I love my neighborhood. I love the bustle. I love the convenience. I love that’s there a place I can get my haircut without being talked to. I love the IHOP around the corner, not because I’ve ever been, but because I like knowing it’s there. And just the food in general. A million places for take-out. Lots of dives with solid food. A Cuban place I’ve taken literally every visitor. The Sour Patch Kids I’m eating while I type this. It’s all tops.
More recently ol’ Columbia Heights has been abuzz due to Bad Saint, our local Filipino hot spot, being named Bon Appetit’s #2 new restaurant in the country and having been added to DC’s first Michelin Star guide. Even before that point, the lines were insane, which is what happens when you have a popular restaurant with only 24 seats that doesn’t take reservations. I finally decided I was going to take advantage of an afternoon off work and treat myself to a nice dinner. Knowing I’d have to wait in order to have any chance at a table, even though I was flying Han Solo that evening, I headed over to Bad Saint around 4:00pm in preparation for their opening at 5:30pm.
The rundown before the food starts rolling in and I really start to lose track of things:
- 4:07pm: I catch a Dratini on the walk over. The food gods are clearly smiling on my decision.
- 4:10pm: I arrive to already find 15-20 people waiting in line. I check the temperature and it is 94 degrees out. Bad Saint is mercifully located on the shady side of the street at that time of day, so I hunker down on a stoop and wait.
- 4:15pm: I think to myself it would have been silly to bring a bag of activities for my wait in line. I was wrong.
- 4:25pm: The line itself was actually kind of…fun? Everyone in the line was simultaneously ashamed to be loitering on some random block with no apparent purpose while also being relieved there were others doing the exact same thing. We all bond over this.
- 4:35pm: A swarm of mosquitoes brings me back to reality, reminding me that lines are in fact not fun by just straight up dunking on me while I waited.
- 4:45pm: The patrons of the neighborhood barbershop seem pretty confused.
- 4:54pm: The smells! A crazy mix of citrus and oil. It is great. Camaraderie is strong among those of us that have been there since the beginning.
- 5:30pm: Opening time! There are at least 100 people behind me in line. The line stretches around the block and out of sight.
- 5:45pm: THE SMELLS
- 5:46pm: I get seated a spot on the counter by the window, one of the last seated in the first round. There were even a few in front of me that requested to be included in the second seating. I admire their patience…for like five seconds! Didn’t they smell those smells!?! I also immediately feel superior to all those newbs still in line outside.
- 5:48pm: I order a cocktail called the Pago Pago because duh. I also have a lil baby crush on my server, the hostess, the bartender, and basically everyone who works there because they are all happy and beautiful.
- 5:56pm: People at the front of the line are being told they will likely be seated at 8:45-9pm. I take a sip of the Pago Pago, which is a mixture of rum, pineapple, lime, and chocolate bitters. It is the best damn drink I’ve ever had. Sour with a slight hint of bitter chocolate? It is just so delicious.
- 6:07pm: Groups of 3 or 4 are being turned away at the door. Some dude at the door is super fussy about this and will def be writing a vindictive Yelp review.
- 6:14pm: The only spots available for the remainder of the night are on the cancellation list.
By this point my first few dishes have arrived and been devoured. The first was the kinilaw na hipon, or a spicy shrimp ceviche. The three main ingredients were tiger shrimp, passion fruit, and cucumber. I usually hate cucumber and its eviler twin, pickle, so I was basically daring Bad Saint to make me like something I hate. I saw the light. It was one of the freshest and lightest dishes I’ve ever had, and was also packed full of flavor. It was citrusy and spicy and just so so good. I would eat that every single day if I could.
The second dish was one selected for me by my server. I had her select between the two Filipino salads on the menu, which will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. I have literally never paid for a salad for my own meal. Again, I was giving Bad Saint a chance to impress. I ended up with the heirloom rice salad, aka crispy rice with tomatoes, corn (another ingredient I usually don’t like in my food), and a tamarind vinaigrette. The phrase “You don’t win friends with salad” has come out of my mouth so many times that I’ve basically convinced myself that eating salad could seriously jeopardize my social life. But you know what? This salad won friends with me. Similar to the shrimp dish, the number of different textures and flavors was incredible. The crispiness of the rice. The burstiness of the tomatoes (my own term, but you know what I mean). The sweetness and savoryness.
To top off that first course, I received a “compliments of the chef” course of shrimp crackers and chili sauce. Maybe they thought I looked lonely and needed more food to drown my sorrows in? Or else they must have seen me taking my insane notes on my phone and thought I was a real food critic. Fooled them because I was just some guy who loves eating on a spiritual journey to Om Nom Town. But I still appreciated the gesture. The shrimp crackers were like the best pork rinds you ever had (just go with it), and the chili sauce was the type of dip I want to accompany all my dip vehicles. Chili garlic sauce ftw. At this point I am just some hapless dude on the wrong end of a sports highlight reel, just getting pwned by noms.
As I waited for the next course to arrive, I took a few moments to take it all in. I noticed how deeply personal the decor was. It wasn’t just little knick-knacks on shelves, but there was a unique vibe to the whole place. I also very much appreciated the tune-age that was chosen. Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, and a smattering of Motown is the exact soundtrack I want for a meal. I talked with the hostess (I think she was one of the co-owners?) for a bit and learned the reason for choosing such a small space was there was some uncertainty about whether people would get excited about Filipino food. That also explained why everyone was in such a good mood; the response had exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. I get it. At that moment I was basically the human form of one of those horrible “Life is Good” t-shirts.
My last dish of the evening was the littleneck clams with Chinese sausage. This dish wasn’t nearly as complex as the others; it was a little more one note. However, they chose a really good note. Like C Major. That’s a good one I’ve heard. Basically just a big bowl of flavorful chili broth and lil critters floating around. But when it comes to clams or mussels or any of the other bivalves that we choose to eat for some reason, it’s all about what sort of vehicle they give you to mop up all the broth. Somehow Bad Saint managed to concoct these rectangular donuts that stayed super crunchy while also absorbing a ton of broth. Do not take the folks at Bad Saint for some conjurers of cheap tricks. Those donuts were legit. The broth itself continued to grow on me; it was one of those really pleasant, slow-building heats that you crave more of. My server brought over some extra rice for sop up the rest. That’s the mark of a great restaurant – let no drop go wasted.
At this point I was stuffed. I knew it. My server knew it. So when she came by and asked if I wanted dessert, I think we were both surprised when I exuberantly said yes. I was turning down no opportunity. The dessert was almost a dessert soup with dragon fruit and strawberries and edible flowers and some sort of clear sugary goop. This would have been super refreshing had I not been so full. That was a mistake. I was ready to Violet Beauregarde myself outta that place once the check came. Also, dragon fruit is a total misnomer. That stuff just looked like a bunch of fuzzy dice had been dropped on my plate.
After my solo journey to Bad Saint, I absolutely get the hype. I had the best drink I’ve ever had, one of my favorite dishes ever (the tiger shrimp), and was left with unfinished business in the form of an insatiable desire to make infinity of those donuts. Everything was dynamite. And it wasn’t just the food. The service and just the overall energy made me want to wait in that line all over again (which is good, because I’m not getting in any other way). As such, I am awarding Bad Saint 4 out of 4 om noms, a rating reserved for such culinary experiences as Taco Bell’s breakfast crunchwrap. Michelin Star be damned – Bad Saint, you’ve officially made it.