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

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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