Church! The Best Places To Watch Football

At approximately 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 1, Casey Brockman will walk to the line. The Murray State quarterback will look across the field to find Louisville’s stud linebacker Dexter Heyman, hoping to God the Cardinals’ won’t blitz on first. The 6’2’’ junior will lean over center Brock Rydeck, ignore the jeers of the Cardinals’ crowd, and demand the ball.

In all likelihood, it will be a bad day for Casey, Brock and the Murray State Racers, but an excellent day for the rest of us. Because on that day, when Rydeck snaps that ball and Heyman drives Brockman into the field of Cardinal’s Stadium, football will once again be with us (this NFL preseason crap doesn't count).

It’s been said that this game of grace and violence is our national religion. If that’s the case, then the sports bar is our house of worship. Being a fan of far-away teams (South Florida, Buccaneers), it took me a while to find a few decent bars and restaurants in the D.C. area to watch football. The region may be inundated with sports bars, but few offer the trifecta of great beer, good food and the promise of your team on the screen (unless you’re a Skins fan, in which case any Chili’s will do).

Well, friends, I’m here to help. Below are my top five bars and restaurants in the DMV to watch the faux-pros on Saturday and Pro Bowlers on Sunday. 

1. The Black Squirrel: The Black Squirrel has three floors, 49 taps and 11 TVs (and if you call ahead, the third floor can be your private sports bar). Owner Amy Bowman keeps this Best Beer Bar stocked with a top tier line-up of craft beers, while the talented Gene Sohn runs the kitchen (order the burger). Is it a coincidence that on game days all the TVs are tuned in? Nope, The Black Squirrel was co-founded by former sports columnist Tom Knott. (Disclosure: I’m friends with Amy and Tom. Still, The Black Squirrel is a great place to watch football.) 

2. Iron Horse Taproom: If the Iron Horse Taproom opened at noon on weekends it would be the best place in D.C. to watch football. The multi-level bar is big, filled with TVs, has a great selection of craft beers, and features the best menu in town -- by not featuring a menu at all. The Penn Quarter tavern (pictured above) doesn’t have a kitchen, so it allows patrons to bring in food or have it delivered. Want to dig into some Texas barbecue while watching the Lone Star Showdown? No problemo. Grab a pound of brisket from Hill Country or better yet, a burrito from Capital Q and head to the Iron Horse. How about some lamb vindaloo while you watch the John Beck/Rex Grossman quarterback controversy unfold this season? Mehak is just down the street. Just make sure your game doesn’t start before 5 p.m. If it does, you’ll need to head elsewhere. 

3. Frisco Tap House: What’s more American than football? Excess. The Frisco Tap House has 50 taps, a beer engine, a table where you can pour your own draft beer, an extensive bottle and can list, great burritos and eight giant flat screen TVs (with more coming this fall). Sure, the Columbia, Md., bar is a hike if you live in Logan Circle. But if you live in Maryland, you have one hell of a place to watch football.

4. Capitol Lounge: This is where it started for me. When I moved from Tampa to D.C. in the late 90s, Cap Lounge was the only place in town I could reliably catch Bucs games. It helped that one of the bartenders was a Bucs fan and wanted to watch the games, too. The Capitol Hill bar continues to be a great spot to catch a game, with a mess of TVs tucked and hung throughout the two-floor restaurant, and a stellar selection of craft beers on draft and in bottles and cans.  

41380020 5. Rustico: These days, it’s tough to write a story about beer without mentioning ChurchKey and its downstairs sister, Birch & Barley. But before there was CKBB there was Rustico, owner Michael Babin’s first crack at a craft beer establishment. While ChurchKey is unabashedly a beer bar, a fine one at that, Babin makes sure his two Rustico restaurants remain casual neighborhood spots, which makes them ideal for watching the game. Greg Engert oversaw the beer program at the original Rustico in Alexandria before heading over to ChurchKey, and continues to curate the draft and bottle lists for his original restaurant and the newer Ballston location. Although neither will be mistaken for a sports bar, the Rusticos have just enough TVs to catch most of the marquee games. And if the beer list and full menu aren’t enough to attract you, they’re offering beer specials as well. Beginning September 10, both Rustico locations will offer $3.50 cans of craft beer, including G’Knight, Dale’s Pale Ale, Old Chub and Ten Fidy (they clearly have a thing for Oskar Blues’ beers), and $2.50 cans of college beer (because you or your buddy don’t know better) during games. 

In D.C., The Only Thing More Elusive Than Statehood Is A Good Cubano

A Cuban sandwich is: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard pressed until crispy between two slices of Cuban bread, ideally.

It’s a simple sandwich. It’s a great sandwich.

DSCN5828 You want a good Cubano, you go to La Teresita in Tampa. It’s on Columbus by the stadium. Over the years, the Cuban diner has cranked out thousands of Cuban sandwiches, each for about $4. Just look at it. The bread –- the Cuban bread –- is toasted just enough to be crispy, crunchy on the outside, while the interior stays soft and just slightly chewy. The Swiss is warm and beginning to melt. And there’s just enough roasted pork, ham and pickles to fill out the sandwich without going overboard. Simple.

Yet, in the dozen years that I’ve lived in the District of Columbia, I’ve encountered many, many bad Cuban sandwiches. Just awful ones. I became convinced that no one in D.C. could make a proper Cubano.

Before working on this article, I never actively sought out the sandwich around town. I make it back to Tampa enough to satisfy my occasional need to have one. But every time I did encounter a D.C. Cubano, I tried it. If the sandwich was a flop, I would assume the rest of the menu was as well. Why not? If a kitchen can’t make a ham sandwich, why should I assume it can make something more complicated? 

Fortunately, there are six restaurants (using the term loosely) in the DMV that make a good Cubano –- and one of them makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had … anywhere.

Ceiba, the upscale Latin American restaurant, across the street from the White House and a thousand miles from Tampa, makes the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten (pictured above). That said, it’s not a traditional Cuban. If you’re a purist, the best traditional Cubano is made in Arlington by a guy from New Orleans. But the ways that Ceiba’s sandwich is different are the ways that it’s better than the rest.

For the most part, I’m still right about how hard it is to find a good Cubano in D.C. This is the town of Jose Andres and Minibar, of Michel Richard and Citronell, of Frank Ruta and Palena, of Vikram Sunderam and Rasika. This town, this foodie town (mostly) can’t make a reasonably good Cuban sandwich.

DSCN5926 G Street Food shoves dry, roasted pork and prosciutto into a roll and calls it a Cuban. It’s not (allegedly, there are other ingredients, but they’re lost in the loaf). Mi Vecindad on the Hill looks like the kind of mom and pop place that should specialize in a great Cubano. The sloppy steamed sandwich (pictured left) I had was the worst of the bunch.

The Disney inspired Cuba Libre offers an Ybor-style Cuban sandwich. Ybor City is the historic district in Tampa. Hey, I grew up in Tampa! I know Ybor! I’ve been there many more times then I remember. This should be great, right?! Right? Nope. The sandwich is too small, too expensive ($16!) and the flavors are too muddled. It’s a so-so sandwich at a Holy Shit! price.

And then there’s the Cubano flatbread at ChurchKey. I know it’s not a sandwich, but Kyle Bailey is a talented chef and I’m a fan of ChurchKey. Unfortunately, the Cubano flatbread is terrible. It may have pork, pickles and Swiss, but it doesn’t taste anything like a Cuban sandwich. Frankly, it doesn’t even taste like a good flatbread.

I could go on (Banana Café, Lima), but you get my point.

DSC_0006 In a strange twist for D.C., though, Jeff Tunks, chef and owner of Ceiba, uses all the right ingredients in his Cuban sandwich (well except Cuban bread, but he gets a pass because no one uses real Cuban bread). However, instead of yellow mustard, he uses a mayonnaise and mustard remoulade sauce. Rather than cured Danish ham, or sweet Virginia ham, Tunks uses a pungent smoked ham. And the Swiss cheese is replaced by its brawnier, more flavorful cousin, gruyere.

Tunks says the real difference is the pork shoulder that he marinates in citrus, garlic, cumin before slow roasting it. When he put the sandwich on the menu 8 years ago, he used pork loin, but switched to the fattier, more tender shoulder after a few months. Since then, the sandwich has remained unchanged. These days, if the pork sits too long in the kitchen before getting sliced, his staff will pick off pieces until the shoulder looks like it was worked over by piranha.

He’s right, the pork is good. The slow-cooked shoulder is juicy and the spices he uses are delicious and authentically Cuban. To me, though, the roasted pork isn’t the difference maker: it’s the smoked ham and remoulade.

DSC_0024 As I write this sentence, I can still smell the smoke on my since washed hands, and I can still taste the remoulade despite the other ingredients. When you bite into the sandwich, the smoke hits you. It’s confusing at first, because it otherwise looks like a traditional Cubano. But the smoked ham is a new element that gives the sandwich a flavor it’s never had before. And it works beautifully.

Then you notice that the bite from the mustard has been replaced by something smoother, richer. Until I talked to Tunks, I couldn’t figure it out. Somehow, the sandwich was more savory. The remoulade, which used a grainy mustard, was the unctuous secret.

Those ingredients added to an otherwise very well made Cubano resulted in one of the very best sandwiches D.C., or Tampa, has to offer. Sure, $13 is a lot to pay for a ham sandwich, but I’d pay twice as much. And if you order it off the late night bar menu, you can get it for half price.  

David Guas doesn’t like the remoulade. A Cuban sandwich needs yellow mustard. And he prefers more pork and less ham, though the smoked ham works for him. Guas’ opinion on Ceiba’s sandwich matters because he helped put it on the menu eight years ago.

DSC_0016 Today, Guas is the owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, and specializes in red beans and rice, boudin and has Abita on draft. But a couple days a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually) the kitchen will offer hot pressed Cuban sandwiches (pictured above) along with the muff-a-lottas. Guas may be a native of New Orleans, but his father was a native of Havana, Cuba.

Guas’ grandfather left Cuba to attend Loyola University, but returned with a wife and law degree. His grandmother’s ties to Louisiana led her to send Guas’ father and uncle to boarding school in Bay St. Louis, Miss., an hour north of New Orleans.

The city might be famous for po’ boys, but Cubanos were easy to find, Guas said, thanks to New Orleans’ Cuban community. And thanks to his extended family, Guas spent a considerable amount of his youth in Miami where the sandwich is a staple.

So the man from southeastern Louisiana knows from Cubanos.

Guas’ sandwich is fat with pork (that’s a good thing), but not so much so that the other ingredients get drowned out. Although Guas also uses a smoked ham, the flavor is much subtler than the ham Ceiba uses.

Both Guas and his former boss Tunks are big on the French bread they use for their Cubanos (Tunks’ comes from Cardinal, Guas’ comes from the French Bread Factory), but Guas’ roll carries the day thanks to the prodigious amount of butter he spreads on it before toasting it in panini press. The sandwich is crisp and almost flakey on the outside. Unless someone starts using Cuban bread, you’re not going to do better than Guas’ French roll. And at $7, you’re not going to find a better Cuban at a better price.

6 Tunks and Guas may make great sandwiches, but they are not alone in the Cubano trade. Within D.C., there’s also the El Floridano food truck. Parked along a curb in a neighborhood near you (maybe), the El Floridano offers up The Fidel (pictured right).

The Fidel is about as close to a traditional Cuban sandwich as you’ll find in the District. The El Floridano doesn’t do anything fancy (which is also good) and makes the sandwiches fresh. At the order and pick-up window, you can see the small flat-top lined with Cubanos held down by sandwich presses. For $7, you can get as good a sandwich as you’ll find in Tampa or Miami.

Fast Gourmet reminds me of some of my favorite Cuban sandwich spots in Tampa: gas stations. However, gas stations in Tampa don’t look this nice. The Cubano produced in the small kitchen near the corner of 14th and U streets is just as attractive. The crispy, panini pressed bread is stuffed with succulent, slow-roasted pork, ham, Swiss and pickles. Although the menu says the sandwich also comes with mustard and mayo, which isn’t uncommon, skip the mayo. It’s applied too liberally and drowns out whatever mustard is on the sandwich. For $8.50, you also get a side of shoestring fries. Don’t let that deter you from ordering the plantains (maduros). They’re soft, sweet and hot, and come with crème fresh.

Outside D.C., Cuba de Ayer is Havana via Burtonsville. The little Cuban restaurant hidden in a shopping center off Old Columbia Pike offers a great Cuban sandwich. What makes the drive to Burtonsville worth while, though, is the mojo you can order on the side. Dipping the warm and crusty Cubano into the garlic and olive oil mixture makes a good sandwich phenomenal.

Closer in is Cubano’s. What the Silver Spring restaurant lacks in polish and focused service it makes up for in a good Cuban sandwich (skip the fries and get the sweet maduros on the side). I wouldn’t go too far out of my way for Cubano’s, but if I was in the area, I’d be in the dining room.

There may be a lot of great restaurants, and food trucks, in the D.C. area, but there are only six that can make a proper Cuban sandwich. They are:

Ceiba: 701 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 393-3983; Cubano: $13
Bayou Bakery: 1515 North Courthouse Rd., Arlington, VA 22201; (703) 243-2410; Cubano, a once a week special (Wednesdays and Thursdays usually), $7
Cuba de Ayer: 15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, Md. 20866; (301) 476-8013; Cubano $7.50 (mojo $0.75)
El Floridano: moves daily; Cubano $7
Fast Gourmet: 1400 W St N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; Cubano $8.50 (plantains $2.50)
Cubano’s: 1201 Fidler Ln., Silver Spring, Md. 20910; Cubano $14.95 (maduros $4.95)

Must Haves: El Pollo Rico's World Famous Peruvian Chicken

Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

No restaurant epitomizes the concept of doing one thing well like El Pollo Rico.

You know El Pollo Rico. People in Guam know El Pollo Rico thanks to Tony Bourdain. And if you know El Pollo Rico, you know the chicken is fantastic. So fantastic, in fact, that you ignore the miserably bland fries and crappy cole slaw that every order comes with. You ignore the awkward location, the ugly interior and the owners' legal troubles.

You ignore all that because that chicken, coated in Peruvian spices (ground Inca and cocaine) and rotisseried round and round, is absolutely amazing.

DSCN5799 I've probably eaten hundreds of chickens in my lifetime. After all, it's the first white meat. Yet, I remember the first time I had El Pollo Rico. My buddy Columbo brought a few earth-friendly Styrofoam containers full of half chickens and fries over to my girlfriend's efficiency near Virginia Square. I still remember tearing into the chicken and being blown away by the flavor and thinking, "Wow, these fries really suck."

That's the thing, though, the fries don't matter. The fact that the restaurant is located between Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive, and yet can't be seen from either doesn't matter. The fact that the rest of Clarendon has transformed into a dining destination for hipsters and the well-heeled doesn't seem to matter either.

That damn chicken made El Pollo Rico an Arlington institution a long time ago. And as long as they keep cranking out that magical Peruvian bird, it'll remain an institution, crappy French fries and all.

El Pollo Rico
932 Kenmore St.
Arlington, Va. 22201  

Must Haves: Ray's Hell's Fat Joe, Or How To Make A Great Burger Better

Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

Michael Landrum's Fat Joe with bacon and cheddar is the best burger in the D.C. area.

The difference between the Ray's Hell burger and every other ground beef and bun combination around town is a clear as that statement. And if you disagree, your mouth is lying.

On its own, a Ray's Hell burger is an excellent burger. They don't overwork the meat, so the patty isn't dense. They cook it to order, an increasingly rare treat. They use a good fatty blend that ensures the burger is juicy and flavorful. They season it simply with salt and black pepper so the flavor of the beef dominates. They cook it on a grill, so the exterior is nicely charred, and serve it on a soft roll.

And when you order the Fat Joe, Ray's Hell tops the burger with foie gras, fried shallots and white truffle oil (there's also a slice of tomato, but who's kidding who). At this point, it's the best burger in the Mid-Atlantic. But it ain't perfect. Oh no, it can't be perfect when a couple strips of bacon and some cave-aged Amish cheddar make it so much better.

DSCN5547 Still, there's no better way to top a burger than with four ounces of fattened duck liver. There just isn't. Those caramelized lobes of fatty goodness add a level of richness and flavor the burger could never achieve on its own. Foie gras alone is wonderful, but foie gras atop a medium rare burger, wet with its own juices, is goddamn ambrosia.

And then there's the bacon and cheddar, because let's face it, if you're eating a burger with foie gras you might as well get the bacon and cheese, too. The bacon adds salt, pork and a crunch the burger needs. The cheese, well the cheese just tastes good and doesn't get in the way of the foie gras.

The funny thing is, as much as I harp on the foie gras (and I do harp), it's the tart, earthy flavor of the white truffle oil that sticks with me the longest. Mind you, I'm not complaining.

Inevitably, someone will write a comment complaining that the Fat Joe is a $17 burger ($22 by the time I'm done with it). Don't. I'm well aware of how much the burger costs. It's worth every penny. In fact, when I want a Fat Joe with bacon and cheese, I head to Ray's Hell Burger Too, so I can have it with a couple Deleriums or a Bell's Two-Hearted. A burger like this deserves a beer.

If I wanted a cheaper burger, I'd go to a cheaper joint. But I don't want a cheaper burger. Every now and then (and you better limit this burger to every now and then) I'm happy to plunk down $22 for medium rare, bacon cheeseburger with foie gras, fried shallots and white truffle oil, because it is absolutely the best damn burger in town.

Ray's Hell Burger Too
1713 N. Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, Va. 22201
(703) 841-0001

Fire Works: Arlington's New Pizzeria and Beer Bar

FIREW- OUTSIDE1 It was out with the old pizza and in with the new in the Courthouse last month. Sadly, after many years of selling classic Italian-American fare, Listrani's has closed its doors for good, with its location being taken over by nearby Chez Manelle and converted into a hookah bar. Old-style Italian eateries are on the outs in metropolitan Northern Virginia, and are rapidly being replaced by cutting edge, trendy pie joints like Z Pizza and American Flatbread. The most recent addition of this ilk is Fire Works, a high-concept pizzeria and beer bar, which recently opened up in the Marriot Residences on Clarendon Boulevard.FIREW- BAR1

Fire Works is an expansion from the original Leesburg location of the same name, a local fav known for its sizable beer list and wood-fired, toppings-loaded pizzas. I have visited the new location two times since their opening back in late August.

FIREW-PATIO1 The space is pretty big on the inside, with a sizable 25+ seat bar, and some 60 or so seatings in the spacious, high ceilinged, diner-meets-trattoriaesque main room. Surrounding the building on two sides is Fire Work's HUGE patio space, which I roughly estimate could seat 60 to 80 guests comfortably. Both times I visited, the place was decently full, but not packed, so our party was seated promptly.

  In the drinks department, Fire Works has a lot of options. In addition to some 30 beers on draught (including one "real-ale" cask), they offer 10 or so wines by the glass, including several from Virginia, in the range of $7 to $13 per glass, and a two-page beer bottle list. Though the draughts are impressive in number, I was rather disappointed by the FIREW-MARG selection; everything was kinda run of the mill. Flying Dog IPA, Victory Lager, Bell's Two Hearted... they had a lot of the usual customers, many of which overlapped, and could have been excised for something a bit more esoteric, or perhaps a seasonal beer, which were completely lacking.

  Between our visits, there were some major changes made to the food menu, which they openly admit is a work in progress. Generally speaking, the menu features an array of 15 specialty pizzas, wood-oven fired, and available at 10" or 14", along with a smattering of salads, sandwiches, and starters. 

FIREW- SOPRANOSOn our first go my companion and I split the small Classic Margherita ($11), and the small Sopranos ($11), which featured "Mushrooms, Wood Roasted Onions, Nitrate Free Sausage, Organic Tomato sauce, Cheese and a Dash of White Truffle Essence." Though the outer crust of each had that chewy / crispy  combination that lovers of the Neopolitan style exalt, the rest of the affair was kinda lacking. The Sopranos fell into that trap as so many truffled foods, allowing the oil to overpower every other ingredient in the dish. Where the Sopranos was overly rich, the Margherita was just kinda "meh," offering up little kick from the basil, and very little flavor from the mozzarella. Both were also unfortunately wet in the middle, making them difficult and a little unpleasant to eat.

FIREW- DIP Our second visit also started out on the disappointing side. This time, we sat on the patio, which was lovely, and started with the Spinach Dip ($7), which was not. Though beautifully toasted on top and well presented, the cheese itself was mealy and flavorless, as was the accompanying garlic bread. That said, the main course was a lot more appealing. My friend got the small Segundo ($11), a white FIREW- SEGUNDO pizza topped with "White Sauce, Crisp Bacon, Smoked Mozzarella, Granny Smith Apples, Roasted Onions and Parsley," which had a delightful combination of sweet and salty flavors, and an appealing combination of disparate textures. This time, the pizza was also consistently chewy and firm, so they seem to have fixed that problem in the interim. For my main I eschewed the pizza for the " Three "g's" Grilled Cheese" ($7), a  combination of smoked gFIREW- GRILLEDCHEESEouda, goat cheese and gruyere on crusty Italian bread, served with tomato jam. This sandwich was outstanding, with all three cheeses adding something to the mix, the bread of perfect texture, and the tomato jam a wonderful tangy/sweet accompaniment. Though I was puzzled when I was told the sandwiches come with pasta (they do not), I quickly got over it.

Regarding the menu, I should also note that Fire Works does not offer you the option of choosing your own toppings -- it's their way, or the highway. This was not the case on our first visit, and when I asked the server about it on the second go, he said this option was removed because it "caused confusion in the kitchen."

Fire Works is definitely a work in progress, but I have high hopes. Prices are generally reasonable, and though the food has been hit or miss, the preparation definitely seems to be improving. Also, though the beer program is rather weak right now, having 30 draught pulls behind the bar could open up tons of possibilities to the right program director. All in all, Fire Works has a great infrastructure in place, and I really hope they live up to the potential. Though, with Rustico -- a known quantity in the beer and pizza world -- opening up a location in nearby Ballston, they better step up their game quick like.

Fire Works
2350 Clarendon Boulvard
Arlington, VA 22201

Must Haves: Lost Dog's Surf 'N Turf Sandwich

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.

DSCN5482 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.)

Ray's Hell Burger Too: Gourmet Burger Redux?

RaysHellOutside1 Local beef Impresario Michael Landrum has been a busy man of late. Hot on the heals of opening Ray's The Steaks East River, Landrum has done a whirlwind overhaul of one of his Ray's Hell Burger locations in Arlington, re-dubbing it "Ray's Hell Burger Too." Of course, everyone knew he was going to do something with the space, but I hadn't heard anything about the launch until this Thrillist article hit my inbox the Friday before last. Some friends and I popped around that evening, in the hopes that it flew under everyone else's radar, as well.

Ray's Hell has become the go-to gourmet burger location in the DC area since opening in July 2008. Their fresh-trimmed, hand-ground 10 oz burgers and myriad decadent toppings have become a favorite of burger fiends inside the beltway. Despite some brilliant press and some high-profile, repeat customers, NOVA's premier gourmet burger bar has had its share of detractors and complaints. Ray's Hell Too, it seems, is an attempt to address those most frequently voiced quibbles. A sign they'd taped to the front door summed it up nicely:

RaysHellSign Ray's Hell Burger Too

Hate Waiting in Line?
Hate Fighting for a Table?
Want a Smaller Burger?
Into Exotic Game?
Wishing for Waitress Service?

Check Out our New, Exclusive Menu
Offerings and Sit-down Service


Not mentioned above is the oft lamented lack of booze, which was also purportedly remedied. This, plus the lack of a smaller option were always my greatest complaints, so I was pretty psyched.

RaysHellShirt1 The restaurant is set up much like the old Ray's The Steaks location, with forty or so tops jammed into a tight, sparsely decorated space, with an open kitchen off to the back. Where the old Ray's had a touch of class with its open wine racks and wood floors, Ray's Too is all linoleum and cheap paneling, with neon Coke coolers and framed T-Shirts telling us to "Go To Hell." But then, it is a burger joint -- just don't go expecting the Ritz here.

RaysHellInside1 While none of the diners seemed crowded or put upon, the waiting area is a bit on the small side. We crowded into the 6 by 4 foot vestibule with a few other wannabe patrons, until we overflowed and started a line against the wall. There is no host or host stand, but a competent waitress was quick to give us menus, take our head counts, and give us some time estimates. Once our party was fully formed we were seated very quickly, which was impressive on such a busy night -- can never say a Ray's doesn't know how to flip tables!

The new menu offers the same beef behemoths as always, along with some new points of interest: Vegetarians finally have an option in the form of a 1/3 lb veggie burger, and lovers of more exotic fair will be tempted by the fruit glazed venison burger, or the 'Hanoi Style' wild boar burger. The real draw is still the classic, now also available in the more modest 1/3 lb form, cleverly dubbed the "Lil Devil," for $6.99 plus toppings.

RaysHellMyMeal The wait would prove to be the most well orchestrated portion of our evening, as from here, organization flew out the window. Our server was very sweet, but had almost no idea what was going on concerning the menu or otherwise. When asked about the new Hanoi burger, which is only vaguely described on the menu, she had nothing to offer in the way of description. Ray's had yet to draw up a drink list, and we got very different opinions on what it actually contained, depending on who we asked. I don't know whether to blame lack of time for training, last minute changes, or what, but if we hadn't already been well acquainted with the original concept, we would have been lost.

As best I can tell, Ray's offers Bud Light, Bell's Two Hearted Ale, and Delirium Tremens by the 12 oz bottle -- strange selections for such a tiny list, as each of these occupies some sort of fringe in the wide world of beer. Baby bottles of Beringer Merlot and Cabernet were also served, along with Pinot Grigio, which was already out of stock. We were told that all drinks were $4.00 a piece, making the Tremens a tremendous deal (if you like that sort of thing), and the Budwater a terrible ripoff. The drinks were a long time in coming, and were then unceremoniously dumped on the table, sans glasses, with the soft drink bottles not even opened. I know I'm not the bloody Duchess of Kent or anything, but come on...


We'd all ordered incarnations of the "Lil Devil," which arrived in various states, ranging from overcooked to underdone. As often happens when given too many options, I panicked, and ordered my burger with what some may call a revolting combination of bone marrow and cave aged cheddar. It didn't work at all -- which I admit is totally my fault -- and I was very disappointed to find my "rare" burger just a hair under medium. Eliza ordered more sensibly, opting for the always delicious sherry and brandy sauteed mushrooms (a longtime staple at Ray's The Steaks), but her's, too, was about one shade too brown. 

Worst of all, one of our companions ordered the boar, which came out underdone! He made a terrible face when he tried it, and voiced his concerns. Unfamiliar with ground boar, we all thought that maybe it was supposed to be a little pink, but the texture was undeniably gummy and unpleasant. The waitress was less concerned than I would have hoped that they'd served us raw pork, but did take it away and fire a new onRaysHellMyBurgere. In the interim, we were offhandedly informed that we would not be allowed to order any more drinks, as they were running low, which at that point was pretty much cool by all involved. The bill came to about $74.00, which included five burgers, several sides of fries, our beers, and truffled mac and cheese.

I know its not fair to judge a restaurant on its first week, much less on what might have been its opening day. But folks, this ain't remotely Michael Landrum's first rodeo, and this isn't even really a new restaurant, so much as a new concept shoehorned into an old space. Landrum knows how to open a restaurant, which makes our disappointing experience all the more puzzling. 

RaysHellBoar1 Since our visit, we've talked to a couple friends who have been since the renovation, and they had a pretty good time, so hopefully things are settling in. I'm hoping that our experience was just an isolated event, or that matters have much improved by now. So I throw it out to you -- have any of you guys been? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Ray's Hell Burger Too
1713 N Wilson Blvd
Arlington, Virginia 22201
(703) 841-0001

Screwtop Wine Bar

SCREW-SIGN I've been waiting for awhile to write about Screwtop, this new addition to my neighborhood some six months back. I have visited Screwtop many times, and after each trip I'd start writing, and then stop. From week to week, something there seemed different, which in fairness should be no surprise in any new establishment. After several tumultuous months, though, the place seems to be finding its footing.

SCREW-INSIDE4 Screwtop is the ambitious creation of Wendy Buckley, a former internet exec who ditched the Net for a run in wine sales and cheesemongering, all in preparation for opening up this bar. Of course, Screwtop is more than a bar; it is a multi-concept space incorporating a retail wine and cheese shop, wine bar, and 40-top restaurant, all crammed into about two thousand square feet.

SCREW-INSIDE3 The space itself is pleasant -- with several large floor to ceiling windows letting in plenty of light, and shiny new dark wood bar -- but rather schizophrenic. While the retail area is airy and wide-aisled, the bar/main dining space is absolutely packed with chairs and tables. Thank goodness standing at the bar is discouraged, as when the place is bumpin' (which is often), the effect is nearly as claustrophobic as the nearby college hangouts.

SCREW-INSIDE1 Screwtop's proximity to said meatpits has made it a bit of a boon to the local tipplers. Indeed, a major part of Screwtop's raison d'etre seems to be to build a bit of a community for Clarendon area drinkers of the older, more reserved persuasion (and those with aspiration to such). One of the more interesting features is their wine club, which offers two bottles with a matched cheese for $40 / month. Members receive discounts on food and drink and are encouraged to attend the month pick-up parties, to meet and mingle. As often as not, a book club or similar group has called dibs on one of the two big tables set off in the retail area, where I assume they meet on a regular basis. Screwtop also has a very active Facebook and Twitter SCREW-INSIDE2 presence; followers and fans are the only ones to know about their Tuesday Happy Hour and "Wino Wednesday" specials, which can be very generous.

So Screwtop gets top scores on engaging their clientel; the food is a bit more mixed of a bag. The central focus of the menu is the cheese and charcuterie, which may be had for $6.50 a pop, $17 a SCREW-CHEESE1 threesome, or $33 a sixer. The 20 or so selections are varied and change frequently; one week I had one of the richest duck liver pates I have ever had; two weeks later grocery store favorite President Brie was a feature. On first visit the portions seemed ginormous, but they have adjusted down to a par-for-the-price size. Though the accompanying fruit and nut crackers are quite tasty, I am disappointed that Screwtop asks a sizable upcharge for any sort of condiments, including cornichons and mustard, which are often served gratis. The staff isn't stingy with the free truffle-salted popcorn, though, so I guess ya gotta take the good with the bad there.

SCREW-BUFF1 Screwtop also offers more filling fair in the form of sandwiches and salads. I haven't sampled a lot on this end, but on last visit I finally ordered the much touted Buffaloaf sandwich. Based on Wendy's mother-in-law's secret recipe, this big-ass combo of ground buffalo, cheddar cheese, bacon crumbles, sun-dried tomatoes, and chipotle aioli was as decadently awesome as it sounds, but fluffy despite the fat. At $13 this was easily enough to feed two, and the chips and $3 side salad that accompanied, though clearly store-bought, were more than fine.

SCREW-BAR2 And finally, on to the drinks. Though hard liquor is verboten,  Screwtop offers an impressive 35+ wines by the glass, along with two draughts, and numerous beers by the can and bottle. Prices range widely from about $7 to $15 or so a glass, beers about $5 to $10. In a word, the wine list may be described as eclectic. Selections hail from well-worn areas like California and Argentina, to the more obscure like New York, Moldova, and even Michigan. Though undeniably interesting, the wine list is also, unfortunately, rather difficult to read. Wines are split into categories SCREW-BAR1 based on clever but unhelpful puns, with nothing listed but appellation and price. The helpful and always friendly staff is more than willing to let one sample anything they like, but this feels like a bother when the bar is crowded. It would be nice to see a bit more info there, and maybe more pours in the lower price range, as those $7 glasses are rare. That said, the ever changing three-glass flights are a bit more well-structured, and they often proffer a taste of some real rare and pricey wines for a song. If you like what you've tried, you can get a bottle for home at 5% off, which is a nice touch.

I fear I may have come off a bit more negative here than I had intended. I don't really mean to crap on Screwtop. It's got some really great innovations going on, and always enjoy myself there. The concept, ideal, and much of the execution are great. Hell, they couldn't have happened upon a worse time to open, what with Snowpocalypse I and II occurring in their crucial first months (Eliza and I took refuge there in the December storm, during which they valiantly stayed open, and we had a blast). I criticize because I love, and I genuinely hope Wendy and her crew to do well. With a little bit of wine and cheese work, and maybe a bit of furniture moving, I could see Screwtop becoming a long term Clarendon fixture.

1025 North Fillmore Street
Arlington, VA 22201-6701
(703) 888-0845

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.

Lost Dog Café: Neighborhood pizzeria has been a best beer bar for a quarter century

Lost Dog Pizza Deli
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.

DSCN4721 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.

Lost Dog Pizza Deli MenuToday, 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.

DSCN4725 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.

DSCN4729 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
(703) 237-1552

2920 South Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA 22204
(703) 553-7770