eating my way west, part I

“Whirlwind.” “Roller coaster.” “Bittersweet.” None of the moving clichés are right. Each time, packing feels like something vaguely familiar—something I should be good at by now but for some reason am not.

For all the times I’ve moved, I really should be a pro: At 20, loading up two decades into a U-Haul in my parents’ driveway; at 23 to the apartment where I’d live alone for the first—and only—time; at 24 to a mountain lodge and back; at 25 from a ex-boyfriend’s house to a friend’s sun-room and then to Vancouver; at 26 to Upstate New York with my new husband; at 29 to D.C. for yet another solo jaunt.

Orange-zest sticky bun heaven (Pannikin, Leucadia, CA)

That pile of boxes—life squirreled away in cardboard—brings as many puffs of nostalgia as it does dust. Piles of papers and coins, clothes to give away, friends to see—so many lasts. It’s not fun being so well-versed in goodbyes.

Not that I’m unhappy: As many of you know, I’ve just landed what I can fairly call a dream job at a triathlon magazine in San Diego. It all happened so fast: an email, a telephone call, and a fly-out interview. Back in D.C. I wrapped things up, re-connected with my similarly jet-setting husband, and packed the Jetta for Syracuse.

How does one keep a food blog at a time like this? Not well, I’m afraid. But bear with me: Southern Californian delicacies are on the menu for the next season of freshcrackedpepper.

Curry mussels (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

For now then, the story of how one food-loving wanderer eats her way west.

While in San Diego for my interview, the coast established itself as a mecca of bee pollen/hippie cuisine, flirt-worthy sushi, and orange-zest sticky buns on the ocean (pictured above).

Back in D.C., I had to choose a place for my “last supper” in the city that had been so good to me (bike accident battle scars aside!) I thought back fondly on all the cupcakes, ethnic morsels, and new experiences (like brewing beer for the first time) D.C. had offered. Indeed, it was more than just a six-month stopover between Syracuse’s ports and San Diego’s harbor: it was a satisfying sojourn in and of itself.

Spinach Salad with Cocoa-Balsamic Vinaigrette (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

I settled on Café St. Ex in the U Street neighborhood, for their cute street patio and the great food I’d had at their sister business, Bar Pilar. Our meal of mussels, salad, and a Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. was summery and simple, a good memory to part on. In the very near future, I’ll be experimenting with how to incorporate cocoa into my balsamic vinaigrette.

And their sweet potato fries with just a touch of sweet-salty cinnamon? For those I might be willing to endure a humid D.C. summer. Although I’m sure the West Coast will have a suitable contender.

Fried Green Tomato B.L.T. (Café St. Ex, D.C.)

Back in Syracuse, eating quickly became a mindless task in a long list of to-do’s. Canned baked beans and back-0f-the-freezer discoveries were supplemented with the summer’s first corn (decent, though no sweet ears of late July) and the generous grills of good friends. I think beer might have supplied a higher percentage of my daily calories than is advisable, but my triathlon friends (not to mention all those boxes) helped me keep the negative effects to a minimum.

We set sail yesterday for our cross-country adventure, flung back into the arms of McDonald’s (recommended for their free wireless only), Starbucks (for the only suitable road coffee), Chipotle (yum), and friends along the way (rhubarb ice cream—thanks, Kristen!) After tonight’s quick stopover in Springfield for our dear friends’ wedding, we’ll join up with old Route 66, John Steinbeck’s “Mother Road,” and be on our way to the Texas panhandle.

More to come.

Roti Mediterranean: There is such thing as a free lunch

I am lucky to have so many food lovers in my life. When the topic of regional food came up in the office today, a fellow Canadian casually mentioned a favorite treat, Beaver Tails. Our exchange inspired questions from our colleagues—to set them straight, we launched into a passionate description of what Americans call simply “fried dough.”

I’m also lucky enough to work with someone who is not only a ruthless hunter of the species foodia truckus, but finds (and remembers) all of the city’s best steals and deals. In today’s case, it was the former.

The Moroccan Rice Bowl

My lunch companion had her G-chat message set as a question: “Is a 25-minute walk worth it for a free lunch?” Always happy to walk around downtown in the sunshine, and ever a fan of the elusive free lunch, I signed up for her adventure. When we reached Roti, a brand-new transplant from Chicago, a very long line of frugal Washingtonians snaked through the restaurant and halfway down the sidewalk.

We were told it would be an hour or more before we got to the ordering counter. Scoffing, we decided to wait it out.  (Rumbling stomachs will make you do crazy things.)

Yes, it's true

The sun was bright, people were friendly, and we had plenty of time to choose between the offerings of fresh, healthy-looking menu options. There were sandwiches—roasted meats, vegetables, falafal, or kabob meats wrapped in house-made pita or laffa, a thin and chewy bread. There were two salads, which we passed over quickly. And then there were the Mediterranean and Kabob plates, boasting more protein bang for our buck.  (How can you tell we’re unpaid recently low-paid WHOO HOO! interns?)

We arrived at the ordering counter about 20 minutes later. So much for Mr. Roti’s pessimistic promise. Never underestimate the magical power of two hungry web-journalists.

The line continues ...

After making our donations to D.C. Central Kitchen (kudos for Roti for merging marketing with community service) self-indulgently debating the merits of each option (knowing few others would put up with our OCD behavior), and spying on a group of women to see what they’d ordered, we both decided on the Moroccan Rice Bowl:  Roti rice, topped with chicken or steak Roti, plus any additional three toppings and your choice of sauce. Worked for me.

The fast-casual restaurant was remarkably Chipotle-esque in its layout and logistics. The staff loaded us up with extra toppings when we asked, and smiled lots. The food looked fresh, and to be honest, kind of like some of the food I cook at home. At the end of the line, the cashier rang up our free purchases for inventory’s sake, and handed us cups for a free soda.

The unpaidgourmet shows off her stuff

Back at work, we opened up our stylish little paper bags to find a satisfying, flavorful meal waiting inside. Neither of us could finish, and so we stashed our leftovers in the fridge. My selection (pictured at the top of this post), included rice and tender fire-roasted chicken (I swear I’ll order anything with that prefix). I choose baba ghanouj (excellent), red pepper aioli (decent), yogurt sauce (yummy), tomato-cucumber salad (passable), and roasted vegetables (very good). Tomorrow I’ll bring a pita and wrap up the leftovers.

The Rice Bowl again, this time with beef

Like I said, I’m lucky to have people around me who are so tuned into the goings-on of this city, from politics, to culture, to food. I can barely keep up with it sometimes, but it’s nice to know that someone’s looking out for my lunch-hour well being, and that sometimes there is such thing as a free lunch. You just have to know where to look.

Roti Mediterranean Grill
1747 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC
20006 202-466-ROTI

*all pictures taken with my iPhone, please excuse the poor quality!

D.C. Field Trip: Eden Center

Last Saturday I dragged Mark along for my first—and hopefully not only—workplace field trip. Minus the yellow school bus, grubby hands, patrols, and brown bag lunches, it was almost kind of like those much-anticipated 6th grade trips of old. Sub in infinitely more interesting food and better company, and you have our perfect weekend afternoon.

The sun was shining, and it was the warmest day in weeks in Washington. There were runners and dog-walkers and strollers everywhere, and the snow blinded as it melted, but no one cared. We met a crew of co-workers and guests out in Falls Church, Virginia, home to Eden Center, a strip-mall/supercenter that is a one-stop shop for the Vietnamese community who calls the area home.

Mark and I had been once before, on a whim, but had stayed only long enough to sample a gelatinous pork bun wrapped in leaves. We vowed to come back when we had more time.

For lunch at Hai Duong we devoured Bánh xèo, a savory pancake made out of rice flour, water and turmeric and stuffed with pork, shrimp, and fresh bean sprouts. We were instructed to wrap the crepe in one of various leaves that accompanied it, together with fresh mint leaves and basil, and then dip in a prepared sauce (called nuoc cham) of fish sauce thinned with water and lemon.

I had a Vietnamese iced coffee, or Cà phê sữa đá to wash down the delicious crepe: As a shameless coffee snob/roaster/partner of brew master and coffee geek extraordinaire, I’ll admit my expectations were low. In Vancouver, Malani and I had lived above a Vietnamese cafe, and when I took the first sip on Saturday, I kicked myself repeatedly for never partaking during my time there.

Over at Song Que, Eden Center’s answer to a deli, we split a Bánh mì of pork meat and crispy pork skin. It was nice and crispy, but didn’t quite meet my Anthony Bourdain-inspired expectations.  Damn those television cameras!

Everyone bought little treats to sample:  Bánh bao (a steamed bun dumpling stuffed with pork and a quail egg), Sinh tố (more sweetened condensed milk, crushed ice, fruits and sweet beans), fried bananas wrapped in sticky rice, and preserved grapefruit. Some bought the ingredients and equipment necessary to make the crack-coffee at home while the rest of us sat in awe at the Willy Wonka spectrum of color the little deli boasted:

Thank goodness each packet came with a description, though “deep fried banana,” “flour and Vietnamese ham,” or “rice powder and sugar” weren’t much to convince me to stock up on these whimsical goodies. And speaking of packets … I loved the experience, but my tendency toward minimally packaged and processed foods would be next to impossible here.

That’s why the day was so much fun, however: It was full of taste experiences I don’t get everyday. And that’s the beauty of living here—as inferior to New York cuisine as people like to say it is, in terms of gastronomic exploration, D.C. is leagues ahead of anywhere else I’ve lived.

I came home with seaweed-wrapped rice snacks, tea, lemongrass, and a disc of pure palm sugar to try Alton Brown’s Pad Thai.

As we say back in Manitoba with regard to a much less desirable location, Eden Center is truly “worth the trip!”