My younger sister Trina is a 4-foot, 11-inch wedge of spite with spiky platinum hair, a killer wardrobe, and a tiny body sporting numerous tattoos depicting everything from a pin-up girl wielding a hair dryer to a slyly grinning cat sporting a ladylike set of pearls. The owner of a retro-style salon in Pittsburgh called Pompadour (hence the hair dryer), she is short-tempered, quick-witted, foul-mouthed . . . and hands-down the funniest person I've ever met.
And for that reason alone, there's no one I'd rather spend a Girls Weekend with.
We decided to meet up in Washington, D.C., partly because it's roughly equidistant to both our homes, and partly because when I discovered that there's a Mellow Mushroom there, I would brook no argument (a risky move, given that ticking Trina off is akin to repeatedly poking a hornet's nest with your face). Having made this same trip a few years back, this time around we decided to try a variety of new spots . . . which turned out to be exactly the wrong thing to do.
You see, thanks to the disconnect between the city's grand aspirations and its swampy reality, Washington, D.C. is sometimes referred to as the City of Magnificent Intentions, which also happens to accurately describe a weekend in which all of my carefully laid plans went to hell before my very eyes. Notwithstanding my magnificent intentions, we still had a great time, even though traffic, the weather, and my own stupidity all attempted to conspire against us.
I decided to take the train to D.C. since the times were more convenient than flying, and in doing so I was reminded of the first time my mother ever came to NYC to visit me. An infrequent traveller, she'd insisted on taking Amtrak, even though it entailed a grueling 10-hour train ride as opposed to a short 50-minute flight. I therefore expected her to arrive exhausted, irritable, and ready to die of boredom, but she'd actually had a great time: She became friendly with some of the other passengers on the train, and they'd passed the time playing cards. Eventually, however, as passengers disembarked, she found herself playing one-on-one with a young man in his late 20s. "Hey Mel," he'd whispered conspiratorially, "Now that it's just you and me, you wanna play for clothes?" Confused, my mother looked him up and down and finally responded, "But I don't even like your clothes!"
After I successfully wrangled enough luggage for a 3-month stay off the train, Trina picked me up at Union Station and we made a quick stop at the hotel to drop off said luggage before the weight of it caused her car to suffer a flat tire. Our next stop was at La Tasca, a sprawling Spanish spot in D.C.'s Chinatown neighborhood that we like because they offer 10 different sangrias plus a virgin one ("What the hell?" Trina asked, offended at the very thought), as well as an enormous selection of cured meats and cheeses, paellas, and meat, seafood, and vegetarian tapas.
La Tasca was also offering a $20 all-you-can-eat tapas menu when we arrived, which was right around the time that they began to lose money on this deal.
The word tapa means "lid" in Spanish, and it's believed that centuries ago laborers and farmers would visit their local tasca, or pub, for a well-earned glass of sherry, on top of which they'd place a slice of bread to protect it from pesky fruit flies. Over time the barkeeps gradually began placing small snacks, such as cured meat or sausage, on top of the bread, and these edible lids evolved into the tapas of today.
This sangria was well-earned, too, but if you think I'm putting some snacks on top of my glass instead of in my mouth, you're loco.
After much haggling and a little hair-pulling, Trina and I started off with two red and green tomato salads with honey-herb dressing and goat cheese (in order to keep the peace, goat cheese cannot be shared), bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese, patatas bravas (fried potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce), wild mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and garlic, and a mini seafood paella.
Next up, grilled steak in a sherry-mushroom sauce with roasted potatoes, and two orders of chicken and beef empanadas.
Still stubbornly sober, we also decided to order more sangria. This time we went straight for the "Cadillac" version, which is La Tasca's traditional sangria with the addition of a bottle or two of brandy. That'll do it.
The day was warm and sunny, so after lunch we decided to take a walk, heading for the general direction of the Tidal Basin but having no real route or destination in mind, which worked out nicely since neither of us was capable of reading a map after that sangria . . . or at any time, really.
Another day in D.C., another politician with a big head.
We found ourselves first at the neck-craning Washington Monument, then later at the tear-jerking World War II memorial.
After a few hours our ballet-flat-clad feet began to ache, a signal that the sangria had worn off and it was time to head back to the hotel.
That evening we had reservations at Barcode, a nightspot that's about as hip as it gets in a political town where old white men outnumber people with sense by about 20 to 1. We were completely exhausted from a long day of traveling, walking, and stuffing ourselves silly, so we called to see if we could push our reservation back by an hour or so to allow time for a nap, but were told that they were fully booked and could not accommodate any time changes. So we got ready in record time and cabbed it over, only to see this.
That's right: All of their patrons were invisible.
Partly irritated that we'd raced around and gotten all dressed up for nothing, and partly relieved that we were now free to eat as much as we wanted without the disapproving stares of skinny strangers (or anyone else, for that matter), we started off with a couple of cocktails . . . and some gazpacho . . . and the tuna ceviche . . . and a trio of meatball sliders.
And a side of fries with "assorted dipping sauces." When I saw that on the menu, naturally my imagination went wild. What kind of dipping sauces could oh-so-trendy Barcode possibly come up with? Creamy Parmesan and truffle? Garlic and rosemary aioli? The hipster irony of a vat of melted Velveeta?
Nope. The "assorted dipping sauces" turned out to be . . . ketchup and mayo. Which might explain why this place was empty on a Saturday night.
On Sunday we realized that, despite our walk around the Washington Monument and the World War II memorial, we hadn't really scratched the surface of Washington, D.C.'s incomparable cultural and historical offerings, and not to do so would be almost un-American. And so we made the short drive over to Alexandria, VA, in search of a dessert called "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because." Because, really, what could be more American than devouring an entire birthday cake when it's not even your birthday?
We'd decided to eat a light lunch so that we'd be good and hungry for the Birthday Cakes, plural, and Columbia Firehouse's menu of soups, salads, and other light brunch fare was just the ticket.
As were the classic Cuban daiquiris (circa 1898) with crushed ice.
The wait for brunch in the soaring atrium was about an hour, so we happily snagged two seats at the old-fashioned bar instead.
We both decided on the butter lettuce wedge salad with dried cranberries, toasted almonds, and buttermilk goat cheese dressing, an ingenious concoction that looked like sour cream and tasted like heaven.
The day was cool and overcast but the rain held off, so after lunch we decided to do a little exploring, completely taken with the colonial charm of Alexandria's main drag, King Street.
This is the Alexandria Cupcake shop. Although I love cupcakes, no way was I going to eat one when I was just minutes from devouring an entire birthday cake by myself. That would be gluttonous.
Plus, a vegan cupcake made without eggs, butter, and milk would be like making a cheeseburger without the cheese . . . and the burger.
Up and down King Street we walked, browsing in the stores, stopping to take photos, and biding our time until Birthday Cake bliss.
It's not every day that you see a dog that's as big as your sister. Well, unless your sister is Trina.
Later on our stroll we came across a another dog, Bella, a pit bull whose sweet demeanor and wagging tail were clearly intended to distract from her real agenda of ripping us apart with her killer jaws.
Onward we walked, our cakey cravings growing stronger with each passing step.
Finally we reached the gorgeous Restaurant Eve, home of the hallowed "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because."
After a quick glance at the menu posted outside, we passed under the brick archway and found the door.
Trina pushed, and . . . nothing. Then she pulled it. Still nothing. Growing panicky, I shouted, "For god's sake, man, turn the #$%@ knob!" She turned it, and still . . . nothing.
THEY WERE CLOSED.
The home of the "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because" was closed . . . just because. Because it was Sunday? Because the tapas place had called ahead and warned them about us? We may never know.
Dejected, we headed off into the gloom in search of someplace to drown our sorrows. On the way we passed Captain's Row, a cobblestone street closed to through traffic and lined with the kind of houses that make you wish it could be October all year round . . . and that you could be a gazillionaire.
Our salvation turned out to be the Union Street Public House, which, true to its name, takes all comers, including those yearning to be free from the tyranny of Birthday Cake(s) Bait-and-Switch.
By then it had started to drizzle, and the Union Street Public House, with its flickering gas lamps, well-worn booths, and menu of comfort food classics, enveloped us like a warm blanket.
And the lobster-and-crab bisque, creamy grits, macaroni and cheese, and individual buckets of tater tots served with two, er, dipping sauces --ketchup and Ranch dressing -- lulled us into a sweet stupor.
Or maybe that was the wine.
By the time we returned to the hotel, it had begun to rain in earnest, and neither of us was feeling particularly energetic. We also couldn't bear to eat another bite of anything covered in cheese, and so we decided to get into our jammies and then order some fruit from room service.
With whipped cream.
Oh, and two bottles of the Rodney Dangerfield of booze, Smirnoff Ice. Because they were out of Zima, obviously.
We immediately noticed that the blackberries in our fruit bowls were roughly the size of golf balls, which made us wonder what kind of hormones they're putting in our food . . . and why they couldn't have done that back in the 70s to save Trina from a lifetime of shopping in the kids' department.
Later that evening I took shameless advantage of the fact that Trina is a hair stylist and asked her to help me add some loose curls to my straightened hair. We set the hot curling iron on the nightstand and Trina went to work. Afterwards, she reminded me to move the curling iron away from the assorted odds and ends on the nightstand to prevent the hot iron from damaging them. As I approached the curling iron, I had a temporary brain freeze and, for some inexplicable reason, could not determine which end was the handle and which was the hot barrel -- they looked so very much alike. So I reached for the handle, hesitated, reached for the barrel, hesitated again, and then repeated the same sequence in a bizarre, split-second dance of indecision: Heat-handle; handle-heat. Finally, I made my decision . . . and idiotically grabbed the hot end of the curling iron.
Yelping in pain, I dropped the hot iron and bolted for the bathroom to run my burned hand under some cool water, leaving Trina utterly speechless for the first time in her entire life. When I emerged from the bathroom, her face was a mix of curiosity, concern, and that tight-lipped face she makes when she's trying desperately not to laugh.
"Um . . . so . . . what the hell just happened?" she asked, lips pressed together to force down a giggle.
"I don't know," I responded sheepishly. "I got confused."
"But I saw you deciding which end to grab," she answered. "How on earth could you have picked the wrong end?"
"Like I said, I was confused."
"Oh, confused. Of course." Unable to contain herself any longer, Trina finally doubled over laughing. "Confused!" she hooted. Tears of laughter streamed down her face. "Well, I sure hope nobody ever drops a flaming torch in front of you!"
Ha, ha. Didn't mom ever teach you not to make fun of the mentally challenged?
Monday dawned chilly but sunny, and our options were almost limitless: Should we visit the National Gallery of Art? Spend the day at the National Archives? Tour one of D.C.'s more than 30 museums? Nah. We headed over to Georgetown to drool over the houses and drink some mimosas.
But first, some lunch was in order, which meant a trip to the aforementioned Mellow Mushroom in Adams Morgan, an eclectic neighborhood of funky boutiques and restaurants.
The building that houses the Mellow Mushroom appears to have once been part of a theater, as the entrance is outfitted with a now-defunct ticket booth. As a result, instead of usual hippie-dippy 1960s decor that prevails at most Mellow Mushrooms, this 'Shroom is decked out like a circus. And, like most circuses, the sheer creepiness of the thing is outweighed only by the presence of your favorite fattening foods.
The silent film star Lon Chaney once said, "There is nothing laughable about a clown in the moonlight," and I am here to tell you that there's nothing all that funny about one in the daylight, either.
Hell, even I wouldn't be able to eat with that thing staring down at me.
Trina couldn't decide on a single pie, so she ordered half of a Thai Dye (curry chicken with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, basil, and sweet Thai chili sauce) and half of a Redskin Potato pie (potatoes, applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, sour cream, and spicy Ranch), while I went with my usual, a classic pepperoni with extra sauce.
Oh, and two glasses of sangria. Tapeworms, they must be genetic.
When our waiter came to clear the table, he let out a low whistle. "You chicks really cleaned up!" he exclaimed. Then, nodding knowingly, he leaned in and asked sympathetically, "So, are you really tired now?"
Indeed we were, but Georgetown awaited, and soon we were strolling the tree-lined streets and ogling the picture-perfect row houses with their picture-perfect pumpkins.
It soothes my OCD soul when things match so nicely. Ahhh.
One of the things I love about Georgetown are the unique doors, everything from gleaming old carriage-house "garage" doors to those with transoms sporting their original moldings and stained glass.
Further north, the houses grow larger; the ivy, more insistent.
I'd spied tiny Cafe Bonaparte online before our visit and decided that an elegant French bistro would be the ideal spot for a final cocktail before our departure.
We arrived, however, to discover that the location was on a less-than-charming block, and the restaurant itself was cramped and crowded.
Luckily they had an assortment of Champagne cocktails, including a Pom-Grand with pomegranate juice for Trina, and a Penchant de Mango with mango, lime, and a sugared rim pour moi.
The drinks were just okay and our seats at the bar were treated to occasional blasts of cold air from the front door, and as we sipped I lamented that once again on this trip, my magnificent intentions had not turned out as planned.
No matter. It was wonderful to spend time with my sister, and the weekend certainly could have been worse.
I mean, somebody could have dropped a flaming torch in my vicinity.
UPDATE: Two weeks later, Angel surprised me by baking a replica of the "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because" for my actual birthday. Sure, he used a plastic CD holder to cut the sheet cake into rounds, and he discovered that sprinkles actually bounce back when you try to fling them at the sides of a cake, but all in all, I think he nailed it. We both wished Trina could have been there to have some, too, but let's be honest: This cake ain't big enough for the both of us.