Monday, August 27, 2012

Taco Bar (Gaithersburg, MD)

I'm a sucker for good, authentic Mexican food--the more hole-in-the-wall the location, the better. The only exception is for someplace like Papa Joe's, which I wrote about in a previous post (though it's still acceptably out-of-the-way, hidden facing the back parking lot). So when I got a Mexican food craving while visiting my family in Gaithersburg, I figured I'd give a new place a try.

Taco Bar definitely has the atmosphere down, which I could tell before even going there because of its appropriately no-frills name. But when I got there, I realized it was an authentic Mexican taco bar, inside a liquor store. Which was attached to a gas station. Facing out onto the highway. If that's not hole-in-the-wall atmosphere, I don't know what is.

I ordered 3 tacos: 1 pastor, 1 suadero, and 1 lengua. I honestly couldn't tell which is which in the picture, since they all looked uniformly like meat on top of more meat. The tacos came out with just the meat in the tortillas, and there was a toppings bar inside where you could dress your taco up with 4 different sauces (2 mild and 2 hot, a red and green version of each), tomatoes, onions, and a mixture of the two. There may have been other toppings there as well, but those were the ones I used. These tacos were very good, but quite greasy and very filling. I still prefer Papa Joe's for overall quality, though I'd visit it again in a heartbeat when I'm in Gaithersburg.

My sister got a veggie burrito, which I think was a more American-style preparation. I only had one bite of it, but it was very good. She definitely enjoyed it a lot and is eager to go back here and eat more burritos.

Tacos here are $2.69 each, which is a pretty good price for Montgomery County. Of course, I'm used to $1 taco Tuesdays when Noah and I lived in Kansas City, but I recognize that's hard to find most places. They also have a selection of tortas I'm eager to try, as well as sopes, pozole, and empanadas. For such a small, slightly unsavory location, it's usually doing great business. I'll have to go back again and try more things!

Taco Bar Washingtonian
10003 Fields Road
Gaithersburg, MD 20878

Mon.-Thurs. 9-9
Friday 9-10
Saturday-Sunday 10-9

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Birdie's Cafe (Westminster, MD)

I don't drink coffee. I have an immunity to caffeine, and the taste of coffee is not enough for me to justify drinking it on a regular basis. But no matter where I live, I have to find the perfect coffee house, one of those places where I can feel right at home even when I'm not at home. My ideal coffee house has the following qualities:

-excellent food
-great hot chocolate (gotta drink something instead of coffee!)
-quirky atmosphere (I like coffee houses with lots of art on the walls, or books lying around, or even just a slightly eccentric clientele)
-friendly staff

When Noah and I lived in Kansas City, my coffee house was called Broadway Cafe, and I spent many lunch hours drinking hot chocolate and reading there. The baristas knew my name, and it was a great place to sit and watch the world go by. Of course, when I moved to Westminster, I had to find a new coffee house. I tried a couple, but they didn't really wow me. I eventually found my way to Heinz Bakery, which was great on the "excellent food" and "friendly staff" front but not the exact place I was looking for. And then I found Birdie's.

When I ran into Birdie's, it hadn't even had its grand opening yet (and yes, it was open before its grand opening. I don't even know). I was walking back from the farmer's market with a friend and I saw it from across the street. The logo, with its name inside a stylized drawing of a bird's nest, and its friendly-looking, colorfully-painted building caught my eye and I insisted that we go in. Walking in showed me a narrow hallway that led onto chalkboards with a variety of delicious-looking food specials, and the walls were covered with art. (Birdie's now posts a flag outside their door alerting people to the fact that they are officially an art-friendly business.) There were flowers and decorative birds on the tables, colorful couches to sit on, vibrant painted walls, a small magazine rack, and the tables had a checkerboard pattern so you could play checkers or chess with a friend while eating your salads and sandwiches. It immediately became my go-to coffee house.

My favorite things to have at Birdie's:

1. Avocado salad. Avocados are one of my favorite foods, and this salad features a mound of salad greens topped with avocado slices, peppers, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and a variety of other things you can ask to have included. Their homemade vinaigrette is my favorite dressing for this salad.

2. Veggie sandwich. Much like the avocado salad but on a sandwich, this includes avocados and hummus (!), plus all the above vegetables. I like to have it on their sourdough, but it's probably excellent with any bread.

3. Lox sandwich. I have them go light on the cream cheese, because I don't like a lot of cream cheese on a sandwich. Go for onions, capers, or both on this sandwich--you won't regret it.

4. BLT. Need I explain! I like them to put pesto on the BLT (along with the mayo they include--you would think this would taste bad, but the flavors actually meld together rather well), though sometimes I have them put avocados on instead. They have no problem customizing sandwiches.

To drink I love their hot chocolate, which is nice and rich with a strong dash of vanilla, or their raspberry ice tea, which is unsweetened and delicious. Over 4th of July weekend they had blueberry lemonade, but regrettably I didn't have an opportunity to go over there and try it. :-(

Well, I'm off to the library. And Birdie's is just a 5-minute walk from my house...maybe I'll stop by for an avocado salad on my way home? ;-)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer is coming!

(Asparagus and scallions ready to be roasted)

...And I'm making use of the (finally back!) farmer's market produce. Happy summer, everyone!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Athens Grill (Gaithersburg, MD)

Well, everyone, the time has finally come. It is time for me to tell you about my favorite restaurant in the entire world.

When I was growing up, it was always a special treat when we could go out and bring home food from Athens Grill for dinner. This tiny little Greek restaurant in the middle of a shopping center in Gaithersburg turns out generous portions of delicious food, and the owner is a gregarious man who always recognizes us when we come in. There are only about ten tables in the entire place, and while it's not usually packed, it's pretty much never empty--the stream of people coming in and out is almost constant. It's simple in decor, and there's no waitstaff, so you order at the counter and pick it up when you're called. It is definitely one of those hole-in-the-wall places where you come for the food.

And oh, the food. I usually get one of the souvlaki platters, which has a gigantic amount of food and is one of the best things you can get. It includes kebab-type skewers with shrimp, chicken, or lamb, and a large amount of Greek salad on the side, plus pita and your choice of fries or rice. I thought I had a picture of it on my computer, but apparently I don't (either that, or I missed it looking through the zillions of unorganized photos on my laptop). I've tried every one of their souvlaki platters, and they're all so amazing that I actually haven't gotten around to ordering anything else. However, I do have some experience with other things on their menu, since my family depends on Athens Grill for my mom's side of the family's holiday party every year. We order a whole rotisserie chicken from them, along with sides of things like rice and salad. It's always a hit at my house once the holiday season kicks in.

 To sum up:

Amazing food? Check.
Hole-in-the-wall ambiance? Check.
Friendly staff? Check.
Even more amazing food? Check.

Looks like it has all the makings of a restaurant I love.

Athens Grill
9124 Rothbury Drive
Gaithersburg, MD 20879


Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Master Grocery List

To tide you over while I prepare some restaurant reviews and a few new recipes, I thought we'd take a peek at the master grocery list I created a while back. I was at that dubious point of no return where I had pretty much no food left to cook with, and it occurred to me that it would be great if I went through my recipes and made a list of the ingredients I would need to cook most of them. So, what ingredients do I use most in my cooking (besides spices and baking ingredients)?

Onions and scallions
Lemon juice
Beans (chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans especially)
Cilantro or parsley
Coconut milk
Chiles and/or hot sauce
Asian seasonings (soy sauce, fish sauce, etc.)
Plain yogurt
Green veggies (especially cabbage, kale, and spinach)
Cauliflower or broccoli

So what have I been eating lately? Have a link to a recipe before I go:
Maple Sticky Biscuits from Dinner with Julie


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Taco Truck Thursday: Better Start with the Best

Of course, the "Thursday" up there is misleading; just about any day could be a taco truck day around here. The stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens between 75th and 83rd Streets houses at least seven taco carts trucks, along with several other carts purveying various other (mostly) Mexican delicacies. They're all worth at least one try, but the best of the taco vendors is Tacos Mi Mexico Lindo, located at the SE corner of Roosevelt and Baxter in front of a bank. There's usually a crowd, although if you go on a cool night (or in the winter, but eating at a cart is really not fun in the winter) it is generally quieter. This is not fast food, but it is very, very good food.

What's to like? Start with the vendors themselves: three Mexican ladies, possibly sisters or possibly not, who will assume that you speak Spanish until proven otherwise. They do speak a bit of English, but make the effort - it's fun ordering in the appropriate language, and your vocabulary really won't be tested much. As a crash course, "para llavar" means "to go", "para ca" means "to stay", and "con todo" means "with everything" (usually referring to cilantro, onions, and guacamole on your taco). Tacos can be had with several meats: steak, chicken, chorizo, carnitas, and al pastor are all options, as well as a few more interesting and better ones I'll get to shortly. The tortillas are briefly heated on the griddle, which really brings out their flavor, and they meld with the tacos much better than a regular corn tortilla right out of the bag. They're also double-wrapped, which I've always been a fan of - especially when you're dealing with the kind of somewhat-overstuffed tacos to be found here.

Back to the meat: we'll start with the losers. The pollo, bistec, and cecina are probably not worth your time, unless you like your meat dry and chewy. I know cecina is supposed to be dry and chewy, so maybe it's just not for me. The other two? Just skip them. The carnitas was not crispy enough the first time I had it, but I had another one a few days ago and it was absolutely perfect: crisp on the outside, the larger pieces softer on the inside, and smoky from the initial frying and the reheating on the griddle. For me, the top choices are the chorizo, lengua (beef tongue), and oreja (pig ear) - all are superlative, really the best I've ever had anywhere. The chorizo is rich but not too rich, generally crispy from the griddle, not too salty, and has great pork and chili flavor. The lengua is very fatty but incredibly flavorful - like the carnitas, it's crispy outside and softer inside, but the pieces are bigger to give you a better contrast. The oreja is somehow the richest of the bunch, although I suspect it's rich in the way that tendon is, since I didn't think there was a whole lot of fat in a pig's ear. They cook it so long that the cartilage almost melts away - if you've had pig ear as an appetizer in a Chinese restaurant, this is nothing like that. It's not crunchy at all, more silky like tendon is when it's cooked well. The standard toppings are cilantro, onion, and very good guacamole - on the bar, there are also two chili sauces (the red is garlicky and particularly good), lime wedges, onion and jalapeƱo relishes, dried red chilies (sensing a theme here?), and radish slices - these seem to be typical accompaniments at all the carts and trucks in this neighborhood.

If you don't want tacos for some reason, the quesadillas are equally good - this is a Mexican-style quesadilla rather than an American or Tex-Mex one, so it is one larger tortilla crisped up on the griddle and folded in half over a filling of meat, cheese (I think it's Oaxaca cheese), and crema (basically Mexican creme fraiche, as far as I can tell). Other toppings are up to you from the same list as the tacos'.

If you're feeling vegetarian, the sopes are great as well. They used to use regular corn tortillas, but they switched a few months ago to thicker masa "cakes" that are ridged at the edges to avoid the filling falling out. The price went up too, but it's worth it. You can get these with meat, but I like them "regular" - with beans, creme, and a grated hard cheese of some sort.

As I noted earlier, this food is not fast even though it's from a cart - 15 minutes was a routine wait when it was warm last fall, and for all I know it could be even longer in the summer. You can get your food in 5 minutes in the winter, but it's best to eat at the cart, and food gets cold really fast in the winter. It's more than worth the wait, though.

Tacos Mi Mexico Lindo
Southeast corner of Roosevelt Ave and Baxter Ave (in-between 83rd and 84th Sts)
Open every day of the week, from midmorning to at least 11pm

Current prices
Tacos: $2 each
Quesadillas: $3 each
Sopes: 3 regulares for $5