Hello from Boston! Ed and I have been in our new home for about two weeks and are just starting to feel settled. The city seems exciting, fun, and chock full of amazing places to eat. Just exploring our little neighborhood, we’ve come across some frozen narcotics disguised as ice cream (Oreo cake batter, are you kidding me?), a friendly man named Al making creative, flavorful, fresh subs from a griddle in his convenience store, and fish tacos topped with an arbol chile mayo that belongs on everything from now on. While I can’t wait to discover what the rest of Boston has to offer, I want to give my former city its due farewell.
Over the course of the 10 years I lived in the nation’s capital, I had the good fortune to dine at restaurants running the full spectrum: from Citronelle to Steak and Egg and lots of things in between. I have piles of treasured memories from all of this good eating and saying goodbye to the city has been bittersweet. I’m delighted to be in Boston, but it’s sad to leave home, family, friends, and my usual haunts. During the past month, as I took Tenley on his last walks around my neighborhood, packed up my apartment of five and a half years, and ran my local trails one last time, I composed a list of my favorite things to eat in the city. This process made me sad, because I knew it might be a long time before I got back to some of these places, but it made me happy, too, because I love these dishes and I’m thrilled to share them here. So here’s my list of favorite things to eat in D.C. (and one in Arlington).
- Shrimp Fajitas at Cactus Cantina, 3300 Wisconsin Ave. N.W. Cactus is just so easy and fun. The margaritas never fail to hit the spot, the atmosphere is lively, and the fajitas are the best I’ve had in D.C. Cactus was a mainstay of my lifestyle for the past decade. My first year in D.C., my parents took me there for my birthday, then I started going there to celebrate other birthdays, then it became a destination just because I love the fajitas and margaritas. In the winter of 2011-12, Ed and I got into a wicked habit of going there every week (we broke the habit, but it wasn’t easy). I even chose Cactus to be where my parents met Ed’s parents—I can’t think of better ice breakers than sizzling meats and frosty tequila. I’ve dabbled in all regions of the vast menu and I’ve concluded that the fajitas are the best menu items and the shrimp fajitas are the best of the best. The shrimp are plentiful, perfectly sizzle-y, and come with mounds of grilled vegetables and guacamole. The tortillas are pure comfort: fluffy, soft, and warm. I also like the seafood enchiladas and you can’t go wrong with anything that comes off the grill.
- Grilled Cheese, Stoney’s. 1433 P Street, N.W. My friend Kelly told me a long time ago about the grilled cheese at Stoney’s, but it took me until last summer to pop into the P Street bar myself and try one. I immediately slapped myself for not having done so sooner. My ideal grilled cheese is not fancy. It’s gooey American cheese on greasy, crispy pan-grilled white bread. Paninis, exotic cheeses, and whole grain breads make great sandwiches, but when I want a grilled cheese, I want it basic and I want it perfect. Stoney’s does it right. The bread is not so thick that it cuts the roof of your mouth when you bite in, but it’s not so thin that the cheese-grease bleeds through the top of the bread (I’m sorry for that mental image. Too many pathetic cafeterias have served me too many bad grilled cheeses). Stoney’s has completely mastered grilled cheese timing: the bread is perfectly crunchy and golden and the cheese is piping hot and completely melted. If you like your grilled cheese with more pizazz, Stoney’s also serves it topped with ham or with tomato, bacon, and onion. I’m sure they are also delicious, but I say why mess with perfection?
- Our Famous Gyro, Greek Deli. 1120 19th Street, N.W. If you’ve ever walked or driven down 19th Street during lunch hour, you’ve seen the line outside of Greek Deli. It’s a tiny storefront offering a full line-up of hot Greek specialties (mousaka, pastitsio, spanakopita, etc.), salads, and sandwiches. The Famous Gyro is so named because it’s worth the wait, rain or shine. Spiced lamb, crisp vegetable fixings, a sprinkle of feta, and a garlic-dill tzatziki are barely contained by thick pita. The portion is ample, even excessive, but I’ve never failed to finish one. Two things set this gyro apart from others I’ve tried: the freshness of the ingredients and the creamy, punchy tzatziki. If you find yourself in front of Greek Deli wondering if the line is worth it, take my advice: hurry up and wait.
- Foie Gras Scrambled Eggs with Black Truffle Butter, Estadio. 1520 14th Street, N.W. Ed’s sister and brother-in-law took us to Estadio to celebrate Ed’s 30th birthday last year and in the spirit of the day, we ordered excessively. There were many stand-outs from the meal (Ed loved the roasted baby chorizos and potato chips), but the dish I thought about for days and days was the scrambled eggs. I love soft scrambled eggs, but I have never had such creamy, savory, slightly sweet eggs as these. They were served humbly over grilled bread and stood out as a contrast to the spicy, acidic Spanish flavors of the other specialties. I remember taking a bite and simultaneously feeling pure joy and panicked strategy because I needed to have way more than my fair share of those eggs. I hoped no one else liked them. Luckily for me, my companions were very generous and let me have as much as I wanted.
- Pork BBQ Pizza, Mario’s Pizza House. 3322 Wilson Blvd, Arlington. My love for Mario’s was genetically predetermined. Mario’s is a long-standing tradition in my family. My parents served Mario’s at their backyard BBQ wedding party. On their way home from the hospital after my mom delivered me, they stopped at Mario’s for subs. We’ve eaten Mario’s countless times during my life. As the soon-to-be newest member of the family, Ed is wholeheartedly on-board with this unique family tradition. We like Mario’s hamburger subs (ground beef patty on a hoagie roll topped with raw cabbage, pickles, onions, mustard, and mayo), but have found that our homemade version is even better than the real thing. Mario’s crown jewel is the pork BBQ pizza. The crust is square and thick and each piece is topped with a scoop of long-simmered sweet and spicy shredded pork BBQ. When the BBQ hits the pizza oven, it gets slightly toasted and crispy at the edges, adding more flavor and texture. When you reheat it at home, it gets double-toasted and is even better, just make sure you crank your oven all the way to 500°.
- Foie Gras Meatballs, Citronelle. I am sad that Citronelle is still closed for renovations because it is such a wonderful place to have a special meal. Ed and I have each celebrated our birthdays there, but the most spectacular visit was for my aunt Joan’s birthday last year, when Ed, my mom, and I treated ourselves and Joan to the grand promenade — a ten-course tasting menu. I could fill this list with the ten courses we had that night, but the single course that was my favorite was the foie gras spaghetti and meatballs. The chef presented a trompe l’oeil of round little meatballs dotted among noodles, what appeared to be a pedestrian pasta dish. The “meatballs” were actually roasted rounds of foie gras, so instead of chewy italian spiced meats, each bite was pure, velvety decadence. Joan and I are long time lovers of foie gras, but Ed and my mom are less enthused by the texture and taste. They devoured this course, though, as the fine art presentation and creative preparation of the foie gras completely wowed them.
- Toasted Marshmallow Milkshake, Good Stuff Eatery. 303 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E. I’ve been talking to some friends about this little list for a while and when I mention this milkshake, nearly everyone oohs and ahhs in agreement. I find most marshmallow desserts a little too sweet and just a bit bland. Not so here. The shake contains both charred and toasted marshmallows blended with vanilla ice cream and a bit of sour cream (or at least that’s what Good Stuff owner Spike Mendelsohn (of Top Chef fame) tells the masses). The charring and toasting adds roasty, campfire depth and the sour cream keeps the sweetness in check. Genius. This is without question the best milkshake I’ve ever had. I love it so much that I use a picture of myself drinking one as my profile picture across all forms of social media.
- Michel’s Napoleon, Central Michel Richard. 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Now that I am in the Northeast, where there are many more bakeries than in D.C., I will have an easy time finding napoleons, the delicacy made of alternating layers of puff pastry and pastry cream. No matter how many I may find, however, I know that I will not find one half as magical as the one at Central. This is Ed’s favorite dessert and it’s one of my favorites, too. When you order Michel’s Napoleon, you receive a towering marvel: puff pastry so inflated that it’s a wonder it can support such a generous layer of piped vanilla cream. It’s a wonder it can even support a dusting of powdered sugar. I love cracking into the tower and sending shards of pastry into the pool of crème anglaise below. If I’m feeling particularly patient, I let the pieces soften in the crème (but I’m not usually that patient). I didn’t make it back to Central to document this splendid dessert, but I did find a hilarious picture of Monsieur Richard holding his masterpiece here.
- Si Krong Muu, Little Serow. 1511 17th Street, N.W. Ed took me to Little Serow for my birthday this year. He left work early and waited in line to be sure we would get one of the few, highly coveted dinner seats. The meal was absolutely worth his effort. I’ve never had such an exotic, exciting meal. The dishes were a balanced mix of spicy, sweet, sour, savory, bitter, and pungent. Ed and I have a fairly weak spicy food tolerance, so we found ourselves cooling the heat with steamer after steamer of sticky rice and baskets on baskets of raw veggies. Despite the spice, we loved every plate so much, we couldn’t bear to waste even a scrap. After all of this good eating, by the seventh (and last) course, we were stuffed. I knew I couldn’t eat one more bite. But then I saw the caramel colored, simply stacked ribs and I found room for a bite more. The ribs left me speechless. I managed many more bites of those unbelievably tender, sweet and salty ribs. I think they are marinated in dill and a Thai spirit called mehkong whiskey (the menu just said “pork ribs / mehkong whiskey / dill”), but I do not know for sure because they are unlike any ribs I’d tasted. I really hope to taste them again.
- House-made Spicy Bloody Mary, Hank’s Oyster Bar. 1624 Q Street, N.W. It’s a rare occasion that I will be inspired to have a cocktail at brunch. Day drinking makes me so darn tired. Luckily, I was smart enough to make an exception to that rule for Hank’s bloody mary. Thick, hot, and spiced, it is without question the best bloody I’ve ever had. The drink is served over ice in a mighty tall glass and garnished with a shrimp, if you’d like. The flavors are everything you want in a bloody, but more: more pepper, more horseradish, more celery salt, and then some more pepper, and probably many other things I couldn’t discern because I was so busy slurping it down. It’s bracing, refreshing, and challenging. This is a drink for hardened, salt-crusted oystermen and food-obsessed yuppies alike. Cheers.