September 5, 2009

Virginia-DC Travelogue 1

Hatched by Dafydd

Sachi has been stuck in Virginia for several weeks now taking a class, one which (we hope!) will lead to a promotion for her. But of course, neither of us is happy with all the traveling she has to do and time apart; so we arranged that I should fly out to stay with her for ten days, then return home to keep the wildfires burning.

We do this often; it's not much of a holiday, since Sachi has to work (or in this case, learn); but we get evenings and week-ends together. And it's relatively inexpensive, since the government is already paying for her hotel room, her rental car, per-diem, and of course for her plane tickets. All we need pay is my own transport plus whatever extra I eat (and any touristy things we do).

I flew out to Virginia Thursday; for some unfathomable reason, SuperShuttle insisted upon getting me to the airport three hours before my thoroughly domestic flight... meaning I had to awaken at six in the morning. I'm a night owl (vampire might be more accurate), and I cannot generally get to sleep before 3:00 am under the best of circs; so that gave me three hours sleep.

The flight wasn't long (less than five hours) and unusually smooth. (Hint: The least bouncy place to sit in a jumbo jet is directly over the wing; even in turbulence, you barely feel it. The worst place is in the back, just forward of the empenage... even in relatively smooth air, you'll feel like you're in an hours-long earthquake that the heirs of Charles Francis Richter would rate a 9.0). Arrived, picked up at Dulles by S., returned to hotel in wee, sleepy little hamlet halfway between D.C. and Richmond, hight Fredericksburg.

The weather was more cooperative than I expected for early September; it's warm during the day, but not killer hot; and it cools off at night. It's a bit humid, especially coming from Southern California, but not muggy.

It being evening -- and the village where we're staying rolling up its sidewalks before we usually even have dinner -- there wasn't much to do... but I did fulfill a longstanding dream of mine...

Growing up in California, barbecue was always synonymous with grilling to me. Even looking up the word in the dictionary usually elicits that false definition: "To roast, broil, or grill (meat or seafood) over live coals or an open fire, often basting with a seasoned sauce;" "A method of cooking by which meat, poultry or fish (either whole or in pieces) or other food is covered and slowly cooked in a pit or on a spit, using hot coals or hardwood as a heat source. The food is basted, usually with a highly seasoned sauce, to keep it moist."

This may have been true once, and it's still true (as a purely descriptive definition of how that word is used) in many parts of the country; but epicures of barbecue in the South and Midwest have decred the definition that barbecuing consists in smoke cooking... that is, cooking the food using smoke heated above 150°F, with the heat source indirect. (If the smoke is cooler than 150°F, it's called "smoking" rather than "barbecuing.")

At least, so sayeth the various barbecue mavins I've read. I first encountered this more refined definition, distinguishing barbecuing from grilling, a number of years ago while watching the Food Channel; since then, I never miss a show on barbecuing, few though they are.

Mind, I've nothing against grilling; I love to grill and eat grill -- steaks, ribs, chicken, cob corn, asparagus, and many other yummies. But I have long longed to try real, honest to Bog BBQ.

The problem is that I cannot find any restaurant in my normal stomping ground that serves it; SoCal is definitely not the haven of hickory or the Mecca of mesquite! Barbecue joints (or more commonly, BBQ) litter the ground like cigarette butts outside a gentleman's club; but inspection of the physical premises invariable discloses a gas grill and cans of liquid smoke flavoring... not a large metal cooking chamber with an external firebox.

I could buy a barbecue, of course; there are even places in California that sell the real thing; or I could buy online, as I increasingly do with many staples, from electronics to books to Bugs Bunny chewable vitamins. But we live in a condo... where on Earth would I put it or use it? We have a tiny balcony, where we have and use our grill -- much to the consternation and annoyance of our condo neighbors, who get nervous when they see a cloud of smoke erupt like Vesuvius from our terrace. But a real barbecue tends either to be much too large... or else so tiny, it wouldn't even hold enough ribs to feed four, as when we entertain.

But back to Virginia; this post is all about Virginia (and Washington D.C.)... remember?

By the time we got back to Fredericksburg, the collection of mud and wattle huts where Sachi's hotel lurks, all the good restaurants were closed. We tried to get to a place called Virginia Barbecue, but we didn't find it -- which may be related to the fact that we turned the wrong way on Highway 1 and set off south when we should have been headed north (all you Rebels out there, cover your eyes!) In any event, when we called them to get straightened out, we discovered they had already closed before we even set out, so it was a bad job all 'round.

We slunk back towards the hotel and our eventual dinner: leftover chicken from the bag of goodies I brought on the plane, so I wouldn't have to eat airline food... worse, nowadays you must pay for the privilege of eating nuked frozen glop only marginally better than Deadly Dennys. But halfway back, a miracle happened, or at least a bit of good fortune: We discovered a restaurant still open for dinner, despite the fact that the sun had set.

Amazingly, it was a barbecue restaurant -- real barbecue! I'm sure it wasn't the greatest exemplar; anyplace called "Dave's Barbecue" can't be all good. But at least we got to taste real barbecue for the first time.

Sachi got the ribs and I the chopped pork; but that was just a formality, as we shared, of course. The smokiness permeated the meat like nothing I'd ever tasted before. I don't normally like what it pleases Southern Californian restaurants and grocers to misleadingly call "smoked turkey," "smoked cheese," and so forth. I love smoked salmon (lox), but it doesn't taste particularly smoky to me; and in any event, that kind of smoking is at the lower temperature (below 150°F).

But there is something about barbecuing that impregnates the smoke flavor all the way to the bone; I now know viscerally (literally) what I only knew intellectually day before yesterday: That I had never before tasted actual barbecue. We plan on buying a house soon, to take advantage of the collapse in real-estate prices and the low interest rates; and when we do, the very fourth thing I do will be to buy a bona-fide barbecue, probably the kind made from a split 55-gallon drum.

(The first three things will be to replace the flooring with hardwood, replace all the plumbing fixtures, and install a water filtration system at the main -- Aqua Systems, Culligan, something like that. After the barbecue, the next thing will be a professional quality oven-stove.)

The meat was barbecued with just a spice rub; they added some kind of moisturizing baste right at the end. They also had several kinds of sweet, homemade dipping sauces, all of which I tried. The one I liked best was called "Devil's Spit," but its hotitude was disappointingly mild. I think I prefer salty sauce better anyway, though I've only tried Stubbs. That's another reason to look forward to my own barbecue: I can really start experimenting with rubs, bastes, and sauces.

Next day (Friday), while Sachi was at class, I drove around and located Virginia BBQ (which I think is probably just on a par with Dave's), as well as Allman's, which I found out via interrogation and waterboarding is the place where all the locals go. But we didn't have time to sample, as Sachi wanted to leave for Washington as soon as she got back from class, to avoid the traffic.

Actually, as I predicted, it wasn't too bad; Laborious Day week-end does not generally produce a massive influx into the city; it's the exodus outbound that is of Biblical proportions. In fact, traffic exiting D.C. was at a virtual standstill for mile after mile, while the only time we had to slow down headed north into the District was when an accident caused a brief (less than one mile) ball-up.

We arrived at our D.C. hotel in good time -- Courtyard by Marriott Embassy Row; it's a nice hotel, especially as it's free: Sachi stays in so many Marriott hotels during the year that she has accumulated enough frequent sleeper miles that we were able to "pay" for the entire stay with otherwise worthless units of unmoney... which may shortly be an equally apt description of U.S. Federal Reserve notes, if Barack H. Obama has anything to say about it.

Washington is rather muggier than Fredericksburg, but still not dreadful. The traffic is light, because everyone has already fled (supra). We have a car and several maps, but we're going to walk as much as possible (and use the Metro for longer trips), because the hotel parks and retrieves all cars via varlet parking, requiring twenty minutes notice... just like in Perry Mason, in which the Beldar of the days of yore is always telling Della Street to "call for my car!"

Paul Mirengoff, the "Ringo Starr" of Power Line, who works in D.C. during the day (I think he camps on the street during the hours of darkness), recommended a restaurant called Grillfish, where we ate last night -- Sachi and I, not Paul; he and his brood wisely skipped town, ostensibly because it was a holiday week-end, but possibly also so as not to be harrangued for hours on end by the Lizards on obscure and wearying political topics.

Paul recommended wisely: We got the mixed seafood grill for two, with Sachi getting the side pasta and I the house salad. The food was excellent; I thought the balsamic vinigrette on my salad especially enticing, much superior to what's usually passed off as restaurant house dressing. The grill comprised shrimp, scallops, salmon, seabass, and some other fish I neither recognized nor remember from the menu description.

The grill marks were nicely colored, but I found out some time ago that "grill" in this sense generally means a couple of minutes on a real grill to "mark" the food, followed by oven cooking; 100% grilling tends to take so long that the food dries out. Regardless, it tasted very good: The fish was firm but not chewy, the shrimps crispy, the scallops -- well, not quite buttery, but certainly a long cry from the deep-fried wads of mullosk-flavored batter that you get at Red Mobster or Outhouse Steakhouse -- we won't even mention Chizzler in polite company. (Alas, there are no good American seafood places within easy driving distance of our home in California; there is an excellent Chinese seafood restaurant in Monterey Park, though that's about a half-hour away.)

As you might guess from the foregoing, when Sachi and I travel, food is a primary object: We especially love eating dishes we've never before sampled... which means that so far, the holiday is going swimmingly... and we haven't even hit the National Mall, the National Gallery (which is on the N.M.), or Mount Vernon yet!

Must finish this off now, as we're headed off to do those very things. Until next installment, adieu, adios, and arrivederci.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, September 5, 2009, at the time of 5:45 AM

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The following hissed in response by: snochasr

"anyplace called "Dave's Barbecue" can't be all good."

Amazing. Are you by chance talking about a "Famous Dave's"? It's a whole chain throughout the midwest and east, hundreds of them. Award-winning barbecue including "Devil's spit" sauce. Just one more reason never to live in California, if you don't have one. Of course, you probably don't have a Shoney's, either.

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 5, 2009 6:20 PM

The following hissed in response by: cdor

I'm a bit surprised by your new moderator situation. If you didn't get my last post, it's your loss.

The above hissed in response by: cdor [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 5, 2009 7:34 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman

Dave's Barbecue" can't be all good

That got a chuckle out of me, Where I hail from, Western Kentucky, Barbeque is in the yellow pages under Barbecue and the best places don't bother advertising and they have names like

Dave's Barbecue

The above hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 6, 2009 3:07 AM

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