Taco Arepa, butternut soup times three, Fat Nomads food truck and more.
Arepas, South American griddled corn cakes stuffed with savory fillings, à la pita pockets, are all the rage. That makes the timing perfect for brothers Alvaro and Alonso Roche to capitalize on that trend, along with the taco trend, at TacoArepa in Bethesda, which was slated to open in December. Make that three trends: A covered but not enclosed biergarten will debut this spring in the parking lot adjacent to TacoArepa.
The Roche brothers—Alonso’s the chef, and the pair also owns TapaBar, Bold Bite and 202 Artisanal Donut Co.—call TacoArepa a fast-casual hybrid, meaning you order at the counter, sit down and a server brings your order. At night, servers will roam the restaurant with iPads to make it easy to order more items, including Caribbean beers and rum drinks. Garage-style doors on the side of TacoArepa will open into Playa Beer Garden, where large heaters will make the alfresco space usable most of the year.
TacoArepa’s menu features about a dozen Caribbean and Latin American-inspired fillings, which are stuffed into arepas ($8-$9) or into corn tortillas to make tacos ($3-$4.50). The fillings can also top a salad bowl with greens tossed in cilantro lime vinaigrette and rice.
To put together the fillings, chef Roche relied on memories from his youth. He was born and raised in Caracas in Venezuela (except for three years in Vermont) and sailed all over the Caribbean in his father’s boat. Fillings are named after beaches throughout the Caribbean.
We’re fond of arepas, with their crunchy exterior and the subtle corn flavor imbued in each bite. We got an advance taste of TacoArepa’s corn cakes. Our favorites (pictured top to bottom): curried chickpeas with mango slaw and tamarind cream; sliced grilled beef with salsa, avocado, cilantro and chipotle crema; braised pulled pork scented with orange zest, cilantro, oregano and mint; shredded beef with black beans, queso blanco, cilantro and lime crema; and braised chicken curry with mango slaw, toasted coconut and roasted yellow peppers.
TacoArepa, 4905 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda
Butternut Soup, Times Three
PassionFish Bethesda’s butternut squash soup
Thirty-five dollars was money well spent last October to taste delicious soups featured on the fall and winter menus of a dozen Montgomery County restaurants. The occasion was the 10th annual Empty Bowls fundraiser for the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB), where we sampled unlimited soup and desserts and left with a handmade bowl donated by a local potter. The CAFB is a hunger-relief organization that serves Washington metro area residents through a network of 444 nonprofit food assistance partnerships.
Puréed squash soups were the most popular offerings, and why not? They are comforting and soul-satisfying cold weather palliatives. Versions from three Bethesda restaurants stood out. Chef Jeff Tunks served a version (sans lobster meat) of a soup we love at PassionFish Bethesda: a thick, sunflower-yellow bisque of puréed butternut squash cooked in lobster stock and cream, rife with chunks of poached lobster tail meat and topped with tiny cubes of crispy fried yucca, toasted pumpkin seeds and a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil. Laura Houlihan, the co-owner of Barrel + Crow, dished up an ochre-hued, vegan Hubbard squash soup enhanced with pumpkin seeds, pomegranate seeds and curry oil. The winner, in our opinion, was True Food Kitchen’s roasted butternut squash soup, which, though vegan, conveyed richness and depth thanks to coconut milk and warm spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom. Garnishes of pomegranate seeds, dried apple and a splash of molasses added extra jolts of flavor and texture. The three restaurants plan to have the squash soups on their menus in January and February.
Fat Nomads owners Singyod Jaturongkasamrit and Santang Ruangsangwatana
Just after University Boulevard breaks off from Connecticut Avenue in Kensington, in the corner of a lot occupied by a Valero gas station, you’ll see a food truck called Fat Nomads. Its front side is painted in bright yellow-and-red rays, and there’s an image of a bearded, bandanna- and sunglass-wearing wanderer and the tagline “The Taste of Itinerary.”
Chef Santang Ruangsangwatana, born and raised in Bangkok, adapted dishes for the (mostly) Thai food from her grandmother’s recipes. The menu features bao buns, appetizers, rice and noodle bowls and many vegetarian options.
Ruangsangwatana flavors braised beef for bao buns with star anise and tops them with Sriracha, jalapeño, cilantro and basil, evoking the flavors of pho noodles, she says. Another bao, with braised pork shoulder, is garnished with tahini-laced slaw, gojuchang (Korean chili paste) and pickled beets. Other winners include delicate chicken and shrimp dumplings; a stir-fry of ground chicken, Hawaiian basil, purple basil and chilies served over rice with a fried egg, a dash of Maggi (soy seasoning) and chopped peanuts; Vietnamese-style chicken marinated in fish sauce and coconut milk, grilled and served over rice with tomato and tamarind salsa; and five-spice braised beef and meatballs over vermicelli noodle salad.
Ruangsangwatana and friend Singyod (Andy) Jaturongkasamrit own Fat Nomads. The two worked together at D.C. Noodles in Washington, where she was the chef and he was the expediter. They opened the business last July, with the landlord (he owns the gas station) agreeing to rent out the truck for a year so the pair could see how it goes before purchasing it.
More a permanently installed kitchen trailer than a mobile truck (“It would take a six-wheeler to move it,” Ruangsangwatana says), Fat Nomads is open year-round and has picnic tables on site.
Ruangsangwatana explains the provenance of the Fat Nomads name. “We are both chubby and have wanderlust. We travel, mostly in Southeast Asia, find good food, put our twist on it and share it with our customers.”
Fat Nomads, 3700 University Blvd. W., Kensington; 703-559-4877; fatnomadsdc.com
Comings & Goings
In November, Potomac’s Amici Miei closed after 13 years in Potomac Woods Plaza due to escalating rent. Owner Roberto Deias plans to reopen the restaurant in downtown Rockville in early 2018.
Urban Butcher chef and owner Raynold Mendizabal plans to open a second downtown Silver Spring restaurant, as yet unnamed. It will be in the Central apartment complex.
Local chainlet Fish Taco is packing up the Wisconsin Avenue outlet it opened a year ago and relocating in the former Secolari and Cosi spaces in Bethesda Row this spring.
In Pike & Rose news, Los Angeles-based ramen chain Jinya, which in the D.C. metro area has outlets in the District and Merrifield, Virginia, plans to open in the North Bethesda development in mid-2018. Cincinnati-based chain Nada will open an outlet of its taco- and cocktail-focused restaurants there in the fall of 2018.
Bethesda institution Pines of Rome Italian restaurant closed its Hampden Lane location after 45 years and reopened in the former Matuba space on Cordell Avenue in November.
Silver Spring’s 8407 Kitchen Bar closed in October after a 7½-year run.
RECENTLY OPENED: Check out our Dining Guide for details on George’s Chophouse (Bethesda), One Scotch, One Burger, One Beer (Bethesda) and Pandora Seafood House & Bar (Rockville).