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“Justo moves his hand up the filet in a literal flurry of movement; with each bone that comes out, he taps the pliers on the cutting board to release it, then, never stopping, in one continuous motion, repeats repeats repeats. It sounds like a quick, double-time snare drum beat, a staccato tap tap tap tap tap tap, and then . . . done. A pause of a few seconds as he begins another side of fish. I can barely see his hand move.”

Anthony Bourdain dedicated an entire chapter of “Medium Raw” to Le Bernardin’s Justo Thomas, the now-almost-legend-like fish butcher carrying out the masterful salmon fillet job described in the excerpt above.

Northern Virginia has no Le Bernardin. But the Super H-Mart in Fairfax, VA, has some of the freshest seafood you will find anywhere. Cod, salmon, flounder, catfish, carp, mackerel, hairtail, and more varieties of shellfish than I can recall. Oh, live blue crab and even live crayfish, occasionally. At the fish section’s epicenter is Heradio, master fish butcher. With skills that rival even the most seasoned sushi chefs, hand him a live flounder and he will have it gutted, cleaned, filleted, sliced, and in your mouth before you can say Eric Ripert.

Heradio, the fish butcher.

Heradio2

There’s something relieving about pounding a wooden mallet on freshly steamed Maryland blue crab. In season, just caught out of the Chesapeake Bay, plump with savory meat with just the right amount of sweetness, the females with bright orange roe, and of course, plentiful tamales, the sexy mixture of green crab innards and organs.

Our SUV just made a sharp right turn, into a narrow two-lane road, seemingly leading to a residential neighborhood covered in ancient trees and shrubs. As we were searching for one of the most well-known crab houses in the area, I was expecting a bustling seaport, a dock overrun by streaming tourists and tour buses. The trees and shrubbery were a pleasant surprise.

The drive through the greenery was nostalgic, conjuring distant memories of from my childhood, when Grandpa took me through the mountains of rural Korea, in search of the best goat stew the country had to offer. The narrow roads, the trees and shrubs, and the anticipation – all was simmering in the cupboards of my mind.

Finally, we break out of the green tunnel, and there it was, the infamous crab house. The crowd was light, the parking plentiful. The old building sat right on the Bay, and as we jumped out of the SUV, the whiff of the Bay stormed into our nostrils.

Smothered in Old Bay seasoning, a dozen fresh blue crabs were strewn out in front of us. No plates, and only the absolutely necessary silverware. A large sheet of brown paper to cover the table and on go the crabs.

Grab the crab, and first tear open the lid to dive into the tamales. A spoon might be necessary here. The green mixture tastes of the ocean floor, of minerals and sea salt. The innards hone the absolute essence of the grab, all in one. As they spread onto your tongue, the sweetness and slight bitterness combines perfectly. Earthy.

Grab the claws, grab the mallet, and pound away, but not too savagely. You mustn’t destroy the tender claw meat. A dash of melted butter maybe? Don’t go too heavy on the cocktail sauce or the malt vinegar. As for me, the natural sweetness of the claws are heavenly as a solo act, untouched by man-made condiments.

The leg and body meat come last, and the seasoning has penetrated perfectly. Through late August and September, the Chesapeake crabs are plump and flavorful, and quite filling.

Walk out a content man. Plentiful crab and Diet Coke packed chaotically in my belly, the Old Bay scent permanently etched into my fingertips, the ever so slight residue of butter on the corners of my mouth – oh the satisfaction.

We drive out, bidding farewell to Cantler’s, already gazing towards next season’s catch.

Scene One: Melt-In-Your-Mouth Spicy Beef and Tendon

When you think of Annandale, VA, you think Korean food. The usual suspects of various grill joints, tofu houses, bakeries and grill joints next to bakeries. Then the occasional Japanese establishments and Peruvian chicken gigs (which, by the way, is a taste of heaven, especially in Annandale).

Just the thought of coming face to face with authentic Chinese noodle soups…not the kind you find in shopping mall food courts, but the real deal with local feel. The rule of thumb is, go where the locals go. The Korean grill joint where Koreans flock to, must be something there. The pho house that the Vietnamese gather in, must be doing something right. That’s the case at A & J in Annandale.

My first time around, I tried the peanutty Dian Dian Mein, surprisingly think and spicy (both good things), and the fried chicken noodle soup (perfectly seasoned and fried). But I had my eye on a dish in particular, the spicy beef and tendon noodle soup, Szechuan style. So began my blissful eating.

First, the aroma. It was deep, and I could feel the spices emanating from the broth. Kind of reminiscent of five-spice, but much more complex, even a hint of herbal medicine. I first taste the reddish-brown broth, and that aroma hits my senses in liquid form. Not too oily, but deep in flavor, with all that spice and beefy goodness. The sheer amount of beef and tendons was ridiculous (generosity in portions is a must for me in restaurants). The beef had the perfect fat content to allow it to melt in my mouth, and the tendon was perfectly cooked. The wide noodles matched well with the overall thick flavor.

If you’re into the best parts of meat, like innards and tendons, this is a must.

Scene Two: Jjambbong is the Name

Not many have heard of the place. Even the local Koreans are not familiar with it. Inside the quaint food court area of the Lotte Mart in Fairfax, VA, there exists the best Korean-Chinese joint in town, Tian. Most of the Korean-Chinese places are in Annandale or Centreville (like everything else), but most of those joints are overrated. I’ve been a usual at Tian since my law school days, and in particular, I’m a sucker for their jjambbong.

What, you say, is that name again? If there is pho in Vietnam, there is jjambbong in Korea. Friends, if you’re like me and have a constant craving for hot soups full of noodles, meat, and seafood, give this a try. The broth can either be seafood or beef based, and if you don’t mind the heat, it is bold and rich in flavor. Not to mention the heaping mounts of mussels, clam and squid, partnered with cabbage and other veggies.

It has a strong aroma, a kick from the dried peppers and jalapenos. The broth has a deep flavor of the sea from the mussels and clams. The noodles are silky and perfectly cooked. The meal truly warms your innards on a cold day, and nostalgia takes you away to the port towns of the southern Korean shoreline.

This little-known Korean delicacy is a true contender amongst the world of noodle soups.

Scene Three: Oh What More to Say

For those of you who have frequented this blog, I have nothing further to say about pho. Or do I.

It’s something about the fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime that gets me every time. Yes, the beef broth that has simmered for twenty hours is surely divine, and the morsels of meat, tripe and tendon are indescribable. But pho is distinct in this trilogy for its interplay between slow and fast, stewed and fresh. The lively herbiness enhances its flavor triple-fold.

And no, not all pho joints are created equal. In the DC area, I still think Pho 75 is king. But Viet House in Fairfax, VA, is legit. The broth has a deeper flavor, the brisket is soft and has the right fat content, and they are not shy to mount heaps of tripe and tendon, which is what makes a good bowl of pho, great.

‘Twas the end of a perfect road trip with my wife, pounding blue crabs in Annapolis, and what a perfect way to commemorate the weekend. A cold glass of iced coffee with sweet condensed milk, the fresh bean sprouts lightly withering in the steaming broth, the company of my beautiful lady – oh the joys of life.

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Epilogue

I am proud to say that I had the delightful luxury of consuming the Mein Trilogy in the span of two days. There exists many more gastronomical mysteries yet to be discovered in the noodle soup category, and I am destined to search further and deeper. Join me in this calling.

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