Tag Archives: restaurant

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!


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).


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.


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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Bahn Mi Bliss at the Eden Center

Every city has its neighborhood cultural hubs, from Little Italy in Boston to Koreatown in New York.  One of D.C.’s best ethnic hotspots is Eden Center, located in Falls Church, Virginia.  This large indoor and outdoor mall complex is home to approximately 120 Vietnamese stores, ranging from restaurants to groceries to souvenirs to salons.  As its website says, it is “the heart and soul of the Vietnamese-American Community for the entire East Coast.”

Because there’s so much going on at Eden Center, especially on weekends, it’s a bit overwhelming to visit and pick a restaurant.  Let me suggest Song Que (“song whey”), a delightful bahn mi shop that also features various grocery/deli items like finger foods to go, hard-to-find fruits, and snacks.

Bahn mi is best described as a French-influenced Vietnamese sandwich, featuring meats, tofu, and pickled vegetables on a baguette.  Options include ground pork, lemongrass beef, and Vietnamese meatballs.  Song Que is somewhat unique in terms of bahn mi at Eden Center and elsewhere in that it has a great vegetarian option—the caramelized tofu skin sandwich.

Also worth tasting are the bubble teas that come in all sorts of flavors, like mango, yellow bean, and jackfruit.  Song Que is nice in that it has table and seats in the back, which many of the other takeout food options at Eden Center do not.

After your sandwich, stroll around the mall, and especially go to the grocery store, called the Eden Supermarket.  It’s a treasure trove of many different ingredients for Asian cooking at amazing prices.  Other great restaurant choices at Eden Center included pho, seafood dishes, and soups.  Here’s a listing of all of the options.

Eden Center, formally the Plaza Seven Shopping Center, started reaching its height when thousands of immigrants settled in the area in the 1970s after the Vietnam War.  Indeed, the clock tower at the Eden Center is an exact replica of that in Saigon.  It’s a great place to step out of America for a couple of hours, and experience the delights and flavors of a different culture.

To visit:  6751 Wilson Blvd, Falls Church, VA (Song Que is located at 6769 Wilson Boulevard), hours vary by store—call for details.  About a one mile walk from the East Falls Church metro, or 1A/1B/1E/1F bus west from the Ballston metro).

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Santa Fe Cafe: Savoring the Flavors of the Land of Enchantment

Your faithful blogger just returned from a delightful holiday vacation in Taos, New Mexico.  Feeling a desperate need for green chile after having consumed it three times a day for a week, she scoured the DC food blogs for a reminder of the 47th state.


And that’s how she found the Santa Fe Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, one of the only New Mexican restaurants in the DC metro area (the Anita’s chain is another option for the Virginians out there).  The place was founded in 1988 by Kip Laramie, who was quick to plead modesty by stating that he was “cautious about saying it’s authentic” due to the distinct differences in food and flavors within the state itself.

New Mexican food is best known by the importance placed on both red and green chile sauces.  While other ingredients like posole, blue corn, and sopapillas also make New Mexican cuisine unique, the chile is the star ingredient.  (The fact that a Chile Pepper Institute exists at New Mexico State University should give you a clue as to how devoted New Mexicans are to their prima donna).

Santa Fe Cafe obliges spicy die-hards with entrees featuring either Hatch green chiles or Chimayo red chile sauce, like rellenos, enchiladas, and burritos.  Or, if something else on the menus entices you, a bowl of the soupy mixture comes on the side for just $1 extra.  Vegetarians will be relieved to know that both the green and red chile are meat-free, unlike many establishments that include beef or pork.  Unfortunately, no New Mexican beers are offered at Santa Fe Cafe, but a number of good microbrews and Mexican beers make up the drink list.

It’s good to know that many a native New Mexican has found the place legit—a wall in the entryway features signed headshots of famous New Mexican leaders like Governor Bill Richardson, Senators Tom Udall and Pete Domenici, and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan.  Lujan’s authograph states that the café’s food is “just like mom’s cooking.”

Another great aspect of the restaurant is its emphasis on décor.  Traditional New Mexican ornaments like pottery, ristas (strings of chiles hung to dry), images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and gorgeous rugs line the walls.  San Pasquale, the patron saint of cooking, is also featured prominently.  In particular I appreciated the stuffed armadillo that hangs perilously from an old speaker high above an unsuspecting booth.

DC is a haven for out-of-towners, but sometimes you just need a taste of your home state.  Luckily, Santa Fe Café is here to satisfy the needs of our very own New Mexican diaspora—or at least those of us who hope to return soon.

To visit:  1500 Wilson Ave., Arlington, VA.  703-276-0361. A few blocks from the Rosslyn Metro, Dupont/Georgetown circulator, and 38B bus.  Closed Sundays, and no breakfast/lunch on Saturdays.

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Across the River at Uniontown Bar and Grill

There’s no doubt that Anacostia is slowly changing.  Currently an almost entirely residential neighborhood, it has recently begun to at least show signs of success in drawing businesses and economic development to Ward 8, which the Washington Post called a “a long-neglected area of the city” in February.  Perhaps the most important bellwether of this change is the opening of one of Anacostia’s first (if not the only, depending on what your consider “Anacostia”) sit-down restaurants and bars, Uniontown Bar and Grill.

Uniontown takes its name from Anacostia’s original name.  The Uniontown neighborhood was incorporated in 1854 and was one of DC’s first suburbs.  The history of the area is very interesting, and full of demographic changes, including covenants against selling to members of certain races and ethnicities—see this National Park Service primer for more details.  Uniontown the bar homage to its past, with framed black and white photos on the wall from Anacostia’s olden days.

The restaurant captures the perfect combination of both trendy and neighborhood-y feelings.  It is filled with young professionals who seek happy hours after work, and almost all of the patrons when I visited were local.  This is a far different experience than that of most watering holes in DC, particularly in places like Adams Morgan and Farragut, whose bars beckon those from miles around to drive in and spend money.  Uniontown is better for it.

The food is southern inspired—the crab dip and sweet potato fries are certainly worth sampling.  The bar options lean heavily towards cocktails (a.k.a. “hip sips”), with just a few beer options.  Also impressive is a “create your own salad” option—bar food taken up a notch!

The owner of the restaurant, Natasha Dasher, is often on hand to chat with patrons, make personal inquiries, and welcome anyone and everyone to her establishment.  I was lucky enough to visit Uniontown with an Anacostia resident, and Natasha seemed to know him and everyone else in the bar, preserving the feeling that this place is “a hub in the community,” as she was quoted in an interview describing her hopes for the place.

As the Washington Post stated in its review of Uniontown, the spot is a symbol of Anacostia’s “potential to have the same services and amenities found in more affluent areas of the city.”  Head to Uniontown soon not only for its good vibes, but for a glimpse at history being made in a neighborhood that is right in the middle of some very important changes.

To visit:  2200 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, 202-678-8824, Monday-Thursday 11am-9pm and Friday/Saturday 11am-2am.  It is a 10-minute walk from the Anacostia metro stop, or the 90 bus from NW/Capitol Hill.

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Catch of the Day at the Maine Avenue Fish Market

The Maine Avenue Fish Market, a collection of seafood joints located on barges in the Potomac River, is a grimy, fun, hidden gem that features some of the most authentic food and people-watching in the District.  Open continuously since the early 1800s, the market is located under I-395 on approximately 12th and G SW.

A half-dozen vendors make up the market, such as Captain White’s, Jessie Taylor Seafood, and Evans Brothers for dessert.  The main attraction is the wholesale seafood, displayed on ice in copious quantities.  Chesapeake Bay blue crabs (of all sizes and genders) are ubiquitous, and it’s not hard to spot faves like rainbow trout, swordfish, and octopus.  More exotic catches, like gigantic freshwater shrimp and shark, can also be seen.  Be aware that only some of the seafood is local, the remainer being shipped from various other locations across the country and the world—just ask the employees, who are friendly and willing to talk your ear off about fish.

Also entertaining about the market is the fact that you can order up anything to eat right there on the harbor.  Oysters and clams on the half shell are only $1 each, or you can select crabs to be freshly steamed.  A healthy selection of sides are available to suit the non-pescetarian vegetarians amongst us, such as French fries and hush puppies.  And as would fit a true Maryland attraction, there is a comprehensive set of condiments for the seafood that includes large jars of Old Bay.  The price is right, making the market the source of some of the cheapest seafood in the area.

The Maine Avenue Fish Market, which was razed in the 1960s and nearly discontinued, is crowded and smelly, but it’s downright local.  As a friend of mine said, “it’s like Seattle’s Pike Place Market  before it was gentrified.”All different sorts of folks end up at Maine Avenue, with large families in tow on the weekends, and that diversity is the best thing about the place.

To get there:  Smithsonian or L’Enfant Plaza metros, or SW Waterfront Circulator.  Hours unclear, but generally dawn ‘til dusk.


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That Sweet Smell of Roasted Beans: Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony at Sidamo

There are few things more pleasant than sitting in a small, delightfully cramped coffee shop on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  But Sidamo Coffee and Tea, on 4th and H NE, offers an improved take on your weekend leisure by adding a traditional coffee ceremony and tasting to the mix.

Sidamo, meaning both a type of light-bodied coffee and the Ethiopian province that is from, is owned and operated by a delightful Ethiopian family who seem to recognize every person that walks in the door.  Husband and wife team Kenfe Bellay and Yalemzwed Desta started the business in 2006 and haven’t looked back, even opening another location in suburban Maryland.

As you probably suspected, Sidamo is all about the coffee.  All beans brewed and sold in the store are shade grown, fair-trade, and certified organic.  And, all are roasted on-site in a gigantic coffee roaster that sits inside and pumps delicious-smelling fumes out onto H St. in the early mornings.

But perhaps Sidamo’s best nod to its namesake is its coffee ceremony that occurs every Sunday at 2pm.  Traditionally an Ethiopian coffee ceremony is held for only friends and family, and may take several hours.  Sidamo’s ceremony begins with a female employee, dressed in a traditional cotton dress and head scarf, lighting incense to set the mood.  The next step is roasting the beans in a small pot over a kerosene stove.  The beans start to crackle and snap, turning from green to black and filling the air with a pugent, slightly burnt aroma.  The pot is brought around so you can see and smell the freshly-roasted beans up close.  The beans are then ground and added to water in a fancy coffee pot known as a “jebana.”  After 15 minutes or so of cooking on the stove, the hot, unfiltered coffee is slowly poured into small china cups for patrons to taste and savor.  A warning—this coffee is not for the weak of palate!  It is strong and bitter, and while it will make a coffee snob swoon, it’s not for those of us who prefer the less hardcore lattes.

Sidamo is best known for its coffee, but I can’t miss this opportunity to mention its bagels—they are some of the best I’ve had in DC.  Upon further research I discovered that there is indeed a small community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, but…well… I don’t think that’s the cause of Sidamo’s success in this arena!

Coffee is integral to Ethiopian lifestyle, but also to the country’s economy—it exported half a billion dollars worth of it last year.  As Washington, DC has one of the largest Ethiopian populations in the US, it’s exciting that Sidamo provides us a more personal insight into this country’s culture and traditions.

To visit:  417 H St. NE, (202)-548-0081.  Free ceremony at 2pm on Sundays, though it may start late!  Union Station Metro or 90s or X2 buses.

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A Touch of Tunisia in Arlington

Tunisia, a small country sandwiched between Algeria and Libya, had not been on most Americans’ minds until recently, when its “Jasmine Revolution” became the first of recent revolts in the Arab world.  Accordingly, a number of commentators have referred to it as the “Arab Gdansk,” a nod to the city that heralded the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

But in DC, Tunisia can be on your mind not just because it is the epicenter of Arab politics, but because Arlington is home to Chez Manelle*, one of the only Tunisian restaurants in the country.  The only others I could find are in Hollywood and New York City, so your chances to take a peek into this culture are quite limited!

Though Chez Manelle looks divey on the outside, the interior is clean, bright, and blue.  When I visited, Al Jazeera and Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” flickered simultaneously from separate televisions, demonstrating how the restaurant caters to both North Africans from around the area and those of us just seeking out a new place to dine.

So what the heck is Tunisian food?  Think a strong Mediterranean base—olive oil, lamb, phyllo dough—plus fragrant Arab spices, Turkish styles, Berber heartiness, and a little Tunisian “je ne se quois.”  Oh and I meant that in French—the dish “Spaghetti a la Tunisienne” should demonstrate who controlled this tiny North African province until 1956.

But for all of the influences, there is something delicious going on in Tunisian food that I can’t quite put my finger on.  My favorite dish was the omek houria, a smashed carrot dip with olive oil and mysterious “Tunisian spices.”  I also enjoyed the kaftaji, a stew of tomatoes, zucchini, and spices accompanied by French fries, and the brika, a Middle Eastern empanada (my words not theirs!)  Another authentic plate is tajine, a quiche of sorts, not to be confused with Morocco’s tagine, a serving bowl with a lid.  Be sure to top off your meal with mint and pine nut tea.

In addition to great food, Chez Manelle also has hookah and a lovely patio that will beckon on summer nights.  Now is the time to visit this outpost, likely one of the few chances you’ll ever have to taste Tunisian in the USA!

* The website is chezmanelle.com, though it wasn’t working at the time of this post.  See Chowhound and Yelp for a good sense of what the menu has to offer.

To visit:  2313 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington VA.  703-522-2140.  A five-minute walk from the Courthouse Metro station, or on various the Wilson/Clarendon Boulevards bus lines

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