Tag Archives: Maryland

Getaway to Tangier Island: Crabs, History, and the Mighty Chesapeake

Our region is in large part defined by the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Although we in D.C. live a bit inland from the Bay itself, we still benefit from its bounty, such as blue crab feasts, seafood at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, and excursions along the shore.

But while you live in the area, it’s worth getting a total immersion into the richness and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.  To do so, take a weekend and head down to Tangier Island, located 12 miles into the middle of the Bay.  In order to get to Tangier, you must take a 1.5 hour ferry ride from either Reedville, VA or Crisfield, MD (each about 3 hours away from D.C.).  While there are day trips to the island, that option gives you only about two hours until the ferry turns around and comes back, so I’d highly recommend spending at least one night to really get a feel for the place.

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The island is comprised of about a thousand acres, only about a hundred of which are actually inhabited (the rest being marsh).  About 500 people live on Tangier, and since no cars are allowed bikes and golf carts are the main forms of transportation.

Tangier has an important place in American history.  Pocomoke Indians inhabited the island for many years before Europeans including John Smith arrived.  It is also historically significant because it served as the staging ground for British troops during the War of 1812.  And interestingly, to this day, residents speak in a dialect that linguists believe is very similar to the English that European settlers spoke when they first arrived in America.

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The best part of Tangier Island is the crabs and observing the economy and culture that has been built up around them.  According to locals, about 75 percent of our country’s soft shell crabs (those that have just molted out of their old shells and are soft and squishy all over) come from the area every year, and it also provides a significant amount of hard crabs, oysters, and even eels that are sold to markets in New York and other places around the country.  Because the economy is built around the crabbing, it has a feeling very similar to a New England fishing or lobster town, with little changed over the last century.

crabs

One of the must-do activities during your visit is to take a tour of a “crab shanty,” the structures on the water around the edge of the island where watermen tend to and harvest soft shell crabs.  Because the crabs harden again within a few hours of molting, the watermen must immediately ready them for packaging and shipping, meaning that they work around the clock.

The island is not much built up for tourism quite yet, which is part of its appeal.  There are three bed and breakfasts (I stayed at the Bay View Inn, which was lovely), a couple of ice cream/sandwich places, and a few gift shops.  The three restaurants which are open for dinner (one of which has a last seating at 5pm) sell mostly an array of crab-based fare, including crab cakes, soft-shell crab sandwiches, and crab bisques.  It’s worth mentioning that the island is dry, so bring your own alcohol and be discreet about it.

crab roll

Other activities to do on the island include taking in the small yet chock-full Tangier History Museum, kayaking in the marshes to see the myriad of shorebirds (including glossy ibis and black skimmers), and biking to the beach to see a sunset.

Tangier Island is truly a step back in time, and a glimpse of how and why the Chesapeake Bay is so important to our region and its economy, ecology, and shared history.

To visit:  Ferry once daily from Reedville, VA (May-October) or Crisfield, MD.  Various bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation rentals.  Go during the summer, as very little is open during the winter.

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Appreciating Argentinian Cuisine in Rockville

We’ve got a lot of great Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants in DC, but not nearly as many South American hotspots.  Before you go pointing me to Fogo de Chao, let me specify—I mean non-chain, family-owned, feel-like-you’re-actually-in-Buenos-Aires type places.  (And I will say we are home to some great Peruvian restaurants).

El Patio

Nevertheless, I was excited to discover El Patio, a great Argentinian restaurant, café, and small market in Rockville.  Unassumingly located in a strip mall, El Patio serves up a wide variety of the country’s finest foods, like traditional barbeque (parrillada), carne salteada, and milanesas (friend or breaded meats).  The café in the back is the perfect place to snack on empandas, Spanish tortillas, and other baked goods.  And don’t forget a glass of malbec!

food

El Patio also hosts a small market featuring foods and wines from Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay. Looking for yerba mate, alfajores, or chimcurri sauce?  This is your spot.  You can even buy a guampa and bombilla for drinking the mate (the gourd and straw, for those not in the know).

mate

One of the best things about visiting El Patio is observing and interacting with its local South American crowd.  On the Sunday afternoon when I visited, my group was one of the very few speaking English rather than Spanish.  This is what I like so much about Rockville, Centreville, Annandale, and other suburbs teeming with ethnic restaurants:  not only is the food great, but because they are located in cultural neighborhood centers, you really do feel like you’ve taken a step into a different city, even if just for a short time.

restaurant

To visit:  5240 Randolph Rd Rockville Maryland, Loehmanns Plaza Shopping Center‎, (301) 231-9225.  M-Th 9am-9pm, F-Sat 9am-10pm, Sun 9am-8pm.  About a mile walk from the White Flint metro stop on the red line.

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A Colossal Warehouse of Books

Washington, DC is peppered with some excellent used bookstores, though not as many as one would hope.  The best close by is Capitol Hill Books, characterized by floor to ceiling book jumbles, handwritten signs with arrows in every direction, and a delightfully crabby proprietor.  Other good ones (and some of the only others) are Idle Time in Adams Morgan and Riverby Books on Capitol Hill.  But have you ever dared to imagine an enormous warehouse filled with used books lurking just outside our city?  Neither had I, until I was informed of Second Story Books and Antiques in Rockville (which claims the other Second Story Books on P Street in Dupont Circle as a comparatively miniscule offshoot).

The delight of Second Story Books, which truly is a located in a large warehouse, is first experienced by the used-book smell wafting out of the open garage doors upon your approach.  The place is home half a million books, according to its website, and the sheer variety could keep you browsing for days.  It is one of the largest used bookstores in the country, and not surprisingly, a good part of its business these days comes from online buyers.  It also deals with estate sales and individuals looking to sell books (though beware, similar to a consignment shop, you will get only a fraction of what the book appraisers believe they are able to sell the book for—you’re best off selling in bulk).

The buyer who ventures to the warehouse in person will find dozens of categories to choose from:  rare art, cookbooks, fiction, naval history, young adult, foreign languages, the list goes on.  The website has many of the titles available for browsing, if you are looking for something rare or unique.  The Washington Post pointed out one of the best (or most frustrating) features of the store—because of its sheer size, the title you are looking for may be found in one of a handful of sections.  For example, there are no less than three sections for cookbooks.  But this scavenger hunt is what ends up making the trip enjoyable in the first place!

Prices depend on which sales are going on, but there is no doubt that they are great deals, and better than you will find in the city.  Some trade paperbacks were going for as little as $.50 during my visit, but go up to $15,000 for extremely rare books online.  In order to consolidate space, there is currently a 50% off sale for the entire store (though unclear when that will end).

Second Story Books was started in 1973, and both the Rockville and Dupont locations have been in business for over 20 years.  There used to be a Bethesda until it closed a few years ago, and the original warehouse was located in Alexandria, Virginia.

The bookstore also sells posters, videos, CDs, paintings, and other collectibles.  Whatever you’re in the mood for, one thing’s clear—bring a large tote bag, because you won’t be going home empty-handed!

To visit:  12160 Parklawn Dr., Rockville, MD, (301) 770-0477.  Open Sunday-Wednesday 10-8 and Thursday-Saturday 10-9.  A medium walk from the Twinbrook Metro stop, but if you are planning on lugging anything back, a vehicle may be necessary!

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The Kielbasa Factory Offers a Taste of Polonia

While Washington, DC doesn’t rank high on the list of cities with a strong Polish immigrant population and influence (à la Cleveland or Pittsburgh), we are nevertheless fortunate enough to be home to a deli and grocery dedicated completely to the culinary whims of the area’s thousands of Poles and Eastern Europeans.

Nestled on the top floor of a strip mall in Rockville, the Kielbasa Factory is small yet offers a comprehensive selection of grocery items and ingredients, frozen and prepared foods (most made in New York, though some in-house), and deli meats and cheeses.  This family-owned store has only been open since late 2007, is the only Polish deli in the area, and as far as I can tell one of only two places in DC and its surroundings where you can get Polish food (the other being the restaurant Domku in Petworth).

Of course, the main attraction to the Kielbasa Factory is the kielbasa, and the store features many different varieties of these sausages.  Jars of pickles, preserved fish, and canned fruits and vegetables line the walls, along with Polish coffees, candies, wine, and other products that I’m sure must be a delight to find around here.

I took home with me a package of potato and cabbage pierogis, fresh sauerkraut, a couple of Żywiec beers, and Polish chocolate, and cooked up an excellent and hearty meal (though wish I had a “babcia” to make the real deal for me!)

I was disappointed that all of the Polish baked goods had sold out by the time I was there on a Sunday afternoon.  Apparently paczki (filled donuts) and other homemade pastries are delivered on Fridays from New York City, and are usually sold out by the end of the weekend.  So, my advice:  go early on Saturday morning if you’re looking for baked sweet treats!  (Meanwhile, watch this great clip about the paczki-making process and how a local Polish bakery in Detroit has become a staple in the community).

Also interesting about the Kielbasa Factory is that it has a shipping and parcel service to make sending packages to Poland and other Eastern European countries easier.  In addition, there are a number of Polish newspapers and magazines for sale.  It’s clear that the Kielbasa Factory is not just a place to get good food, but is an important part of Rockville and DC’s Polish community.

To get there:  1073 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland.  240-453-9090.  Hours:  Monday-Thursday 11am – 7pm, Friday 11am – 8pm, Saturday 10am – 6pm, and Sunday 11:30am – 3:30pm.  About 1.5 miles walking from the Rockville Metro station.  A handful of buses run up and down Rockville Pike to both Rockville and White Flint Metro stops.

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Spicing Up Your Kitchen, Courtesy of Patel Brothers Indian Grocery

One often hears lamentations about the lack of great ethnic groceries in DC and its metro area, and to some extent, the complaints are accurate.* And they are certainly true when it comes to Indian and southeast Asian foods—there are no Indian groceries within the city itself.  But luckily, I found not only an Indian grocery just a few minutes over the Maryland-DC border, but an excellent one!  Patel Brothers is located in Langley Park (adjacent to College Park), and is the answer to all of your vegetable korma, garam masala, and gulab jaman needs.

I have to credit an Indian friend for tipping me off to this place, as I never would have found it on my own.  In fact, very little information or reviews are available on-line, which is surprising considering that Patel Brothers is actually the largest Indian grocery chain in America with over 35 stores across the country (see its website).  The fact that it’s not discussed on Chowhound, DC Foodies, and other local food blogs could mean one of two things:  1) it’s terrible, or 2) non-Indian Americans just don’t go here!  From what I could glean in my one visit, I found the latter to be the case.  The quality of products I bought, the variety available, and of course the recommendation from an Indian friend (who is quite the cook himself) all led me to believe that this big chain with its little local presence is a secret that is worth your discovery.

Anyway, onto the merchandise!  Patel Brothers is small but packed.  My favorite part of ethnic groceries is the remarkable prices of food sold in bulk—this place has 10-kilo bags of rice, industrial-sized cans of chickpeas, and gigantic bags of the essential spices (cumin, fenugreek, garam masala, etc) for prices much cheaper than any conventional grocery store.  I was also excited to purchase fresh fruits and veggies, frozen samosas, various sauce mixes, and dosa batter, since getting my knack for Indian cooking is going to take some practice…

One last tip—don’t forget to check out the array of Indian CDs and DVDs in the back for a little more Indian (not just Bollywood!) flavor.

They say the better the spices you buy for Indian, Thai, and other foods, the better your meal will taste.  And after cooking divine curried chickpeas with a coconut curry sauce, I am now a believer in this mantra!

To get there:  2080 University Blvd E, Langley Park, MD, 301-422-1555.  A fair bit of a walk from the College Park, Takoma Park, and Prince George’s Plaza Metro stations.  I’d say a car is your best bet for this one!

* But not for Ethiopian, Mexican/Salvadorian, and Italian markets!  See my posts on Litteri’s and Hana for two other great local grocery finds.

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A D.C. Resident Finds Maryland Crabs in Virigina

As strange as it sounds, it’s actually pretty difficult to find Maryland’s famous hard-shell blue crabs in Washington, D.C.  Baltimore and Annapolis, of course, are a whole different ball game, but after much searching I was coming up empty-handed in terms of a great off-the-beaten path crab place in or close to our city.  Luckily, the Quarterdeck Restaurant in Arlington was suggested, and it was just what I was looking for!  Newspaper covering the tables, mallets, and pitchers of beer, this place has it all.


We spent our late summer evening sitting on the enormous patio and feasted on piping hot blue crabs dressed in Old Bay spice.  You can order them by the dozen or half-dozen, in four different sizes, or go all out for the all-you-can-eat “crab feast” for $34.95.  In addition to steamed crabs, the Quarterdeck’s menu has a healthy variety of surf and turf, including a few vegetarian items (though, fair warning, you might be scrounging a bit).   Also highly recommended is the assortment of homemade pies, from key lime to red velvet to an odd yet yummy blueberry cream.  And I would like to note that the Quarterdeck is the only restaurant in my recent memory that has draft beer cheaper than bottled beer.  There’s something to be said for that, right?!


The location of the Quarterdeck leaves something to be desired, as it is nestled between highways in the condo metropolis that is the Courthouse neighborhood, but in some ways the journey out there adds to the fun.  No views of the Bay from this establishment!


I wasn’t aware until I visited that there is actually a season for blue crabs, from April to October (or “Tax Day to Columbus Day” as the website states).  So, this post may be a bit late for the year’s catch, but if you can’t make it this summer, file it away for 2011!

To get there:  orange line to Courthouse, then a 15 minute walk (with sidewalks most of the time).  1200 Fort Myer Drive, Arlington, Virginia.  (703)-528-2722.

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Dinner, Beers, and Bric-a-Brac in the ‘Burb: A Visit to Franklin’s

Franklin’s is a unique and hip find juuuuust over the District border in Hyattsville, Maryland.  The self-proclaimed restaurant, brewery, and general store is a whimsical place, and well-worth a visit for any lover of homebrews or family joints!  In fact, Franklin’s was named one of the 75 Best Bars by Washingtonian in 2009 (for anyone who needed the extra credentials).

First to visit while you are waiting for your table is the general store, a healthy mix of children’s toys, national microbrews, random trinkets, and wine.  The room is chock full of awesome games and kits for kids (I was particularly intrigued by the ant farm), as well as racks of candy, stuffed animals, jewelry, and beer and wine.  What more could one want out of a local “general store?”

Once you get your table in the large, high-ceiled restaurant you are introduced to the beer list, featuring between eight and ten house-brewed beers including an incredibly strong Belgian ale, the “Van Damme” (watch out, 10.2% ABV!).  A sampling of all beers is a mere $8.50.  Franklin’s also has an eclectic menu, proving that American bar food can indeed be delicious and vegetarian-friendly, such as a great veggie taco salad.  Waitstaff are friendly and contribute greatly to the warm, neighborhoody feel of the place.

The restaurant at Franklin’s has been around for the past eight or so years, but the general store was started by Mr. Franklin in 1992.  It is one of the staples of the expanding downtown Hyattsville corridor located between far-east DC and College Park.  Read this DC Foodies blog post for a look at how it really was the little brewery that could.

The brewery's sampler!

To visit:  5121 Baltimore Avenue, Hyattsville, MD, (301) 927-2740.  A 20-minute drive from downtown DC, and requires a car or proficient understanding of the bus system—Metrobus # 81 and 83 will take you right there from the Rhode Island Avenue Metro.

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