Montgomery County Restaurants that Snap, Crackle, and Pop!

Every now and again an advertising slogan takes hold and lingers there for decades. We Try Harder. A Diamond Is Forever. Can You Hear Me Now?

And then there is Snap! Crackle! Pop! featuring three cartoon characters who promote Rice Krispies. I am reflecting on Montgomery County’s recent increase in independent, casual restaurants when the catchphrase comes to mind. You drop destination-worthy sushi, noodle soup, lechon belly, and baked goods into a sea of chain restaurants and you get an audible reaction.

Kenaki Sushi Counter, Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles, Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly, Sunday Morning Bakehouse

These are a few of my very favorite Montgomery County restaurants. 
They’re G-r-r-r-r-eat!

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Kenaki Sushi Counter, Gaithersburg

A brother and sister team up as chef and manager, serving up sushi in Kentlands Market Square that rivals the best in the area. Ken and Aki Ballogdajan combine their names and their skills at Kenaki Sushi Counter. Ken served as executive sous chef at Raku for many years, while Aki has a tech background.

Kenaki Sushi Counter is a casual restaurant, particularly at lunch when you order at the counter. If you seek variety, dive into a bento box. It’s a mix-and-match treasure chest with tempura, sashimi, grilled salmon, or steak accompanied by sushi rolls, miso soup and salad. 

Or you can get serious with sushi. Nigiri and sashimi shine bright with fresh ingredients and an attention to detail. But what truly makes this restaurant a sushi magnet are Makimono Signature rolls. These are thoughtful and distinctive creations that elicit declarations of delight.

Expect the unexpected. Truffle oil accents spicy tuna, pickled jalapeno, avocado and crispy leeks in the mesmerizing Black Magic roll. Japanese Bagel is everything, with its dreamy mash-up of smoked salmon, cream cheese, shiso, red onion, chive, cucumber, and house furikake. I can’t resist a roll that teems with textural interest, which is why I’m a fan of White Tiger. Granny Smith apple and puffed rice bring the crunch to a roaring combination of seared scallop, salmon and eel.

Rolls at Kenaki Sushi Counter
Rolls at Kenaki Sushi Counter

Kenaki Sushi Counter transforms into an alluring full-service restaurant at dinner. The menu broadens with a selection of hot and cold small plates including salmon crudo and agedashi tofu.  Or, Think Different and try tuna tataki pizza where miso garlic puree meets mozzarella cheese.  Mmm, mmm good!

Kenaki Sushi Counter
Kenaki Sushi Counter

Kenaki Sushi Counter, 706 Center Point Way, Gaithersburg, Maryland

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Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles, Gaithersburg

Washington Post writer Tim Carman, with his focus on affordable and under-the-radar restaurants, has steered me to many of my favorite dining destinations in Montgomery County. In November he wrote about Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles at Rio in Gaithersburg and forever transformed my lunchtime routine. While restaurants are my thing, I don’t often venture out of my office at lunchtime, instead opting for a salad at my desk (except for the occasional trip to Kenaki Sushi).  But Lanzhou is 5 minutes away, and now when the temptation arises, I can indulge in a bowl of fragrant noodle soup that has the power to move me to tears. The tears may or may not be in direct proportion to the amount of chili sauce I spoon into my soup. Have it your way is the plan here.

Enter the restaurant and behold the sight of two chefs making noodles. One is focused on knife-cut noodles, the other on hand-pulled. Find yourself a dining companion who doesn’t mind over-ordering and try both. For the full experience, order pork and chive dumplings infused with jellied pork stock. 

Where’s the Beef?  It’s deeply ingrained in soups that combine an intoxicating beef broth with shreds of tender beef, beef tendon, beef brisket, or some combination thereof. 

Whether they are gracing beef, chicken, seafood or roast duck, the noodles in the soup at Lanzhou are delightfully slick and chewy. I have yet to find a graceful way to eat long strands of noodles, so I’ve learned to just lean into the mess. It’s soup- Just Do It.

Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles soup with roast duck
Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles soup with roast duck

Lanzhou also offers stir-fried noodles that you can top with chicken or tofu. It’s an option well worth exploring, but I like it as a companion to the stellar soup. Because the soup at Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles…It’s good to the last drop.

Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles beef noodles stir fried, chicken noodle soup, chive pork dumplings
Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles beef noodles stir fried, chicken noodle soup, chive pork dumplings

Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodles, 3 Grand Corner Avenue, Gaithersburg, Maryland

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Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly, Rockville

Lodged in a small strip center off Nicholson Lane in Rockville, is a fast-casual restaurant with electrifying Filipino food that is making waves throughout the DMV and beyond.

Chef/Owner Javier J. Fernandez specializes in lechon, which is the Filipino version of roasted pork belly. And while I typically stay away from pork belly for a variety of reasons, I can’t ignore it here. And not just because it’s featured in the name of the restaurant.

Chef Ja is from the island of Cebu in the Philippines, and he is proud to cook his lechon in the style made famous there. The pig is marinated and slow-roasted, stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, and herbs. The result is golden skin that is sweet as candy. When you cut into the lechon, it crackles with a ferocity that leaves you breathless. Can you hear me now? (Yes!)

Kuya Ja Lechon Belly
Kuya Ja Lechon Belly

The meat is juicy and tender, and don’t even try to avoid the fat. A sign behind the counter must be heeded:

Lechon Belly = Pork Belly.
Pork Belly = Fat
Fat = Flavor
If you don’t like fat, don’t order Lechon Belly.

Kuya Ja isn’t just about the lechon. I recently made a splendid meal out of confit-fried chicken wings with spiced adobo glaze and Papa B’s Fried Rice, which is a wickedly good mix of sweet pork longanisa sausage, chicken, snowpeas, carrots, and cumin crab fat butter.

Kuya Ja Papa B's Fried Rice
Kuya Ja Papa B’s Fried Rice

Chef Ja trained locally at L’Academie de Cuisine and while he spent time devoted to classic French cooking, he reflects a growing trend of chefs who shift focus to cook the food they grew up eating. He keeps the menu at Kuya Ja relatively narrow so he can pay attention to the details.  “Take no shortcuts” is his catchphrase. Mine after departing his restaurant is… I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.

Brother and sister teams are clearly a thing now. Desserts at Kuya Ja come from Gwenie’s Pastries which was started by Chef Ja’s mother, Gwendolyn Fernandez, and is now run by his sister, Stella. Look for desserts featuring ingredients like pandan, which is a leaf found in Southeast Asia, or purple yams known as ube. They find their way into delicately flavored- and not too sweet- cakes, pies, cheesecakes, and cookies in rich tones of purple and green. A refreshing conclusion to a meal here is a lime green cold and creamy dessert called buko randan. Shredded coconut lends texture to cubes of pandan jello, cream and condensed milk. I’m Lovin’ It.

Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly, 5268-H Nicholson Lane, Rockville, Maryland

  ——————-

Sunday Morning Bakehouse, North Bethesda

It’s a Saturday morning and Sunday Morning Bakehouse is bustling. This is one of the newest additions to the ever-expanding Pike & Rose development in North Bethesda. The charming, light-filled coffee house feature an assortment of baked goods that shimmer through their glass-enclosed perches and beg to be explored.

Sunday Morning Bakehouse owner Caroline Yi grew up in Montgomery County, and until recently sold her baked goods at local farmer’s markets. Now she has brought her weekend-only treats to a spot where we can enjoy them daily. Follow @SundayMorningBakehouse on Instagram and you will be tempted to hop in your car and make a beeline for whatever is pictured. 

Could this be the best breakfast sandwich in town? I can’t think of anything that can rival this smoked salmon on a toasted, ultra-crunchy croissant, with soft scrambled eggs, chopped scallions and capers.

It’s nearly impossible to resist the sweets on display, so why try? Indulge in a light and fluffy cinnamon and sugar donut or a perfect rendition of kouign amann filled with blueberries. Because you’re worth it.

Sunday Morning Bakehouse has a catchphrase affixed to the wall Like these slogans, I hope it staying power. staying power it deserves

Affixed to a back wall of the restaurant are the words Lust is Saturday night; Love is Sunday morning. It’s not a saying that was created for the restaurant, but it is a perfect fit. May it join the ranks of other crowd-pleasing slogans and bring Sunday Morning Bakehouse long-lasting success.

Sunday Morning Bakehouse interior
Sunday Morning Bakehouse interior

Sunday Morning Bakehouse, 11869 Grand Park Ave, North Bethesda, Maryland

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