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Recipe inspiration, tips, and kitchen hacks from the Chowhound editors.

Semi Homemade? SUPER Homemade!

You like Pockys. You like Kit Kats. You even like alphabet letters in your soup. But do you ever think this Pocky/Kit Kat/alphabet letter would be so much better if it were, say, AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD?

Brit site Pimp That Snack is exactly why we’re so happy that Al Gore invented the Internet—so that folks who really want to make, from scratch, animal crackers the size of puppies and Pop-Tarts the width of dinner plates can have a place to share their love.

There’s something exceedingly British and Monty Pythonish about the whole concept; in fact, we found it via another fave Brit site, Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, which pitches its news listings under the heading “Your up to the minute source for news in the fast moving world of tea and sit downs.” Kate Hopkins on the Accidental Hedonist is also a fan, thanks to a fondness for lines like “You just pimped my HobNob!” (The site was originally called Pimp My Snack, until the threat of a lawsuit from Viacom—which own the rights to tricked-out car show Pimp My Ride—forced a name switch.)

But the best part (besides the actual recipes and step-by-step photo commentary, just in case you should want to re-create an After Eight mint the size of a record sleeve) are the Pimp Trumps, where you can match up two pimped-out snacks and see who triumphs. Absolutely Massive Alphabetti Spaghetti versus After Eight 12’’ Extended Mix: Who will rule?

Virginia Chowconnaissance: Two Days in High Gear

Northern Virginia
There are three modes of dining:

• Going to a known place (for many, this means a chain) or a place you’ve been guided to

• Taking a random stab and hoping for the best

• Chowconnaissance, whereby an area is methodically gauged and charted via herculean onslaught in an afternoon or two

For non-chowhounds, those options appear in declining order of appeal. Familiarity is paramount, going off the map is worrisome, and the sampling of multiple places in quick succession is completely daft.

For chowhounds, it’s the opposite. Familiarity is boring, trying someplace new is exciting, and massive exploration is … well, the most rewarding pastime one could imagine.

Rewarding though it is, chowconnaissance is not easy, and no one would choose to do it often. It’s a grueling undertaking that offers none of the standard pleasures of dining out. The pace is frenetic, food combinations are unharmonious, and energy expenditure is mighty. And the result, even if one diligently paces oneself, is exhausted dyspepsia.

So why do it? Because chowconnaissance is how we build knowledge. By plunging in, we’re able to compare similar venues to suss out superior options. The drill is to dash in and out of places, parsing takeout menus and strategizing orders to efficiently reveal benchmark quality. Hopefully, grandeur can be ferreted out in short order. And then, having attained the knowledge of Where’s Good, we can one day return to the hottest spots for leisurely, exultant meals.

This rigorous, unnatural style of grazing used to be the exclusive domain of restaurant critics, but more and more amateur food sleuths are taking the iron-hound route. What it lacks in physical comfort and immediate satisfaction it more than makes up for in the quick accrual of massively useful chow know-how. Like saving a portion of your paycheck or freezing spaghetti sauce, this is a kindness one does one’s future self. And the fact that my future self must get itself to Falls Church, Virginia, to partake of the fruits of this research matters not. Such knowledge is treasure, and I horde treasure reflexively.

I hit all the following in two afternoons, rarely taking a second bite of anything. And while it left me groaning, I was able to speedily go from deeming northern Virginia a mysterious, vaguely enticing chow area to thinking of it as an old stomping ground. I’ve got a portfolio of great places to return to, plus tempting leads for future investigation.

How did my streak affect things? It’s all about the winnowing. There were probably something like 300 eateries in the area, and around 20 piqued my attention. I actually ordered something at the following 10 places, all of which had something quite noteworthy to offer. I used nothing but my chow-dar intuition to find the following:

Original Pancake House
370 West Broad Street
Falls Church, Virginia
(Also branches in Bethesda and Rockville.)

The Original Pancake House shows the patina of a great place devolved into ennui. These pumpkin pancakes were merely above average, and I suspect that’s true of much of their offerings. But the menu includes two dishes too wacky and distinctive for the kitchen to have eroded: the apple pancake and the Dutch baby. I don’t need to describe them, because they taste precisely as they look in the following photos.

Pumpkin pancakes.

The apple pancake.

The Dutch baby (undressed).

The Dutch baby (dressed and partially consumed).

From the looks of their website, the Original Pancake people seem to agree that these items are the highlights. I didn’t know that when I ordered … which goes to show that ordermanship is an integral part of the chowconnaissance process.

Jerusalem Restaurant
3405 Payne Street
Falls Church, Virginia

This was an extremely difficult puzzle. Initially, I pulled over because I hoped I’d find Palestinian kunefe (a rare and prized thing) here. Any restaurant called “Jerusalem” is likely to be either Palestinian or Israeli, and it certainly wasn’t the latter. I didn’t expect to see explicit Palestinian references, because Palestinians tend to identify their restaurants as Jordanian.

The menu lists mostly Lebanese dishes, though, which is a whole different thing. And just to confuse me further, the menu included some serious Egyptian dishes.

I ordered a chicken shwarma sandwich, described on the menu as served with garlic sauce and pickles—which is very Lebanese. So I asked for extra toom—the Lebanese term for garlic sauce. The waitress stared at me blankly, and the sandwich came completely toomless; it tasted fine but somehow off. Everything tasted off, in fact. Finally, I chatted up the waitress and learned the present staff is Moroccan!

So they’re trying valiantly to keep up the restaurant’s legacy dishes, though Morocco is a long way, culinarily, from Lebanon. I ordered some Moroccan baked pastries (see photo below), which were wonderful. And I noticed a few errant Moroccan gestures on the menu, including harira (lamb soup) and couscous. I bet they’re real good. Must try next trip.

Bread & Kabob Restaurant
3407-B Payne Street
Falls Church, Virginia

Too full to even sample. But I’m quite certain it’s top-notch. Hopefully chowhounds will try it and report back on our message boards.

Yas Bakery and Gourmet Foods
131a West Maple Avenue
Vienna, Virginia
• Saffron ice cream

• Cookies, almond/pistachio

Devastatingly delicious and potent saffron ice cream. More rife with saffron than any other saffron ice cream I’ve had, and they go easy on the rosewater (which, to my taste, tends to overly complicate the flavor). Cookies are good-not-great. Ask for the lemon-washed pistachio nuts, a must-buy in any Iranian grocery. I bet there’s other great stuff here, too. Disclosure: Rob (the military wine geek) told me there’s an Iranian bakery thereabouts, so I was not entirely flying blind, though I will take credit for uncovering the saffron ice cream, which has now become a holy grail must-eat on all future trips to the area.

Victor’s Grill
436 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

This tiny Bolivian cabin is so intensely insular that you feel like you’ve been transported to La Paz. Things are different in Bolivia, so things can be disorienting here. We walked in at 1:30 p.m., and the waiter approached us gravely. “Lunch is over,” he said (in Spanish), with merciless finality. “Lunch is over?” I repeated, deflated and unbelieving. “Yes. It’s over. No more lunch.” He waited for me to turn and walk out the door, but my panic prompted a creative response. “Then may we have dinner?”

Yes, we may. We were seated and handed menus (the dinner menu, quite inexplicably, is the lunch menu), and we ordered falso conejo (faux rabbit: sauced breaded beef cutlet in a spicy sauce with rice and boiled potatoes) and picante de pollo (spicy chicken: chicken with spicy sauce, boiled potatoes, and rice, served with cut tomatoes and onions). They were out of salteñas (Bolivian baked empanadas) and sopa de maní (spicy peanut soup), but that may be emblematic of the lunch/dinner divide.

To drink, I got a phenomenally unrefreshing glass of refresco de durazno, a tepid, syrupy sweet beverage clobbered with countless tablespoons of cinnamon and containing what appears to be a desiccated llama testicle (actually a dried peach) lying sunken on the bottom.

The food was amazing. I was transported not just to La Paz, but to La Paz 300 years ago. Each plate was an enormous mountain with its own microclimate and gravity (I think I saw the salt and pepper shakers tremblingly pull in as the weighty load was deposited on our table). One could eat and eat and never make a dent. And the cooking is unrepentant. The falso conejo (see photo below), a fiercely oniony delight, uncompromising in every respect, asks, “Can you really handle unstinting authenticity? Can you really face down this blast of spice, this sheer load of unvariegated meat, so primal, so intense? Can you ever hope to so much as run your fork through this quantity of rice?”

The picante de pollo (see photo below) dared me to maintain my notion that I really love chicken. Do I love chicken this much?

I felt like a four-year-old presented with Daddy’s plate (and Daddy lays train tracks in the Bolivian jungle). I ate and ate and ate, made no headway at all, and, with flop sweat on my brow, asked for the rest packed up to go. Defeated, I was expelled from the joint like the clueless pasty gringo I am.

I hadn’t intended this recording for public consumption … it’s just me noting down the items I’d tried for future reference. But the background sounds are transportive, so I’m throwing it in. Don’t listen to me … just catch the vibe: MP3 file.

There were two other great places in the same strip as Victor’s Grill. I regret not sampling the other two, having been knocked nearly unconscious by the experience at Victor’s:

Blanca’s Restaurant
418 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

A walk-through revealed fresh tortillas and everything super homemade and alluring. They are Salvadoran but make mostly Mexican. The owner, asked about their pupusas (Salvadoran fried corn pucks stuffed with meat, cheese, or meat and cheese), gleamed at me and said (in Spanish), “Dude, if you’re into pupusas, you’ve just got to try ours.” Not hype. This place rocks. I don’t need to eat there to be sure.

Super Chicken
422 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

Killer-looking Peruvian chicken, done over live coals. Even the sides look great. See photos.

Pure poultry porn.

Pure plantain porn.

Feel the high-energy bustle!

Cool mural on the side of the building.

The following two reports don’t stem from chowconnaissance, strictly speaking. Pho 75 is a place Dave had shown me once before, years ago, and Elevation Burger was shown me by Robert.

Pho 75
1711 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia<br /

Pho 75, unsurprisingly, makes pho—Vietnamese meaty soup, pronounced like “funk” without the “nk,” and with voice rising as if asking a question. They are expanding wildly (including branches in Philly, which I reported a few installments ago). The big news of this trip is that Vietnamese seems to be springing up everywhere, often beneath the radar. Look for, and get used to, pho, because we’re all going to be eating lots of Vietnamese!

I’d sampled the original location years ago and loved it. This time I tried a more downtown branch, and while the soup’s excellent, it’s a bit less intensely seasoned than I remember. The star anise is particularly reduced—I realized this as I walked in the door (aficionados can distinguish a good pho place with a single sniff). But, hey, I still really liked my soup—soulful broth generously stocked with quality meat. Beware the chili peppers on the condiment platter, which are beyond hot. They produce what feels like a nasty electrical fire on your tongue (pepper heat varies seasonally, though).

Elevation Burger
442 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

Elevation Burger is around the corner from Victor’s Grill (which I actually tried the following day). These guys talk a good game: burgers made from Kobe beef … yadda yadda … fries fried in olive oil … yadda. Prices are high. And, much like the lauded Five Guys in Arlington, Elevation Burger produces merely a pretty good burger and fries. Though, in these days of total chain dominance, an honest, pretty good burger and fries probably truly is a gourmet treat worth a premium price.

What I did not check out was the Vietnamese shopping/eating cluster at Seven Corners. The food’s got to be good in this amazing-looking plaza, because it’s so dense with immigrant-patronized restaurants that slackers would never survive. But it’d take days to thoroughly investigate, and I just didn’t have time. I see that Tyler Cowen is trying to catalog some of these venues on his website.

Alexandria, Virginia

Because I’d managed to have only microbites at the places above, I was able to have an actual (late) dinner. I was very disappointed not to have found any Cambodian or Laotian, which I still suspect exist in northern Virginia, but I consoled myself with a Thai blowout at a newish restaurant that Dave Sit discovered in a remote shopping mall. Dave’s correct—this is a terrific place.

Rice and Spice Thai
6466 Landsdowne Court
Alexandria, Virginia

Just a dumb suburban shopping strip … but such strips can contain hidden treasure!

Dave is baffled by the sheer font size of their table sign.

Chicken larb, full of complexity and rice flour. And yes, that’s a whole lot of chile, son. This stuff was hot ... and as good as any larb I’ve ever had.

Penang curry with chicken (very good, but missing a few elements in the curry sauce).

Basil crispy duck (wonderful, though perhaps—dare I say it?—too spicy).

Siam beef (oh-so-tender and rich).

It takes time to fully decompress from a serious binge of chowconnaissance, so, caught up in the inertia, I felt obliged to sneak in one post-meal bite, a morsel of sashimi from the sushi joint across from Rice and Spice in this unassuming (yet chow-rife) shopping strip. Matsui Sushi, 6408 Landsdowne Centre, Alexandria, Virginia, 703-550-6100, is, as Dave had reported, much better than you’d expect in a suburban shopping strip. I’d never order prepared food there, but the raw fish is quite good.

The Continuing Saga of Chorizo Quest

For those just tuning in, rworange is in the process of checking out the chorizo at all the Mexican markets from Richmond to Pinole. Supermercado La Raza is her new fourth-favorite. They sell a mild, medium-grind dry chorizo, with an intense meat flavor and background hints of chili, cinnamon, and vinegar. It has a nice balance of spice, and also of fat–juicy, but not too oily. A pleasant chorizo.

Carniceria La Raza–not to be confused with the aforementioned Supermercado La Raza–also sells dry chorizo, but it looks like a thick, fresh chorizo that’s been preserved by vinegar, not refrigeration. Before cooking, the meat is the orange-red color of winter squash. It’s medium-grind with a good chewiness to it, and mild tastes of cinnamon, chili, and vinegar. This chorizo releases just enough oil to fry some potatoes. Carne seca is also tasty, with a deep roast beef flavor and the vague lingering joy of its lime marinade past. Try it with a squeeze of fresh lime, as recommended by the butcher.

gordon wing likes the mildly-seasoned chorizo from Rincon Latino. It has an enjoyably rough texture, and it’s richer than the chorizo from Carniceria en Valle (currently the favorite of rworange).

Super Mercado La Raza [East Bay]
705 23rd St., Richmond

Carniceria La Raza [East Bay]
2131 Macdonald Ave., 22nd St., Richmond

Rincon Latino [East Bay]
12851 San Pablo Ave., Richmond

Carneceria en Valle [East Bay]
in Valley Produce Market
1588 San Pablo Ave., Pinole

Board Links
Chorizo Crawl – The other La Raza Market – carne seca (house-made beef jerky)
Chorizo Crawl – Super Mercado La Raza (Richmond)
On the Chorizo Trail …. Carneceria en Valle & Rincon Latino

Go See Al

An excellent option for locally grown produce is Al’s Fruit Stop, says Melanie Wong. “Celebrity” tomatoes, grown organically in a Geyserville garden, are $1.50 a pound. Al also has locally grown lemon cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes. He’s open later than many stands, and the van is there six days a week–on Mondays, he drives to Winters for melons and to Arbuckle for pistachios. He says he buys direct from family farms and doesn’t sell brokered fruit.

Al’s Fruit Stop [Sonoma County]
Van parked off of Hwy. 101 on the south access road to Geyserville
Hwy. 101 and Geyserville Ave., Geyserville 95441

Board Links
Al’s Fruit Stop in Geyserville

Stealth Fries at Cafe Mogador in the East Village

Cafe Mogador makes killer french fries, but you won’t find them on the menu among the tagines, kababs, hummus, and other Moroccan and Mediterranean chow, says Wallace Stevens. These babies are touble fried, pale golden, crisp outside and tender inside. They come with sandwiches (lamb, chicken, merguez, feta, eggplant, etc., in pita), or you can order them as a side.

Cafe Mogador [East Village]
101 St. Marks Pl., between Ave. A and 1st Ave., Manhattan

Board Links
Best French Fries

Patisserie Colson: Belgian-Style Bites in Park Slope

Park Slope’s Patisserie Colson got off to an uneven start this summer, but hounds report more hits than misses–and some of the hits rock. Financiers boast beautifully textured cake and rich, dark, not overly sweet chocolate, says MizEats. They also come in vanilla. Other winners: Swiss brioche (with chocolate or raisins), a well-balanced tomato-basil quiche, sandwiches of high-quality smoked salmon or ham and compote, strawberry sorbet, and tarte tatin ice cream. Croissants, coffee, and pain au chocolat get mixed marks so far.

Colson is the stateside outpost of a Belgian patisserie. They plan to add gaufres, the traditional waffles beloved in Liege, to their menu soon. Decor is simple and comfortable, the mood friendly and relaxed, and the owners eager to please.

Patisserie Colson [Park Slope]
374 9th St., at 6th Ave., Brooklyn

Board Links
Colson’s Patisserie
Bakery on 6th Ave & 9th St?

Korean Ramen’s Deadly Kick

How do Koreans like their ramen? Scorchingly spicy, that’s how. If you’ve only tasted the dried stuff, then you should try the new branch of a Korean ramen chain, Teumsae. How hot is it? According to the web site, “While two people eat it, nobody knows even if the other dies.”

But it’s pretty good stuff, and you can ask them to tone down the heat, says ramaniac, who asked for “medium spicy” and got a pretty fiery bowl described on the bill as “devil’s ramen.” Noodles are the squiggly kind, with nice spring and chew, and you can get them topped with a poached egg and sliced rice cake.

For good ol’ Japanese ramen, Takeshi is reliably tasty: succulent pork, not-too-salty shoyu broth and noodles perfectly balanced between chewy and crunchy, says shabushabuloya. Lunch special is $6.75 and includes a choice of 3 kinds of ramen plus an appetizer: gyoza, chicken wings, sesame chicken, or California rolls (surprisingly good, and fresh).

Teumsae Ramen [Koreatown]
4003 Wilshire Blvd, at Wilton, Los Angeles

Takeshi Ramen [East San Fernando Valley]
126 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, CA

Board Links
Takeshi Ramen in Glendale
New Korean Ramen place

Tasting Morocco at Tagine

Tagine has started offering a tasting menu, with a modern take on traditional Moroccan fare. globalgourmet says that the food is excellent. Perceptor was favorably impressed and took lots of photos. But, while the plates do look lovely, the portions are small.

“The wait staff is probably the best, most knowledgeable and most friendly staff I had ever experienced,” says Perceptor.

The price of the tasting hovers around $35-38.

Tagine [Beverly Hills]
132 N. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills

Board Links
Tagine Moroccan Restaurant–Perceptor’s Report

Why Won’t My Lentils Lighten Up?

If your lentils (or other legumes) never get soft when you cook them, they’re probably just too old. Dried lentils, peas, and beans can get too dry with age. Like other pantry staples, they have a finite shelf life.

Board Links
Solve my lentil problem

Jazzing Up Refrigerated Cinnamon Rolls

When the craving for hot-from-the-oven cinnamon buns is insatiable, some chowhounds turn to refrigerated rolls in a tube for an instant fix. But some hounds have learned to spruce up those instant rolls.

The simplest route is to add something to the top of the buns once you’ve separated them. Sprinkle ground ginger and grated orange zest or a splash of rose water on before baking, or brush scotch on after baking, says HillJ. Or, make butterscotch pecan rolls: bake the rolls in muffin cups and put a dab of butter, a sprinkle of brown sugar, and some pecans pieces on top of each, suggests sweetTooth.

Refrigerated cinnamon rolls are pretty easy to unroll and re-roll, meaning that you can add spices–like more cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, or anything else–or other good stuff to the insides. For simple goodness, try adding chopped nuts or dark chocolate chunks. Nice combinations include chopped dates and walnuts, and sauteed apples and walnuts.

HillJ always gets raves for these cinnamon-almond-chocolate buns: unroll the dough and brush on almond extract; re-roll and bake. When they come out of the oven, top with toasted almonds and chocolate sprinkles. Allow the chocolate to melt a bit, then very lightly drizzle with the icing that comes with the rolls.

Board Links
Jazzing up refrigerated cinnamon buns