A melting pot on Metro's Red Line, Wheaton has Japanese, Thai, Italian, Korean and Salvadoran cuisines. But the Maryland city didn't have much Southern food, which is where Rock Creek Kitchen comes in: The down-home restaurant for comfort food favorites, like po' boys and fried catfish, opened in October a block from the Metro.
"We think that our little Wheaton marketplace is looking for value," said owner Tom Stanton, who also owns the Limerick Pub across the street but has a day job as an attorney.
Rock Creek Kitchen is his second attempt; his first go-round, a steakhouse in the same spot called Squire's Rock Creek Chophouse, was deemed too expensive. A country-fried makeover ensued, dropping the prime rib and the berry martinis in favor of $7 baskets of hush puppies, and biscuits and gravy for $6.50. Rock Creek Kitchen can certainly check the box on good value: Nothing on the menu costs more than $17.50. And the portions are enormous, sure to provide ample leftovers for lunch the next day. An order of bread pudding appeared to be an entire loaf.
The price dip aside, we'll see if the neighborhood will take to Rock Creek Kitchen, which could use an infusion of flavor and a little more style. Based on photos of the former steakhouse, not too much has changed beyond the wall decor and the red-checkered tablecloths. The restaurant looks a little like the lobby of a Hampton Inn, with generic sailboat paintings on the yellow walls. There's a tiny bar in the front, with a big-screen TV and a few high-tops.
Many of the dishes we sampled could have come from anywhere. The mac and cheese is nothing special, while the bowl of chicken and two huge, fluffy dumplings is oddly bland, despite the menu touting its "hen broth." For the shrimp and grits, the latter component comes in cakes the size of air hockey pucks, which denies diners the chance to let them sop up much gravy. At least the collards in that dish were briny and rich.
The menu is based on 29-year-old chef John Arnold's youth, which featured plenty of Carolina-style Southern food even though he grew up in the Washington area. His inspiration comes from his godmother, who "had a lot of soul," he said, recalling afternoons of family gatherings over fried chicken. "She was always frying stuff and smacking your hand if you tried to get a taste."
Arnold's menu includes most of the dishes you'd expect from a pan-Southern restaurant, including fried chicken, country ham and Frogmore stew. (Pulled pork, conspicuously absent, is forthcoming, Arnold says.) Cocktails, which lean on tea and lemonade for their base, are on the sweet side, and the draft beers are all local, from Maryland breweries including Jailbreak and Oliver.
Rock Creek Kitchen offers a better taste of the South in its hospitality. Our server was unerringly cheerful. We could tell that the kitchen was understaffed and weren't upset that one entree came out later than the other — but she offered a gratis dessert anyway. (We declined and paid for ours.)
One dish that hits the right notes is hoppin' John. The beans and rice feel more like a side than the appetizer they're billed as, but they're the best way to start your meal.
"Some people think it's [named after] me," Arnold said, "and that's the funniest thing ever."
Rock Creek Kitchen, 2405 Price Avenue, Wheaton, Md. 301-933-8616. rockcreekkitchen.net. Appetizers, $5 to $13; entrees, $11 to $17.50.