Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.
If I'm hungry in Arlington, there's a 50-50 chance I'm heading over to Lost Dog. If I'm hungry in Lost Dog, it's damn near certain that I'm ordering the Surf 'N Turf.
The name alone is enticing enough to order the sandwich. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, bad about the idea of eating beef and seafood (screw peas and carrots, this is the perfect pairing). These days, the classic high-end meal has been replaced by fussy tasting menus and foamed foie gras, but in our great steak houses surf and turf remains a throw-back luxury. Let's face it, if you're ordering The Palm's 24 ounce rib eye with a side of lobster tail, things are going well for you.
The Lost Dog's take on the surf and turf is nearly as good at a fraction of the price. The steak is replaced by roast beef and lump crab meat fills in for the lobster, but we're still talking about a roast beef and lump crab meat sandwich. Lost Dog tops the whole thing with a plank of brie, and I always tack on spinach and tomatoes (I like spinach and tomatoes, and the vegetables makes me feel better about the brie and mayo ... and waffle fries).
The sandwich is then rolled though the oven so it shows up hot and crusty. A liberal dousing of Tabasco and I'm good to go.
The Lost Dog has 52 sandwiches, 31 pizzas, 13 salads and a handful of soups and appetizers on its crowded menu. In the dozen years I've been going to Lost Dog, I've covered much of the menu and most of it's good (cheese pizzas and veggie sandwiches just don't do it for me). But from the many, I have found the one: the Surf 'N Turf sandwich.
(While you're there, order a beer with your Surf 'N Turf. After all, the Lost Dog is one of D.C.'s best beer bars.)
It’s good days around here lately. With the proliferation of bars and restaurants serving quality craft beer and imports, we are clearly in the throes of a beer renaissance.
In the past five years alone, we’ve seen the establishment of The Black Squirrel, Rustico and its sister establishments Birch & Barley and ChurchKey , Birreria Paradiso and the expansion of Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont (which basically made room for the bar), Franklin’s, RFD, and the Belgian invasion. Other restaurants, restaurants that you don’t equate with beer, have gotten on board. CityZen offers a beer course as part of the wine pairing that accompanies Chef Eric Zeibold’s tasting menu, and Michel Richard imports Blusser for his restaurant Central.
What did we have before that? Most people would rightly point to The Brickskeller. For half a century, the granddaddy of DC beer bars has boasted hundreds of beers on hand, while other bars and restaurants offered little more than Bud and Miller on tap. But I wonder if most people – most beer lovers – realize that there’s a neighborhood pizzeria just across the river in Arlington that’s been offering up well over a hundred beers for the past quarter century?
The Gourmet Pizza Deli Home of the Lost Dog Café (Lost Dog to most of us) has been cranking out pizzas and sandwiches, and pouring beers – lots of beers – since 1985. When Lost Dog opened a quarter century ago as a carryout and delivery pizza joint on Washington Boulevard, it had more than a hundred beers on the menu.
Ross Underwood, who opened Lost Dog with his partner Pamela McAlwee, said he opened the pizzeria when pizza delivery was the hot new thing. Seeking a location to open shop, and escape their “boring” jobs with Marriott, Ross and Pam came across a wine and cheese shop in a small Arlington shopping center that happened to have a rather large beer selection. The pair bought the place and turned it into a pizza shop, but Ross recognized the uniqueness of the beer selection and kept it.
So in the days of the Noid and “30 minutes or it’s free” pizza, Lost Dog was delivering Anchor Steam and Weihenstephaner with its pies (in fact, it still does).
Now, before I continue this best beer bar profile, I should point out that Ross is not a beer guy. Oh, he likes beer, and for years he tasted all the beers he sold (even when his numbers climbed to 350), but he is by no means a beer geek. Yet, he has owned and operated one of the D.C. area’s longest running, most successful beer bars for 25 years.
Today, Ross has more of a taste for the wine he stocks and Pam spends most of her time on the animal rescue foundation (more on that later). The 180 or so beers and 16 taps are overseen by the Lost Dog’s five managers, with occasional input by Ross. He still spends seven days a week at Lost Dog, and The Stray Cat Café he opened in 2005 a few doors down, but he’s usually gone before noon. As most restaurants limped through the recent economic downturn, Ross bought the laundromat next door to the Lost Dog and closed it all for two months to expand and update the restaurant. Despite the additional space, the place was as jammed as ever when I stopped by recently.
That really is one of the more remarkable things about the Lost Dog. It is always busy. Always. I sat down with Ross around 10:30 one morning to talk about his business and the beers. When the doors opened a half hour later, the first customers were waiting. Whether it’s effort or luck, or both, Ross and Pam have built a very successful business that shows no sign of fading.
As a sign of that, Ross and Pam have begun franchising the Lost Dog brand. Four of their former employees opened up a Lost Dog Café on Columbia Pike, across from the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, and are planning another location in McLean. The off-shoot has all the trademarks of Ross’ and Pam’s original (canine motif, pizzas and sandwiches, a large beer selection). However, it doesn’t have Ross or Pam. No, they’re happy with the original Lost Dog and Stray Cat. They also have the foundation to focus on and Ross mentioned something about a house in Mexico.
When the Lost Dog was still a carryout, Pam started to bring home stray dogs. And so it went for years. In 1996, as Ross and Pam were expanding the Lost Dog into a sit-down restaurant, Pam’s interest in rescuing strays expanded into a full-fledged rescue operation, saving dogs from being euthanized. Five years later, she and Ross founded the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation, which now finds homes for more than 1,500 animals a year. Because Pam and Ross support the foundation using proceeds from the Lost Dog and Stray Cat, don’t sweat that second (or third) beer. The money is going to a good cause.
I’ve been going to the Lost Dog since I moved to the area in 1998. The wife and I even have a ritual of hitting the Lost Dog anytime I have to take her to Dulles, or pick her up from work, or if we’re itching for a pie and a few beers (fine, it’s not so much a ritual as a habit). The beer selection is outstanding, but the food is solid too. I love me a sandwich, and one of the best I’ve ever had is Lost Dog’s Surf 'N Turf (beef, crab, brie) with spinach and plenty of Tabasco (top five sandwiches, easy). I know this is a beer bar review, but I can’t ignore a sandwich like that. I just can’t.
Ok, but this is a best beer bar review, so let’s talk about a few flaws.
First, the Lost Dog is not a bar, doesn’t want to be a bar, and will never be just a beer bar. Ross said 80 percent of his sales are food and although you can order a six pack of Founders with your delivery pie, very few people do. The Lost Dog is and will always be a neighborhood restaurant. Beer enthusiasts (including myself) may love the place, but families make up the regular clientele (the root beer is the most popular tap item, people). I also want to complain about the three-beer maximum, but no one else does and I really shouldn’t. With 25 consecutive years of success under their belt, there’s no reason for Ross and Pam to change their approach to please a few beer geeks.
Ross prides himself on his staff, many of whom have worked at the Lost Dog for years. Some of them even know a few things about the beer. That’s the problem. Some of the employees are well versed in the sizable beer selection and some clearly are not. Consider this: Scott Stone is the manager of the new Dupont Circle restaurant Eola. He used to be the bartender at Palena. But before that he was the bartender at Lost Dog. I spent more than a few afternoons hanging out with Scott at the bar. He was a great bartender and knew the beers he was serving. (He’s also a Bucs fan. Good guy, that Scott.) On the other hand, the last time I visited Lost Dog, it took two or three attempts to explain the beer I wanted. They had the beer (I saw it when I walked in), but the server clearly had no idea what I was talking about. I eventually just ordered a draft. And unfortunately, the bartenders in the post-Scott era have also been pretty poorly versed in the beer selection. Ross and Pam should either educate their staff about the beer selection or put together a beer list (like the Columbia Pike location did). Honestly, they should put together the list anyway. If you’re going to offer 180 bottles and 16 drafts, you need to help your customers navigate the selection.
Finally, there’s the noise. This is actually a recent problem. Before the expansion, Lost Dog was as noisy as any busy restaurant filled with families. But now that they’ve expanded the dining area, effectively opening it up, the noise level is nearly unbearable (and by unbearable, I mean like Marvin). The last time I was there for dinner, my group left early because we couldn’t hear each other and couldn’t take the noise. Ross said he doesn’t plan to do anything about this, but I strongly recommend he does. Otherwise, his regulars might become less regular.
I love the fact that it’s easier than ever to find American craft beer and quality imports. As a beer geek, these are the best of times. But it’s good to know that there’s been a little pizza shop in a quiet Arlington neighborhood fighting the good fight long before this renaissance ever began.
Score: 12 of 20 (beer: 6 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 2 of 5, other elements 1 of 2)
The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), and Rustico (16 of 20).
Lost Dog Cafe
5876 Washington Blvd
Arlington, VA 22205
2920 South Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA 22204
Or Four Sisters if you like...Amy and I were there Sunday night (Mother's Day) for a last-minute dinner, because I failed to make any reservations to celebrate her first Mother's day. Yeah, I know, I'm horrible and how dare I forget such an important day and yada yada yada -- nevermind the flowers I got her last Thursday or the massage, facial, and manicure package I got her at Serenity Day Spa down the street. Oh and yes, I finally went to a restaurant in Virginia and I'm writing about it!
So I called to make a reservation at about 4:00 PM -- you know me, Mr. Plan Ahead and it turned out they don't take reservations. I asked how long the wait would be at around 7 or 7:30 PM which was when we planned to arrive, and the person on the phone said it should only be about 15 minutes. OK. Wonderful. When 6:30 PM rolled around, I was starving. I dragged Amy upstairs to get ready and then we left.
Now, the last time I went to Four Sisters was four years ago when I lived all the way out in Gaithersburg of all places (not that there's anything wrong with that). I remembered it being very good, but that was a long time ago, when I had far less taste than I do now. Seriously, my taste buds have come a long way since then. There are many places that I used to frequent back then and I thought were fine quality eateries that I'd be embarrassed to walk into today. But with all respect to Tom Sietsema and just about every other food critic in the area that says Four Sisters is great Vietnamese food, I didn't have much to worry about. I'll tell you right now that I'm not going to say anything different than what you can read in The Post or Washingtonian. Our meal was great. So you can keep reading if you want to.
When we arrived around 7, the parking lot was a complete sprawling mess. I think everyone decided to go to the Eden Shopping Center that night because parking spaces were a rare commodity. I drove up and down a couple aisles and then gave up and had Amy run in to put our name on the list. I was really worried that the hostess was full of shit when she told me that it would be a 15-minute wait. After driving around for 15 minutes and having three or four nearly-found parking spots, I finally was able to snag a spot in the front row where no one was looking. Lucky me! When I got inside, Amy still hadn't given her name to the hostess, but she said that no one was waiting and they were just seating people as they greeted them. Phew, so it wasn't as bad as the parking lot looked.
Overall, the restaurant hasn't changed much -- it still has the feel of
a family diner, only slightly nicer and it serves alcohol. We were coming
in after the dinner rush and the servers were working frantically to
keep up the pace. We were seated and handed menus. The menus were so large that they made it almost impossible to make an educated decision. I'd go into detail about it, but I'd spend the rest of this post describing the menu to you.
I was really in the mood for beef -- I didn't care what it was -- I wanted it to be beef. I'm not sure why exactly, but I'm sure it had something to do with the smell in the air. I saw on the menu that Four Sisters has a 7-course beef menu, so I went for that. And Amy wanted the five-spice beef that she remembered was so good from our last trip there -- so good in fact, that she still remembered the taste of it four years later.
My food started coming out pretty soon after we ordered. The first dish was beef fondue - strips of very lean, rare beef that I was supposed to cook in a sweet onion fondue. I could then mix the beef with fresh greens like basil and mint and wrap them in rice paper together. A few minutes later, before I could finish taking pictures (See my photo album) of the first dish, the second dish appeared which turned out to be my favorite dish of the meal. The beef salad was made with chilled, lean strips of beef with red onion, basil, mint, and lime juice. I was very impressed with how much I enjoyed this dish with its complex sweet and sour flavors.
Either the Vietnamese eat really fast, or I was just a slow eater Sunday night. A third dish suddenly appeared, there was no room on our small table, and I had no clean plates to clear. The expeditor pushed some plates around and found some room -- I guess he was used to making room on those small tables. Right about this time, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed. I was only half way done with my first two dishes and I had yet to even touch the latest dish which was actually three different courses in itself -- ground beef, rice and onions wrapped in grape leaves; grilled beef with garlic; and ground beef and ginger kabobs (at least that's what they looked and tasted like, the real name is escaping me -- damn me for not taking notes). I found the ground beef in grape leaves a little bland. It might have been the fact that the other dishes had so much flavor and seasoning on them -- the ground beef with garlic was, well, loaded with garlic, much like the beef kabob was loaded with ginger.
The next course actually took a little longer to come out, so I had some time to catch up. If they attempted to bring out another dish, there wouldn't have been any room. Finally, I finished the first two courses and they brought out the sixth and seventh course, which really made up a single course. The first was a thick beef broth with rice and the other was a very large beef meatball the size of my hand which I mashed up into bite-sized bits and placed in the soup. The beef broth was slightly salty, but not too salty. The meatball also had rice in it so this dish turned out to be significantly filling. Whoever said "Chicken soup is good for the soul" has never had this soup.
Amy had a little of her five-spice beef left, so I ended up eating a little of her dish as well. I always have liked Four Sisters' five-spice beef ever since the first time we ordered it. They give you four or five skewers of grilled, spiced tenderloin strips, rice paper, a bunch of fresh herbs, cucumbers, vermicelli and carrot shavings. You then take all of the ingredients, wrap them in a piece of rice paper, and dip it in their freshmade sauce. One complaint that I had about this trip is that the rice paper was a little stale. Maybe they left ours sitting near a stove for a little long, but the edges were a bit dried out and chewy. Other than that, everything was great. We skipped dessert. These days, Amy can barely finish her main course, let alone have dessert, and I was full after eight different beef dishes. One other thing worth mentioning is that Amy ordered the lemonade which turned out to be real, fresh-squeezed lemonade -- not that Minute Maid sludge that most restaurants serve out of the fountain.
Our server was courteous and friendly, and when she had time she made sure we knew how to eat what was in front of us. She was working pretty hard and doing her best to get around to
all of her tables quickly without being too brusque. Four Sisters has a fairly large floor staff of waiters, expeditors, and bus people. All of them make for a fairly smooth dining experience. I can't say that the service is great every trip we've made to Four Sisters, but this time I can.
The bill after two entrees, two beers and two lemonades was about $40. My seven courses of beef were $18 total and made up a majority of the bill. Overall, a very reasonably-priced meal and definitley on the cheap eats list. Four Sisters is also a great place to go with a large goup of people because the larger tables have lazy susans that make it easy to order many different dishes and share them all. Next time I go, I plan to go with a bunch of friends and order as many different dishes as possible.
Four Sisters (Huong Que)
6769 Wilson Blvd.
Falls Church, VA 22044
Fri-Sat 10:30 am-11 pm
Sun-Thu 10:30 am-10 pm
Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Strip mall parking lot
Reservations: Not taken
Smoking: Not allowed
Nearest Metro: East Falls Church (Orange Line)