Panino Gourmet

It was another lazy Sunday evening and once again I was charged with the impossible task of choosing food for dinner. “I don’t care what it is as long as it magically shows up at my house!” shouted my husband. We were both a little grumpy.

Fortunately, Uber Eats has entirely too many options, and none of the things that I had actually planned on eating. So it actually took me longer to decide where to order from than it did for my food to arrive at my house. I might want to seek help for my chronic indecisiveness but I’m not sure how I’d ever choose a counselor. [Shrug].

To make a long story short, I chose Panino Gourmet. My husband went with the Cubano and I ordered the ever-so-slightly not-a-Cubano Uruguayan specialty called the Chivito. Here’s the Cubano:

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It was cheesy and had ample meats and pickles. The bread, on the other hand, was lacking. The chili cheese fries didn’t travel well and were completely congealed by the time they arrived, but this is no fault of Panino Gourmet. They were more cheese than chili.

The Chivito also had the flavorful pork tenderloin but added a very satisfying mix of olives, bacon, hard-boiled egg, mayo, and veggies. The bread was the same but not grilled, and didn’t hold up that well to the wet ingredients, but it was still incredibly delicious. I ordered the side salad, and as lame as this sounds, it was probably the best side salad I’ve received from a take-out restaurant. Quality.

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We also ordered two of their house sauces: the jalapeno diablo and the red pepper mayo. We didn’t have anything in mind to actually use these sauces on, but my husband insisted. They were both fantastic, and the jalapeno was actually Central American spicy instead of gringo-spicy. These two were just wasted potential since we didn’t know what to add them to. I put some jalapeno diablo on my sandwich, which improved it. I would love to see Panino Gourmet create some original flavor combos using their sauce.

Price: $15 per person.

Bottom line: Panino Gourmet is tasty enough to eat again, especially if you reealllllllly don’t want to leave your house.

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.

Declaration

Between parties, being out of town, and revisiting old favorite spots, it’s been a few weeks so I was excited to start trying out some new places and Declaration was next on the list, mostly because I had seen it during our visits to Hazel and Haikan. I associate only good things with those places, plus then I found out that Declaration specializes in pizza so it was a shoe-in for family fun Friday.

I was excited when we were seated and found out about the special tasting menu that is a glorified version of Panera’s U-Pick-2 deal. My father-in-law and I decided to choose opposite tasting menu dishes for the full effect. My husband ordered the cheesesteak, my mother-in-law ordered the Thomas Heyward pizza, which Declaration bills as its most popular choice. We also were lured in by deviled eggs and the brussels sprouts appetizer. In this family, we never turn down either of those.

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The deviled eggs were good but very garlicky. I appreciated the simplicity and the strong, classic flavor. The sprouts were perfectly crispy and served with golden raisins, green apples, and a glob of melty bleu cheese. I cook sprouts approximately once a week, and order them in a restaurant almost that often too, and it’s rare that I’ve had ones this good. The salty-sweet-funky combo went so well with the crispy, bitter veggie. Declaration set me up with high hopes for the main meal.

My mother-in-law’s pizza and half of my father-in-law’s tasting menu meal came out first. Yep–looks like a pizza:

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It tasted like a pizza. It was light on toppings, particularly the pepperoni. If you happen to be looking for interesting specialty pizza, this was not it. You could have told me this was from Paisano’s and I would have believed you (and I love Paisano’s for what it is: a no-frills choose-your-own-adventure place where pizza doesn’t cost a gimmicky $17.76).

My husband’s cheesesteak arrived. I had a little bite of this meaty, bready, mayo-y concoction. If you, like him, are trying to eat as much as possible, this may be the sandwich for you! It had vegetables and nicely-caramelized onions, which put it a step above the average cheesesteak in my mind (although I’m from California and admittedly have no appreciation for authentic Philly sandwiches).

Then I waited. And waited. I took another little bite of the pizza. I waited some more. Then one-half of my tasting meal arrived: the branzino (note: this photo shows the acutal size of the food).

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I take back all the bad things I said about Kith/Kin and their tiny baby food. I regret that there’s no way to correctly judge the size of the food in this picture, but the carrots on the plate are regular-to-small sized baby carrots. That branzino was approximately 1.5 inches long. It’s okay to have food this size if you’re at, say, Komi and you’re going to be served twelve courses. At Declaration, this was my main meal. And it was served before my salad but somehow still ten minutes after everyone else’s food. It tasted good, but at what cost?

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Here’s the salad I got, approximately ten minutes after finishing my fish. I could have made a more imaginative salad at the Whole Foods salad bar (I know this specifically because I do exactly that every single weekend).

I can’t even review the drinks or my father-in-law’s food because no amount of fairly-good steak could make up for the sins Declaration committed against fish and pizza.

Price: $35 per person.

Bottom line: If you want cheap, boring pizza, go to Paisano’s. If you want interesting pizza, go to Bacio or Little Coco’s or Ghibellina. If you want a bowl of arugula, go to Whole Foods. Leave this one to the tourists. You’ve been warned.

https://goo.gl/maps/P9EVuTtSa5r

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.

Espita Mezcaleria

I’m always down for mezcal cocktails. Throw promises of high-end Mexican food in the mix and I’ll basically sign away my first-born child. There is no better prescription for a hot Friday evening than these two things. Big ups to the weather for cooperating tonight!

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Fair warning: the mezcal list at Espita is pretty intimidating. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this many sub-varieties and distilleries exist, but how this place has managed to aggregate all these interesting liquors is beyond me. Until two weeks ago at Mezcalero, my fairly hip cousin hadn’t even heard of mezcal at all. Fortunately for me, the cocktail list is pretty straightforward. I ordered the Snap Pea Highball, which promised to be refreshing (spoiler alert: it was!), and my husband ordered Revenge of the Estocada–basically a mezcal negroni, although the liquor used in this one was more subtle and lighter on the smoke. It was a struggle for both of us to not down these drinks in one gulp.

As per usual, we decided to split a few small plates in lieu of ordering larger dishes. In my mezcal-addled mind, this was a good way to ease the financial burden. That was not entirely what happened. In order, our share-plates were:

    1. Salsa de Marañon: nutty, smoky, and slightly spicy. We thought, “Hm, this tastes familiar” for several minutes before my husband finally pinpointed the flavor as “franks and beans.” This is a major undersell because it was delicious. Maybe a very high-quality franks and beans? At least it was not just your run-of-the-mill salsa. The chips were fantastic too; thicker than usual, crispy, and light on the salt.
    2. Ceviche: I don’t know about you, but I expect ceviche to have, like, a lot of fish in it. Perhaps it speaks more to the high standard set by the other dishes, but this was kind of a disappointment. My husband would tell you that there was too much rhubarb. I would tell you there just wasn’t enough fish. Potato/potahto. What fish was there was plush and delicious, but calling this ceviche was false advertising. Call it a rhubarb salad with raw fish on it. Boom! Done.

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3. Tacos al Pastor: Tender pork, tart-salty watermelon, and sweet warm pineapple. This was not your typical taco al pastor but damn if it wasn’t delicious. Definitely the best part of this dinner.

4. Cauliflower: The texture of the vegetable itself was the perfect combination of soft on the inside with crispy florets. The sauce claimed to be hazelnut salsa but I’m pretty sure it was just that same cashew salsa we had as our starter. I ain’t mad, though. In this incarnation, it was almost barbecue- or teriyaki-like, and the cauliflower acted as a good vehicle for eating more sauce.

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An honest question here: how have I been to two different Mexican restaurants in the last two weeks that don’t offer tres leches cake? Do you want my money or not, Espita?

In the end, we opted for liquid dessert. Our server recommended the Durango mezcal flight. Despite a mezcal list about an inch thick, somehow Espita can’t be bothered to write an actual descriptive blurb about any of them so we had no idea what we were getting. One great thing about this flight was that all three of the mezcals were very different from one another. On the other hand, only one of them was particularly good (related: I highly recommend the Mezcales de Leyenda). It was smoky, sweet, and fruity.

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Despite Espita’s food prices–which I would estimate were about 20% higher than necessary–we somehow still managed to spend more money on drinks than on food.

Price: Even at $50 per person, you may be hungry an hour later.

Bottom line: Espita has a unique schtick and food that was interesting and good, but borders on not being worth the price. Come for the cocktails, maybe pick up a small plate or two.

Halfsmoke

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When I checked out their menu, Halfsmoke looked like essentially Chipotle with hotdogs. So basically, a perfect place for my husband’s grandmother. I was really confused about why a Chipotle knockoff would take reservations, and I felt like a total dumbass making said reservations, but when we arrived, Halfsmoke turned out to be so much more than just Chipotle and more than just sausages. They were also…

Trapper Keepers! Yes, Halfsmoke organizes their menu in actual old-school Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers. The unicorns and rainbows were super appropriate too, because it turns out that Halfsmoke exists in some fairy dreamworld where leprechauns deliver housemade bratwursts and cocktails only cost $5.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the drinks. Let’s just say they have craft beer and decent house cocktails and I have literally never paid so little money for a drink in my entire life and happy hour runs until 8 oh my god.

Halfsmoke is really only Chipotle-esque in the sense that you pick a format (rice, salad, sandwich, or flatbread), a sausage, and fixins. They have a few pre-designed recommendations, but nahhh. The four of us (grandma didn’t show up, that ingrate!) each ordered our food in a different format. I ordered a salad with the lamb merguez, broccoli rabe, roasted red peppers, spiced eggplant, and tahini dressing. I hate eggplant and I ordered it as a test, because sometimes it’s really good and sometimes it tastes like eating a shoe. Impress me, Halfsmoke. I dare you.

My husband got a flatbread with mumbo sauce, smothered onions, a halfsmoke, and beer cheese. I don’t even know what to say about this combination of foods except that this man is very lucky to have me to cook for him. Moving on… my father-in-law had a rice bowl with halfsmoke, mustard slaw, crispy onions, and honey mustard sauce. My mother-in-law, true to form, had a large piece of bread that happened to come with bratwurst, bacon, and crispy onions.

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I have many good things to say about all of these dishes. First, the sausages were just really good. All of them. Next, the eggplant test worked! This eggplant was tender, spicy, and savory, possibly even the best I’ve ever had. The lamb was the perfect protein for this dish. I wish I could have had crispy onions on mine too because these were delicious from the other dishes I tried around the table. The mustard slaw had a powerful flavor without being too much. The roll that the sandwiches come on was seriously good. I know some sandwich places that could learn a thing or two here. The flatbread was a light, crispy texture that my husband unfortunately destroyed with a mountain of bad decisions. Mumbo sauce is great and classic DC, but don’t hold out hope for making it your pizza sauce. He did finish the flatbread though, so I’m not sure if this reflects well on Halfsmoke or very, VERY poorly on my spouse. Somebody please save this man from himself.

I’ve never seen my mother-in-law more excited about anything than she was about the prospect of homemade funnel cake. And even though Halfsmoke doesn’t exactly advertise alcoholic milkshakes, they are a distinct possibility, what with regular milkshakes and happy hour-priced liquor. So my husband also got a vanilla milkshake with Maker’s Mark, like the real grownup he is.

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I have only a few suggestions for improvement. First, more ice cream flavors and a mixologist dedicated to adult milk shakes. Second, I know I joked about leprechauns before, but actual leprechauns or maybe fairy godmothers might be nice. Finally, they need someone in the kitchen to safeguard against the ungodly combination of mumbo sauce and beer cheese, like a kitchen bouncer. And when the kitchen bouncer hears a terrible flavor mixture, he can come over to whoever ordered that and flip the table over or something. Mr. T might be a good candidate for this job. So it sounds like Halfsmoke has some hiring to do. Chop chop!

Price: $20 per person.

Bottom line: You can get a fantastic meal and a great cocktail at Halfsmoke for less than a mass-produced Chipotle burrito, so what are you even doing with your life?

Fishscale

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I’m a seafood lover and former fish burger proponent (back in my pescatarian days before I knew better), so Fishscale’s gimmick has intrigued me since its salad days. I suggested it once with the fam, but my husband’s grandmother 86’d it. Fair enough. On the one hand, Fishscale would be great for Grandma because the menu is extremely limited. On the other hand, they only serve their Grandma-friendly crab burgers when they’re actually in season. I feel like I should know when crab season is by now, but I still don’t.

I was worried about the limitedness of the menu in terms of doing my write-up here. They only have two kinds of fish on the menu on any given day–today it was mackerel and rockfish–and you are allowed to pick two of their six toppings (some of which are very similar). I love rockfish, so my husband agreed that he would get the mackerel burger and we would opt for opposite toppings. Unfortunately, upon entering Fishscale, we learned that they were sold out of mackerel and alas, it is not crab season, so now we were down to one fish option. I feel like when your restaurant offers two things, you really shouldn’t run out of one of them. Also, there are some caveats on the number of toppings you can get in that some of them are considered premium and you are permitted only one. This seems like a little too much bureaucracy for a glorified Filet O’Fish. I ordered mine with dinosaur kimchi (I think it was dinosaur kale) and my husband got grilled onions and sambal. We also ordered the grilled romaine salad.

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This salad was actually insanely delicious. I used a spoon to scrape up the leftover kefir dressing. It had mildly sweet granola with blood oranges and the dressing was tangy-sweet. It was like eating breakfast on top of lettuce, but it magically worked.

I loved watching the chef lovingly craft each sandwich from our high-top perch near the cash register. I read his story on their website and learned that he is very much into not only Jesus but also responsible fishing. Just observing him, you could tell that he really cares about the food and about good planetary stewardship. I appreciate it. Good food comes from people who care about food.

Unfortunately, Fishscale’s burgers are the culinary equivalent of my burgeoning violin skills; sometimes it is possible for a person to care so much about their passion and still just not be that good.

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Contrary to my usual MO, I will issue my complaints before my compliments. The bun: untoasted, dry, boring, and possibly store-bought. If you’re going to import bread, at least buy potato or challah or sweet rolls. The kimchi: clearly homemade but not spicy and not enough. Also, it was nothing special; why was I not allowed to combine this with another topping? The fish patties: I don’t know whether to be impressed or suspicious that they were such a perfect shape. They were also salty but lacking in other adjectives. They brought us out some individual packs of potato chips to accompany our sandwiches, which was unexpected but nice, although chips are not my thing. I didn’t want mine so I took the bag out of the restaurant with me and regifted it to a homeless man who let’s just say was less than impressed.

Here are my compliments: the grilled onion-sambal combination was a winner for sure.  Also, the fish was pretty juicy. I think there’s potential here, but they need more options all around. A liquor license wouldn’t hurt either.

Price: $15 per person.

Bottom line: I wanted Fishscale to be good but it was meh at best. Great idea, poor implementation. Come to my house instead and I’ll make you a delicious salmon burger with Swiss cheese and chimichurri, and I’ll serve it on a goddamn potato roll like our lord and savior Jesus intended.