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.

Bistro 1521

Since Bad Saint was the inspiration for this blog with their horrible, salty, over-hyped, line-causing disaster of a restaurant, I wanted to give Filipino cuisine a second chance (and have another restaurant to share the “Filipino” tag for the sake of fairness to the people of the Philippines).

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Quick side note: if you think, “Oh yeah, let me just drive to Arlington on a Sunday night, no big deal,” you should probably check what time of year it is. If it’s the first weekend of April, just lock your doors, turn out your lights, and hide under your bed until Cherry Blossom Fest is over. Don’t even think about going to Arlington. Also, if you plan to go to Arlington in general, just don’t. The parking is a nightmare and nothing good ever comes from this place (except tortas).

My dining companions had already ordered appetizers by the time I arrived. We had the lumpiang shanghai (egg rolls) and ukoy (veggie and shrimp fritters). I appreciated the crispy simplicity of the egg rolls. They were mostly shell with a small amount of filling, but it was well-seasoned regardless. The fritters were enormous and served with a thin, spicy-sour sauce that worked really well. On the other hand, they also weirdly included shell-on shrimp. They were delicious but why? Why do I have to pick apart a fritter in order to shell my own seafood? Why am I even paying for not-quite-prepared food? It’s even worse in fritter form.

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When we ordered, it turns out that the people in our group fell into two camps: the people who wanted spicy pork tenderloin and the people who wanted chicken on top of noodles. Our table of five ordered two of each of these things, plus I had a mango salad and we got an order of chicken adobo fried rice for the table. My husband ordered his bicol express pork dish extra spicy, as per usual.

First, let me talk about the mango salad. I guess I just assumed this would be a salad that was actually made from mangoes, not a salad with a few sad julienne slices of mango on top. Disappointing. Not even worth posting.

The bicol express was plentiful and looked like this:

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It had a good texture and a very unique flavor, which I will attribute to a seafoodiness from shrimp paste. On the other hand, I hesitate to call this “extra spicy,” and maybe it’s not even fair to call it “spicy,” which is the warning they offer on the menu. As compared to the regular spicy version, the extra-spicy had a couple extra chilis thrown in last-minute. They weren’t even super-spicy chilis. So spicy was not its forte, but it was satisfying.

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The chicken bihon looked and tasted like your typical chicken-noodle-vegetable amalgamation. The chicken was kind of dry, the dish was composed primarily of vermicelli noodles. I was fairly underwhelmed by this too.

The standout of the meal for me was the 1521 fried rice, which I’m actually shocked that I liked considering that I think rice is the number one most useless food to ever exist. But damn, throw some chicken adobo and some hard-boiled egg in there and I’m all over that noise. One again, pretty dry chicken but the oiliness of the rice made up for it.

The unsung hero of Bistro 1521 was the cocktail selection, though. We were all very satisfied with an interesting mix of liquors and authentic juice flavors, and everyone had a second round. I bet this place does a mean happy hour.

Price: $40 per person.

Bottom line: Well, it’s a lot cheaper and less salty than Bad Saint, so if for some reason you absolutely need to eat Filipino food and nothing else will quite cut it, this might be a decent option. Otherwise, come for the apps and beverages, then fill your belly at one of the other fine establishments that I’m sure exists somewhere in Arlington. Can’t help you with that one.

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.

BKK Cookshop

Ever since Beau Thai grew up, decided it was too good for us plebes in Bloomingdale, and moved across town to its fancy new digs, they’ve left us their little redheaded half-brother, BKK Cookshop, to help absorb the shock and sadness of their sudden departure. That was like…three years ago. I’m a little bitter.

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So tonight was my first real time there, and it was also luckily a beautiful night to sit on their patio! Just by looking at their menu, you can tell that BKK Cookshop isn’t here to upstage your neighborhood Thai place, which is good because I am unusually attached to my personal neighborhood Thai place and I will fight you if you try to insinuate that your place is better (Aroi shout out!) BKK is a different beast, all interesting noodles, simple but tasty cocktails, and dim sum-like appetizers. Speaking of simple but tasty cocktails, here’s my tart, limey, strong Bangkok Mule!

There was significant negotiation involved in choosing one appetizer because they all looked so good. We finally settled on the steamed buns because we were able to choose three different flavors: spicy pork, sweet black bean, and panang chicken. Steamed buns are so nostalgic for me, probably because I haven’t had great ones since I left my home state of California more than ten years ago and they always remind me of dim sum brunch in San Francisco. The black bean ones were just like those ones, with a rich but not cloying sweetness. The pork was soft, well spiced but not spicy, and the panang was both meaty and saucy, the clear winner.

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Then came the entrees: I had the sukiyaki bowl and husband ordered the coconut curry bowl and a side of son-in-law eggs. The eggs were slightly overcooked and the sauce was syrupy and not super tamarind-y, but it was definitely interesting. The bowls were both so different in their own ways from our usual Thai fare that it’s hard to even compare them. I liked the rich herbaceousness of the Sukiyaki broth and the abundant veggies, especially the Chinese broccoli, which lent its subtle bitterness to counter the salinity of the broth.  The coconut curry was good too, made with a yellow curry that doesn’t make it into my husband’s usual Thai rotation of panang and more panang. The only issue with it was the bone-in chicken that populated his soup for the second week in a row. This guy just cannot catch a break! The good news is that it was very fall-apart-y, and we all know that dark meat is the superior meat. But come on, guys. Throw him a bone (heeeeee!) and just strip the chicken before you put it in a soup. This is my basic thought when it comes to shellfish too; if I’m paying you for my food, you had better be doing all the work.

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Sadly, all of our dishes were originally served gringo-style and although I was happy to not be wrestling with these noodles armed only with chopsticks, we were both much happier after we requested the spice tray and gave our soups some proper nasal-drip-inducing seasoning. No matter how many times I pushed my bowl of leftover liquid away, I couldn’t stop eating the broth. Now I have sloshy-belly.

Price: $25 per person.

Bottom line: BKK Cookshop is not a replacement for your favorite Thai joint. Instead, you will find a place for it in your heart that you never knew existed. Like the bastard brother of fancy-pants Beau Thai, this place doesn’t get the attention or recognition it deserves. Next time you need some hot and tasty soup, show some love to BKK.

Pho 12

In the last couple of years, Brookland has gone from DC’s backwater/nun village to a paradise of diverse dining options/nun village! From the laid-back atmosphere of Steel Plate to the Ethiopian-fusion lunch of Askale Cafe to the varied alcoholic offerings at Brookland Pint, this lesser-known neighborhood is trying hard to become a foodie haven. They even have an upscale Starbucks!

Being right on my regular run route, Pho 12 hadn’t escaped my notice, but I just hadn’t had the opportunity to make it here. Today, that opportunity presented itself.

First and foremost, their menu is enormous. I’m glad that I spent some time researching online first because it might have taken me twenty minutes just to settle on my pho contents. I chose the #4: eye of round, flank steak, fatty brisket, and soft tendon, which I don’t usually get. I also ordered a Vietnamese coffee because I was feeling wild and crazy.

The service was ridiculously fast. Fresh basil and bean sprouts adorned my plate. The small soup was packed full of meat and they were particularly generous with the tendon. I tried it first plain; the broth was rich and savory, but not too salty. I ended up adding a decent amount of chili sauce as well as some hoisin. All the meats were great and cooked to tender perfection. The flank was particularly flavorful. The soft tendon had a great texture, ranging from that of al dente pasta to melt-in-your-mouth. While ordering, I had noticed that the menu offered “extra carrot” and “extra broccoli” as options, and I overlooked them. I’m sad that I did because the pho lacked all vegetables except onions, so I definitely recommend shelling out some extra cash for the veggies.

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20171005_123338.jpgMy coffee was the johnny-come-lately to my meal. It actually arrived after I’d received my pho, and it had the little individual diffuser on top, so I had to sit and be patient while it steeped. Just kidding. I don’t know how to be patient, especially when it comes to coffee, so when my efforts to hurry it along didn’t help, I drank my 3/4 of a cup of delicious, chocolately, too-strong coffee with just a touch of condensed milk.

I have a feeling that my love affair with Pho 12 is only beginning.

Price: $10-15 per person

Bottom line: Pho 12 has the quality cheap eats and fast service you’ve been looking for.

Bonus Brookland pro-tip: If you like good beer and adorable dogs, the Right Proper tasting room on Girard Street is the place to be. No food, but good atmosphere and great trivia on Thursday nights.

Doi Moi

I hadn’t heard of this place when I passed by it on the way to yoga a few weeks ago, but I added it to my to-eat list, and tonight was the night!

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Doi Moi is best described as Americanized Southeast Asian with no particular bent. Thai? Vietnamese? Nobody knows. But the menu looked tasty when I perused it online, and it appears to change up regularly, which I appreciate.  Especially for a small plates type of restaurant where you end up ordering a sizable chunk of the menu each time, variety is key. Doi Moi definitely has that.

The beer and wine menu was also extensive and respectable. I got the Captain Lawrence Passionfruit Gose, and it was not the only excellent beer on the list. There were also a handful of house cocktails but I went a little overboard on alcohol last night so I was trying to take it easy.

doimoi3We ordered five things for the table: the kimchi with pineapple, green papaya salad (always one of my Thai favorites), sweet corn fritters, pork steam buns, and the rabbit curry. We were warned that the papaya was on the spicy side and in response, we made it very clear that this sounded great.doimoi4.jpg

Everything came crazy fast. Kimchi came out first, and it was sour but not spicy at all, and the pineapple was….ambiguous? Even looking for it, I couldn’t taste it. Then were the corn fritters: sweet, crispy, and  flavorful, with a nice basil sauce to dip it in (though not nearly enough). Next came the pork buns. For me, this was the highlight. The pork was well-cooked and flavorful and the buns melted in your mouth. The papaya salad was basic. And I mean that in the slangy, basic bitch kind of way. It looked right but it tasted like something Sarah Palin would make for a church potluck. If the waitress felt like she had to warn us about this, I wonder who their usual clientele is. Green papaya should be spicy as well as savory-salty, with plenty of fish sauce and peanut and tomato. This didn’t exist. It was covered in Thai fingerhot chilis, which, completely contrary to their name, are spicy only to your grandma (Your grandma. Not my grandma. My grandma is a master of Tandoori chicken and my other grandma makes killer Indonesian food).

I’m willing to overlook the misstep in green papaya-land, though, because the rabbit curry was fabulous. Again, it was not spicy, but it certainly wasn’t bland. It was savory, coconutty, and with plentiful rabbit meat. My only complaint is that, due to inherent sauciness, it was not great for sharing. Our table looked like a murder scene after trying to split this up. We ended up just slurping up the curry from the main bowl with our individual spoons.

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Finally, two of us ordered the Vietnamese coffee, which was made in an individual pour-over style with condensed milk on the bottom. This was the perfect end to the meal.

Price: $30-35 per person

Bottom line: I’d probably come here again. The food was high-quality and the service was great, but all diners should be forewarned that this is not a hole-in-the-wall Thai place that doesn’t give a shit about your gringo-baby tastebuds. Doi Moi cares very much about not offending your lame American palate. If you want spicy, go to Mandalay. If you want a big variety and a killer rabbit curry, go to Doi Moi.

 

Bad Saint

This is my birthday weekend, and in lieu of a more upscale place, I opted to finally pull the trigger and wait in line for Bad Saint on a Saturday, a place I’ve been dying to go to since it opened.

We arrived at about 3:15 and were not the first ones in line, but definitely close enough to the front (although the people in front of us would eventually all have their friends show up). Around 5:05, the doors opened, and the hostess began taking in groups one by one, asking each person if they had any allergies and then pointing out which things on the menu they wouldn’t be able to eat (each item included a description in English, so I’m not sure why this was necessary). It took another 15 minutes for us to be allowed in due to this rigmarole, but we were eventually seated on the stools against the wall, where we had a great view of the kitchen, which I was really excited about.

The menu looked fabulous. I wanted everything. I first ordered a cocktail and my husband got a beer and we also heard the daily specials. Because everyone enters at the exact same time, it took forever to get my cocktail, although it was very original and tasty so I’m not sure I can fault them. We eventually ordered four dishes: the banana hearts in coconut milk, the pork sausage, squash blossoms stuffed with squid, and the beef ribs.

First, the good: I have never had Filipino food before and it was different than anything I’d had before. In fact, “interesting” and “unique” were the words my husband and I most often used to describe our dishes. As one might expect, it’s generally got the Southeast Asian ingredients mixed with flavors from the Spanish colonial influence. The banana hearts, which I expected to be on the sweeter side, definitely were not, which I enjoyed. The squash blossoms were really balanced and had a great texture, which I don’t always feel like I get with squid. And the pork sausage had a great, semi-sweet flavor.

The bad: Everything was SO. SALTY. I have no frame of reference for Filipino cuisine, so I can’t speak to its authenticity in this regard. It was not salty in an inedible way, but it was a predominant flavor in everything we ordered (although they deliver a small semi-sweet dessert with the check, which was completely bland, probably because my taste buds had been destroyed by all the salt).

The bottom line: I don’t regret coming here, and I don’t regret waiting in line (OK, maybe a little…), but I will not do it again. Bad Saint is good, but not good enough to merit their first-come-first-serve-no-reservations policy. Not bad bad, just insanely overhyped. They should rename this restuarant “Mediocre Saint.”

Price: $75 per person