January 29, 2010 (republished January 11, 2013)
After a few ho-hum experiences with Ethiopian food in high school I was ready to swear off the cuisine forever. Even though Washington D.C. — especially the “Little Ethiopia” neighborhood at 9th and U streets– reputedly has the best Ethiopian dining scene in the country, I couldn’t bring myself to shell out cash for what I perceived to be nothing more than mushy vegetables and cold, sour, spongy bread.
Then I went to Virginia Tech and everything changed.
My four years in Blacksburg, Virginia, were, for the most part, unbearable when it came to eating out. Most places were generic sports bars or pathetic attempts at Chinese, Thai, or Mexican food. One day, out of sheer desperation for something “ethnic” I tried a hole-in-the-wall, one-woman take-out Ethiopian joint called Excellent Table, which had been open a few months and seen little business.
Given what I thought of Ethiopian food and what the standards were for restaurants in Blacksburg my expectations were unbelievably low. But I was shocked at the freshness of the food, the spicy complexity of the lentils and meat stews, and even the injera, the ubiquitous flatbread that I’d only had cold and sour could apparently be pleasantly tangy and earthy when made right. I went back several times, gaining more respect and admiration for Ethiopian cooking each visit.
Now back in Northern Virginia I’ve gotten away from Ethiopian food a bit. I’ve neglected the cuisine in favor of so many others that I can’t get enough of. I’ve been pulled away by the Eden Center and great Thai, Chinese, and Middle Eastern restaurants in the region. I’ve been on Indian kicks and Lebanese kicks and Persian kicks. And that’s a loss for me, because Ethiopian food is soulful and unique.
So this week I finally got off my rump and hit up Meaza Restaurant, one of a few Ethiopian restaurants within a reasonable grasp of the City of Falls Church. The gargantuan, tastefully decorated eatery (supposedly the biggest Ethiopian restaurant in the United States) straddles the border between Falls Church and Arlington and has garnered rave reviews by every major news outlet. Meaza is widely recognized as the best Ethiopian restaurant outside of Washington D.C. proper. Many food writers even consider it to be better than the innumerable Ethiopian award-winners in the District.
After one visit all I can say is that I will be back. Though it was just a single meal, my dining companion and I ordered a variety of dishes, easily enough to feed four people. Essentially, I crammed two trips to the restaurant into one lunch.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first, because there wasn’t much of it. In fact, the only thing we got that I wouldn’t order again were the sambusas, Ethiopia’s off-shoot of the fried Indian turnovers called samosas. They were oily, heavy, tepid, and bland, and a horrible waste of calories to start your meal with. Also, I suppose the service wasn’t fantastic. I’ve read many complaints in reviews and online about slow servers, unfilled water glasses, and missed orders. Nothing on my visit was too egregious, but there was some difficulty in placing the order because of the language barrier and the waitress was a tad pushy. If you go in expecting so-so service you’ll probably leave happy.
Food-wise, everything we got after the sambusas was either good or excellent. And all of it was greatly aided by the first-rate injera that Meaza makes on-site. The starchy staple of choice in Ethiopia, injera is a thin-as-a-pancake, fermented flatbread traditionally made from teff, an ancient grain that resembles millet. Most every Ethiopian dish is served atop of a piece of injera, which soaks up sauces and gravies beautifully. Additional injera is used to pick up whatever is on the plate, including the well-drenched injera. No utensils necessary.
Teff is expensive to get in the states (though it is grown in the Midwest now); so many Ethiopian cooks use part teff and part wheat flour to make their bread. Meaza makes both an all-teff injera and a half-and-half one, but you’ve got to ask for the all-teff to get it and pay an extra dollar. We opted to have our meal served on the half-and-half but got all-teff on the side for scooping. The “pure” bread was noticeably darker in color, and, to my taste, a little bit less sour and more pleasant to eat. For a measly buck, I’d splurge for the traditional stuff.
The dish I’d be most inclined to order again—and, actually, the one I would order every single time if I were with a big group—is the #7 special vegetarian combination meal. Ethiopian’s treat vegetables and legumes in a delicious manner, gussying them up with chilies, ginger, onions, and berbere, an indispensable spice mixture with a laundry list of ingredients.
I won’t recount every dish on our platter, which included eight dollops of veggies and lentils, but there were a few that really spoke to me. The mesir wat, an earthy, rich, brick-red mass of lentils, was excellent. Wat means stew in Ethiopian and pretty much any dish involving the word is chockfull of spice and seasoning, thickened with cooked-to-death onions, and uncommonly delicious. The jalapeno and ginger-studded collard greens, called gomen, were another standout. They were tender but not mushy and the perfect foil for the injera. They were also strikingly similar to the greens I’d had in Blacksburg, which gave them some bonus nostalgic points.
But the best part of the special veggie combo was one of the elements that separates it from the standard veggie combo; a salad of injera and tomato known as timatim fitfit. I’d never had the dish before but went gaga over it after one bite. It’s nothing more than leftover shards of injera with tomatoes, onions, and a light lemon dressing. Yet it is so refreshing and bright, and such a great counter to the heavier stews and meat dishes. Having tried it, I don’t see how anyone can justify getting the regular veggie combo.
To test out the meat options, we opted for the doro wat, a richly spiced chicken stew served with hard boiled eggs that is the nation’s national dish, and the lamb tibs with awaze sauce. Both were spooned onto our communal platter of injera, which housed all the veggies from the sampler on the perimeter.
Doro wat was often on the menu at Excellent Table in Blacksburg, so I’m quite familiar with the dish. Meaza’s rendition was spot-on but its flavor profile overlapped too much with the mesir wat. But that was my fault because I ordered both. Also, I had forgotten that the dish is usually served with one scrawny piece of chicken and is mostly about the sauce, so don’t expect a plate full of chicken if you order it.
I’d never had lamb tibs or anything prepared with awaze sauce before, so it was a thrill to try both in one dish. Tibs are a quick-cooked Ethiopian specialty, usually consisting of stir-fried pieces of beef or lamb teeming with jalapenos, onions, and garlic. They can be eaten as is or embellished with a marinade in awaze sauce, which typically includes red wine or Ethiopian honey wine and all kinds of spices. Our tibs could have been a tad tenderer but were still perfectly delicious—spicy, assertive, and fun to pick up with the injera.
There’s still plenty on the menu I’d like to try, including the kitfo, a famously spicy minced raw beef preparation, and any number of lamb and beef tibs variations. If my meal is any indication most of it will be pretty darn tasty. This is the sort of place where you should feel comfortable exploring much of the menu. Someone in the kitchen really cares about what they are putting out.
Meaza’s also a good bargain. The portions are generous and, considering the quality, well-priced. You could get out at 15 to 20 bucks a person for dinner no problem.
So the only real hurdle for a City of Falls Church resident is getting there. But if you’re an adventurous diner with a pension for spicy foods, I think a ten or fifteen minute trek isn’t too much to ask.
Meaza Restaurant is located at 5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church, Virginia, 22941. (Click for map.) 703-820-2870.
(Editor’s Note: Kathleen Nixon has succumbed to the flu and will be taking a break for the next few weeks. Over the holidays she visited Meaza and concurs with Jimmy’s assessment of the restaurant.)
This article originally ran on July 10, 2009. After a visit to Present last weekend, it seemed time to re-run Jimmy Scarano’s review (while Falls Church Times food writers took a summer break). If you haven’t made it to Present, perhaps this will entice you to give it a try!
(Photos by Jimmy Scarano)
Few restaurants in the area have received as much buzz in the last year as Present, a sleek Vietnamese spot tucked away in an unassuming strip mall off Route 50 just west of Annandale Road. (Click here for map.)
What began as glowing reviews from bloggers and chatters all over the local message boards grew into a spot on both the Washingtonian’s Best Restaurants list and its Best Bargains list (a rare feat). Then in late May the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema dished out high praise with a three star review.
Well, now it’s my turn.
With so much already being said I was tempted to keep it short and sweet, but that just wouldn’t do it justice. Present is a destination restaurant deserving of all the attention it’s gotten — perhaps more.
The service is on par with a fine dining establishment, yet there is also a casual, easy- going vibe that the wait staff exudes so that you never feel like you’re being uncomfortably pampered. And the atmosphere is cool and clean, complete with a bubbling waterfall and tastefully decorated walls.
But what really lingers on the mind after a meal at Present isn’t the smiling waiters or the décor. It’s the food. Few kitchens are capable of putting out such memorable and original dishes.
Chief among these are the much hyped Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Rolls. Fans of the typical Vietnamese spring rolls will barely recognize these delicate fried cigars of pork and shrimp wrapped in thin sheets of a hand-woven rice flour batter. They are shatteringly crisp and perfect rolled up with the accompanying mint, lettuce, pickled vegetables, and nuoc cham. Get them.
Texture and contrast also play a key role in the other-worldly green papaya salad, which combines thin strips of the unripe fruit with beef jerky, beef liver jerky (trust me, it’s good), crushed roasted peanuts, and Thai basil. Chewy, crunchy, and nutty, the salad is made even more complex when tossed with the accompanying soy, vinegar, and chili based sauce. Throw in some of the crispy shrimp chips it comes with and I can just about guarantee that you’ve never had a salad like this in your life.
Even simple, more common Vietnamese dishes are given special attention here. The ubiquitous stir fry of chicken with lemongrass and chilies, so often cloyingly sweet and bland, is fiery and fragrant with copious amounts of fresh lemongrass. It’s the best version of the dish I’ve ever had.
One thing you can be sure of is that whatever dish you order, it’s going to look fantastic. Artful presentation is a huge part of the Imperial-style cuisine that head chef Luong Tran brought with him from Vietnam. A minced clam appetizer comes out in a gargantuan edible sesame rice cracker bowl meant to mimic a shell. And the refreshing seafood salad with fine-diced pineapple, calamari, carrots, red onions, and plump shrimp arrives in a hollowed out pineapple.
The artistry on the plate goes hand in hand with the whimsically written menu, in which each item is given a creative name. A knock-out rendition of the Vietnamese classic shaken beef is called “Cow on the Open Field.” “Mosaic Pathway” is an elegant stir fry of cellophane noodles, veggies and jumbo lump crab meat. Reading a menu has never been so much fun.
But the playfulness of the plating and the flowery descriptions of the food can’t hide the precision and technique that goes into every dish. The cooking at Present is carefully composed and constructed with a level of care seldom seen in a place where you can eat for less than 20 bucks a head. This is the sort of restaurant you want to go to with a big group of adventurous eaters so you can get a bite of all of the different textures and flavors the kitchen can coax out of so many unique and exciting ingredients. It’s an experience as well as a meal.
And that’s exactly the aim of owner Gene Nguyen.
I had a conversation with him and General Manager Austin Pham last week and they both talked about changing the perceptions of Vietnamese cuisine with their restaurant. They want to show people that authentic Vietnamese food is worthy of a refined setting with excellent service.
“I want to bring Vietnamese food to a higher level,” Nguyen said.
He’s doing it by recruiting masterful chefs like Tran (as well as talent from as far as California and the Caribbean) and maintaining a professional wait staff that knows the menu backwards and forwards.
The entire staff, Nguyen and Pham included, routinely tests out the menu items to make sure they are consistently good.
“If I don’t like something I take it off,” said Nguyen, who takes pride in personally picking out much of the produce, meat, and seafood used for the restaurant.
Something tells me that occasion is rare. Chef Tran’s attention to detail is staggering. He uses seven types of fish sauce in the kitchen and even imports some from Vietnam that take as long as 45 days to get to the U.S.. And his sauces and garnishes are so complex that even Nguyen doesn’t know the process behind making them all. I asked him how the beef liver jerky in the green papaya salad was prepared and he just shrugged his shoulders.
“The chef has so many secrets,” he said.
And to think, Present could have ended up somewhere else. Nguyen said he had many suitors in the D.C. area — and even one in Charleston, South Carolina (gasp!) — when he was looking for a location for his restaurant.
Now that it’s found a home, Pham, who usually greets people at the door and has chatted with many a happy customer, said people are coming from Baltimore and beyond to get a taste.
But all we Falls Churchians have to do is venture half a mile outside the City and we’re at the doorstep. How lucky are we.
April 16, 2010
This will be the last installment of my weekly food column for the Falls Church Times. No more obsessive Farmers Market taste tests. No more waxing poetic about the Eden Center. No more bashing Pie-Tanza and Elevation Burger. It’s all over. I’m off to graduate school to begin the next chapter in my life.
To say that I’ll miss the Times is a gross understatement. Food and writing are two passions of mine that I was able to indulge simultaneously with this gig, which also allowed me to work with some of the nicest, most down-to-earth people I’ve met—the Falls Church Times Staff.
Stan Fendley has backed me up no matter what I’ve written. I’ve gotten words of encouragement and advice from Dave Witzel, Scott Taylor, Annette Hennessey, George Bromley, Gina Caceci, and Stephen Siegel on numerous occasions. And Man About Town Columnist George Southern, well, he’s been about the best editor a writer could ever have—helping me along every step of the way with uncommon thoughtfulness. I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my columns as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. For the most part, I’ve avoided writing about the City’s most popular places, which I don’t see the point in reviewing. Instead I’ve focused on lesser known ethnic places and foods available here that aren’t available elsewhere. There are many places I didn’t get a chance to profile and many dishes I didn’t get a chance to try, but I had a blast exploring new restaurants, shopping at ethnic grocers, and expanding my horizons at the Farmers Market.
I’ll leave you with one last labor of love—a list of the “Top 10 Food-Related Things I’ll Miss the Most in and Around the City of Falls Church.” It’s a long title for a list but I can’t think of a better name. I’ve tried to cover all the bases, from markets to restaurants to places in the City and outside of it but not too far away. At best I think it’s a useful tool for any City resident interested in getting the most of the unique food offerings around the Little City. I call it a list of things I’ll miss, but from your perspective it’s really just my list of the “Top 10 Food-Related Things to Take Advantage of in and Around the City of Falls Church.”
If I mention a place that I’ve written a story about in the past then I’ve included a link to that story to give you some more information about it. If I mention a place that I didn’t get a chance to write a story about I’ve included the address in parentheses. And if I don’t mention a place you think I should’ve mentioned, well, I’m sorry about that. So here’s the list, beginning with the place I’ll miss the very most…
Top 10 Food-Related Things I’ll Miss the Most in and Around the City of Falls Church
- The Eden Center- I’ve probably written more about this City gem than anything else. The Eden Center is a food paradise with over 30 Vietnamese restaurants and bakeries that I’ve only scratched the surface of even though I’ve been there dozens of times. I’ll miss Huong Viet—Eden’s oldest and most often crowded restaurant– the most. Its spring rolls, smoky grilled meats, and gutsy lemongrass-centric stir fries are a terrific introduction to a great cuisine. If you haven’t been to Eden you simply must go. If you only go occasionally then you should go more often. And if you just don’t feel like dealing with the notoriously bad parking at least head down to Present Restaurant in Falls Church to enjoy some just-as-good Vietnamese cooking– its the cuisine this area specializes in better than any other.
The Farmers Market- There are Farmers Markets everywhere. But it’s going to be hard for me to find one better than the one the City is so blessed to have. I’ll miss the tomatoes at Tree and Leaf and Potomac Vegetable Farms. I’ll miss the glorious fruit at Toigo and Black Rock Orchard. I’ll miss Mike Musachio’s sweet corn and spring peas. Most of all, though, I’ll miss the market experience as a whole. The hustle and bustle of a Saturday morning at the Farmers Market is invigorating. Read more
By JIMMY SCARANO
Falls Church Times Staff
April 10, 2010
This year’s unpredictable NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament made for a great race to the finish of the Falls Church Times’ inaugural pick’em competition. Over 30 loyal Times readers joined the yahoo.com-run contest for a chance to win a $75 gift certificate to a City restaurant or a Falls Church Farmers Market gift basket.
When Duke and Butler tipped off in an unlikely finale this past Monday night the bracket winner was still in doubt. With a heart-wrenching Duke victory, City residents Daniel Butler and Dennis Zaenger—who both picked the Blue Devils to go all the way– leaped to the top of the leader board. The two tied for first place, but Mr. Butler won the tiebreaker because of his closer prediction of the final score of the game.
Had Butler upset Duke, Man About Town Columnist George Southern would’ve claimed the crown. Whew, that was a close one.
Thanks to all that participated and better luck next year. Click here to see the final standings of the competition.
April 2, 2010
Tomorrow the Falls Church Farmers Market will return to its spring and summer hours, opening at 8 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. That may not sound like big news, but I think it is. The time switch signifies the fact that the produce-packed wonderland we all know and love will start to show itself in the coming weeks.
Don’t get me wrong. I love what the market has become during the winter months. There are meats, pastas, preserves, and cheeses that rival—and in many ways outshine– the best supermarkets. But for me a farmers market is first and foremost about fruits and vegetables. The City Hall parking looks its best when it’s a reflection of the season.
Don’t expect to see much just yet, though. If we’re lucky there may be some ramps available this weekend or next. The red-tinged wild leeks are one of the earliest spring vegetables to sprout up, often showing up in the first week of April. For years they were overlooked and thought of as “country folk” food that only people out in the boonies foraged for. Now they’re one of the hottest seasonal items on high-end restaurant menus, prized for their unique oniony-garlicky kick. If a vendor brings some along snatch them up and add them to an omelet for a totally-worth-the-bad-breath flavor punch.
By mid-April asparagus and spring lettuces will dominate the landscape. It’s imperative to catch the asparagus as early as possible. The later asparagus crops pale in comparison to the first ones, which bring specimens so thin and tender that they usually don’t require any peeling. Rhubarb, which has a tragically short growing season and is vastly underutilized in the kitchen, may also make an appearance before May. Stock up and freeze all that you can for pies, cobblers, jams and even savory stews—rhubarb’s wonderfully tart flavor works in both sweet and savory dishes.
I’m counting the days until the first garlic scapes hit the stands. I discovered the two foot long green tendrils last spring and fell in love with them. They are a part of the garlic plant that is snipped off to encourage the growth of the bulb, and until recently were never sold at markets. But instead of throwing them away farmers have turned to selling them with great success. They have the taste of mild garlic mixed with spring onions and the texture of asparagus bottoms. I encourage you to chop them up in sautés, pulverize them into pesto-related concoctions, and just enjoy them for the precious few weeks they are available. A garlic scape is something you will never see on a supermarket shelf.
Mike Musachio’s peas are another spring treat I’ve been looking forward to for many months. I called the long-time farmer and veteran Falls Church Farmers Market vendor the other day to see when they would be ready and he said some time in mid-May. Mark your calendars. Why so few vendors carry fresh peas anymore is beyond me. They are irresistible, especially in the hands of a master like Musachio, who puts them on ice at the market to preserve their sweet spring essence.
Strawberries will likely come around the same time as peas. I suggest you come early when they first arrive because the minute I see some I am going to buy several quarts. A locally grown, in-season strawberry is a treat like few things on this planet.
By late May things will really start to pick up. But that’s another story. For now, it’s all about the anticipation of those first few spring treasures. Don’t forget to seek them out in the next few months, because before you know it they will be gone.
March 25, 2010
If you take the Eden Center out of the equation, I think the Lebanese Butcher is the city’s most intriguing restaurant. Not only does it have a wide-ranging, extremely affordable menu of home-style food, but it also has a killer butcher shop and grocer right next door, which is owned by the same family and predates the restaurant.
Naturally, many of the locally raised halal meats and imported Lebanese goodies at the butcher make appearances on the menu at the small café. It’s a unique set-up that ensures quality and affords diners the chance to stop by two fun places in one visit. That’s the reason I took a few trips there last June and wrote a short piece about it for the Falls Church Times.
Now, generally after I write a review of a place it means the end of me going there for some time. But I haven’t been able to get the Lebanese Butcher out of my head. While I enjoyed the few items I tried off their menu—especially the garlic-laced chicken shawarma sandwich—I knew there were some special dishes I missed out on. For months every time I drove by I thought about stopping in to try the aya maza, a 10 appetizer sampler for $19.95 meant to be split between two people.
This week I caved, dragging my brother along with me on a mission to tackle the aya maza. Not being a huge fan of Lebanese food to begin with, he was not thrilled about this mission. I assured him that there would be good things on the plate. Read more
March 19, 2010
There are so many incredible Asian food markets within a 10 mile radius of the City of Falls Church.
Great Wall off Gallows Rd. in Falls Church may be the craziest of the bunch. On Saturday mornings the check-out lines are often ten people deep, comprised mostly of Chinese grandmothers stocking up on loads of fresh vegetables and fish straight out of the live tanks that line the back of the store. The Korean-centric H Mart across the street is similarly chaotic, teeming with people at all hours of the day.
At Duangrats in Falls Church and Bangkok 54 Market in nearby Arlington homesick Thais shuffle in throughout the week for curry pastes, fresh rice noodles, kaffir lime leaves, and other hard-to-find items. Every time I go to one of them I leave with a new treasure I’ve never tasted in my life.
And there are countless other places that get plenty of well-deserved business—the Grand Mart just outside the city; the Cho Saigon Supermarket at the Eden Center; the Happy Go Supermarket in Annandale.
But there is an overlooked gem amongst these popular Asian grocers — a place that sees far fewer people walk through its doors. It’s called Asian Imports and it’s right here in the Little City.
Asian Imports (formerly known as Vietnam Imports) isn’t nearly as big or well-stocked as much of its brethren, and some of the products seem to have been untouched for years. It doesn’t really carry any fresh produce, meats, or fish worth noting either. Truthfully, the place doesn’t look like much at all on the surface.
Start perusing the shelves, though, and you’ll quickly realize this is no generic Asian market. Even though you’ll find some of the same Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean items that other stores carry, Asian Imports specializes in Indonesian and Filipino imported foods, both of which are hard to come by around here. There are dozens of products and brands at this cramped storefront that you simply can’t find elsewhere. For that reason alone, this place is worth a trip. Read more
By JIMMY SCARANO
Falls Church Times Staff
March 17, 2010
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off tomorrow, which means time is running out to sign up for the first ever Falls Church Times pick’em pool.
Remember that it’s free to enter a bracket in the tournament and there are prizes available for the top two finishers! The winner will win a $75 gift certificate to a restaurant in the City of Falls Church of his or her choice and the runner-up will win a hand-picked gift basket of Falls Church Farmers Market goodies.
The tournament is being run through yahoo.com. If you wish to participate all you have to do is click here and press the “join a group” icon. The group ID number is 50125 and the password is fallschurchtimes.com (if you are not already a yahoo member you will need to create an account—it takes only a minute and is free).
Let the madness begin.