Monday, November 07, 2011

Cakes by Happy Eatery

At the DC Metro Cooking and Entertaining Show, my dad and I had the pleasure of meeting the owner of Cakes by Happy Eatery, which has locations in Manassas, Va and Centreville, Va.  It started from the dessert menu at a traditional Chinese restaurant and has grown into a highly successful business on its own.  We were treated to a sample and explanation of all the varieties she had with her at the show, as well as lively conversation. 

We sampled traditional vanilla vanilla, gluten free vanilla, red velvet, chocolate vanilla, vegan chocolate and vanilla, and sugar free vanilla.  All were solid, though the best by far was the gluten free vanilla, which was made with a combination of rice and potato flour.  It had a great flavor and the whipped cream frosting was a nice pairing.  I really enjoyed hearing how the shop tries very hard to perfect their recipes, in particular the specialty ones.  For example, they have experimented with both splenda and stevia for the sugar free recipes.  Lots of bakeries are now offering a gluten free or a vegan cupcake, but this is the first one I've seen that has gluten free, sugar free, and vegan.  And, it seems they're willing to try to make a recipe with any kind of special exception you might have.  I felt the personalization was really great here and worth checking out if you or any of your loved ones have special dietary needs. 

The reviews on Yelp also rave about the items in their cafe, so next time we're put that direction, I think a stop in for a bbq pork bun is in order!

DC Metro Cooking and Entertaining Show 2011

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the DC Metro Cooking and Entertaining show with my dad.  As we're both bloggers, we had registered ahead of time as "media" and we were given snazzy media badges and best of all, we got to attend at no charge.  Thank you Metro Cooking!  I was very excited to attend, as many of our favorite celebrity and local chefs were giving lectures and demonstrations.  The show was at the very large DC convention center and thousands of people were milling about, checking out the hundreds of vendors, tasting delicious food, and learning new recipes from the presentations.  Here's what we did:

Saw Giada De Laurentis make lamb bruscetta on the big stage.  She was a tiny little thing, but very warm and gracious and invited audience members on stage to cook with her.  While they did most of the cooking, she answered audience questions.  The best part was when a 4 year old girl asked her what she liked to cook with her daughter and then asked for a hug, which she got.

We saw DC legend Michel Richard prepare an orange juice soaked sponge cake.  He was HILARIOUS.  Watching him cook made me want to go to Citronelle even more.  Someone needs to give this man a show on tv.  The cake was great and definitely something a home cook could prepare easily.  I also really liked that they had high school and college kids from local culinary programs passing out the samples - good experience for them!

After that we went to the National Beef Cook-off stage where  we saw Mary Beth Albright, a food writer and finalist (and my personal favorite) for the last season of the Next Food Network Star.  She was preparing a recipe from the cook-off's winners' cookbook, which everyone in the audience received.  Mary Beth was exactly as she is on tv, funny and friendly, and I was happy to see her in person.  

We then went right over to the cook-off's booth, where they had prepared samples, big ones!, of all the winning beef recipes.  

I actually went through the line twice so I could taste different recipes.  I tried the big winner, which was Asian flavored skirt steak, a fiesta beef and rice, modern strogonoff and a grilled enchilada.  The Asian steak was the best by far, so it was easy to see why it won the cook-off.  

We then went to the wine tasting area, where my dad discovered a new favorite that apparently retails for just $5.50.  I wasn't really impressed with the rest though.

We then spent the rest of the time wandering the vendors and sampling their wares.  There were literally hundred of booths with oils, vinegars, cookies, cheeses, soup, bbq sauces, hot sauces, you name it, it was there.  I keep trying to find someone that has balsamic vinegar that is on par with the one we got in Connecticut over the summer, but nothing measured up.  The best thing I tried all day were a series of sauces/dip from Maison Le Grand.  The four nut pesto was amazing.  Can't wait to try it on pasta.  We also got an excellent cupcake tasting from Cakes by Happy Eatery.

On our way out, we stuck our head in the Paula Deen presentation.  I got to hear the accent in person!  I love Paula, but I didn't need to watch her from the back of a crowded audience and we were tired from walking around all day.  

It was a really fun day and the company does a really great job of organizing the event and making sure everyone is happy.  I'd definitely recommend going next year!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I Heart Chubby Jones

Anyone who knows me knows I've never really been athletically-inclined.  I like going to the gym and have taken up rowing in the summers over the last several years, but nothing really hard-core.  I leave that to BJ.  But, after hearing about the Couch to 5K program on the interwebs and from some friends, I thought, gee, I could maybe do this!  The C25K program is exactly as it sounds - a program designed to get a total novice from running very small amounts to running a 5K in about 9 weeks.  There are many podcasts, websites, and apps available to help a newbie get started.

I started this program while I was home on maternity leave last fall.  I got about 5 weeks in and then went back to work and pretty much stopped exercising for many many moons as our family adjusted to new routines.  This past summer, I picked it back up again, hoping to finally get to the end.  I am happy to say that I can now run 30 minutes without stopping.  I'm not fast, definitely won't win any races, but I will finish! 

A major factor in my being able to get through the program has been the Chubby Jones Podcast.  Chubby Jones, who is really Mia Jones, is a blogger and music/tv critic who has recorded a podcast for anyone who wants to run the C25K with her.  She chooses the music for you, normally mash-ups and independent artists she won't get in trouble for using, and she tells you when to walk, when to run, and gives all kinds of encouragement including giving yourself a pat on the butt and drinking margaritas as rewards.  You also occasionally hear about her 2 French bulldogs.  Mia is hilarious and it has been really great having her in my ear as I've been jogging.  So, a big thank you to Miss Chubby Jones!!!

If you are interested in starting this program, I highly recommend checking her out!

Bobby's Burger Palace

August 27 was a momentous day around here.  First, we got hit with a hurricane, which almost never happens in the DC area.  Second, BJ and I attended not one, but 2 weddings while said hurricane was occurring.  And third, we checked out the newest celebrity chef restaurant, Bobby Flay's Bobby's Burger Palace.  We love Bobby Flay.  I didn't used to be a fan, but he's grown on me and now he's one of our favorites.  We appreciate that he doesn't take himself too seriously AND that her recently appeared on the final season of Entourage.

We had some time to kill between weddings, so we used it wisely and went to check our Mr. Flay's newest franchise.  It is located on K Street, which we shuffled along in the pouring rain and gusting winds to get to the front door.  Here is what greets you when you go in:

We knew from looking at the website ahead of time that the specialty is the Crunch Burger, which just means adding potato chips on top.  You can "crunchify" any of the other burgers.  We ordered one regular cheese burger crunchified and one Dallas burger also with the crunch.  We also got fries and a coconut shake.  The restaurant itself is pretty neat looking, with a curvy bar area and then normal table, everything a loud yellow and orange.  Being that it was the middle of a natural disaster, the place was fairly empty and we didn't wait long for our food. 

My burger was pretty good.  I think I'd give it about a 7/10.  It was cooked more well-done that I like (even though you can choose how it is cooked when you order) but the flavor was good.  The potato chips on top didn't add anything in my opinion.  BJ felt the same about his burger.  We did enjoy the fries a lot and the milkshake was fantastic - lots of real coconut flavor and pieces of coconut.  All in all, a solid experience, but there are a couple of other places in the area we'd go to first if making a choice.  We're not often in the K St. area, so I'm not sure when we'll be back, but I'd recommend it to anyone who works near there and needs a quick lunch.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Date Night in DC

BJ and I had an opportunity to have a mid-week date night this past Wednesday, thanks to Goldstar for cheap tickets, an unused giftcard, and willing grandparents for babysitting.  We purchased heavily discounted theatre tickets to see Oklahoma! and made a reservation at a place we'd been dying to try - America Eats Tavern.  This is the José Andrés pop-up restaurant in the old Cafe Atlantico space.  We've been a José fan for a long time and thought the combination of food and history was intriguing. 

We tried:

- fried chicken with blueberry ketchup:  great crust, but under-seasoned chicken.  The ketchup was good though.

- vermicelli prepared like pudding:  an old-fashioned mac and cheese.  Very delicate cheese flavor.  I could've eaten a whole plate of this.  The sauteed mushrooms on the side were amazing.

- crab cakes w/ pickled watermelon salad:  BJ said they were the best crab cakes he's ever had.  The salad was nice as well, a good combination of flavors.

- bbq shortrib with succotash:  this normally comes with cole slaw but I asked for a substitution.  The succotash was delish, very creamy and fresh tasting.  I really wanted to like the short rib, it had such good reviews, but it was incredibly salty and spicy.  Maybe the chef was having an off day.  It was cooked beautifully though.

- Kentucky burgoo: a stew of lamb, rabbit and squab  BJ liked it, was glad he ordered it, but wouldn't get it again.  He did say he'd eat rabbit again though. 

- strawberry shortcake:  a light shortcake and fresh berries, some even filled with strawberry gel.  Good, but not outstanding.

- pineapple upside-down cake:  this was awesome.  A light cake willed with warm pineapple sauce and fresh whipped cream.  Smooth and sweet.

So, maybe 3.5 stars out of 5.  We liked it and the overall experience was good.

Oklahoma! at Arena Stage was fanastic.  The cast was amazingly talented and they really brought out the humor in the script.  Definitely worth staying out too late on a school night!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Last Friday I finally made it to Truckeroo, which is a monthly food truck gathering with live music, adult beverages and other promotions.  Some friends and I packed up the kiddos (their first ride on the metro!) and ventured downtown to check it out.  It is just across the street from the Navy Yard metro station, near Nats Park.  About 20 trucks were lines up around the edges of the parking lot, tables and umbellas down the middle, and the stage at the far end. 

I had scoped out who was coming beforehand and realized that most of the trucks were the well-established ones with large followings a.k.a I'd already tried them.

Thankfully, there was one I'd been looking forward to and I grabbed my lunch from them - Eat Stix.  The special menu for Truckeroo includes Italian sausage, shrimp, and some sweet and spicy beef.  I got the beef, which was grilled and skewered, as well as a skewer of pineapple and grapes to share with The Luce.  The beef was cooked well and a nice portion for me at lunchtime, but I was sad that the fruit wasn't grilled as well.  My friend got the sausage and enjoyed it.  My other complaint was that they were pricey - $8 for my 2 "stix."  $6 max was what it was worth.  I'd check them out again though.  It is a nice, healthier option in the world of grease and fried stuff.

I also partook from 2 of my favorites, Pleasant Pops (cantaloupe & watermelon and sweet tea!) and Curbside Cupcakes (a delicious Almond Joy).

If you haven't tried foodtrucks, this is a great event.  For me, who has a strange obsession with food from motor vehicles, it wasn't anything special.  But, it was fun to go with friends and introduce them.  Next time I want multiple trucks in one place, I'll just hit up a Farragut Friday!

2 awesome parks for kids

A summer at home with a one year old means trying to find new, fun things to do every day.  The Luce is very active and enjoys having space to run around and explore, so luckily Fairfax County has a couple of ideal places for her. 

1.  Clemyjontri Park - this is a 2 acre playground for kids of all abilities.  It is truly the Disney World of playgrounds.  The walkways are designed like a track with lanes and stop signs.  There are swings for physically challenged kids, ride-on cars and airplanes, jungle gyms, seesaws, a zipline, etc.  You name it, they have it.  There is also a lovely carousel, which we rode, and plenty of family-friendly bathrooms and picnic tables.  On a weekday morning, it wasn't crowded but I imagine on a weekend it gets packed.  There is a nice-sized parking lot and they even have an overflow lot down the road.  It is a little far from our house, so we've only been once, but it was a great time.

photo courtesy of

2.  Our Special Harbor Spray Park - this has totally made our summer.  It is a zero-depth water park for the little ones.  They have all kids of fountains, water tables, buckets that fill and dump on you, and plenty of covered space for adults who want to stay dry.  There are several family bathrooms and outside the park is a large pavilion (first-come, first-serve) and a huge green area and "treehouse" in the woods.  The Luce loooooooves it.  Perhaps the best part is that is is close to home and is is FREE.  We like to get there when it opens at 11 am and then pack a picnic lunch for on the grass.  Perfect way to cool off and have fun.
photo courtesy of

Sunday, July 31, 2011

New England Vacay

BJ has a competition he likes to participate in annually that is held in western Massachusetts, so this year was the 2nd time we've made a week-long road trip out of it.  We try to hit some cities and towns we haven't seen before, spend time with friends and of course, eat.  Here were some of the highlights:

1.  Frank Pepe's New Haven Pizza - this was the only bright spot in our stop in New Haven, CT.  We'd always known the city around Yale was kind of ghetto, but walking by the bus stop area along the city green and seeing multiple drug deals in a matter of minutes just confirmed that.  Frank Pepe's made the trip worth it though.  Huge pies, delicious cheese, thin crust with thick, bubbly edges.....yum!  The Luce even enjoyed it. 

BJ says this was one of the best pizzas he's ever had. It was definitely on par with Lombardi's or John's in NYC.

2.  Bella Gusta Select Oils and Vinegars in West Hartford, CT -  this was a nice little surprise.  We had some time to kill near the Hartford airport and we came across West Hartford, which is just outside the city.  There is a lovely street full of unique shops and restaurants that is not unlike Old Town Alexandria here in our area.  Taking a stroll, we wandered into Bella Gusta, lured in by the sign that said "Free Tasting."  We're suckers.  The store is lined with stainless steel barrels with taps that held many varieties of balsamic vinegars and olive oils.  We sampled several and chatted with the owners about their favorites.  We loved the traditional and fig vinegars and picked up some to take home.  I am not a balsamic fan but these were fantastic.  The oil suggested to us was one of the single varietals that came from Sicely.  It was like sipping a cloud - so smooth.  We learned that the olive oil from your local grocery store is normally several varietals all mixed together, so by cooking with just one type allows the eater to notice the nuances better.  We also brought some of that home.  The owners were wonderful, so friendly and happy to share their thoughts and knowledge.  It was a great find and now we're wishing they'd open a store here.  A side note - we have used both vinegar and oil several times since coming home and the vinegar is so delicious, you can use it instead of salad dressing, no oil needed!

3.  Herrell's Ice Cream - Yelp told me this was the #1 resturant in Northampton, Ma. so of course we had to stop.  The reviewers pointed us towards the chocolate pudding and burnt sugar & butter flavors.  We tried both and were so happy we did.  They were so rich and flavorful.  I think I liked the chocolate pudding a little more, but both were winners.  We'll make this a stop every time we're up that way.

4.  Flo's Steamed Hot Dogs - a friend of mine suggested this to me when I mentioned we were going to be driving around Maine one day of our trip.  She said her husband saw it written up in one of the famous foodie magazines and he waited 45 minutes in line to try it.  So we went.  Flo's is the tiny shack of a place on the side of a road in Cape Neddick, Me.  Luckily for us it is near York and Nubble Light, which we love, so it was "on the way."  Again, we were helped by the Yelpers who told us the owner is very specific about how to order.  You tell her how many, wait, and then when the dogs are cooked you tell her what you want on them.  Order the house special.  It is the relish that has made Flo's famous. - sweet and a little savory, unlike anything we've tried before.  The hot dogs are small, you can eat 2 and still have room for dessert, but inexpensive and definitely worth the trip.  The place gets packed fairly quickly, so be there early!

5.  Newburyport, Ma - Newburyport is a cute, charming little coastal town that is also similar to Old Town Alexandria - a theme perhaps?  There are lots of wonderful stores, no chains allowed, and beautiful views of the water.  We enjoyed checking out the bookstore, consignment shops, and of course, ice cream.  We had lovely gelato from Dolce Freddo - I had canteloupe and watermelon flavors that were perfect for a summer day.

6.  New England Aquarium - this is the awesome aquarium in Boston.  The Luce had never been before and completely fell in love.  I've never seen her so interested and still! 

The aquarium has a large cylindrical tank with a spiraling walkway top the top, with sharks and rays and turtle and of course fish inside.  Along the way, on each floor, are other exhibit tanks showcasing a lot of New England's coastal environments.  There are also seals outside to check out and an optional IMAX movie.  A new feature is a hands-on shark and ray tank, which was packd with kids reaching their hands out as the animals swam past.  We loved it and will now be saving our pennies to take The Luce to the big aquarium in Baltimore.

7.  Rino's Restaurant in East Boston, Ma. - BJ was dying to check this place out after he saw it in Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.  Guy thought it had killer lobster ravioli, so obviously we had to try it.  The key to Rino's is to get there early.  They open at 4 pm and when we arrived at 3:45, there were already 3 parties ahead of us, and they only have about 10 tables.  Luckily we got a table without a problem.  The menu is lovely but the specials menu is just as long!  BJ got his lobster ravioli and practically licked the bowl.  Our table also sampled the stuffed chicken, bolognese pasta and baked ziti with meatballs.  Everything was winner except the ziti, which happened to be mine.  It was good, but needed more red sauce, which was very delicious.  I would definitely go back and try something else next time.  The funny part about Rino's was that we ended up going outside to walk The Luce around as we waited for our meal and when we went back in, the people in line were throwing us daggers with their eyes, they were jealous we had a table!

Along the way and in between, we spent quality time with good friends, hit up 4 colleges and bought t-shirts, saw a children's museum, drank some blueberry beer, watched men in skirts throw rocks, saw the last Harry Potter movie, and visited the ER (everything's fine, we promise).  A great trip was had by all!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

July Book Club Review - The Murderer's Daughters

Last week, we met to discuss the July selection for Book Club - The Murderer's Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers.

Upon reading the summary on the back, I thought that it sounded interesting, but probably not one I'd pick up on my own.  I started it and got through it fairly quickly - despite the ominous title, it is a swift read.  This is the story of Lulu and Merry, whose father killed their mother, and the consequences of that act on their lives over the next 40 or so years.  The reader gets both girls' points of view and sees how differently each one internalizes their family tragedy.  There are some awful characters and situations that made me cringe, but overall the characters are very real and engaging.  You want to find out what happens next.  I learned after finishing it that this was based on a real life incident where the author's father attempted to kill her mother but was unsuccessful.  She always wondered "what if?' and began to write.  That added a whole new layer to the story and made it more meaningful.  It was not quite as gripping as I imagined it would be, but a very solid read that sparked some really good discussion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Buzz Bakery - Arlington, Va

A couple weeks ago we went to a friend's house for a bbq and since we couldn't go empty-handed, we picked up some cupcakes.  I remembered that Buzz Bakery had just opened a new location in Arlington, their first being in Alexandria, so we stopped by.  The choices were very overwhelming.  Everything was decorated so beautifully and I knew from previous experience that they would all taste good, so I got a half dozen based on the prettiness. 

Because we have a baby and she turns into a pumpkin as the appointed hour, we did not get to stay and taste all the flavors, or hear what others thought of them.  I did however, sample the one shown on the bottom right which was called "The Katy Perry."  Any cupcake with a glittery cherry on top is for me.  It was vanilla cake with a cherry filling and cherry icing.  It was fantastic.  Truly one of my favorite fruit-flavored cupcakes.  Most places do not get fruit right, but Buzz does.  Really awesome!  We'll certainly be back to try more.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Florida's Greatest Hit List

Between the two of us, we have a number of relatives who live in Florida, and have had friends there as well, so we make it down there fairly often, at least once a year anyway.  This past week, we made the journey to visit my Aunt and Grandma, who live near Gainesville.  We had a nice little getaway and got to spend quality time with people we love, which is always a plus.  We had to travel through Orlando though (cheaper flights!), so we were able to hit up all of our favorite places along the way.  Here they are, in no particular order:

1.  Too Jays - Florida's answer to the Jewish deli.  BJ's parents turned us on to this place and we make a habit of going at least once, sometimes 2 or 3 times, when we go south. We wish desperately we had one near us.  Sure, there are some descent substitutes here, but nothing that really compares.  And, don't shoot me, but on this trip BJ even admitted he liked it better than the 2 famous delis we've tried in NYC.  I always get the same thing - a turkey sandwich with cheddar on challah.  BJ gets a variety of things, but says the pastrami and corned beef are good.  We also give thumbs up to the matzo ball soup.  Because we were near the University of Florida, I couldn't resist the "black and white" cookies.

2.  Sweet Tomatoes - Also suggested to us by BJ's parents.  This is an all-you-can eat salad and soup bar, with a couple of extras.  They have prepared salads, make your own, pasta and potato salads, at least 5 kinds of soup, mac and cheese, fruit, and soft-serve ice cream.  The majority of it is healthy and rarely has there been an item we've tried and didn't enjoy.  A bonus for us this time was that this is the perfect place to take a baby who is eating table food and wants to try different things.  The Luce discovered she likes raw onions and lentil soup!  There are locations all over the country, but unfortunately none in the DC area.  If we had one of these close to us, I'd probably be eating there a couple times a week.

3.  Bahama Breeze - Also a small chain, with none in close driving distance to us (but really not that far either), is this island-themed restaurant completed with tropical fish tanks and steel drum band.  We'd been here previously with BJ's cousins and my friend Rick a couple years ago and liked it so much we went back on this trip.  The paella, chicken with cilantro crema, coconut shrimp and rice and beans were all big hits.  

4.  Sweet! by Good Golly Miss Holly - this seems to be Orlando's answer to all the cupcake madness.  We'd been here a long time ago when it first opened and liked it and then lo and behold, the owner ended up on the Food Network as the winner of Cupcake Wars!  My mom and I went again last fall and loved the minis we tried, so BJ and I  decided to get "nightcap" on our last evening.  We tried vanilla vanilla, s'mores, cookies and cream, and strawberry.  The overwhelming thing about these cupcakes is that they're all extremely dense and buttery and the icing is supersweet.  I feel like perhaps they've changed the recipe recently or my memory is failing me, because they were not good.  The first couple bites went down fine but as you kept going it just became arduous to finish.  Definitely not my idea of the perfect bite - everything else was taken over by the taste of the icing.  I had chosen s'mores because I'd had it before and it was great, but it was just too much this time and sat like a rock in my tummy the rest of the night.  Oh well.  I think we got that out of our system, at least. 

We spent some time at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, which was perfect for The Luce and nice and shady, and we tooled around Downtown Disney, which is great if you're cheap like we are but want to feel like you went to Disney World. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pioneer Woman's Chicken Salad

I came late to the Pioneer Woman party.  Ree Drummond, otherwise known as The Pioneer Woman, is a former city girl who married a cowboy, lives on a ranch, and writes a very popular blog about her life.  I'd seen her name floating around on a couple other blogs I read, but only recently started reading hers and I'm hooked. 

I came across one of her recipes the other day and it looked so different and delicious that I decided to try it.  I am not generally someone who follows recipes exactly, they're more like guidelines, but I stuck fairly close for this one.  I made her Grilled Chicken Salad with Feta, Fresh Corn, and Blueberries.

Mine isn't nearly as pretty as the picture on Ree's website, but it was very tasty!  It is basically chicken, blueberries, fresh corn just cut off the cob, red onion, sour cream and mayo, feta cheese and a little dill.  BJ originally thought this sounded like a disgusting combination of ingredients, but once he tasted it, he was sold.  His friend Mike stopped by to pick something up while we were eating and he insisted Mike try it too!  I made a couple of changes:

1.  I used pieces of rotisserie chicken instead of grilled because we had it on hand
2.  I used only 4 oz. of feta and used fat-free
3.  I left out the celery because I don't like it

Fairly minor changes overall.  I loved this.  I will definitely make it again and I would take it to a party or serve it to guests.   This is such a great dish for summer too, as it uses seasonal ingredients like the corn and blueberries - perfect to make after a trip to the local farmers' market!


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chronic Crafter - Etsy Site

Not too long ago, my friend Jenn opened her very own Etsy site, ChronicCrafts.  Jenn is very talented with her sewing machine and has put together a line of notebook computer, e-reader and tablet covers.  She has a plethora of great fabric choices and allows her customers to choose the trim color they like best.  As my mother-in-law was getting a new Kindle, I thought a cover for it would be the perfect Mothers' Day gift.

Jenn responded to my order very quickly, had the cover made and mailed in a matter of like 36 hours.  She is fast!  I requested that she mailed it directly instead of to me, which she did, and it arrived safely.  My mither-in-law loved it and on her recent trip to visit, she brought it with her.  It was very well-made and the colors matched perfectly.  A lovely sleeping bag for the Kindle! 

Photo Courtesy of Chronic Crafts

If you live in the DC area, Jenn also allows customers to come pick up their items - score!  She does great work, so go order from her!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

La Caraquena - Falls Church, Va

We were driving around a couple weekends ago looking for somewhere interesting for lunch and remembered a place my dad had tried and loved.  La Caraquena is a Latin American restaurant specializing in arepas.  An arepa is kind of like a fat corn tortilla, stuffed with various fillings.  They come fried or grilled and resemble a sandwich version of a pupusa.

The restaurant itself is kind of odd.  It is housed in the same building as a run-down motel, right next to the check-in office.  There are a few tables and booths inside and a patio area, where we sat.  Arepas were featured on the menu and we knew we had to try them.  I ordered one with shredded beef and cheese and BJ ordered one with a traditional chicken and avocado salad.  We shared an order of fried plantains to start.  They were outstanding.  They were perfectly cooked and came with picadillo and a hot pepper sauce.  The combination of flavors in your mouth was perfect.  The Luce even loved the plantains, without the sauce of course.  The arepas came and I was a little disappointed in the size.  The menu clearly states that each arepa comes solo and you can buy sides or sauces to go with them.  Mine was around $10.  It was literally the same size of the English muffin you eat for breakfast with maybe 1/3 cup of filling.  Luckily, it tasted great.  The beef had wonderful Latin flavors and the cheese was the perfect compliment.  BJ found his chicken salad arepa great as well and was enthusiastic about it. 

Photo courtesy of restaurant website

The service here was also excellent.  If I owned this restaurant, I would add sides to the dishes.  If my arepa came with a side of plantains or yuca or something else, it would be a much better value.  To compare, I happened to recently see the menu for an arepas place in New York.  Their similar dish was at least $3 cheaper.  How many times does Falls Church cost more than NYC??  That being said, La Caraquena was recently featured on the Food Network, so I guess they think they can jack up the prices and curious people will still come.

Confections Cupcakes - Woodbridge, Va

Last weekend, my mom and I decided to check out the Occoquan Craft Fair, which is a bi-annual event that has been happening my whole life, and probably longer.  I have fond memories of going as a child and was always on the lookout for new doll clothing or hair accessories.  Nowadays, I prefer the jewelry booths or baby things for the Luce. 

One of my goals for the day was to sample the wares from Confections Cupcakery, which is a business owned by the sister of a childhood friend of mine.  I learned through Facebook that they'd have a booth at the fair and as BJ and I had been wanting to try these for a while, decided this was the perfect opportunity.  At the lovely booth, I bought a dozen cupcakes and shared them with my parents as well.

photo courtesy of the Confections FB page

In general, we really enjoyed these cupcakesThey are fairly different from the other ones we've tried in the area, in that the cake is very light.  A lot of other bakeries use very heavy cake recipes with lots of butter and these were quite the opposite, in a good way.  The cake was light and moist and almost angel food-like, so if you like that consistency, this is your place!  The icing was sugary and delicious.  I really enjoy a cupcake when the entire bite is good and the cake and icing work well together and these definitely fit that bill.  

The flavors we tried included vanilla vanilla (obviously), chocolate chocolate, chocolate peanut butter, coconut, vanilla blueberry, oreo, and red velvet.  My parents tried some of the above, as well as strawberry and lemon.  The consensus all around was that they were solid cupcakes.  If I were to tweak a couple of things, I would make the chocolate frosting more chocolatey and to use cream cheese icing instead of vanilla on the red velvet.  My parents enjoyed the fruit flavors, though they were a little too sweet in their opinions.  Everyone agreed that Confections has a lot of potential and the fact that it is in Woodbridge AND delivers make it a great option if you're not in the city.  I think they will keep expanding and improving and we will certainly order from them again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Field Trip = Food Truck 2.0

Another day, another field trip.  It is just that time of year.  I, yet again, made a point to take advantage of being downtown to have lunch at another food truck.  Knowing where we'd be, I chose to walk over to L'Enfant and just sample whatever was there.  I roped a couple of chaperons into my obsession and off we went.  There were a ton of trucks there, so we had a lot to choose from.  I went with the Big Cheese Truck for a grilled cheese sandwich.  Obviously, cool people go there.

The menu is pretty impressive, for bread and cheese.  But, I decided to go with "barely buzzed" which is the classic cheddar on sourdough bread.  I love a good grilled cheese, so I was ready!  It was a BIG sandwich, definitely at least twice the size of your mom's Wonder Bread.  The bread was buttered perfectly, toasted just right and the cheese was oozy and melty and just yummy.  My only complaint was the balance of cheddar with the sour in the bread - it needed maybe more salt in the cheese or less sour in the bread, or something.  A solid sandwich, but missing just a tiny something.  I will 100% be back though because all the other delicious-sounding items on the menu are calling me.  I also like the fact that the cheese comes from local sources - we like buying and eating local when we can.  8/10 for the sandwich, but 10/10 for potential for next time!

One of my comrades chose to eat from the Austin Grill Truck.  He ordered a chicken burrito bowl and said it was good, but "a little too bean-y."  He gave it a 6/10.

And, what hot day is complete without a popsicle?  The Pleasant Pops truck pulled up as we were ready to leave, so obviously we stopped.  I had the strawberries & cream, and the other two tried the honeycrisp apple and the Thai coconut curry.  Mine was great, not too sweet, and a good balance of flavors.  The apple one was "like eating applesauce" and the Thai curry was "like eating a curry dish on a stick."  Trust me, those were positive comments! 

2 more food truck converts.  I. Need. Help.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Trip to Occoquan

My friend, our daughters, and I took a trip down to the road to Occoquan today.  It is a very small little town with cute shops and restaurants and even a ghost or two.  My parents were doing a book signing for their cookbook, so we decided to make an afternoon of it and go.

We had lunch at Cock and Bowl, a little bistro that is fairly new.  The space used to hold a teeney Belgian place and they seem to have taken advantage of the outdoor space, which was smart.  We ate on the patio since it was such a lovely day, so we did not see the inside.  The plastic picnic tables are covered in checked table cloths and everything is shaded by large trees, so no table is in direct sunlight.  When I walked up with a stroller, I was informed that they did not have high chairs, but could remove a chair to place the stroller "tucked away."  Thanks for making a space for my kid, but why couldn't she be like everyone else and sit at the table like a normal human being?  That was annoying.  Occoquan has always been a family place.  You see lots of strollers around and many of the events held there, craft fairs and such, are kid-friendly.  I get the idea of not wanting tons of screaming kids in your restaurant but to not even have a high chair to offer is just wrong.  There are definitely some restaurants I would never take a baby to, but this was not one of them.  Thankfully, my girl was an angel the whole time and sat in my lap and checked everything out and then sat in her seat while we ate.

Our other little one at the table, who is 7, had a Belgian waffle topped with caramel.  She said it was "fabulous." 

Her mother and I both had the croque fromage, which if you recall from your high school French class is a grilled cheese with bechamel sauce on top. 

They also had a croque monsieur (add ham) and a croque madame (ham and a fried egg).  The sandwich came with fries as well.  The sandwich was everything a grilled cheese should be - crunchy buttered bread toasted just right and gooey, stretchy cheese (this was gruyere).  The kicker was the bechamel - decadent white, butter sauce, baked on top.  The whole thing together was awesome, but did make me feel like my arteries were clogging with every bite.  The fries were also good, but not consistent - some were much crunchier than others.  The sandwich was a tad on the expensive side, but looking at the other menu items, this was not the case for everything.  Other diners were eating mussels, which appeared to be the specialty, and I saw quiche, soups and steaks available as well.  The selection of Belgian beer was also excellent and the servers appeared very educated on what drinks to choose.  The setting was fantastic and I would definitely recommend this as a great date location.  8/10 - would've been 10/10 if they were a little more family friendly.

After lunch,we checked out a couple of shops.

 - Fetch is a dog store that carries cute knick-knacks and unique pet-related gifts.  They even sell their own homemade dog treats.  Very cute if you have a dog, which we don't, but hope to one day.
- Royal Confections was right next door and had all kids of homemade candies and fudge.  A small store with a very friendly owner who was eager to tell us her favorties.   I tried a small piece of the baklava and it was pretty good.
- Salt and Pepper Books was the location of my parents' book signing.  A very cute store, only selling books with a cooking theme, but also offering some cooking tools and other related stuff.   We met the owner and she was very nice.

Three cheers for Occoquan!

Friday, May 20, 2011

May Book Club Review

As it turns out, the lovely host of my May book club meeting chose a book I mentioned previously, House Rules by Jodi Picoult.  I didn't care for this book the first go-round, but I figured maybe I'd like it better if I reread it, and it would be fresh in my mind for the discussion.  Sadly, my feelings did not change. 

I reeeeeeeeally wanted to like this book.  When I saw Jodi speak a while back before it came out and heard her talk about this book's premise, I was really excited.  In a nutshell, the story follows a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome who has been accused of murder.  In typical Jodi fashion, she changes narrators with each chapter and you really get to know each one well.  I don't think she accurately portrayed someone with Asperger's but I realize it would be difficult to do so.  I also figured out the ending almost immediately, which was disappointing.  I love the twist on the last page that normally happens, but it was just too obvious here.

I think this is an important book in the sense that it draws much needed attention to Autism Spectrum disorders, which are more and more prevalent today than ever before.  Jodi does a good job of educating the reader about these disorders and what life is like for the family.  But, as a complete story, it falls short.  4/10.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Field trip = food truck!

Today I had the pleasure of joining a large group of kids from my school on a field trip into DC.  I was excited to go, as this presented an opportunity to possibly check out another food truck.  So, armed with my itouch (no, I don't have a smartphone because I work in education and a data package is too spendy - didja hear that Verizon?!) and praying for free wi-fi somewhere, I rode the charter bus downtown.  After a spin around the monuments, the bus driver dropped us off at the Portrait Gallery in the Penn Quarter.  My sources told me a handful of trucks were just a few blocks away and with 3 other chaperones in tow off I went.  We came upon Sauca first, but having already enjoyed a meal from them, I moved on to the next truck, Fojol Brothers of Merlindia.  The line was long, which to me is always a good sign.  The men and women inside the truck were wearing fake turbans and mustaches, which was appropriate as they call themselves "a traveling culinary carnival."  One of the other chaperones with me happened to be Indian and she said back in the day the size of your mustache signified how strong a person you were.  These people in the truck musta been pretty strong!

I ordered the buttered chicken and peas & cheese, which came served on top of basmati rice.  For $7, I was really happy with the huge portion.  It was enough that 2 skinny people could share, or one really hungry person.  The service was excellent, they were cracking jokes and being generally jovial.  I ended up taking my meal back to the gallery to eat in the awesome courtyard.  It was amazing!  Definitely one of the best food truck meals I've had.  The chicken was tender and the sauce was just the right amount of spicy.  The peas were the big surprise to me - also in a spicy sauce and mixed with chunks of mild cheese.  Yum yum yum.  10/10 for Fojol!

And of course, being me, I stopped for a cupcake on the way back.  Crumbs was right there and I got a margarita cupcake, which was good but not outstanding.  The sea green color of the icing was a little odd too, but it was pretty good, and the cake as more moist than the last trip there.  7/10.

So, I enjoyed my trip and enjoyed the food.  It was fun to introduce my food truck habit to other people and they really loved it too.  A good day was had by all!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

April Book Club Review

This one is a little late, obviously, but worth discussing.  Last month's book was Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. 

This was definitely not a book I would normally choose for myself.  It has a western flavor to it and I am not a fan of anything having to do with cowboys and indians, so that turned me off right away.  But, the story generally sounded like something I could get into.  In this book, the story is told by Reuben, an 11 year old asthmatic boy, and his father and sister, as they journey to find his older brother who is on the run from the police for murder.  There is a strong spiritual theme and miracles factor prominently, but I wouldn't call it a religious book specifically as I think anyone with any beliefs could appreciate the story. 

At times, it was a little slow.  And some of the decisions made during the journey are questionable, but there is closure at the end and that is always important to me.  The best part about this book, in my opinion, was the way the author uses language.  I was constantly marveling at the way he'd phrase something or choose the way to describe something.  I would never in a million years think to put words together the way that Enger did and it made turning the pages all that much more interesting.  The little sister, Swede, is a wonderful character who narrates the story in her own way by writing an ongoing poem that mirrors everything else going on.  A solid book, not my favorite, but it was worth reading.  7/10.

Happy 1st Mother's Day to me!

Here's last week's dinner review a little late.  Oops.  BJ wanted to make sure my first Mother's Day was extra memorable, so he decided to take me out to a nice restaurant.  He chose Bastille, in Alexandria, and I was very excited to be going.  We both got dressed up and enjoyed the thought of table for two instead of a table for two and a high chair.  Bastille calls itself a "contemporary bistro and wine bar," which I definitely agree with.  The menu on Sundays is prix fixe and 3 courses, all of which looked delicious.  The atmospehere is lovely, like being in someone's home in their chic dining room.  Our server was very attentive and answered all our questions.  For our 1st course, BJ had a trio of rillettes and I had a goat cheese pana cotta with a salad.  Both were fantastic and I knew that if that was any indication of what was to come, this was going to be a success.  For our main course, I had the flat iron steak and frites and BJ had a ribeye with bernaise sauce and veggies.  My meal had a lot to live up to, as one of my most favorite meals of all time is the Onglet (hanger steak) and frites from Les Halles (RIP the DC location, but it is still around in NYC).  Bastille did a good job, as the steak was tender and well cooked, but it was not very memorable.  The shallot sauce also was sweet and salty and not in a good way.  The frites were good though.  Next time I'd order this again and ask for it without the sauce.  BJ's meal was excellent, he especially liked the vegetables.  For dessert, we both ordered the pot de creme, which was one of the best desserts I've ever had.  Dark chocolate heaven, topped with dark cherries and whipped cream.  I could've eaten that all day.  This was an excellent, decadent meal and we had a nice, adult evening.  Even though my steak wasn't perfect, I would highly recommend this restaurant - 9/10.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A mom and a pop

Happy Mother's Day!  As this is my first one as a mother, it is certainly special.  BJ was away this morning at our dear friend's graduation (Congrats S!) so the Luce and I decided to check out the Columbia Pike farmer's market in Arlington that just happened to have a food truck vendor....funny how that worked out that way....  We took a stroll around the small, but busy market and saw the Pleasant Pops freezer cart positioned right in the center.  A nice young man told me his favorites for the day were the pina colada and Chongo, which was a Mexican sweet cream and cinnamon.  I went for the pina colada and was not disappointed. 

It had a bright pineapple flavor and while the coconut was not quite as strong, the overall flavor was good.  The Luce enjoyed it as well! 

It was also well-packaged in a Pleasant Pops wrapper.  At $2.50, it was slightly expensive, but a recent visit from the neighborhood ice cream man tells me that about $2.00 is normal, so this wasn't a terrible price.  We perused the rest of the market, bought a few things, and went back to the stand for a Chongo. 

WOW!  It was amazing.  A great balance of sweet and spice, similar to the awesome cinnamon ice cream my dad makes.  I was sad when it was gone.  And, I felt good about buying and eating their product because that they use all natural, local ingrediants, so there are no weird chemicals to worry about and I'm supporting farmers in our area.  Two thumbs up for Pleasant Pops - 9/10 overall.  A nice start to a wonderful Mother's Day :)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

OBX - Duck, Duck, Luce!

The second half of our spring break was spent with BJ's family in the Outer Banks, specifically Duck, NC.  We're not necessarily beach people, but we love OBX and have always had a good time.  This was the first trip for the PA family, so it was fun for us to see them experience it for the first time.  If you've never been, let me describe it for you.  OBX, for the most part, is pretty "rural" as far as beach towns go.  You have a handful of shopping areas and a grocery store or two, but it is mostly restaurants and big houses.  Instead of getting a hotel room or a condo, most people rent these enormous homes and share them with family and friends.  We're talking upwards of 20-25 people can fit in some of these suckers.  We call them wedding cake houses since they have multiple balconies on each floor and are often pastel colors.  You pretty much go to veg and spend time with whoever you came with, as opposed to the kind of beach experience where you can play putt-putt and walk a boardwalk and play arcade games (i.e. like Myrtle or Ocean City). 

This was the Luce's first trip to the beach, which was pretty exciting for us.  We had a lovely time relaxing and hanging out with the family, spent some time walking on the beach and in the pool.  We also had the opportunity to eat out a couple of times.

1.  Duck Deli & BBQ - This was just up the road from our house and very convenient to one of the shopping areas in Duck.  We wanted some North Carolina BBQ and since the sign jumped out at us, we stopped.  The NC style was very vinegary, maybe more than it should've been.  The meat was tender though and served in generous portions.  I opted for the Kansas City style beef and it was also just okay, the meat was stringy and not as tender as it could've been.  The wings were well received, as was the smoked chicken.  When we told some friends who are often in OBX that we went there, they said it is not the first choice among the locals.  6/10.

2.  The Rundown Cafe - The same friend met us for lunch here.  They recommended a couple of dishes from the very diverse menu and we ordered confidently.  I had jerk chicken with cocnut rice and beans.  It was excellent, perfectly cooked, and the rice and beans were great when mixed together with their salsa.  BJ raved about the Rundown Soup so much that I've forgotten what else he had.  He said this soup, which was fish, coconut and sweet potato, was the best seafood soup he'd ever had.  He even ordered a pint to go.  AND we liked it to much, we took the rest of the family back for dinner the same night.  I tried the sesame noodles with coconut fried chicken then as it was fantastic, even better than lunch.  Just the right amount of spicy and sweet.  I believe everyone else was happy with their meals, but I was too busy eating mine to notice!  We will definitely make this a stop every time we come down.  10/10.

A great trip and some pretty great eating!!

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Trip to Harrisonburg, Va

Last week was Spring Break and boy did we need it!  I have no idea how you people who don't work in schools do it.  BJ and I had previously purchased an Escapes deal from Living Social, way back before the Luce was born, and decided to use it over the break.  We were really looking forward to it, as we are familiar with H'burg with many friends who attended James Madison University there.  Here was the package, which was really a very, very good deal considering:

- 2 nights at the By The Side of the Road Inn in the main house.   Because we had the baby with us, we were told we had to stay in the Bishop's Retreat, which is further away from the rest of the house and has 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting room, as well as a small fridge and microwave, which are not included in the other rooms.  The house is very nice, but situated in a residential area of town, which was kind of weird, but it was fine.  The owners, a husband and wife and their daughter, were exceedingly nice and helpful.  They were really sweet about the Luce being with us and gave us suggestions for places to visit.  The 2 breakfasts we had, an herbed egg souffle with sausage and pancakes with orange cardamom sauce, were delicious.  It was served at 9 am though, so that was hard for us to wait for with a little one who wakes up at 6.  The room itself was nice, though perhaps not at luxurious as other B&B's we've been to.  I didn't see the other rooms though and wonder if they are more what we're used to.  I guess a "family room" doesn't really need to be swanky.  7/10 for our experience there.

- $10 to the local farmers market.  This was fantastic.  The market is in the center of town and is open more than just weekend mornings.  They had tons of fresh salad greens and flowers and baked goods.  We spent our gift certificate on cheese from Mountain View Farms.  The Swiss-style "McClure" was amazing.  9/10 for the market.

- $10 to the local ice cream joint, Kline's Dairy Bar.  We loved Kline's.  We went both nights and had delicious homemade ice cream in the weekly flavor, which differs by location.  We had Cherry Nut and Raspberry,and both were awesome.  10/10.

- Tasting fees waved at 2 wineries.  One was closed while we were visiting, so we made it to just one of the free vineyards - Bluestone.  They're fairly new but the tasting rooms was very nice and they even carried the McClure cheese we loved so much.  Our favorite wine was the Beau, named after their dog.  The owner was very sweet and didn't bat an eyelash at our bringing our baby in.  8/10.  Not part of the package, but recommended by another guest at the inn, was Crosskeys Vineyard

The setting was gorgeous and the wine was tasty, but the service was horrid.  I think the woman doing the tasting could have been drunk.  She was slow and flighty and did not pay attention to what she was doing.  Plus, when a little girl visiting with another couple knocked something over and could have been hurt, she showed no concern and ignored it completely.  Rude.  9/10 for the wine and the setting, 0/10 for the service.

- $60 to one of 2 restaurants.  Because we had the baby, we chose the more casual L'Italia.  Our hosts had gushed about the food earlier in the day, so we were really looking forward to it.  We started with bruschetta, which was enormous and pretty good.  BJ had the lobster ravioli, which he found had zero taste.  My steak Gorgonzola Alfredo was also off.  The steak had no seasoning at all and the sauce was sweet.  Bleh.  To finsh out our gift card, we ordered cannoli to go but had to toss it because it was also bland and kind of tasted like paste.  Talk about disappointed.  I feel badly about this review, because it was hyped to us so much, but you can't help what you like.  2/10.

We also at a meal at Jack Brown's Beer & Burger Joint, which was the culinary highlight of the trip.  They only serve burgers, beer and fried oreos.  The burgers are also served with a variety if intersting toppings.  We tried one with cream cheese and pepper jelly.  The burger was delicious, flavorful and juicy.  BJ likes it so much he ordered another one.  I also enjoyed my very first fried oreo, which was kind of like an oreo flavored donut.  Great service as well.  10/10.

Another note - Harrisonburg is perhaps not the best place for a romantic OR a family getaway.  It is a good base for hiking, but I think there are more charming towns.  BJ felt like we were in an agricultural version of his hometown, and not in a positive way.  So, now we know.  We had a decent time over all, but won't be back.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A mini-food truck visit

My poor co-worker and friend, Kerry, got stuck with jury duty, which has turned into 4+ week affair.  Being away from work that long is bad enough, but she also missed spring break!  She said the best part of losing all that time was the hour-long lunch break everyday to walk around the city and sample new restaurants and try food trucks!  Well, of course we wanted to join her on her quest.  Being on spring break gave us the opportunity to go into the city mid-week, so we hopped on Twitter and figured out the best menu & location.  We came up with Sauca, which is one of the "oldest" food trucks in DC.  They're so popular, they actually have 4 trucks.  The menu features hand-held wrap-type sandwiches that come from various regions around the world. 

We tried the Butter Chicken and the Beef Shwarma (pictured here) and BJ also tried the Fish Tacos. 

The Shwarma was BJ's favorite.  He felt it was juicy and flavorful, while it was a tad salty for me.  I thought the Butter Chicken was fantastic, great flavor and it has cilantro rice, which is always a plus in my book.  He thought the tacos were good but not outstanding.  Kerry also had the shwarma and enjoyed it.  We also loved sitting on the steps of the Portrait Museum on a sunny day, people-watching.  8/10.

And, what jaunt into DC is complete without a cupcake?  We walked a few blocks to Crumbs and got a vanilla vanilla, carrot cake, and a chocolate peanut butter. 

Crumbs has enormous cupcakes, twice the size of anywhere else, and for me they tend to be a little on the dry side because of that.  You can get mini-cupcakes in a sampler pack though, and they are a better texture.  The icing is really great though, just the right sweetness.  They also have a ton of interesting flavors, and even had some flourless ones for Passover, and Peeps flavor for Easter.  AND their packaging is good!  8/10 for Crumbs.