Southwestern Vacation Recap: Tucson

Welcome to the second post from our Southwestern vacation recap. You can read our El Paso and New Mexico recap here.

Paul climbing Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Arizona

We took Amtrak from El Paso to Tucson, about a seven hour trip. Although it was not overnight, we got a roomette so that we would have our own space for the journey. Most of the trip was through the Chihuahuan Desert landscape of New Mexico. Since we were traveling in the evening, we were able to eat dinner in the dining car. Of course, I had my traditional Amtrak signature steak.

The dining car on Amtrak from El Paso, Texas to Tucson, Arizona

Our Airbnb was near the University of Arizona and along the route of the Tucson street car. It was a very modest home, and from the front window we would sit and watch the streetcar go by. Our Airbnb hosts were local restaurateurs and we practically lived at the nearby Time Market, a gourmet market and restaurant that they owned. The market bakes its own bread daily and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Paul walking into our Airbnb in Tucson, Arizona

Eating breakfast at Time Market in Tucson, Arizona

What we ate

Tucson is a large city and home to many different types of food, especially Sonoran cuisine: a mix from Mexico (specifically the state of Sonora), Arizona and Native Americans.

For local modern-American cuisine, we found nowhere better than Augustin Kitchen, in the mixed-used neighborhood of Mercado San Augustin. Highlights included the Mustard and Melon Salad with perfectly cooked Arizona sirloin and a sarsaparilla float for dessert with Isabella’s vanilla ice cream.

The Mustard and Melon Salad with perfectly cooked Arizona sirloin for lunch from Augstin Kitchen at Mercado San Augustin in Tucson, Arizona

We returned to Mercado San Augustin the following day to have one of their quintessential Sonoran desserts, the raspado at Sonoran Sno-Cones. Raspados are shaved ice made with real fruit and real juice and often come in sour flavors, such as chamoy lime. You can also add condensed milk and Mexican-chile candies. Marnay and got a mangoyada and I got a mango and chamoy raspado with chile candies. The chile candies were spicy, but still sweet like candy and had a chewy texture. We sat in the open-air courtyard of the mercado and enjoyed the live music and the Tucson night-sky.

Raspados from Sonoran Sno-Cones at Mercado San Augustin in Tucson, Arizona

South Tucson is where the best Mexican-restaurants can be found, and Los Tacos Apson did not disappoint. In fact, we had the best barbacoa tacos we have ever had! It’s hard to describe just how amazing the taste was of these tacos. They have a smoky flavor and simply melted in your mouth.

Barbacoa and rib tacos at Los Tacos Apson in Tucson, Arizona

Smoking the meat at Los Tacos Apson in Tucson, Arizona

On our last day in Tucson, we had Sonoran-style hot dogs! We went to El Guero Canelo, which unbeknownst to us had just won a James Beard Foundation American Classic Award. A Sonoran-style hot dog is a bacon-wrapped dog top with beans, onions, mustard, jalapenos and a little bit of mayo. All of this is inside a special bolillo bun, a soft Mexican roll that is the most important part of a Sonoran-style dog. It’s not a Sonoran hot dog without the bolillo bun.

Sonoran-style hot dogs from El Guero Canelo in Tucson, Arizona

What we did

We weren’t sure what to expect at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, however, it blew us away. It’s a museum in name only, as it is over 80% outdoors. It also seamlessly blends in with the landscape, since it’s completely surrounded by Tucson Mountain Park and Saguaro National Park.

Marnay walking at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona

Our Airbnb host recommended the hike up Tumamoc Hill, on the western edge of downtown Tucson. The trail is paved and it basically goes straight up, with some very steep switchbacks. It’s a nature preserve and it shows off the most distinctive feature of the Sonoran Desert landscape, Saguaro cacti. These monarchs of the desert can grow to over 40 feet tall and live for over 150 years. This is an intense hike, but it is remarkably popular with locals. Because it is so hot in the summer, people don’t start hiking until sunset. We opted to go a little earlier so that by the time we reached the top the sun would be setting.

View from the top of our hike at Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Arizona

From the top, you can see almost all of Tucson, and if you are facing south you can see all the way to the Mexico border. I could tell because you can make out the route of Interstate 19 going from Tucson to Nogales. I think that we saw arguably the best sunset of the trip here. We loved Tumamoc Hill so much we did it twice!

Sunset at the top of our hike at Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Arizona

This desert vacation was like nothing we had ever done. I highly recommend going to the desert, if only for the amazing sunsets. Perhaps one day we will be back!

Southwestern Vacation Recap: El Paso and New Mexico

Eatnowrunlater is back from our summer vacation and we want to tell you all about it! This summer, we headed to El Paso, Texas and Tucson, Arizona, with a stop in Las Cruces, New Mexico along the way. We learned a lot about the food in these similar yet district regions, just as we learned a lot about the desert. This post will be a mix of the food we ate and the scenery we experienced.

Paul and Marnay at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

El Paso is in Texas, the furthest west you can possibly go and still be in the state. However, it’s in a different time zone than the rest of Texas and it’s 800 miles from Houston and 600 miles from Austin. It’s also sandwiched between Juarez, Mexico and New Mexico. Because of its location on the Mexican border, El Paso has developed its own “border cuisine.” It’s similar to Tex-Mex cuisine, but in its most authentic form.

Mural at the border of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas

What we ate

At all of the restaurants we went to, the format for the meal is the same. When you sit down, you are greeted with tortilla chips and homemade salsa. They aren’t messing around with the salsa – this is spicy stuff. Once you order your meal, you are invariably asked “corn or flour tortillas?” Breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It doesn’t matter what you order, every meal has the chance of being hand-held.

The most “Tex-Mex” style restaurant we went to was L&J Café, “The Old Place by the Graveyard.” L&J was very crowded, especially considering we arrived at around 4:30pm, immediately after we landed in El Paso. It had a family-friendly atmosphere that chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s can only dream of emulating. The salsa at L&J was top notch. I had a great burrito (very common in El Paso) and Marnay had steak fajitas. To be honest, the chips and salsa were so good we filled up on them first.

Dinner at L and J Cafe in El Paso, Texas

La Rosita Cafe is on the Interstate 10 access road and looks a little run down, but inside the staff couldn’t be more warm and inviting. It’s the real deal, too – the menu is written on a white board and is entirely in Spanish. Another commonality among the restaurants in this region is that your plate consists of your main entrée, rice, and then beans with a little bit of mild cheese on top. In a basket on the side are your tortillas. Here, I ordered the lomo (pork loin) in a pipian, a cousin to mole. Meanwhile, Marnay got Chile Verde, beef in a green chile sauce.

Lunch at La Rosita Cafe in El Paso, Texas

We learned about H&H Car Wash from Eater’s Bill Addison, when he named it his favorite restaurant in Texas. It was opened in 1958 as a car wash with a small lunch counter attached and it does not look like it has changed much since then. This was our favorite meal in El Paso. Marnay had the best eggs of her life, along with beans with cheese and rice, while I had a ruddy Chile Colorado, which is basically beef in a red chile sauce.

Breakfast at H and H Car Wash in El Paso, Texas

H and H Car Wash in El Paso, Texas

What we did

Franklin Mountain State Park, which preserves the Chihuahuan Desert landscape of the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, is the largest urban park in the country. Ranger Peak, over a mile above sea level, can be reached by the Wyler Aerial Tramway. The four minute park ranger guided ride gives incomparable views of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico.

Wyler Aerial Tramway at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

The following day, we returned to the mountain and went on a sunset hike with Don, a local guide. Don took us up the western side of the mountain, where we had views of New Mexico and downtown El Paso. He taught us a lot about the different plants that live in the desert, such as Sotol, Barrel cacti and Ocotillo.

Hiking with Don at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

We thought we were the only ones in the park that night, but it turns out there was one other hiker, and we caught him just as he was about to paraglide off the mountain! It was amazing to watch him run and jump off the mountain and then immediately go hundreds of feet in the air. On our way down, we saw one of the most magical sunsets we have ever seen. We stopped to hang out in the parking lot to take it all in, as bats whizzed by us in the night sky.

Paraglider at Franklin Mountain State Park in El Paso, Texas

Las Cruces

Early one afternoon, we headed to New Mexico and the incredible White Sands National Monument. About halfway between White Sands and El Paso is the small city of Las Cruces. If you know anything about food in New Mexico, you know that it is famous for its tremendous variety of chiles. In fact, the state has a beautiful new license plate that reads “Chile Capital of the World.”

Los Mariachis is another family-friendly establishment that showcased the best of New Mexico cuisine. It was Sunday brunch when we went, so I ordered the “Huevos Mariachi” – huevos rancheros with a red potent red chile sauce. Marnay stayed traditional and went with Chile Verde. The chips and salsa at Los Mariachis were HOT HOT HOT. To get the full New Mexico experience, we also ordered a side of green chile sauce.

Lunch at Los Mariachis in Las Cruces, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is the largest gypsum sand dune in the world. It truly is like nothing you have ever seen. The dunes of pure white sand seem to go on forever and it really looks like something from another planet. It’s located in the Tularosa Basin, between the Sierra Blancas and the Organ Mountains.

Paul and Marnay at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

In the evening, we did a sunset hike led by husband and wife park rangers. There are a surprising amount of plants that live in the dunes, and we learned that there is water about 30 feet under the sand. These plants have to touch the water to be able to survive – if they don’t, they will die. The most amazing part of the hike was getting to see TWO sunsets, because of the reflection of the mountains.

Sunset at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico

We loved El Paso and New Mexico but it was time to continue our journey. Click here for our Tucson recap.

Park Place Café and Restaurant

“Hi Paul, not Tom”, was our greeting upon entering the beguiling Park Place Café and Restaurant, a six-table BYOB in sleepy Merchantville, NJ. Since the restaurant only takes reservations by voicemail, they thought I said my name was “Tom” when the restaurant called that afternoon to confirm. We thought it was clever to use that as a greeting when we walked through the door. It was a light-hearted, warm welcome.

We were greeted by Francesca, the restaurant’s relentlessly charming host and co-owner. Our table had four seats and the restaurant was a bit loud, so when it came time to order Francesca actually sat down next to Marnay to go over the specials and to take down our order. It made us feel like we were regulars, even though it was our first time.

The chef and co-owner Phil Manganero, runs the kitchen but also spends his days off foraging for ingredients. The restaurant also has its own garden and gets the rest from mainly local purveyors. Their vision for the restaurant, among a sea of red sauce Italian joints, is to create a “New Jersey Terroir.”

The “Kitchen Sink Salad”, a weekly special, is a good example of what they are trying to do. It’s a mix of just about every fresh and seasonal or foraged fruit and vegetable that was available that week. Our salad had wild purslane, wax beans, blackberries, blueberries, herbs from the garden and a few other things thrown in. This seems like a lot, but it made sense. All of the flavors came together in harmony, and they were tied together with a sublime vinaigrette.

Park Place Cafe Kitchen Sink Salad in Merchantville, NJ

The housemade rigatoni, which Francesca informed us that the chef had finished making just before service, showed great restraint. It’s Jersey tomato season, so the pasta highlighted a light tomato sauce and a bit of parmigiano reggiano on the rim of the plate. The dish was brilliant simplicity – there was nowhere for imperfections to hide. A lesser chef would have drowned the rigatoni in sauce – but the housemade rigatoni was way too good to do that and needed to shine on its own.

Park Place Cafe housemade rigatoni in Merchantville, NJ

We had seen on Instagram that Park Place was popular with wine aficionados and it did not disappoint. Shortly after we arrived, a table of six showed up, each person with three bottles of wine! I didn’t want to stare at them too long, but judging by the color of their white wine (almost brownish yellow) it had some serious age. It was entertaining to watch them pour each glass.

The olive oil poached tile fish, a special, was blitzed with shaved truffles and chanterelles. It was an umami bomb that was also intriguing because of its mix of temperatures – warm fish, cold chanterelles that tasted like they had been soaking (perhaps reconstituting?) in vinegar. Meanwhile, the poach in olive oil kept the white tile fish from overcooking.

Park Place Cafe olive oil poached tile fish and bottle of wine in Merchantville, NJ

The walnut cake for dessert reminded me a fancier version of my grandmother’s walnut rolls. Park Place takes it to a whole other level with a rich cream and extra walnuts placed on the side.

Park Place Café is a dream of a restaurant tucked away in Merchantville, NJ. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that place was real. If you live in the area, we strongly suggest that you check it out.

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Housemade Rigatoni with Jersey tomato sauce

Address
Park Place Café and Restaurant: 7 East Park Avenue, Merchantville, NJ 08109

Detroit Recap

We just got back from Detroit and had a wonderful time! Perfect weather, lots of walking and biking and, of course, great food. Before we get into it, I want to give a special shout out to local blogger and Detroit native Lori Gardner, aka Beenthereeatenthat, for some amazing recommendations! Without further ado, here are our favorites:

boat

CHEAP EATS

Al Ameer: As soon as we landed, we took a taxi to Al Ameer, a Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn Heights. I knew that it had previously won a James Beard American Classic award and had received a shoutout from Eater national food critic Bill Addison. The restaurant is huge, almost like a banquet hall, but still has plenty of personality. As you can see, we ordered quite the spread: smoky, velvety baba ghanouge with housemade pitas and housemade labneh, falafel and stuffed lamb. The stuffed lamb dish had chunks of roasted lamb over a bed of seasoned rice and was topped with toasted pine nuts and herbs. If you ever make it to the Detroit area, Al Ameer should be on your must-try list. The stuffed lamb may have been one of the best lamb dishes we have ever had.

Al Ameer restaurant in Dearborn Heights: smoky, velvety baba ghanouge with housemade pitas and housemade labneh, falafel and stuffed lamb

Maty’s African Cuisine: Maty’s is Detroit’s only Senegalese restaurant, and it is doing a good job of representing the cuisine in the city. It’s a small place that does a lot of takeout but has about six tables for dining in. The first thing you will notice is the warm hospitality provided by the owner, Amady Gueye. He owns the restaurant with his wife and the restaurant’s namesake, Maty Gueye. One of our favorite bites was nems, or spring rolls. At first glance, they appear like traditional Vietnamese spring rolls. However, one bite reveals scotch-bonnet-laden hot sauce. Also excellent: a whole red snapper that is first fried, topped with a flavorful sauce and then grilled. That night, Amady let us know that the fish were smaller, so instead he served us two small snappers for the same $18 price. Both of us loved Bissap, or sorrel juice, that was housemade and flavored with hibiscus and passion fruit.

Maty’s African Cuisine in Detroit: nems sprint rolls, whole red snapper, sorrel juice

Coney Dogs: Similar to how Chicago has its Chicago dogs, Detroit has Coney Dogs. Coney dogs are hot dogs with mustard, raw chopped onions and a chili sauce. Like Chicago, never any ketchup! Even though there appears to be a New York reference in the name, it is an entirely Detroit tradition.

Detroit Coney dogs at Lafayette and American

Restaurants that sell the dogs are called “Coneys”, and we went to the two most famous ones: Lafayette and American. Conveniently, they are right next to each other so we were able to eat one after the other. The cash-only Lafayette has the most character – it looks like a lunch counter straight out of the 1940s. Meanwhile, American accepts credit cards and attracts more of a tourist crowded. When put head-to-head, though, American’s dogs had more of a crunch.

Paul eating a Detroit coney dogs at Lafayette

BIKE ROUTES

Detroit’s bikeshare system is called MoGo, and it is uses the exact same bikes and docks as Capital Bikeshare. We picked up bikes in Midtown, rode through Eastern Market and onto the Dequindre Cut, a transformative rail trail that is slightly below street level. Throughout the path, graffiti lines the walls and there are places to sit and relax. While the trail ends at the Riverfront, we continued east, through Elmwood Park and to the West Village. Almost the entire route is on calm streets. Most of the streets of Detroit, with the exception of downtown, do not have much traffic. Detroit has also done an excellent job of building protected bike lanes, making biking safe for all ages. We noted protected bike lanes on Cass Avenue, Michigan Avenue and Jefferson Avenue.

Paul at Detroit’s bikeshare system is called MoGo

WALKING ROUTES

The Detroit Riverwalk was our favorite walking route. On this warm summer day, the Detroit River looked like an azure walkway to Canada. Along the route, we found splash pads for children and shaded areas for sitting. The Dequindre Cut could also serve as a walking route. Walking would allow you to see the art at a more leisurely pace.

Dequindre Cut walking route in Detroit

FINE(R) DINING

Gold Cash Gold: a New American restaurant located in a former pawn shop in the booming Corktown neighborhood. Both the atmosphere and the effortless service reminded us Tail Up Goat, our favorite restaurant back home. Our best bite was the pea and carrot gemelli, with carrot top pesto, confit carrot and sugar peas.

Standing outside of Gold Cash Gold restaurant in Detroit

Cocktails and pea and carrot gemelli, with carrot top pesto, confit carrot and sugar peas at Gold Cash Gold restaurant in Detroit

COFFEE SHOPS / BAKERIES

ASHE Supply Co.: ASHE Supply Co., off Grand Circus, is another place where you’ll receive genuinely warm service. We did not get a chance to order it, but they serve a “Matcha-Gato”: An affogato with the addition of matcha instead of espresso.

New Order Coffee Roasters: New Order has multiple locations throughout Detroit, although we went to the location in Midtown. While the feeling of the shop was a little sterile, we had excellent espresso and chocolate chip cookies to tide us over before our bike ride.

Paul drinking coffee at New Order Coffee Roasters

Sister Pie: We went to Sister Pie, in West Village, after our long bikeshare ride and found it to be a gem. While they make all different types of pastries and also is serious about coffee, pie is the star of the show. I devoured the marshmallow butterscotch pie, which had a “chocolate surprise” at the bottom – a thick chocolate crust. Marnay went the fruit route and had a slice of not too sweet strawberry rhubarb. We would definitely head back to Sister Pie on a return visit to Detroit.

Eating a marshmallow butterscotch pie and sweet strawberry rhubarb pie at the Sister Pie shop in Detroit

BARS

Two Saint James: Two Saint James is an enchanting distillery in the heart of Corktown, Detroit’s historically Irish neighborhood. The large, round bar had a partially opened front door, which gave us unfettered views of the setting sun. Through a back window, we could see the iconic Detroit Central Train Station.

Two Saint James distillery in the heart of Corktown, Detroit’s historically Irish neighborhood

Founders Brewing Company – Detroit: Founders, one of the country’s most noteworthy craft breweries, has its main brewery in Grand Rapids. However, in 2016 it opened a second, smaller facility in Midtown. We loved sitting on the back patio. The area immediately surrounding the brewery is still a bit deserted, but it’s clear that there is a lot of potential.

Detroit is definitely a city on the rise, which makes it especially intriguing to visit right now. We had a great long weekend and look forward to spending more time there in the future!

Marnay standing in Detroit, Michigan

Best Bite

Paul: Baba ghanouge at Al Ameer

Marnay: Stuffed lamb at Al Ameer

Royal Nepal

Last Saturday, Marnay and I dined at Royal Nepal, located in the Del Ray section of Alexandria. Since Alexandria is a bit of a trip for us, we spent the afternoon walking around the Old Town Alexandria waterfront and then headed to dinner. The restaurant was crowded when we arrived at 7:30pm and there was a 15 minute wait for a table. Once inside, we encountered a dining experienced not typically associated with “cheap eats” restaurants.

outside

The staff set the tone as soon as we ordered drinks. I got a well-thought out cocktail with bourbon, walnut liquor, housemade cinnamon syrup and Angostura bitters. It even had a slow melting ice cube, which I think is practically a necessity these days. Meanwhile, when Marnay ordered her glass of California Pinot Noir, the sommelier presented the bottle to her and poured her a taste. This is even though she had only ordered a glass, not the whole bottle. You don’t see touches like that at even the most fine-dining of restaurants.

Now, this is a true Nepalese restaurant. It’s not a combination Indian/Nepalese restaurant. To give an indication of its authenticity, Royal Nepal places a piece of paper on each table describing the health benefits of eating yak.

The meal starts out with a gratis bread basket, sel roti, containing a cake doughnut-like object, alongside pickled vegetables that will have you breathing fire. Marnay marveled at the combination of the slightly sweet and cakey bread with the red-hot pickled vegetables.

bread

After that gratis bread, we ordered goat momo in a light tomato sauce. It seems like almost every culture has its version of dumplings, a momo is Nepal’s take. Goat is an acquired taste, but Marnay acquired it quickly and really enjoyed the dumplings! She was particularly impressed with how the dough held its soft texture even after being pan-fried.

We also ordered Aloo Sadheko, or steamed potatoes marinated with green chiles and spices. We have had potato dishes many times at Indian/Nepalese restaurants, and they are typically huge chunks of overcooked, dried out tubers. That is not the case at Royal Nepal, where small, uniform pieces of potato have a velvety texture and are slicked with chile oil along with balsamic vinegar for swiping.

dumplings

The showstopper was the lamb chops, sourced from local farms in Pennsylvania and Virginia and cooked to a perfect medium and then topped with mint chutney. Every single bite was tender, even the fatty parts. The chops are served alongside extremely rich duck fat fried rice, with pieces of pulled duck thrown into the mix. Blistered eggplant and sliced vegetables provide some welcome lightness to contrast all that meat. These may have been some of the best lamb chops we have ever had, and at $25 for a dish that can easily be shared among two people, it’s a steal.

lamb

If you want authentic Nepalese food with fining dining touches and careful sourcing, Royal Nepal in Alexandria is the place to go. It’s a little out of the way for us, but it’s a place we will definitely go back to.

Best Bite
Paul: Lamb Chops
Marnay: Sel roti with marinated vegetables

Address
Royal Nepal: 3807 Mt Vernon Avenue Alexandria, VA 22305
Closest Metro: Braddock Road

Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

Kuya Ja’s is a Filipino counter service joint located in the White Flint area. The restaurant, which started out as a pop-up at the chef’s sister’s pastry shop, specializes in Filipino pork belly. It’s been on our radar since it was a pop-up, but once they got a permanent spot we knew we needed to head to Rockville and try it out.

Outside Kuya Ja’s restaurant in Rockville, MD

Kuya Ja’s had only been open two weeks when we visited. It’s located about 0.5 miles from the White Flint metro, inside a random and partially forgotten strip mall in an area otherwise teeming with new residential high-rises. We walked there from the metro but to give a sense of where it is: the entrance to the parking lot contains a grand sign for the White Flint Mall, which is currently a pile of rubble and has been for three years.

The place opens at 5pm and when we arrived at 4:58pm there were already people queuing outside. A word of advice: this restaurant is extremely popular and also tiny, so try to go during off hours. We had a few questions when it was our turn to order at the counter, but the staff was extremely friendly and patient.

Inside Kuya Ja’s restaurant in Rockville, MD

We ordered ½ pound of lechon belly and a crispy adobo chicken sandwich. As a bit of background, lechon belly is basically Filipino porchetta. The chef, whose nickname is Ja, hails from the island of Cebu which, according to the restaurant’s website, has the best lechon belly in the world.

The first thing you’ll notice about the lechon belly is that the skin is so thin and shiny from glaze it looks like glass. In fact, both Marnay and I were legitimately concerned that when we bit into it, it would be like biting into glass. Thankfully, our concerns were misplaced. Here’s another thing: Very often, the skin is the best part of meat since it gets the most flavoring, while the actual meat is a letdown. Let me tell you, that is NOT the case as Kuya Ja’s. Here, the skin is crispy and redolent of all types of umami flavors. Meanwhile, the meat is insanely tender and unctuous to the extreme. The meat is made even better by two condiments: one is a thick vinaigrette that taste a bit like soy while the other is a Filipino vinegar. Our favorite was the vinaigrette because of its balanced flavor.

Kuya Ja’s dinner: lechon belly and crispy adobo chicken sandwich

The crispy chicken, with an adobo glaze and crisp lettuce on a soft hamburger bun, is also a winner. The abobo glaze, with its soy sauce undertones, turns this from a good chicken sandwich to a great one. It doesn’t hit you over the head but it is lurking in the background of every bite.

The next day we came back around 8pm. While it was packed, we miraculously got a table just before our food came out. It was a good thing, since it was raining and therefore we were either getting a table or eating standing up. (Unlike most people who come here, we do not have cars). They did not have the ½ pound of lechon belly available, but that ended up being a good thing. Instead, the staff steered us towards the lechon belly combo, which comes with white rice and atsara, or pickled ginger papaya salad. As Marnay noted, the addition of the rice made it feel like more of a meal, with the added benefit of using the rice to scoop up the sauces.

Kuya Ja’s dinner: lechon belly combo with Ube Brazo for dessert

Kuya Ja’s also serves Filipino pastries from the chef’s sisters bakery, many of which contain ube halaya, a sweet paste made from purple yams. I would compare it to how red bean paste is used in Chinese and Japanese desserts. We tried the Ube Brazo, which tasted like a delightful cross between bread pudding and pound cake.

The fact that we liked Kuya Ja’s enough to go back two days in a row should tell you how we feel about this place. The incredible food, warm service and wallet-friendly prices are sure to keep us coming back again and again.

Best Bite
Paul: Lechon belly
Marnay: Crispy chicken

Address
Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly: 5268-H Nicholson Lane Rockville, MD 20895
Closest Metro: White Flint

Cake for Dessert

As you are aware if you are a fan of the blog, Marnay and I enjoy eating out. But since we can’t eat out all the time, we follow a lot of chefs, restaurants and bloggers on social media. That way, we can stay up to date with what’s going on in the food scene.

One unmistakeable trend that I’ve seen recently is the rise of cake. Huge cakes that beget huge slices. I had never seen this much cake being served in restaurants. The question: Why? Why now?

Huge cake slices on Paul's instagram feed

I’ve seen huge cakes all over my Instagram lately. In fact, Marnay and I went to the café at Maketto and had a ginormous piece of (very tasty) carrot-walnut cake. We also were recently at Elle on a weekday morning and saw the prettiest cake we had ever seen in their pastry case. A perfectly smooth, symmetrical cake covered with purple and white icing and simply a few blackberries on top. It looked like cake perfection.

Elle blackberry cake in DC

I think that nostalgia is a factor in the great cake revival of 2018. Everyone has memories of eating birthday cake, or baking a cake with their parents. More regionally, you may have memories of Jersey diners and their display cases of innumerable types of cakes.

Pete Wells recently wrote a brilliant article in the New York Times about the proliferation of ice cream sundaes on dessert menus in New York, often as the only dessert. Restaurants claim that this is for nostalgia reasons, but Pete Wells astutely points out that the real reason is likely because anyone can make ice cream and this means that restaurants do not have to hire a pastry chef.

Cakes are also relatively straightforward restaurant desserts. Once the cake is made, it does not take much effort to slice it into individual portions. However, a lot of work goes into making a well-executed cake. How do you find the perfect balance between cake and icing? What is the right flavor combination? How can you blow people away?

I think that cakes have been undervalued for too long. Perhaps because people have eaten it at every birthday party since they were a child, and had so many bland, dried-out examples, that cake gets overlooked. It takes a lot of talent and effort to make these cakes. They can be visually stunning and taste great at the same time.

This is a trend that I hope continues…cakes are not just for birthdays anymore!

New Orleans Recap: Part 2

We divided our New Orleans Recap into two posts. Click here to read Part 1 and continue reading to learn about the rest of our adventure!

Saturday

We woke up and grabbed a quick espresso at Merchant and then went on a very calm BlueBike ride through the western edge of the French Quarter and the Marigny to St. Roch Market, in the St. Roch neighborhood. St Roch (pronounced “Rock”) Market is amazing! It’s like a more relaxed (and slightly smaller) version of Union Market in DC. It has so many diverse food stalls, from local seafood to coffee to Vietnamese to Haitian.

St. Roch Market in New Orleans

I got a Roch Fizz from Coast Roast, which was espresso, vanilla syrup and soda water. It tasted like a root beer float without the ice cream! Marnay got a cold brew, great on this warm day. Both of us got our breakfast from the Daily Beet, a juice and breakfast food stand. We kept it light with avocado toast and an egg plate, since we still had a lot of eating to do.

St. Roch Market brunch at the Daily Beet in New Orleans

After eating, we walked through the neighborhood towards the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Finally! Somehow we had not seen the river since we arrived. We stumbled upon a food festival in a HUGE industrial building along the Mississippi that had a roof but no walls. The most welcome sight was a huge pot of crawfish being boiled (it was crawfish season), but we unfortunately were full and still had a lot of eating left to do.

We hit up the French Quarter, which was mobbed with tourists, as expected. We did get to watch the March for Our Lives protestors head down Decatur Street. Even though we were far from DC, it was nice to feel like we were participating.

New Orleans March for Our Lives in 2018

We grabbed BlueBikes by our Airbnb and biked through downtown and Treme and then finally, the Lafitte Greenway. Our destination was Parkway Bakery & Tavern, one of New Orleans’ most famous po’ boy joints. Our best bite: the crispy shrimp po’ boy, so fresh and covered in Cajun spices. Mmm! Afterwards, we sat on the banks of Bayou St. John, which we had biked along the day before. The weather was beautiful the whole time we were in New Orleans, and it was nice to see people having picnics along the water.

Parkway Bakery & Tavern crispy shrimp po’ boy in New Orleans

Dinner that night was at La Petite Grocery, the 2016 James Beard Foundation Award-winner for Best Chef South. We started the night with cocktails and blue crab beignets. Cleverly, the kitchen sprinkled the beignets with flaky sea salt in place of powdered sugar. For our entrees, we kept up with our theme of eating local ingredients and shared Gulf cobia with crispy skin and paneed rabbit, which tasted like rabbit schnitzel. We even got crème brulee with Louisiana sugar!

La Petite Grocery blue crab beignets in New Orleans

Our dinner was earlier than the night before, so we had time to do something else. The only question was: What to do? I had my mind set on going to a dive bar, so after a little online search we took a Lyft to Saturn Bar, in the Bywater neighborhood. Saturn Bar was ridiculously divey, but fun! It was full of mostly hipster-types but also a few crusty old men. Marnay and I both had a beer and shot and then called it a night.

Sunday

Sunday was unfortunately our last day in New Orleans, and our flight home was at 3:30 that afternoon. We woke up early so that we could make the most out of the morning and early afternoon. Since we liked it so much, we did a repeat of Saturday morning: Espresso at Merchant and a BlueBike Ride to St Roch Market. Marnay had an egg and biscuit platter from Fete Au Fete and I had an incredible Louisiana Crab Cake with Corn-Charred Cream from Elysian Seafood – so good!

roch breakfast 2

We took advantage of another beautiful day by walking around and then biked back to the Airbnb so we could pack and head to the airport. New Orleans is an incredible place to visit. I do not think we will ever forget our trip. I can’t believe it has taken us this long to get there!

Marnay and Paul in New Orleans, Louisiana

Favorite Place We Went
Paul: Lafitte Greenway
Marnay: St Roch Market

Favorite Bite
Paul: Louisiana white shrimp and tasso ham henican – Commander’s Palace
Marnay: Crème brulee with Louisiana sugar – La Petite Grocery

Favorite Drink
Paul: Bonded Sazerac – Cure
Marnay: Bandol Rose – Bacchanal

Insider Tip
Paul: RTA three-day unlimited pass
Marnay: You can experience the food and culture of New Orleans without needing to spend much time in the touristy areas.

New Orleans Recap: Part 1

Marnay and I just got back from an incredible Spring trip to New Orleans. It has been so cold here in the DC area (we had a snow day the day before we left!) so it was nice to escape to the sun and warmth. This wasn’t a relaxing by the pool vacation, though; this was a foodie exploration.

We stayed in an Airbnb in a high rise right downtown. I would call it the business and hotel district, just outside the French Quarter and the Warehouse District. That meant that it was centrally located, with easy access to public transportation and bikeshare bikes, but not as hectic as other areas. This is a good tip if you plan on using public transit on vacation: Most cities’ public transit systems are designed to start downtown and radiate through the city. (A hub and spoke system) That means that you would get the most “bang-for-your-buck” and have the easiest time getting around if you stay downtown.

Thursday

We landed around 6:30 on Thursday and took a Lyft to our place. It was beautiful! We barely dropped our suitcases off before heading out on our first adventure. New Orleans public transit (buses and streetcars) have a three-day unlimited pass that you can purchase on your phone. When you wanted to board, just show the driver your phone and you are golden. It makes using public transportation in an unfamiliar city so much easier. We took the 88 bus to Bacchanal, in the Bywater neighborhood, which a few days earlier had been named a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Wine Program.

Marnay and Paul at Bacchanal in New Orleans

At Bacchanal, every day feels like a back-yard party. First, you enter through the wine store, a wooden shack, where you can pick out a bottle of wine. Next, grab some wine glasses and head to an outdoor table to enjoy and watch live music on the stage. When you’re hungry, head over to the kitchen window and order from their selection of small plates. Grab a number and they will bring your food to you.

Marnay and I hung out at the standing room ledges, under a gnarled old tree and just to the right of the stage, drinking our bottle of rose from the Bandol region of France. Roses from Bandol are known for being heavy duty wines, earthy and almost like a red. It was a touch chilly for a late March night, so the Bandol rose was appropriate. To eat, we enjoyed radishes with whipped butter and crusty bread, head-on Gulf shrimp and praline pecan panna cotta. Amazingly, the kitchen was able to pace out our meal even though the place was so crowded.

New Orleans Bacchanal Bandol Rose wine with radishes and Gulf shrimp

The atmosphere was amazing. The back yard at Bacchanal really felt like a chill outdoor party. Even though it was crowded, we never felt overwhelmed and could have hung out there for hours. Alas, it was getting late and we needed to get some sleep for our first full day in New Orleans.

Friday

Good Morning New Orleans! We slept well and woke up ready to explore. The high-rise condo building we were staying in had an excellent coffee shop named Merchant on the ground floor. I really needed a pick-me-up, so I got a double espresso; this ended up being my daily New Orleans morning tradition for the rest of the trip. We took the 48 streetcar through Mid-City and up to City Park, which I would compare to Central Park in New York or Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. We were not only checking out the park for its natural beauty – we were in search of beignets. We found them at Morning Call, a New Orleans institution. It is a casual sit-down place, but they had no problem with us ordering only beignets.

The beignets were hot and fresh and there was sugar on the table so that you could dust just the right amount on top. Of course, I got a café au lait with that famous chicory coffee. It was a lot of work to put the powdered sugar on ourselves, but it was worth it!

Morning Call beignets in New Orleans

After eating, we slathered on sunscreen and picked up Blue Bikes (New Orleans’ bikeshare system) and biked on along Bayou St John to the beautiful Lafitte Greenway, which looked like a highway for bikes, it was so straight and flat. Our destination: Willie Mae’s, the legendary fried chicken spot. We went in knowing that the place would be jumping (there’s always a long line) so we did not mind when we had to wait outside for 40 minutes. Once we made it inside, we were starving. I will skip to the good part: the fried chicken was amazing, the best we had ever had. The secret was the spicy wet batter, which lingered under the skin. Even the white meat was tender and juicy, which I find is rare in fried chicken. Willie Mae’s was incredible!

Willie Mae’s fried chicken in New Orleans

After eating all that fried chicken, we took the streetcar home and took a nap. But when we woke up, we had plenty of time before our 8:30pm dinner reservation at Commander’s Palace. We walked over to Compere Lapin, located inside the boutique Old No. 77 Hotel in the Warehouse District. Besides being a name of the restaurant, Compere Lapin is also the name of a traditional Caribbean tale involving a mischievous rabbit. We only came for drinks, but they were two of the more visually stimulating drinks we have ever had: One is in a copper bunny and the other has a bunny stenciled on top!

Compere Lapin cocktail in a copper bunny and a bunny stenciled on top

We unexpectedly still had some time before dinner, so we took a Lyft to Cure, one of the best cocktail bars in the country. At Cure, we did “the Sazerac test”. Their bonded Sazerac is $20, while their regular Sazerac is $6. We ordered one of each and tried them side by side. The verdict: The $20 Sazerac is worth it! While the $6 is a steal, the bonded Sazerac had incredible depth of flavor.

Bonded Sazerac at Cure in New Orleans

Commander’s Palace is one of New Orleans’ oldest old school restaurants – it’s been open since the late 19th century. It’s also one of the few restaurants in the country that requires jackets for men. The chef continues to serve classic Creole food that pushes boundaries while celebrating the past. Our best bite was the Louisiana white shrimp and tasso ham henican with okra, pepper jelly and a Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc, one of their signature dishes. When we were finished, we used the crusty bread the scoop up the pepper jelly. Keeping with the Creole them, we also ordered the crawfish tail gnocchi, which came with a whole crawfish on top. We rounded things out with the Commander’s Bread Pudding, “The Queen of Creole Desserts.” Hoo boy, did it taste like whiskey!

Commander’s Palace in New Orleans

Note: We divided our New Orleans Recap into two posts. Click here to read Part 2!

Rock n Roll Half Marathon Weekend 2018

Last Saturday, I ran in the Rock n’ Roll DC Half Marathon, my 6th year in a row running this race and my 8th half marathon in total. While I was running through the streets of DC, Marnay and my family hustled all over town to cheer me on. All the running was worth it, since it meant that we could enjoy a fun weekend of eating and celebrating.

Friday

On Friday night, my parents and grandfather came to town and met Marnay and I at Pacci’s in Silver Spring for our traditional dinner. For the last five years, we have eaten at Pacci’s on the night before the big race. Pacci’s is our local Neapolitan pizzeria, and it’s home to some of our favorite pies in the DC area. Eating a La Verace pizza, with buffalo mozzarella, parmesan, olive oil and fresh basil is a great way to energize for a long yet exciting weekend. The other thing we can’t miss at Pacci’s is the prosciutto con melone, a nice mix of salty prosciutto wrapped around sweet melon.

Pacci’s Neopolitan pizzeria in Silver Spring, MD

Saturday

Rise and shine! We woke up at 4:30am in order to gather our gear and prepare for race day. I had a simple breakfast of Eggos and peanut butter, which I eat before every long run. I try to eat and drink the same things before each long run during the training period, to get my body accustomed to it. Since the metro doesn’t open until 7:00am, we ventured out into the cold and took the 70 bus to a Dunkin Donuts in Petworth to hang out and stay warm. Once the metro opened, we took the Green Line to the start along Constitution Avenue.

Meyer family ready for the 2018 DC Rock n Roll Half Marathon

Last year’s race was downright frigid, so I knew what type of cold weather I needed to wear for a half-marathon. This year’s race was not in the 20s at the start, more like the mid-30s. Despite the initial cold, the race was sunny and it eventually warmed up to the mid-40s. I’m not going to lie, the race was not easy, despite the fact that I’ve run it six times now. I still enjoyed it, though, and felt very accomplished when I crossed the finish line at RFK.

Paul Meyer running in the 2018 DC Rock n Roll Half Marathon

One of the major reasons that I run this race every year, of course, is for brunch afterwards! This year, we stepped things up by having it at All Purpose. Although technically All Purpose calls their weekend midday meal “Lunch”, which I appreciate. I am not big on the sweet, heavy dishes that proliferate most brunch menus.

All Purpose brunch in DC

When I first looked at the lunch menu, alllll I wanted was PIZZA. However, Marnay smartly pointed out that since we had pizza the night before, we should mix things up. Boy, am I glad we did! I was absolutely obsessed with All Purpose’s crispy eggplant and mozzarella sandwich. It all starts with the housemade bread, hearty and substantial but not too crispy. Then comes garlicky aioli, melted fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce and the crispiest eggplant cutlet ever.

We weren’t done, though. Oh no. We also got the Buona pizza, with tomato, mozzarella, pepperoni, chili honey, basil and a sprinkle of grana Padano. The best part was the way the sweet honey played off of the spicy pepperoni. We rounded things out with crispy fried brussels sprouts and a roasted beet “Greek” salad. A great meal to celebrate a day full of excitement.

All Purpose Buona pizza

Sunday

Since we ran all over DC the day before, we were still plenty hungry for Sunday brunch. Since we were going to Brookland for a wine class this afternoon (stay tuned), Marnay and I ate at Brookland Pint. Brookland Pint, which is known for its great local beer selection and pub grub, is a place that we frequent for drinks but not always food.

I was happy to see a Diner Burger on the menu, which is part of a larger trend of restaurants serving thinner, more management burger patties. I really don’t want a ½ pound or ¾ pound burger—a nice thin patty will do, thank you. I was pleased with my burger at Brookland Pint, topped with bacon and an over easy egg. As I picked up the burger, the egg broke and spilled delicious yolk everywhere. Marnay was also happy with her scrambled eggs and potatoes.

Brookland Pint Diner Burger in DC

The real reason we were in Brookland that morning was to take a wine class at Wardman Wines, an excellent wine store. The class, which is held about once per month, is called “An Intro to Wine: How to Love Your Palate.” It takes an analytical approach to wine, and while it is judgement-free and good for beginners, it’s already great for people who know about wine but who could always learn more.

Wardman Wines wine class in Brookland

The weekend of the Rock n’ Roll Marathon is always one of my favorite of the year, and this year was no exception. While the race is hard work and takes months of preparation, there are plenty of great food experiences to look forward to!