No meal engenders more extreme reactions than brunch. People either love it or hate it. Maybe that’s because brunch is so often either really good or really bad.
A good brunch can be a wonderful thing, a time to unwind on a lazy Sunday with family or friends over a comforting feast. But a bad brunch has a way of ruining the weekend. And there are a lot of bad brunches out there, with their omelet stations (complete with last night’s lobster) and bottomless mimosas that put can you in a stupor. You’ll snap to when the bill arrives: Brunch for two at some of these places can set you back $150.
With brunch season about to kick in, we set off in search of weekend feasts worthy of our time and money. We turned up some good, traditional-style brunches that sidestepped the usual clichés.
But many of the brunches we gravitated to are a little unconventional: a dim sum feast with Thai roots, an Eastern European–style smorgasbord, a Southern spread with a pickled-vegetable bar, and the best chilaquiles around. We think they’re interesting enough to make a believer of even the most hardened brunch hater.
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Pho VN One (11000 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-931-3302; pho $5.70 to $6.45). A steaming bowl of oxtail-flavored broth and noodles for breakfast? Why not? In Vietnam this soup is often the first order of the day. This bright and stylish Beltsville restaurant opens at 10:30 every morning, and its pho, served in a hefty tureen, is rich, fragrant, and gently spiced. If brunch is about taking time out for a leisurely meal with friends or family, then a bowl of pho is pretty much an ideal brunch food, encouraging slow, sensual contemplation and allowing time for conversation.
La Sirenita (4911 Edmonston Rd., Hyattsville; 301-864-0188; entrées $8 to $18.50). If you hear the word “menudo” and think of the Puerto Rican boy band, you’ve probably never enjoyed this Mexican meal in a bowl. Like many classic dishes, menudo is a food of necessity, the transformation of humble organ meats into something delicious. It’s a weekend-only special at this scruffy roadside restaurant, and locals pour into the jukebox-blaring space as soon as it opens for a taste of the rich, slow-cooked tripe soup; devotees know to brighten their bowls with a spritz of lime and a few scatterings of chopped onion. Don’t overlook the huevos rancheros and chilaquiles—torn-tortilla casseroles interleaved with spoonfuls of red or green sauce and capped with a fried egg.
Café Atlántico (405 Eighth St., NW; 202-393-0812; dim sum $1.95 to $8). Chopsticks at Café Atlántico? Only on weekends, when this Nuevo Latino mainstay rolls out its Latin American–style dim sum brunch. No pushing of carts—instead, there’s a menu with nine seafood and 11 vegetarian options. First-timers should set their sights on the $35 deluxe tasting menu—a Minibar-style extravaganza featuring 25 larger-than-bite-size tastes of chef Katsuya Fukushima’s reinterpreted Latin dishes: simple corn soup with warm foie gras, conch fritters with a liquid center, and shaved pineapple with plantain powder.
Duangrat’s (5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-5775; dim sum $4.95 to $6.95). The Sunday meal at this freshly renovated dining room might be billed as “Thai dim sum.” The parade of generously portioned small plates covers the pan-Asian bases: from Vietnamese-style lemongrass-chicken summer rolls to slabs of pork breaded and fried katsu-style to drumettes of Kung Pao chicken. Look for anything in a pastry crust—flaky crepes holding sweetly braised massaman beef, a buttery-crusted pocket of curried salmon, or warm roti filled with fried duck. If the hushed formality of the bow-tied waitstaff and Muzak seem out of place at 11 am, the leisurely pacing and vibrant flavors make up for it.
A&J Restaurant (4316-B Markham St., Annandale; 703-813-8181; 1319-C Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-251-7878; dim sum 95 cents to $5.95). Both cheery locations offer a northern Chinese dim sum feast with more choices than most big hotel brunches could dream of, and at remarkably good prices: Most dishes are under $3; nothing is over $5.95. The menu focuses on bread-based dishes of the north that don’t show up in Hong Kong–style dim sum parlors—a scallion pancake, crispy outside and chewy within, and a thousand-layer pancake, a conversation piece that customers pass around the table and tear into pieces.
The latter doubles as an excellent vehicle for sopping up sauces, like the zippy hot-and-sour drizzle that dresses a tangle of cold angel-hair-like noodles. Also look to the irresistible pan-fried and steamed dumplings—also known as buns—stuffed with juicy pork or beef and, to go with them, a counterbalancing plate of spicy pickled cucumbers.
Hollywood East Cafe (2621 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 240-290-9988; dim sum $2.50 to $4.95). The brunch “buffet” at this pink-walled and crystal-chandeliered dining room swings by your table via a fleet of carts laden with Chinese dim sum. Diaphanous shark-fin dumplings, shiny barbecue-pork buns, and tiny sautéed clams with garlicky black-bean sauce are choice picks. Pace yourself and be bold: Salt-and-pepper anchovies and crispy chicken feet are surprisingly delicious. Dim sum is a phrase that means “eat to your heart’s content,” and that’s the best way to revel in this feast.
Light Repasts, Euro-Style
Leopold’s Kafe & Konditorei (3315 Cady’s Alley, NW; 202-965-6005; entrées $8 to $15). It’s not brunch, it’s Frühstück—that’s German for “breakfast”—served daily at this Georgetown cafe until 4 pm. Later in the day, you’ll see lounging European transplants chatting in all kinds of accents and tucking into plates of simple “Leopold’s Fruehstueck”—eggs served the Viennese way, soft-boiled with cured and smoked ham. A more exciting weekend menu offers housemade knockwurst with eggs and a goat-cheese-and-cured-tomato omelet. Espresso machines whir all morning, and there are rich hazelnut linzertortes and not-overly-sweet apricot Sachertortes. Fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice is a nice foil to the wursts and buttery pastries.
Domku (821 Upshur St., NW; 202-722-7475; entrées $4.50 to $10). From the eclectic decor—mismatched sofas and sparkling chandeliers—to the Eastern European/Scandinavian theme, everything about this DC treasure feels novel. The Nordic eggs Benedict is a mini tower of toasted sourdough rounds layered with dill-flecked gravlax (a nice alternative to Canadian bacon) and cloudlike poached eggs. Then there’s the heart-shaped Swedish cardamom waffle, golden brown and glazed with maple syrup. Owner and former Peace Corps volunteer Kera Carpenter runs the place, serving bloody Domkus—made with red-chili-infused aquavit—while her seven-year-old daughter tags along delivering glasses of black-currant juice and the bill of fare at the end.
Lia’s (4435 Willard Ave., Chevy Chase; 240-223-5427; entrées $9.95 to $16.95). Crespelle is Italian for crepe. But don’t expect Gruyère-and-ham-filled rectangles at this Friendship Heights trattoria. These light crepes are slathered with mascarpone and a drizzle of blueberry and lemon zabaglione or layered napoleon-style with scrambled eggs, prosciutto, and arugula (a little overstuffed but pleasing). Largesse is a hallmark of all Geoff Tracy’s (a.k.a. Chef Geoff) restaurants, and Lia’s—with its convivial bar, brightly lit dining room, and sidewalk cafe—is no exception.
Indigo Landing (1 Marina Dr., Alexandria; 703-548-0001; $35 prix fixe). Forget tired omelets and warmed-over pancakes. Indigo shatters the buffet-brunch clichés with house-cured molasses salmon, roasted oysters, and steamed mussels. Jars of pimiento cheese and house-pickled cauliflower keep the Lowcountry vibe going; alas, the fabulous biscuits and jalapeño muffins don’t fare well on the buffet—they need to be hot. For the $35 tab you also get a glass of Barboursville Brut sparkling wine, an entrée like the luscious creamed-spinach omelet dressed with fried oysters, and a view of the Potomac and the monuments beyond.