Hong Kong Palace

6387 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22044
703-532-0940

Pros: Excellent Szechuan selections!
Cons: A little out of the way for Marylanders

Ever since our beloved Red Pearl closed down, we  had been mourning the loss of local Szechuan options. Although the nearby Noodles Corner definitely satisfies our general Chinese cravings, they have relatively few Szechuan items in their menu.

Enter Hong Kong Palace. Okay, so it’s not exactly local to us Marylanders, but it is still in the MD/DC/VA area. We’ve come to love it so much that whenever we go down to visit our friends in Fairfax, VA, Hong Kong Palace consistently comes up as an option when trying to think of a place to eat.

The Szechuan dishes on the menu hit you with spice, but not so much that it is over-bearing. We were very pleasantly surprised with the Dan Dan Noodles as an appetizer; we actually feel that these are entree-ready. One of my favorite dishes that I’ve mourned losing from the closing of Red Pearl has been a cumin-infused lamb dish with peppers and onions. No other Chinese restaurants close to Columbia, MD seem to carry this. Luckily, I can get my fix at Hong Kong Palace. With our most recent visit, we also found that a similarly prepared dish with fish instead of lamb is just as satisfying, if not more so. (This also leads me to wonder, is there anything that doesn’t taste great with cumin?) Their green onion pancake appetizers take me back to a time when I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my parents and I would dine at nearby restaurants for a weekend Chinese brunch. Since we often dine with our friends who are vegetarians, we are almost always hitting up tofu dishes, and we have yet to find one that disappoints us.

It’s hard for us to really come up with any negative feedback for the place. This place is good enough, that we’re willing to brave the cacophonous congestion that is the Seven Points area of Virginia.

Hong Kong Palace on Urbanspoon 

Black Hog BBQ & Bar

118 South Market St
Frederick, MD 21701
301-662-9090

Pros: Amazing BBQ menu!
Cons: Packed on a Saturday evening!

Yes, it’s been a while since we’ve added to our list, as real life has often intruded on our ability to really try out new restaurants. It must have taken something really momentous to have us resume our list, and we have found it!

Our friend led us to the Black Hog BBQ & Bar during an outing with friends, and we can’t thank her enough! We don’t often venture out in Frederick, MD, but this is one of the restaurants that we would happily return for. On second though, maybe for our cardiovascular health, it’s probably a good thing that this restaurant involves a bit of a trek for us.

The restaurant has a very nice neighborhood feel. As we waited for our table, we got to chatting with another customer who claimed that he would dine at the Black Hog a couple times a week ever since it had opened. With an endorsement like that, that just made us salivate even more. My wife and I shared the BHB Triple, meaning we got a taste of 3 different animals on our platter: cow (beef brisket), chicken (grilled quarter chicken), and pig (ribs)! I normally need to go for some BBQ drenched in sauce, but due to my wife’s current dietary restrictions, we tried to minimize that and go for something a little more dry-rub based. The ribs and chicken really did not need an extra sauce, as they had an amazing dry rub that just helped bring out the flavor. The table was equipped with a few sauces to add on; my favorite was blending a bit of the Carolina vinegar-based sauce with some of their mustard-based sauce and with a bit of their smoky-flavored sauce. This really added to the brisket and the ribs that were already amazing! The sides that we chose for our platter (beans & rice and southern greens) were equally excellent!

Though we did not try it ourselves, some friends ordered some chicken wings that they said could have used a little more salt. Fortunately, they seemed to be appeased by the choice of sauces.

There’s very little not to love about this place. There is some parking, albeit limited, in the back. Our friend wanted to watch a rugby game on the television, but it happened to be on a channel that the restaurant/local cable did not carry, but these are just minor quibbles for an otherwise amazing BBQ restaurant. And my wife was worried that she wouldn’t ever find a BBQ restaurant that she would enjoy as much as the one we frequented when she’d visit me out in grad school…

Black Hog BBQ Bar on Urbanspoon

Shanty Grille

3410 Plum Tree Dr
Ellicott City, MD 21042
410-465-9660

http://www.shantygrille.com

Pros: excellent seafood, friendly service, gluten-free items

Cons: a bit pricey

This place was formerly known as the Crab Shanty. So far, we have made 3 visits to this restaurant, twice when it was the Crab Shanty, and once as Shanty Grille. The name change was presumably to attract a more upscale clientele and perhaps allude to some of their food options beyond just seafood. Regardless, with each visit, we enjoyed a predominantly seafood-laden menu and great service each time. We actually enjoyed the restaurant so much that we chose to have our rehearsal dinner at the restaurant, and several of our guests commented how much they enjoyed the food.

With a name (admittedly their former name) like Crab Shanty, you can bet that their crab cakes are excellent. They may not be on par with the renowned Faidley’s crab cakes, but they are impressive nonetheless. This most recent visit, I had their Crab Cake Cordon Bleu, which tasted so good it brought tears to my eyes. Crab cake aside, the vegetables and potatoes were excellently prepared and were a wonderful balance to the exquisite crab cake pastry. My wife put together a meal with their Maryland Crab Soup, Chopped House Salad, and Saffron Mussels (normally an appetizer). Of course, the mussels were the centerpiece of her meal, and was so good, that we saved the remaining broth in a to-go container.

Don’t forget about dessert! Although we enjoy a range of desserts, we keep going back to the New Orleans Bread Pudding, which will take your mind swimming into paradise.

Another nice little feature is that the menu clearly labels food items that are gluten-free, so you can dine along with those who may have sensitive stomachs and a few food allergies.

Reviews on other sites (e.g., Yelp, Urban Spoon, etc.) have commented on the restaurant having inconsistent service. We might have been fairly lucky that we got excellent service with each of our visits. Our only complaint is that food items can be fairly pricey. A few items, that you might expect to be complimentary with the meal, such as bread, tend to cost extra. With this in mind, we might save our trips to the Shanty Grille just for special occasions. Regardless, our visit to the Shanty Grille made this pair of foodies very happy.
Shanty Grille on Urbanspoon

Rudy’s Mediterranean Grill & Bar

7185 Columbia Gateway Drive
Suite D
Columbia, MD 21046
410-290-2004 / 410-290-2010

http://www.rmgrill.com

Pros: Doner kebabs, seafood

Cons: Other dishes may need more flavoring

We have been longing for a good diner in Columbia, and we may have finally found one. I have to admit that it took us a few visits to really fall in love with this place. One thing this place suffers from is the standard Columbia curse: hard to find. You really have to hunt for this one, but we hope word of month will help them out.

We tried first some of the more standard and some not-so-standard diner dishes. The crabcakes, and stuffed mushrooms, and calamari were quite tasty, but sandwiches and wraps were thoroughly mediocre. A lot of the side dishes could use more flavoring; the table-side salt and pepper will be your friend for the lentil soup and breakfast potatoes.

The dishes that finally won us over, however, were the doner kebabs. For dinner, the Famous Iskender Kebab is pretty close to perfection. Think of it as an open-face gyro pita sandwich drenched in a tasty tomato sauce. The garlic yogurt helps balance out the peppers on the dish. The gyro, itself, is perfectly prepared, and the toasted pita adds a welcome crunchy texture.

The place does quite well with its seafood, such as the Crabcake Benedict and Fried Calamari, but the doner kebabs are what have my taste buds talking for days.
Rudy's Mediterranean Grill & Diner on Urbanspoon

Elevation Burger

Wheaton Mall
1160 Veirs Mill Road
Wheaton, MD 20902
301-933-0333

(and several other locations)

http://www.elevationburger.com

Pros: very much the same feel as In-N-Out

Cons: not enough locations as In-N-Out

Ask just about any Californian, and he/she will tell you that the pinnacle of fast food burgers is In-N-Out. As a Californian transplanted here on the East Coast, I have longed to find something comparable. Whereas some East Coasters live and die by Five Guys, I actually feel overwhelmed by their burgers and fries. The lone FatBurger in Columbia, MD definitely comes close to that West Coast magic, yet they are rather limited in their burger toppings.

Enter Elevation Burger, which we found by way of Groupon. The Wheaton Mall Elevation Burger definitely feels like In-N-Out with a different color scheme. You get the added bonus that all ingredients are organic, and they boast an environmentally-friendly agenda, something that these two quasi-hippies definitely appreciate. And their toppings…you actually get a pretty wide array of toppings, probably a little bit more than your typical fast food place. You also have the opportunity of stacking your burgers with a customizable number of patties and slices of cheese (up to 10 each). So the In-N-Out’s double-double (aka Elevation Burger) is a standard menu option, and you can add on more, if you choose to. All in all, I still prefer the taste of the meat patties from FatBurger, but there’s not much to really complain about with Elevation Burger’s actual burgers; they are beautifully juicy and hand-rolled! The fries are very thinly and freshly cut. The olive oil base for the fries makes it wonderful for my wife who has peanut allergies (look a little more deeply, and you’d be surprised by how many places boast frying their fries in peanut oil).

I have not yet tried to find out if Elevation Burger has a secret menu much like In-N-Out’s not-so-secret menu. They definitely have the ingredients to simulate “Animal Style,” but they probably would look at me weird if I requested my fries such. Still, I would welcome readers to let me know if there is some comparable secret menu.

For this West Coaster transplanted to the East Coast, Elevation Burger is definitely approaching the feel that I grew up with, especially with an environmentally-friendly and organic kick.

El Nayar

6790 Business Parkway
Suite 102
Elkridge, MD 21075
410-379-2981

http://www.elnayarusa.com

Pros: Affordable prices, close to authentic cuisine

Cons: Not likely to be all that healthy for you

First, I need to thank LivingSocial.com for leading us to El Nayar. As someone who grew up primarily in California, I have often mourned that moving to the Baltimore/DC area has also meant the loss of good Mexican cuisine.  Trust me…my wife has urged us to try many a Mexican restaurant that has left me less than thrilled. I had pretty much given up on the idea of finding a place with good Mexican food and accepted the notion that while I’m here, I will merely have mediocre Mexican food at best. My wife never really gave up on the search, though and finally we may have found a restaurant that delivers on the cuisine that I have been longing for such a long time.

Of course, Mexican food that tastes good and authentic likely means that it is a lot less than healthy. El Nayar’s food hits your stomach like a brick, but such is the price for good-tasting Mexican. We enjoyed El Nayar’s Chile Rilleno and Fish Taco Platter. Part of what makes this food taste so good, is that it looks as if it’s someone’s grandmother back in the kitchen. And who is a better cook than Grandma?

UPDATE 19-Jul-2012: Unfortunately, it seems business has not been kind to El Nayar, and they are now closing their doors. Why is it that whenever I find some place that renews my faith in decent Mexican food in the DC/Baltimore area, it ends up closing?

Grille Chick’n Pollo

6470 Freetown Road
Columbia, MD 21044
410-531-8689

http://www.dechicknpollo.com/

Pros: Affordable, large portions

Cons: relatively small menu

There are a couple different Peruvian Chicken places around Columbia, MD, but this one is clearly our favorite. In case you don’t know what Peruvian Chicken is, think rotisserie chicken with a ton of different spices. De Chick’n Pollo is clearly a family-owned restaurant that not only offers Peruvian chicken dishes, but also a few pan-Asian plates.

De Chick’n Pollo allows you to order your chicken in terms of quarters…namely how much of the whole chicken you want. And the chicken explodes with flavor. It is also served with a range of different side dishes. Our favorites are the rice and beans and the fried plantains. Although rice and beans sounds like such a simple side, this restaurant does it exquisitely.

Another one of my personal favorites are the Thai Fusion Burritos. These dishes are probably 180 degrees from the Peruvian chicken, but are so intensely satisfying nonetheless. Back on the West Coast, I used to frequent places that tended to combine different countries’ cuisines into a wrap (or simply a large burrito). The Thai Fusion Burritos remind me of my old West Coast haunts. Be warned, as these are LARGE burritos.

Aside from these dishes, the restaurant has recently started instituting a daily specials menu that we have not yet gotten a chance to try, but if the rest of the dishes are any indication, they should also be more than satisfying.

UPDATE (4/15/2012): Sadly, Chick’n Pollo has closed its doors. Although there are plenty of places in the Baltimore/DC area to get some fine Peruvian Chicken, I will definitely be mourning the loss of the Thai Fusion Burritos. If any one knows of any places where I can get a comparable burrito, please let me know!

UPDATE (11/10/2013): Fortunately, the restaurant re-opened its doors quite a few months ago (with a very subtle name change from de Check’n Pollo to Grille Chick’n Pollo), and of course, my wife and I have resumed our regular dinings there!



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