Latin Routes Dining and dashing around D.C.—pages from a food critic's notebook

Weathering Heights: Huapalla injects culture in a chain-store ’hood.
Charles Steck

Let’s not pussyfoot around on this: The stretch of 14th Street NW around the Columbia Heights Metro, which looks like a piece of Clarendon has been airlifted and dropped in place, needs far better eats to feed its influx of status-conscious condo dwellers. So far the pickings are slim. I mean, I wouldn’t enter the Ruby Tuesday in Tivoli Square with the devil’s pitchfork at my back.

The options don’t improve much from there. Logan @ the Heights looks like a saloon crossed with an outlet store and stamps out factory-reject comfort foods. Pollo Campero, Latin America’s answer to KFC, has lost whatever saline-injected edge it once had, and the vegan Sticky Fingers Bakery may be the last place I’d go for sweets, unless of course I get a lobotomy and suddenly can’t tell the difference between butter and margarine.

But take heart. Best among 14th’s ever-expanding crop of crappy eateries—and I don’t mean this as faint praise—is Rumberos, a handsome, high-ceilinged operation that mixes Latin art with a menu that draws from the cuisines of Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and other points south. Chef and owner Angel Huapalla, the man also behind Rumba Café in Adams Morgan, has traveled extensively throughout the Americas. He knows how to translate the region’s spicy, high-fat dishes for our ever-fearful palates—without dumbing things down to the level of, say, the quesadillas at Ruby Tuesday.

Case in point is Huapalla’s mofongo con mariscos, a Puerto Rican staple of mashed fried plantains and garlic topped with shrimp and scallops in tomato sauce. This is one of the few dishes here that I’ve actually sampled in its place of origin. Now, don’t worry; I’m not going to convince you I’m some mofongo expert because I spent a week on the island. But there’s no denying that the cracked, wooden mortar—called a pilón de madera for you sticklers—ferrying your sweet-and-savory mofongo at Rumberos contains about 75 percent less fat than the versions in Puerto Rico. Trust me, this is a good thing. Nothing curbs your appetite faster than a starch larded with a pound of butter or pork fat or whatever the hell they use down there.

Even better is the lomo a la huancaina, which plays the part of the gentrified urban cousin to the more country papa a la huancaina. Both are Peruvian dishes, the former featuring filet mignon, the latter the lowly potato. Huapalla serves up a tender, charred, and perfectly medium-rare steak underneath a mild, creamy aji-pepper sauce; this $10 small plate from the appetizer menu (where most of Huapalla’s best cooking can be found, including a line of delicate arepa cakes) is so filling and satisfying, you may never wander to the entree section.

Take a Chien to It

Folks can’t seem to talk about Café du Parc without invoking Paris, so on Labor Day I put the bistro’s Gallic pedigree to the test. I called up and asked if I could bring Coltrane, our beagle, to eat with us on the patio. The woman on the other end of the line paused at the question—no doubt recalling memories of happy dogs stuffed with baguettes and pan-roasted bavette at sidewalk cafes throughout Paris—and cheerfully replied, “Yeah, why not?” I didn’t even have to promise that we’d clean up the dog’s shit, which would put us miles ahead of any Parisian.

The host at the restaurant, however, was not as thrilled when my wife, Carrie, asked for a patio table while I parked the car. He said he’d be happy to seat us, but dogs are not allowed, inside or out, which was just a polite way of saying, “Get that fat, overheated fleabag out of here.” But after Carrie explained my phone call, the host reversed course and gave us a corner seat, presumably so our gaseous pooch wouldn’t add any extra egg to the béarnaise sauce.

The host may have been reluctant, but the rest of the staff at Café du Parc treated Coltrane as if he were parading the 28th Infantry Division down the Champs-

Elysées during WWII. Our waiter, Olivier, filled a plastic to-go container with water and proudly carried it on a tray right to Coltrane’s spot under the table. He later praised the pooch and confessed that he missed his own two dogs, which he had to leave back in Paris with his mom. Another staffer came by to find out if Coltrane talked; he wanted to pry the secret of everlasting youth out of our 10-year-old hound.

All three of us devoured the assiette de cochonailles, a rectangular board teeming with salty, shaved French ham, fatty circles of saucisson sec, a rich, peppery duck terrine, a thin jar of creamy pork rillettes, and two grilled slices of rustic bread. One of us ate off the ground. I didn’t share a lick of my tomato and buffalo mozzarella with my hairy companion, though; something about its painstaking preparation—two whole tomatoes had been blanched, carefully de-skinned and deseeded, and stuffed with fresh chunks of pesto-dressed mozzarella—did not scream “dog food.”

But I was quite happy to have the beagle around for my entree of poitrine de cochon croustillante, this tiny square of pork meat that had been cooked sous vide for 24 hours, sautéed in a pan, and baked. Someone clearly fell asleep next to the oven in Christophe Marque’s kitchen. The outer layers of my pork were not crisped; they were dehydrated to the consistency of cracked saddle leather. Coltrane dug it.

Just Like Jaddah Used to Make

Maher Chebaro, who last fall opened a Middle Eastern kitchen of tomorrow named YaZuZu in Adams Morgan, has already cashed out and sold his cafeteria to his sister, Najwa Manasterli, and her two sons. Manasterli, a former caterer, has assumed cooking duties from founding chef Tutu Altaye Mihrete and has supplemented the original menu with a few of her own Lebanese dishes.

I’ve stopped by twice now since Manasterli took over, and I’m surer than ever that YaZuZu serves up the best ready-made food in the ’hood, hands-down. Everything’s produced in-house, including the moderately spiced beef merguez sausage that comes swaddled inside toasted khobiz bread and slathered in a cilantro-parsley-mint sauce. The beef ribs, braised in pomegranate juice and liberally sprinkled with rosemary, are simultaneously sweet and rich, while the chicken tagine leans more heavily on cinnamon than its billed flavoring agents. None of the dishes care much for salt.

To date, YaZuZu has never quite lived up to its promise as some kitschy, artsy, multimedia, mid-20th-century vision of the future. It has instead turned back the clock in a more earnest fashion to focus on home-style foods from Lebanon and other countries. Several of Manasterli’s additions, including a side of garlic-cilantro potatoes doused with lemon as well as a spicy collection of olives and sweet pearl onions, only underscore her desire to comfort diners with food, not with another empty display of hipness in a neighborhood with too much of that crap already.

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