Looks delicious, doesn’t it? Damn I miss me some real Lebanese food…
Adams Where? The Weekly 18th Street shitshow? What does WBH have to do with that? Well, your author lived for two years on Calvert Street, just past the insufferable weekend crush of shwasty-faced hoodrats, gang-bangers, interns, fake IDers, and drunk-ass bros, and despite having a sweet apartment, was not thrilled with said swarm of ragers providing a ruinous end for an otherwise nice night out in a different part of DC. So why the hell am I writing this? Because nearly three years later, new delights have opened, old stalwarts have remained, and I’ve discovered under-the-radar gems that I overlooked in my previous desire to avoid 18th & Columbia and environs at all costs.
DISCLAIMER: 18th Street is still chock-a-block with absolute SHIT bars – and I’m gonna name them: Grand Central, Tom Tom, Town Tavern, Columbia Junction or whatever it’s called, Shenanigans, and many others. Avoid. It also still home to most dubious pizza by the slice ever – Jumbo Slice and its derivatives. No level of drunkenness makes this a good idea. Also avoid.
So with that out of the way, let’s get on with it, starting from the top of the hill to the bottom.
Those in New York: run, do not walk, to Mission Chinese Food at 154 Orchard St in the Lower East Side. It’s been documented at length by all and sundry and been touted as the greatest thing to happen to Chinese food since wok first met fire, and that may just be true.
So what’s the deal? It’s the New York outpost of a San Francisco pop-up style joint, the child of chef Danny Bowien, who before Mission had never cooked Chinese food (indeed, none of the cooks in the place were Chinese), but went travelling in China, learning how shit’s done right, and then came back and fused that knowledge and experience into some crazy-good, mind-bending, mouthwatering dishes. The New York branch has been open a few months now and apparently offers a refined tweaking of the original SF experience.
Some of what’s on offer seems traditional, some not, but everything comes out like it’s been imbued with magic tasty awesomeness that takes you on a rollercoaster ride of flavor, heat, and spice.
I’ll only comment upon what my friend and I shared. We ordered the salt cod fried rice, the Chongqing chicken wings (“explosive chili and crispy beef tripe”), the thrice-cooked pork, and the mapo tofu, all things that can be had, more or less, at any worthwhile Sichuanese place.
The rice was subtle but very very tasty. The bits of salt cod and slow-cooked mackerel provided a nice balance to the sweet Chinese sausage, and the entire dish was a good foil to the spicy onslaught which followed.
The wings – holy shit. Smothered in a seasoning powder containing lots of Sichuan peppercorn for sure, as well as what tasted like some sugar and MSG. Umami-mouth tingling explosion. My lips felt like they were fizzing like a glass of warm soda (The seasoning is so fizzing good that I scooped what was left on the plate and ate it straight). Also, the crispy fried dry chiles they come with are AWESOME, like chips but way way better.
The bacon – Holy shit part two. Never have I tasted anything more porky and smoky than the thick cut bacon they use. The sauce was divine, thick, spicy, smoky, and tingly, and the included sliced rice cakes did a good job absorbing it. My friend and I were rationing it out to have bites throughout the meal.
Mapo tofu – wow, just over the top. If I had this plus a bowl of plain rice, and nothing else, I’d be very happy. With everything else, it was probably overkill. Far more meaty and rich than any mapo I’ve had (of course, due to the generous use of pork shoulder that they advertised) – this wasn’t the incendiary, numbing dish I expected, but almost like a super heavy Chinese variant on chili. Really ridiculous (no picture of this one, I was too defeated at that point to take pictures)
I’ll conclude with the atmosphere – wild. The entrance is in a basement, only easily detected by the queue outside. The shopfront looks like the scummiest of shitty takeout windows, only with lots of people milling about and…a keg, providing free beer to people with their names down for a table. Once your name is called (making you feel like a golden-ticket holder) you’re escorted through a narrow corridor, past the glassed-in kitchen, past shelves of ingredients, plates, etc, into what looks like an indoor courtyard or back garden. Lit up by a huge red dragon, the tables are tight in, it’s raucous, and it’s casual. The restaurant equivalent of a punk concert, or a proper dive bar with table service
Every single thing about Mission Chinese Food is over the top in the best possible way. Go there ASAP.
I’ve said Beirut is laid back, it’s a good place to relax, and more. As one Lebanese rapper put it, “the national sport of Lebanon is called chilling.” I’ll also nominate mentalist driving, but let’s go with chilling for now, because it’s hard to imagine anyone ENJOYS driving here, although I’m sure some people take perverse pleasure in pretending it’s the Monaco Grand Prix on the crowded streets (“Shou, Monte Carlo is a party town on ze Med, we are too!”)…but I digress. More than partying, more than their fabled ski-and-swim in the same day, more than anything else, the Lebanese love to sit back, relax, and enjoy life. Usually that involves a café, with coffee, tea, beer, snacks, and often an argile (hookah). The king of all such places in Beirut is Al Falamanki.
So over at Serious Eats, there’s a post about increasing your chile tolerance. While I agree with the message (namely that some of the best cuisines in the world are pretty hot, and that it’s worth developing a tolerance so that you can enjoy them), I feel they left out a key component: Start slow and build up to all out! In the first few days, only add half a jalapeño or a couple drops of hot sauce, then after you’re comfortable with that, increase it steadily and gradually. Within a few weeks you’ll be a fire-breather, undaunted by whatever the world’s kitchens can throw at you. Good luck.
Next time somebody claims you can’t get good Indo-Pak food in the DC area, throw some dal in their face and slap them with a hot chapati, and call them out on their ignorance. For the meatier side of things subcontinental, I present: Ravi Kabab, an Arlington institution steeped in Lahori deliciousness.
It’s noon on a Sunday, the light slowly filters in through your blinds, and you curse the copious quantity of Cristal of last night as if it was a soul-sucking vampire. Realizing that, damn it, you may have earned a day off with that legendary party, but you’re not gonna let a whole day waste away (half is quite enough), you need something to pick you up, set you straight, and let you get on your way.
What is that something? If you’re in the DC area, it’s a visit to the Eden Center for something like this: