“Iron Chef” – MEH Husky Style

January 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

By Julie Walters
Falls Church Times Staff
January 28, 2014

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, more than 40 Mary Ellen Henderson 7th graders competed in the school’s second annual “Husky Chef” cooking contest. Based on the popular TV show “Iron Chef,” the award winning “Husky Chef” competition is the culmination of each academic quarter’s required course in Family and Consumer Science (a 21st Century version of Home Economics). By the end of this school year, every 7th grader in Falls Church city will have participated in a cook-off with their classmates.

IMG_6625The competition is not simple. The 7th graders spend weeks working in teams of between 4-6 students to plan menus that fit within the USDA guidelines for a healthy school lunch. These guidelines include considerations such as portion maximums and minimums of protein and fruits or vegetables, and fat and sodium content of the meal. Further, the menu must fit into an extremely tight budget. This year’s budget is $2.25 per serving — which must cover the main course as well as any side dishes. After the students research the nutritional value and cost of their desired ingredients, they then shop for everything they need at a nearby grocery store.

On the day of the cooking competition, the teams have one hour to cook and serve their lunches to a panel of judges (local chefs, restaurant owners, school administrators, and local restaurant reviewers). The meals are judged on taste, presentation, originality, and whether the students worked well together as a team. The winning team from each of the two class sections will later help prepare and serve their meal for lunch to the entire MEH student body (hence the requirement that the meals follow USDA school lunch guidelines). They also, of course, win bragging rights among their peers.

This week’s competition yielded two winning teams whose meals will soon appear on the school lunch menu at MEH. Monday’s winner was team “Kill ‘em” (the other judges and I assumed they meant this in a good way). The six-person team won with a whole wheat pasta served with chicken, sun dried tomato, and pesto, with a strawberry and pineapple kabob on the side.

Tuesday’s winning team, “Awesome Sauce,” won with a mac ‘n cheese with a homemade sauce, spicy baked chicken wings, and celery sticks served with two dipping sauces – ranch dressing and a little extra cheese sauce from the mac ‘n cheese.

IMG_6628The “Husky Chef” program won a 2013 Virginia State Excellence award for “exemplary programs and partnerships that promote excellence in career and technical education.” It is the brain child of FCCPS Food Service Director, Richard Kane, who, along with Food Service Operations Manager Niki Wisemiller, supervises and supports the students throughout their preparation for the competition. Niki Wisemiller believes that, through cooking, the 7th graders learn important math skills and incorporate many other areas of study, such as nutrition, history, and economics. “When they learn in theory,” she said, “it’s abstract for them. But, when they learn in a hands on way, they can incorporate their knowledge much more deeply.”


Julie Walters is a resident of Falls Church and writes children’s books (mostly about food). She’s the daughter of a food editor, the wife of a man who knows his Louisiana cuisine, and the mother of a 5 year old with a ridiculously sophisticated palate. You can reach her at [email protected].

(All photos copyright: Julie Walters)

Tastes of the Little City: Rice Paper

January 12, 2014 by · 6 Comments 

By Julie Walters
Falls Church Times Staff
January 12, 2014

School Homework at Eden Center


Do you think kids would enjoy a school lunch of Vietnamese grilled lemongrass beef with rice vermicelli, sliced cucumber, pickled carrots with daikon, and mint leaves, served in lettuce wraps? With fish sauce for dipping on the side?

Here in Falls Church, we might get the chance to find out.

For this review, I invited Richard Kane, Food Service Director for Falls Church City Public Schools, to join me for lunch at Rice Paper, an excellent, two-year old Eden Center eatery.

Rice Paper is my favorite of all the Eden Center sit-down restaurants. (Although Eden Kitchen, a new restaurant from the owners of Pho Factory in Alexandria, just opened, so we’ll see.) I love everything about Rice Paper. The decor is beautiful and comfortable. Its long, narrow dining room flanked by a patterned, dandelion-color wall with mirror accents on one side, and an exposed brick wall on the other, reminds me of a neighborhood Parisian Bistro. The service is no nonsense, but friendly and helpful. And the food is consistently good, and often great.IMG_6269

Try walking into Rice Paper without being transported by the aromas of Southeast Asia. You know what it is, right? It’s the fish sauce. Fish sauce is the key to Vietnamese cuisine. It’s the centerpiece of the salty, sweet, and sour flavor hallmark of Southeast Asian cooking. I just wish “fish sauce” were named something more kid-friendly like “Magic Sauce,” or “Alien Monster Sauce!” There may be no way to convince uninitiated school-age children to eat “fish sauce.” But, Richard Kane would like to try.

Richard is always on the lookout for fresh, new ideas to include on the school lunch menu. So, since Falls Church has such a cornucopia of ethnic food options, I thought it’d be fun to introduce Richard to Rice Paper after he mentioned that he had never eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant.

Richard’s philosophy on school lunch is clear: prepare and serve fresh, nutritious, and delicious food that exposes children’s palates to a variety of healthy flavors. If we reach them when they’re young, Richard believes, we can build healthy eaters for a lifetime. “We offer samples to introduce students to new foods and it also gives us a chance to cook new things. We work with students as often as we can to teach nutritional value of foods to empower them with the knowledge needed to make informed choices. The USDA is advocating for more fruits and vegetables as a way of fighting childhood obesity. Increasing the variety we offer and incorporating more ethnic foods into our menus will help us achieve this goal. Our school system is very diverse and our students enjoy international cuisine. The possibilities are endless…,” he said.

The possibilities are in fact endless. And so is, as Richard discovered, Rice Paper’s menu.

The menu at Rice Paper is a tome with more than 125 items. It can seem intimidating but, if you take your time, you’ll be rewarded with an education in Vietnamese cuisine. The menu hits all the highlights, and features Bún (Rice Vermicelli bowls), Lâu (Hot Pots), Conge (Rice Porridge), and, of course Pho (Beef Noodle Soups). Many of the dishes are traditional and some are beautifully updated classics. A few are served with social accoutrement, such as make-your-own rice paper wraps and hot pots (a metal pot of flavorful broth surrounded by meat and vegetables at the center of the dining table. Think Vietnamese fondue).IMG_6156

My hands-down favorite Rice Paper dish is the grilled lemongrass beef served with, you guessed it, rice paper. I’ve ordered it on every visit and, each time, it is pull-apart tender and packed with tangy lemongrass and garlic flavor. The beef is served on skewers and is meant to be assembled and eaten wrapped in rice paper or lettuce leaves with the accompanying steamed rice vermicelli, pickled carrots and daikon radish, cucumber, and fresh mint leaves. But first, you have to soften the “doily-like” (as Richard Kane described it) dry rice paper yourself in the warm water served to the table in a specially-made dipping stand. Richard said the experience “was a treat for me because I felt like a kid again playing with my food. It was fun!” (The rice paper wrap dishes begin at number 100 on the menu.)

Another must try at Rice Paper is the Roasted Quail appetizer. Normally, I don’t bother with quail — I usually don’t like to work that hard for small amounts of meat on anything other than steamed crabs. But, this dish is the exception. The quail is roasted in a perfect caramelized sauce that’s so complex, I don’t even care about how hard I have to work to get the measly bits of meat from the tiny bird. The lime juice and pepper sauce complete the gastrique. (By the way, if you’ve noticed a few French influences in the descriptions, you’re paying close attention.)

The traditional dishesIMG_6271 at Rice Paper are also good, but, frankly, I’ve had better Pho. The broken rice dishes (steamed, crushed rice grains), while apparently quite popular, are also a bit hit or miss. If you want to sample an array of traditional foods, try #24, which includes sausage with shrimp paste wrapped in dried bean curd, an unusual egg custard, shredded pork, a grilled pork chop, and a diner-style fried egg on top. My friend and I were glad we tried it, but we probably wouldn’t order it again.

When Richard and I had lunch, he enthusiastically sampled everything we ordered – including the stuff he didn’t usually like that much. (He knows how important it is to be a role model when encouraging kids to try different foods, even if they think they don’t like it.) We even tried the curry vegetables and tofu in coconut milk. Richard remains “unconvinced that tofu can be anything but just okay.”IMG_6248

At lunch time, Rice Paper is always crowded – in a good way. As Richard pointed out, “empty restaurants create a sense of something wrong — like everyone knows this secret about not eating there except for me.” Now, however, Richard Kane is in on the secret of Vietnamese cuisine. I look forward to seeing how Falls Church city schools benefit from his knowledge.

Julie Walters is a resident of Falls Church and writes children’s books (mostly about food). She’s the daughter of a food editor, the wife of a man who knows his Louisiana cuisine, and the mother of a 5 year old with a ridiculously sophisticated palate. You can reach her at [email protected].

(All photos copyright: Julie Walters)

The Details:

6775 Wilson Blvd, Falls Church, VA 22044
Hours of Operation:
Mon – Sun: 10:00 am-10:00 pm
Forms of Payment Accepted:
Cash/Credit Cards
Ample parking available

Tastes of the Little City: La Migueleña

October 28, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

Sopa, not Ropa

By Julie Walters
Falls Church Times Staff
October 28, 2013

With winter approaching, would you like to know what restaurant in Falls Church serves the best soup?

What if I told you that you’ve driven past it hundreds of times where Hillwood hits South Washington? You may not have noticed it, though. The storefront’s modest green awning announces only “La Migueleña Carry Out” and “La Migueleña Mercado Latino.” Plus, it’s easy to miss that there’s a restaurant inside when the sidewalk in front of the business next door is populated by those notorious, provocative half mannequins (the bottom half) in snug jeans. You know where I’m talking about, right?

PantsLa Migueleña is part Latin market, part lunch counter. There is limited seating in the market, but it’s sun drenched and cozy. You can eat at the warm, artful sand-color tile counter and watch the cooks mold the masa de maiz (corn meal) and grill fresh corn tortillas and Pupusas. Or, if you prefer, there are a few comfortable tables between the wall of windows and the racks that display chicharrones and Latin sodas. La Migueleña also does a brisk carry out business (hence the sign), but I like to eat my soup there.

I was alerted to La Migueleña by some friends who, when quizzed about their favorite dishes, emphatically answered, “the soup.”

“What kind of soup?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter.” they replied.

I understood what they meant immediately.  On my first visit, I asked the woman behind the counter about the soup of the day.

“Es Sopa de Gallina.” she said.

“Oh good! “ I told my son, “They have chicken soup — Sopa de Pollo.”

“No.” the woman corrected me. “Es Sopa de Gallina.”

“Ah,” I hugged my son. “This is going to be awesome!”

If you are a chicken soup connoisseur, you probably already know the difference between making soup with a regular supermarket chicken and making soup with a hen (gallina).  I’ll leave you to discuss matters of chicken age and genus in the comments below but, suffice it to say, my mother-in-law would never make a gumbo in Louisiana from anything other than a hen.  And I personally have never achieved that wonderful gelatinous stock from a regular chicken.  Hens make better chicken soup.  They just do.

IMG_5728Then it got better.

I asked if one order of soup was large enough to share and was shown a veritable trough of a bowl.  We decided yes.

Within seconds, my son and I were slurping from a steaming hot bowl of rich, slightly salty chicken soup, brimming with tender cabbage, carrots, zucchini, and potatoes.  We were busily blowing on our soup to cool it and eat it more quickly when a huge plate of rice, house made corn tortillas, freshly sliced jalepeños, and a quarter roasted, crispy-skinned chicken landed on the counter in front of us.  It looked so delicious that I didn’t bother to tell the woman that we had only ordered the soup.  The chicken was juicy and perfectly seasoned, and the rice was a nice addition to the meal.  The only disappointment was the tortillas.  They were a little tough and I missed a richer corn flavor.  But, we enjoyed watching her make them on the grill in front of us.

It was a fun, comfortable, delicious dinner.  When we paid for our meal at the cash register in the back of the store, we discovered that the plate of chicken and rice comes with the soup.  For $12.00, two adults can easily enjoy one substantial meal (they’ll split it into two portions for you too).plato de pollo

All of my subsequent visits have been just as gratifying. La Migueleña usually has Sopa de Gallina, but sometimes they serve Sopa de Mariscos (seafood soup) or a soup with beef. There are also many other dishes from the cook’s native El Salvador, such as really good Pupusas (grilled tortillas stuffed with cheese, or cheese with black beans), Pollo Guisado (stewed tender chicken with tomatoes, onions, and peppers), and Carne Asado (grilled steak). The menu hangs above the grill and displays pictures of the food along with its name in English and Spanish. Most of dishes are in the $9.00 range and are served with rice, refried black beans (or salad), fresh corn tortillas, and, if you wish, sliced jalepeños. Everything I’ve eaten is wonderful, homey comfort food and authentic El Salvador.pupusa

The staff at La Migueleña is super warm and helpful. Everyone is more than happy to explain the ever changing specials, or show you the food to aid your decision. If you don’t speak Spanish, the owner or his sister are always on hand to help you with whatever you need. La Migueleña serves breakfast until 11:00 a.m. (try the Plato Tipico of eggs, rice, tortillas, and refried beans), and the soup is usually ready before 11:30. One pro tip: If it’s raining and you’re in the mood for soup, make sure you go before noon. They’ll run out of Sopa de Gallina before 1:00 every time.

Check it out and tell me if you think it’s the best soup in Falls Church. If you don’t, I sure hope you’ll tell me what is!

(All photos copyright: Julie Walters)

The Details:

404 S. Washington St
Falls Church, VA 22046

Hours of Operation:

Monday – Saturday: 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m., Sunday: 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.