How do you get the average American diner to quit wasting his or her hard earned ducats on execrable food in chain restaurants? Tony and Ana Stafford’s approach is to open an eatery in a strip mall that looks like a chain restaurant inside and out—replete with tacky nautical décor, enormous laminated menus, and cranium melting noise levels—and then turn the thickly varnished tables on their unsuspecting clientele by serving good food. What a tricksy, false, nasssty way to fool the locals into eating fish so juicy sweet, my precious! And the Staffords have just the background needed to pull off such a daring gastro-scam. Tony did his time in chain land as a managing director at a local Bonefish Grill outpost and also served a stretch in the Great American Restaurant high-volume upper-casual dining niche (a chain forged of differing links, but a chain nonetheless).
Ford’s Fish Shack
Address: 44260 Ice Rink Plaza #101, Ashburn, VA 20147— Get directions
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MudGuide Rating: 3
To judge by the social media response, Ford’s is the closest thing to the second coming one is likely to experience this side of the rapture. Zagat’s even awarded the Staffords the second highest food score for a seafood restaurant in all of the Washington DC area. At least that is what their website claims, and MudGuide does not intend to dispute them (although we would like a peek at Zagat’s definition of a seafood restaurant and the geographical boundaries they used to define the DC area).
MudGuide recently got a chance to see what all the fuss was about when Fulvia and Lucullus met our particular friends Germanicus and Agrippina for a World War I battlefield tour planning session at Ford’s. As alluded to above, the location in the midst of the ever-expanding government contractor ghetto surrounding Dulles airport is less than salubrious and upon entry one is greeted with a wall of sound that would deafen Phil Spector, but the location also reveals the evil genius marketing side of the Stafford family. This area is chain restaurant central and once people have discovered that Ford’s isn’t [insert horrid chain name here] they will be back and they will tell all of their friends via social media in the meantime.
Eric, our young and hunky waiter, was an immediate hit with the ladies at the table, but Lucullus took his time to warm up to the ever-present hyperbolic service by good looking twenty-somethings who seemed immune to the sonic clash of shouted conversation vying with the caterwauling sound system. We ordered drinks and stifled several attempts by Eric to recite the evening’s specials, but he didn’t sulk and always appeared just before a member of our party had drained the last of their beverage.
Upon delivering Lucullus his third draft Bass Ale, Eric explained that he employed “a pre-emptive strategy when it comes to beer”, thereby consummating his relationship with the male members of our table. The fairer sex meanwhile turned from passing their howdies over news of puppies and firearms training to quizzing Eric concerning his faves on the menu. It quickly turned out that Eric does not like fish, although he did concede that the fried lobster tail and barbequed ribs combination “rocks”.
“So why do you work here?” Lucullus asked.
“Because I like money and this place is popular,” was the completely ingenuous response, which won him an order for a quartet of appetizers from his now lubricated clientele (with the exception of the abstemious Agrippina). The appies represented both the high and the low of the meal.
Fried Rhode Island calamari with sweet cherry peppers, and lobstah [sic] ginger sauce was a very good effort for fryolater squid. The best part of the dish was its foundation of fresh, correctly cooked and only slightly over-breaded calamari. As a squid purist, Lucullus felt that this good beginning was diminished somewhat by the peppers and sauce, which imparted a single dimensional sweet flavor profile. If you are going to junk up good fried calamari, at least get some heat into the equation. But the dish’s unforgivable shortcoming was the complete absence of tentacles. The rest of the table really liked this appie and voted Lucullus a squid snob for his pretentious Bass-fueled cephalopod disquisition.
Ford’s version of bang bang shrimp (not on the menu, but suggested by Eric) was a big hit. The dish consisted of expertly fried high quality shrimp with the same lobstah [sic] ginger sauce, but this time it was paired with a robust cabbage slaw that added both texture and acid profiles to the preparation. The mild fried peppers also worked a lot better with the shrimp than they did with the squid, although some heat would have definitely elevated the dish.
The best ‘tizer and best dish of the evening was steamed long-neck clams served in a saucy lake of beer, onions, bacon, and red pepper flakes. Now in all fairness it has to be stated that only Lucullus partook of this splendid clamitude, but since he also writes the reviews he gets to call the shots. This was one of only three market priced dishes on the menu, which boded well in terms of freshness. Steamed long-neck clams are an addictive acquired taste. They are ugly, gritty, and quintessentially clammy. Long, elephant trunks covered in dark crinkly skin snake out of distended bellies redolent of murky seawater. With the sole exceptions of razor clams and those thumb-sized jewels found in the Mediterranean, they are the best of the bi-valves. They possess a distinct two-stage flavor/texture profile with the chewy salty siphon giving way to a rich, tender, and sabulous body sack.
As he watched Lucullus circumcise his clams, Germanicus was moved to recount our time together in France when Lucullus attempted death by andouette, the infamous tripe sausage that the natives love to chalk up as the regional specialty in the hopes of discomfiting American tourists. Asked by Agrippina to characterize Lucullus’ gastronomic behavior at that memorable meal, Fulvia responded: “Eat shit and die.”
The steamers were fresh and nicely cooked, but the beer-based sauce was the real surprise of the dish. Nominally, steamers are served with a double dipping duo consisting of the clam broth (used to wash off external grit after the removal of the “foreskin” from the “neck”) and then butter. This sauce blew Lucullus away. As the Portuguese will tell you, nothing goes better with clams (or anything else for that matter) than pig, and the bacon added its richness and mouth feel to the dish. And finally, someone in the kitchen added a nice bit of heat to a menu item that was simply begging for it!!
The dish was not without its blemishes, however. First off, there really isn’t such a thing as a grit free steamer, but this batch struck Lucullus as unnecessarily pulverant due to minimal soaking in salt water. Note to the Staffords: soak those babies a lot longer than you are currently and add some corn meal to the water to help with the filtration process. Also, the dish came without any bread for that killer sauce, and while Eric promptly brought us some nicely toasted ciabatta, why would Ford’s steamed mussels arrive with integral bread and not the steamers?
Oh, and the mussels sucked by the way. Dubbed “Angry Mussels” on the menu, they were more superannuated than enraged. They were small, old, and (adding insult to injury) over-cooked. The chorizo, tomatoes, garlic, and onions were evidently included to add some zip to bivalvia Mollusca that had lingered over long in the reach-in, but they were ladled on with such a heavy hand that one had to dig for a mussel. What worked with steamers failed spectacularly with the mussels. Even the sauce was inferior despite the prodigious amount of porkage that did not impart either sufficient heat or flavor.
The mains supplied more consistency to our meal than the ‘tizers. The marinated, short-smoked Atlantic salmon in a Dijon cream sauce with mashed potatoes was perhaps the best farmed salmon dish Lucullus has ever tasted. The fish was imbued with an medium hickory flavor that played very nicely off the perky mustard sauce. It was easily the second best dish of the night and Lucullus graciously allowed the table to vote it into a tie for first place, given that only he would ingest the steamers.
The cracker-crusted baked cod, with jumbo lump crabmeat and tarragon butter sauce served with basil mashed potatoes was another keeper. The cod was very fresh and cooked to moist and flaky perfection. The cracker crust came very close to the platonic ideal, definitely enlivening an otherwise bland type of fish. The crabmeat added a rich flavor note. The mashed potatoes did not work nearly as well with this dish, however, as they did with the salmon. Note to the Staffords: veggies can be comfort food too. Why not substitute the green beans and pearl onions from the sides list for the mashies in at least one of your fish preparations?
Fish Tacos were a solid B, which is a shame because the kitchen could move them up to an A minus with very little effort. The fish employed turned out to be swai, a river-farmed catfish from Southeast Asia. Light and flaky, it took well to the blackening process, but was a bit dry, which was probably an artifact of too long a sojourn under the heat lamps while the rest of the order was fired. The accompanying thin fries also tasted like they had hung out too long after exiting the fryolater. This is the only example of chain behavior we encountered at Ford’s. Fish tacos are not steaks, they do not need to rest, and should be expedited to the table forthwith. Soft flour tortillas surrounded a mélange of napa cabbage, marinated tomatoes, and radishes that made up some ground for the languishing fish, but the chipotle lime dressing had nary a hint of the promised heat from smoked jalapenos. Eric was happy to bring us some hot sauce in partial compensation, but there is no reason why Ford’s kitchen cannot produce exemplary fish tacos from the get go.
Our final entre consisted of deep fried lobstah [sic] tail. Lucullus had never had lobster prepared this way before and his initial skepticism was quickly overcome. The bugs emerged from the fryolater succulent and tasty. Perhaps frying the crustacean still attached to its split shell helped preserve moisture and flavor, but no small amount of talent with the deep fat vat was necessary to produce the crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside result. The lobster also had a noticeable, but nice amount of chew to it that is not present in boiling or steaming preparations.
MudGuide’s overall impression is that the Stafford family is doing Addephagia’s work in Ashburn and their second location in Chantilly. If we are ever forced to endure the Dulles ghetto again, we will certainly be back to try their reportedly redoubtable crab cakes and lobster rolls. Just don’t morph Ford’s into a chain, that would be sadly predictable infamia.