Welcome to Spice Route, in which food writer Warren Rojas connects diners to the most fiery and flavorful dishes in area restaurants.
Location: RT’s, 3804 Mt Vernon Ave., Alexandria.; (703) 684-6010; rtsrestaurant.net
Vision: It’s always Mardi Gras inside RT’s, Del Ray’s resident New Orleans kitchen. But that’s not what founder Ralph T. Davis set out to accomplish when he first opened the doors in 1985. “Our original menu was more Mid-Atlantic,” he says, crediting regulars with inspiring the neighborhood eatery “to become more Creole and Cajun.” Although Davis just retired the Acadian peppered shrimp, devotees keep pouring in to feast on time-honored favorites like crawfish etouffee and red beans and rice—a dish benefitting from the addition of ground Andouille sausage and a dab of butter for added richness. There are also modern twists on classics including beef short ribs braised in Abita Turbodog beer, and broiled mahi mahi zapped with lemon-spiked meuniere sauce that Davis’ team learned to make when celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse stopped in. Yet seafood gumbo is the reigning crowd-pleaser for good reason.
Execution: “Death” By Gumbo is definitely the way to go. At its heart is a chocolate-colored roux. Cooks patiently stir the flour mixture until it attains a velvety texture, then add seasonings including ground cayenne pepper, dried guajillo peppers, diced bell pepper, onion, and celery. The kitchen crew finishes things off by stuffing each bowl with head-on shrimp, oysters, Andouille sausage, crawfish tail-meat, and crab. Instead of an immediate heat wave, a steady warmth spreads throughout the belly as you sop up every last drop with the crusty French bread that comes with your order. “I describe our food as pleasantly spicy,” Davis says of the default heat level. Craving more of a rush? A few squirts of “Green” Cajun Chef hot sauce add a vinegary pop. Or, go with the tingling heat imparted by dueling regional giants Tabasco and Crystal.
Intensity (out of five): Three sirens