I’m having difficulty recalling a summer season that felt so short and simultaneously stressful as Summer 2021 was — It took weeks for me to sit back and reflect on how stressful but, at the same time, how joyful this past summer of 2021 was for me.
There were chunks of days and weeks between 2020 and 2021 that felt like a fog in my memory. And there were some weeks and days that felt like a hundred things happened all at once.
Despite all the stress, I can’t help but feel a sense of hopefulness about what the future holds for me.
Admittedly, since the pandemic started, throughout all of that time, I have had all kinds of existential dilemmas and moments of pure joy. However, the constant challenge, above anything else, has been finding ways to maintain balance, re-centering my compass, recommitting to my goals, and finding ways to stay safe and healthy.
All be told, 2021, so far, has been a lot kinder to me than the previous five years before the pandemic began; Which is a crazy thing to say considering the state of the world. But strangely enough, it is true.
There is a sense of rebirth and refocus that I have been feeling lately — like a reset button has been pressed, and I can feel that some solid progress has been made from all the personal growth I have experienced in the last few years since my Mother’s passing.
I cannot tell you how happy I am to be making this type of progress in most aspects of my life. And one of those improvements was a promise I made to myself that I would spend more time visiting the DC area multiple times within a calendar year. But, unfortunately, since I moved to NYC, my visits to my childhood home have been somewhat infrequent.
This past Summer of 2021, I actually visited the DMV area three times (DC, Maryland & Virginia for the uninitiated). And all three visits were pretty rad — Yes, I will start using the word “rad” more often on this blog.
I got to see my sister a few times. I got to walk around my old stomping grounds and see some people I hand’t seen in years. And I even got around to do some sightseeing and tourist stuff that I took for granted when I lived there.
I still follow the DMV area closely as if I’m still there. I consistently look at Instagram and Twitter to know what’s happening and what’s trending in DC. I still read and engage with the Arlington Patch, DC Eater, Washingtonian, and the City paper.
I find myself getting outraged with WMATA weekly, the same way I did when I lived there.
Ultimately, it’s the whole idea of coming back home. When I feel like I need a break from my NYC life, I go back home for a few days. I walk the streets I grew up in, and it brings me back; it gets my compass centered.
In any case, my DC visits are usually planned around food and drinks — and as a proud member of the NYC food and beverage industry, my standards slash expectations are pretty high and not the same as the usual non-industry civilian. At the same time, whenever I find myself back in DC, I’m always looking to explore new spots. But I’m also a creature of habit, and I keep returning to my old DC area haunts.
Here are some of my DMV Summer 2021 highlights:
THE QUARTERDECK (Arlington, VA)
Summer season is always crab season in the DMV. Crabs are a massive component of the DC area’s food identity. Especially Maryland Blue Crabs and all of the seafood goodness that comes out of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Quarterdeck is a unique Crab-centric restaurant that has been around since 1979, and many locals consider it an Arlington institution.
First thing, you should always make a reservation. Walk-ins are a long shot, especially on weekends. FYI, they do things the old-school way, whereas they only take reservations over the phone.
I kept things straight here, ordering a dozen crabs — and as we waited for the crabs to be ready, we ordered some hush puppies and fried oysters as appetizers — and, of course, cold beers. I had a very refreshing Kolsch-style ale from a local brewery called Lost Rhino Brewing Company.
Eating crabs can be a bit messy, but it is always a fun and delicious experience.
Union Market is a perfect reflection of the rapid gentrification DC neighborhoods have experienced in the last 20 years. When I was a kid growing up in the DMV area, Union Market was a dump, and now it has become this trendy and super-expensive neighborhood. It is finally safe for white people to walk around and live there now.
At a glance, Union Market is just a food hall; however, it is actually a lot more than that; it is an entire community of businesses featuring stand-alone restaurants, a movie theater, a bookstore, a record shop, and even a separate Latin American themed food hall, La Cosecha
On this latest visit, I spent most of my time walking around and seeing all the new additions and changes since my last visit a few years ago. Acclaimed Stephen Starr restaurant St. Anselm has a DC location here (and there is also a Brooklyn location).
I was happy to see La Cosecha’s potential in terms of being a culinary and cultural marketplace. It is obviously still developing and growing as a concept. But overall, I liked what I saw. I even picked up a couple of hard-to-find Bolivian wine bottles from the Grand Cata wine shop.
Ok, for the food, we ate lunch at Peruvian brothers (La Cosecha Marketplace), we had their Peruvian chicken (the classic Pollo a la brasa Peruvian dish). It was a hot-ass summer afternoon, so I ordered a frozen Pisco slushy to pair with my Pollito a la brasa. The chicken was tasty and flavorful, but it would probably not make my top list of Peruvian-style chicken restaurants in the DMV — Still, it was, by far, much better than any Peruvian Chickens I’ve had in NYC and New Jersey.
After lunch, we walked back to Union Market food hall and found bar seats at Rappahannock Oyster Bar. We ordered a few rounds of Oysters and beers — It was a delightful experience while enjoying some locally sourced Oysters and refreshing cervezas.
BARCA PIER & WINE BAR (Old Town Alexandria, VA)
Overseeing the majestic Potomac River, this waterfront spot is a welcomed addition to Alexandria’s historic old town neighborhood.
Barca means the boat, and this Tapas restaurant embodies beautifully the Mediterranean vibe with its outdoor bar and outdoor dining room space.
My only disappointment on this visit was the lack of Spanish red wines — it is illogical for me to go to a Tapas Restaurant and not order tablas de quesos y embutidos without pairing them with some of my favorite Spanish varietals like Mencia, Tempranillo or Garnacha; Mostly, because I refuse to drink Pinot Noir or Cabernet at a Spanish place. So I hope they add some red Spanish varietals soon.
We ordered most of the standards like Pan con Tomate (on Ciabatta bread), Serrano Croquetas, Patatas Bravas, and Wild Mushrooms. They were all pretty good but not impressive. Nevertheless, the highlight of my dining experience was the Pork Tenderloin Montadito (stuffed with manchego, red onions, arugula, garlic aioli). I would totally order this again on my next visit.
They use OpenTable for reservations.
There is a subtle NYC influence here by Chef Roberto Santibañez from popular Mexican standout Fonda NYC (Chelsea & Brooklyn).
Mi Vida’s menu covers different Mexican regions; however, I really wanted to try their Oaxacan dishes, especially since I’m still looking to find a place in the DC area with some decent Oaxacan cuisine. Unfortunately, Espita Mezcaleria has disappointed me with their Mole Negro on two visits now.
I blame New York City for this; it has spoiled me when it comes to Oaxacan Cuisine.
Anyway, we started with some chips and some freshly made Guac — followed by the Zarape de Pato (Slow-Braised duck, layered corn tortillas, roasted habanero cream). This is an outstanding dish and my favorite dish out of my entire dining experience.
Next, we had the Costillitas con Mole Negro (Slow-braised baby back ribs, with mole negro and crema). And the Enchiladas de Mole Negro (Braised brisket, sesame seeds, Cotija cheese, and crema) — It was a Mole Negro party.
By far, these last two dishes were the best Mole Negros I’ve eaten in the DC area.
Reservations available through OpenTable.
This place has always been my to-go spot for authentic Pupusas in Northern Virginia. All told, Doña Azucena has one of the most affordable and legit “Cheap Eats” in the entire DC area. Sadly, elitist rags like Washingtonian never include authentic, immigrant-owned restaurants like Doña Azucena on their lists of Cheap Eats.
Anyhow, I kept it simple on this latest visit; I ordered two cheese Pupusas at $1.75 each. They always served their pupusas with a side of delicious “curtido” (fermented cabbage). As a side note, it is a major red flag if a Salvadorian place sells Pupusas and doesn’t serve curtido with them. Disappointingly, there are plenty of Salvadorian places in the NY/NJ area that, instead of curtido, serve salsa, and sometimes they even give you ketchup with your pupusa order— that’s right! fucking ketchup!!
For an entree, I ordered a Mojarra Frita (fried Tilapia, served with yellow rice, salad, and house-made tortillas). This is one excellent dish—a whole Tilapia for $13.00 bucks. If fish is not your thing, they have a tasty Carne Asada dish, also at $13.00.
Doña Azucena is a gem.
COOPERWOOD TAVERN (SHIRLINGTON)
I consider myself a Steak tartare whisperer of sorts — LOL!! But in all seriousness, I should probably write a guide to the best steak tartare in the DMV area in a future blog post.
Cooperwood Tavern is a locally owned restaurant with two locations in Virginia (Loudon County and Arlington county). I lived in the Shirlington neighborhood for many years and frequented all the bars and restaurants around there. It is one of my favorite neighborhoods for dining out in Virginia.
Cooperwood’s consistently well-prepared Steak Tartare with a quail egg on top is the main reason I go there on every trip to the DMV area. Also, their locally-sourced chilled oysters are a must; I’m not a big fan of their grilled oysters, but they’re worth a try. And on top of all that, their Venison Meatballs are also pretty good. On my next visit, I’m planning to try their Braised Rabbit and their Duck Two Ways.
Service at the bar can be a bit spotty at times and not as hospitable as you might expect from a well-thought-out restaurant concept such as this place. The cocktails are good but not exciting; I prefer to order from their extensive beer menu. Nevertheless, table service is pretty solid.
They use OpenTable for reservations.
Before the pandemic started, the Speakeasy game in DC was pretty solid. Unfortunately, as we are slowly getting back to “normal,” there seems to be only a handful of speakeasies reopening back for business. Happily, The Gibson did reopen, and I hope many more return soon.
Admittedly, The Gibson is one of my very favorite, low-key, intimate cocktail bars in the District. It is hidden in plain sight behind an unassuming door in U street.
The cocktails are outstanding. The intimate setting is perfect for date night or after-dinner drinks. On this latest visit, I had a few rounds of excellent Mezcal Negronis. My only disappointment was that their bar menu did not return. They used to outsource their small bites food menu from next door restaurant Marvin, which has not reopened, and it seems like it will not return — I miss their exceptional deviled eggs.
Reservations are encouraged but not required. I always book ahead of time through Resy
FISHERMAN’S CRAB DECK (Grasonville, MD)
About an hour’s drive from DC, you have one of my favorite communities in the Eastern Shore area of Maryland. The locals call it The Narrows, but it is officially known as the Kent Island Narrows.
It is mainly made out of waterfront seafood restaurants and some fun waterfront live music bars, like The Jetty (another favorite spot of mine). So anyway, in the summer of 2021, we made a quick pit stop on Kent Island to indulge in some locally sourced seafood goodness.
We kept things simple and had some golden fried hush puppies and some tasty Crab Legs, followed by scallops and Crab Cakes; It was all great stuff.
This is a charming community, and most restaurants, like the Crab Deck, are only open seasonally; however, they do have some year-round restaurants like The Fisherman’s Inn.
Oh, and please do not feed the seagulls.