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Full disclosure: I love Pringlesnot to mention Cool Ranch Doritosand I’ve also been known to nibble on Slim Jims in those bleary carbound moments when all that sits between me and my next proper meal are gas stations, fast-food joints, and a whole lotta road. Let’s see, what else? Tater Tots. Campbell’s tomato soup (with grilled cheesealways with grilled cheese). Egg McMuffins. Buffalo wings. Pizza burgers. Oreos. Budweiser. Froot Loops. The New York Times Magazine’s Jonathan Reynolds has labeled such supposedly unsavory victuals “junque food,” his implicit point being that an edible thing needn’t have a highfalutin pedigree to be worthy of celebration. I tend to agree. Pass the onion rings.
Although it’s been slapped on me many times, I reject the “human garbage disposal” moniker; I’m not a binge or unthinking eaterjust a ravenous one. I prefer “connoisseur of consumption.” I basically grew up on hamburgers and hot dishes (hamburger-rice hot dish, a crafty fusion of the two, remains a personal favorite), and in my book, rejecting your roots in pursuit of culinary enlightenment is a snob’s game. Let’s just say that I’ve tried never to let my appreciation for snack chips keep me from acquiring at least a shaky understanding of edible artistry.
The reason that you’ve got me here on the couch spilling my guts is that this is my last Young & Hungry column. I’ve been doing the job for a total of four-and-a-half years, with an eight-month break separating two tenures.
So how’d I get this gig? Duh. This is Washington: Dumb luck and connections can put you in the White House. The story is pretty boring. Five-and-a-half years ago, the Washington City Paper’s former editorial pooh-bah sent me an e-mail. By way of trying to convince me (and himself) that I might be able to handle the paper’s newly created food-critic position, he wrote, “God knows you’ve got the appetite for it.”
Indeed. I’ve eatenand eaten welland never once have I been left gasping for air. But as long as we’re laying it all on the line, I might as well confess that the experience hasn’t been one big clean bowl of sorbet. Learning to write about food is fun but not easy, and I’m certainly not a natural. Those first 60 or so columns were pretty brutaljust ask the guy who edited them. And I’ll admit to being one of those grumps who’s been reluctant to let the city become his home, taken to answering the question about whether I like living here with the lame gibe “‘Like’ is a strong word.” My beefs are achingly familiar, and they all basically boil down to this: too few dive bars and way too many self-important 22-year-olds who care more about arcane acronyms than they do about rock ‘n’ roll.
So why do I give a damn about abandoning my own little corner of the world? Hell, the column’s title has been a mild embarrassment since at least June, when I turned 30 and officially quit being able to pass as young, if not hungry. But nostalgia’s a powerful thing, especially when it comes in an unexpected wave. The fact is that my Washington hasn’t been one of self-important 22-year-olds, or even self-important 50-year-olds who act 22. They’re just the people at the other table.
My Washington has been a blessed buffet. I’ve been eating for rent ever since I blew in with the snow in 1996, so I’ve learned the city (and its surroundings) by gnawing right down to the crust. There have been some truly dreadful meals, several of which have left me, as they say, praying to the porcelain idol. But those meals have been easily forgotten, interspersed as they were with so many others that I’ll file away in my memory for good: The chili-smothered half-smokes at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Enriqueta’s mole. Pho 75’s pho. Yanÿu’s Peking duck. The Parkway Deli’s potato pancakes. Just about anything on the menus at Johnny’s Half Shell, Obelisk, Rupperts, Citronelle, Taqueria Poblano, A&J, Cashion’s Eat Place, C.F. Folks, Kinkead’s, Sushi-Ko, and the Inn at Little Washington.
I could go on, and if I did, I’d certainly add Palena to the list. It’s the site of my last meal as your humble dining consultant, and it helps to reaffirm my position that although restaurant critiquing requires a healthy amount of skepticism, cynics need not apply. You can’t really hate a restaurant credibly if you don’t love a bunch of other ones, which is why all great meals have to have some romance in themeven the ones that don’t lead directly to sex. The trick is for the restaurant to allow its customers to feel giddy, warm, nostalgic, or whatever about the moments that unfold in it.
I should rhapsodize about Palena’s soft red-leather booths and shapely beaded sconces, about chef Frank Ruta’s air- and salt-cod-puffed ravioli and shimmery boudin blanc, about pastry maestro Ann Amernick’s luscious caramels and wintry bread pudding. But this isn’t a review. It’s a farewell. When we’re done with our meal, my girlfriend looks weary. Our first date was my first review (or was it the second?), and, well, here we are, turning down coffee once again. “It’s been a long five years,” she says. “A really good five years.”
Palena, 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 537-9250. Brett Anderson
Brett Anderson will be middle-aged and hungry as the food critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune beginning Dec. 11.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 x322.