MARCH MADNESS: Inaugural Pick’em Tournament

March 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 


March 12,  2010

It is with great pleasure and excitement that we announce our first ever Falls Church Times March Madness Pick’em Tournament.

The annual NCAA Men’s basketball tournament is a whirlwind of an event that never fails to be thrilling and surprising.  Half the fun, of course, is filling out a bracket and following the progress of the teams you have playing into the late rounds.

There is no fee to enter a bracket in the tournament but there will be a first and second place prize!  In keeping with The Little City scope of our paper, we’ve decided on a $75 gift certificate to any restaurant in the City of Falls Church as the grand prize and a Falls Church Farmers Market Gift Basket as the runner-up prize.

The tournament will be run through  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 (if you are not already a yahoo member you will need to create an account—it takes only a minute and is free).  Just remember that the tournament field won’t be announced until Sunday, March 14, so you’ll have to wait until then to make your picks.  And you’ll only have until Thursday, March 18, to make your selections, as that is the first day of tournament play.

If you have any questions or concerns contact Falls Church Times staffer Jimmy Scarano at [email protected].

Once again, to participate:

  • Go to this website:
  • Enter ID Number:  50125
  • Use Password:

May the best bracket win.

FOOD: Panjshir-A Blast from the Past

March 11, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

March 12, 2010

There was a time when Panjshir, the city’s long-standing Afghan restaurant, was considered the cream of the crop in the region for its genre.  It was written up in magazines and praised for its traditional, well-prepared dishes.

In the last five years that’s changed.

Food critics and foodie fanatics have moved on.  A host of newer places, including the nearby Bamian in Falls Church, are the current darlings in a growing Afghan restaurant circuit.  There is a perception out there that Panjshir is stuck in the past—that it caters to an older clientele of regulars with predictable, mildly seasoned food.

This week I embarked on a mission to the 25 year-old institution to see what the story was.  Even though I’d been to the restaurant once before, it was so long ago that it felt like my first time there.

I walked into a fancy dining room half-filled with white-haired grannies; a scene that did not, in all honesty, fill me with confidence.  I know there are ethnic restaurants that are patronized primarily by Westerners and still have good food, but those are few and far between.   Generally I prefer to eat at a place where there are some people dining there from the same ethnic background as the cuisine being served.  It reassures me that I’m getting something reasonably close to the real McCoy.  Nevertheless, I kept an open mind.  Good food can come from anywhere.

I sat down with a couple of friends with plans to order a range of dishes, a few of which I would be tasting for the first time.  Truth be told, I’ve only eaten Afghan food a handful of times.  There are still a ton of dishes I want to explore from the landlocked Central Asian nation.

From what I’ve had so far I’d say Afghan food is most similar to Persian food, which I eat often and love.   Both cuisines work wonders with slowly stewed fruits and vegetables, rice, and charcoal-charred meat kabobs.  They’re neighbors, so that makes sense.  But Afghan cooks also employ a more liberal use of Indian spices—especially cardamom, black pepper and coriander—and incorporate some Turkish-influenced dumpling-like dishes, most notably the meat-filled pillows called mantu (Panjshir calls them muntoo). Like most surrounding countries, bread and yogurt also play integral roles at the table.

I’ve always wanted to try aushak, the scallion-filled cousin of the aforementioned mantu, so we started off with a small order of those.  The little dumplings were drowned in yogurt and a mild tomato-meat sauce and served tepid.  Not good.  A bigger problem was the pasta itself, which was some of the chewiest and toughest I’ve ever had.  The only highlight was the generous sprinkling of dried mint over top of it all, which contributed a unique and welcome savory flavor.  I’m pretty convinced this was a poor rendition of what could be a wonderful dish. Read more

FOOD: Pie-Tanza, Flippin’, and the Pizza Situation

March 5, 2010 by · 17 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

March 5, 2010

What do you look for in a great slice of pizza?

It’s a simple question that often gets a complicated answer.  Pizza is a unique culinary invention, one that for whatever reason has created fierce loyalists that praise particular styles and cooking methods.

Should the crust be crackling crisp, chewy like bread, or a mixture of the two?  Should the cheese be sprinkled liberally, seeping over the sides and oozing everywhere, or should it be applied with restraint, like in the classic Neapolitan Margherita?  Should the sauce be oregano-heavy or nothing but sweet, tangy tomatoes?  Are toppings pleasant additions or unnecessary add-ons?  Is a little grease desirable or disgusting?

The food blog identifies at least 21 regional styles of pizza, ranging from the well-known New York and Chicago variations to more obscure styles like Old Forge, a Pennsylvania-based, cheddar-heavy pie. Clearly, everybody has their own idea of what constitutes the perfect pizza.

What do I look for in a pie?  Well, I like mine minimally-topped with a bright tomato sauce, a little cheese, and a crispy-chewy, heavily charred crust.  I suppose that puts me in the Neapolitan camp.  But I like floppy New York pies and coal-fired New Haven ones too—and other styles as well.  Pizza can only be judged on a case by case basis in my opinion.

When I set out to write a story about pizza in the City of Falls Church I wanted to do an all-out pizza war, but the logistics were a little daunting, so I settled on a showdown between the city’s two newest pizza peddlers: Pie-Tanza and Flippin’.  I dragged my mom and brother along with me as we sampled both places, back-to-back, on the same night.

The wood-burning oven at Pie-Tanza imparts a nice flavor, but it can't save the too-thin crust (

We began at Pie-Tanza, which replaced the Pizza Hut in Falls Plaza almost two years ago.  The sit down restaurant bills itself as a wood-fired pizza joint, but it has a full menu of pastas, salads, and other Italian-American favorites as well.  It’s also a quasi-chain, with locations in nearby Arlington and in Columbia, South Carolina.

At 6 p.m. Pie-Tanza could’ve easily been mistaken for a day care center if not for the giant wood-burning pizza oven.  Little kids were everywhere—and they weren’t just sitting down.  They were running around like they owned the place, playing with pizza dough and screaming at their parents about the pictures they just drew.  That might bother some people, but it didn’t bother us.  We were a focused group that night.

The plan was to get a plain cheese pizza at both places to do a basic assessment of the crust, cheese, and sauce.  But when we saw how small the pies were at Pie-Tanza (they are painfully tiny and somehow 12 bucks a pop) we decided on a classic cheese pie, which at Pie-Tanza includes both mozzarella and fontina cheeses, in addition to a sauce-less white pizza.

My brother, who went to college near New Haven, Connecticut, and lived off the legendary pies at Pepe’s, declared the pizza horrible, shaking his head with every bite.  My mom and I were a little more positive. Being the food-obsessed family that we are, we discussed the pizza at length.

The crust was the biggest problem.  Pie-Tanza rolls its dough paper thin, and it simply can’t hold up to the cheese.  The edges of the pies were nice and crisp, but most of the middle was soggy.  There was a thicker layer of cheese than crust.  It just didn’t work. Read more

FOOD: New Farmers Market Vendors Are Worth a Visit

February 26, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

Jimmy-thumbFebruary 26, 2010

If you haven’t braved the cold weather on Saturday mornings to check out the Falls Church Farmers Market, you’ve been missing out. This winter the city’s food wonderland has bolstered its already stellar vendor line-up with two excellent additions.

In December, Oh! Pickles set up shop, offering a range of classic barrel-cured pickles.  A month later sausage and charcuterie maker Jamie Stachowski, who has developed a cult following among area meat-eaters, snagged a spot and started selling homemade bacon, kielbasa, and a number of other European-style fatty treats.

I’ve been a frequent customer at both.

In a perfect world, the pickles at Oh! Pickles would be locally made from locally grown cucumbers.  Alas, they are imported from the New Jersey-based Patriot Pickle Co., which sells wholesale to many restaurants.  They also contain preservatives, which is a turn-off for many people.  But they sure taste good.

Usually the stall is setup with samples of every kind of pickle, but sometimes they don’t get around to it.  If there are samples the day you happen by, I say just eat them all and decide for yourself which one you like best.  If not, I’d zero in on the classic kosher dills, which add a springy tang to any sandwich.   For a zippier pickle, go for the spicy red hot variety.  The crinkle cut bread-and-butter pickles are a tad on the sweet side but also good.

Stachowski’s stand at the other end of the market has been drawing huge crowds.  The wafting aroma of pork fat sizzling away on a hot plate inside of his jeep is surely a factor in his success.  He doesn’t have a sign yet and he doesn’t need one—market-goers just tilt their noses up and start walking.

A snow-filled Farmers Market with barrels of pickles on display.  Who'da thunk it?

A snow-filled Farmers Market with barrels of pickles on display. Who'da thunk it?

After years toiling in restaurant kitchens (where his homemade charcuterie was often featured on menus), the wonderfully eccentric Buffalo native shifted to meat crafting full-time a little over a year ago when he launched Stachowski Brand Charcuterie.  Since then he’s slowly built up a customer base, selling mostly to restaurants and local specialty food shops, including Red, White, and Bleu, the city’s wine and cheese specialist.  He’s also organized several pick-ups at random spots in the Northern Virginia area through the online foodie forum

Bringing his product to a Farmers Market was a logical next step and we’re lucky to have landed him.  He’s got some seriously good stuff.

Seemingly every person I’ve come across at his stand at the market has walked away with some fresh kielbasa.  The sausage is mildly spiced, a little sweet, and supremely juicy.  The veal bratwurst, laced with cream, is just as succulent and pleasantly subtle.  Both are a far cry away from many of the off-tasting and overly spiced supermarket sausages.  There’s no doubt that they are made with care and calculation.

Some of the smoked products are a little more assertive.  Sometimes it’s just the right amount of smoky goodness, like with the smoked kielbasa, which is a great foil for crusty bread, good mustard, and pickles.  But the Portuguese linguica I brought home a few weeks ago was a little too smoky to enjoy.

Other misses have been the painfully salty Irish bacon, the strangely spiced venison pate and the too-lamby merguez sausage.  But perhaps those are a matter of personal taste.  European-style charcuterie can be quite bold—some people like that and others don’t.  The beauty is that there are always a handful of cooked samples at Stachowski’s stand so you can make the decision for yourself.

Stachowski’s prices aren’t bad either, although they are frustratingly uneven.  Somehow a single piece of Irish bacon (which cooks down to essentially nothing) and a huge link of smoked kielbasa both sell for seven bucks.  I suspect such discrepancies won’t remain for long.  His business is still evolving (take a look at the Web site here) and considering its small scale is doing incredibly well.

A winter time market will never measure up to the bounty of spring, summer, and fall.  But the Falls Church Farmers Market is thriving in these cold months.  Its two newest vendors are chief examples why.

FOOD: Dogwood Tavern — Two Takes

February 19, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 19, 2010

My brother and I are on our way to the City of Falls Church for a late lunch, and I’m throwing out as many ideas as I can.  He keeps shooting them down.

“How about Luzmila’s?” I say.  “I’ve never actually had a sit down meal there.”

“I don’t want Bolivian food,” he says.  “I want French fries.”

I ignore his plea for fries.  He always says that.

“Okay, what about the Lebanese Butcher?” I say.  “I want to try a 10 appetizer deal they have.”

“Nope,” he says.  “Lebanese food is too salty.”

Too tired to launch into argument about how ridiculous it is to call an entire cuisine “too salty,” I suggest a place I know he’ll like, even though I’m not thrilled about it.

“We can go to Dogwood Tavern; I haven’t been there and I know they’ll have French fries.” 

“Hmm, that could be good,” he says.

My brother is more adventurous than most people when it comes to eating out.  He likes Thai, Indian, Chinese, and plenty of other ethnic cuisines.  But he also fiercely defends American food any chance he can, especially when he’s around people that always want to eat something “weird and ethnic” like me.  Macaroni and cheese, steak and cheese, a burger with cheese, grilled cheese—these are some of his favorite things to eat.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Well-executed American food can be delicious.  I just don’t think you find a whole lot of inventive, top-notch American cooking around here.

I’ve avoided Dogwood Tavern for that reason, along with the fact that I don’t really drink beer (which, let’s be honest, is what most people go there for).

Before I have a chance to offer up another suggestion he turns into Dogwood’s parking lot.

“All right, we’re going here,” he says. 

Dogwood Tavern opened in April 2008, the third venture from the same group of owners behind Ragtime and Rhodeside Grill, two Arlington sports bars that draw steady happy hour crowds.   All three places have some overlap in their menus, but each also has unique items that go along with whatever “theme” the place is supposed to be driven by.  Dogwood is meant to be a celebration of Virginia.

That’s evident right as we walk in. The place is tastefully decorated with Virginia memorabilia, and, in general terms, is about as nice a sports bar as I’ve seen.  It’s clean and spacious.  The televisions are plentiful and not obnoxiously loud.  There are even some Mardi Gras decorations peppered throughout the place. I like the vibe.

The classy sign outside Dogwood Tavern is a good predictor for what's inside--a sleek but relaxing space.

The classy sign outside Dogwood Tavern is a good indicator of what's inside–a sleek but relaxing space.

When we sit down to look at the menus I’m a little discouraged.  The supposedly Virginia-centric menu appears to be pretty basic bar fare, with the occasional dish including Virginia ham and a few items involving quasi-regional foods like oysters and catfish.  Other than that there are gimmicky names for regular foods, like the “Shenandoah Slider” or “Potomac Pesto Chicken Wrap.”  I scan the entire menu and can’t find a single item that really peaks my interest.

“Ohhh, they have waffle fries,” my brother says, giddily flipping through the menu.

“You’re unbelievable,” I say.

“Oh man, look at this,” he says, pointing to the Sandwich section.  “I want to order everything on this page.”


But there is hope.  A one-day Mardi Gras menu, which includes a sampler of gumbo, red beans and rice, and jambalaya, is intriguing.  The food reviewer in me says that I should order something off the regular menu because it makes more sense to critique that.  But I convince myself that a sampler will be a good barometer for the type of cooking the restaurant is capable of, even if it includes items not regularly offered.  I order it.

My brother opts for the Hot Turkey and Cheddar sandwich (with waffle fries, of course) and we decide on the Honey Pepper wings as a starter.  I prepare myself for a mediocre meal.

Dogwood doesn't look like a sports bar, does it?

Dogwood doesn't look like a sports bar, does it?

The wings arrive in no time, flanked by the ubiquitous blue cheese dip and celery sticks.  Expecting some sort of sweet heat from a honey-pepper glaze, I don’t get much of anything after one bite.  They are faintly sweet, not at all peppery, and actually a little dry.

“These are good,” my brother says, morphing into his food critic mode.  “The first bite is really sweet, and it’s just a nice salty finish.”

“No, they need more heat,” I say.  “They are fine, but they are a little bland.”

“I knew you would say that,” he says.  “All you ever eat is spicy ethnic food.”

Hmmm.  That’s true.  Then I ask him a question I often ask myself when I ponder a dish.

“Would you tell someone to come here and order these?”

“Yeah, I would,” he says.

He doesn’t say it with conviction, though.  I don’t believe him.

Our main dishes come out just as we finish off the wings.  I snag a waffle fry before my brother drowns his plate in ketchup.  Like the wings, they aren’t bad, but they’re certainly not a talking point.  Surprisingly, my brother agrees.

I already regret getting the Mardi Gras special because I haven’t eaten a ton of Creole food to compare it against.  I can count on one hand the number of time I’ve had red beans and rice, jambalaya, and gumbo.

Nevertheless, I dive into the red beans and rice, which are teeming with smoky andouille sausage.  The dish is mildly seasoned, but I like it for its rib-sticking heartiness and creamy-textured beans.  The jambalaya is not quite as good but I clean the bowl out because I’m hungry.  It lacks the punch I expected.

After one spoonful of the gumbo I almost gag it’s so bad.  I take a second taste just to confirm that it really is that bad and it’s somehow worse the second time around.  The stew is slimy (I think from improperly cooked okra) and off-putting in a way that’s hard to describe.  Something just isn’t right about it. 

A slow-cooked dish that tastes this bad is a problem at a restaurant.  It’s not an overcooked burger or a dried out piece of grilled chicken, which are merely execution issues that can happen from time to time.  It’s a flat-out nasty dish that the kitchen cooked ahead of time, tasted, and deemed good enough to serve at lunch and dinner.  Not good.

When I force my brother to have a taste he shudders after swallowing it down.

“That’s gross,” he says.

My brother’s sandwich is better, he says. 

“This is solid, man.”

I’m so fed up with my gumbo that I don’t even sneak a taste of his sandwich in, which I had planned to do.  Ah well.

For some reason we decide to order a five-layer chocolate cake, which our waitress assures us is “really good.”  It is good, especially if you like fudgy, not-too-sweet, chocolate-packed desserts.  Too bad it comes surrounded with cool whip—an unfortunate sign that a restaurant is content to take shortcuts (fresh whipped cream is embarrassingly easy to make).

I leave indifferent towards the meal and the restaurant.  My brother is more optimistic.

“Its solid bar food; there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says.  “I’d come here again.”

Yes, I see where my brother is coming from.  I get the appeal of decent food in a relaxing atmosphere with a good beer selection and plenty of HD TVs.  I get 50 cent wing nights and half price raw bar specials.  I get live music three times a week.  Dogwood fills a niche that I completely understand. 

I just don’t happen to fall into it.    

Dogwood Tavern is located at 132 West Broad Street, Falls Church, VA, 22046-4201.  Phone: (703) 237-8333 

FOOD: My Column Philosophy

February 12, 2010 by · 5 Comments 


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Falls Church Times Staff

February 12, 2010

A few months ago I wrote about an Armenian coffee shop called Arax Café in Arlington, prompting a commenter to question why I would talk about an Arlington establishment in an online newspaper about the City of Falls Church.  I emailed him an explanation and it was later posted in the comments section of that story by the commenter.  In essence that response was a hurried version of my “column philosophy.”  Since then, I’ve still occasionally gotten comments that suggest a level of irritation when I feature a place outside of the City boundaries.

A snowed-in week is as good a time as any to give a more well-thought-out version of that philosophy, which I feel Falls Church Times readers have long been entitled to.  I think it is important for you to know where I am coming from, how I go about choosing a place to review, and why there are certain places that I tend to avoid writing about.

My food column is unique and challenging to write when you consider the circumstances.  I am attempting to write relevant, timely stories every single week about a relatively small area with a relatively small population and only so many restaurants and markets.  To think that I could keep my column fresh by focusing only on City establishments is absurd.  And, honestly, I think it would make for a pretty boring column.  Just going a few miles outside of the City boundaries every once in awhile allows me to talk about so many more places and cover so many more cuisines.

Also—and this is crucial—I want to write about places that have memorable food.  Finding great meals trumps geography ten times out of ten for me (within reason of course—I’m not about to venture into Maryland or anything).  I would much rather write a column about a place two miles outside of the City with fantastic food than a place in the City that has average food.  I am not a promoter of City of Falls Church restaurants.  I promote places that I think are worthy of a visit for a City of Falls Church resident.  Many of those places are in the City.  Some are not.

Many of those places are also ethnic restaurants.  I choose to write about ethnic places often because this area has great examples of many cuisines and because I want to broaden people’s horizons.  It seems silly to me to write reviews of beloved City restaurants like Argia’s, Clare and Don’s, and Anthony’s.   I’d much rather profile a gem like Rabieng, tucked away off Route 7 and not far from the City at all, or a place in the City like Indian Spices, which sees little business but has some great imported stuff.  I want City residents to think outside the box a little, to step outside of their comfort zone and try some new things right in their backyard and right in their neighbors’ backyard.

The Falls Church Times is an online newspaper dedicated to the City of Falls Church and its readers want to read about all things City-related.  I understand that.  But when it comes to eating out I believe a little flexibility is in order.  That’s why I write every single story through the lens of the City of Falls Church, but not necessarily about a City-based establishment.


FOOD: Let’s Talk Thai

February 4, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

February 5, 2010

In my more than eight months as a Falls Church Times staffer I’ve written about an endless number of cuisines.  But I haven’t covered a Thai restaurant yet, which is odd, because I ‘m addicted to Thai food.  In my mind, no cuisine on Earth can match Thai in terms of balance and contrast.  A great Thai meal hits more points on your palate than you thought were there.

Unfortunately, I haven’t encountered a place in the City of Falls Church that has me itching to go back.  My recent meals at Sweet Rice and Pilin Thai were okay at best—definitely nothing to write home about.  I would never point a City resident towards them if they were looking for spicy, flavorful, knock-your-socks-off Thai food.

Instead, I would tell them to get in their car and head a few miles down Route 7 to Rabieng, a hard-to-see spot in the Culmore section of Falls Church.  Though Rabieng has its flaws, most things I’ve had there are a notch above the competition.  Foods marked with a chili pepper or two on the menu are actually spicy.  Coconut milk-fortified curries are rich and complex, not watery and bland like so many other restaurant versions.  And, perhaps best of all, in an age when every Thai restaurant seems to have the same boring menu, Rabieng offers signature creations and regional dishes that set it apart.

The restaurant has been around since the mid-1990s, making it a veteran in the Thai circuit.  It’s actually an off-shoot of the fine dining Thai palace Duangrat’s, which opened in 1987 as the first “fancy” Thai restaurant in the region and still sits right around the corner.  But Rabieng is more casual and more affordable, with many of the same menu items for a few bucks cheaper.  If you go all out for a dinner the most you’ll spend, after tax and tip, is 25 bucks a person.  I’ve never even ventured over to its bigger sister for that reason (though I recently learned of a $9.95 lunch special at Duangrat’s, so that will soon change).

A few of the dishes I’ve enjoyed at Rabieng over the years are borderline transcendent.

One is the panang curry with slow-cooked dark meat chicken.  Now, this is a Thai restaurant staple, usually described as “insert protein here” with coconut and peanut curry sauce.  Rabieng’s rendition is spicier than most, luscious with coconut milk, and so good that you’ll be thinking of ways to bring it up in conversations with friends and complete strangers (well, at least that’s what I do).

Just as good is the roast pork in a red curry sauce with pineapples, tomatoes, and rambutans, which usually appears as a special.  The dish is a riff on a Thai classic generally made with roast duck, but Rabieng’s uber-tender slivers of pork are a great stand-in.  Even so, the meat takes a back seat to the dreamy red curry sauce, which is silky with coconut milk goodness and spicy-sweet.   It’s a textbook example of how complex a red curry can be, somehow harmonizing shrimp paste, chilies, lemongrass, shallots, cilantro roots, and a host of other ingredients.  The best bites are the ones with a little pork, a little rice, and an inordinate amount of sauce.

Beyond those two excellent curries there are plenty of other good bets.  The wok roasted cashews, flecked with scallions and fiery Thai bird chilies, get better with every bite.  Tidbit, a long-time signature appetizer, is another good way to start the meal.  The dish consists of pressed fried rice cakes and an accompanying sauce of coconut, peanut, and pork, which sounds odd but tastes like a satay sauce gone wild.  My only caution would be to avoid too many fried appetizers, as some of them—like, say, the spring rolls and fried calamari—taste mostly of the oil they were cooked in.

You’re better off getting one of the many salads, most of which are laced with a bracing chili and lime vinaigrette and have a similar hot and sour flavor profile.  Or, if the weather is right, go for a soup.  I delved into that section of the menu for the first time on my most recent visit and I’m sorry I waited so long.  The Chicken Galangal soup, Rabieng’s take on the classic tom kha gai, is easily the most balanced one I’ve come across in a restaurant.  Usually it’s too salty or too sour or too hot.  At Rabieng it’s a pleasant balancing act of all three.

Stir-fries can be a weak point, especially if you order more generic-sounding options like something in “brown sauce” or “with ginger.”  But anything with chili, garlic, and basil, the Thai Holy Trinity that first hooked me on the cuisine many years ago, is pretty tasty.  There is also a respectable (but oily) rendition of drunken noodles, one of the hottest dishes in the Thai repertory.

Seafood is a gamble.  At times it can be fresher than you’d expect from such a small, well-priced restaurant.  But just as often it’s a little old and a little off-tasting.  If you’re feeling lucky and want to chance it, go for the Southern Satoh Shrimp, a spicy, saucy stir-fry with just the slightest hint of funkiness from dried shrimp and sator beans, also known as “stink beans” because of their pungent flavor.

It’s rare that I recommend saving room for dessert at a restaurant.  Most places are out to get you with over-priced, skimpy portions of rather blah sweets.  But at Rabieng you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t save room for the Mango with Sticky Rice or the Coconut-Tapioca Pudding.  Both are Thai standards done with uncommon finesse.

If you walk into Rabieng on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you’ll be handed a “Thai Dim Sum” menu, which sports a number of Thai-inspired small plates priced at about five bucks per plate.  Though there are some great eats among the bunch, especially the incendiary chili-basil fried rice topped with a fried egg, I prefer the standard menu items.  Still, the chance to gorge on three or four plates per person is a fun dining out excursion that I’d recommend to eaters that can never decide what to get.

The bottom line: Order strategically and a trip to Rabieng can be a memorable one.  Just be sure to prepare yourself for some serious heat—most of the good stuff will leave a pleasant burning sensation on your tongue.  Also be sure to drop by Duangrat’s Market next door before or after your meal.  Though dingy and disorganized, the small grocer is a great source for Thai pantry items and the closest Thai market to the City of Falls Church.  The selection of ready-made curry pastes (including the well-regarded Mae Ploy brand), Thai cooking implements, and eclectic Thai snacks is impressive.  I find myself there quite often, usually so I have an excuse to swing by Rabieng.

Rabieng is located at 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA, 22041.  703-671-4222

FOOD: A Little of Everything at Halalco Supermarket

January 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

January 22, 2010

If you are a City of Falls Church resident there’s a good chance you’ve seen the black and white BUFFET yard signs for Halalco Restaurant scattered throughout town.  They are simply unavoidable.

I first saw one on Lee Highway a few months back, and I got a chance to look at it long and hard because I was sitting at a red light.  I had never heard of Halalco, so I was intrigued on some level.  But buffets are rarely rewarding and frequently horrid to the point where you regret eating at them, so I filed the name in the back of my mind as a possible destination for some food column far, far away.

Far, far away turned out to be last week.  After some internet sleuthing I learned that Halalco Restaurant was actually inside of Halalco Supermarket, a fully stocked grocer with loads of imported goods, a butcher, produce, and tons of Islamic items, ranging from clothes to books to DVDs.  The buffet was but a small part of a huge operation.  What was once an afterthought for a story jumped to the top of my list (yes, I have a list).

The meat men at work at Halalco.

The meat men at work at Halalco.

My anticipation only grew as I pulled into the strip mall housing Halalco.  The place is absolutely massive.  I went through the doors and didn’t walk out for another hour, as I was intent on checking out every nook and cranny of the chaotically organized store.

I began in the produce department.  Unfortunately there wasn’t much to like there.  A dozen or so bunches of cilantro covered with ice were on life support, as bruised and battered as I’ve ever seen the pungent herb.  Japanese eggplants—wrinkly, pliable, and soft—weren’t much better off.  Clearly there wasn’t much turnover in the fruit and veggies department.  I moved on.

The bread aisle was much more promising, jam-packed with lavash bread (both white and whole wheat) from Falls Church’s Mama Lavash Bakery, several types of soft and chewy Afghan bread, and more than a few bags of pita.   I immediately recognized the red-lettered “World Famous” variety of Afghan bread made in Lorton, Virginia, which I’ve bought elsewhere and is a particular favorite of mine.  The dough is made with milk and is especially tender as a result.  It’s about as good as bread out of a package can get.

The rest of the aisles were a mish-mash of imported goods from all over the Middle East, India, and the Eastern Mediterranean.  It was as if a Middle Eastern grocer and an Indian grocer met up and decided to join forces.  One aisle was full of tahini and pomegranate molasses, the next overflowing with whole spices and Indian pre-packaged meals.  And there were pickles, dozens and dozens of cans and jars of pickles.  Pickled beets, pickled okra, pickled peppers, pickled eggplant, pickled cucumbers—everything was pickled.

I also stumbled upon some excellent cooking implements, including real-deal kabob swords for grilling, ma’moul cookie molds, and mortar and pestles.  And there was an entire section devoted to rice, most of which came in mulch-sized bags.

You could spend an afternoon weighing your options in the rice aisle at Halalco.

You could spend an afternoon weighing your options in the rice aisle at Halalco.

Most of the aisles I walked down were deserted, though.  Everyone who walked in the store went straight to the butcher in the back.  Clearly, the vast selection of halal meats is the draw for most customers.  In addition to the typical lamb and chicken offerings, there were halal hot dogs, sausages, and even jerky, none of which I’d ever seen before.

In general terms, halal refers to anything that is permitted under Islamic law, whether it be the clothes you wear, the things you say, or the food you eat.  In the United States the term usually shows up only in the context of food.  In order to be considered halal, an animal must be slaughtered at the neck (to drain the blood away) and the name of Allah must be spoken as it is killed.  The halal butcher industry has blossomed in these parts due to the area’s large Muslim population, which I am thankful for because halal meat is usually fresh and affordable.

I hovered around the butcher for a few minutes, transfixed by the huge saw ten feet in front of me grinding through lamb bones.  It was thrilling to have such a wide-open view of the men handling the meat—an opportunity you never get at places like Giant or Safeway.

I forged on to the non-food area of the store, mostly because I saw a sign for cookbooks.  Mere footsteps away from the lamb carcasses I found the mother lode-unquestionably the best selection of cookbooks for sale in the City of Falls Church.  An entire shelf spilled over with some of the best-known titles for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, including works from legends like Claudia Roden, Paula Wolfert, and Madhur Jaffrey.  Even better than the well-known books were the dozens of funky little paperbacks I flipped through that are definitely not available at Barnes & Noble or Borders.

I got so caught up in the cookbooks that I ran out of time to eat at the buffet, which looked a little dreary anyways.  Nevertheless, I felt compelled to give it a try and went back this week.  Nothing was horrible but I would never go out of my way to eat there.  Most of the food was either Indian or Pakistani in nature, the bulk of it vegetable curries.  There were also some meat dishes, all with similar home-style, tomato-based curry preparations.

The only way I’d eat there again would be if I was already shopping and had a hankering for spicy, oily Indian food.  In that case I’d load up on the squash curry, chickpeas, and chicken karahi, which were the best of what I sampled.  And if you do brave the buffet be sure to wait for the piping hot disc of naan that comes with the meal—every dish tastes better sopped up with the Indian flatbread.  There are order-off-the-menu options as well, but frankly it doesn’t seem like anybody is there to eat at the restaurant, so I’d steer clear.

Taken as a whole package, Halalco Supermarket is undoubtedly a worthy place to visit for adventurous food shoppers.  Once you sift through the sub-par produce and haphazardly organized shelves (good luck finding the price on some of the products), you’ll find a gem of a grocer the City is lucky to have.

Halalco Supermarket- 155 Hillwood Avenue, Falls Church, VA, 22046.  (703) 532-3202.  For more information on the halal meat industry in the Washington D.C. area, click here for a great article from the Washington Post.

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