Anju, Ghostburger, Yellow the Cafe: Let There Be Light!

It’s getting darker earlier. It’s colder outside. Restaurant owners are understandably anxious about how they will survive the winter.  Optimism and action in these pandemic times is essential.

These past weeks I have filled much of my spare time lying prostrate on the couch, engrossed in CNN, MSNBC, and television shows that I consider anti-anxiety remedies. This includes doses of the vapid “Selling Sunset” on Netflix and the soapy yet engrossing “A Place to Call Home” on Acorn Television.  I have also continued to passionately pursue my year-round pastime – contemplating where to eat and patronizing area restaurants.

Chefs and restaurateurs are pulling out all the stops by employing creative means to entice customers. Just as I start to feel comfortable with patio dining, however, the weather will play a role in how often this is feasible. A return to carryout is inevitable. The good news is that fabulous food is being prepared in restaurant kitchens all across town. Where you consume it is not important right now. Everyone wins when you support restaurants however possible.

Here are a few of my recent favorites for your consideration.

Anju

Every now and then a dish captivates me to the point of obsession. Goguma French Toast at Anju is a clear contender. I gaze at its image on my phone, conjuring up the unique flavors and textures that the masterful Chef Angel Barreto has crafted into this playful brunch offering. Two slices of bread are stuffed with whipped Korean sweet potatoes and cream cheese, topped with crispy thin shreds of fried sweet potatoes, sweetened with a side of marshmallow fluff, and as a finishing touch, topped with fresh fruit.

Albi Goguma French Toast

Anju Goguma French Toast

I am a superfan of Anju, the Korean restaurant from chefs Danny Lee and Scott Drewno and their partner Drew Kim. My pre-pandemic visits were frequent. Back in April, once I realize that takeout during COVID isn’t terrifying or dangerous, I race over to pick up my favorite dishes to enjoy at home.

I’m not alone in my adoration of this restaurant with dishes featuring traditional Korean ingredients and take flight from there. It earns the number one spot on Washingtonian’s 2020 “100 Very Best Restaurants in Washington.” Anju continues to gain acclaim, including the naming of Executive Chef Barreto as Rising Culinary Star of the Year at the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington RAMMY Awards held in September. I visit Anju for brunch twice within a month and am ready to sign up for a return.

Fried chicken sandwiches have been creating a frenzy for some time. Anju’s gargantuan, crisp and juicy, spicy and sweet version is one of the best around. It’s a lot to sink your teeth into, but don’t let that dissuade you.

 

Anju Chicken Sandwich

Anju Chicken Sandwich

If it’s comfort food you seek, a brunch special of steaming Kkotgetang stew swimming with Maryland crab, radish, napa cabbage, onions, and seaweed may be just the thing to calm your nerves. Raboki is a new dish on the brunch menu. The popular Korean street food is a whopping bowl of ramen noodles, chewy rice cakes, fish cakes, and vegetables in a fiery, lip smacking broth. I’m lured back to Anju for French toast, but now it’s Raboki that’s on my mind.

If your palate needs a break from bold flavors, there are more nuanced, but equally delightful dishes like Grilled Kalbi with Eggs and Bulgogi Dosirak with marinated ribeye, kimchi, and rice.

Anju Grilled Kalbi & Eggs

The casual ambiance and warm hospitality contribute to Anju’s charm. You can currently dine indoors at Anju, but my table of choice is on the sidewalk just outside of the restaurant. There are heaters at the ready.  Plan ahead as there are only four tables available outside. However you choose to enjoy Anju, you’ll be fired up about it in the end.

Anju, 1805 18th St. NW, Washington D.C

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Ghostburger

I have been thinking about the word indulgent. It’s an adjective many people- including me- use in describing something they’ve consumed that is laden with calories. It’s often meant as a subtle apology, an acknowledgement of the potential adverse effect partaking in this food will have on one’s health or waistline.

You know what? Life is super stressful, and dietary decisions should not be judged during a pandemic. This is why I implore you to race on over to Ghostburger. The new ghost kitchen located within Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw is where fine dining chef Robert Aiken is cooking up fantastic burgers and cheesesteaks.

Ghost kitchens are newly popular as a win-win situation for restaurants. Espita, a Mexican small plates and cocktails concept, is attracting new customers. Ghostburger benefits by operating within an existing business.

The menu at Ghostburger is short and sweet. Burgers are available as singles or double stacked. Get the double. Obviously.

Ghostburger La Hamburguesa

Ghostburger’s namesake is akin to a Big Mac if it was made with very high quality meat, cheese, and bread plus the requisite toppings of onions, pickles, and a “spooky” sauce. The “Frenchie” is accented with Champignon de Paris mushrooms, blue cheese, onion confit, and garlic aioli.  I have ZERO guilt when I devour La Hamburguesa, a Mexican sensation that is most in keeping with the theme of the host restaurant. It’s embellished with queso Oaxaca, salsa macha, smoked tomatillo relish, and cilantro. It’s ridiculously good.

There are serious debates about the best or most authentic cheesesteak in town. “A Real Philly Cheesesteak” is undeniable in its appeal. There is a mass of meat, caramelized onions, and white Cheddar “Whiz.” The hoagie roll is shipped from Sarcone’s in Philadelphia, which gives it street cred.

Ghostburger Cheesesteak

As election results were being counted and all eyes were on Philly voters late last week, the restaurant tripled the number of cheesesteaks it typically sells in one night. These can be considered quite a few votes of confidence in Ghostburger. When it comes to food, this is no time for moderation. Indulge away.

Ghostburger at Espita Mezcaleria (1250 Ninth St. NW, 202-621-9695; espitadc.com)

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Yellow the Café

If you really want to brighten your day, start it with a trip to Yellow the Café in the Yards. This is Chef Michael Rafidi’s casual Levantine spot, the sibling to the impressive Albi. Albi opened just before the pandemic, while Yellow made its debut this past summer.

At first glance, the Middle Eastern menu reads as one would expect.  Halvah. Labne. Za’atar. Hummus. Harissa. Baklava. Baba Ganoush. These are simply starting points for dishes that ascend with eclectic twists. Dips are one example. Dark and creamy burnt baba ganoush is topped with pickled tomato and pine nuts. Bright pink smoked beet hummus comes to life with a sprinkle of feta and harissa oil. Lebanese tater tots dusted with shawarma spices are as addictive as you might imagine.

The wood-burning oven makes its mark on the pita here. Lunchtime sandwiches include stuffings of grilled cauliflower, coal-fired chicken, or smoked lamb. Each benefits from accents that contribute creaminess and crunch.

A compelling reason to visit Yellow are sweets by Pastry Chef Gregory Baumgartner. Chocolate chip cookies, coffee cake, and croissants become heavenly creations lifted by ingredients such as whipped labne, za’aatar, sumac, dates, and olive oil.  Even coffee has Middle Eastern flair. Turmeric-honey latte is a perfect pick-me up.

There are daily specials such as pita with harissa fried chicken or smash lamb kefta. The weekend menu promotes an “urfa-thing bagel.” This is a must-have based on the name alone.

Yellow, 1346 4th Street, SE, Washington, D.C.

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Restaurants not only bring sustenance to their patrons, they have the power to elicit pure joy. While this post focuses on three newcomers, there are many area restaurants that have survived for decades. (see my last post about Ristorante i Ricchi). They are clamoring for our support. They deserve it.  As we descend into the darkness of winter, let’s band together to make sure there is light at the end of the tunnel for us all.

 

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