Gnocchi-dokey: Nicaro?s Matamoros makes a vegetarian dish even meat-eaters could love. .
Gnocchi-dokey: Nicaro?s Matamoros makes a vegetarian dish even meat-eaters could love. . Credit: Charles Steck

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Mark Bucher, one of the owners of BGR: The Burger Joint in Bethesda, had been waxing philosophical about ground beef when he dropped this meatball on me: If you ask “any chef” in town who serves the best burger, they’ll tell you the Cheesecake Factory. I had to ask Bucher if he was bullshitting; he assured me he wasn’t.

What else could I do? I went to the Cheesecake Factory on Wisconsin Avenue NW to eat a burger. Then I called a couple of chefs to see what they considered the best hamburger around. Neither Jeff Black (of Black’s Bar and Kitchen, BlackSalt, etc.) nor Frank Morales (of Rustico and a restaurant to be named later on 14th Street NW) picked Cheesecake Factory. For the record, Black prefers the ground-beef sammie at Houston’s, while Morales likes the burger at Bob and Edith’s Diner in Arlington. And what about Bucher’s pick (if not his ability to pick chefs’ brains)?

“I disagree with that,” Black says. “I’ve never had anything at the Cheesecake Factory that I’ve liked.” Black’s disagreement is based wholly on principle; the chef has never had the Factory burger.

That left me with the unenviable task of telling Black that he’s wrong on this one. The burger at the Cheesecake Factory is a massive round of ground and loosely formed certified Angus beef, slapped on a griddle, and cooked to temperature. Now, I typically don’t like griddled burgers, because cooks tend to let the patties drown in their own grease until all you have is a gray disc coated with crispy char, but this one’s different. The patty sports char, yes, but it’s so thick that there’s enough pinkness and juice to satisfy even the most persnickety burger snob.

But here’s the kicker: The Cheesecake burger comes topped with this giant slice of red onion that’s been thrown on the griddle to mute its pungent flavor. The onion’s caramelization adds a touch of sweetness to the patty, whose extreme beefiness I’ve further enhanced with a slice of sharp cheddar since I can’t stand to see a grown burger naked.

The sandwich’s only drawback is its size; it’s roughly the girth of John Goodman. I ask the barkeep exactly how large the Factory burger is. “I don’t know,” he says, “and you probably don’t want to know either.”

The whole Cheesecake Factory episode got me thinking about other hidden gems I’ve enjoyed—the dishes I’ve found almost by accident and bargains I couldn’t begin to fathom. Some of them I’ve already told you about: the secret ma-la menu at Great Wall-Szechuan House (Young & Hungry, “Oo, Ma-La!,” 6/9/06), which isn’t so secret anymore; the tere sega at Abay Market (Young & Hungry, “Pleasures of the Flesh,” 3/1/07); and the floating market noodle soup at Nava Thai (Young & Hungry, “Khlong Time Coming,” 8/22/07), among others. But there are two more to add to the list.

The first is the vegetarian entree at Nicaro in Silver Spring. I know, I know, you’d rather watch a Rachael Ray marathon than talk about vegetarian dishes (or is it just me?). But believe me, the stuff that chef Pedro Matamoros is producing shows far

more imagination than your average fine-dining vegetarian dish such as those lackluster bowls of pasta primavera, which are basically kitchens giving non-meat-eaters the finger.

Take a recent veggie dish at Nicaro. It’s housemade potato gnocchi, which sort of sounds like a cop-out, right? Well, this dish is fully composed, not some dumping ground for dumplings and whatever’s left in the walk-in. The gnocchi is made fresh daily with potato, parmesan, eggs, nutmeg and seasonings; they’re then blanched and pan-fried to give them color and texture. The dumplings are served with what Matamoros calls an “asparagus and mushroom ragu,” this crisp-and-nutty mixture of the stalk vegetable (sliced at an angle into small pieces) and honshimeji ’shrooms. For the final touch, Matamoros throws a small salad of bull’s blood and other micro greens on top and surrounds the dish with a creamy parmesan sauce. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, you’re either dead or a die-hard meat-eater.

“That’s one of the dishes we can’t take off the menu,” Matamoros says. That may be true, but here’s the thing: Since opening last year, Nicaro has offered a number of stellar vegetarian entrées, which, you could argue, is merely a requirement for any good restaurant so close to Soybeaners Central, otherwise known as Takoma Park. In the past, Matamoros has created a savory squash pudding and a roasted Portobello with glazed chestnut sauce and a side order of yellow-corn flan. These are dishes designed to actually please vegetarians, not just shut them up for an hour.

Matamoros, the former chef at Tabard Inn, likes to tell his cooks that “you have to take pride in everything you do,” including those thankless, creatively brain-dead tasks like lunches, brunches, and, yes, veggie dishes. Many chefs would “rather do like squab and other fancy stuff,” Matamoros says, “I don’t think they see the value of vegetarians and vegetables…I don’t want to say it’s laziness.” He pauses for a second. “Maybe selfishness.”

There’s nothing selfish about lunch at Hinode in Bethesda. A friend recently told me how much he enjoys the $10 sushi buffet here—a bargain that, I have to admit, simultaneously fascinated and horrified me. I mean, with the price of fish these days, you’re lucky to get two pieces of good nigiri for $10 anymore. Well, it turns out the buffet actually costs $11.95, which still ain’t bad.

All the usual caveats apply when grazing the buffet at Hinode: Avoid the sushi pieces and roll slices that have been sitting out too long. Avoid the stuff that smells like commercial tuna fish. And really avoid the deep-fried protein matter on the steam table—provenance unknown—that’s coated in sweet-and-sour sauce. But even with those limitations, you can eat well here. The “crab stick” nigiri (this composite fish matter fried in tempura and draped with hot sauce) is a sweet, spicy bite; the eel is appropriately smoky and sweet; and the yellowfin sushi proves to be as fatty and flavorful as fish three times the price. I even found delights on the steam table, where the tempura-fried vegetables are uniformly light and crunchy and the cool, thick tofu blocks are drizzled with a colorful, piquant sauce.

As I was waiting for the chef to place fresh nigiri on the geta board, I asked him how he manages to make money with his buffet. He smiled and pointed out the sign to my left. It says that Hinode charges $1 for each rice ball left on your plate. I said I didn’t understand, which is when he confided that some diners just eat the fish and leave the sushi rice behind. Some diners, in other words, want to screw over a joint that’s already giving them an unbelievable bargain. Classy that.

The Cheesecake Factory, 5345 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 364-0500; Nicaro, 8220 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, (301) 588-2867; Hinode, 4914 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, (301) 654-0908

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