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February 2010

El Chilango: Autenticos Tacos Mexicanos en Arlington

TacoTruck2 Over the past couple years, food trucks have hit DC in a big way -- a veritable convoy of the suckers have descended, bringing with them a bit of west coast charm hitherto unseen. Cuisines and attitude vary, from the over-the-top antics of the curry slinging Fojol Brothers, to the constantly Twittering bakers @CurbsideCupcakes. Several rock the social media like nobody's business, whereas others fly well below the radar.

El Chilango is definitely one of the quieter, less exposed trucks on the block. I had never seen nor heard of it until one cold December afternoon, when my girlfriend came home bearing tacos (that's why I love her!). She said she'd gotten them from a truck on Barton Street, and that the nice man cooking them even invited her into the truck, as it was rather blustery outside. Since then we have gone back several times, and have sampled practically everything they offer -- which is tacos. Just tacos. But, oh, what tacos!

TacoTruck3 Jesús, the truck's lively proprietor, serves up six different kinds of tacos: Lengua (beef tongue), Chorizo, Asada (grilled steak), Pollo (chicken), Al Pastor (marinated pork), and Res (beef), each available for $2.00 apiece. All come dressed in the traditional Mexican style, topped with plenty of cilantro and onion, double wrapped in crisp re-fried tortillas. Cucumber, radishes, and salsas verde and rojo are thrown in the deal on the house -- it really turns out to be quite a bit of food for the modest price tag.

Though the Pollo is a little dull (as might be expected), and the Asada only so-so, the rest of Jesús' offerings are out of this world. The Lengua is only slightly beefy, but has a wonderful, almost fluffy texture -- this taco would be a great intro for someone who 'doesn't like tongue,' so buy it for a friend, and don't tell him what it is. The Chorizo has a good amount of spice, but isn't offensively salty, which can TacoPlate often be the case with cheap Mexican sausage. Though I am not 100% sure what the difference is between the Asada and the Res, I can say that the latter has an outstanding texture, both crunchy and fatty at the same time, and a great blackened flavor.

The Al Pastor, though, is my hands-down favorite. This traditional Mexico City dish is made from adobo and chili marinated pork, which is cooked rotisserie-style with pineapple. I think he might cheat on the rotisserie part, but the pork itself has just the right level of fat content, and the smokey adobo and pineapple fruit come through nicely. With a bit of green chili sauce splashed on the top, the sweet, spicy, and smokey flavors meld into something truly beautiful.

When you visit, don't miss Chilango's homemade horchata. A combination of honey, rice milk, and spices, horchata has the consistency of skim milk, but is obviously much sweeter, and bears a faint flavor of cinnamon. I had ordered a Jarritos, but they were out, so when I was handed a cup of this opaque white TacoTruck1 stuff instead, I was very skeptical, but damned if it didn't make a perfect accompaniment to my tacos! Though I was disappointed to miss out on my favorite pineapple-flavored soda, the horchata's mellow sweetness made a soothing counterpoint to my spicy entree.

What El Chilango lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in quality. Even at some of your more expensive Mexican joints, the tortillas can be soaked and flabby, and the meat bland and over salted. I love the double tortilla at El Chilango, which is always crisp and firm, and the fillings are well above the curve. These are some of the best tacos I've had in the area, and when you throw in the fixins', it ain't much more expensive than Taco Bell.

El Chilango is normally parked on N. 14th St, between Quinn and Queen St, right off of Route 50, between the hours of 1:30 and 10:30. In the springtime, Jesús will likely shift the operation to Barton Street, between Fairfax Drive and N. 11th St.

Best Beer Bars Special: DC's German Trio

On warm, sunny days, it's nearly impossible to walk past the corner of 4th and Massachusetts at Stanton Park. There you will find the outdoor patio of Café Berlin packed with people pulling back perspiring liters of German lager the size of small children. I used to walk by every afternoon on my way home from work. Often, I'd end up calling my wife to ask her to meet me there. I never got an argument.

I love all the new beer bars popping up around town. And it's fantastic that so many bars and restaurants are now serving great American craft beers. But before this latest American revolution took hold in D.C., the Germans were already entrenched.

So for this best beer bar post, rather than profiling one best beer bar, I'm shining the light on all three of D.C.'s German beer bars. It turns out they serve great German beer before and after Oktoberfest. Go figure.

58280003 If beer had a family tree, one of its grandparents was German. The country gave us lager beers, which gave us pilsner, the kingfish of all beers. But I'm not going to hold garbage beers like Budweiser against the Germans. No, not when they've given us hefeweizens, doppelbocks, dunkels, maibocks and Kölsch style beers. Their beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, gave beer the structure we know today by mandating that German brewers could only use water, barley and hops (yeast was added later when they figured out what it was). And let's face it, Oktoberfest is the greatest beer festival in the world. Hell, the annual event even has its own beer style.

Over at ChurchKey, Beer Director Greg Engert lists the type of glass each of his 555 beers should be poured in. Over at Café Mozart, Café Berlin and Old Europe, you're choices are steins, pints and tall glasses for hefeweizen. They always have been and they always will be, and that's great.

Sure their selection is much smaller than Pizzeria Paradiso's, and they're kitschier (well, mostly Old Europe) than The Black Squirrel, but they're just as significant when it comes to the District's beer scene. Engert made an interesting point during his recent interview on the Kojo Nnamdi Show. He said the rise in craft beer is due, in part, to people's desire to really enjoy the experience of drinking that beer.

58280010I couldn't agree more, and where you enjoy that beer can have a real influence on the experience. While I pick up the occasional six pack of German beer (especially when I can get out to the German Gourmet in Falls Church), there's nothing like having a few Spatens at the bar in Café Mozart or seeing an old woman in a dirndl heft glass steins across the dining room at Old Europe. Toss in a plate of sausages and kraut, and I'm practically in Bonn.

Like I said, these places can come off as a bit kitschy. But according to the missus, who spent time studying in Bavaria, they're not completely inauthentic. Café Berlin is the most typically German of the three (in her opinion) followed by Old Europe and Café Mozart (which apparently isn't particularly authentic, but neither is Lauriol Plaza and people seem to like that place). If you want the German experience with your German beer -- and you do -- then these restaurants have you covered.

(Before someone complains that I excluded the Saloon, let me explain why I didn't include it in the profile: it's not a German bar or restaurant. It has a respectable number of German beers on draught and by the bottle, but it is not particularly German in any other way, though all the rules would make you think otherwise. More importantly, the missus gave it the thumbs down on German authenticity.)

Let's talk about the beer. I get the sense that the great German lagers are getting lost in all the hoopla surrounding craft beer and the Belgium invasion (which I've played a part in). Aside from Oktoberfest, the last time anyone paid much attention to the German brewers was when Schneider Weisse and Brooklyn Brewing collaborated on a couple beers. So let's be clear: Germany makes some of the very best beer in the world. I appreciate what's going on in Italy, Denmark and Finland, but these countries will never have the impact on beer that Germany has had. And for as much as I like the various styles of beers that are coming out of the rest of Europe, I'll take an amber hued Paulaner Salvator or Weihenstephaner hefeweizen (hold the fruit, thanks) over any of them any day.

This isn't about competition, though. This is about celebrating German beer and our trio of German establishments.

58280021 Take Café Mozart, with its front deli selling traditional German meats and sweets. The bar, sandwiched between the deli and back dining room, is everything you want in a drinking establishment. The dimly lit room with low ceilings has a smattering of tables and a line of stools along the bar. Grab a seat and ask bartender Greg Brooks (pictured above) for a liter of Spaten Optimator. Hang out long enough and you may even catch a little live accordion music (that's German, people).

Then there's Old Europe, located down the street from the National Cathedral and up the street from a strip club, the German restaurant seems a little out of place. From the aging antlers and artwork along the walls, to the staff in dirndls and lederhosen, the place looks like it was built for Epcot. But my wife assures me that as over the top as Old Europe seems, it would fit right in back in Bavaria. Admittedly, the décor does start to work when the Bitburgers and wurst hit the table. Besides, after a couple liters of lager, who cares about what's on the walls?

Image004And then there's Café Berlin. Ah, Café Berlin. I have spent many afternoons that turned into evenings at the German restaurant on Capitol Hill. The Lagerheads over at the City Paper argue that D.C. won't have a beer garden until the Bier Garten Haus opens next month on H Street. Technically, they're right, but Café Berlin's outdoor patio isn't a bad substitute. The restaurant is practically designed to keep you outside. The dining room is nice, but small. So too is the bar. The one time I sat there I kept getting looks from the staff wondering why I wasn't outside (I knew this because they kept asking me if I'd like to move outside). They were right to be confused; Café Berlin's patio is one of the best spots to enjoy a beer in D.C. And when you consider the beer you're drinking, it makes the experience that much better.

Every fall when Oktoberfest rolls around, we get really pumped up to consume all things German. By mid-October, we move on. That's a shame, because we're fortunate to have three stellar watering holes where we can quaff a liter or two of Deutschland's finest all year long.

The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20).

Café Berlin
322 Massachusetts Ave., N.E.
Washington, D.C. 20002
(202) 543-7656

Café Mozart
1331 H St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 347-5732

Old Europe
2434 Wisconsin Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20007
(202) 333-7600

Recession Refreshment: Capestrano Montepulciano; and, Mark your Calendar for 'Fresh'

Capestrano I've touted the qualities of Montepulciano in the past. Whether your looking for a weeknight quaffer or an elegant accompaniment to a special meal, for foolproof, food-friendly, good value red wine, nothing beats it. Though it comes in a range of styles from brooding to fruity, Montepulciano is almost always approachable, and in my experience, universally good. Seriously, I have tried hundreds of these wines over the years, and excepting corked and cooked bottles, I can't think of a single one I didn't enjoy! If you are like me and like your wines funky, undervalued and high in acid, pick a bottle at random, and I doubt you'll be disappointed. 'Course, that doesn't mean that some aren't better than others, and I want to share a real beauty I picked up last week: the Capestrano Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2007.

The wine pours a pretty dark ruby with purplish overtones. The nose is complicated and musky, with lavish notes of cinnamon, mint, cedar, and gamy meat. Lots of black cherry and sour raspberry fruit dominate the front palate of this dry, medium bodied, high-acid red. Dark chocolate and more tangy red fruit appear in the middle, along with the spicy flavors of green pepper and orange rind. More raspberry on the finish, along with the flavors of apple skins and a bit of bitter tea leaves. This is an ideal wine for grilled meats, particularly lamb, and would also match well with all sorts of red sauces. Thanks to its ample acidity, the Capestrano would also work surprisingly well with your heavier fishes, such as salmon or tuna. I picked this one up at Dixie Liquor for a mere $10.99, and have also seen it at Watergate Wine and Spirits. Though not everywhere yet, this one is distributed locally by Country Vintner — one of the bigger guys in town — so it should be easy enough for your favorite retailer to order. If you are looking for a nice drinker to get you through the winter, but also keeping an eye towards grilling season, get yourself a case of this versatile winner.

Fresh Bit of a gearshift here, but I recently found out about a potentially interesting event to you locavores out there. National Geographic has been running a series of lectures, concerts and films called National Geographic Live. Amongst their features on polygamists, primates, pirates, and more, NG will also be airing Fresh, on March 17th. A celebration of those trying to re-invent our food industry, Fresh may be taken as a positive counterpoint to last year's Food Inc, focusing on a practical vision of a sustainable future. Stick around after the 72 minute feature for a discussion with filmmaker Ana Sofia Joanes, Ann Yonkers of FRESHFARM Markets, and local food celeb Joel Salatin.

Basket for stir frying? Nope, but a handy pan for grilling oysters and such

DSCN4884Because I'm into cooking and grilling, I get get a lot of gadgets as gifts. I've received digital thermometer grilling forks, a garlic press shaped like a parrot, cutlery sets, a couple juicers (maybe I'm vitamin deficient), etc.

This past Christmas, my brother and his family added to my collection by giving me a grilling basket ostensibly so I can "stir fry" on the grill. As much as I appreciate the gift, and I do, there's no way I'm going to stir fry in that thing.

The fact is, I can't. It's not built for it. Stir frying involves high heat and sauces, and should only be done in a wok. It's actually a rather nuanced form of cooking. The perforated grilling basket can't hold liquid and won't conduct heat as evenly as a wok. It's simply the wrong tool for the job. (That said, I have stuck a wok on the side burner of my gas grill to do a little stir frying. That works pretty well, especially if you have an electric stove in your house. The side burner can get the wok much hotter and the inevitable smoke that comes from stir frying drifts away in the breeze, rather than choking your kitchen.)

But as a tool to cook small and delicate items on the grill, the basket is an excellent tool. Ever since I watched Tony Bourdain visit a restaurant in Spain that uses wire basket pans to cook over hot coals, I've been thinking about applying this technique to my grilling. The grilling basket is a good start.

Admittedly, I got lucky with this gift. So much of the grilling accoutrement out there ranges between useless and complete crap. Top of the pile is the grilling fork. No tool is as ubiquitous or as useless as the grilling fork. If you're thinking about buying one, don't. If you own one, get rid of it, or find another use for it (I use mine to pierce potatoes). There's not a single vegetable or piece of meat that needs to be speared. And yet, everyone wants to stab their damn steak. Stop it. Piercing meat will do nothing more than drain it of its juice (read: flavor). Other useless items include fish-shaped grilling baskets, special basting brushes (cheap pastry brushes often work better), beer-can chicken stands (beer cans work fine), fish turners (use a spatula), and obscene hot dog stands.

As I mentioned in a post a while back, the one tool everyone needs for the grill is a good pair of tongs. Beyond that, a spatula, grill brush (for cleaning), grill cover, skewers and a thermometer are very handy, but you can live without them, depending on what you like to cook.

DSCN4912 You can also live without the stir fry basket, but at least it can be reimagined. The first thing that came to mind was oysters. Unless you cook them in the shell, which I've done, you can't cook oysters on the grill (the little buggers slip right through the grates). But with the basket, I can quickly grill the oysters directly over the heat, imparting a delicate smokey flavor to the bivalves.

The basket will also be useful for grilling certain cuts of delicate fish. Typically, I lay down a perforated sheet of oiled aluminum foil to make sure the filet doesn't stick to the grate or break up and fall though the slender bars. The grill basket can serve as a pan that would allow the fish to grill, while maintaining its structure.

As for vegetables, the basket will grill whole cherry and other small tomatoes quite nicely. In fact, any small piece of fruit of vegetable that you don't want to or can't skewer (pearl onions?) is ideal for the basket.

So as it turns out, the basket was a great gift with a number of uses. It's just that the one use it will never have is stir frying.

DSCN4949 To demonstrate the usefulness of the basket, I made a grilled oyster and tomato salad with shallots. Because I'm grilling oysters, the natural beer to pair with the dish is a stout. And in this case, the king of stouts: Guinness. I love craft beer and generally have nothing but bad things to say about the macro brewers, but Guinness stout is the stout by which all other stouts are (and should be) measured. Yes, it's owned by one of the largest beverage companies in the world (Diageo), but the folks back at the Guinness brewery make a phenomenal beer. The craft brewing community has produced a lot of interesting stout variations (imperial, chicory, chocolate, oatmeal, milk, and even oyster), but when it comes to a straight forward traditional stout, there is none better than Guinness.

And when you're pairing a beer with as delicate an ingredient as oysters, that's what you want. The other stout flavors, and the richness of imperial stouts, would overwhelm the flavor of the grilled oysters and salad. Besides, oysters and stout is one of the oldest food and beer pairings. There's a reason for that: it's good. The creamy, dry, faintly sour flavors of a Guinness stout are a wonderful counter to the sweet, briny (and when grilled), faintly smokey flavors of grilled oysters. It's a match made in Irish heaven.

DSCN4925 Grilled oyster and tomato salad
(makes two servings)

1/2 pint of fresh oysters
2 shallots
1 pint of cherry tomatoes
1 bunch of arugula
1 ounce of fresh lime juice (about a half of a lime)
3 tbs. creole or stone ground mustard
1.5 tbs. of honey
1 tbs. of red wine or cider vinegar
Olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste

DSCN4902Wash and dry the arugula and tomatoes. Trim off the end of the arugula stems (unless it has already been done) and peel the skin off the shallots. In a bowl, coat the shallots and tomatoes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Prepare the dressing by whisking together the mustard, honey and vinegar. Taste and adjust as necessary.

For this recipe, you're going to cook directly over the heat. So once the grill is ready, place the basket on the grates over the burners, or coals, and put the shallots in. Grill the shallots for 10 minutes, turning occasionally, then add the tomatoes. Grill for another five minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to burst. Remove from the basket, roughly chop the shallots and set aside.

Take the container of oysters out of the refrigerator and drain off the liquor. Rise the oysters gently, shake dry and place in a bowl. Coat the oysters with olive oil, half the lime juice and a small pinch of salt and pepper.

DSCN4935 Pour the oysters into the basket and stand there. The oysters cook very fast, so this is no time to grab another beer. Close the lid and allow the oysters to cook for about a minute. Open the grill and start turning the oysters. You're looking for them to develop a little color, but not to firm up too much. Close the lid and cook for another minute or so. When the edges of the oysters begin to turn a golden brown start pulling them out of the basket.

To make the salad, add a tablespoon or so of the dressing to the bottom of a bowl. Toss in a handful of arugula and half the tomatoes, shallots and oysters. Add another handful of arugula and the rest of the ingredients. Using your hands, gently mix the ingredients together. Once everything is coated to your liking, plate the salad and enjoy. 

Great Lakes Brewing Company Hits DC

Cornhole! - Courtesy of  Am I the only person who has noticed the number of Ohioan transplants in this area? In a city where it sometimes seems like no one is a native, you'd think it would be kinda hard for any particular region to standout; but somehow, a disproportionate number of the people I've met here over the past 9 years have hailed from exotic locales like Springfield, Canton, and Wooster (a homonym with our properly spelled east coast "Worcester"). Though their ways are odd and a little disturbing, they are a proud people, and their native sport of "Cornhole" is a lot more fun than it sounds.

With all that grain kicking around, they also make some damned fine beer. The latest bit of Buckeye culture to reach the DC area is Great Lakes Brewing Company, whose beers started gracing our shelves late last month. Cleveland based GLBC was founded in 1988 by brothers Daniel and Patrick Conway, bringing brewing back to a city that had once been a hotbed, before that whole pesky Prohibition thing. In addition to a renowned brewpub and a pretty progressive environmental policy, GLBC boasts a sizable number of beers in their portfolio. A friend of mine bummed me a few sample bottles of three of these beers, which I ever so reluctantly sampled and reviewed.

GLBCDORT Dortmunder Gold
Golden Lager
Abv: 5.8%

Appearance: Very pretty burnished gold, with a light off-white head and some lacing
Aroma: Subtle notes of bread, caramel, and a hint of hops.
Flavor: Very Floral on the front, with a mild bitter hop character. Light fruit flavors of apricots and pears develop on the midpalate. Surprisingly full bodied for a lager, with a creamy finish.

GLBCNESS Elliot Ness
Amber Lager
Abv: 6.2%

Appearance: Translucent burnt umber, with reddish highlights. Short lived head with little lacing.
Aroma: Malty, with dark red fruit, and a distinct woody, whiskey-like character.
Flavor: Vanilla and roasty flavors dominate the attack, underscored by a subtle brown sugar sweetness. Silky textured on the midpalate, with more roasted malt, and a hint of chocolate covered cherries. Finish is bitter and long.

GLBCCOM Commodore Perry IPA
English IPA
Abv: 7.5%

Appearance: Light golden yellow, with short white head and some lacing.
Aroma: Corn oil, nuts, and dry hops, with a note of grapefruit.
Flavor: Quite a bit of honey sweetness on the front, balanced with bitter hops. Full bodied and oily, with a lengthy bitter, slightly nutty finish.

All in all, this isn't a terribly exciting or innovative collection of beers, but I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing. Sure, your Southern Tiers and your Rouges are a great deal more cutting edge, but nothing they make is quite so eminently drinkable as these. I definitely see the Dortmunder working into my regular rotation, and I will certainly keep an eye out for GLBC's other locally available offerings, the Burning River Pale Ale, and the no doubt Gordon Lightfoot endorsed Edmund Fitzgerald Porter ("Get Wrecked on the Edmund Fitzgerald?" C'Mon!).

Despite the recent release, Great Lakes is widely available -- you can pick it up at Schneider's of Capitol Hill, Connecticut Ave Wine and Spirits, D'VinesMagruder's and Cairo Liquors, amongst others, for around $9.99 / six pack.

Help Change Maryland's Wine Shipping Laws in 2010!

Annapolis State House (Courtesy of Wikipedia) As many of you residents of Maryland are aware, the Old Line State takes a hard line when it comes to shipping wine. Lots of states have laws limiting the shipment of liquor to a private residences; many limit the amount one may receive in a year, some only permit intrastate shipment, and others levy a tax. At my old retail job, we often shipped to some of the more, erm, "questionable states," and had a pretty good success rate. Maryland, though, was on a very short list of no-no states, as their laws are downright draconian. Not only does the state forbid liquor shipping from out-of-state, but in-state liquor shipment of any kind is also verboten. And guess what? If you're caught, it's a FELONY, even for the recipient!

Sound a bit outmoded? Unjust? Unconstitutional, even? A lot of folks think so, and have pushed for legislation to have Maryland join the thirty-some-odd states that treat their citizens like responsible adults. In both '08 and '09 bills have crossed the congressional table, but thanks to tired old morals and some stiff opposition from the wholesaler lobby (which has much to lose, and lots of money to throw around) each has been summarily dispatched.

But grassroots support has been building, with several groups popping up fighting for the rights of MD drinkers, most notably the Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws. Founded in 2005, the MBBWL organizes meet-ups advocates on behalf of Maryland producers and consumers. Thanks to their work and that of some allies in the government, it looks as if another bill might make it to the floor this session. But they need your help! The nice thing about issues like this is that an single individual can have a real impact. So what can you do?


  • Go to MBBWL's Petition Site, and take a few seconds to give your support. The group is hoping to gather 10,000 digital signatures in support of altering MD's antiquated and prohibitive liquor laws. They are well on their way, but could certainly use your help.

Maryland Residents:

  • Free The Grapes, a national advocacy group for free and open wine trade, has made petitioning your state legislators on this matter a breeze. Click on this link, and you will be taken to a site with all the digital details taken care of for you. Simply fill in your info, personalize your message as you see fit, and hit send, and your representatives in the House and Senate will soon know how you feel.
  • Take a look at MBBWL's event calander, and consider attending one of their meetups. On February 22nd, the group will be attending a House Economic Matters Committee hearing dedicated to this very issue. If you are passionate about the cause and live in the greater Annapolis area, take an afternoon off any make your voice heard.

On the scale of injustices in the world, this is, of course, a minor one. But if you are resident of DC or Virginia, where laws are more progressive, it will only take you a couple seconds to do your neighbors to the north a solid. And Marylanders, I know your state has as many problems as the next, but this is a inequity with a realizable solution just over the horizon. Not only do these laws hurt consumers and support big business, but they are also a huge detriment to your state's growing winemaking industry. Click those links and get yourself empowered!