Posted by: oysterculture | January 21, 2009

Crummy but Good

With the election, all this talk of DC got me thinking of some of what I missed about that place.  Specifically,  I had a fondness for a column in the Washington Post called “Crummy but Good”  The writer, Donavan Kelly, reviewed restaurants based on two qualifications:

1.   How crummy did the restaurant look? – not dirty, or gross, but just not a place that would immediately make you cross the street to check out the menu. 

2.   How good was the food?  What sort of unexpected pleasure could you find when you braved the exterior (and in some cases the interior) and ordered that incredible hot plate of vittles?

Unfortunately the column is no more, and the attempt bring the site back, was stopped in its prime.   

Kabobs (photo from yingc.com)

Kabobs (photo from yingc.com)

When I lived in the Ballston section of Arlington, Virginia, I nostalgically recall an Afgan/Pakistani restaurant within walking distance that epitomized crummy but good.  It was called the Food Factory, and it still exists, but has since become a hookah bar and the food is not the same.  What I loved about the experience is that it was one of those places that you might not normally frequent.  The entrance, at that time, was at the rear of a strip mall.  The place was unassuming, but the food certainly was not; bold, tasty kabobs and currys, and the sambosas…ah, the sambosas.  They were works of art; pillows of potatoes, peas and spices made to dip in a spicy, chili rich cilantro sauce.  My stomach just growled.

Sambosa picture from offthebroiler.wordpress.com

Sambosa picture from offthebroiler

I can practically hear Gordon Ramsey lamenting about the aesthetics of this place.  However, once you sampled the food, you felt a part of a secret society sharing knowing smirks with other diners that you were both on to something real good – it was your secret.

My husband loves these kind of restaurants as he grew up in San Francisco and was lucky to have so many wonderful neighborhood restaurants fitting this description – so I can see his point.  He develops a twitch if I suggest a restaurant that might have cloth napkins, and he thinks Chez Panisse is a waste of time.  He couldn’t give a flying fig for the aesthetics – its all about the food.  To him the sign of a good chef is to provide something delicious that does not break the bank, that is his definition of value in a restaurant.

I took him to Negril’s in Silver Spring, Maryland (another crummy but good place), thinking he’ll like this place not too fancy, and the food is suppose to be good.  We’ll settle down to a nice meal and enjoy a pleasant conversation.  Wrong!  The food was great, the place was definitely not fancy, but nice and sunny, painted yellow, as I recall, with some wonderful Jamaican food.   Nice conversation?  Forget about it.  All I saw was the top of his head while he concentrated on the favor sensations coming from his plate of goat curry.  When he finished he put down his fork and said, “I give this place a 10”  

Me, I straddle the line between crummy but good and full-on fine dining.  I love restaurants that create a whole experience from the food to the decor – all senses are fully engaged, and I am prepared to pay for the experience.  I enjoy discovering the inventivenss that the chef’s employ, that is not possible with the margin of the neigborhood restaurants.  Needless, to say, when I want the fine dining experience I hook up with my food friends and leave my husband to his devises, and we’re both content.

How about you?  Any secret restaurants that you might not take your mom, but would share with another foodie?  Are you a fancy pants kind of gourmand, a crummy but good eater, or like me, somewhere in between?

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