Longer versions of these articles have appeared in VivaTysons Magazine, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, The Washington Post, MommyNearest.com and Maryland Life Magazine. To read the full stories, visit the publication’s website. All text and photos are mine.
Food, Brews, and the Outdoors: An Inside Look at Shenandoah Valley’s Self-Guided Cultural Excursions
The Shenandoah Valley encompasses eight Virginia counties, five charming cities, and countless small towns, all located within the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountain ranges. The lush, fertile plains contain thousands of acres of farmland and abundant recreational activities, like horseback riding, hiking, rock climbing, and river floats. To help visitors explore the Shenandoah Valley’s rural landscape, the communities banded together to launch a series of self-guided trails focused on a variety of experiences. All of these trails stretch along the Interstate 81 Corridor and will keep you exploring for days. The largest of the Shenandoah Valley trails is Fields of Gold, which features 256 farm-friendly activities. Encompassing a wide swath of Virginia counties, the Fields of Gold website lists a variety of activities, from llama trekking to strawberry picking. Driving through the valley’s golden wheat fields is incredibly scenic and part of the inspiration behind the name. The roads that meander through the valley are dotted with agritourism venues including farm-to-table restaurants, vineyards, cideries, breweries, and farmers markets.
“It’s my daughters’ favorite thing to do on the weekends,” says Tracey Coltrain, who lives in the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley. “We pull up the website and decide what we want to do. Sometimes it’s a cooking class at BlueOregano or horseback riding at Fort Valley Ranch. We love to be on a farm experiencing nature.”
At the foot of Woodstock Tower is Woodstock Brewhouse, where you can sample smoky local barbeque and handmade beers in a former blue jeans factory. Posey Thisisit Llama Farm offers an unusual Fields of Gold experience. Owner Joyce Hall invites visitors to make crafts using llama-wool and allows them to feed the animals. She’ll can even facilitate a big kiss on the lips with the friendliest of the residents (hint: it involves crackers). A Better Way Goat Farm & Dairy sells soaps and cheese, and visitors can try Goat Yoga. There’s nothing better for stress relief than snuggling a baby goat.
7 Ethnic Food Experiences for Washington D.C. Families
Read the complete story at: https://www.mommynearest.com/article/7-ethnic-food-experiences-for-washington-d-c-families
Excerpt: If you’ve lived in Washington, D.C. for a long time, chances are you’ve tried lots of different cuisines—the city and suburbs are known for restaurants that serve ethnic food from around the world. Why not pass on that love of foods to your kids! Nutritionists say the best way to help your kids like different spices, textures and dining styles is by having them sample these foods when they’re young; it helps them develop their palate. Lucky for D.C. parents, that’s easy in this city.
Best place to try Peruvian: Sardi’s Pollo A La Brasa1159 University Blvd E Takoma Park, MD With two locations in Maryland, one in Gaithersburg and the other Beltsville, this casual restaurant isn’t fast, but definitely worth the wait. Although their char broiled chicken is their crowning glory here, the Peruvian dishes are also worth investigating. The Lomo Saltado, tender steak sautéed in olive oil and onions served over fries and rice, is a crowd pleaser and big enough to share.
Don’t miss these dishes: Pollo Parrillero (marinated split open boneless breast of chicken that’s perfectly broiled with deep char lines and yucca on the side)
Best place to try Indian: Bombay Bistro98 W Montgomery AveRockville, MD
Bombay Bistro is a well-established, family owned restaurant in Rockville. The home style Indian cuisine is served buffet style at lunch, so you can sample the wide variety of vegetables, meats, sauces, bread and rice. The friendly atmosphere is welcoming to young diners, and they even have a kids’ menu with smaller portions of the authentic Indian dishes like chicken tikka and biriyani. Indian food works well for vegans, dairy free and gluten free eaters. They serve a frosty smoothie-like drink kids love called mango lassi.
Don’t miss these dishes: Mulligatawny soup (tangy curry soup), chicken tikka makhani (tandoori roasted chicken in a tomato based gravy) and Baigan Bharta, roasted eggplant cooked with onions and tomatoes
Best place to try Ethiopian: Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant5071 Nicholson Ln Rockville, MD
Don’t miss these dishes: Doro Watt (rich chicken or beef stew) and Yensir Watt (spiced yellow lentils.
Playful Food with a Conscience
People in the Tysons neighborhood like to work hard and play hard. Earls Kitchen + Bar will help you master the playing part.
The restaurant’s tasteful interior is fluid and bright, with artwork that pays tribute to the DC Area. In good weather, floor-to-ceiling windows are pushed aside, removing the border between sophisticated patio seating and the classic bistro seating indoors. The sound is not overwhelming, even when the bar is busy. Regulars come in for lunch to order their favorite salads and sandwiches. At happy hour, customers order from the discounted bar menu featuring local craft beers and spirits. There’s even a separate whiskey and bourbon bar. “Happy hour is a religion here,” says Earls’ head chef Ryan Spicknell. “Coming from Canada, I would never have thought people would go so crazy for happy hour.”
After one meal at Earls, you won’t be surprised to learn that the family-owned chain is expanding. At first glance, customers may think Earls is a high-end American chain, but the restaurant brand originated in Canada, where owner Leroy “Bus” Fuller and son Stanley Earl Fuller first opened a beer and burger joint. Eventually, the restaurateurs stepped into finer dining without leaving behind Earls original DNA. The restaurant now specializes in contemporary dishes with international flare; with a menu guided by seasonal produce, and the availability of proteins that are sustainable and humanely-raised.
Back when it first opened in 1982, Earls introduced menu items like calamari and Caesar salads, which were practically unheard of back then, explains Spicknell. “The eclectic menu is inspired by the owners’ passion for travel. They want you to be able to get something from all over the world,” Spicknell adds. “We have people from all walks of life coming here—from mall goers, families, business people, visiting diplomats, tourists; just so many people come through our door. It’s nice to be able to serve them a little something that speaks them, that tastes like home.”
Begin your meal with one of Earls’ first-rate starters. The most popular item on the menu is Tuna Tostada. Crisp, home-rolled corn tortillas are stacked with avocado and chili rubbed albacore tuna. The muscular slice of fish is tender and firm, topped with crunchy slices of jicama and radish, a potent Anaheim pepper and cilantro aioli. It’s impossible to overhype this bite-size bliss. Coming in with a group? Try the tart artichoke and roasted garlic-infused Warm Spinach + Three Cheese Dip. Served with toasted flatbread, it’s an ideal dish for sharing.
The entrees change with the season, but hopefully the skirt steak and citrus soy sauce is available, and if it is, order it. The steak is flawlessly prepared and delicately brightened with a tangy, ambrosial sauce you’ll want to take home to Mama. It arrives in a cast iron skillet teamed with California or mango sushi rolls, your choice—Earls’ version of surf and turf. The Cajun Chicken Cheddar Sandwich is a mile-high mound of cavorting heat, crunch and smooth enveloped in a brioche bun. Earls’ Warm Kale Salad literally flies out of the kitchen, thanks to garnishes like roasted brussels sprouts, baby potatoes and grilled chicken—partners in divine.
The menu keeps some of its core items, but showcases different specials depending on what’s in season. Thus, what you loved last month may not be there next week. But that’s okay, because you can trust Chef Spicknell. In a nod to the popular fire pits on Earls’ patio, Spicknell debuts his version of S’mores— a gooey chocolate chip cookie baked in a miniature cast iron skillet, adorned with marshmallows made of spun sugar, vanilla gelato, and shavings of bittersweet chocolate. Every ingredient is made in house, designed by a chef who has been with Earls since he was a fifteen-year-old dishwasher. Read more on VivaTysons Taste of Tysons.
This Diplomat’s Tacos ROCK!
Taco Bamba is like its owner Chef Victor Albisu—Latin and bold, but also refined and smart. This little Mexican taqueria, situated in the corner of a humble strip mall (2190 Pimmit Dr.), is selling the most exciting street food this neighborhood has probably ever seen; and they’re doing it in a relatively glamour-free spot near Tysons. Despite plans to expand the Taco Bamba brand to other Northern Virginia locales, Albisu says the Falls Church Taco Bamba location “will remain closest to my heart.”
Taco Bamba currently serves as a community-gathering place; Albisu knew the neighborhood was hungry for it. Open at 8:30am, construction workers are usually in the door first, but expect that door to swing open dozens of times every hour, with business people, neighbors, high school kids, groups of millennials, and cooks (when you see a cook coming into a restaurant, that’s a good sign) until it closes at 10pm. There aren’t many places to sit at Taco Bamba; there are no real tables. But that doesn’t stop people from loitering about; some bring their own table, setting it up outside the door (the eatery does have chairs outside). You’ll also find patrons sitting on the curb, savoring their overflowing tacos. Others may sit on their cars, or perhaps in their cars. Everyone is welcome to gather together and eat the most genuine Mexican food this side of San Diego. Read the rest at
Almost 15 years ago, my husband, parents, two daughters and I took up temporary residence in Pittsburgh. We were there because my 4-year-old needed a heart transplant.
The process required we live near Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital while we waited eight days for her new heart and then remain in Oakland during her three months of recovery. Ever since we’ve associated your beautiful City of Bridges with the rebirth of our daughter, Allie, who received her life-saving surgery on Aug. 8, 2000. This August, amazing her family and her doctors, she heads off to college.
Although it may sound strange, the one thing that improved our mental and physical health during that difficult time was eating. Admittedly, food should not be a top priority when your child is fighting to survive, but those Oakland restaurants quickly became a comforting source of sustenance. We especially appreciated friendly places such as Union Grill, Atwood Deli, Dave & Andy’s Homemade Ice Cream and especially Allie’s favorite, Lulu’s Noodles. We often brought her these tasty meals rather than dine in hospital-style.
While living in Pittsburgh that summer of 2000, these fine establishments did more than feed our stomachs; they fed our souls. Now whenever we return to Pittsburgh for her annual biopsy, Allie requests a meal at Lulu’s Noodles. She’s not allowed to eat or drink the morning of her procedure, so she likes to fill up the night before on Lulu’s dumplings, stir-fries and creamy fruit smoothies. Sitting in that clattering dining room surrounded by black-and-white photos of people draped in noodles is decidedly soothing to her. Lulu’s is a family tradition, one we believe helps her to heal.
Pittsburgh has several other neighborhoods that sustained us in the months we lived there. Another requirement of each visit is to wander the streets of Little Italy, over the Bloomfield Bridge (now Children’s Hospital has moved near that charming neighborhood). On festive occasions — such as celebrating a biopsy that turns up “zero rejection” — we dine at the Church Brew Works. How fitting for us parents to toast her health in a church.
Iron Chef House: The Art of Japanese Food
As seen in VivaTysons Magazine. Read the complete story: http://vivatysons.com/blog/2016/01/01/iron-chef-house-the-art-of-japanese-food/
Japanese food is arguably the most beautiful of all cuisines, so when sushi chef Leo Shi, his wife Joy Zheng, and partner Qiayao Wang opened the Iron Chef House in the Mosaic District, they wanted to incorporate their love of modern art. Already experienced restaurateurs, the group opened their first Iron Chef House in Brooklyn Heights in 1999, and today, the neighborhood café has a tremendous following. However, in the blossoming Mosaic District, the owners sought a more modern vibe. “We’ve always had a dream to have a restaurant that is different from the first one,” says Zheng who runs the operations of the restaurant. “We wanted less traditional things in Virginia. To make the food so beautiful it looks like art.
The name may conjure up the popular Food Network show with its chopping, racing and competition, but you won’t see that here. The aesthetic is more science than battle, as sushi chefs create inventive structures that customers frequently say are too pretty to eat. Indeed, the presentation is a focus here, and Shi, who oversees the kitchen, is a stickler for aesthetics. But he is even more passionate about fresh seafood, “I only order the highest quality of fish and get a shipment everyday except Sunday. I check every delivery carefully, and will refuse anything I don’t feel is good enough. I also have some specials depending on what fish is fresh that season.” When customers ask for seasonal favorites, like scallop, blue crab and sea urchin, Shi calls them when it comes in.
Open since early September, Iron Chef House already packs in local sushi enthusiasts who’ve learned about their lunch and dinner specials. The prices are extremely fair for the high quality, generous portions, and particular care given to each dish. Some young women sitting near me exclaimed over their plentiful bento boxes and steaming bowls of ramen. I asked them what brought them to Iron Chef House for lunch, and one woman said, “This is our second time in a month. We really like the food, but the service keeps us coming back.” Friendly, solicitous servers are a noticeable attribute. Zheng’s team is knowledgeable and enthusiastic without being bothersome; you can tell they care deeply about your dining experience.
Hidden Treasure: Sea Pearl
Story and Photos: Renee Sklarew Read the complete story: http://vivatysons.com/blog/2015/01/01/hidden-treasure-sea-pearl/
When you step into Sea Pearl, you can’t help but be impressed. The stunning flower arrangement in the expansive entry, the cozy couches in the lounge, the hushed dining area—it feels more like a posh downtown restaurant than a suburban eatery. Sea Pearl is where a couple might celebrate a romantic anniversary or treat themselves to date night. The elements are all here for an evening to remember.
I asked Chef Sly Liao how he and his partner/wife Ly Lai created such a stand-out dining experience, and he explained simply, “We like to do what we like to do.” The independent-minded husband and wife team took no investors when they designed Sea Pearl, a one-of-a-kind restaurant located in Merrifield at the entrance to the bustling Mosaic District. They were pioneers; the first to bring fine dining to what had been an industrial neighborhood with a few fast food places. Six years ago, when Sea Pearl opened its doors, the restaurant blazed a new trail with an eclectic menu, soft, alluring interiors, and attentive service.
Questioned about why they chose Merrifield, Sly says, “It’s where we live. This is our neighborhood. We know our neighbors have disposable income, and there was nothing like this here before. So I thought it would be great for us,” he pauses, “Maybe it’s time for the suburbs.” Agreed.
Sea Pearl has many loyal customers who know and regularly patronize the restaurant, but in some ways, it’s still a hidden gem. “We are still waiting to be discovered,” notes Liao. “We have full confidence in what we do—it’s all from our passion. We’re making what we like to eat. People have recognized that, and they love us for it. We get most new customers from word of mouth.”
The design is sleek—black, grey and orange furnishings—with cascades of pearly white shells hung in strategic spots. The lounge can be lively, but the dining area remains serene, an ideal place for meaningful conversation. Additionally, the private dining room seats up to 100 people.
Exotic sushi rolls; Moroccan root vegetable stew; hefty braised lamb shank—Sea Pearl’s menu defies categorizing. The wide range of ethnic influences is a result of the partners’ impressive pedigrees. Sly was born in India to Chinese parents, and his world involved eating different cuisines. Growing up, he sampled a wide range of spices, and that exposure continued when he cooked in New York City for ten years before heading to Washington DC to become the regional chef for Ark Restaurant Group. Before opening Sea Pearl, Sly was headquartered at Sequoia in Washington Harbour.
Describing a dish as “Middle Eastern” is about as specific as describing a reality show as “that one where they all get in fights.” The catchall phrase includes plates of stewed meats, kebabs and grains combined with spices like cardamom, cinnamon and sumac. Beneath this umbrella term, there are subtle nuances based on the food’s country of origin. The cuisines of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen and Syria are heavily influenced by geography: Desert dwellers rely on ingredients that can withstand an arid climate, like grains and dried fruit, while areas with mountains, seas and pastoral land produce foods like olives and pomegranates. Following are four local Middle Eastern restaurants, each highlighting traditional dishes from a specific region. Renee Sklarew (For Express)
Aldeerah (Saudi Arabia)
262 Cedar Lane SE, Vienna; 703-992-9994, aldeerah.us
The D.C. area’s only Saudi Arabian restaurant draws inspiration from the Bedouins, desert nomads who herd sheep and goats. “Saudi Arabia is covered by desert, so the menu depends on things that last, are fulfilling and not expensive,” owner Mody Alkhalaf says. The Saudi staple jireesh, which resembles American grits, is made from cracked wheat infused with buttermilk and yogurt, then garnished with caramelized onions. Qursan, another traditional Saudi dish, consists of vegetables boiled in tomato broth with a thin bread called marqooq. Opt to eat Saudi-style — on the floor, without utensils and from a communal platter.
3900 Pickett Road, Fairfax; 703-425-1130; sabarestaurantdc.com
Every week, Saba’s kitchen staff mixes 22 different spices to make a batch of Yemeni seasoning called hawaij. “We serve basic, traditional food from different areas of Yemen,” says co-owner Ali Khaled Alrabuoi. “We try to make it how it’s made in Yemen.” Dishes include saltah, a steaming hot soup brimming with okra, yams and tomatoes with fenugreek, a nutty herb, floating on top. Saba’s most popular dish is haneeth, meaty lamb bones served on a bed of spiced rice. Another hit is the masoob, a dessert resembling bread pudding, with bananas, honey and freshly baked dough.Layalina (Syria and Lebanon)
5216 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-1170, layalinarestaurant.com
Outer Banks Seafood featured Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
My story on Crabs in the Outer Banks was the second most shared story last week (June 17-25) on the Post Gazette website. To read it:
Home Grown: Montgomery Farm Women’s Market
You’ve seen them–antique buildings that remain, while the world around them changes. The Montgomery County Farm Women’s Market in Bethesda, Maryland is one of those buildings. It was founded in 1932, during the worst of America’s Great Depression, long before the local food movement made farmers markets a chic destination.
They can’t knock us down,” explains Margaret Johnson as she explains how the building has protected status as a historic landmark. Margaret has been President of the Montgomery County Farm Women’s Cooperative Market for the last thirty years. She started working at this farmer’s market as a young bride. Now, in her late sixties, she’s seen many changes here.
Today, high rises made of concrete and glass surround this historic clapboard building in a thriving urban area. The Farm Women’s Market opened at a time when many people felt hopeless; lost jobs, lost investments, few opportunities on the horizon. And it’s still holding on thanks to a growing appreciation for buying local food and the dedication of hardworking farmers.
The Market originated with a good idea. The wives of local farmers in the Maryland countryside met one night in someone’s kitchen. Their goal was to come up with a way to help supplement the meager earnings their farms were making by selling directly to customers.
The wives decided to market their produce, dairy, baked goods and meats in a suburban area known as Bethesda. They leased a space, and a few years later, built their own wooden structure with stalls for selling their goods. There was no air conditioning, no heat, no refrigeration. The women dressed in white dresses, white stockings, white shoes and hairnets. The husband farmers helped load the trucks and deliver the goods to the Market. They stacked the vegetables, fruit, eggs, freshly shorn rabbits and plucked chickens on top of giant blocks of ice. The women shooed the men away as soon as the doors opened—this was their territory and they made the rules: no men allowed. The men were sent back to the farms until pick up time.
More than half a century ago, one little boy was allowed to work side-by-side with his mother in the Farm Womens Market. His name is Ray Renn, and he’s still here more than fifty years later. Ray recalls life in the early days when he stood on tip-toe to see over the counter. “I was born here,” laughs Ray. “Obviously I wasn’t pulling as many shifts back then.”
There’s a black and white newspaper photo Ray behind his counter full of cabbages, winter squash and brussel sprouts—he was only 12. Ray shares the story of growing up in this Market: “It started in 1942, when my parents first brought me here. They owned the stall and traditionally sold produce. The stall belonged to my grandmother, and then my mother took over. We branched out into flowers and stuff. Early on we had chickens, eggs, our cows made butter. The rules have changed dramatically since we did that.”
“I decided to carry on the tradition when my parents started to take ill in early 1960s. I decided to help them for a few years to decide what I wanted to do–that was 40 years ago—before that it was forced labor,” Ray jokes. For Ray, the farmers that work in the Market are like family: “I grew up here. I went to school–my parents would put me on the bus—and then I came back to work.”
“Oh yeah,” says Ray ruefully. “The rules started getting laxer and laxer as the years moved on. We kept the name—Farm Women’s Market–never wanted to change the name. It was original. I like the history of it. The doors of this building opened in 1938, and until recently some of the original women were working here.”
“We still have tons of regular customers. Unfortunately we see the older customers passing on; a lot of customers have been with us for decades. You realize that when you’ve been here yourself for 53 years,” Ray adds. Margaret thinks people like Ray are a dying breed: “We don’t have that many farmers around like we used to have. The younger generation doesn’t want take over. They can get better jobs making more money.”
Meeting vendors like Ray and Margaret make shopping in a farmer’s market unique. The personal attention you receive and knowing these products were harvested just a short drive from home—well, there’s just something special about that. So, support your local farmer’s market. Besides the freshest, most beautiful produce, and friendly, appreciative smiles, these farmers just might have a story to tell.
Ray Renn’s stall at the Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, established more than 75 years ago.