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Bangkok 54, South Arlington


MelGold
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Am going to Bangkok 54 in Arlington this weekend for dinner. I read the review from The Post which was a rave...wondering if anyone else had been in and had any suggestions on dishes not to be missed. Thanks!

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Bangkok 54 has, to my mind, quickly eclipsed all of the other Thai restaurants in the DC area and is serving mostly Lotus of Siam-caliber food in a more stylish setting. The service can use some work, as dishes often come out of the kitchen at random times (i.e., mains nearly on top of appetizers, etc.) and it's often difficult to get a server's attention once you've ordered. But if you focus just on the food, you're likely to have great meal.

In terms of specific dishes, for appetizers I recommend the larb, which is both moister and more flavorful than any other I've encountered in the area. The roasted duck salad is also excellent, but has many of the same flavors as the larb, so it probably doesn't make sense to order both. If they are still serving the "house special roll" on the specials menu, I would order one (or more) of those. This is similar to a peking duck roll, except the thin pancake is replaced with a warm, freshly made piece of roti bread.

For main courses, I would definitely do one of the "54 Special" basil stir fries -- either the pork belly, roasted duck, or squid. I prefer the pork belly, but make sure that they understand that you really want the fatty part. All of the curries that I've tried have been excellent, as well. My favorite is the roasted duck curry, but the red and green curries are also very good. They also have a unique yellow curry that is more Indian than Thai; it's an excellent dish but maybe doesn't fit into a meal as well as the others. The shrimp with sator beans is the real standout, even better than the version served at Rabieng in Falls Church. This bean has a very unique taste and texture, almost a cross between a fava bean and a pea, with a very bitter flavor. If you haven't tried them before, it might be better saved for a second trip.

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Tom's Post review was deservedly a rave. (When was the last time Tom got it wrong? He got out in the burbs to tout Minh's, Singh Thai and now this. I know, subject for another thread) Great atmosphere plus a kitchen turning out very flavorful dishes--I'd add to Greg's assessment: I wouldn't order both the pork belly and the crispy duck in one sitting--it's essentially the same treatment--order one or the other but I think of the two the pork belly is the more vital dish, gloriously fatty yet crisp. I've had the duck come out too crisp (overdone, dry) too often but the pork belly comes out perfect 9 times out of ten. I've said on other threads that this place is offering the most engaging cooking, top to bottom, right now in any ethnic genre in all of northern Virginia. (I know that upsets Thai Square loyalists like Don! My apologies Don. But then I've also thought Minh's has outperformed Four Sisters since the day it opened, so call me crazy.) What I do hope is Bangkok 54 can keep it up and not devolve. They do a very diligent job with takeout, at least 50% of the line is open and visibly clean and there's a nice little parking lot in the back.

The servers are stressed sometimes like Greg said, on busy nights or in prime time there are too few servers to ferry plates and Singha to the tables, so we don't go here when it is busy--but they do at least care, and when the cute owner is there she runs around the dining room pitching in, pouring water, asking how everything was, etc. For me the minor errors here are mere blips that don't even register on my radar given the gentle pricing and the extremely interesting dishes, at least so far they haven't dumbed stuff down.

Not knowing your level of expertise or appreciation or your familiarity with the food I'd be hard pressed to recommend dishes--beyond the pork belly. This is a "don't miss restaurant" rather than a collection of a few "don't miss dishes" which stand out from a lot of mediocre ones. I've had all the dishes Greg recommended (we eat here once a week) and loved them, but from one person to the next "unique" is not necessarily going to come across as "good." Most dishes here will probably seem a little bit better, a little bit more interesting, than the comparable dish from other very good Thai places you've been--so your mileage is gonna vary.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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(I know that upsets Thai Square loyalists like Don!  My apologies Don.  But then I've also thought Minh's has outperformed Four Sisters since the day it opened, so call me crazy.)

Sleep comfortably knowing that I'm happy there's another option, yeah Siam.

Blisters for Four Sisters

I've never been a fan

of their western fair,

and have always preferred Minh's,

so there!

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Stopped by Bangkok 54 for lunch today and it turned out that a full 25 percent of the clientele were eGulleteers. The house special roll, with the crispy duck in roti, was great, as was the pork belly stir fry, which is listed on the lunch specials menu as "crispy pork." On the way out, we stopped in to the next-door Thai market to buy sticky rice. They've got a lot of good stuff. Pork bellies, ducklings, head-on feet-on chickens and loads of exotic frozen fish. Also something entirely new to me -- frozen Mang Da Na, three-inch water skimmer insects. I am too squeamish to be able to give you a tasting report on those, but this guy will.

"Mine goes off like a rocket." -- Tom Sietsema, Washington Post, Feb. 16.

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Stopped by Bangkok 54 for lunch today and it turned out that a full 25 percent of the clientele were eGulleteers. The house special roll, with the crispy duck in roti, was great, as was the pork belly stir fry, which is listed on the lunch specials menu as "crispy pork."

Crispy pork was indeed very crispy, and I must say their presentation of dishes is more ambitious than your usual ethnic hole-in-da-wall. Said house special roll, as I recall, was arranged in stacked cylindrical shapes, and surrounded by fanned green onion sprigs. It looked tasty, too. As to desserts, well, I never knew there were so many ways to mash a bean. Adorable wee strawberries and persimmons fashioned out of paste could have easily fooled me.

In other news, I think the percentage above was closer to 50% :cool: .

Edited by Nadya (log)

Resident Twizzlebum

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"I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awakened Edward Hyde.” These words by Robert Louis Stevenson reflect the most recent meals I had at El Pueblo and Straits of Malaya (Straits on a Sunday), two particularly cruel examples of how it’s possible for a restaurant to seemingly fall off a cliff overnight.

Dinner at Bangkok 54 was the most disappointing meal I’ve had in weeks if not months, because given all the recent raves about it by people I have confidence in, it never once occurred to me that it would be anything short of great.

The first thing I noticed about Bangkok 54 was how many non-Asians were dining there. When I got up midway through the meal and took a lap around the dining room, I counted 18 tables with customers, and 15 out of the 18 did not have a single Asian diner. That alone is enough to sound alarm bells clanging, but in this case it could perhaps be fallout from the recent Washington Post review.

Service was haphazard and seemingly random: our server was friendly, but twice during the meal she took so long to respond that I needed to flag her down. At one point I had to ask the woman pouring water to fill a request made ten minutes beforehand because I couldn’t find the server. Out of three entrees ordered, the first two came out together from the kitchen, and the third did not appear for a good five minutes afterward.

The Green Papaya Salad was the highlight of the meal by a good margin, and was the only dish of the evening worth finishing. It had backbone and character, and is worth a repeat visit or a carryout order for this alone.

But contrast that with the Yum Pla Duk Fu salad, which was unsauced shredded lettuce, plain unchopped peanuts, slices of unseasoned raw onion, and something that was supposed to be “fried fish,” but tasted more like fried dryer lint, or perhaps more accurately, fried nothing, as there was seemingly nothing there except the shreds of fried fry. The texture and flavor was slightly mitigated when an accompanying bowl of sauce was spooned atop, but the dish was simply inedible by anyone not engaged in masochism. They apparently don’t offer this dish on their delivery menu because they say it doesn’t transport well, but the fried fish strands arrived very close to room temperature anyway. The Yum Pla Duk Fu was dismissed as an aberration, but as I was soon to discover, the warning had just been sounded.

How can anyone mess up a Green Curry Jae, which is described as “Fried tofu, Thai eggplant, mixed vegetables and sweet basil in a green coconut-curry sauce?” Not only was the sauce sugared down, but the vegetables were bland and lifeless, the wedges of tofu were lukewarm, and the entire dish had a feeling of being “assembled” at the last minute rather than having any depth or persistence.

And yet the Shrimp Potpourri - shrimp, cellophane noodles with special house sauce served in a clay pot – was just as bad, the “special house sauce” tasting like watered-down fish sauce with sugar in it, and the “clay pot” being a cheap service vessel rather than anything adding to the dish. The shrimp themselves tasted like the frozen shrimp you buy at Whole Foods by-the-scoop, overcooked in a water-based medium so they were tough and bland, and added at the last minute - there was no integration with the rest of the dish.

But the worst plate of the evening was the special Five Spices Stewed Duck, which remains the most disastrous duck dish I have had in recent times, the half-duck served at room temperature and chopped up atop yet another sugared-down, watery, thin broth. Literally two bites of this expensive special were eaten, and the rest was left because it was simply not enjoyable, the duck being cold, soggy and uninteresting, and the sauce being westernized to the point of condescension. At the end of the meal, two different servers came up and could not understand why I didn’t want to take the dish home.

I cannot reconcile the glowing reviews of people with my own experience. To put this in perspective, I’ve now had only one meal at Bangkok 54, and perhaps twenty meals (between dine-in and take-out) at Thai Square down the street. Though Thai Square hasn’t had a 100%-success rate, I have never had anything there that was as bad as the four worst things I had at Bangkok 54.

An off night? Perhaps so, but there would have to be some pretty fundamental changes that transpired before this food could even be considered merely good.

I wanted to love it,

Rocks.

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Dinner at Bangkok 54 was the most disappointing meal I’ve had in weeks if not months, because given all the recent raves about it by people I have confidence in, it never once occurred to me that it would be anything short of great.

I wanted to love it,

Rocks.

I agree wholeheartedly; I was there with Don to taste and witness all of this, and he's absolutely right. I'll admit to having had high expectations of the place after a glowing review (three stars) from Tom and all the revering in this thread, but even without that good press, it was an extremely disappointing meal.

I promise you, I am a forgiving diner who tends to be quietly critical. But I couldn't even eat that duck, soaking in a that watery, sodium-laden sauce. And the crispy fish in the Yum Pla Duk Fu, didn't exist. It was like eating fried fiber, dryer lint from a fisherman's sweats (and this is just the beginning of my criticism). I don't need to compare this meal to some I've had at Minh's or Thai Square. I only know what I know about Saturday's meal, and it was the worst I have had in sometime. Maybe the place is overrun after the Post Magazine's review. I just don't know...

...

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Just goes to show you restaurants are fragile constructs Don--you didn't say when you were there--was this in prime time on a busy weekend night or on an off night? Since Tom's review I've tried only to eat there when I know it's going to be a little slow, mostly early weekday evenings. So far, I've only had two of the dishes you chose--agree on both actually--always love the papaya and did order the odd Yum Pla Duk Fu once--I, too, didn't get the crunchy fried fish aspect of that salad--I figured it was something culturally I just didn't understand and chalked up the 5.95 as an ignorant-on-my-part experiment I wouldn't repeat. It was flawlessly fried, though. I've had a decade's old rule against ordering "Five spice anything" anywhere, and I thank you for reaffirming my doubt. As far as the percentage of Asians amongst the diners, the same curious thing happened with Minh's in Arlington, Tom gave them a very good review and yet it took about a year for more Viet diners to show up in the mix--and yet the intriguing cooking didn't change in that time. (It's as if the ethinc clientele stayed away until Chi proved she wasn't going to Americanize their stuff and was in it for the long haul.)

Did you tell them how dissatisfied you were with everything?

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I was obviously disappointed that DonRocks disliked what has become one of my favorite restaurants. And I’m sorry that he and morela had an unenjoyable meal there last weekend. But I think if we take a detailed look through their experience, we can reconcile the discordant notes being sounded about this restaurant and all learn something and make future experiences better.

[Don’s post initially raises a universal issue that I’ve started a new General Topic about: whether the proportion of “ethnic” diners in an “ethnic” restaurant can or should be viewed as a signal of that restaurant’s quality. My thoughts on this issue appear there, but I do wonder how much this snap judgment impacted the rest of the experience.]

Bangkok 54 serves a lot of uncompromising Thai food. Unusual dishes like shrimp with sator beans and yum pla duk fu (Don’s failed fried catfish salad) that impostor Thai restaurants would never even dream of putting on the menu. Spicy dishes that are actually pungent and spicy, that reflect the balance of hot-sour-salty-sweet that defines Thai cooking.

My happiest moment ever at this place was when I noticed that, after the positive Sietsema review, Bangkok 54 had added a written disclaimer to the bottom of its menu: “Please order with care.” This sentence spoke volumes to me: “people are sending food back because they don’t like it. Rather than giving in and dumbing down these dishes, we are not going to change our food, and if you don’t like it, tough.”

But any restaurant also has to stay in business. And that means serving food that appeals to a broader constituency. This strikes me as particularly true for Bangkok 54, which suggests a much greater investment (nicer décor, open kitchen, etc.) than the typical hole-in-the-wall. In my experience, most Thai and other ethnic restaurants confront this conundrum by “dumbing down” traditional food.

Bangkok 54 responds differently, and to my mind, in a superior way, by offering excellent Thai food along with a spate of more generic dishes that I suspect are aimed at those who typically prefer “dumbed down” Thai food. These dishes don’t suggest that they aspire to the heights Thai cooking can achieve. And it doesn’t surprise me to hear that they don’t reach them either.

DonRocks and morela ordered a strange amalgam of both, and I think that’s why they didn’t have the best experience.

I agree with Don on the green papaya salad, and I agree with Don on the service issues (which I think everyone who’s said anything about this place since the Post review has noted), so I won’t dwell on these.

The only other “uncompromising Thai” dish that I see in Don and morela’s order is the catfish salad. I’m not sure what they expected when they ordered this dish, and I wasn’t there to taste what they got, so I can’t rule out the possibility of a bad batch on an off night. But having tried this dish a couple of times at Bangkok 54, and countless times elsewhere, I don’t think the problem was in the kitchen.

Many, if not most, Thai salads have raw onion and whole nuts in them. Most are served at room temperature. And this isn’t supposed to be chunks of deep fried fish like you might get at a southern fish fry. The fish is minced before it is deep-fried and is supposed to produce a light, airy texture. Not convinced? Here is Varmint's picture of the same dish from the well-regarded Sripriphai in New York:

gallery_137_325_1099574924.jpg

Again, no chunks of fish to be found. In fact, I cannot think of a better way to describe what, in my experience, the fried catfish salad is supposed to be like than Don’s own words: “shreds of fried fry.” I don’t mean to fault Don and morela for ordering this, or for not liking it (even Steve Klc falls into that camp). I know from reading eGullet that Don and morela have good palates. I have no doubt that their criticisms are well-taken. But I think they are properly directed at the dish itself and not Bangkok 54’s preparation of it.

Again, maybe this is an issue where the service needs to adjust to the level of the cooking and make sure people better understand what they’re getting when they order it. But I don’t think it’s fair to criticize a restaurant for serving what sounds like a textbook version of a traditional dish that you just don’t like.

As far as the entrees go, I’m curious as to how Don and morela came to order items such as the five spices roasted duck and the shrimp potpourri. There’s nothing in the menu descriptions that has ever tempted me to give these dishes even a passing thought. They don’t even sound like Thai food, let alone good Thai food. And if, as I suspect, Bangkok 54 puts these dishes on the menu to appease those that they perceive (wrongly in this case, as my PM discussions with Don have shown) as not being interested in Thai food, then there also is little incentive for them to try to produce good versions of these dishes, whatever their origins.

Bob Halliday, the former food critic for the Bangkok Post, put it this way, “Thai food is about balance: the harmony of harsh and pungent ingredients with a myriad of spices. The ‘Rot Chart,’ meaning the proper or appropriate taste, comes from a great understanding of these ingredients and the methods used to bring them to life. It's a high wire act; the bitter, sour, hot, salty and sweet are all interwoven into an exquisitely complex cuisine.”

If Thai food is a high wire act, then five spices roasted duck and shrimp with special sauce are not even in the same tent. I’m fully convinced that Don and morela would have had a better experience if they would have ordered some of the specific dishes that I recommended or, at a minimum, those that at least suggest a stronger relationship to traditional Thai food.

Yes, Bangkok 54 does put these dishes on the menu and, yes, it does charge money for you to eat them, so it is fair game for them to be judged on them. But I also think we should aspire to see restaurants at their best rather than at their worst when passing judgment. And I remain convinced that Bangkok 54’s best is something very special.

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I think Greg's posting should be regarded as a model of intelligent, measured discourse and respectful, thought-provoking dissent.

Just a couple of comments:

Don’s post initially raises a universal issue that I’ve started a new General Topic about: whether the proportion of “ethnic” diners in an “ethnic” restaurant can or should be viewed as a signal of that restaurant’s quality. My thoughts on this issue appear there, but I do wonder how much this snap judgment impacted the rest of the experience.

It wasn't a "snap judgment" so much as an observation. The link to Greg's interesting posting is here, and it's a thread worth reading. I happen to disagree with his premise, and certainly the conclusion in the final sentence, but in no way does that mean it isn't a valid or serious viewpoint.

This strikes me as particularly true for Bangkok 54, which suggests a much greater investment (nicer décor, open kitchen, etc.) than the typical hole-in-the-wall.

It's actually not an open kitchen, at least not for the hot dishes. I remember craning my neck on the way out, trying to look through the glass windows of the kitchen doors, wishing I could sneak back and take a walk through, and wondering if I'd find other things similar to the large can of Dole pineapple that was sitting on a shelf where they make the desserts.

DonRocks and morela ordered a strange amalgam of both, and I think that’s why they didn’t have the best experience.

It was indeed a strange amalgam, but when you dine at restaurants several hundred times a year, and you're testing one for the very first time, you sometimes come up with odd cross-sections of dishes, in this case, two apps, three entrees, two vegetarian dishes, two seafood dishes, one meat dish, one cold dish, one mixed dish, three hot dishes. It isn't so much a search for a balanced meal as it is seeing what the kitchen can do with various different plates. This type of motley assortment doesn't always make for the best dining experience, especially at a restaurant such as this, but it can provide a good idea of a kitchen's strengths and weaknesses on a given evening.

Again, no chunks of fish to be found. In fact, I cannot think of a better way to describe what, in my experience, the fried catfish salad is supposed to be like than Don’s own words: “shreds of fried fry.” I don’t mean to fault Don and morela for ordering this, or for not liking it (even Steve Klc falls into that camp). I know from reading eGullet that Don and morela have good palates. I have no doubt that their criticisms are well-taken. But I think they are properly directed at the dish itself and not Bangkok 54’s preparation of it.

Your point is well-taken, but given that they don't deliver this dish because it doesn't transport well, I assume that the fried fish is supposed to be placed atop the salad immediately after being fried, and then rushed to the table while still hot. It arrived barely above room temperature, which perhaps alludes more to the service problems rather than the actual execution. Still, I have never before tried Yum Pla Duk Fu, and have no experience to draw on when it comes to this particular dish.

As far as the entrees go, I’m curious as to how Don and morela came to order items such as the five spices roasted duck and the shrimp potpourri. There’s nothing in the menu descriptions that has ever tempted me to give these dishes even a passing thought. They don’t even sound like Thai food, let alone good Thai food.

The Shrimp Potpourri is listed as one of eleven dishes under "54's Recommendations," which includes the Sator Shrimp you discussed. It is described on the menu as "Shrimp, cellophane noodles with special house sauce served in a clay pot." I have eaten what is virtually the same dish at Thai Square several times, called "Potpourri Shrimp With Bean Threads," and described on their menu as "Giant shrimp, bean threads, shiitake mushrooms cooked to order with special sauce in a clay pot."

As for the Five Spices Stewed Duck, it was listed as a special that evening, but one of the eleven dishes in the "54's Recommendations" section is "Five Spices Stewed Pork," which is described exactly the same way as the duck, and I knew that the saucing would be identical. They also list a "54's Spicy Roasted Duck" in that same section on the regular menu, and so I was under the impression that the duck would be a reasonable substitute for the pork, which in turn could be compared with Thai Square's Pig Knuckles Stew.

You didn't mention the Green Curry Jae, which is a standard Thai dish of vegetables in green curry sauce (with tofu). This was ordered to compare with Thai Square's Green Curry With Assorted Vegetables which I've had numerous times in the past.

And so you have the method behind the amalgam: all dishes were chosen carefully and thoughtfully, not necessarily to create the ultimate "high wire act" dining experience you mentioned in your fine posting, but to see what this kitchen is capable of in different types of preparations, to compare it with well-known comparable dishes down the street at Thai Square, and to provide a mixture of traditional Thai standards and dishes the menu advertises as recommendations.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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Hrm. I stopped by Bangkok 54 Saturday for lunch, mostly as a lark, because I was hungover, tired, cranky, and wanted something spicy. I could not have been happier with my decision.

To start, my SO and I shared larb (we were hungover, duh) and fried shrimp cakes. Both were delectable, with the larb standing out as one of the better exemplars of the species in the area. The much-touted balance of hot, sour, salty, sweet was perfectly executed in this dish, and, though larb is never bad, I was thrilled to a version so good. The shrimp cakes, similarly, were perfectly done, and were a thrill to look at to boot.

For an entree, my girlfriend stuck with ... Pad Prik Pow? Pork, chile, green beans. At any rate, it was wonderfully seasoned, despite the green beans needing just a touch more cooking. My pork belly with basil and chile, however, was to die for, and might rank among the best experiences I've ever had in a Thai restaurant. The taste and texture of the meat --here crispy fried, here soft and gelatinous, here shredded and giving and throughout salty and perfumed with basil-- was simply divine.

In short, I liked it. Whether the service and cooking suffer during busy periods I could not say, but the service was quite attentive and helpful during Saturday lunch, and the cooking, save for the green beans, couldn't be faulted.

A jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place.

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Battling extreme cabin fever, me, the missus and the 12-day-old loaded up the wagon and headed over to Bangkok 54 for lunch on the theory that the clientele would be pretty sparse on a snowy Monday, thus minimizing the probability of someone sneezing all over the car seat and its cargo. Plus, it seemed like a good day to bring a little heat.

I thought the food was very good, again, though I couldn't resist going, again, for the chili-basil pork belly which has already been praised here. A great dish and, if you eat all the chilis mixed in, a solid kick in the goolies. My wife had the soft noodles with Chinese broccoli and egg and liked it; we shall have to see how the broccoli/spice combo is received on the secondary market, though. :wink: I also found room for a side of salt and pepper calamari, which I thought was exemplary. The squid is thick, meaty and tender and the coating crackling crisp without any hint of oiliness. Never got to the yum pla duk fuk, so I'm staying out of that particular argument. Not a bad restaurant debut for the little guy, either, who slept through the entire proceeding.

"Mine goes off like a rocket." -- Tom Sietsema, Washington Post, Feb. 16.

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  • 2 months later...
  • 7 months later...

In concept I like pork belly. It's where bacon comes from.

But I've had one too many unctuous, braised with root vegetables, too rich versions at "hatue" places.

But - Crispy pork belly with chili basil. My go-to dish at any Thai restaurant is chicken or beef kaprow. I love the heat and the garlic and everythng that you can love about Thai flavors. So I gave this a try, but I went so far as to order a second entree of Drunken Noodles just in case the pork belly was the flabby version I've had before.

But the meat proved itself to be the perfect counterpoint to the spice of the sauce. And the sauce iwas the perfect counterpoint to the rich meat. It helps cut the rich texture of the pork fat where most preparations only serve to make the mouth feel more oppressive.

I've been fortunate enough to have eaten at dozens of great restaurants here and around the country over the last eleven months. I've spent a lot of money and had too many expensive ingredients to count.

But this $9.95 dish from a store front restaurant on Columbia Pike turned out a top contender for my "Top dishes of 2005" list.

And it restored my faith in pork belly.

Bill Russell

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