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.

London Curry House

What’s better than Indian food on a rainy winter night? Maybe soup? Maybe. But a good curry could still hit the spot. And, like many of my recent dining decisions, London Curry House in Alexandria existed in exactly the right place in roughly the period of time in which I needed it. Close enough, at least. I could also order online for pick-up. It’s an introvert’s dream!

Something I appreciate about London Curry House: they let me know right on the menu which things are “must try!” Thanks, London Curry House! Another thing I love about them: they had so many good looking things that they actually convinced my husband to move away from his beloved chicken tikka masala and try something new. I really did marry an adventurous eater, but the man knows what he likes. He ordered the madras curry with chicken (I mean, we can’t get too crazy now) and I got the “must try!” goat nehari. Then, feeling all the more adventurous, I added an order of shahi naan, stuffed with coconut and nuts.

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Not pictured: enough rice to feed an Indian village for a week.

Forgive the horribly inaccurate picture. This was actually an enormous amount of food. The madras curry (bottom right) was different but not particularly flavorful, and had kind of a gritty texture from the coconut. It was creamy and the chicken was good, but sparse. I think my husband will be going back to tikka masala next time. The goat nehari (bottom left) had a spicy, oniony sauce that was heaven in a bowl…but the goat was overwhelmingly fatty and chewy, almost all of it still stuck to small pieces of bone, and that made this dish partially inedible. When goat is cooked well, it should literally fall off the bone. If I can cook goat like this, so can every restaurant. Also, it’s just so hard to eat a saucy dish that still has chunks of bone in it. How do people live like this? I ended up eating mostly sauce and slivers of onion.

The naan was really tasty, though. I mean, it’s bread. Stuffed with dried coconut. There’s no losing here. It was messy to eat because all the dried coconut just kind of poured out of the torn bread, but it was still slightly dessert-y and yum.

Price: $20 per person.

Bottom line: I was pretty unsatisfied with everything we got to some degree, and my complaints were all over the map. Except the naan; that was pretty good. DC has kind of a dearth of good Indian food but I’m pretty sure I could find something better than this.

Pan American Bakery

I’m really glad that the suburbs of DC, while occasionally bland and full of Red Lobster franchises, are generally diverse and small business-oriented. And when in Alexandria, prepare yourself for some top-notch food of many ethnic origins. We found ourselves today with my aunt and uncle, eating lunch at Pan American Bakery.

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The menu is, if I’m being honest, large to a slightly intimidating degree. I was overwhelmed with grilled meat options when all I really wanted was a solid sandwich. We sprung for an appetizer of saltenas because you can’t leave this place without some kind of delicious pastry. Sweet, flaky crust? Check! Tender chicken and vegetable filling? Check! Hot Pocket-style ability to burn the roof of your mouth with liquid lava filling? Check! My recommendation: order this but let it cool off while you eat the rest of your food first.

Then I had the choripan and my husband ordered the sandwich de lechon. My aunt and uncle, through a mixture of oncoming illness and naivete, each ordered the sopa de mani. We were in for a treat. The choripan was great–slightly spicy chorizo on a soft-inside, crunchy-outside french roll. It was tasty but could have used more toppings or a delicious sauce. My husband’s sandwich de lechon was good, with soft, flavorful pork on a huge seeded loaf. The fresh breads really do make a nice touch here.

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The soup arrived in a bowl that was approximately the size of an NFL player’s helmet. It was slightly peanutty and earthy with scattered pieces of beef, penne pasta, and shoestring potatoes throughout. Neither my aunt nor uncle finished their bowl.

Table service at Pan American leaves something to be desired, but that’s par for the course at a place that has plastic lawn chairs for seating. It may also be that they want their sit-down patrons to have as much time as possible to consider the costs and benefits of ordering dessert pastries out of their case.  It was not in the cards for me today, but I highly encourage all people to go for it and follow your dreams.

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Price: $10-15 per person.

Bottom line: Great lunch spot, good bang for your buck, and Peruvian/Bolivian specialties you can’t get everywhere.

Tortas y Tacos La Chiquita

Ah yes, Arlington. That place you go to for the sole purpose of buying stuff on Craigslist. Which is exactly what I was doing this Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t planning on a lunch out. Frankly, in my mind, Arlington is the bastion of Panera. And yes, yes, I know that Arlington has plenty of good independent restaurants but we were out in the heavy suburbs and I didn’t want a big sit-down meal.

After retrieving the Craigslist loot, I was headed home, thinking there wasn’t anything on the way, when I ended up in the middle of this adorable Main Street at the corner of Walter Reed Drive and Columbia Pike, and dining options abounded. What even is this place? It’s sort of in this No Man’s Land between Ballston and Pentagon City. Crossed the street, and there, in all its glory, was La Chiquita.

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It’s next to the theater and looks like nothing much. But looks are often deceiving, as I was made painfully aware of last night at Shaw’s Tavern. Inside, their flashy electronic menu rotated between options, flashing a picture of each one. A little voice told me I needed the carnitas torta. It arrived crazy fast and looked like this:

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It was piled high with moist pulled pork, topped with avocado, tomato, and pickled vegetables, dripping with cheese, and absolutely smothered in mayonnaise. The bread was soft and warm. The meat was juicy. The vegetables were spicy pickled perfection. The salsa served on the side was a perfect addition. I’m ambivalent about mayonnaise and even I didn’t think this was too much (even though it really was too much…I had to eat this sandwich with a knife and fork). I was audibly moaning with pleasure by the time I finished this meal.

This torta was so good that I considered buying another one just to keep the feeling going (it was plenty of food). If I could have this experience all over again, I would have bought two just for the variety. I’m sad that I only tried the one thing because La Chiquita has plenty of non-torta plates if that’s your thing: tacos, quesadillas, etc. I’m sure they’re all amazing. I’m glad I don’t live in this neighborhood because I would be SO. FAT.

Price: $10 per person.

Bottom line: You need this torta in your life. It’s worth a special trip.