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Along the hilly, heavily wooded roads that lead to Takoma Park, lawn signs reading “Development Yes, Megamall No” appear more often than stoplights. On the town’s main drag, where Mark’s Kitchen is a busy focal point, other cultural signifiers establish the town’s progressive sensibility. The floor above Mark’s houses an herb shop and a bookstore that sells only works penned by authors of African descent; across the street from the restaurant is a women’s health center; next door is a Middle Eastern market. On a Sunday when rain has driven customers shopping for crafts and organic foods at an outdoor market inside, I have to wait to get a table at Mark’s. Leafing through some of the literature that sits by the restaurant’s front window—an advertisement for a 10-week seminar on “integrated healing,” a leaflet for an upcoming concert by Tracy McDonnell & the Estrogenics—I notice how well my Volvo, parked on the street in front, blends in.
Whatever the rest of Takoma Park lacks in post-hippie dining, Mark’s Kitchen makes up for. Mark’s is not a vegetarian restaurant, a clean-living greasy spoon, a juice bar, a Korean joint, or a vendor of health-food snacks and fresh baked goods. It’s a little of each—and then some.
The menu can provide for combinations that, depending on your constitution, are either interesting or vile. As someone who at one time subsisted on fried rice, frozen pizza, and baked potatoes, I take to mingling Mark’s disparate dishes with little fear. So when I say that the only part of a chicken noodle soup, egg roll, and spaghetti meal that I’d recommend is the fresh squeezed apple juice I wash it down with, it isn’t because I’m mixing and matching carelessly. It’s because both the egg roll and the soup taste suspiciously store-bought, and the spaghetti comes lukewarm.
Considering Takoma Park’s rep as a magnet for evolved yuppies and die-hard granola types, I suspect it’s with a “when in Rome” crack in mind that my friend orders a veggie burger. The croissant sandwich comes with a baby lettuce salad and a vinaigrette that we pour over the patty itself, which begs for any kind of condiment to jazz it up. Mark’s club and BLT fare better, thanks mostly to some mayonnaise and a side of crisp, diner-style french fries. The hamburgers (served plain, with cheese, bacon, or both) are heartier than expected from a restaurant that specializes mostly in healthy cuisine. In the $4.75 to $5.55 price range (the ballpark for all of Mark’s entrees) the thick and juicy burgers, served with fries and cole slaw, are also a bargain.
As a rule, Mark’s does well if you find yourself asking for chopsticks. Granted, trying to handle the Korean short ribs with two thin pieces of wood can get weird, and my friend nearly coughs sparkling apple cider through her nose watching me try to manage. But the ribs are so tender and lean I wonder openly if Mark’s has found some mad-scientist farmer who raises fat-free beef. The broccoli and bean sprouts that come on the side are served raw but are softened for long enough in a sesame marinade that they taste steamed. The veggies in the fried rice (at $3.25, Mark’s best deal) are graced with a similar flavor and give fresh life to the dish. The same can’t be said for the vegetables and noodles, tossed in the omnipresent sesame sauce and served as a “special” on three different occasions. If I were ever to return to Mark’s, I’d order a feast of appetizers: the mung bean pancake doused with soy sauce; the light and gloriously slimy seaweed soup; the vegetable dumplings called mandoo that are presented on a funky ceramic platter that’s hard to resist stealing for an ashtray; and kimchi that’s spiced so hot I have to scramble for another bottle of passion-fruit juice to soothe my burning mouth.
With a wait staff that guides you to a table with warm-fuzzy cheer and then generally forgets you exist, whether you stick around for Mark’s dessert will depend on how much time you’ve got to burn. When we give up dropping hints (“Don’t you wish she’d just check on us?” I half-whisper to my friend) and my companion goes to tug on our waitress’ skirt to ask if she’d bring us the custard topped with fresh fruit (which, incidentally, is luscious), the woman does so with the recommendation to eat slowly—the coffee we ordered 10 minutes ago still isn’t ready. If you go to retrieve a beverage from the juice fridge, beware: On some trips I’m told it’s customary to help yourself; when I do just that on another visit, a waitress takes the bottle from my hand, sets it on my table, and scolds me: “You should ask.”
Not wishing to stick around and risk getting spanked by my waitress, I order some ice cream to go (it probably goes without saying that Mark’s serves Ben & Jerry’s) and head across the street to get a beer. After listening to a guy at the bar give me some shit about my ice cream and unable to avoid a group from what I guess is a charity organization continuously applauding its own efforts, I split before my Sam Adams is even done. As my friend said as we drove out of town another time: “I’ve had just about enough of this new-agey shit.”
Mark’s Kitchen, 7006 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park, Md. (301) 270-1884.
There’s a range of “Things” peddled in the purple and black corner shop called Wings ‘N Things: ribs ($12.50 a slab), doughnuts (3 for a buck), roses ($12 a dozen), cheap sunglasses ($6-$8 a pair). But contrary to what I expected, the star attraction isn’t the wings, which are heavily battered, a state more suited to fish. Wings ‘N Things’ fish sandwich is only a sandwich in name; it would take four times the amount of bread given to fit around the two pieces of fried whiting—each of them as long as my forearm—that, for $3.50, are accompanied by coleslaw and fries.
Wings ‘N Things, 5501 Georgia Ave. NW. (202) 882-0177.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.—Brett Anderson