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?

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