It’s been nearly two years since the introduction of the Washington City Paper’s online Restaurant Finder; in that short time, close to 1,500 raters have submitted nearly 6,000 surveys of D.C.-area restaurants. In addition to supplying all the usual facts about and ratings of more than 2,000 local eating establishments, Restaurant Finder is a source of a different kind of restaurant information: reviews written by like-minded restaurantgoers. It’s a forum where a foodie’s voice can be heard, where restaurant discoveries are made and trumpeted (“Most people choose a restaurant visible from the parking lot of the Eden Center, but if you want a better Vietnamese experience, venture through the inside hallways”), where witty observations are passed along (“Prog German industrial dinner music? No, just a 120db HVAC drowning out all music and conversation”).
The Feed—a weekly list of capsule reviews featuring contributions by raters, food writer Todd Kliman, and City Paper staffers—made its first appearance in the paper in August 2004. In the months since, a core group of frequent rater-writers—those who enjoy relating the finer points of the fine-dining experience, the grease quotients of the greasy spoons—has emerged to offer their insights into the D.C. dining scene, providing an invaluable service to fellow readers. In just over a year of rating restaurants, Warren Rojas has amassed nearly 60 reviews, many of which have appeared in the Feed. —Chad Molter
Journalist Warren Rojas covers Congress and the White House for a nonprofit organization. “But secretly,” he says, “I’ve always wanted to be either a food critic or a film critic. Unfortunately, you have to kill the people in those jobs before you can get those jobs.”
Fortunately, Rojas has found a more suitable means of expression: Under his screen name, elcuerpo, he’s one of the most prolific contributors to the Washington City Paper’s Restaurant Finder site.
Rojas tries to eat out two to three times a week, mostly covering the Northern Virginia beat. “It’s not that I plan out when I’m going to do a review, but sometimes I do say, ‘Oh, there’s a new restaurant. Maybe I should swing by and check it out for my personal knowledge,’” he says. “But usually it’s just, ‘Oh, I’d like to stop somewhere to eat with co-workers, or wife, friends, whoever.’ Something catches my fancy, I try to make a note of it. Put that establishment on my to-do list. That way, I can keep track of where I am and what tickled my fancy.”
Rojas’ fancy is tickled by a wide variety of foods. “Some of my favorite dishes include seafood paella, jambalaya, calzones (stuffed with just about anything), and vegetable lo mein (hot and spicy, of course).” Established restaurants are fine, but, says Rojas, “how many times can you go to Ruth’s Chris [Steak House] and say, ‘That’s a great steak’? It’s not as exciting as finding a hole in the wall that makes a great California burger with fresh avocado for three bucks. I’m always on the lookout for something fun, someplace exciting that I enjoy going to and that I can either introduce my immediate friends and family to or share with Washington City Paper readers.”
“I love to try all kinds of different kinds of foods,” he says. “I learned to cook at a young age, so I appreciate the time, effort, and a lot of the creativity that go into making a broad range of dishes. I have a particular problem with hot food—I can’t stop eating it. I collect hot sauces; I make my own hot sauce. So when I find a restaurant with a particularly hot dish or a really exciting salsa, that definitely piques my interest. Other than that, my parents are South American, so I’ve had lot of exposure to South American food.” (Even so, the first dish he mastered was lasagna, he says.) Rojas-prepared specialties include Cajun dirty rice, arroz con pollo, grilled chipotle short ribs, and boursin-and-bacon mashed potatoes. “I wish I’d learned a little bit more of the Venezuelan cooking from my father.”
Though his dozens of reviews have yet to exhaust D.C.’s many dining options, Rojas thinks there are types of eateries that the town could use more of. “We’re not that far inland that we couldn’t have some more really decent crab houses,” he says. “They’re few and far between. You still have to head up to the Eastern Shore to get some fresh blue crabs or even the soft-shells. But primarily I’d like to see a lot more and lot different seafood options. Not everyone needs tilapia; not everyone needs salmon. There’s plenty of other seafood items that could be brought out.
“There’s plenty of chicken and beef places around,” he continues. “Certainly there is a growing concentration of vegetarian restaurants. There’s no reason that there couldn’t be more, especially like fast-food vegetarian, the empanada places. Or more soy burgers, turkey burgers, something like that. To break up the monotony.”
Menu monotony isn’t a deterrent when he decides a restaurant is review-worthy. Rojas says he makes an effort to visit a place at least two or three times before posting his review. “That way, you don’t get stuck with ‘Well, it was an off night’ or ‘They just opened.’ I give everyone a fighting chance.” Though “a big poultry fan,” he likes to try other menus items first. But the restaurant “better make a good chicken dish, or they’re not going to see me again.”
“I definitely don’t consider myself an authority, per se,” says Rojas. “I’m just trying to give people a bird’s-eye view of ‘I’m a guy, I like eating in this town, [and] here’s a couple spots I thought you might like to check out.’ And whether they agree or disagree, they have the same opportunity to hoist me on my petard and combat my review. I do find that there are plenty of solid reviews and interesting opinions out there. I’m just glad people are sharing their experiences.”—Dave Nuttycombe
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.