A recent pair of visitors on their White House lunch break has turned the small, cash-only Ray’s Hell-Burger into a tourist destination. Still, we’ll patiently wait for the black-pepper burger with blue cheese, the Diablo with aged cheddar, or just a plain old cheeseburger. They’re the best, messiest burgers around.
The burgers are made from beef trimmings culled from Ray’s the Steaks, Landrum’s casual, value-driven steakhouse (no stranger to lines, either). Former Citronelle sommelier Mark Slater has curated an affordable wine list to go with the excellent hanger steaks and cowboy cuts that have had loyal fans for years. We like to start with the sherry-scented cream-of-crab bisque and finish with a wedge of Key-lime pie.
Thirsty Bernie, a sports-obsessed neighborhood bar, gained notice when high-end chef Jamie Stachowski took over the kitchen. He’s since moved on, but you can still find his specialty—a butcher board holding myriad charcuterie—on the menu, along with his veal bratwurst and kielbasa.
The kebabs at Ravi Kabob House and Ravi Kabob II—skewers of lamb and bone-in chicken marinated for 18 hours and grilled over charcoal—are the draw here. If there were a cheap-eats hall of fame, these cash-only Pakistani stops would be near the top.
At the divey Ballston outpost of El Pollo Rico, ignore the greasy sides and head straight for the chicken. The super-flavorful (and super-cheap, at $14.99) whole birds deserve star billing.
Don’t feel like road-tripping to the Eastern Shore? Grab a table at the Quarterdeck (1200 N. Fort Myer Dr.; 703-528-2722), where blue crabs are steamed to order at least through mid-October. All you need are a Bud Light, some slaw, and a mallet. It’s not fancy, but no good crab shack is.
High-End Happy Hours
Mondays at Restaurant 3, a menu of “bar bites” is half off from 5 to 8. That means you can score fried oysters for $5 and duck lettuce wraps for $4.50.
Every day from 4 to 7, Franco Nuschese’s slick Italian spot Sette Bello offers half-price wine and small plates, such as a $7 salumi plate for two, at the bar.
The best time to get a seat at the roomy, saloon-like bar at Ballston’s Willow is 5 to 7 weekdays, when cocktails, glasses of wine, and a Modern American bar menu—mini-Reubens, halibut sliders, pork spring rolls—are all $5. (The bar-menu part of the deal lasts till closing and includes Saturday as well.)
You can always go the bacon/egg/cheese route after a long night, but we find the bowls of soothing Vietnamese beef soups at Pho 75 far more restorative, especially with a good shake of Sriracha. If you subscribe to the hair-of-the-dog theory, Harry’s Tap Room (1100 S. Hayes St., 703-416-7070; 2800 Clarendon Blvd., 703-778-7788) serves a mean Bloody Mary with lemon, lime, olives, and celery. It pairs nicely with the classic eggs Benedict or even one of the restaurant’s freshly ground burgers.
The perfect meal at the family-friendly Taqueria Poblano: an order of citrus-heavy guacamole, two grilled-shrimp tacos with avocado cream and escabèche-style onions, and a margarita or limeade.
To go with the corn-tortilla-wrapped pockets of chorizo, chicken, and even lamb at Guajillo, it’s jalapeño-spiked shrimp ceviche and fried plantains all the way.
And if you’re dining on the cheap, the no-frills carryout El Charrito Caminante puts out satisfying and authentic versions stuffed with goat, chorizo, and lengua for $2 each.
Carlyle takes only limited reservations, and there’s usually a wait. That’s because this brasserie-like restaurant has nailed a formula of spot-on service, strong classic cocktails, and a menu full of alluring choices. From the lobster pot stickers swimming in gingery lobster sauce to the warm-goat-cheese salad to the deliciously bad-for-you jambalaya pasta in Creole cream sauce, it’s hard to decide where to start. Ending is easy, though—the lemon meringue pie and flourless chocolate waffle are the top sweets hands down.
Much quieter but no less pleasing is Minh’s, an unassuming Vietnamese dining room in a Clarendon office building. The kitchen excels with the fryer, turning out greaseless yam-and-shrimp cakes and pork-stuffed spring rolls. This is also home to some of the area’s best bun, the cool vermicelli-noodle bowls topped with mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, and skewers of charred, sweetly basted pork.
If you’re looking for a carb binge, Café Assorti is your place. The pretty Eastern European hangout excels at yeasty stuffed buns, beef-filled dumplings, and ethereal pastries.
Neither Best Buns Bread Company in Shirlington (4010 Campbell Ave.; 703-578-1500) nor Mother’s Macaroons (2442 N. Harrison St.; 703-532-6991) is a bakery built around cupcakes, but both put out really good ones. At Best Buns (also known for interesting breads) big, airy cakes meet fluffy lemon, vanilla, and peanut-butter buttercreams. Mother’s, a 21-year-old bake shop in the back of a strip mall, has smaller offerings, but the chocolate and vanilla cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles are a reminder of the school-assembly treats of childhood.