Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Tigers

Another recycled post from my now-defunct personal blog, The Border Fence. This one is from 19 December 2006. A safe and happy holiday season to all.

It’s a quiet night in Maryland and I am enjoying one-upmanship on my behalf. Each person in the house is cooking a dish, and soon the kitchen table decked out in Marimekko is populated by different entrees: whole fish in sauce, pork and peanuts, scrambled eggs with tiny fish, perfectly cooked vegetables, and tofu stir fried with mushrooms and bacon. I make a mental note to discuss this last dish with all the vegetarians I know.

The project involving visiting Chinese lawyers will wrap soon. They will fly home on New Year’s Eve, and are thinking about things to do with their last few days in the US. They ask me to suggest some activities, a question that comes as second nature by now, considering I have been running their lives for the better part of 6 months. I have never spent the Holidays in DC, but I rattle down a list: the Messiah at the Kennedy Center, the huge Menorah at the Ellipse, the rather quaint trees at the Capitol, Union Station and behind the White House. I warn them that all museums close on the 25th and that maybe they can take the opportunity to sample some local cuisine. They shudder at the thought, but reveal that they have partaken in a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon tradition.

“We went caroling yesterday around the neighborhood with the church from down the street. Can you help us figure out some of the words?”

I smile at how new the age-old songs must seem to them. I am giving a thoroughly parsed booklet and go through the circled words:

“Bethlehem is the town where Jesus was born. Noel is another word for Christmas, and it comes from the French Noёl, a manger is where you keep animals. Gloria in Excelsis Deo is in Latin, not English, and it means Glory to God Above / in Heaven. Hark is a call to attention, I think. Ye is old English for The. Christ/Jesus/Christ the Lord is sort of used interchangeably […]”

“Will there be fireworks for Christmas?”

I am sorry to disappoint them, especially because they arrived in DC right after the Fourth of July. Maybe there are firework displays in the South, and in some locales for New Year’s, but not anywhere near them.

“Do you have fireworks in Mexico for Christmas?”

I set my tea down. I remember pointing empty Coke bottles at the sky, the perfect launching pad for whistling rockets, running around on the street in front of and behind spinning multicolor rosettes, covering my ears as black cats popped without much show. My grandfather’s gift of Bengal lights, his hand holding a Zippo steadily beneath a bumpy gray rod almost as tall as me, with ignition revealing millions of bright orange limbs that clawed into the night sky.

“Of course. Mexico is the land of Christmas tigers.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pho in the Wall

Few things are satisfying in this bitter cold as a steaming bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup with all the fixings. While Pho 14, a tiny café a stone's throw away from Target in Columbia Heights is not Pho 75, it is easily the best bowl of Pho in the District Proper. My former boss is Vietnamese-American, and her rule of thumb was that a proper Pho place should serve only soups, and leave it at that. While I miss our office runs to the Eden Center, this small place is metro accessible, and has the added advantages of taking credit/debit cards as well as offering some other simple staples of Vietnamese cooking such as banh mi, Indochine in sandwich form. The Tiki bar is a bit cutesy, but it gives the staff somewhere to hang out when things are slow. My recent trip - a late, late lunch at 4 PM gave me restaurant all to myself, and the bright orange walls were a welcome contrast to the bleakness outside and the maddening crowds at Target. There's magic in those noodles, or perhaps its the restorative powers of the fresh basil, the brightness of strategically squirted lime, and all the sriracha and jalapeños I can handle. Comfort food at its finest.

Pho 14 on Urbanspoon
Pho 14
1436 Park Road NW
Washington, DC 20010
(202)986 23 26

Sunday, December 12, 2010

And so this is Christmas...

Today is the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the traditional start to Posadas, evening parties that run for the 12 days of Christmas in Mexico and where beloved traditions such as piñatas come from. The Mexican Professionals Network of Washington DC held its annual Posada at Lupe Cantina today, and the friendly bar staff made sure the margaritas were perfectly salty and chilled, the XX Lager flowed, and the shenanigans went by smoothly.

While we have enjoyed Lupe's kitchen in past events, posadas require a special menu, so we turned to our caterer extraordinaire, Connie Johnson. The evening featured champurrado (a chocolate-based atole, making it a hominy flour-based drink); chicken and pork tamales; pozole (a robust, medium spicy soup with pork and chicken, hominy, and traditional fixings of oregano, fresh radish, and greens); guacamole, and refried beans. The food was well prepared, and the combination was perfect to stave off the cold and the homesickness.

If you're sorry you missed out on a traditional Mexican menu in downtown DC, check out Mexican Jalapeño - this online store has everything you need to recreate the meal and even fill a piñata or two.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Latkes' Lament

A few years ago, before Facebook was available to the post-college crowd, I kept a personal blog on Wordpress, The Border Fence. I stopped updating it in 2008 after I took over as editor of DCGastronome. It still exists in some password-protected sense, and on occasion I would write about food (no surprise there). In honor of the fantastic sweet potato latkes and mulled Manischewitz I had on the 3rd night of Hanukkah courtesy of M., here's a recycled entry from December 2006. If you are craving latkes and your friends aren't as accommodating, Firefly in Dupont Circle has a latke special for the duration of the holiday.

Latke's Lament 16.12.2006
We were making our way up 18th street, and I couldn't shake the feeling that there was a better way to get to Adams Mill Road - one that didn't involve stopping every other corner to wait for a street light to change. Jaywalking in DC is not the best idea generally, and in the area surrounding Dupont Circle specifically, with all those cars with diplomatic plates driving around.

"I never do it, unless there's a woman with a stroller stepping into the street. Then I run alongside them."

My friend seems amused. I explain that no one would deliberately run over a woman with a baby. Acceptable variants include pregnant women, dads with babies in arms, and even toddlers. "What if they swerve to avoid the adult with the kid element and then they hit you?" I retort with the running alongside them, thus creating a human shield.

I hear chuckles behind us. Two guys, strolling along 18th street. They've been tailing along for a while, but our general direction is very common for a Friday night. They tell us that they are not stalking us and that they are going to a bar. I take a look at them. Undergrads, barely legal if they cannot name a specific bar in Adams Morgan yet. After a few quips they ask us where we are going.

"Latke Party! It's the first night of Hanukkah."

"What's a Latke?"

"It's a take on a hash brown. The best part of Hanukkah is all the fried foods."

One of them answers, "Oh see I am a recovering Catholic. We don't have any specific food."

My friend turns to me, her walking reference guide who goes to Sunday school on Tuesdays. I ponder.

"Fish for lent? I guess every country has its specific holiday fare."

Recovering Catholic's companion says, "Well, then I guess you can claim the cuisine of any predominantly Catholic country as yours, no?"

Mexican, French, Italian, Spanish… we miss out on all the Asian cuisines, but the thought of religious cultural imperialism is perverse enough to work.

"So if you are Catholic how come you know what latkes are?"

I could wax philosophical about the war on Christmas. I just smile and say I am thankful and blessed with good friends.

"So can we go to this party of yours? Latkes sound like something worth knowing!"

We look at each other. The Adams Mill Road locale is homey, but small. It's also sit down dinner. We say sorry, but we are guests and we were asked to bring plates, not random 20 year olds. We pleasantly part ways in Columbia Road.

We get to our friend's party as the first batch of Latkes is coming out. Potato and onion ransack our noses. The candles are lit and blessings are said.

Sour cream and apple sauce conspire to make the latkes fly off the table. A late guest shows up just in time to claim the remaining three.

"I am so glad there's latkes left. I was at this massive Hanukkah party and the hostess refused to make the latkes, and she had the shredded potato and everything! She had stage fright!"

Latke anxiety. Sounds like a Woody Allen movie.