Welcome to the Northern Virginia Restaurant Blog.

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

Monday, June 20, 2016

Side Street & Sushi Bar by iThai - Thai Street Food and Sushi Bar in Vienna, VA

8603 Westwood Center Dr., Ste #100

Vienna, VA 22182
Tel : 703-992-7923

If you want to know the way to our hearts - it is through Thai food. But what is Thai food to us?

It is no surprise to many Thai food lovers that the Thai food we all know and love may not be "real" Thai food. That is, it is "real" to us Americans - Pad Thai with your choice of chicken or shrimp or the famous Drunken Noodles - How can noodles be drunken? A delicious aromatic mouthwatering Tom Yum soup to begin our meal. These have undoubtedly been our Thai comfort foods over the years.

For our American palates, Thai chefs, inspired by the resourcefulness of Chinese chefs, have created an extensive assortment of dishes to appeal to our unique gastronomic adventurousness. Favorites like Chicken Satay or Siamese Beef that call out our names as we drive past our favorite local Thai restaurants excite our taste buds. However, these staple dishes would make most Thai people scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Fortunately, now we don't have to be extras in an Anthony Bourdain CNN entourage to take a trip down to Thailand to taste what Thai people love and eat every day. We don't even have to be members of the 2-years young World Street Food Congress (yes, there is such a thing!)!  Recently a host of restaurants have popped up across the U.S. serving up actual authentic Thai Street Food to give us a chance to taste Thailand without the hassle of airline travel or TSA lines.

In fact, one of our favorite Northern Virginia Thai spots in Tysons Corner has continued to surprise us with their approach to great Thai food.  If you follow our blog, you'll remember that we reviewed iThai in Vienna, VA on numerous occasions, and have dined there more than a dozen times. Only four years after launching iThai in Tysons, the three seasoned female restauranteurs have successfully reinvented their restaurant.

iThai is now known as “Side Street & Sushi Bar by iThai.” The restaurant moved only a few doors over in the same corporate park strip mall. But the physical move two months ago was much more than a relocation: iThai has rebranded its menu, its atmosphere, and dare we say: it rebranded its spirit.   The new feel and energy of Side Street & Sushi Bar by iThai is a departure from its previous location, whose lobby it shared with Ringling Bros corporate office. 

The philosophy of Side Street & Sushi Bar by iThai is to bring the streets of any metropolitan city in Thailand to the folks of Northern Virginia.  They’ve also added a sushi menu.  The General Manager, whose name Yo is easy to remember! passionately and patiently explained to us the intricacies of Thai cuisine in general and Thai street food in particular.  A fascinating aspect of Thai food is the influences of cuisines from its neighboring countries, like Malaysia, Burma, Laos, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore. These influences can even make a difference in the ingredients of a simple Papaya Salad (Som Tum) that is served in Northern Thailand versus Southern Thailand. 

We started with a glass of very refreshing Roselle Juice (Hibiscus) over ice. We wondered out loud how great it would go with a shot of vodka and were told its already on the bar menu.  Will be back soon for happy hour to try one (or five) of those.  

Two Thai specialties hit the table first.  Sweet corn fritters and chicken satay.  Let us just say that the Corn fritters were amazing and the Chicken Satay, a familiar favorite, was equally great.  After the two Thai staples came a course of sushi .  The sushi was fresh and offered a nice twist on what we expected to be a thai menu.  The entrees came next. We had Khao Nua Obb, a traditional beef and broccoli dish that was a bit light on flavor and overtaken by the majority of broccoli.  

A chicken dish, of Burmese origins, according to Yo, called Khao Soi: crispy noodles and shredded red onions surrounded a chicken leg in a spicy orange coconut-based broth. Identified by 2 red peppers on the menu, it was on the hot and spicy side.  Next came the Khao Sam Moo: a barbeque-like pork dish served with rice, Chinese style.  

What came next was something neither of us will ever forget: The appropriately nicknamed "Stinky Beans" dish. Wow. This dish of Malaysian origins is officially called Sator Pad Goong and can be served with any meat of your choice. The unusual aroma we were warned about in advance did not disappoint. 

A delicious tapioca dessert was the perfect ending and wrapped everything up nicely.  Tapioca with Cantaloupe in sweet coconut milk was refreshing and a nice way to relax the taste buds after a flavorful meal. We’ll be back, probably during happy hour to try the “adult version” of the amazing Roselle Juice, but also to try more of the dishes on their broad menu.

Hibiscus juice (next time we'll try it with vodka!) during happy hour every day 4:00-7:00pm

Happy Hour menu

Sushi bar

Clockwise from top left: Corn Fritters and Chicken Satay appetizers, followed by a wonderful assortment of sushi and sashimi, with extensive vegan options

On the left is the Khao Soi with Chicken, which is a House Specialty Broth; on the right is the Khao Nua Obb (also known on the menu as Khao Nua Tak Rai), beef brocooli

Famous Chicken with "Stinky Beans" Sator Pad Goong

BBQ Pork entree: Khao Sam Moo

Mild and delectable Tapioca Cantaloupe dessert that gets its green color from the Pandan Leaf

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Peter Chang - Chef Peter Chang's signature Szechuan cuisine (Chinese) in Arlington, VA

2503 N Harrison Street
Arlington, VA 22207
Tel: (703) 538-6688

Now we know why Peter Chang has a cult-like following of foodies. It is difficult to walk out of his new restaurant in Arlington without thinking that this is the best Chinese food you've had in the DMV area, or maybe ever.  

The new digs in the Lee Harrison Shopping Plaza are unpretentious and been packed since opening day. This is definitely the place to go outside the one's usual General Tso's Chicken to savor what real Chinese Szechuan food is about.  If you live anywhere near the 7 locations of Peter Chang's restaurants in Virginia and Maryland, we highly recommend that you run, don't walk, to the phone and make reservations.

Here is a list (and pictorial illustration) of the food we ordered family-style, so that we could try as many dishes as could possibly fit into our stomachs.  Let me just say from the beginning that a wonderful person in our party researched the most recommended dishes, and we went with those. It ended up being a fantastic combination of something for everyone, and everything delicious.  

 #5 Cilantro Flounder Fish Rolls with a very light duck dipping sauce (2) $6
 #6 Scallion Bubble Pancake with a light curry dipping sauce (6) $8

Hot Appetizers:
 #21 Dry Fried Eggplant (one pepper!) ($10)
 #26 Bamboo Flounder Fish (one pepper!) ($12)
 #28 Grandma's Steamed Ribs with Rice Flour (one pepper!) ($10)
 #29 Crazy Beef with Ghost Chili (five peppers!!!!!) ($10)
 + Dan Dan Noodles with Beef (not on the menu, but we ordered and they made them)

Chef Specialties:
#43 Golden Mountain Chicken (one pepper!) $15

Grandmother's Home Style Cooking:
#54 Szechuan Style Stir Fried Hotpot with Chicken (three peppers!!!) ($13)

The runaway nearly unanimous favorite for our group of eight was the Bamboo Flounder. If your adroitness with a menu carries over into the kitchen, you can try cooking this at home. Washington Post offers a recipe for Chang's Bamboo Flounder. If you cook it, they will come!  

The Cilantro Flounder Fish Rolls and the Steamed Ribs were excellent. The Dry Fried Eggplant seems to have gotten a lot of press. At first we were skeptical, but ordered it anyway. What a nice surprise. Almost like thick French fries that were delicately fried on the outside and moist and fleshy on the inside. 

We asked for the Ghost Beef to be brought out last, so as not to overpower the other less spicy dishes, as it had five peppers. This was a good call. Its smoky sauce was deliciously spicy.

In retrospect, it was great to have had several orders of the Scallion Pancakes come out first because not only did their mild flavor whet our appetites and prepare our pallets for the stronger dishes to come, but they also lingered throughout the meal to be a bread-like accompaniment.

The biggest disappointment was the Dan Dan Noodles. One of the folks in our group, who lived in Georgia and has eaten these at Chang's Marietta restaurant, said that these taste quite different. Hard to say why that is, but these were not up to the taste standards of the rest of our meal.

Lastly, we were ready for dessert. And here is the thing - Peter Chang doesn't offer any! We read in one of the yelp reviews that Chang's Golden Mountain Chicken has a slightly sweet taste, so when dessert is unavailable, what can you do, but order more chicken. This was perhaps also somewhat of a disappointment. It would have been more aptly named Golden Mountain Fried Batter, as there was certainly only a hint of chicken, so it was not our favorite.

Overall, what stood out most for us, undoubtedly, was that each and every dish had a specific and unique character. There was no overlapping or duplication in either flavors or textures. Even if cilantro was used in two dishes, they still tasted very different and unique. 

Every dish we ordered wasn't a hit, but some were amazing and most were runners-up to amazing. It is quite possible there are people out there who have tasted all of Chef Chang's dishes, and those who are most certainly making it their goal to do so. We can easily fit into the latter category, as it is worth our while to go on this discovery path to find more amazing Chang creations.

The pictures below represent the order in which our dishes were served.

 Appetizer #6: Scallion Bubble Pancake

 Appetizer #5: Cilantro Flounder Fish Rolls

 Hot Appetizer #28: Grandma's Steamed Ribs with Rice Flour 

Hot Appetizer #26: Bamboo Flounder Fish

Grandmother's Menu #54: Szechuan Style Stir Fried hotpot with Chicken, can also be ordered with Beef, Pork or Shrimp

 Dan Dan Noodles with Beef

 Hot Appertizer #21: Dry Fried Eggplant

Hot Appetizer #29 Crazy Beef with Ghost Chili 

Chef Specialties #43: Golden Mountain Chicken

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Tama Sushi Japanese Restaurant in McLean, VA

6828 Old Dominion Drive
McLean, VA 22101
Tel: (703) 883-2001

Tama Sushi is a small family-owned sushi place in McLean.  Several years ago this restaurant was under different owners and was named Endo Sushi, which we loved and reviewed it here back in 2011.  Today, under a different name, it's the same delicious food (new chef made only a few changes to the menu) and the same wonderful service. Under new ownership, this Japanese Restaurant is still a sushi gem in McLean!

Tama Sushi is a standard Sushi place with various other standard Japanese options. It is not fancy or pretentious. The staff is incredibly welcoming and sweet. You don't feel rushed or overlooked.  It is a place to come to relax and have a terrific down-to-earth low-key quiet pleasant meal. 

We came here for dinner on cold February Sunday. We were immediately served a delicious hot green tea that was tinged with flavorful roasted brown rice.  Everything we ordered was excellent in taste, texture, presentation and value. 

Having dined in many other Sushi places in McLean, this was definitely a more pleasant experience due to the individual attention we received from the personnel, and it was evident that they treated the other diners with the same approach. Our wide-smiled waitress Midori was wonderfully attentive, pleasant and efficient.

Tama Sushi is a bit difficult to find by its address, if you have not been there before. It is in a two-floor shopping area with Cafe Taj and other long-time McLean establishments.  Parking in the garage is ample and a short elevator ride to the second floor will land you at the restaurant. Or you can park in the small outdoor lot at Tama Sushi's front door.

We will definitely return here and bring family and friends!

Our scrumptious feast!

 Vegetable Roll Combination

 One of the Chef's Roll Specials

 White Dragon Roll

 Salmon Skin Hand Roll

Thursday, March 3, 2016

King Street Blues - Southern Comfort Food in Crystal City (Arlington), VA

1648 Crystal Square Arcade,
Arlington, VA 22202
Tel: (703) 415-2583

“Comfort Food with a Southern Accent” – the King Street Blues way. Darn tootin’!

During a Saturday afternoon attending the Northern Virginia Magazine’s Chicken Wings Battle, we were fortunate to win a $25 gift certificate to King Street Blues. Our unfortunate turn occurred when we showed up to redeem it, and—ugh—King Street Blues was gone!!! I lived in the Kingstowne area for quite a few years, so returning there to find KSB shut down left a hole that no wing can replace. Fortunately, two other KSB dining halls still exist; the original one off King St. in Old Town Alexandria and in the Crystal City Underground in Arlington.

Having spent nearly 5 years working just above the Crystal City Underground, returning to one of my lunchtime faves only showed that the food, service, and ambiance of King Street Blues not only did not change, but even got better.

KSB's "southern accent" hits hard upon arrival. Papier-mâché figurines adorn the restaurant in an almost surreal manner conveying the New Orleans inspired jazz theme. Sports games emanating from the bar area, and a slight bustle of activity circulating around the dining room added to the surreal nature of the figurines. We realize the location of this restaurant is geared towards the weekday business lunch crowd, showing up on a Sunday afternoon we knew that there would be no crowd. Heck, even underground parking in Crystal City is free on weekends. We sat at a bar table just off the bar area and were provided with outstanding service by Daniel. He was attentive and responsive even if serving a dozen or so sports fans sitting at the bar (as the football playoffs were in full swing).

King Street Blues is really good southern comfort food, bringing a bit of the Deep South to the not-so-deep south of Northern Virginia. We started with their famous Smoked Chipotle Chicken wings, which are probably reason alone to come here often. They were coated in an amazingly tangy and “finger-lickin’” sauce with a side of blue-cheese dip. So good, we could have easily ordered another round of wings. 

We really enjoyed their Mushroom-Swiss Burger and the “Sister Mary” – a House-smoked shredded chicken BBQ with coleslaw and really fresh house-made potato chips.

I really miss working just above KSB and miss having the KSB experience as a lunch option. 

Would we go back? In a heartbeat!

 Mushroom Swiss Burger with house made potato chips $8.99

 Smoked Chipotle Chicken Wings $9.99

 One of KSB's three "Smokers" - The Sister Mary - House-smoked shredded chicken BBQ with house made chips and cole slaw $8.49

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