Tag Archives: Arlington

Walking out of the screening of “Chef” the movie, a prominent thought in one’s mind has to be, “I’ve got to get me a Cubano. Now.” After the pork fantasy subsides, the next prominent thought is the “pretentiousness” of the food and coffee world. When does one cross the line between “connoisseur” and “snob”? How does one define “good” food or coffee? Or is there even such a definition? Can good food be just “good,” and can good coffee be just “good,” without the superlatives, adjectives, and the beards and flannel?

While spending some time away from this site, I was asking myself some of these questions. As a read various coffee reviews and food columns – and as I tried to wrap my head around those honey-blood orange-cactus-butterfly-cumquat cupping notes – I realized that coffee and food is not some hipster fad. Rather, they are fundamentals of life that have been part of people’s lives since the dawn of civilization (yes, coffee came a bit later). Gatherers gathered, hunters hunted, farmers farmed, fishermen fished. And at the end of the day, folks built a fire and gathered around a table to break bread. Good food, good people. No nonsense, just communion.

When I first planned to write about Northside Social in Arlington (alas, already several months ago), I remember being somewhat disappointed that the cafe did not offer pour over coffee. I thought to myself, you’re serving great Counterculture Coffee, and all you have is that pre-dripped Bunn trash that I can get at the diner down the street? And yes, I was planning to write a harsh review on Northside’s lack of coffee sophistication, that while serving as a cool local hangout, the cafe did not offer anything worth noting.

Snob. Douche. Unappreciative of what coffee, and food, is all about.

Northside Social is the perfect cafe for a late night shot of whatever (and wine upstairs) with terrific pastries (biscotti and chocolate cake are worth every bite) and sandwiches. When most other cafes are closed by nightfall, Northside runs strong into the night, buzzing until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Besides having more than enough tables outside for a cold one on a summer night, live music in the cafe is not a stranger, as musicians from all roads come and go with their tales.

Good coffee is so much more than cupping notes. The countless minutes I wasted swirling my Chemexed brew around my tongue to get a glimpse of that preserved blackberry note. While quality beans roasted perfectly will undoubtedly have pronounced flavors, there is no need to make coffee more than what it is. Some of the best food I’ve had came from the fish-gut riddled streets of an outdoor market in rural Korea, and I was applying a different standard to coffee. A lack of pour over service is not a death sentence. Maybe I don’t need to know the exact soil content of the micro lot the coffee came from. Maybe I just won’t drop a Benjamin to buy that state-of-the-art coffee scale, maybe I just won’t nervously eye the stopwatch to time my brew to the exact second.

Maybe I’ll just brew coffee and drink coffee.

Excellence should be awarded. Perfection should be pursued, and perfected. Yes, please don’t stop developing those personal relationships with micro lot farmers, and please don’t stop working the soil to harvest the best coffee there is. Please keep the science moving.

But at the end of the day, it’s meat over an open pit, fresh bread from the oven, and coffee. It’s that steaming Cubano from the truck. It’s a good meal with good people, and coffee. A good Cubano is not birthed by chance; marinating the pork, roasting it, slicing it, buttering the bread, pressing it down on the grill, all requires precise science, innovation, technique. But that Einstein Cubano is not meant to be eaten with forks and knives. It’s best when eaten curbside, hot mustard and grease running down your thumb, the Autumn heat pounding on the back of your neck.

Coffee tastes of the atmosphere. It’s a communal beverage, soaking in the notes of the music and people that surround it during consumption. In that realm, Northside has great coffee. Folks chatting over a glass of wine, folks chomping on paninis with their eyes glued to their Macbook monitors, folks splitting a thick slab of triple-chocolate cake over late night coffee. Lively, boisterous, unpretentious. Coffee where coffee belongs, in the midst of conversation, work, tears, joy. Amongst the people.

Give coffee back to the people.

Over the years, my father has passed down an important family mantra of sorts: the best food comes from the shabbiest shacks.

Birthed from decades of soul-searching amongst hosts of Korean noodle joints, this family motto proved to be particularly true back in the home Peninsula. Some of the best meals I’ve had by far in Korea were at five-table huts in the middle of reeking (in the best of ways) fish markets, many with no signs at all. You sit down, and a simple (time-tested and customer approved) menu is awkwardly hung on the wall. An elaborate menu is usually not needed, as these places are usually known for one or two specialty dishes. The food is direct, to the point, unpretentious. The flavors speak for themselves. The people are genuine, their hands speak of their years in the kitchen.

Following this mantra, I was recently led to an Indian joint in the middle of somewhere in Arlington, VA. Somewhere on the border between Arlington and Falls Church maybe, somewhere between the yuppie part of town and the ethnic mixing bowl of Northern Virginia. I’ve always been fascinated by ethnic food, especially restaurants that are frequented by “locals”. Ever more so since working as a contributor for Roads & Kingdoms, my hunt has led me to remote corners of the DC suburbs, in the midst of the most vibrant of immigrant communities, basting in centuries of culinary excellence.

Driving by without much thought, you would have missed the place, no doubt about that. The red brick building rests upon a slab of concrete, and if it isn’t for a small sign that flashes “Kohinoor Dhaba Buffet”, there is no way you expected one of the best Indian establishments to come out of the place.

There are five parking spaces in front of the building, and three of them are occupied. The place looks authentic enough (good sign), in the middle of nowhere, shady exterior, shadier interior, and a proprietor slash manager type who is eagerly determined to stop me from shooting his restaurant (good sign?). My imagination sparks, scribbling stories of Indian mafia(?) and their buffet joints. What could be going on in here? How odd, I think, while I stash my iPhone in my pocket, carefully eying the two other grumpy-looking men guarding the register.

The buffet counter was six-feet long, packed with vibrant colors of orange, green, brown, and red. The odors were hypnotizing. Goat curry was thrashed generously onto my plate, along with two types of chicken curry, chick peas, and two more types of veggie curries for which I cannot recall the exact nomenclatures. The videography-resistant manager brings us a steaming plate of fresh naan. We walk up a narrow flight of stairs to another dining area, where an episode of the Judge Alex show is showing on a ancient TV set. Perfect, I thought, until a few other hungry Indian customers came and changed the channel to some Bollywood soap opera. In between spoonfuls of rice and goat, in between our exchanges of post-election politics, my friend and I curiously tuned into the soap opera (it had subtitles, after all). What an atmosphere. Quite the experience.

As shady as this place was (I will probably never get the full story behind the no-filming gag), the food was spot on. My father’s mantra proved to be infallible even in the remote wilderness of NoVa. After plates of curried meats and fresh naan, my friend and I walk out, gastronomically stunned, always a good thing. We agree that this place is not the most girlfriend/wife-friendly establishment. Well, we correct ourselves, maybe once, for the food is worthy of the somewhat gloomy and ominous atmosphere. It could’ve been the weather, the dying trees and leaves and all that.

With lingering notes of spices, we move forward, back to yuppie Arlington and its Northside Social, for a round of coffee.

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