As chef and owner of Grapeseed restaurant in Bethesda for 17 years, I commuted to my home near Frederick six or seven days a week. To escape traffic or to satisfy a hunger pang, I often got off I-270 and stopped at one of the scores of tiny ethnic eateries in the area.
Most of these restaurants were in strip malls (one in a gas station)—and none could be called fancy. But they served authentic, inexpensive and tasty cuisine that’s hard to find in more mainstream restaurants.
In my travels, I ate soup dumplings in Rockville, pupusas in Gaithersburg and, when 270 was gridlocked, ramen in Wheaton. I recently went back and visited my old haunts, which had changed little, and came up with my 10 favorites. Here they are.
There is a place just off I-270 in Gaithersburg where you can fill your tank with gas, wash your car, drop off your dry cleaning, shop in a convenience store—and chow down on great tacos. Taco Bar is a good pull-off anytime rush hour has you yearning to look at something other than taillights.
Taco Bar is clean and orderly, with five tables inside and a few outdoors. But don’t let the size or setting fool you: The food is superb. The tacos are piled so high with well-cooked meats that you can utilize the double corn tortillas to fashion two generous tacos for every one you buy. My favorites: a lovely al pastor with crisp bits of grilled pork interspersed with bright chunks of pineapple; the tender and rich-tasting suadero (traditionally a cut of meat from between ribs and skin); the heavily seasoned and spicy chorizo; and the slow-cooked tongue that’s as tender as it can be without disintegrating. All the meats are seasoned well, but not so assertively that timid patrons can’t order freely. Spice hounds can augment their choices at the small toppings bar. Taco Bar’s salsas shine with fresh tomatoes or tomatillos, chiles and lime.
The true star of the Taco Bar experience is the pork pozole. This is a deceptively simple version of the classic Mexican pork stew. The broth is full-bodied, packed with pork and hominy, and topped with a crisp tortilla. It is at once soothing and satisfying—with enough smoky chili flavor to invigorate—especially with a strong squeeze of lime.
You can buy beer and wine in the convenience store, but sadly that’s only to go.
10003 Fields Road, Gaithersburg; 301-987-0376, tacobarwashingtonian.com
Pho House has a number of things going for it—a broad menu for a pho place, a few star dishes and good service. But it’s a hot bowl of bun bo hue that keeps me coming back. Bun bo hue is like pho on steroids. It’s beefier and more robust with warm spiciness than most pho. While many people augment the flavor of pho with a squeeze of Sriracha, with bun bo hue you stir in pungent shrimp paste to boost the flavor, spice and umami. Like regular pho, a flavor of star anise predominates, but here it is balanced with spice and citrusy lemon grass.
The pho here is no laggard, however. Portions are nicely sized, and the cooked meats are properly prepared so you won’t find your jaw tiring from muscling through tripe or brisket. The broth itself has the right amount of seasoning to highlight the meats and provide a satisfying bowl.
Garden rolls are freshly made; I only wish they were wrapped by someone with a steadier hand and contained fresher shrimp.
Since Pho House does not serve alcohol, I suggest you apply that money and those calories to a strange and strangely satisfying dessert. Che ba mau is a concoction with a green jelly, red beans and coconut milk over ice. Odd as it is to American palates, it really tops off the meal.
13073 Wisteria Drive, Germantown; 301-916-5730, phohouse.net