It’s almost 10 at night and my eyes feel like slippery cue balls, heavy and wet from the 11 hours of driving it took them to get here. Looking out the window of my running-but-parked car doesn’t give any good indication of my location. Skipping through the snow and dark toward me is my father, who doesn’t seem to care where we arenow that he’s heard the news from the kitchen. “They don’t close till 10,” he chirps through the window. “Hurry up and park, then meet me inside.”
After such a long haul, warm beer and cold pizza would have been welcoming. Instead, I’m greeted by a smiling hostess, inquiring with an elegant, implacable accent if I am with the gentleman who’d just arrived. On the way to my table, I temper my speed-walk to give the salad bar the once-over, grab a fistful of cocktail olives, and decide that it’s probably rare to find a dashing European immigrant working in a restaurant right off the highway in suburban Cleveland.
Soon after I grab my seat, drinking my beer while Dad sips his scotch, it occurs to me that I won’t soon again eat as I am about tohungry and dumb, eager just to fill the hollow space below. The feeling isn’t necessarily bad, just awkwardly sudden, like the first day at a new job. I had expected to be inaugurated by someone else, like Dad for instance, who is pouring Heinz 57 sauce in a mound next to his filet mignon. Instead, I do the deed myself, popping the question I can’t keep out of my head: “So how do you rate this place?” “Shit,” I think, wishing I’d been able to put off the inevitable at least until I’d finished my journey east to Washington, where I was starting a new job. But it was too late. I was suddenly able to select adjectives and chew at the same timeI was a restaurant critic.
Given the severity of my hunger, any objective analysis during my first professional meal was surrendered around the time of the olive heist. For his part, Dad was getting overwrought, gloating over his filet (cooked “perfectly”) and announcing that there were “few places in the world” where one could be treated with such wanton courtesy. Between mouthfuls of scampi (more garlic than you’d think a place like this would have in stock), I openly wonder if this roadside Holiday Inn deserves life-affirming praise. Dad shrugs off his urge to dismiss me as naive and explains that to be able to exit randomly off a snowy freeway and expect to indulge in meat, fish, and drink is a privilege that comes with citizenship in a civilized country (he used to be in politics).
Followers of the area’s civic news may beg to differ, but D.C. is, at least on a culinary level, a highly civilized city. As an acquaintance advised me soon after I beached my car on a snow bank and moved into my new digs, the area’s commerce is pretty limited: politics, ideas, and restaurants.
Although I might add parking tickets and crime to that list, my friend’s assertion, at least concerning restaurants, seems to be on the mark. You can hardly huck a rock in the District without busting the window of a quaint bistro, scruffy eat-and-run, or expense-account beneficiary. In “Young and Hungry” my mission will be to acquaint myself with the area meal by meal, reporting back on a weekly basis which places you’ll want to add to your list of worthwhile haunts and which you’ll want to cross out.
I can’t claim to have really gotten a flavor for local cuisine since my pilgrimage from the Midwest. So far, I’ve subsisted mostly on funds derived from selling off a chunk of my music collection, which is evident in the list of meals I’ve eaten out: Burger King at Potomac Mills (I found something hard in my chicken sandwich, but it was the only place with a plowed parking lot), Julia’s Empanadas (one time I just had juice, the other time cook-at-home takeoutboth were excellent), the Burro above Dupont Circle (I went on a date with one person I met while eating and got invited to a dinner party by anotherhighly recommended), and Red, Hot, and Blue (I cheated by sharing the all-you-can-eat plate, which was as banal as the chain decor).
Since the locals are more than forthcoming with their opinions, I don’t see any problem finding enticing restaurants to fill this space, despite being new to the area. To keep tabs on this spirit of candor, the end of every column will be reserved for “Hot Plate,” where I’ll select a reader’s recommendation and judge whether the tip is bogus or not. You are encouraged to give anecdotal reasons for your picks and can send them to the paper via snail- or e-mail (see masthead for addresses).
The body of this column will be occupied with experiences had at restaurants of less renown than might commonly appear in the cross hairs of a critic. The business of Y&H is to suss out character and taste and to value the blocks of time spent eating. No one will go into debt after taking my advice, which will be given under the guidance of a common palate: sensuous, curious, and slave to a stomach that is always hungry.
“We don’t have a name,” explains Maria Vallares, screaming over a mistrallike wind and the merengue blaring from the mobile kitchen she parks at Hobart and Mount Pleasant. Vallares serves an array of piping-hot Salvadoran dishes. Although the renowned pupusassteamy pieces of pitalike bread with beef and cheese baked insideare worth a visit, the enchiladas are the star attraction. Not to be confused with the familiar Mexican concoction, one of these handheld feasts consists of a crunchy, fried cornmeal crust carrying a bed of tangy slaw, spicy shredded beef, and is garnished with hunks of avocado and hard-boiled egg.CP