Mama Chang

As regulars at Q by Peter Chang, we eagerly anticipated the chef/restauranteur’s new spot, Mama Chang. This isn’t a strictly a Peter Chang restaurant, though. Mama Chang celebrates the women in the chef’s life – his daughter Lydia runs the front of the house as well as business development while his wife Lisa, is his pastry chef. In fact, Lisa was running the kitchen the day of our visit.

On a Sunday morning, we made our way from Silver Spring to Fairfax via public transit (doable) to see what Mama had to offer. I heard early reports on social media that the restaurant had been wildly popular, so we were not surprised to find a 20-30 minute wait when we arrived at 1pm. (It cleared out by the time we finished eating which you can see in the photo below.)

room

It’s a good idea to start your meal with dry-fried cauliflower, a take on Peter’s famous dry-fried eggplant. We actually found the cauliflower to be a little spicier than the dry-fried eggplant, and that is certainly no slouch on heat! The cauliflower was so green and fresh that for a moment I thought we were eating Romanesco, because of the color. But no, this is just fresher than your typical cauliflower.

cauliflower

The pan-fried noodles with vegetables were different than what we were expected – they are seriously fried to a crisp in the pan. In the picture below, you can see that some of the sections have been blackened. Once the noodles mix with the sauce, though, they suddenly reconstitute and become slippery yet toothsome. They go well with the bounty of fresh bok choy and carrots piled on top, which may be the secret star of this dish.

noodles

Everything we ate at Mama Chang was great, but the salt and pepper crispy lotus root sandwiches were truly a revelation. Lotus root gets stuffed with ground pork and fried until it is shatteringly crisp. The sweet flavor profile of the rich ground pork reminded us of the Dong Po pork belly at Masterpiece, in suburban Atlanta. All this is topped with chopped scallions and red onions for freshness.

Chang

The only thing we did not love was the red pepper fried chicken with sesame, and that was only because it was not as crispy as we imagined. That, though, is the smallest of quibbles.

Although it’s still new, Mama Chang has already become the place to go in Northern Virginia for authentic regional Chinese cooking. Our only question to you, dear reader, is: When are you going to go?

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Salt and Pepper Crispy Lotus Root Sandwich

Address
Mama Chang: 3251 Old Lee Highway, Suite 101 Fairfax, VA 22030
Closest Metro: Vienna

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Best Donuts in the DMV

Similar to our Barbecue Tour of Texas and our Best Pizzarias in the DMV posts, this was a fun post to do research for. Who doesn’t like eating donuts?!? We tried four different donut shops and, while there were some we liked more than others, they were all delicious.

In this post, we do not plan on resolving the spelling question: “Donut” vs. “Doughnut”. I think “doughnut” sounds fancier (good) but perhaps more pretentious (bad). Only you can make the final call!

Diablo Doughnuts

Diablo Doughnuts, in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood, makes destination-worthy donuts. They make a limited number a day and when they run out, that’s it. Top picks include the Captain Chesapeake, a yeast-donut with a caramel glaze topped with Old Bay, it is pleasantly savory and not too sweet. A great change of pace from traditional donut flavors. The donuts at Diablo do tend to run oily, so eating one is usually enough for us. Did we mention they serve them in a reversed pizza box?

Diablo Doughnuts in Baltimore, Maryland

It was Mardi Gras season when we went so we picked up the visually appealing King Cake donut, complete with a tiny baby on top! The donut was fresh, sugary and delicious.

The crème brulee was a good donut, but I wouldn’t say it tasted that much like crème brulee. The first thing you notice is how HEAVY it is. That’s because it is absolutely packed with filling. The filling tastes more like vanilla pudding than crème brulee custard, but hey it’s a good donut that I would get again. It just doesn’t taste much like crème brulee.

Astro Doughnuts

The crème brulee donut at Astro Doughnuts, meanwhile, is what all donut shops aspire to. The sugar glaze on the outside shatters when you bite into, and the char is evident in each bite. There is a more modest amount of filling than Diablo and it really tastes like crème brulee custard.

Astro Doughnuts in Washington DC

The vanilla glazed tasted fresh, like an authentic glazed donut. We only got mild notes of vanilla but it was still excellent. While you are at Astro, consider picking up some top-notch fried chicken to go along with your donuts.

Vanilla glazed at Astro Doughnuts in Washington DC

Duck Donuts

The draw to Duck Donuts is the fact that the donuts are made-to-order. I am aware that it is a chain, but for the purposes of this discussion we will be talking about the location on Rockville Pike. And it definitely does draw a lot of people – the shop was packed as we left, at 5pm on a Saturday.

S'more donut at Duck Donuts in Rockville, Maryland

The donuts at Duck Donuts were smaller than any of the other places. They are also cake donuts, which I find unusual these days. Most fancy donuts shops make mainly yeast donuts. The flavors were also not quite as strong. For example, the S’more was good but lacking in chocolate/marshmallow flavor.

Duck Donuts in Rockville, Maryland

The donuts definitely get points for having toppings that are still melty from the heat but overall they just don’t quite match up to the others. If I’m in the mood for fresh, hot donuts with melty icing (which is often), Duck Donuts is where I’m going to go.

Sugar Shack

Sugar Shack is a local chain, based out of Richmond, Virginia. We chose to visit the Shaw location in DC. The texture of the donuts was somewhere between Diablo/Astro and Duck. Sugar Shack’s donuts were not nearly as cakey as Duck but also did not have that fresh taste like Diablo or Astro.

Sugar Shack in Shaw, DC

Our favorite thing about the S’mores donut were the chewy marshmallows in the center. It brought great texture, which was the theme for Sugar Shack’s donuts, texture and flavor in every bite.

We also had a chocolate frosted with sprinkles, where the top of the donut was completely covered with rainbow sprinkles. That sounds almost too simple, right? It was actually really good! I enjoyed the crunch with each bite, even if it was pretty messy.

So which is our favorite?

Astro takes the cake (donut). We like Astro and Diablo the best because their donuts taste the freshest. Astro is the clear winner, though, because the donuts are not as greasy and because the flavors really can’t be beat.

Places we visited
Diablo Doughnuts: 1035 Light St Baltimore, MD 21230
Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken: 1308 G St, NW Washington, DC 20004
Duck Donuts: 1327 Rockville Pike Rockville, MD 20852
Sugar Shack Donuts & Coffee: 1932 9th St, NW Washington, DC 20001

A Barbecue Tour of Texas

Marnay and I just had our “Babymoon” in the great state of Texas, specifically Austin and Houston. We were in El Paso last summer, but barbecue country West Texas is not.

Austin, Texas vacation

In preparation for our trip, I read a lot of articles and listened to a lot of podcasts about barbecue. I would like to thank Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly and J.C. Reid of the Houston Chronicle for giving me a crash course on Texas barbecue. I also don’t want to leave out Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook. If you are traveling to Houston any time soon, I definitely recommend the Barbecue State of Mind podcast from the Houston Chronicle.

And while I always enjoy Daniel Vaughn’s writing, his Texas Monthly’s Top 50 is the barbecue list that every single barbecue joint in Texas wants to be on. It is like the Bible of barbecue.

Below is a recap of the barbecue joints we visited on our trip. We won’t be ranking them in any particular order, because they were all amazing. Also, we consider all of them to be important building blocks in our Texas barbecue journey.

Micklethwait Craft Meats
Micklethwait, in East Austin, consists of a barbecue trailer, a giant outdoor smoker and a covered picnic area. The morning we went, it was in the 30s and windy. That would stop a lot of folks from going (resulting in a very short line) but it didn’t stop us! These were the meatiest pork ribs of the trip and they were our favorite item at Micklethwait. If you take a look at them, the smoke ring is insane. The brisket stood on its own, but was even better on Texas toast with pickles and onions.

Micklethwait Craft Meats barbecue plate in Austin, Texas

All of the joints we visited were friendly, but Micklethwait gets bonus points for being friendliest. And even though it was really cold on the day we went, it was a lot of fun eating the barbecue outside, picnic-style.

Micklethwait Craft Meats barbecue truck in Austin, Texas

Terry Black’s Barbecue
This was the best beef rib of the trip. It was gigantic and SO fatty, in a good way, but not too fatty either. You bet we each took pictures of ourselves trying to eat the whole thing. The flavor reminded us of pastrami. Terry Black’s brisket was top notch, superbly fatty and with a killer bark. The sausage was also quite good.

Marnay eating a giant beef rib at Terry Black’s Barbecue in Austin, Texas

The atmosphere at Terry Black’s is a little touristy, likely owing to its location across the Colorado River, near downtown. That means doubling up with strangers at tables, but the staff is very helpful in organizing the restaurant and eating barbecue with strangers is fun.

Terry Black’s Barbecue in Austin, Texas

Kreuz Market
Kreuz, in Lockhart, was on our 3 hour drive between Austin and Houston, so of course we made a stop. The sausage was excellent, with a nice kick to it. However, we were a little disappointed by the beef rib as it was too dry for our liking. Kreuz’s shoulder clod, which is a leaner cut than brisket, did have a nice meaty “chew” to it.

Kreuz Market barbecue in Lockhart, Texas

The sausage, which Kreuz is famous for, was the best of the trip, with some serious heat. We had eaten Kreuz sausage at Hill Country in DC and, fortunately, the real deal tasted MUCH better. No surprise that it would taste better fresh versus shipped halfway across the country! If we went back I would get the pork chop, which is a rare sight in a barbecue restaurant. Alas, we did not see the famous pitmaster Roy Perez, who is a ringer for Elvis Presley.

Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas

Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ
I can think of few better combinations than barbecue and tacos. It is likely the future of Texas barbecue and has always been important in the San Antonio area, where pitmaster Miguel Vidal grew up. Valentina’s is a food truck in a parking lot in suburban South Austin. It was originally an unincorporated area and was very recently annexed by the City. Behind the truck is a wonderful partially enclosed dining area with picnic tables, TVs and lot of sports memorabilia. You can tell that this is a great place to watch the big game.

Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in Austin, Texas

The menu is separated between “Tex” and “Mex”. Anything on the “Mex” side of the menu gets served in Valentina’s incredible housemade flour tortillas. The smoked brisket taco was unreal – we got two! The brisket itself is perfect, but then it is topped with sea salt lime guacamole and tomato serrano salsa. We LOVED the guac! The smoked carnitas tacos, made from Kurobuta (Berkshire) pork, had a sweet taste from the super high-quality meat and were topped with caramelized onions, cilantro and a tomatillo habanero salsa for heat.

Lunch at Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in Austin, Texas

We did not get a chance to try it, but Valentina’s opens at 7:30am for breakfast and it looks like it would be fantastic. In fact, you could probably do a barbecue tour of Austin starting out with breakfast at Valentina’s. Maybe an idea for us in the future??

Tejas Chocolate
Our favorite all-around barbecue joint of the trip, as well as the best brisket. They open at 11am and despite the fact that we arrived at 11:10am on Thursday, the line was well out the door. It is an indisputable fact of life that fatty brisket is better than lean brisket. That being said, the brisket at Tejas Chocolate managed to be the best EVEN THOUGH it was not the fattiest. That feat can be attributed to the cooking technique and to the well-seasoned bark. Similarly, the pork ribs were not as fatty as some other places but were still a cut above the rest. Tejas Chocolate also was the only barbecue joint we visited on the trip that had pork belly and boy, was it tasty. It was great on its own but even better with the famous mole barbecue sauce, aka “the most expensive barbecue sauce in the world.”

Tejas Chocolate in Houston, Texas

The crazy thing about Tejas Chocolate is that, as the name suggests, they started out making bean-to-bar chocolate. Their revenue wasn’t as good as they hoped and they realized that they needed to try something different. After a few years of experimenting at home making barbecue, they started serving it at the shop and almost IMMEDIATELY landed in the top 10 of the Texas Monthly Top 50. What a story!

Lunch at Tejas Chocolate in Houston, texas

I bought a T-shirt at each barbecue joint and chef Greg at Tejas noticed my Valentina’s shirt when I went to pick up our food. “Great food and great people,” he said.

We couldn’t agree more.

Paul eating barbecue at Tejas Chocolate in Houston, Texas

Best Bite of the trip
Paul: a tie between the Brisket at Tejas Chocolate and Beef Rib at Terry Black’s
Marnay: brisket at Tejas Chocolate

Places we visited
Micklethwait Craft Meats: 1309 Rosewood Ave Austin, TX 78702
Terry Black’s Barbecue: 1003 Barton Springs Rd Austin, TX 78704
Kreuz Market: 619 N Colorado St Lockhart, TX 78644
Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ: 11500 Manchaca Rd Austin, TX 78745
Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue: 200 N Elm St Tomball, TX 77375