Must Haves

Must Haves: Red Hook Lobster Pound's Lobster Rolls (but you knew that already)

IMG_0981 Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Last year, I sat down and put together a list of favorite dishes for this Must Haves series.

There was the burger, the pork sandwich and the french fries covered in gravy. There was also a lobster roll. It's served at a great little restaurant in Dupont. Having grown up in Florida, I wasn't exposed to this New England staple until I moved to the area, so the one in Dupont was my first. I've had others since, but this one remained the favorite.

And then a new lobster roll rolled into town, literally.

If you know anything about the recent food truck trend, you know about its brightest star: the Red Hook Lobster Pound truck. These guys need more publicity like I need a hole in the head.

The Washington Post, the City Paper and The Washingtonian have all praised the four-wheeled seafood shack. So why am I focusing on it? I'm late to the game and the big boys have already filled you in on how wonderful the food is, in particular the $15 lobster roll.

The thing is, they're right. In fact, they might not be stressing the point enough: for $15, you can buy the best damn four bite sandwich in Washington, D.C. (unless lobster's not your thing, in which case they're selling fondue in Penn Quarter).

Every time I order one of Red Hook's lobster rolls, I'm disappointed in how small they are. We're talking about a $15 sandwich that's served on a hotdog bun that's probably not six inches long. But man, do they stuff that tiny bun. Try as I might (and I try), I can't wrap my mouth around the lobster roll. There's just too much lobster meat. It's a buttery cornucopia of lobster plenty. 

The rolls come in two styles: Maine and Connecticut. The lobster meat in the Maine-style roll is lightly dressed with mayo, celery and seasoning (I guess Maine invented mayonnaise). The Connecticut is nothing more than lobster and warm butter in a bun.

Both versions are outstanding, but the Connecticut is absolutely amazing. It's just you, butter and a pile of sweet lobster meat (which is how I'd like to be buried one day). Quite simply, it's the very embodiment of the lobster roll. It makes the long lines worth it and the price perfectly acceptable.

It is the best lobster roll in D.C.

IMG_0971 Now, there is one other reason I wanted to feature Red Hook Lobster Pound's lobster rolls. I have a feeling this food truck thing might be more fleeting than the great cupcake craze of 2010. I hope I'm wrong. I do. But I like sitting down when I eat and maybe having an adult beverage. And when you're eating off a food truck, those options aren't available.

Besides, D.C. can be a fickle town and once the novelty of the trucks wears off, I'm afraid their legions of supporters will head back to traditional sit-down restaurants and turn their attention to the next big thing (I hear it's pie).

If that happens, it'll be a shame. Good food is good food, regardless of whether you buy it in a restaurant or from a food truck. And when it comes to lobster rolls, the best you can buy may be rolling through a neighborhood near you.

Must Haves: Dolcezza gelato (and warmer weather)

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

I don't have much of a sweet tooth. I like desserts well enough, but aside from a few slices of pumpkin and pecan pie during the holidays, I can generally take or leave the sweets.

That said, Dolcezza makes a mean gelato.

Looking at the picture above, you may assume that even in 40 degree weather I seek out the creamy dessert. I don't, but I did for this post. I've been meaning to swing by the Penn Quarter farmers' market where Dolcezza has a booth, but didn't get around to it until the temperature crashed the other day. 

For my trouble, I came away with a half pint of Crookneck Pumpkin gelato. Honestly, I could've taken the Mexican Coffee (which was spectacular), Tahitian Vanilla Bean or Valrhona Chocolate Amargo, too, but like I said, I have a weakness for pumpkin.

9 The poor woman manning the booth also had a selection of sorbets, including Heirloom Apple Cider and Honey Tangerine. They were good (especially the apple cider that's made with locally sourced apples), but I prefer the sorbet selection during the summer months when Dolcezza rolls out flavors like Mojito, Meyer Lemon Vodka and Strawberry Tequila.

I also prefer the summer months.

If I was a brighter man, I would've swung by one of Dolcezza's stores where I would have had a larger selection and heat. But I'm not a bright man. However, I am a man with pumpkin gelato, and that counts for something.

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

Must Haves: Capital Q's Barbecue Burrito - It's Not A Taco!

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

Sometimes, a clever twist can make a good dish great. Sometimes the right packaging can do the trick.

Take Capital Q in Chinatown. They make good barbecue. Not great barbecue, but good barbecue. Nevertheless, with a Subway next door and a Fuddruckers across the street, the tiny Texas barbecue joint is easily one of the best places to eat in the neighborhood.

Even with good barbecue, though, Capital Q has a great barbecue dish: the barbecue burrito.

You won't find it on the menu. Instead, you order a "taco." I say "taco" because the "taco" is a 12 inch flour tortilla, which makes the "taco" a "burrito," and I really like burritos. (I was honestly pissed off for a while after realizing the taco I routinely passed up was actually a burrito. What the fuck? Just call it a burrito.)

DSCN5280 Within that burrito you can have anything. Beef brisket and black beans wrapped in a warm flour tortilla? Done. Pulled pork, collard greens and corn salad? Done. Smoked turkey, mashed potatoes and banana pudding? Sure, but don't.

The point is, I can walk in anytime and order a burrito stuffed with all kinds of barbecue. And if that ain't great, I don't know what is.

Now, there's another trick to this. The guys working the counter at Capital Q are generous. If you order a pulled pork burrito with black beans, greens and hot sauce (as I often do), you'll have a mound of food piled on your tortilla. Picking it up will be out of the question, and if you're using a fork and knife you're missing the point. So the trick is to order everything on the side, including the sauce (and if you're smart, a second tortilla - you'll have plenty to fill both).

With your tray of sides and meat, grab a seat and a roll of paper towels at the front window and build your burrito(s). As you stuff that soft bundle of barbecue into your mouth you can watch the tourists jaywalk their way into Fuddruckers. Suckers.

Must Haves: Blue Duck Tavern's Bone Marrow Appetizer

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

Last year, I predicted 2010 would be the year of offal. I was wrong. This has clearly been the year of cupcakes (really?) and food trucks.

I was on to something, though. Trotters have made their way onto charcuterie boards around the city, sweetbreads and foie gras are as popular as ever, and even my mother knows Chris Cosentino (though from his role on Chefs vs. City, not his evangelizing about offal, but still).

So it's no surprise (well, a little surprising) that something as primitive, as ethnic, as absolutely fantastic as bone marrow has made its way into the tony spaces of Blue Duck Tavern.

DSCN5502 Let's get this out of the way: cooked bone marrow looks like hell. If I were honest, it looks like a warm loogie. But the taste. Oh my, the taste. Some have described it as meat butter. That works for me. Bone marrow that's had time in the oven or a sauce is wonderfully rich and savory. It's the Cracker Jack treat in ossobuco, the poor man's foie gras. 

Whoever dreamed up the bone marrow appetizer at Blue Duck deserves a raise (and whoever took the ribeye with bone marrow sauce off the menu should be out on their ass). It's the only appetizer I've ever had that has dictated a return visit. Chef Brian McBride has put together an elegant American menu and I enjoy the nods to the purveyors his ingredients. The restaurant is beautiful, the staff is excellent and the bartenders make a good Negroni.

But when I think of Blue Duck Tavern, I don't think of any of that. I think of a $13 appetizer.

It's a complete contrast. The kitchen roasts two split bones until the bone marrow is rendered into a soft gelatinous state and serves it on a silver tray with a head of roasted garlic and a tiny coke spoon perfect for scooping. Despite the trappings, there's something inelegant about scooping warm bone tissue onto toast points. However, with bone marrow this is as nice as it gets.

The bone butter is wildly popular with other cultures, particularly in Asia. That's why Indian restaurants rough chop the bones in their dishes. The cooked marrow flavors their sauces and diners enjoy sucking the remnants out of nature's stiff straw. Sitting along the windows in Blue Duck's sunny lounge watching the West End go by, I can't imagine giving felatio to a femur, but if that was the way McBride served it ...

The offal revolution may have lost out to two chicks and a pastry, but as long as roasted bone marrow resides on Blue Duck's menu I will be perfectly happy being wrong.

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.)

Must Haves: A Well Dressed Burrito

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

It's a burrito joint, so the penguin is confusing. The location -- down an alley by Rumors -- isn't great, either.

Fortunately none of that matters because the burrito that you came for is what you came for. The Well Dressed Burrito's marinated burrito is one of the best you'll find in the District.

You either know this or you should.

It's not hard to find a burrito in D.C. There are the fast food options, like Chipotle, Taco Bell and Qdoba, but they're not that good. Despite the lines that wind their way through Chipotle, the weighty burritos are bloated bundles of rice. Taco Bell always seems like a great idea on road trips (when choices are few), but when you have options the allure of the Burrito Supreme fades fast. And Qdoba and the rest of the fast food options are cranking out crap for the hurried masses.

So you hop the Metro to Dupont and wander down an alley for what you know will be right. Between 11:30 and 1 p.m., the cramped space is as crowded as an Orange Line train. There are specials, like salmon quesadias and Mexican bread pudding, but you're there for the real specialty. You're there for a marinated burrito.

DSCN5443 Beef or chicken (there's a vegetarian option, but who cares) marinated in a "seasoned Mexican sauce," swaddled in a four tortilla and surrounded by black or refried beans, lettuce, Mexican rice, shredded cheese, sour cream and tomatoes. You ask for the hot salsa, thick with bits of peppers and spices.

You could get a fajita-style grilled burrito instead. For a moment you're tempted. You think that it'll be like a marinated burrito, but better because it's grilled. Then you remember the last time you ordered one and realized the meat isn't marinated, so the magic was missing.

No, you stick with the marinated burrito. Order beef or chicken, it doesn't matter because both a fantastic. You ask for it with black beans, because you know if you say nothing it will come with refried beans. Glancing at the beverage cooler, you wish there was a cold bottle of Hatuey waiting for you, but you settle for a Snapple.

Three minutes later, someone behind the cramped counter that keeps the crowd at bay calls your number. It's time to make a choice: do you shoulder your way back through the interns and office workers for one of the few seats among the filing cabinets, or do you tuck that fat baby under your arm and head to the circle for lunch on the lawn?

Doesn't matter, because it's the burrito that matters now. It's big, but unlike the popular Chipotle burrito, this well-dressed one has flavor. The mingling of marinated meat, beans and cheese may not be the most authentic burrito (you can head up to Columbia Heights for that), but it's the best thing you've eaten all week. It takes three bites to go left to right, but the deep, savory flavors and pinch of heat from the salsa help you make short work of the hefty lunch.

Sure you should've had a salad instead. You're pretty sure the dapper penguin's salads are good, but you've never had one. Come to think of it, you've never had anything else one the Well Dressed menu.

Why would you have? You're there for the marinated burrito.

Must Haves: Cafe Atlantico's Medio Dia Ain't a Cuban, but It's an Afternoon Delight

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

There may be no more perfect culinary creation than the sandwich. At its best, it's simple: meat, condiment, maybe some cheese and greens. Less is more because more is more. More clutters. More gets in the way. More misses the point. Less does, too. Less is meat and bread, or worse, condiment and bread -- the wish sandwich.

At its best, a sandwich is a harmony of few notes. It sings.

The Cuban sandwich, el Cubano, is a perfect sandwich. Ham, roast pork, Swiss, mustard, and pickles all pressed between crusty pieces (sometimes buttered, sometimes not) of Cuban bread. It doesn't get much simpler.

I grew up on the Cuban, so ubiquitous in Tampa it gets taken for granted. It's not hard to find a good Cubano in Tampa. Sure you could hit the lunch counter at La Teresita, just off Himes, or El Gallo de Oro, where Cuban men still play dominos out front and a short walk will take you to the small shop where my wife bought her wedding dress.

Hell, you could get a mean pressed Cuban at the gas station down the street from 98 Rock where I interned in college. Nearly every day after my shift at the morning show ended at 10:30, I'd drive down to fill up the car or just me. My sandwich was often the first of the day. I don't know if it was the sleep deprivation, the gas fumes or the virgin grill top, but I never got a bad Cuban from that place.

So if I can get a great Cubano at a gas station, why can't I get one in D.C.? Sure, I've had some decent ones at places like Cuba De Ayer in Burtonsville, but the bread never seems quite right or they skip the ham or pork. Whatever the case is, it's never a proper Cubano.

The thing is, though, the sandwiches are usually pretty good. They're just not good Cubanos. If they'd just call them something else I'd be able to enjoy the sandwich. It may be just a name, but the name carries expectations, which too often go unmet.

Now, call that sandwich a Medio Dia and you're on to something.

DSCN5331 Just look at that thing: confit pork, ham, and warm, melted cheese between two pieces of crispy, crusty bread. It's beautiful. Monikers aside, Cafe Atlantico's midday version of the Cubano is a damn good sandwich. They even remembered the pickles and mustard, and knew enough not to call it a Cuban.

You see, people, this is why Jose Andres is such a well regarded chef. For all the complexity of Minibar and variety of Jaleo and Zaytinya, Andres recognizes the perfect simplicity of the Cuban sandwich and doesn't screw with it too much.

Sure, the bread's not right, but few people north of the 813 seem capable of making a decent loaf of Cuban bread (it's very similar to French bread, but the interior is much more soft). On the other hand, using confit pork instead of roast pork is genius. I might go so far to say that it's better than the roast pork. No, I will say that it's better than the roast pork. It's pork slow cooked in fat. How can rich, unctuous pork not be great? It can't. It just can't.

And always a nice touch is the strangely thick, bright orange hot sauce you can request at Café Atlantico. It's not traditional, but I put hot sauce on nearly everything, including Cubans. Trust me, it works.

As much as I like this sandwich, it's not a Cuban. Maybe that's a good thing (and not just because I like to complain about such things). So long as I can't get a proper Cubano here, it will always be a special treat when I'm back in Tampa. But when I can't head south, at least I can head to Café Atlantico for lunch.

Must Haves: Julia's Empanadas, or el Turkey es Bueno!

Must Haves focuses on some of DC's great dishes.

A few weeks ago, Food Wars rolled into town to settle our city's big food conflict: who serves the best jumbo slice of shitty pizza in Adams Morgan.

Who won? Who cares?

The good folks over at the City Paper did a fine job panning this steaming pile of crap. However, the show did resurrect the issue of D.C.'s lack of a signature dish. A poll conducted by the City Paper back in December found (unsurprisingly) that most folks think the half-smoke at Ben's Chili Bowl is the District's Philly cheesesteak.

It's not, not for me anyway. When I think of D.C., I think of Julia's Empanadas.

In 2004, the missus and I moved down to Chapel Hill, N.C., so she could attend grad school and the University of North Carolina. For the three years we were in Carolina, I never thought about half-smokes, Peruvian chicken, or thin pizzas with fancy toppings. I thought about savory pastries filled with meat and egg. I thought about their weight and their egg wash. Trips back to D.C. often meant trips back to Julia's.

(The great thing about Julia's empanadas is that they're always good, whether you're eating one at 11 a.m. or 2 a.m. -- and I've eaten them at 11 a.m. and 2 a.m.)

DSCN5285 Now, the empanadas being a Spanish-cum-South American dish, you'd think the Chilean style beef or the chicken filled Saltenas, with their boiled eggs, olives and onions would be the way to go. Or maybe the spicy chorizo empanada with black beans. Oh no, my friends, they may be delicious pockets of meaty joy, but the best one on the menu is the turkey empanada with spring onion.

The sweet savory ingredients of turkey, onions, jalapeno and cilantro mingle together in a rich filling tinted dark yellow by turmeric. It's Latin Thanksgiving inside a warm golden shell. Without a doubt, it is the best $3.41 this city has to offer (which is why I always end up spending $6.82).

So as the immigration debate rages on, consider that the signature dish of our nation's capital might be a South American pastry born in Spain. I like apple pie, but I love Julia's empanadas.