Since March 2013, when we launched this experiment in cheap eating in a city once proud of its wallet stuffed fat with corporate credit cards, the $20 Diner has become a soothsayer of social media. I’ve become adept at collating and analyzing a restaurant’s online reviews to sort out the things that matter to me (quality food, low prices) and the things that don’t matter as much (gruff service comes with the territory, often the result of language barriers).
My goal in Web surfing before plate shoveling is to cut down on mistakes — those restaurants not worth the commute, the waist-expanding calories and the hours spent huddled over half-baked plates. I believe in the power of a cook to transform a few lost-cost ingredients into something delicious, but I also believe that tracking down these chefs requires the senses (and discretionary income) of more than one person. (Sometimes, the $20 Diner wishes he could just replicate like a single-cell microbe, even if Mrs. $20 Diner might find this idea as troublesome as canned cheeseburgers.)
Despite my best efforts, though, I still walk away from dining experiences feeling like some restaurants remain a work in progress, not yet ready for a full review (and not a celebrity chef who should be ready). A few examples:
Owner Tiffany Chu opened Pho Tan Vinh in Silver Spring (8705-A Colesville Rd., 301-588-8188) earlier this year because the salon owner couldn’t find the kind of Vietnamese food that she once ate as a child in Bien Hoa. One of the dishes Chu fondly recalls is a sort of deconstructed banh mi, its warm components served on a sizzling cast-iron platter, fajitas-style. Her mom, Dam Pham, now recreates the experience as chef at Pho Tan Vinh.
My sliced Chinese sausage, loosely formed pate, fish-and-chicken cakes and sunny-side-up fried egg arrived simmering on a platter shaped like a fat cow. To assemble the sandwich, I had to saw my French roll in half with a serrated knife and layer in the ingredients. It was a fun but messy process, complicated by the lack of a plate to hold the bread. My finished banh mi was sweet and rich, a generally satisfying bite despite a stale roll that shed squares of crust like cheap tiles falling from an office ceiling. Mostly, I missed the carefully engineered mix of flavors, temperatures and textures found on a banh mi prepared by a true master. This version struck me as a gimmick, substituting tabletop novelty for a hand-crafted sandwich.
I had a somewhat similar experience with the noodle soup I ordered, the Pho Tan Vinh special with medium-rare tenderloin, an elegant bowl with beef so tender I felt as if I were dining at the Classics down the road. But the broth felt fragrant but thin, as if it needed to simmer for another hour. My favorite dish here was Pho Tan Vinh’s deep fried chicken wings, these lacquered beauties that balance sweetness with pungent notes of garlic and fish sauce. Buffalo wings, you’ve been put on notice.
Until it changed management in May, Casa Fiesta in Tenleytown (4910 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-244-8888) was perhaps best known for hosting punk shows. The new managers have dumped the headbanging bands to focus on their revamped, semi-urbane Tex-Mex menu, which promotes the kitchen’s use of organic greens and wild-caught shrimp. I’d prefer the cooks to focus more on freshness. The colors of my cumin-heavy salsa had faded, its texture gone limp, as if the condiment had sat in a walk-in too long. Same for the guacamole, a lifeless bowl of thickly mashed avocado mixed with mealy diced tomatoes and onions. The guac was so pale it looked like it had seen a ghost. Then there was my Spanish rice, so undercooked it crackled under tooth.
These impressions were hard to shake as I moved to other parts of the menu. My corn-shell tacos, part of a larger combo plate, came with the same wan diced tomatoes found in the guac, which did little to raise expectations. But the shredded chicken buried under a strata of onions, cheese, crema and organic mixed greens snapped me back to attention. The breast meat boasted a succulent, stewlike quality, its flavors infused with roasted onions and tomatoes. This was taco filling that could star on its own. When I inquired about the chicken’s prep, a server explained it was a painstaking, multistep process. “But it’s worth it,” she said. I’d concur. I’d even suggest it’s worth keeping your eye on Casa Fiesta as it (hopefully) evolves.
Cleveland Park has been alarmed by the rash of restaurant closures — from Palena to Pulpo — and what it means for the neighborhood. The former Pulpo space, however, has already morphed into the equal-opportunity smokehouse known as Fat Pete’s Meat & Vegetable Smoking Co. (3407 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-362-7777, www.fatpetesbbq.com). Executive chef Howard “Hondo” Greenberg and pitmaster Brendan Woody (formerly of Hill Country) are working ’round the clock smoking meats on a large-capacity Oyler rotisserie pit, fueled with white oak and cherry woods.
Their sliced brisket is a thing of beauty, ribbons of moist beef topped with a thin layer of softened fat and an assertive crust, or bark, formed from a heated fusion of garlic powder, Old Bay, black pepper, cayenne, paprika, salt and other spices. It’s a full-throated bark. The pair’s pork spare ribs are equally unrestrained, at once lacquered with brown sugar and then layered with herbs and spices, including an overly vocal note of oregano, which drowns out the others.
The pulled pork is the pit team’s weakness, a shredded mass of shoulder meat that’s too dry and timid unless you trip upon a buried nugget of spiced bark. Still, had Robert Sonderman not opened DCity Smokehouse, Fat Pete’s would instantly rate among the District’s top ’cue joints. But DCity does exist, and it has raised the bar for all pitmasters, including those at Fat Pete’s.