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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Tucked Away in Pasadena, Magnolia Blooms

Open for almost a year, Magnolia is a great local pub in Pasadena, tucked away in what used to be a floral shop, says The Oracle. It’s unrelated to the Magnolia in Hollywood. The place seems to be going for 30-something hipster appeal, but in reality all types and ages hang out there–it’s a very relaxed vibe.

And although the food didn’t stand out much initially, they’ve apparently worked out the kinks. The menu is creative, in the comfort food vein, but…atypical. How often do you see PB&J on brioche? Gruyere macaroni and cheese is a huge crock of yummy goodness with a breadcrumb crust. Cornflake-crusted chicken tenders are really good, with a sweet dipping sauce.

Happy hour, from 5 to 7 p.m., means $5 well martinis and half off their food menu. There are also lots of interesting wines by the glass, half bottle, and bottle.

The space is well designed, with modern touches throughout–the indoor seating area has plush red velvet wallpaper and dim lighting; outdoors, there are more seats, an oak tree and a bar. It’s still not a huge place, though, and can get pretty crowded at happy hour–after all, that’s when two martinis and three filling appetizers are about $30.

Magnolia [Pasadena-ish]
492 S. Lake Ave., between Granite and San Pasqual, Pasadena

Board Links
Magnolia (pasadena)–review

Pho Hoai Revisited: True Vietnamese in Brooklyn

Chicken in rich yellow curry, grilled shrimp over rice vermicelli, and salmon in a lively casserole with ginger and scallions are some of the things they do well at Pho Hoai, which has two locations in Brooklyn. “Very authentic–none of the overly sweet Vietnamese food you get in most places here,” says Muffin, who adds that it measures up to the chow you’d find in Vietnam.

noisejoke recommends robust stir-fried crab, delicate and salty/sweet grilled pork on rice sticks, and creamy egg custards. Past reports praise pho, pork chops, and spring rolls. PAL rates Pho Hoai’s Avenue U location ahead of the Bay Ridge original.

Pho Hoai Bay Ridge Restaurant [Bay Ridge]
8616 4th Ave., between 86th and 87th Sts., Brooklyn

Pho Hoai Restaurant [Gravesend]
1906 Ave. U, between E. 19th St. and Ocean Ave., Brooklyn

Board Links
Long, messy Brooklyn post (Asian, coffee, tacos, and more)

At Westville, an Unbeatable Chicken Reuben

Westville makes a chicken reuben that you shouldn’t miss, insists jungirl. It’s grilled sliced chicken, sauerkraut, bacon, cheddar, avocado, pickles, and Thousand Island dressing on buttery grilled rye. Ten dollars, served only at lunch.

Westville [Greenwich Village]
210 W. 10th St., between Bleecker and W. 4th Sts., Manhattan

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Cheap lunch in the West Village?

Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried green tomatoes are all kinds of delicious, but the trick is getting your paws on some green tomatoes. If you grow tomatoes–or know someone who does–then you can fry up all the end-of-season tomatoes that won’t have time to ripen and have yourself a feast. The trick is to make sure the tomatoes are really firm, tart, and green all the way through, says dixieday2.

dixieday2’s recipe: slice green tomatoes 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick, dredge them in a mixture of cornmeal and flour seasoned with lots of salt, pepper, and cayenne, then fry them in oil until well browned. Drain on paper towels, and allow them to cool off a little before you eat them; otherwise you’ll burn your tongue.

pikawicca takes a slightly different approach: slice tomatoes about 1/2-inch thick. Salt and pepper. Dip in flour, then beaten egg, then cornmeal or cracker crumbs. Fry in approximately 1/2-inch of hot fat (bacon fat or lard are particularly nice) over medium-high heat until nicely browned. Serve as is or with cream gravy.

rockycat says that, while it’s not a traditional combination, remoulade sauce goes really well with fried green tomatoes.

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fried green tomatos

Pollo Pibil

Pollo pibil is a Yucatecan dish: chicken marinated in achiote paste and sour orange juice and baked in banana leaves. The hardest ingredients to find are fresh banana leaves, and sour oranges. You may be able to find fresh banana leaves in Mexican markets, and they are almost always available frozen in Asian supermarkets. If you can’t get banana leaves, you can bake the chicken in foil instead, but the banana leaves lend a unique grassy note to pibil dishes, notes adamclyde. Defrost frozen leaves, cut out the thick veins, and steam them just long enough to make them pliable. Sour oranges can also difficult to find, but a combination of orange juice with lime juice or vinegar makes a good substitute.

Pollo pibil is served with a red onion escabeche (pickled onions). Here are PBSF’s recipes for both:

1 cut up chicken, about 3 lbs.
1/4 cup achiote paste
1/4 cup orange juice
juice of half a lime
2 tsps. grated orange zest
1 yellow or white onion, sliced
2 small tomatoes, sliced

Mix together the achiote paste, orange juice, lime juice, and zest. Rub the paste over the chicken and marinate in the refrigerator overnight. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Saute the onion in a little oil until brown and soft. Season with salt and pepper. Line a baking dish with banana leaves or foil. Place the marinated chicken pieces, including any marinade liquid, on the leaves or foil. Season with salt. Spoon the cooked onions on top of the chicken and top with tomato slices. Place more banana leaves or foil over the chicken to completely enclose it in the pan.

Bake for about 40 minutes. Turn the oven up to 450, cut the banana leaves or foil on top open, and let the chicken brown on top (about 10 minutes). Check to be sure the chicken is cooked through.

Pickled Onions

2 peeled red onions, sliced into 1/8- to 1/4-inch rings
1 small hot chile (jalapeno, serrano, or habanero, depending how much heat you want), sliced into thin rings
1 cup white distilled vinegar
1/2 tsp. crushed cumin seeds
1/2 tsp.crushed black peppercorns
large pinch dried Mexican oregano
large pinch salt

Bring about 4 cups water to a boil. Turn off heat and add the sliced onions. Let sit for about 5 minutes. Drain. Combine the onions with the rest of the ingredients and let them sit for a few hours before using. They’ll keep for weeks refrigerated in a covered jar.

Board Links
Have Achiote Paste..want to make Pollo Pibil

Defrosting Your Brain

If you’re a slushy drink lover but hate that ice-pick-though-your-skull feeling, try taking a sip of warm water right after it hits. There’s an artery in the back of your throat that constricts, causing the brain freeze, explains Biggie. The warm water will ease the constricted artery, thus alleviating the pain.

If you’ve ordered a drive through slurpie and don’t have any warm water nearby, there’s an acupressure point on your hand that can help, says raj1. Press for a few seconds right below the pad under your ring finger on your left hand, just a little up and to the right on your palm.

Board Links
Combating brain freeze

Spread Em!

As the weather cools, hounds chime in with their favorite toasted bread and spread combinations:

Portuguese sweet bread, lightly toasted with fresh butter goes so well with a cup of coffee, sighs chowdear.

Cafes in Hong Kong often serve sweet toasted bread (either thick, Texas Toast-style slabs of white, or perhaps raisin bread) with coconut or sweetened evaporated milk.

Cinnamon raisin bread with peanut butter is a classic combo.

Also great: black bread with butter, apricot preserves, and a sheep’s milk cheese (manchego works well).

Whole-grain bread, peanut butter, ginger preserves and banana slices: what a way to start the day, raj1 raves.

Try a toasted flagel (flat bagel), cooled and topped with scallion or chive cream cheese and cucumber slices.

Honey or whole wheat bread, darkly toasted with unsalted butter and honeycomb is excellent.

Savory bread and spread combos work well as an appetizer, like lightly toasted tomato bread, spread with a mushroom and black truffle “tapenade,” dotted with a crumbled taleggio. Deborah Madison has a recipe for luscious leeks on toast worth seeking out. Crusty Italian bread with butter and anchovies can’t be beat. A nice crusty piece of bread spread with marrow from a beef bone is an old favorite from mom, bolivianita reminisces. Also great: a sourdough onion baguette slathered swith butter and chestnut cream.

Combine sweet and savory ingredients for an intriguing balance of flavor: toast with fig jam and egg salad; fennel and raisin bread spread with roasted eggplant pesto and topped with black olive tapenade; French baguettes topped with red pepper jelly and brie; or toasted pumpernickel with goat cheese and truffle salt.

No matter what combination you choose half of the toast experience is the smell of the bread toasting, ML8000 surmises.

Board Links
What is your favorite toast and spread combination?

Paula Deen: Pied Piper?

Rachael’s busy with her network talk show and a magazine. Mario’s canceled. Tony Bourdain’s hit the road for the Travel Channel. Sara Moulton’s starting up a PBS show. No question about it, things are changing at the Food Network, where ratings are down and the honchos are nervous.

With most of the Food Network’s former go-to stars now otherwise engaged, network execs are looking to fill the chef-lebrity gap by grooming new personalities and giving stepped-up opportunities to older ones. Southern-fried matronly cutie Paula Deen has been given the biggest leg up, with a new show called Paula’s Party, set to debut September 29. According to network insiders, there are high hopes Deen’s show will attract younger viewers.

Says Deen in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “I’m keepin’ the hair high and the expectations low, and that way I can’t lose.”

Hmm, right, but the Food Network’s current strategy of airing more info-tainment and competitive cooking shows (think Unwrapped and Iron Chef) at night rather than the more traditional daytime cooking shows seems to make more sense. Why pin hopes for spryer viewers on a white-haired grandma?

Says Food Network blog critic The Armchair Cook, “This blatant MTV-ization of the Food Network worries me. Sheesh, maybe if things don’t work out with Paula and Michael, they can give her a dating show, à la Flavor of Love. For old times’ sake, maybe they could call it Butter Flavor of Love.”

Semi Homemade? SUPER Homemade!

You like Pockys. You like Kit Kats. You even like alphabet letters in your soup. But do you ever think this Pocky/Kit Kat/alphabet letter would be so much better if it were, say, AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD?

Brit site Pimp That Snack is exactly why we’re so happy that Al Gore invented the Internet—so that folks who really want to make, from scratch, animal crackers the size of puppies and Pop-Tarts the width of dinner plates can have a place to share their love.

There’s something exceedingly British and Monty Pythonish about the whole concept; in fact, we found it via another fave Brit site, Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, which pitches its news listings under the heading “Your up to the minute source for news in the fast moving world of tea and sit downs.” Kate Hopkins on the Accidental Hedonist is also a fan, thanks to a fondness for lines like “You just pimped my HobNob!” (The site was originally called Pimp My Snack, until the threat of a lawsuit from Viacom—which own the rights to tricked-out car show Pimp My Ride—forced a name switch.)

But the best part (besides the actual recipes and step-by-step photo commentary, just in case you should want to re-create an After Eight mint the size of a record sleeve) are the Pimp Trumps, where you can match up two pimped-out snacks and see who triumphs. Absolutely Massive Alphabetti Spaghetti versus After Eight 12’’ Extended Mix: Who will rule?

Virginia Chowconnaissance: Two Days in High Gear

Northern Virginia
There are three modes of dining:

• Going to a known place (for many, this means a chain) or a place you’ve been guided to

• Taking a random stab and hoping for the best

• Chowconnaissance, whereby an area is methodically gauged and charted via herculean onslaught in an afternoon or two

For non-chowhounds, those options appear in declining order of appeal. Familiarity is paramount, going off the map is worrisome, and the sampling of multiple places in quick succession is completely daft.

For chowhounds, it’s the opposite. Familiarity is boring, trying someplace new is exciting, and massive exploration is … well, the most rewarding pastime one could imagine.

Rewarding though it is, chowconnaissance is not easy, and no one would choose to do it often. It’s a grueling undertaking that offers none of the standard pleasures of dining out. The pace is frenetic, food combinations are unharmonious, and energy expenditure is mighty. And the result, even if one diligently paces oneself, is exhausted dyspepsia.

So why do it? Because chowconnaissance is how we build knowledge. By plunging in, we’re able to compare similar venues to suss out superior options. The drill is to dash in and out of places, parsing takeout menus and strategizing orders to efficiently reveal benchmark quality. Hopefully, grandeur can be ferreted out in short order. And then, having attained the knowledge of Where’s Good, we can one day return to the hottest spots for leisurely, exultant meals.

This rigorous, unnatural style of grazing used to be the exclusive domain of restaurant critics, but more and more amateur food sleuths are taking the iron-hound route. What it lacks in physical comfort and immediate satisfaction it more than makes up for in the quick accrual of massively useful chow know-how. Like saving a portion of your paycheck or freezing spaghetti sauce, this is a kindness one does one’s future self. And the fact that my future self must get itself to Falls Church, Virginia, to partake of the fruits of this research matters not. Such knowledge is treasure, and I horde treasure reflexively.

I hit all the following in two afternoons, rarely taking a second bite of anything. And while it left me groaning, I was able to speedily go from deeming northern Virginia a mysterious, vaguely enticing chow area to thinking of it as an old stomping ground. I’ve got a portfolio of great places to return to, plus tempting leads for future investigation.

How did my streak affect things? It’s all about the winnowing. There were probably something like 300 eateries in the area, and around 20 piqued my attention. I actually ordered something at the following 10 places, all of which had something quite noteworthy to offer. I used nothing but my chow-dar intuition to find the following:

Original Pancake House
370 West Broad Street
Falls Church, Virginia
(Also branches in Bethesda and Rockville.)

The Original Pancake House shows the patina of a great place devolved into ennui. These pumpkin pancakes were merely above average, and I suspect that’s true of much of their offerings. But the menu includes two dishes too wacky and distinctive for the kitchen to have eroded: the apple pancake and the Dutch baby. I don’t need to describe them, because they taste precisely as they look in the following photos.

Pumpkin pancakes.

The apple pancake.

The Dutch baby (undressed).

The Dutch baby (dressed and partially consumed).

From the looks of their website, the Original Pancake people seem to agree that these items are the highlights. I didn’t know that when I ordered … which goes to show that ordermanship is an integral part of the chowconnaissance process.

Jerusalem Restaurant
3405 Payne Street
Falls Church, Virginia

This was an extremely difficult puzzle. Initially, I pulled over because I hoped I’d find Palestinian kunefe (a rare and prized thing) here. Any restaurant called “Jerusalem” is likely to be either Palestinian or Israeli, and it certainly wasn’t the latter. I didn’t expect to see explicit Palestinian references, because Palestinians tend to identify their restaurants as Jordanian.

The menu lists mostly Lebanese dishes, though, which is a whole different thing. And just to confuse me further, the menu included some serious Egyptian dishes.

I ordered a chicken shwarma sandwich, described on the menu as served with garlic sauce and pickles—which is very Lebanese. So I asked for extra toom—the Lebanese term for garlic sauce. The waitress stared at me blankly, and the sandwich came completely toomless; it tasted fine but somehow off. Everything tasted off, in fact. Finally, I chatted up the waitress and learned the present staff is Moroccan!

So they’re trying valiantly to keep up the restaurant’s legacy dishes, though Morocco is a long way, culinarily, from Lebanon. I ordered some Moroccan baked pastries (see photo below), which were wonderful. And I noticed a few errant Moroccan gestures on the menu, including harira (lamb soup) and couscous. I bet they’re real good. Must try next trip.

Bread & Kabob Restaurant
3407-B Payne Street
Falls Church, Virginia

Too full to even sample. But I’m quite certain it’s top-notch. Hopefully chowhounds will try it and report back on our message boards.

Yas Bakery and Gourmet Foods
131a West Maple Avenue
Vienna, Virginia
• Saffron ice cream

• Cookies, almond/pistachio

Devastatingly delicious and potent saffron ice cream. More rife with saffron than any other saffron ice cream I’ve had, and they go easy on the rosewater (which, to my taste, tends to overly complicate the flavor). Cookies are good-not-great. Ask for the lemon-washed pistachio nuts, a must-buy in any Iranian grocery. I bet there’s other great stuff here, too. Disclosure: Rob (the military wine geek) told me there’s an Iranian bakery thereabouts, so I was not entirely flying blind, though I will take credit for uncovering the saffron ice cream, which has now become a holy grail must-eat on all future trips to the area.

Victor’s Grill
436 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

This tiny Bolivian cabin is so intensely insular that you feel like you’ve been transported to La Paz. Things are different in Bolivia, so things can be disorienting here. We walked in at 1:30 p.m., and the waiter approached us gravely. “Lunch is over,” he said (in Spanish), with merciless finality. “Lunch is over?” I repeated, deflated and unbelieving. “Yes. It’s over. No more lunch.” He waited for me to turn and walk out the door, but my panic prompted a creative response. “Then may we have dinner?”

Yes, we may. We were seated and handed menus (the dinner menu, quite inexplicably, is the lunch menu), and we ordered falso conejo (faux rabbit: sauced breaded beef cutlet in a spicy sauce with rice and boiled potatoes) and picante de pollo (spicy chicken: chicken with spicy sauce, boiled potatoes, and rice, served with cut tomatoes and onions). They were out of salteñas (Bolivian baked empanadas) and sopa de maní (spicy peanut soup), but that may be emblematic of the lunch/dinner divide.

To drink, I got a phenomenally unrefreshing glass of refresco de durazno, a tepid, syrupy sweet beverage clobbered with countless tablespoons of cinnamon and containing what appears to be a desiccated llama testicle (actually a dried peach) lying sunken on the bottom.

The food was amazing. I was transported not just to La Paz, but to La Paz 300 years ago. Each plate was an enormous mountain with its own microclimate and gravity (I think I saw the salt and pepper shakers tremblingly pull in as the weighty load was deposited on our table). One could eat and eat and never make a dent. And the cooking is unrepentant. The falso conejo (see photo below), a fiercely oniony delight, uncompromising in every respect, asks, “Can you really handle unstinting authenticity? Can you really face down this blast of spice, this sheer load of unvariegated meat, so primal, so intense? Can you ever hope to so much as run your fork through this quantity of rice?”

The picante de pollo (see photo below) dared me to maintain my notion that I really love chicken. Do I love chicken this much?

I felt like a four-year-old presented with Daddy’s plate (and Daddy lays train tracks in the Bolivian jungle). I ate and ate and ate, made no headway at all, and, with flop sweat on my brow, asked for the rest packed up to go. Defeated, I was expelled from the joint like the clueless pasty gringo I am.

I hadn’t intended this recording for public consumption … it’s just me noting down the items I’d tried for future reference. But the background sounds are transportive, so I’m throwing it in. Don’t listen to me … just catch the vibe: MP3 file.

There were two other great places in the same strip as Victor’s Grill. I regret not sampling the other two, having been knocked nearly unconscious by the experience at Victor’s:

Blanca’s Restaurant
418 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

A walk-through revealed fresh tortillas and everything super homemade and alluring. They are Salvadoran but make mostly Mexican. The owner, asked about their pupusas (Salvadoran fried corn pucks stuffed with meat, cheese, or meat and cheese), gleamed at me and said (in Spanish), “Dude, if you’re into pupusas, you’ve just got to try ours.” Not hype. This place rocks. I don’t need to eat there to be sure.

Super Chicken
422 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

Killer-looking Peruvian chicken, done over live coals. Even the sides look great. See photos.

Pure poultry porn.

Pure plantain porn.

Feel the high-energy bustle!

Cool mural on the side of the building.

The following two reports don’t stem from chowconnaissance, strictly speaking. Pho 75 is a place Dave had shown me once before, years ago, and Elevation Burger was shown me by Robert.

Pho 75
1711 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia<br /

Pho 75, unsurprisingly, makes pho—Vietnamese meaty soup, pronounced like “funk” without the “nk,” and with voice rising as if asking a question. They are expanding wildly (including branches in Philly, which I reported a few installments ago). The big news of this trip is that Vietnamese seems to be springing up everywhere, often beneath the radar. Look for, and get used to, pho, because we’re all going to be eating lots of Vietnamese!

I’d sampled the original location years ago and loved it. This time I tried a more downtown branch, and while the soup’s excellent, it’s a bit less intensely seasoned than I remember. The star anise is particularly reduced—I realized this as I walked in the door (aficionados can distinguish a good pho place with a single sniff). But, hey, I still really liked my soup—soulful broth generously stocked with quality meat. Beware the chili peppers on the condiment platter, which are beyond hot. They produce what feels like a nasty electrical fire on your tongue (pepper heat varies seasonally, though).

Elevation Burger
442 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

Elevation Burger is around the corner from Victor’s Grill (which I actually tried the following day). These guys talk a good game: burgers made from Kobe beef … yadda yadda … fries fried in olive oil … yadda. Prices are high. And, much like the lauded Five Guys in Arlington, Elevation Burger produces merely a pretty good burger and fries. Though, in these days of total chain dominance, an honest, pretty good burger and fries probably truly is a gourmet treat worth a premium price.

What I did not check out was the Vietnamese shopping/eating cluster at Seven Corners. The food’s got to be good in this amazing-looking plaza, because it’s so dense with immigrant-patronized restaurants that slackers would never survive. But it’d take days to thoroughly investigate, and I just didn’t have time. I see that Tyler Cowen is trying to catalog some of these venues on his website.

Alexandria, Virginia

Because I’d managed to have only microbites at the places above, I was able to have an actual (late) dinner. I was very disappointed not to have found any Cambodian or Laotian, which I still suspect exist in northern Virginia, but I consoled myself with a Thai blowout at a newish restaurant that Dave Sit discovered in a remote shopping mall. Dave’s correct—this is a terrific place.

Rice and Spice Thai
6466 Landsdowne Court
Alexandria, Virginia

Just a dumb suburban shopping strip … but such strips can contain hidden treasure!

Dave is baffled by the sheer font size of their table sign.

Chicken larb, full of complexity and rice flour. And yes, that’s a whole lot of chile, son. This stuff was hot ... and as good as any larb I’ve ever had.

Penang curry with chicken (very good, but missing a few elements in the curry sauce).

Basil crispy duck (wonderful, though perhaps—dare I say it?—too spicy).

Siam beef (oh-so-tender and rich).

It takes time to fully decompress from a serious binge of chowconnaissance, so, caught up in the inertia, I felt obliged to sneak in one post-meal bite, a morsel of sashimi from the sushi joint across from Rice and Spice in this unassuming (yet chow-rife) shopping strip. Matsui Sushi, 6408 Landsdowne Centre, Alexandria, Virginia, 703-550-6100, is, as Dave had reported, much better than you’d expect in a suburban shopping strip. I’d never order prepared food there, but the raw fish is quite good.