even come close to finishing this. The coco bread was mildly sweet, fluffy, and warm. The beef patties, although tepid by the time I arrived, were very savory with a sweet, flaky crust and a moist interior. The cabbage was a new thing for me. It was cooked so far that even Red Riding Hood’s toothless grandmother could have chewed it, but still had shape and a rich flavor. Plantains are always a winner in my book and these were no exception. The chicken was mostly moist with a few dry spots and a lot of bones, but had a good level of spice and a delicious sauce. The oxtail sauce was beyond delicious, and good for dipping bread in, although the meat itself was gristle-y in more than a few spots. Rice, as always, is rice, and there was a lot of it, although we barely ate any and still walked away from this meal overstuffed and with meat and bread left over.

Price: $10-15 per person.

Bottom Line: Andrene’s is good, and you can definitely get your money’s worth here, but I won’t rest until I find a truly awesome Jamaican restaurant. I know it’s out there.

BBQ Bus

I’ll get right down to it because I don’t want BBQ Bus to steal any more of my time than they already have. I ordered the 3-meat sampler platter to split with my husband: halfsmoke, turkey, and brisket. Of these three meats, two of them had an up-charge. Why do you even offer a three-meat sampler if you’re going to up-charge me? Also, extra cost for turkey? Do they charge more for making things un-delicious now?

Before I get to the real horrors of this lunch, I’ll speak briefly about the sauces. I sampled four because I was in a time-crunch and that was all I could find. The “Spicy” sauce was…not. Why you gotta lie, BBQ Bus? The Memphis-style was decidedly the most interesting, the smoky-sweet was fairly standard, and Teriyaki…what is this even doing here?

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Does this look like $22 worth of food to you? No? Maybe that’s because it wasn’t $22; all the extra charges made this $25! I actually checked the bag multiple times because I was sure they had forgotten something. How could this be lunch for two people?

You will see on the left side, from top to bottom: turkey (remarkably un-smoky, this totally came out of your grandma’s Thanksgiving leftovers), brisket (passed the pull-test but unflavorful and again, not smoky), and the halfsmoke (okay, do I really need to tell them that this sausage has the word “smoke” in its actual goddamn name? It was a bratwurst covered in BBQ sauce). The collards were cooked down but meh in flavor–not even bitter, just overcooked, and the mac and cheese was like…mac and flour or something. No cheese. Just mac, bechamel, and yellow number 5. Super blah. Then I got two pieces of “Texas toast” aka soggy bread. So I guess BBQ Bus really is charging more money for making terrible food now.

Listen, guys. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head and forcing you to make BBQ. If you can’t make it right, don’t do it.

Price: $25 per person. Yeah. This was still only one person’s amount of food.

Bottom line: I haven’t had great BBQ anywhere in DC except, notably, DCity, but everywhere else is better than the Bus.

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.

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.

Little Coco’s

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It’s not often that I’m in the mood for Italian, because, well, I can boil spaghetti myself at home, so when I want Italian, I want something totally different. Little Coco’s had that going for it from the beginning, exemplified by the fact that I had to google several ingredients while reading the menu.

The main drawback of this place is it’s in Petworth. I guess if you live in Petworth or CoHo, it’s not a big deal, but I felt like I was entering some alternate universe on my way here. All these rowhouses look just like my house, and yet I have no idea where I am…

Everyone at our table started with an alcoholic beverage, mostly beers and wines, but I ordered their house Manhattan. It came in a glass that was approximately the size of a thimble. It was bitter…but good…and despite its tiny size it was surprisingly potent. What did I even drink here? I walked away feeling slightly sloshed after just one of these things.

I was originally thinking I would split a pizza with my beloved husband, and wow did they have some original-looking pizzas. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try one of their really interesting pastas. It was a hard decision, but I finally settled on the squid ink pasta with crab.

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This is a horrible picture that doesn’t do justice to this dish. Under that ‘nduja crumb is was a veritable mountain of flavorful pasta in a light but still-rich seafood broth with chunks of crabmeat and the interesting touch of slivered ginger and sauteed jalapenos. Ordering this was not a mistake. The ginger and peppers added a unique kick that I feel is often lacking in Italian food, and the lobster sauce was just seafoody enough without being overly fishy and gross. P.S. yeah, ‘nduja was totally one of the things I googled at the table. It’s basically spicy sausage meat, you uncultured swine.

My husband and mother-in-law ordered the Mt. Vesuvius and Italian Stallion pizzas, respectively. They were…surprisingly similar. The main draw of the Mt. Vesuvius was the pepper honey that allegedly was one of the toppings. I think I tasted a small amount of this, and the sweetness added an interesting contrast to the spicy meats. There was definitely not enough of it, but it was still a solid pizza, although pepperoni and jalapeno is not anything new. The Italian Stallion was Meat and Onion City, and I mean that in the best way possible. There was no lack of meat here, and two kinds of onions made it pop in a way that a meat-lover’s pizza rarely does alone. This was the pizza winner, although I personally would have opted for either the Caulifornication or the ‘Nduja Really Want to Hurt Me had I had the opportunity. I may just try to recreate one or both of those pizzas at home. These pizzas are totally 2-person splittable.

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My father-in-law ordered the lasagna, which had a punny name I can no longer remember. It was definitely good, on the cheesier side, with that caramelized edge I love. It was surprisingly normal considering all the really unique dishes Little Coco’s has to offer. A good option for the person in your group who thinks ketchup is too spicy.

Price: $30 per person

Bottom line: You could do worse than Little Coco’s for sure. I recommend the pasta much more than the pizza, and I suggest that if you do come, you get something out of the ordinary because that’s what they do best. The prices are decent and the vibe is neighborhoody and friendly. So friendly, in fact, that our waitress asked us three times in the span of two minutes if everything was okay, and my father-in-law knew one of the other waitresses from her previous stint at EatBar. Yep, this is definitely a local place.

Spice

Spice is a little Jamaican carry-out place I found while perusing google maps for a place to pick up lunch on the way to our Saturday afternoon outing to Sandy Spring Adventure Park. After seeing a number of Caribbean carry-outs in the area, and thus getting my heart set on jerk chicken, I settled on this one, mainly due to a) proximity to my driving route, and b) it opened at 11 rather than 11:30.

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We ordered a half-chicken, a beef patty, and the coco bread. I wanted to get my share of yummy Jamaican specialties, but also not go overboard at lunch. Friendly people, tables to sit at inside, good-size menu; all signs pointed to yum.

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The chicken was mostly moist, although it included a lot of gristle and was kind of (read: extremely) cold. The jerk sauce was definitely flavorful, but once again left me wanting more heat (both literal and figurative). The patty was good, but ultimately was just a normal beef patty. It was flaky and chock-full of ground beef, but it was not particularly well-seasoned, and I’m not convinced that it was made in-house. The coco bread was moist and flavorful, and would have paired well with the jerk sauce if I’d had more of it. I wanted to like it, I really did. But it just wasn’t anything better than okay. I also realize that at this point, I sound like some masochist whose only pleasure comes from eating overly spicy food. I swear I’m not.

…Well, maybe.

…But if you, reader, are averse to spicy food, you should probably just stop reading now.

Price: <$10 per person

Bottom line: Due to low cost, this place had a high return on investment, so it wasn’t a total loss. I got a solid chicken meal with standard jerk sauce, so I guess I can’t complain. Will look for other Jamaican restaurants in the future.