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)

Kaz Sushi Bistro


With all the innovative cuisine available to the contemporary gourmand, it is amazing how the simplest preparations still have the ability to impress. For lack of human intervention, its hard to top sushi; little is any cooking, very little spicing to speak of, and when it comes to sashimi, there is naught to be done besides slapping the fish on the plate. In a world where foams and fusions are now commonplace, it is surprising that a sushi chef, using the most ancient and ascetic of processes and products, can still even raise the occasional eyebrow.

Kazuhiro Okochi (Kaz to his friends) comes from an unusual background for a sushi chef, having studied fine art in Oklahoma before a lengthy stint in Osaka, where he studied traditional Japanese, French, and Chinese styles of cooking. In 1988 he returned to the US as Executive Chef at Sushi-Ko, the oldest and most esteemed sushi bar in DC. After a decade, Kaz set off on his own, founding Kaz Sushi Bistro, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year on April 14th. Many years ago, when both KSB and I were pretty new to the city, this place really widened my horizons, exposing a guy who could hardly stand overcooked salmon to the joys of raw fish. I have made a point of going as frequently as my checkbook will allow ever since. Realizing that it had been almost a year since our last visit, Eliza and I went with some friends during August's Restaurant Week to reacquaint ourselves with Chef Kaz's simple but extraordinary style.


Kaz does indeed have a very "bistro" feel; it is small, a little cramped even, with bare black tables and an open kitchen / sushi bar in the back. We were led to pleasant little four-top facing Eye Street. For Restaurant Week, I had always considered Kaz to be a bargain, so I was disappointed to learn that, despite the price increase, the menu structure had not changed. For $35.09, patrons are given a choice of one appetizer, six pieces of nigiri, two maki rolls, and one dessert. While options and portions are plentiful, it would have been nice to see a complimentary plum wine thrown in with the deal, or another such add-on that other restaurants have done to off-set the change. But no matter -- by the end of the night, we had ordered so much ala cart so as to render the RW menu moot.

I'm gonna cut right to the chase here: Kaz has gotten its share of mediocre reviews online from first time visitors who were left less than impressed. The California Roll, the Spicy Tuna Roll... yeah, they are good quality, but do little to justify shelling out the extra dough. Don't get me wrong -- the fish is all great, and Kaz has some of the best unagi I have found in the city. However, if one were to go in and order the usual suspects, I could totally see where he would find the hype unjustified. At Kaz, it's all about the signature stuff. The Restaurant Week menu featured a few of these -- including the Tuna with roasted Almond, which is beautiful for its balance and richness -- but we soon lost patience and started ordering some old favorites off the regular menu.

On the specials that evening was the smoked mackerel, offered both as an appetizer with seaweed and vinaigrette ($10.25), and a two piece nigiri with herb miso ($5.50). The Norwegian fatty mackerel is smoked in house, and still had that almost campfire aroma when it arrived at the table. Blissfully reminiscent of pulled pork, the mackerel was stringy and pleasantly firm, with more of that intense wood smoke on the palate, along with a slightly salty, nutty finish. This dish perfectly encapsulates the chef's ethos of combining new world flavors to a traditional dish, and is a must try if you still see it on the menu.


The previously mentioned tuna with roasted almond ($6) is also delicious, and has a wonderful crunchy and buttery texture contrast that works far better than you would expect. If your tastes are a bit more on the decadent side, the tuna with fois gras miso ($7.50) features the same great tuna richness, amplified by the tangy, gamy, fatty topping. The Kaz tuna experience is further improved by the addition of Hon, real crushed wasabi root available for $3 a teaspoon. Unlike the powdered stuff normally served, Hon is not bitingly hot, but more mildly spicy, with a pleasant green flavor, and a novel, stringy texture.

Far and away, for straight up hedonistic pleasure, nothing in town beats Kaz's seared salmon belly with soy-lemon sauce ($6.50). This sizable piece of nigiri looks obscene, all pink and glistening with fat, and smells like very mild grilled salmon. Once eaten, the sushi melts away like butter as you chew, all the


while bursting with fatty goodness, balanced perfectly with the acidic sauce. Dear lord, I swear we ordered at least eight orders of these things for the table, and even if everything else had been wretched, I would have deemed the meal a success.

If any of these sound appealing to you but you still feel a bit timid, take a friend and go for the Kaz Sushi Tasting 009 ($32), which features eight different pieces of nigiri (chef's choice, mostly from the signature menu), and one signature roll. It's a great tour of what Kaz has to offer for $16 each (assuming you don't mind splitting each piece), and I have never been disappointed or felt cheated by the chef's selection. If you are a sake fan and have some money to spend, Kaz also features a sizable selection of bottles and carafes. Though the menu is categorized by type, with a brief primer on the side, I find sake types to be ridiculously vague and unhelpful, so bring an aficionado who will know them by name. For beginners, I suggest a bottle of Kaguyahime ($38 / 500ml), which is light, floral, and just slightly off dry. All in all, though, I felt just as well served by a big ol' bottle of Kirin for nine bucks.

After such a long absence, it was nice to see that Kaz was just as grand as I'd remembered. Though undeniably pricey for a casual sushi joint, the culinary adventure that is the signature menu, and the universally fresh and high-quality fish make Kaz well worth the price paid.

Kaz Sushi Bistro
1915 Eye St NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 530-5500
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30am to 2:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 6:00pm to 10:00pm
Closed Sunday
Dress code: Casual

Cinco de Mayo in the District: Putting the Si! in DC

CoronaPop Quiz: What does Cinco de Mayo actually celebrate?

1)  Mexico's independence from Spain in 1810
2)  Corona's independence from the Gambrinus import company in 2007
3)  Nothing.  It's a play on the use of "fifth" to refer to a handle of alcohol, in this case tequila.
4)  Mexico's victory over French forces at Puebla in 1862

The answer, it turns out, is 4.  But the reality is that Cinco de Mayo celebrations in America most often resemble a sort of Mexican Saint Patrick's Day - a chance to consume alcoholic beverages in the name of cultural heritage.

Here in Washington, there is no shortage of Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants where you can celebrate Cinco de Mayo next Monday.  Since we're enjoying the glorious mid-spring weather that brings mild temperatures and low humidity but lasts all of three weeks here in the District, I thought I would share some of my favorite places to enjoy margaritas and cervezas that will allow you to celebrate Mexico's military prowess in a variety of styles.

And, as a dedicated cheese lover, I can assure you that each of these places offers a variation on traditional Mexican queso-focused dishes - from the ubiquitous chile con queso cheese dip (most often made from good old American cheese) to more ambitious offerings like queso fundido con tequila at Oyamel and chiles rellenos at Cactus Cantina.  The best of these feature authentic queso blanco and other Mexican cheeses that are otherwise overlooked.

La Loma
316 Massachusetts Avenue, NE
Washington, DC  20002
(202) 548-2550
Img_4652Recommended for: Happy hour groups, especially young professionals on the Hill
This Massachusetts Avenue establishment serves up margaritas and sangria to a mostly Hill staffer crowd who appreciate the strength of the beverages and the outdoor patio seating as the weather gets warmer.  Although I'm no expert in Tex-Mex cuisine, friends have assured me that the menu here offers some of the most authentic flavors they've found in Washington.  Even so, the cuisine is not the best reason to check out La Loma.  That honor goes to the original margaritas (on the rocks with or without a salt rim), which are sweet and sour enough to cover the burn of the tequila.  Frozen margaritas are available, as are flavored options, but the original is king here.  Their sangria is sweet, with definite citrus notes and an unexpected kick that can sneak up on you unexpectedly.  If you can score a table on the patio, this is a great place to sit and celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a group of friends - but be prepared to get there early and share the space with other fiesta-minded groups.

Cantina Marina
600 Water Street, SW
Washington, DC  20024
(202) 554-8396
Recommended for: Casual dining and a unique waterfront perspective on Washington
Cantina Marina is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, and they remain a slightly off-the-beaten-path option for anyone who's tired of visiting the usual bar scenes in Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan and Georgetown.  Cantina Marina's location over the water on the Southwest Waterfront provides great views of the Washington Monument while still creating the impression that you're somewhere outside the city, for a change.  Offering a menu that tends more toward pan-Gulf than traditional Mexican, they nevertheless serve up Baja-style fish and shrimp tacos alongside New Orleans-inspired gumbo and po'boy sandwiches.  Their margaritas come in four varieties ranging from $7 to $10 each, making them a pricier option than at some of your other options, but the Cadillac, which blends Cuervo and Grand Marnier, is a smooth ride for the money.  They will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo all weekend with specials on XX Lager, XX Amber and Tecate, and the Marina will open at 10:30 on Monday for a "Breakfast and Beer" special.  During the day, they will be hosting a live broadcast by WJFK's "Big O and Dukes" from 11 to 3.  Expect a lively crowd Monday night.

Cactus Cantina
3300 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20016
(202) 686-7222
Recommended for: Unrivaled swirled frozen margaritas and a history of solid Tex-Mex cuisine
Located just up the block from Two Amy's, Cactus Cantina is an old favorite among many people who crave Tex-Mex in Washington.  Fajitas and enchiladas are only the tip of the iceberg, with Mexican soup, chiles rellenos (stuffed with either beef or cheese) and pork ribs a la barbacoa giving diners quite a few options.  Although margarita purists might be put off by their emphasis on their frozen offerings (don't worry - originals are also available), their prices are hard to argue and the flavors, including strawberry, peach and mango,  are spot-on.  At less than $6 per mug (or $26 per pitcher), these really are frozen treats.  Cactus Cantina can easily seat more than 250 guests, making it a great option for those who might be looking for a sit-down dinner.  Their sister restaurant/lounge, Lauriol Plaza on 18th Street, is another option...though it is far more likely to be packed to the gills with a young bar crowd.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
401 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC  20004
(202) 628-1005
Img_4658Recommended for:  An authentic Mexican dining experience from the man who brought us Jaleo and Minibar
Grasshopper tacos?  Six kinds of ceviche and a full ceviche bar?  Moles?  Pepitas?  Oyamel is all of these things and more.  Executive Chef Jose Andres, the creative force behind Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico and Minibar, brings a taste of Mexico City to DC at Oyamel, and it really goes above and beyond just about anything else that is currently available in Washington when it comes to Mexican cuisine.  Chef Joe Raffa has been nominated for a RAMMY award by the Restaurant Association of Metro Washington as a 'Rising Star,' so you know the menu is in good hands.  If you're willing to be a little adventurous, this could be the best possible place for a DC Foodie to spend Cinco de Mayo - they've even got signature cocktails and margaritas to help you celebrate.  But you may want to move quickly to lock in a reservation...chances are they're going fast.

And for those of you who prefer something a bit bigger and more active, there is a street festival from 5 to 9 PM on Monday in the Downtown area of Silver Spring.  For more details, check it out here.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

14K Restaurant: A Theatergoer's Opinion

The Venue: There are two challenges faced when eating before attending a theater performance: getting portions that are filling to ward off hunger pangs -- yet not overly so to cause drowsiness during the performance; and, speediness of service. For these reasons I tend to grab something to eat at the bar before going to the theater. Prior to a recent performance of The History Boys, I stopped at 14K Restaurant, five blocks north of the Studio Theatre.

The Cast of Characters: On my first outing, I tried the Chesapeake crab cake ($13) served, according to the menu, over creamed spinach and Pommery mustard. Instead, as an uncredited understudy, the supporting side dish was a warm, Southwestern-styled corn salad and a crisp roll filled with guacamole and garnished with an orchid. The crab cake was good -- not too much filler, lumps of crab – but the corn salad – with flecks of pancetta, tossed in a roasted, tomato vinaigrette – was even better and complimented the crab nicely.

On another visit, I ordered the steamed mussels ($14) in a white wine, herb broth. Yet, I couldn't figure out what herbs were used; there wasn't a speck of green in the broth. The mussels were bought out in a large, 3-quart Dutch oven, overwhelming the pound or so of mussels. Perched on top of the mussels was a lone piece of toasted cheese bread; not enough to sop up the broth. However, in my book, you can rarely go wrong with mussels.

Both meals were served with bread. On one occasion, the basket contained two types of rolls: sourdough and rye; on another, pretzel bread sticks as well as the sourdough rolls. The bread, especially the sourdough, was quite good. But answer me this: how does bread come out of the kitchen steaming? Were they served hot from the oven?

Performance: Unlike table dining, there are certain risks inherent in sitting and dining at a bar. If the bar is crowded, you'll have a tough time getting the bartender's attention. At other times, when the bar is slow, the staff is either busy setting-up or nonexistent. At 14K, there is an additional challenge: the bar is a circle, bisected by the drink station. On one occasion, while the bartender was servicing one side, the other side was being neglected. I had a hard time attracting his, or anyone's, attention to get water, ask about the corn salad, inquire about my meal and get the check. The other time, the staff hovered; whisking away the bowl anytime it contained five or more discarded mussel shells.

The pace of the kitchen left a lot to be desired. On my two visits, it took an average of 20 minutes, once ordered, for food to arrive. Maybe my own timing was off; I had allotted 45 minutes for a somewhat leisurely, yet quick, meal before show time. I know now to build in additional time in order not to feel rushed.

Set Design:
14K takes great pride in appearance and presentation. The room is light and airy with lots of open space. The circular bar provides a semi-restricted view of the hotel lobby or the restaurant. Albeit located on a busy, rush hour intersection, the outdoor dining patio is ideal for people watching. The kitchen does take great care in plating and showcasing the meal. A single orchid graces the guacamole roll, or a slice of bread atop the mussels, confirm this.

The Mark: 14K has a lot going for it, as a pre-theater dining experience: it’s proximity to the Studio theater; the variety offered on the bar menu; the selection of by-the-glass wines; the value for the money. Yet, it also has a few major distractions… the pace of the kitchen and staff attention left a lot to be desired…and should be avoided before an evening or matinée show. For a leisurely meal, with patio dining, 14K deserves a second chance.

14K Restaurant and Lounge
Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel
14th and K Streets, NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 218-7575

Cowgirl Creamery

Img_3511 It was about a year and a half ago that Cowgirl Creamery opened its doors, and they have more than earned a place in the hearts of gourmets and cheese-lovers alike since then.  More than just a place to find wonderful artisanal cheeses, Cowgirl is a D. C. Foodie's dream when it comes to a wide range of hard-to-find items:  salames and other charcuterie from well-known producers like Fra'Mani, Bread Line baguettes delivered fresh daily, even salt-packed capers (so much better than the ubiquitous brined capers found in jars on grocery store shelves)!  Throw in a small but thoughtful selection of wines hand-selected by the proprietors, and you've got the makings of a decadent picnic or a killer wine and cheese party.

Cowgirl Creamery is not the typical DC cheese shop for several reasons.  First - it's not a locally-owned business.  Cowgirl Creamery was started in Point Reyes Station (north of San Francisco on the California coast) in 1997 by two women with DC roots, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith.  Thankfully for us, those roots made Washington the site of Cowgirl Creamery's first expansion outside the San Francisco Bay area.  And the fact that a number of Washington restaurants (including the Clyde's group) were already featuring Cowgirl cheeses couldn't have hurt, either.  Second - Cowgirl Creamery only features artisanal cheeses.  You won't find any mass-produced cheeses like Parrano here, though the women behind the counter are likely to be able to offer two or three artisanal alternatives for any cheese you can think of.

Img_3515On each visit I've paid to Cowgirl Creamery, I've been struck by the presentation of their cheeses.  Walking through the narrow store to the back, you are immediately greeted by a long counter covered in firmer cheeses - cheddars, aged gouda, grating cheeses.  Passing around to the front of this counter, guests are greeted by a deep refrigerated case holding blues and semi-soft cheeses that would not stand up to room temperature storage.  In the far back corner of the room, a separate case holds rounds of goat cheese, clabbered cottage cheese, pates,  and cured olives - this one always brings a smile to my face with its assortment of artisanal treats.  Previously wrapped cheeses (such as Cowgirl Creamery's own MT Tam, Red Hawk, and the amazing fall/winter seasonal Pierce Pt) can be found in the front of the store with the charcuterie and previously weighed packages of cheeses and accompaniments that are perfect for a grab-and-go purchase.

The service at Cowgirl Creamery is top-notch.  Not just knowledgable, everyone I've ever spoken to has been truly enthusiastic about cheese.  They don't just offer you samples - they practically force them on you.  Questions are welcomed and approached as an opportunity to share something new, not as an inconvenience that slows down the transaction.  As you might expect, this can lead to lengthy interactions and occasional backups, but the number of employees working at any given time seems to take this into account and addresses it quickly and efficiently.

Img_3513 Prices at Cowgirl can be a bit higher than those at competitors around the city sometimes, but for me this is offset by the unique complementary products they carry.  There is a massive tank of McEvoy Ranch olive oil located just to the left of the cashier's stand, and they encourage guests to sample this deliciously pure California gold.  A freezer case behind the register carries gelatti from DolceZZa, a Georgetown purveyor of the Argentine version of this rich treat.  It is also justified by their service and their willingness to go the extra mile in helping their customers to discover new favorites that may lie just outside their comfort zones. 

The commitment to making and selling true artisanal products at Cowgirl Creamery should appeal to those foodies who wish to encourage and reward producers who are working to preserve traditional methods, and the taste and quality of those products should appeal to just about everyone else.  An early arrival in a neighborhood that is quickly developing a character that appeals to both tourists and locals alike, Cowgirl Creamery is still a bit off the beaten path (though just a block away from Ford's Theater and the new Madame Tussaud's, you really need to know it's there to find it).  But it's well worth the trip.

Cowgirl Creamery
919 F Street, NW
(202) 393-6880
Monday through Saturday, 10AM - 7PM
Closed Sundays

Restaurant Cheese Plates: What's the Deal?

As a D. C. Foodie generally and a cheese lover specifically, I am often tempted by the cheeses on offer at restaurants throughout the city.  For some, cheese takes the form of a 'cheese course' (either a la carte or as part of a larger tasting menu).  For others, it's a simple 'cheese plate.'  And for those who want you to know just how much attention they have given to the curds, it is a 'Chef's selection of artisanal and farmstead cheeses.'

Regardless of the name, I have found cheeses at restaurants to be an uncertain proposition.  It's not a question of quality - any establishment that offers cheeses is doing so to highlight them, after all.  It's a simple question of value.  At one restaurant in Northwest, the menu offered a selection of cheeses for $12 without identifying them or indicating what else, if anything, would be served.  I received a selection of four delicious Italian varieties including Tallegio, a personal favorite.  At another restaurant downtown, I recently opted for a sampling from their artisan cheese selection, which was clearly listed so I could make my own choices.  For the same $12, I received three small samples of cheese with a diverse spread of accompanying fruits, nuts and crackers.  The cheeses were great, but the portions definitely left a bit to be desired for the price.

But there are definitely restaurants out there that tailor their offerings toward real cheese lovers.  Dino immediately comes to mind - their Formaggi di Dino list offers seven cheeses from across Italy and one American option, with detailed descriptions and individual price points for each.  They don't indicate the size of the samples, but they are generous enough to allow for a true tasting.  And I was pleasantly surprised to find an unexpected gem last week: Central Michel Richard.

This bistro-style offering from the man who brings us Michel Richard Citronelle (I'll give you one guess what that man's name is) is billed as offering creative, upscale fare such as lobster burgers and one of the most delicious versions of fried chicken you will ever taste.  But the best value and most pleasant surprise on the menu may very well be their 'Daily Cheese Plate,' which offers no description but carries a $13 price tag.

The lack of description made me a little wary at first, but I decided to give it a try because of a truly wonderful Roquefort I tasted at Citronelle last December.  (As it turns out, they don't say anything specific about the cheeses in question because they really do change from day to day.)  When the cheese plate came out, I was stunned.  Six impressive samples crowded a cutting board that was loaded with cheeses, grapes, and nuts.  There was easily a pound of cheese on the board, and the quality was equally impressive.  On the night of my visit, I received:

  • Epoisses - A pungent, unpasteurized and creamy cow's milk cheese that has a rich, almost meaty flavor
  • Le Chevrot - A French goat's milk cheese with a soft, bloomy rind and a mild tangy flavor
  • Le Chatelain Camembert - A pasteurized camembert from France with that traditional smooth and creamy taste
  • Roquefort Vieux Berger - One of the best blues I have ever tasted, this raw sheep's milk version has peppery and salty notes with a slightly chewy texture
  • Petit Ardi Gasna (Petit Basque) - A firm, raw sheep's milk cheese that tastes nutty and sweet
  • Cantal - A firm, cow's milk cheese from the Auvergne region of France, Cantal reminded me most of mild cheddar with grassy flavors as well

By themselves, the Roquefort and the Petit Basque frequently retail for as much as $30/pound, and the Chevrot, the Epoisses and the Camembert are sold in their own packaging (preventing sales by weight).  If I were to try to duplicate this cheese plate at home, I could easily expect to spend almost $50 on the cheese alone!

Despite the value, however, Central's approach to the cheese did have room for improvement.  The cheeses were served without any crackers or bread, despite the creamy and spreadable nature of both the Epoisses and the Camembert.  A question to my server about the cheeses on the board resulted in a response that identified them only by type (Camembert, Roquefort, Petit Basque, etc.), instead of by producer.  When I asked again, I was informed that they didn't have that information available at the time, but that they purchased all their cheeses from Murray's Wholesale in New York - a legendary fromagerie, to be sure.  It was only after a call to Scott in New York that I was able to identify which Roquefort and which Camembert I had been served.  A subsequent mid-afternoon call to Central put me in touch with someone who was able to confirm the specific cheeses that Scott and I had identified.  This lack of specific information seems to be a common theme at Michel Richard's restaurants - it took requests to my server and the maitre d' (who then asked the chef) before I could find out the name of the Roquefort I fell in love with at Citronelle last year.

If you are planning to visit Central Michel Richard in the near future, I would highly recommend leaving room for their cheese plate - at only $13, it's a great deal.  Just remember to ask for bread, and be prepared to do some sleuthing if you taste something you truly love and want to find again later.

Brasserie Beck

Becks_kitchen I love places with beer lists, because I don't know anything about beer and there's always something new to learn. In my four trips to Brasserie Beck, I've learned a few things. First, Belgian beer rocks, each beer has a special oddly-shaped glass to be served in, a gueuze goes great with oysters, and Chimay is pronounced she-may (I'm looking forward to learning more in my future trips). Brasserie Beck is beer snob heaven. The very bright and very crowded bar (unless you get there before 6) is a haven for people looking to relax after a long day at the office. It's understandable why it's such a popular happy hour spot, but it's not just the beer you should go to Brasserie Beck for -- hell, you just might also want to eat some food.

Mussels_and_frites_2 I'd recommend both the leek and potato and pea and veal meatball soups. A sinful liver parfait I'll never tell my doctor I ate is going to be hard not to order again and the oysters are amazing. On my last trip we had Olympia and Stellar Bar oysters. Please, I beg you, don't order the Stellar Bays if they have them because I want them all to myself!

The mussels are for true mussel lovers. If you like the little tiny mussels that other places serve, don't be surprised when you get a plate of the giant meaty mussels at Becks. They come with a bowl of skinny, parsley-coated frites and a trio of flavored mayonnaises.  This dish is a meal on its own and a steal at $17.

Roasted_rabbit_leg_beck With the entrée selections a Brasserie Beck you can take a lighter approach or continue your gluttonous descent. On the lighter side, the curry salmon, with its milky yellow curry sauce, could've used some heat, but still very tasty and was one of my favorites. On the richer side, the lamb shank is falling-off-the-bone tender, but the rabbit is my favorite dish of all with meat that was probably the most tender of any meat I've ever eaten. Those of you that won't eat rabbit because it's a cute little animal don't know what you're missing. I found the entrées to be a very good value given the generous portions.

I've had mixed experiences with the desserts, but that's usually the case with me. The pear tarte tatin I thought was too buttery and came off greasy which is not exactly what I'm looking for in a dessert after a large meal. The caramel cheesecake, on the other hand, was just what I love in a cheesecake - moist but not runny, cakey but not dry.  I like that the caramel sauce was applied with a light touch too.

Belgian_beer_on_draft_beck Overall though, I wouldn't say that Brasserie Beck serves food that's amazingly better than other good French (or Belgian) bistros like Bistro du Coin, Bistro Lepic, or Montmartre, but what I think makes it stand apart is the service. Each time we were there the service was very good and the servers, bus persons and expediters all were very attentive and knowledgeable about the menu. On your way to your table there won't be a single person that you pass working for the restaurant that won't smile and say hello. The pacing of the food can be a bit slow, but there are worse things that can happen.

Brasserie Beck
1101 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005

(202) 408-1717
web site

Dress Code: Casual
Parking: Valet is $7 but has a tendency to back up. There isn't much street parking in the area but sometimes you're lucky enough to find a spot.
Smoking: Not Allowed.
Closest Metro: Metro Center, McPherson Square, Mt. Vernon Square
Reservations: Taken and recommended.
Baby-Child friendly rating: 3 diapers. Plenty of high chairs and they have a nice way of seating you in the back room with your child which is better for you and everyone else.


Recently, I found myself in Bethesda with Amy and Noah. It was the middle of the afternoon and we hadn't eaten lunch yet (God, this sounds like just about every Saturday since Noah's been born). Originally, we intended to go to Divino Lounge but once we parked the car, got Noah out of the car, and walked around the corner...oh crap. They're closed. Son of a...!!

"Way to check their hours Jase...What else is around here?" Amy asked.

Man she gets grumpy when she's hungry. Kind of like me.

I thought about our options for a couple minutes. I was obviously taking to long, because Amy suddenly suggested that we go to Jaleo.

The last time we went to Jaleo, we had a pretty mediocre meal and I was hesitant. It's amazing how one bad meal will do that and so many people, including myself, will write off a place after one semi-bad experience, but we decided to give them another chance regardless.

The good news is everything was very good that afternoon (and the following Saturday night as well), unlike most tapas restaurants, where half the dishes your order end up being boring. My favorite tapa (geez I ate that word) was the duck confit, which is by far, one of the best deals that Jaleo has to offer at $7.50, with a very large duck leg that seems to never end. Sadly, it's on their "temporary" menu, so get it while its still on the menu.  Other amazing tapas include the homemade grilled pork sausage with white beans thats salty and well seasoned, grilled sirloin with sherry sauce, or some sinful béchamel chicken and Spanish ham fritters.

The only dish I had that I wasn't crazy about was a surprisingly bland Chorizo sausage. Seriously, Chef Andrés, spice this up a bit. No not a bit, a lot! I mean, chorizo is supposed to be spicy, right?  So the menu is still a bit hit or miss. Another disappointment was the pork rib that was almost completely fat. We sent that one back it was so bad.

During our afternoon visit, service was very smooth and we couldn't really ask for more. When we returned again the following Saturday, things weren't quite as smooth, which I remembered from our previous experience at Jaleo. That evening, despite the fact that the service was very rushed, which is understandable, considering how crowded the restaurant was, the kitchen continued to bang out dish after dish.

As far as the wine list goes, there are many options all across the different price ranges, which I can appreciate because I don't always feel like dropping $60 on a bottle of wine. Glasses at the bar are reasonable as well. The slightly tart, yet fruity, Albarino that Amy and I had at the bar was only $8 a glass.

It's easy to get carried away at Jaleo, which can easily be considered a cheap eats restaurant, but also can break the bank if you order a ton of tapas and a more expensive bottle of wine. I can appreciate that though, because it means you have the flexibility to make what you want of the meal. All of our bills were under $100.

480 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 628-7949   

7271 Woodmont Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 913-0003

2250 A Crystal Drive
Arlington, VA 22202
(703) 413-8181

Web Site

See Web Site

Dress Code: Business Casual to Casual
Reservations: Taken.
Baby friendly rating: 2 Diapers

Gerard's Place

Somehow, I figured out that Spamalot was playing at the National Theater and since Amy is the biggest Monty Python fan ever, I figured I'd never be forgiven if I didn't get her tickets. Through some miracle, I was able to get them for Friday night.

We had a baby sitter coming early enough for us to get dinner before the show, but for some reason, the week flew by and I never made a reservation. It was Friday when I realized that I had no idea where we were eating dinner before the show.

Time for something completely different.

I've always wondered what Gerard's Place was like. Other than the expense of eating there, I don't think I've ever heard a negative thing about Gerard's Place, but I thought that recently, I'd read something about how Chef Gerard was revamping his menu for cheaper prices and less "stuffy" ingredients that people don't want (I tried to find the article, but I couldn't track it down).

There were plenty of reservations available at Gerard's. So many, that pretty much the entire night was open, so I made one for 6:30 PM which thinking back, was cutting it a bit close.

We arrived for dinner prompty at 6:30 PM. There were only two other tables filled. Amy and I looked at each other. We were both thinking the same thing.

Shouldn't this place be a bit more crowded on a Friday night?

The menu is pretty simple. You can either choose Chef Pangaud's five-course tasting menu for $89 a person, or the three-course prix fixe menu for $59. If we had more time, we would've chosen the chef's tasting menu, but we only had an hour until the show started and chose the three-course menu, which has about five or so choices for each course.

My only complaint about our meal that night was the wine list. Just about all of the good wines were $60 or more a bottle and over half the wines were over $100 a bottle. I tried to hide the shocked look on my face. So these must be really awesome wines to cost so much right? Well, the wine that I ordered, a 2002 Haut-Mondesir, was $75. Yes, it tasted wonderful and I have to say that I picked a great spicy and dry wine to go with the food we ordered, but when I Googled the wine to see where I could get it, I found that it was available for about $20 a bottle at Cleveland Park Wine and Liquors. Ouch. That's quite a markup.

Our first course came out fairly quickly, which I appreciated since we didn't have a ton of time. Amy had ordered the "progressive tasting" of red and golden beets and the presentation of this dish was perfect with four separate portions of beets on a large colorful plate: a traditional layered beet and goat cheese napoleon, a sweet golden beet carpaccio with citrus oil, a smooth and sweet red beet mousse with chopped hazelnuts, and a golden beet salad with candied orange. All of them tasted wonderful, but Amy's favorite by far was the red beet mousse. I tasted this as well and I swear it could have been a dessert.

I regrettably ordered the scallop appetizer. I say "regrettably" not because they were bad at all -- in fact, they were quite good. There were two fresh scallops sliced in half and placed on a bed of pureed herb sauce and arranged around a tiny garlic flan. But, when it comes down to it, I compare all scallops that I get to the ones that I get at Ray's the Steaks. I think I would've enjoyed another dish more, like the carrot soup or duck foie gras, since I wouldn't have had thoughts of another preparation which I like more in the back of my head.

Our entrees were brought to the tables with the same synchronization as the first course and were even better. I love it when entrees are better than the appetizers and don't leave you flat, dissappointed, and expecting more. The slightly gamey, yet rich flavor of the juicy roast duck that Amy ordered made us think that this was quite possibly some of the better duck in DC. With the duck came a perfect cylinder of mashed potatoes on top of duck confit. We ended up eating through the mashed potatoes to get to the confit. I had the succulent veal chop, which when I cut into, juices ran all over.

Desserts were fantastic as well and were the perfect finish to the meal.  I should note that we were asked to order our desserts at the same time as our main course due to the fact that they prepare the desserts fresh to order. The lemon souffle that I has was light and fluffy like a souffle should be and the strawberry sorbet and sauce it was served with was the perfect compliment.

We finished our desserts and still had time to spare to get to walk to the National Theater. So all in all, service was prompt and our food was delivered promptly as we finished each course. I couldn't really ask for more in a pre-theater dinner. Great food, timely service, but a wine list that's overpriced relative to the food. If I go there again, I might call and ask if they accept corkage, because that would be a way to solve the wine dilemma there.

Gerard's Place
915 15th St NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 737-4445

Mon - Fri: 11:30 AM - 2:30 PM
Mon - Thur: 5:30 PM - 9:00 PM, Fri - Sat: 5:30 PM - 9:30 PM

Dress Code: Business Casual
Parking: Street. Suggest Metro or Cab in this area
Smoking: Not Allowed.
Closest Metro: McPherson Square or Farragut North
Reservations: Taken
Baby friendly rating: 1 diaper. The atmosphere didn't seem right for a child. This is a good place for a night out without the kids. :) 

Malaysia Kopitiam

It was a gloomy, cold and rainy evening when I was walking down M Street, and I was looking for a place to get out of the rain, as well as a quick bite to eat. I passed Camelot.

Hmmm...I hear they have good burgers there.

Then I passed Malaysia Kopitiam. Since I might be the only person who hasn't been there, I figured it was about time I tried it out. It was on Washingtonian's Cheap Eats last year, it gets very positive reviews from just about every food critic and gets very good word of mouth. Just a couple weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who said he went there and had a great meal. This was someone whose opinion in food I respect very much, so I figured I'd better try it.

Malaysia Kopitiam is on the the basement level, but it's hard to miss with the big sign above its door. Since it was 5:30, the restaurant was pretty empty. The only people there were one couple and what seemed to be a bunch of family members of the restaurant staff and owners. I recognized one of the owners from the pictures and articles hung on the wall out front. My first impression of the interior of the restaurant was that of one of the restaurants on the Food Network's Restaurant Makeover, before the makeover. It just goes to show that looks aren't everything.

I sat at a table by myself. The server handed me a, not a menu, a three-ring binder. The menu comes in two parts, the regular menu with the list of dishes and prices, and then a three-ring binder with the pictures of the dishes. I found this very convenient when ordering because the descriptions on the menu were not the best at explaining what the dishes are actually like.

This first trip, I wasn't so happy with my choice of appetizer. The roti canai, or flaky layered Indian bread with spicy Malaysian curry chicken, would've been great except for the rubbery chicken. The sauce was a wonderful hot-spicy blend and the bread couldn't have been better. I loved how buttery and flaky it was. A friend of mine later told me this was their favorite dish at Malaysian Kopitiam. I guess I just had a bad batch of chicken -- mine was fatty and over-cooked.

The spicy tamarind beef, on the other hand, was pretty good, but wasn't anything to write home about. Unlike the chicken, the beef was lean and tender. This beef was cooked for a long time, and had a consistency of the beef that I make in a slow cooker all day. I'd say that it was either brisket, hanger or skirt steak.

Out of the kindness of my heart, I ordered some takeout for Amy, and chose extremely unwisely for her entree. I think of all the dishes on the menu, I chose the most bland and unsatisfying of them all -- vegetarian stir-fried mix noodle. I'm not sure why, but I think I chose the dish that's on the menu for the unadventurous vegetarian diner who thinks they're a vegetarian, but doesn't want to try any "weird" vegetables because they're actually just a picky eater. Yeah, I'd say that about sums it up.

On the other hand, the appetizer that I chose for her made me want to return a second time. It was a little spring roll called a Po Pia. This was a thin crepe filled with jicama (pronounced hick-e-mah), lettuce, eggs, dried shrimp, and topped with a hoisin sauce. I'm not sure what it was that made these rolls so good, but I'm pretty sure it was the hoisin sauce. As I ate them back at our apartment I said to myself, "Well, if these are this good after sitting in these takeout containers for a half hour, then I've got to try these fresh in the restaurant!"

This is going to be another one of those reviews where I describe each dish I ate in detail...If you are short on time, you should stop reading now. :)

I returned a week later with Amy and Noah and had a great time with him there. Malaysia Kopitiam, I have to say, is very baby friendly. They have high chairs, the restaurant staff were very friendly to Noah, and the casual atmosphere makes me feel at ease having Noah there. Especially since Noah's been getting experimental with the volume of his voice lately. 

My choices of dishes was better this visit. Maybe it was Amy's influence over the ordering, but we ordered some really incredible dishes. Of course we started with some of those incredible Po Pias which were sooo good -- fresh and hot unlike my first time eating them cold after takeout.

The raja chicken was an very similar to the General Tso's chicken that you find at every Chinese takeout joint. Somehow, the chicken seemed to have this double-fried chicken texture to it, almost like they'd fried the chicken without the breading really quick, dipped it in batter and fried it again. It'll be hard to get crappy MSG-y Chinese takeout ever again after eating this dish.

We also ordered some curry pork rib noodle. Imagine pork ribs so tender you could suck the meat right off the bone. Now add curry sauce and rice noodles.

Yeah, I want to go back too.

Both meals were under $40 after tip and this is with us ordering beer (Singhas to be exact.) I really wish I'd gone to Malaysia Kopitiam before now. Perhaps I'll head back there this weekend.

Malaysia Kopitiam
1827 M Street NW
Washington DC 20036
(202) 833-6232

Mon - Thu: 11:30 am - 10:00 pm
Fri - Sat: 11:30 am - 11:00 pm
Sun: 12:00 noon to 10:00 pm

Dress Code: Casual
Parking: No Valet. If you time it right, there is a ton of parking that opens up on M street right around 6:30PM
Closest Metro: Dupont Circle or Farragut North
Reservations: Not Taken
Amy's Bathroom rating: Need for improvement. They were a little rundown, but hey, you're not going here for the ambiance.
Baby-Friendly Rating: 3 out of 4 diapers. A casual environment, friendly and accommodating wait staff make this place ideal for taking an infant to. Noah had a meltdown after about an hour and a half and no one even batted an eye. The rundown bathrooms mean there's NO place to change a diaper though.