Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hood Rich

When I was growing up on the south side of Arlington there were only a few places in my neighborhood where I could grab a quick bite to eat. Unfortunately they were Wendy's, Popeye's, T.G.I. Friday's and Five Guys. Five Guys was without a doubt my number one choice.

Now that I've moved a few miles north to Arlington's bustling Clarendon area, my neighborhood food options are vastly improved. There is an incredible Alsatian-style brasserie/cafe (Lyon Hall), several bars and restaurants serving their own brands of continental cuisine, a Spanish tapas place (see my first post), a middle-eastern kabob joint, a southwestern-style cantina, an Indian restaurant, an upscale Lebanese restaurant, the finest gourmet steaks and burgers (Ray's the Steaks and Ray's Hell Burger)and the best damn Mexican food-truck-turned-retail-taqueria (El Charrito Caminante). With so many phenomenal options and more opening on an almost-monthly basis, it's become increasingly difficult for me to choose a favorite. Keep in mind that the places I've named are all within a half-mile of my house, and I didn't even mention the sandwich shop that roasts its beef, pork and turkey daily. You can see why every time I decide I want to walk somewhere to grab a bite, I'm riddled with indecision.

The BEST wings I've ever had.
There is one place however that I've grown to adore. I don't know if it's the low lighting, the warm and inviting decor, the selection of wonderful libations, or the BEST wings I've ever had, but EatBar has won my heart stomach as my neighborhood go-to.

Owned and operated by Neighborhood Restaurant Group (go figure), EatBar offers top-notch cocktails, decent charcuterie, cheeses from around the world, entrées that will make you salivate, and did I mention the BEST wings I've ever had? 

I've literally tried everything on their menu except the house-marinated olive appetizer, and I've never once been disappointed. Their beer selection, albeit small, is well-rounded and even the pickiest drinker is bound to 
find something he or she will enjoy.

Gnome's Water: Hendrick's Gin, Lavender, Cucumber

Lamb Burger with Tzatziki, Red Onion and Feta

Toasted Cornbread with Avocado Butter and Jalpeno Jelly

Your basic Maine mussels in white wine, garlic and parsley.

I'm far from a wine snob, but I've enjoyed every glass I've tried. I'm not sure, but I'd be willing to bet EatBar's wine list comes from Neighborhood Restaurant Group's retail wine shop Planet Wine. If you have the inclination to try a few wines, you can opt for one of their flights or try almost any wine on the list in a 3, 6 or 10oz. serving.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Craving a Quality Cuban Sandwich...

Back in February, Nadine and I began planning a late-April tropical vacation partly to celebrate my birthday, but mostly to get out of the DC area. Initially, I had envisioned the two of us laying on a secluded beach in St. Lucia, sipping icy drinks from large tulip shaped glasses that would undoubtedly be covered in condensation from the Caribbean sun. The dream bubble above my head popped and vanished rather quickly once I realized how much that kind of trip would actually cost. When I asked Nadine if she had any ideas that might be more wallet-friendly she said, "How about Miami?" Instantly, that dream bubble was replaced with an idea light bulb. That was it! The perfect place for me to fulfill the one craving I haven't been able to appease in the past few years: a quality Cuban sandwich.

You see I've always been a huge fan of the classic Cuban sandwich, but here in the DC area it's difficult to find one that's both delicious AND authentic. Within 3 blocks of my house I can get some of El Salvador's finest pupusas, and Bolivia's wonderful salteñas, but this area lacks a really good Cuban restaurant. (If you happen to know of one, PLEASE leave a comment and tell me about it.)

I booked our flights and a hotel room and it was decided. We were going to Miami. Fast forward to April 21. Our flight was to leave National Airport at 11am. I was sound asleep at 5am, dreaming of ham and pork and pickles and spicy mustard all pressed between two pieces of hot crispy baguette, when all of a sudden I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing. I groggily answered while trying to clear my throat, only to hear an automated message from an airline (that shall remain nameless) telling me our flight was cancelled due to an engine malfunction. I don't think I've ever been more livid. Thankfully, my house is only five minutes from the airport and there were some open seats on a flight leaving at 7am. We threw our bags in the back of a cab and we were on our way.

Jerry's Famous Deli - This SoCal staple also has a SoBe location.
Since we arrived in Miami earlier than anticipated, we had a few hours to kill before we could check into our room. Sure, we could have walked one block to bask in the sunlight on the pristine white sand and crystal-clear waters of South Beach. Instead we did what any red-blooded American couple would do at 10:30am on a Thursday. We went to Jerry's Famous Deli to grab a beer and an obscenely large sandwich. I decided to go with pastrami on rye with swiss. I apologize for lack of a picture, I was far too hungry to get a shot of the sandwich before I devoured it.

Duck wanton and chicken samosa
Throughout the course of our long weekend, we ended up eating at several restaurants that were not even worth blogging about. However there was one place I loved so much that we ended up eating there twice. I'm realizing as I write this that we never actually went inside Nexxt Cafe because they had ample shady outdoor seating. The first time we went was for happy hour cocktails and appetizers. I don't consider myself a cocktail connoisseur, but the Long Island Iced Teas were delicious and packed one hell of a punch. We started off with Nexxt's crispy chicken samosas with a cilantro dipping sauce, and their duck wantons that were stuffed with minced duck, garlic, onions and carrots and served with a basic Chinese-American style sweet and sour sauce. Both the samosas and wantons were absolutely delectable. Below is a close-up of the inner sanctum of the last remaining duck wanton. It did not survive for very long after this picture was taken.
RIP Duck Wanton
April 21, 2011 - April 21,2011

After another round of LITs, we became increasingly enthusiastic about the Iliad-length menu at Nexxt (if you don't count the pages covered in advertisements, Nexxt's menu is 19 pages long). Next up: Avocado wantons with sun-dried tomatoes, pickled red onion and fresh cilantro. Unlike the casing for the duck wantons and chicken samosas, the avocado wantons were more like traditional Chinese dumplings that were steamed and then finished in a frying pan or wok. I was skeptical about how the fresh avocado would hold its texture after being cooked inside a wanton, but to my delight they retained their solidity and still had their smooth and rich buttery consistency. 
Avocado wantons with sun-dried tomatoes, pickled red onion and fresh cilantro. Served in a puddle of soy sauce with green onion and both black and white sesame seeds.
I don't recall exactly when we went back for our second meal at Nexxt, but I do recall that it was not quite as good as the first time. We began by splitting an order of the Thai Tacos. These were unlike anything I've had at a Thai restaurant. Scratch that. These were unlike anything I've had at ANY restaurant. They were filled with roasted pork that was so tender and seasoned just the right amount that it didn't overpower the other ingredients: thin mildly marinated slices of cucumber, Thai chiles, carrots, onion, cilantro and sesame seeds. What made these tacos so different from anything I'd had before was the steamed Asian buns that held them together. It added a soft doughy texture that was atypical of a traditional taco. I didn't know what to expect from these unique tacos, but once I tried them I was pleasantly surprised.
Thai tacos - There were three on the plate when the waiter brought them, but one was already down the gullet before we could get the camera out. 
We decided that no mere appetizer could possibly fulfill the hunger that we experienced after a long day of laying in the sun, so we each ordered an entrée. In retrospect, we probably should have ordered several more appetizers from the extensive menu. I ordered a grilled chimichurri steak which was essentially an overcooked skirt steak topped with a few slices of grilled onion, a lackluster chimichurri and the dryest white rice I've ever had. Nadine had a "Faux-laffel" burger. It was topped with arugula, red peppers, pickled beets, red onion and a feta cheese spread. The only downside was the patty itself. Nadine is somewhat of a falaffel aficionado and she knew after one bite that it was way too dense to even be categorized as falaffel.

What was I talking about at the beginning of this verbose post? Oh right, Cuban sandwiches! Our last night in Miami (also my birthday), my wish finally came true. I had the best Cuban sandwich of my life at Lario's on the Beach. Not only that, but I had the privilege of enjoying with with some friends who happened to be in town. I didn't manage to get a picture of the perfect Cuban, but I assure you, it looked as phenomenal as it tasted.

If you made it this far without falling asleep or dying of boredom, below is a reward in the form of some more visual stimulation.