A Guide to 10 Out-of-the-Way Ethnic Eateries
Restaurants where diners need to have an open mind and an adventurous spirit
Ren’s Ramen is a strip mall gem with roots in Bethesda. Ren’s began as a tiny counter behind some curtains inside the old Daruma Japan Market on Arlington Road. Today, Ren’s is small and bare-bones with menu boards and the occasional handwritten special. The lone server will happily take the time to guide you through the different types of ramen and explain the daily specials.
Ren’s features Sapporo-style ramen, which is among the most full-bodied ramen styles due to the cold winters in Sapporo, Japan. Miso, tonshio and shoyu bowls all start with tonkotsu broth. This creamy-looking base is rich and full of pork flavor, at once buttery textured and cloudy, a product of the long-simmered pork bones dissolving collagen and fat into the broth, leaving a pleasant stickiness on the lips. Miso is the heartiest, owing to the addition of soybean paste. The lightest is the tonshio, with a well-balanced saltiness that works well with the toppings. Shoyu bridges the gap with soy and salt flavors. The toppings include roast pork, sprouts and bamboo shoots. All the standard add-ons are available, with cha-shu pork belly and seasoned egg standing out.
The vegetarian ramen is a medley of springy noodles, cabbage, carrots and sprouts in a broth that’s based on seaweed and yields a robust flavor. Ren’s also serves tsukemen ramen, a popular method that delivers chilled noodles separate from an even-more-reduced broth that’s served as more of a dipping sauce for the same lineup of ingredients. It is a different way to look at the same thing, and with less broth you may save on dry-cleaning bills.
Ren’s is a great pit stop when you feel like slurping a quick meal. The only beverages are nonalcoholic, and payment is cash only.
11403 Amherst Ave., Wheaton; 301-933-3725, rens-ramen.com
For 42 years, Roy’s Place held its place on the sleepy end of Olde Towne Gaithersburg, just before East Diamond Avenue ducks under Route 355. The windowless space of dark wood and a dimly lit bar was closed in 2013 after struggling following the death of namesake Roy Passin. La Casita has revived the old space. Patrons are greeted with fresh landscaping filled with blooming flowers and a lively deck. Though the restaurant is still windowless, the new owners have knocked out a large section of the front wall and installed a full-glass garage door that lets the light flood in.
La Casita has added a glassed-in pupusa and tortilla cooking station at one end of the bar. The rhythmic slapping and forming of the masa cakes is entertaining. And the pupusas are first rate. The regular lineup of pork, beef, chicken and beans is joined here by unusual offerings, such as squash and spinach.
The menu is broad, with staples from throughout Central America, but ceviche wins the day. The tilapia and shrimp are marinated with the right amount of lime and feature a wonderful topping of chimol, a salsa with radish and tomato. Beautifully presented with crisp plantains and avocado, La Casita’s ceviche could serve as a learning tool for many higher-end restaurants.
The “Los Tipicos” section of the menu features the most representative main course from each country in Central America and is a great way to be introduced to the lively flavors of this part of the world. I recommend the “Casado Costarricense,” a marriage of rice, beans, meat and vegetables that graces every Costa Rican lunch table, as well as the Honduran tajadas, a heaping plate of fried plantains and chicken smothered with cabbage and salsas.
La Casita features a full bar with a generous happy hour and nice riffs on classic cocktails, including Tamarind Margaritas, gin and tonics with cucumber and mint, and a great rum and Mexican Coke.
2 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg; 240-474-5615, lacasitacocina.com
Big Wang’s Cuisine
Big Wang’s Cuisine shares residence with all the classic partners of a good strip mall: a couple of auto repair places, an empty former Filipino restaurant, and a beer and wine shop whose patrons, based on the threatening signage regarding parking, apparently cause much strife in the parking lot. But the often fiery Sichuan cooking at Big Wang’s makes it worth the effort to find it and secure a parking spot.
The extensive menu features well-executed Sichuan dishes and a spicy, build-it-yourself dry hot pot that should be part of any visit. Four groups of items, divided by price, are presented. The choices range from easy-to-comprehend (mushrooms, broccoli, vermicelli) to adventurous (tripe, duck web, animal aorta). Though you may feel uncomfortable pulling the trigger on the more esoteric components, you will be rewarded with a more complex and exciting pot if you do.
Some of the best choices—lotus root, fish balls and dried tofu—help bring texture and earthy Sichuan flavors to the ensemble. Your choices are tossed in the wok with a light coating of a fiery sauce that unites the disparate flavors.
The Sichuan entrées also shine. The house special section shows off all sorts of meats and vegetables coated in hot sauce ripe with house-made chili oil that leaves a pleasant tingle in your mouth.
The traditional pots, all cooked and served in their own clay vessel and enough for two, offer vibrant broths and tender fish or pork under the surface.
Even dishes that have become Americanized in other restaurants receive new life here. The carryout staple of kung pao chicken harkens back to a time before it was corrupted with excess celery, peas and carrots, and arrives, as it should, with just chicken, chiles and peanuts.
Big Wang’s Cuisine is fairly large as far as strip mall dining goes, even though the room is unadorned, as you’d expect. Beer and wine are served but you may want to order a second beer early on since the servers can become distracted and distant, whether you want more drinks or want to pay and leave in a timely manner.
16051 Frederick Road, Derwood; 301-977-7676