Friday, June 19, 2009

The Hole-In-The-Wall Experience

We arrived at the row house and ambled cautiously across the wooden planks that led to the basement. At the appropriate intervals we crouched as if literally entering into the bowels of an ominous cavern and not into a restaurant as we expected. Surprisingly, the dark room that was Thai X-ing revealed a hodge-podge of randomly hoarded artifacts like chemistry lab vials, statues, books, pictures as well as a collection of warm notes and rave reviews framed with essays announcing that amid the unusual decor a fabulous meal awaited us later that evening.


This was our latest “hole-in-the-wall” adventure at a location we had least expected - someone else’s home or so it appeared. One, I had discovered randomly just driving around the District and being Anthony Bourdain curious while looking for new adventures. This was an undiscerning trait necessary to find good food in inconspicuous urban places. Places that I have come to realize serve the best dining treats because the focus is the mission of eating well and not locale or fashion statement.
When the meal began we felt the experience reminiscent of the soup-nazi in Manhattan, a hole-in-the-wall made famous by the Seinfeld series. A brash but skillful chef with a personality is always a welcome. Nevertheless, when Taw, the chef who turned out to be more skillful than brash, brought out the beef salad appetizer our minds were filled with the following adjectives...Amazing! Fresh! Yummy! Basil!Wow! Marvelous! Exploding flavors like fireworks went off in our mouths too quickly to mark their origins. We were delighted. We thanked the chef who was visibly still busy at work in the kitchen dancing around like a ballerina during her solo piece. He was focused and jumping from sink to stove shaking, pouring, tasting. He stopped to let us know he was pleased and that the beef salad is his signature dish. From start to finish, we had never had a Thai meal so good and the extra touch of serving the meal on the banana leaves added to the authentic Thai feel.


What makes this and other such places good hole-in-the-wall eateries? This is such a personal question and for many people the answer varies. To answer, I reminisce on the other such locations I have come to look towards for appetizing reprieve - Quick Pita in Georgetown, the Amsterdam Falafel shop in Adams Morgan, and Chix on 11th and U Street. The traits that unite these places are simple adherence and attention to traditional cooking and uniquely flavorful tastes, fresh, good, healthy and inexpensive. Quick pita serves Middle Eastern fare that is comfort and oozing in garlic but flavorful and tasty. Chix has succulent Peruvian rotisserie chicken with a vegan take on side dishes such as their black bean hummus and pasta and cheese that provide one of a kind treats side-by-side treats. And the Falafel shop serves up a fantastic array of vegetarian dressings for the simple falafel balls fried just right. Good food well done without any pretense and enjoyable especially by me a meat lover.


A lot of folks are surprised at finding good, cheap eats in DC that are not fusion, gourmet but just plain ole traditional and well done. Others are not surprised at the existence of these places but just refuse to step into them because of various prejudices and presumed social faux pas. Or since people like me sometimes hesitate to share their finds maybe they never know where to look.


Every city has great off the beaten path choices. Some are well known and others not so much. Definitely make sure before you eat any where that it is relatively clean and sanitary and certified by the health department. But most importantly don’t judge a place by its raggedy old couch.


What other hole in the walls have you found in the District or the metro area?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Baltimore - Charm City?

Hi Darlings:

They are worlds in contrast with similarities only historically defined by negative realities of crime, drugs and poverty except the magical wand of gentrification seems to not have provided the present prosperity and economic growth to Baltimore that we enjoy in the District. For many Washingtonians, Baltimore City is defined by television shows like the Wire which portray a city without the charm of a small town but rather one surviving on the charms of street hustlers and drug dealers. Although I have never watched the Wire, reading and noting the truth in the plot line was enough for me to create a self-imposed boundary of visiting only the Inner Harbor and no where beyond whenever I decided to venture northward to Baltimore.

This seeming snobbery was and still is a common practice for many other Washingtonians, as well. We’ve been afraid that the city, rampant with more murders and crime than our own would be too violent for us to stomach. Not wanting to get hurt by stray bullets, some or rather many of us fear for our lives, so we choose not to explore more of the city.

However, just as we grew to dislike Baltimore because of a TV show, many of us recently fell in love with the city because of the movie “He’s Not That Into You”. I can recall the jaws of six of my friends spilling forth their contents as they dropped to the floor of the movie theater upon finding out that the city featured in the movie was Baltimore. We wondered whether the “potentially” happening (onscreen) singles scene actually exists in reality. From then on, we were on a mission to find out whether or not there was some charm to the city and contemplated where we should dig to locate it.

With the specific goal of visiting Baltimore more often (It helped that I started dating someone who lived there), I can say after a few months of hanging out in the city there are many charming places to visit and explore. Areas like Patterson Park add an unexpected dimension to the city. Representative of a mid-Atlantic Central Park, this area is pristine and contains a duck pond, an unusual pagoda and endless space for city dwellers to live and play as well as hold community focused events like the recent Polish festival. There are restaurants like those in Canton’s Square with unique personalities and some with amateurish d├ęcor with old soul character, instead of a modern, contemporary, monotonic matching of Pier 1 Imports purchases. The coffee shops like Patterson Perk and High Grounds Coffee are the opposite version of big box coffee shops like Starbucks and offer used books amid locally roasted coffee. I am not sure there is another city in the Washington DC metro area with more coffee roasters. And yes, big city gals, free WIFI is provided!

The city is definitely worth visiting even if the blue lights are still present and foreboding. The reality is many neighbors don't have these lights and are worth exploring.

What are you experiences visiting Baltimore?
 
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