Welcome to the Northern Virginia Restaurant Blog.

Restaurant reviews in Tyson's and surrounding area... mostly

Monday, February 8, 2016

ABC Canteen - Fish & Chips, Tacos, Wings in Fairfax, VA

9528 Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22031
Tel: (703) 865-0377

When someone with 20 years of experience in the restaurant business opens a restaurant with someone whose delicious family recipes were passed down from her Mexican grandmother, only wonderful things can happen. This is the story of the Northern Virginia newcomer ABC Canteen in Fairfax.

The menu is surprisingly eclectic. It's comfort food with a Mexican flare.  You can order Fish and Chips with a couple Tamales on the side or some Tacos with Cod Croquettes or for some ultimate comfort food, treat yourself to Chicken Wings and Mac and Cheese.

Why this unique selection? Wesley Chen immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 8 and fell in love with Mexican food almost immediately. He has worked his way up in several well-known restaurant chains, both casual fast-food and upscale. Along the way, he met Violeta Vergara, who not only shared his passion for Mexican food, but also wanted to share with the world her grandmother's recipes from Oaxaca. It was the perfect partnership that spun off on its own. Adding to their team one more colleague, whom they've known for over 15 years, ABC Canteen was born in early 2015.

Building off their love of comfort food, Chen and Vergara composed a menu that reflects their gastronomic passions. This is why everything they serve is... wait for it... made from scratch! Even the tartar sauce and... get this... the Chili powder!  Only the desserts at ABC Canteen are commercially made, and personally selected by Chen to be placed on the menu.

You really have to love your food to invest so much effort in preparing it just right for your customers. And it shows. On a Saturday afternoon, just after the Blizzard of 2016, the parking lot in front of the restaurant was not fully plowed, but ABC Canteen had a steady stream of customers. Chen personally welcomed many of them by name, particularly those who over the last 10 months since the restaurant opened have become "regulars," whether eating in or taking out.

The fresh, flavorful food is easily a draw on its own. Every item on the menu seems to be popular. But the added bonus is Chen's engaging, though non-imposing, spirit that fills the restaurant with a welcoming cheerfulness making you feel right at home.

The cod prepared at ABC Canteen reminded us of our time in Reykjavik, Iceland some years back, where we had a chance to taste some of the world-acclaimed cod recipes of Icelandic chefs. Chen's Fish and Chips are not at all inferior to those. The main difference was that in Iceland the cod was plucked fresh from the icy waters only a few feet away.  ABC Canteen's flaky cod in a crispy light batter was equally delicious. It went great with a side of their home-made tartar sauce and a full plate of crispy fries. We ordered an additional side of the golden brown hush puppies, which were nicely seasoned, just a tad sweet and overall flavorful.

Tamales and Tacos were terrific on their own, though a short trip to the Taco Bar provided options like diced radishes, onions, pico de gallo and jalapenos, and a variety of sauces.

The chicken wings come either in honey barbeque or buffalo sauce. We opted for the honey barbeque with a side of chunky blue cheese dressing.

This was the first time we ever had a Horchata, which is a cold sweet rice milk- based drink, made from scratch, of course, with a hint of cinnamon.

The Pan Tres Leches (Tres Leches Cake) was a great ending to our meal with its light fluffy texture and sweet condensed milk.

Residing in a building that was once an Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, the restaurant's decor is simple, definitely not shabby and not overdone. It complements, does not distract.  The dining area is open, clean and bright with floor-to-ceiling windows, overall unpretentious and appealing.

We will definitely be back, and will bring friends. Especially on Taco Tuesdays!

ABC Canteen is in a small strip with Hailey's 24-hr laundromat 
and Mary's Pollo a la Brasa restaurant

 Great deal!!!

 Chen taking our order

 Taco Bar with a selection of toppings and sauces

 Our Feast

 Fish and Chips with Tartar Sauce


 Chicken Taco

 Honey Barbeque Chicken Wings with Blue Cheese dressing

 Hush Puppies

 Horchata drink

 Full dining room with Chen chatting with one of his customers

 Pan Tres Leches

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Ben's Chili Bowl - Half-smokes and Chili dogs in Arlington, VA

Tel: 703-649-5255

Ben's historic credentials in Washington, D.C. are unquestionable. Its new suburb locations, however, are another story.  

Situated in a Wilson Blvd strip mall, in a place that once housed both Ray’s the Steaks and Ray’s Hellburger, Ben’s has a Washington Redskins colored interior blazen with cultural stories and photographs on the walls. The feel here is far from the urban half-smoke chili dog iconic joint that Ben's photographs project. In other words, it was waaaay too sterilized and clean in this North Arlington location. Typically, a clean, well-lit restaurant is a plus, but the spirit of that urban downtown inner-city image of Ben's was simply lacking.  

We came here for lunch on a Saturday to a mostly empty dining room and empty counter area.  Their famous menu items included their well-known half-smoke with chili, chili bowls, burgers, dogs, fries, veggie burgers, turkey dogs, potato salad, cole slaw, and homespun milkshakes complete the limited menu.  We ordered the half-smoke with chili, a turkey burger with all the fixins, cheese fries, regular fries topped with chili and a vanilla milkshake. 

The food was a disappointment. It was pretty bland and tasteless.  If not for about a quarter bottle of Pete's hot sauce available on each table to help spike the flavor, the turkey burger and half-smoke with chili were just something to chew on.  The lukewarm fries wilted after a few minutes under the heavy tasteless chili and cheese.

The bright spot of the meal was the milkshake. 

Having had to forego chili-topped items at the Nationals’ Stadium during baseball games, we were so looking forward to enjoying the messy stuff in the comfort of restaurant seating instead of worrying about splattering chili on a fellow spectator in the ballpark stands.   Bottom line…plain was better.  Ben’s chili just did not impress. 

The place did fill up pretty quick after we arrived.  The lady who took our order was cheerful and welcoming, but was not helpful in making recommendations or describing items on the menu. Insult to injury, they were out of cole slaw and potato salad that we would have been preferred, forcing us into the fries.

We would be remiss if we did not give Ben's big props for offering the options of a turkey burger, a veggie burger and even meatless chili for those who are not big meat eaters. This is particularly commendable for an eatery known for its meat-oriented menu.

We are glad that Ben's came to Northern Virginia. But without the iconic feel, the food just wasn't something we'd return for.

 Parking is at a premium at this Arlington strip mall area

 Wall decorations

 Empty dining room at lunch time on a Saturday

 If you want some ooomph in your Ben's Chili Bowl meal, this Pete's hot sauce is indispensible; We used about half a bottle on our food to just make it have some taste

 Wall collage

 Wall collage depicting the original Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in D.C.

 Wall collage showing a photograph of former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty accompanying President Barack Obama to the original Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in Washington, D.C>

 Wall collage

This is our lunch - ta daaaaa...  Looks much better that it tastes

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Lotus Garden - Chinese cuisine in Vienna, VA - revisited two weeks later

There's something special about a quick re-visit to a restaurant you only discovered two weeks ago. The second visit is always either a reaffirmation or a contradiction of first impressions. We brought our friends just to be sure.

In the interest of full disclosure, the side story is that we were planning to dine at the new Tom Yum Thai, which got pretty good reviews on Yelp.  It took over the location of the old Tara Thai in Vienna, which we visited once and chose not to return.  It happens to be located next-door to Lotus Garden, subject of our most recent review.  When we arrived in Tom  Yum Thai on a Sunday night expecting to have a leisurely dinner, we found it chaotic.  Despite only a third of the dining room being seated, the Tom Yum Thai manager was clearly overwhelmed, frazzled and seemingly unwelcoming.  We'll spare you the full story, but needless to say, as people were walking out due to lack of service, we suggested they try Lotus Garden next door. And we gladly followed them there!

On Sunday night, Lotus Garden had plenty of customers - large and small parties.  We struck up a conversation with a couple who told us that they come to Lotus Garden from DC just for terrific hand pulled noodles, which the diners can watch being made through a large kitchen window.

While the noodles are offered primarily in soups, there is one popular dish that offers the noodles dry and pan fried with ground pork - Pork Noodles with Fermented Soybean Paste.  One of the diners told us that he is addicted to it, and has it there at least once a week.

We also found out that you can have any of the Noodle Soup dishes be prepared as a dry Lo Mein for an extra $5, which is exactly what we had, pictured below.  It was absolutely delicious. We also tried their Chicken Curry with onions, carrots and green peas, which was also terrific, albeit on the mild side. We shared some regular eggrolls and spring rolls, all very good.

Another delicious visit to Lotus Garden last night with a side show of noodle-pulling entertainment, confirming our first impression of this restaurant from only two short weeks ago.


Fried Lo Mein hand-pulled noodles with pork

Chicken Curry

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Lotus Garden - Chinese cuisine in Vienna, VA

224 Maple Avenue WEST
Vienna, VA 22180
Tel: (703) 255-9888

In a strip mall on Vienna's main drag, Lotus Garden has been a great addition to the local dining scene over the last 3 years.  We came here for dinner on a Saturday evening and the place was packed - good thing we made reservations!

Both service and food were very good. Decor is simple and clean, with dim lighting, making for a cozy and intimate atmosphere. The restaurant is small, so with a full house, the noise level can be on the loud side.  

The house specialty is its hand pulled noodles, and they are worth the visit.  The hand pulled noodles are featured in a variety of about 25 soups in a separate menu section.  The most fun is getting a front row seat to the kitchen window, where you can watch the noodles being rolled, stretched and cut, which happens about every 20-30 minutes.

In between the noodle pulling action, you can watch the entire kitchen staff at work with occasional fire flares and the general hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen. This built-in entertainment can certainly be the focus of the dining experience at Lotus Garden.

The food we ordered, pictured below, definitely fell on the mild side, and was all delicious.  Juicy and plentiful portions, a great variety on the menu, and helpful staff... in short, there were no disappointments. We would return in a heartbeat.

 Hand pulled noodles with roasted pork

 Hand pulled noodles with roasted duck

 Sauteed vegetables in garlic sauce

 Shredded chicken with pan fried noodles

 Szechuan chicken

A show of hand pulled and sliced noodles for an audience of diners

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Saravana Palace - Indian Vegetarian food in Fairfax, VA

11725 Lee Highway #A15
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel (703) 218-4182

For the last 9 years, Saravana Palace has been serving up Southern vegetarian food to a crowd that flocks here. They do not take reservations or serve alcohol. Their decor is shabby. So, it is abundantly clear that the main attraction here is THE FOOD.

When the seven of us arrived on a Saturday to partake in Saravana's famous lunch buffet, we were greeted by several courteous waiters, who took excellent care of us for the duration of our meal. They brought countless plates of potato-stuffed Dosas, which are fermented crepes made of rice batter. They kept our water glasses filled. They also were visibly on hand to answer any questions and clean up any spills.

Food does not disappoint, either. The three huge buffet stations offer something for everyone. Various dips for the Dosa, that can double up as soups. There are lots of bread options; a variety of fried things like fried chillies, and of course, veggies, veggies, veggies.  The spice level is medium-high overall, but it is easy to tone it down with a wide range of carbs (different rices, breads, etc) for those who are less spice-tolerant or have dietary restrictions.  The dessert station is plentiful, with delightful options for those who have a sweet tooth, and even those like me, who do not.  

This place is as authentic as it gets for Southern Indian Vegetarian Buffets, judging by the overwhelmingly Indian clientele here. A great price of only $10.95 +tax for a weekend lunch buffet is a small price to pay for such a great feast.

Located in a small shopping strip with plenty of parking

Large clean, though run down, dining room that accommodates any size-groups

Booth seating for small parties

Wide assortment of veggies with or without sauces and lots of other delicacies

Dosa dips / soups and lots of carb options

Each Dosa is stuffed with potatoes

First buffet round!

Second buffet round!

Final buffet round!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Shilla Korean Bakery comes to Tysons!

Even if you've never visited the Shilla bakery in Annandale, we highly recommend visiting the newly-opened Shilla at the Tysons Corner mall.  It is on the second floor across from the mall entrance from the C garage.  

There is a wide variety of delicious pastires and even several pizzas that you can taste before committing to buying anything. All the cakes and pastries are works of art, are beautifully-displayed and appetizingly-lit. 

Grab a freshly baked roll and bring it to the neighbors' bbq!  Or take a break from shopping at one of the tables inside the bakery and enjoy a Boba Tea along with one of the pastries.  

One of the most appealing attributes of Korean baked goods is that they are not overly sweet, yet full of flavor and richness. We first tried a Boba Tea here. Boba Teas are basically frozen smoothies that come in many different flavors from mango to green apple, with a bunch of tapioca morsels on the bottom of the cup that are sucked through a wide straw. Be careful, as the frozen tapioca can have the effect of a 7-11 slurpee if you drink it too quickly.

Everything at Shilla bakery is mouthwateringly delectable. The advantage of tasting some fo the pastries is that you can pick what really suits your palate, as the flavors may be unfamiliar. 

One of us has a sweet tooth, and the other one does not. But even for me, who prefers savory over sweet, Shila bakery's desserts are a hit because of their low sweetmess.

A big welcome to the Tysons area!