FOOD: The Gift That Comes Closest to the Heart

December 18, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Falls Church Times Staff

If you’re scurrying around town looking for last minute gifts, I feel your pain.  The pressure to find the right present has been weighing me down since Thanksgiving.  But there is hope.

When my back is against the wall I always turn to food, and Christmas shopping is no exception.  A food gift is personal, memorable, and a conversation-starter.  I’ve spent the last week compiling a list of 10 places in the City limits to get a great gift for the food lovers on your list. Here are my picks of the litter, in no particular order.


  1. Anything from the Farmers Market (300 Park Avenue, 703-248-5001): Winter at the Farmers Market may sound a little lame, but the sting of no summer produce is lessened by the vast array of artisan products and homey treats.  You could go the traditional route and pick up a few jars of jam, apple butter, or some gourmet coffee, all of which can be had at several vendors.  But I’m more intrigued by the less typical foods.  On my last visit I enjoyed the lip-smacking pickles at Oh! Pickles, a new vendor offering a variety of New Jersey-imported cukes (and even pickled tomatoes).  There are pickle freaks out there, and if you’ve got one in your family a mix-up of horseradish, red hot, and bread and butter pickles would make a great funky gift.  Just remember that Saturday is the last chance to get anything at the Farmers Market before Christmas.
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  3. Fancy stuff from Red White & Bleu (127 South Washington Street, 703- 533-9463): The obvious choices at this gourmet shop are the carefully selected wines and beers, sourced locally and from around the world.  My interest, as always, is the food.  Chief among the great finds here are the locally made sausages and other charcuterie from Jamie Stachowski.  Pick up a few links of smoky kielbasa or linguica, throw in a chunk or two of any of the innumerable high-end cheeses that catch your fancy, and hide it all in the back of the fridge.  There’s no rule that a gift has to be under the tree.  If you can’t wrap your head around the idea of a refrigerator present, check out the chocolates, olive oils, and other gourmet goodies. Read more

FOOD: Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth at Arax Café

October 30, 2009 by · 4 Comments 

jimmy-thumbBy JIMMY SCARANO
Falls Church Times Staff

Even though I haven’t trick or treated in ages, the Halloween season still enlivens my sweet tooth like no other time of year. Come late October I start craving sugary candies and cookies morning, noon, and night, and I can’t help but indulge myself every once in a while.

I could survive on the run-of-the-mill confections of my youth just fine, but lately I’ve been seeking out more off the beaten path places to satisfy my sugar rush. At the moment I’m especially fond of the date ma’amouls at tiny Arax Café, a Lebanese-Armenian coffee shop in Arlington just outside of the City. The dome-shaped cookies—made by owner Rose Hovsepian along with a host of other Middle Eastern pastries—are superbly decadent and tasty.

Ma’amouls mean different things to different cultures across the Levant, but most incarnations involve a buttery outer cookie filled with dates, walnuts, or pistachios. Because of their labor-intensive preparation the revered treats are often reserved for holidays and special occasions. Thankfully, Hovsepian bakes her little beauties year round.

Pint-sized Arax serves up sweets with big-time flavor.

Pint-sized Arax serves up sweets with big-time flavor.

I’ve singled out her date version because both the walnut and pistachio variations pale in comparison. To my taste they are a bit overrun with rosewater. The date ma’amoul, meanwhile, is buttery, sandy, nutty, and luxuriously rich, with a generous portion of sticky date innards. The pastry is quite small, so you might be tempted to scarf it down in a few quick bites. Don’t. A cookie this good is best enjoyed with slow, contemplative nibbles and perhaps a cup of hot tea or Arax’s signature cardamom-scented Armenian coffee.

It’s rare that I’m able to get past the date ma’amouls, but when I recently asked Hovsepian about some of her favorites she steered me towards the apricot jam-filled sables. She bragged that even the jam was homemade. And after a bite it was easy to tell. The jam had a tartness and texture that was so obviously not from a jar. The cookie itself was pure buttery shortbread goodness. Clearly I will have to make my way through the entire pastry case at Arax.

Beyond the sweet stuff there’s plenty more to like at the charmingly cramped café. A chalk board menu of savory snacks includes Middle Eastern stand-bys like hummus and grape leaves as well as lesser known Armenian specialties. One recent hit was the baked-to-order Armenian meat pie, a four or five bite disc of crispy pizza-esque dough slathered with a paste of tomatoes, spices, and beef. Also tasty is the chicken sandwich, which is a shawarma type concoction with a potent garlic sauce. Everything on the menu is homey and a refreshing change of pace from normal coffee shop fare.

Be careful, though. If you get a little excited and order a few little dishes and a few pastries you’ll find the tab creeping up into the high teens or twenties. This food is made from scratch on a small scale and isn’t cheap. But as long as the quality stays the same and the ma’amouls are flowing, that’s fine by me. The economy has stretched mom and pop operations paper thin, and this is the sort of place I’d hate to lose.

Arax Café is located at 5852 Washington Blvd., Arlington, VA, 22216. Phone: 703-532-3320. Cash Only.

FOOD: Indian Spices Worth a Visit — But Can You Find It?

September 11, 2009 by · 6 Comments 

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FOOD: Baguette Republic Has Great Bread, Few Customers

August 14, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

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FOOD: Jimmy Finally “Meats Up” with German Gourmet

August 7, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

jimmy-thumbA good lesson in the world of food — and in life, for that matter — is never to assume.

That’s the mistake I made with the German Gourmet. I figured it was a rundown market that catered to an older generation of Midwestern transplants with a few bratwursts and maybe some German mustards and breads. So, even though it’s been an institution since 1965, I never stopped by.

But at a recent Falls Church Times staff meeting I heard some good things about the small storefront. I decided it was my obligation as a food critic to at least give the place a chance. When I finally moseyed over there I found a fully stocked ethnic market with imported snacks and goodies that would make any food lover giddy. It’s without a doubt one of the most exciting food shops in the Falls Church area.


Perusing the narrow aisles on a mid-afternoon weekday, I lingered for almost an hour reading labels and inspecting strange-sounding German soup mixes. During that time a slew of people came through the store, all of whom seemed overjoyed to be there. An elderly German couple grabbed dense German bread and lemony wafer cookies. A chipper young woman talked the cashier’s ear off about her 13 years living in Germany and professed her love for the German Gourmet multiple times.

Aside from doing some serious eavesdropping, I eventually made my way to the primary draw for many people who come to the store: the meat case.

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Fans of pork and beef and all of their tasty derivations will admire the impressive array of sausages, cold cuts and salamis on display (all of which are shipped in from Baltimore, Wisconsin, New York, and elsewhere). It’s so overwhelming that I’d recommend grabbing the brochure at the check-out counter that describes the flavor profile and ingredients of many of the items. Or you could enlist the help of the friendly employees behind the counter, who were more than patient with me while I took forever to make up my mind.

I finally settled on the fresh, smoked, and bauern varieties of bratwurst for my first foray into the world of German links. I spent half the night researching the proper way to cook them and decided on simmering them for 15 minutes and then finishing them on the grill for a nice char. Served with the German Gourmet’s chewy Brotchen rolls, each was juicy and well-seasoned. The fresh variety was a dead ringer for sweet breakfast sausage — not at all what I expected, but still tasty. The other two were more like distant, steroid-pumped cousins of the hot dog, with a little more smoke and spice. I’d have no reservations about taking any of the three to a cookout.


(Falls Church Times photos by Jimmy Scarano)

That being said, what I like best about the German Gourmet is the depth and variety of the rest of the products. The German chocolate selection is especially noteworthy. Milka, Ritter, and Hachez, three of the most revered brands in the fatherland, are all available. Imported mustards, jams, spaetzle, cookies, and breads line the shelves as well. And homesick Germans will be happy to see the Knorr, Maggi, and Dr. Oetker product lines very well represented.

The dairy case is home to some of the more exotic items — pickled herring, stinky cheeses, and pâte, to name a few — but it also has Lurpak butter, a delicious Danish import that is creamier and richer than anything made in the U.S. Not far away is a dizzying selection of German wines and beers that will satisfy even the pickiest of wine connoisseurs and brewmeisters.

There are even German pastries — strategically placed right next to the cash register for the impulse sugar purchase. Resist the urge. Most of them are brought in frozen from New York and then baked off. The hamantaschen and rugelach that I sampled tasted stale and were too sweet. You’re better off with a bar of chocolate.

Nevertheless, this place is more than worth seeking out for anyone interested in broadening their culinary horizons. I just wish I had been going there all my life so that I could tell you all the wonderful treasures that I’ve unearthed amongst the crammed shelves.

I guess I’ll just have to keep going back to find out. And next time I may go to the other location, which, if all you regulars didn’t already know, opened in 2007 on Columbia Pike and is nearly twice the size of the original.

German Gourmet: 7185 Lee Highway, Falls Church, VA, 803-534-1908 — click for map

FOOD: ‘Tis the Seasoning: All Things Nice at Penzeys Spice

July 24, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

jimmy-thumbBefore you read any further please do me a favor. Step away from your computer, go to your kitchen, and open up the spice cabinet. Take a minute to see what’s in there.

OK, are you back yet? Pretty scary, wasn’t it?

I bet you have some dusty old cinnamon from the Clinton administration. There are probably a few unopened bottles of cloves, allspice, and ground ginger as well. Oh, and don’t forget about that vial of Chinese five-spice powder in the corner — you know, the one with the cobwebs on it.

Now, you could go on cooking with these ingredients and lead a happy and healthy life. But they are about as useful as dirt if they’ve been in your house for more than a year. I suggest you head over to Penzeys Spices (513 W. Broad St., 703-534-7770).

DSCN0148The Falls Church outpost of this family-owned national chain, which has 41 stores nationwide and only two in Virginia (the other one is in Richmond), has the best selection of spices, rubs, and seasonings in the City. And the others are not even close. Penzeys blows the competition away.

Penzeys sources its stuff from the far reaches of the globe to bring customers multiple varieties of cinnamon, paprika, and other everyday spices as well as dried chilies, more kinds of salt and pepper than you thought existed, and just about anything else you can sprinkle or shake on a piece of food.

There are also innumerable special blends and mixes, from chili powders and steak seasonings to funny-sounding signature combos like “Sandwich Sprinkle” and “Sunny Spain.” The list of options is exhaustive and enticing. Grab a catalogue (Penzeys has legions of fans that order through its magazine) and peruse it as you walk through the brightly lit, immaculate store.


And don’t forget to smell the samples in the display jars. Part-timer Elena Toft, whose zest for spices is unrivaled by anyone I’ve ever met, guided me through a smelling of four types of cinnamon on my last trip. Each had a unique aroma, but all were intoxicating. It made me want to jump in the kitchen and start baking snickerdoodles.

Without question, the best part about Penzeys is that there is something for every type of cook. Gourmets can buy truckloads of Aleppo Pepper, Smoked Spanish Paprika, and Szechuan Peppercorns, which are all the rage in restaurant kitchens right now. Globe-trotting chefs can mull over which types of curry powder and dried chilies to buy. Barbecue masters can select new and exotic seasonings to add to their repertoire. And even bakers can have their pick of all the high-end cocoa powders, vanilla extracts, and sweet baking spices they want.

Or you could be like Toft and just buy everything. She calls herself a “power user” and claims to own just about every spice in the store.

As for me, well, I tend to go through phases. A few months ago I went through a container of the Turkish Seasoning in a few weeks because of this cumin-obsession thing I was going through. Lately I’ve been hooked on the Fleur de Sel, an artisanal French sea salt that is wickedly good with caramel and chocolate for a salty-sweet treat. But I also frequently reach for the Hot Curry Powder to spice up eggs or fried rice and the Garam Masala (the best jarred version I’ve had) to round out Indian dishes. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with anything. None of the spices I’ve tasted have been dull or dead, unlike many that I’ve sampled from the supermarket. A trip to Penzeys can literally change the way your food tastes. Everything is bright, lively, and fresh.

With this type of quality you’d expect prices to be lofty. Nope. Most of the products are available in tiny jars (usually around an ounce) for three or four bucks.  That’s a bargain when you consider how little is needed when you’re cooking with herbs and spices. Saffron, vanilla, and a few other luxury items, however, will set you back a bit. But when you think about the history of spices — in bloody wars fought over salt and sugar and harrowing overseas journeys to the Far East for nutmeg and cinnamon — it’s hard to complain about paying any price. I’m just grateful that I don’t have to scale a mountain and cross two oceans just to get my hands on some quality peppercorns.

The bottom line is that we are spoiled beyond all reason to have a Penzeys Spices so close by and you are doing yourself a huge disservice if you don’t at least go over and check it out. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Have a favorite spice or seasoning from Penzeys Spices? Please tell us about it in the comments section! We’d love to hear from you.


(Photos by Jimmy Scarano)

FOOD: Kasha’s Kitchen’s 20-Year Secret: Do You Know It?

July 3, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

Jimmy-thumbOn the chain restaurant-laden, chaotically congested Route 7 stretch that cuts through the City, Kennedy’s Natural Foods (map) is an oasis. Quaint and casual, it’s got a genuinely small-town feel. It also happens to have some lovingly prepared and thoroughly delicious food at the back lunch counter known as “Kasha’s Kitchen.”

Owner Kasha Neam put in the deli 20 years ago when she bought the store from its previous owners, hoping to bring some wholesome, healthy food to the neighborhood. City residents have been grateful ever since.

Somehow I’ve managed to drive by the place for the 15 years I’ve lived in the area and never stop by once. But I’ve been twice in the last week and like many of the regulars that show up for lunch, I’m afraid I’m hooked for life. There is just too much to like.

First off, of course, is the food. You can make your own sandwich with the typical array of veggies and top-notch Boar’s Head meats and leave happily full, but part of the fun of eating at this funky little health food spot are some of the unique vegetarian offerings.

Take the lentil burger, for instance.

Now, a lentil burger may not conjure up images of a satisfying, flavorful sandwich, but Neam’s famously overstuffed behemoth is outrageous. It comes on toasted wholegrain bread packed with fresh veggies, sprouts, and a potent garlic dressing reminiscent of a Lebanese shawarma sauce. The bites seem to get progressively better as you make your way through the layers of crunch and the moist, well-seasoned lentil patty.

kasha cookie-1

20-year veteran Kasha Neam

The Power Veggie, another top seller, is supremely fresh and tasty as well. An otherwise normal pile-up of vegetables is enlivened with hot and sweet peppers and a generous spread of smashed avocado, which provides the perfect amount of fatty goodness.  

The fact that these veggie sandwiches can stand up on their own is a testament to the quality of the produce (much of it locally sourced) that Neam brings in. The carrots are crunchy and sweet. The lettuce doesn’t come from a bagged mix. The tomatoes taste like tomatoes. There’s no need to drown out the ingredients with the typical deli’s assortment of super salty meats, creamy dressings, and heavy bread.

For those with a sweet tooth after a healthy lunch there are even freshly baked cookies, which seem out of place among the sprouts and seven grain breads but are properly chewy in the middle and slightly crisp on the edges. The not-too-sweet ginger molasses is habit-forming.

But it’s not just the food that will lure you back to this gem. There’s a vibe, somewhere between being in your neighbor’s house and being in a country café, that makes it so utterly likeable. That vibe is no doubt due the constant presence of the bubbly Neam.

On my last visit I chatted with her about the business of running a small café and the conversation quickly turned to healthy eating and the heavily processed and pre-packaged foods that dominate so many people’s diets. She has dreams of overhauling the food system and getting everybody to eat right, but for now she’s happy to be doing it on a small scale, making her family recipes every day from scratch.  

“Whatever we have here, we make,” said Neam, with a confidence that assured me that “Kasha’s Kitchen” will never sell its soul.

It helps that her daughter, Elaine Neam, who helps run the store, seems to have taken the torch and run with it. She’s just as passionate about healthy eating and nutrition as her mom.

It looks like we could be in for another 20 years of lentil burgers. And that’s fine by me.

Lebanese Butcher Restaurant Has Great Food, So-So Service

June 26, 2009 by · 1 Comment 


Lebanese food is not for the faint of heart.  Liberal use of onions, raw garlic, lemon juice, and tangy yogurt can translate into some pretty potent dishes.  But sometimes you’ve just got to have it.  The craving hits and the next thing you know you’re inhaling a shawarma sandwich and thinking of how you’ll cover up the inevitable garlic breath when you get back to the office.

Luckily, the options in Falls Church and the surrounding area are plentiful and pretty decent across the board.  The Lebanese Butcher and Restaurant, though, seems to have separated itself a bit from the pack.

Located in the heart of the City, this mom and pop joint won’t win any beauty contests.  There are nine or ten small tables and a few pictures of Lebanon on the peeling walls, but beyond that don’t expect much else in the way of décor.  And if you’re looking to be pampered by servers, just turn around and walk out the door (or do takeout).  It’s usually a one or two person operation, with the woman behind the register often being the one who brings out the food.   

So what?  When the cooking is as homey and unpretentious as it is, it’s hard to complain about aesthetics and service that leaves a little to be desired. 

The standout appetizer in my few visits is undoubtedly the fried kibbeh, one of the crown jewels of Lebanese cooking.  Though there are infinite variations across the Middle East, the classic fried kibbeh involves a thin bulgur and lamb shell encasing a moist filling of ground lamb, spices, and pine nuts.  Some area restaurants cook theirs ahead of time, rendering it soft and soggy after an hour or so.  Here it comes out fresh, with a crisp, almost crackly exterior and a subtly spiced filling.


The lemony baba ghanoush isn’t a bad way to start either.  It’s velvety yet light, and a far cry from the acrid tasting tubs of the popular eggplant and tahini puree that you find in supermarkets.  It would be nice if it and the rest of the starters were accompanied by some hot, house-made bread.  Alas, the only thing available here is dry and store bought, which simply can’t stand up to the lively food it comes with.

The rest of menu is filled mostly with lamb and chicken delicacies, the chicken shawarma sandwich being particularly addictive.  It comes wrapped in flatbread (still from a package, but better than the pita and well crisped from time spent on a flat top) with cucumber pickles, lettuce, sumac-dusted onions, and a dreamy garlic sauce that packs a punch.  You’ll want a stick of gum at the ready when you walk out the door.  Unfortunately, the sandwich doesn’t come with fries or any sides, so unless you’ve got a small appetite, I’d order an appetizer to go along with it.

If that’s all the Lebanese Butcher and Restaurant had to offer, it would be a pleasant place to have a meal.  But what makes it unique and truly worth a trip is that the restaurant shares a wall with a butcher shop owned by the same man, Kheder Rababeh. He gets certified halal chicken, lamb, and goat from his slaughterhouse in Warrenton, and then uses the same meat available at the butcher’s counter to make most of the stuff on the menu at the restaurant. 

The butcher shop, which is actually older than the restaurant, is also well stocked with Middle Eastern dried and canned goods, pickles, dairy products, and olives.  It’s the perfect place to walk around while you’re awaiting a takeout order.  The challenge is to try and get out of there with just the food from the restaurant.  Good luck.



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