Saturday, February 25, 2012

DC Food Trucks: A Slow Embrace

It's taken me a while to warm up to the food truck phenomenon. At first, social media encircled the trucks, frenetic tweeting and chaotic pushpin maps like so many coils of razor wire on road between me and the food.

Until one day, I stumbled upon a bevy of food trucks clustered on the corner of N. Capitol and Massachussetts, just one block from where I work. And I realized: to explore the food truck zone, all I had to do was...walk outside.

Armed with this one piece of information -- location -- I developed my own type b approach to the food trucks: what I enjoy is the diversity and serendipity they have to offer. I love that on a given day, I can find anywhere from two to eight food trucks gathered on the corner, and that I can buy lunch from a favorite or try something new. I have no need to know which ones will be there on a given day, nor what time they arrive and depart.  Mapping the mobile world is not for me.

But from this jumble of surprises, a growing list of favorites is emerging. Here are my three top picks:

Kimchi Taco, which launched in DC in November, is the first one to truly excite me. Based in New York, but now literally rolling out in other cities, it serves Korean-Mexican fusion food. For example, you can get your choice of Korean barbecue (short ribs, spicy pork or chicken) in a corn tortilla, or kimchi-infused refried beans over crispy wontons.  You can get carb-free versions of any of the tacos, where large pink fronds of sweet-and-sour radish -- a riff on Korean banchan -- are fashioned into taco shells. I loved the piquant crunch of mine against the spicy pork filling.

I am also quite enamoured of Dangerously Delicious Pies, and am a particular fan of the Vegan Tofu Curry savory pie. "Fluffy brown rice, bok choy, and bell peppers folded into a curry sauce." Yum. That description is what lured me, and it did not disappoint. After eating a slice of this, I feel that I have dined well, on food that fuels me rather than sends me into a food stupor. If you find the term "vegan" intimidating, this is a great way to discover how flavorful and satisfying a meatless, dairyfree dish can be. True vegans: honey is sometimes used in the salad dressing, so if that is a constraint, be sure to let them know.

Finally, I'd like to give a shout-out to Sang on Wheels, the Laos/Asian fusion food truck. I'd never had Laotian food before, so I have nothing to compare it with. I don't know quite enough about subtleties of Southeast Asian cuisine to say for sure whether it really is fusion food as it claims to be. But comfort food it certainly is. I keep going back for those broad Drunken Noodles, reddish with the tint of chili oil and loaded up with veggies -- broccoli, carrots, cabbage and tofu. If you do eat meat, it's hard not to agree to the lamb balls, which Sang urges on you. The portions are heaping and I usually get three meals from a single purchase. On the first day, I eat the noodles and the vegetables. On the second and third days, I make sandwiches from the lamb, sometimes adding a slice of tomato for freshness. Not bad for $8.

If social media added to the allure of the food trucks when they first arrived, it is the dynamism the trucks lend to the DC food scene that keeps them interesting. As Daniella Douglas notes in a recent Washington Post article, the lower risks of launching a food truck has opened up the food business to a greater diversity of entrepreneurs than was previously possible. And some -- such as Kimchi Taco -- move on to opening a bricks and mortar shop. At the same time, established restaurants -- like Dangerously Delicious Pies -- can reach more people by launching food trucks in multiple locations. This evolving relationship between restaurants and food trucks is a welcome one. My slow embrace is now a full-fledged bear hug.

Dangerously Delicious Pies on Urbanspoon

Kimchi Taco Food Truck on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kimchi Taco

Have boundary transgressions reached a new level of playfulness? Have we finally shattered any notion of binary identity? 

Scene 1:

On Valentine's Day I saw the Kinsey Sicks, "America's Favorite Dragapella Beauty Shop Quartet" perform their election year political satire: Electile Disfunction. The group is led by Winnie (Irwin Keller), a lipstick lesbian with motherly instincts, and includes Rachel (Ben Schatz), a strong woman with serious boundary issues, Trixie (Jeff Manabat), sort of an Asian Joan Collins, and Trampolina (Spencer Brown) who is sweet but rather dim. The show pokes some serious fun at the GOP, weaving political commentary into its gender bending numbers. Afterwards, make-up free and in blue jeans, the cast came on stage for a talk-back. "We always do this in our guy drag" said Keller. A sotto comment leaving the audience to wonder: if these are not simply boys dressing as girls, but boys dressing as girls dressing as boys, are they always acting out roles? Are we?

As with gender, so with food.  Some of the most adventurous fusion food cross-dressings are happening in the mobile kitchens of food trucks.

Scene 2:

Later the same week, I went to try out the Kimchi Taco food truck, which launched in DC in November. Based in New York, but now literally rolling out in other cities, Kimchi Taco serves Korean-Mexican fusion food. For example, you can get your choice of Korean barbecue (short ribs, spicy pork or chicken) in a corn tortilla, or kimchi-infused refried beans over crispy wontons. But look closely, and you will see that there is more going on than just Korean food acknowledging its inner Mexican. You can get carb-free versions of any of the tacos, where large pink fronds of sweet-and-sour radish -- a riff on Korean banchan -- are fashioned into taco shells. So: no sooner had the Korean chef handed the part of the taco off to the Mexicans, he immediately took it back into the Korean repertoire. This dish is no longer simply Korean dressing as Mexican; it is Korean dressing as Mexican dressing as Korean.

Take a look at these pink, frilly radish ribbons. Is it not Korean drag?

Kimchi Taco Truck on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cafe Rustica: Richmond Bucket List #7*

Do you ever walk into a place and feel completely at home there? That is how I feel about Cafe Rustica. It is at once rustic and elegant, blue collar bar and fine food establishment. Sit at the amply-proportioned bar if there are no tables available (or even if they are), and bartender/sommeliere/co-owner Michelle will take good care of you.

The dish to die for here is the Mediterranean Shortstack: shrimp, scallop and crabmeat cakes. Loosely bound -- which means that there is very little filler -- these are packed full of fresh seafood, and only minimally seasoned.

Chris ordered them as an appetizer (they can also be ordered as a main course) and offered me a bite.

This was a mistake. Any thoughts of saving the second cake to take home were torn to shreds as I dug fork after fork into that mound of deliciousness, unable to stop. At which point, Chris gleefully joined in, until the platter was clean and we waited expectantly for the next course.

Cafe Rustica is a place that keeps you looking forward -- to the next course, to the next time. Retro-forward food at its comfy-dynamic best.

*As a result of "On Fumes Alone", Chris created a bucket list of Richmond restaurants for us to visit. This is the seventh of such visits. For a full list of visits, click here.

Cafe Rustica on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Graffiato: Reprise

After the pig's head fiasco, I returned to Graffiato for a second visit. Alone this time, I opted for a seat at the downstairs bar, right across from the pizza oven. Between the warm flames of the oven and the exposed brick wall, it was a cozy place to be on a winter's night. The waitstaff took excellent care of me. All in all, I was much happier there than upstairs, which -- as another blogger has pointed out -- feels a little bit like a cafeteria.

From my two visits, a clear favorite emerged. The dish to die for here is the crispy brussels sprouts.

I can hardly believe I am saying this. Growing up, brussels sprouts were my worst vegetable -- the kind you can't eat even when your parents try to force you. Clenched balls of bitterness, is how I used to think of them. That's because, of all the vegetables that taste bad when boiled to death, brussels sprouts taste the worst.

Brussels sprouts require a special touch. I've learned that scoring them at the base aids the penetration of heat, allowing the leaves to relax and release their nutty taste. Adding a touch of sweetener brings out the best in them.  Graffiato really nails it, complementing with pancetta and maple. The platter is generous, easily serving two hungry people who are really getting into the dish. Yum! You must order this.

Photo credit: Chris Svoboda
Graffiato on Urbanspoon