Every year, Washingtonians eat out more. In DC, rising rents mean that fewer new restaurants meet The Washingtonian's definition of a bargain restaurant--a place where two people can eat well for $50 or less. In the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, bargain restaurants continue to open. Asian restaurants account for many of the openings, but classic American barbecue and almost-American pizza and pasta also make for good, cheap meals. Here are the very best places to eat without spending a lot of money.
These stylish northern Chinese dim sum parlors attract a young crowd. The Rockville branch has cinnamon-and-yellow walls and trapeze lighting; Annandale has faux stone and a mural of historic China. Unlike the typical Hong Kong-style dim sum palace, diners order from a menu rather than pointing to dishes on a cart.
Northern Chinese dim sum also favors bready items. Thousand-layer pancake is a many-layered flatbread to tear into hunks and dip in Chinese tea. A sesame-studded rectangle of flaky dough is filled with bits of meat, a sort of breakfast sandwich. You'll find fewer noodle dishes overall, but there is an offbeat take on sesame noodles--spicy and with a shake of peanut powder. Other taste sensations are stogie-size pork potstickers, cucumbers with hot garlic sauce, marinated razor-thin slices of pork and beef, and a wonderfully soothing bowl of steaming pork-and-mustard-green soup.A&J Restaurant, 1319-C Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-251-7878; 4316-B Markham St., Annandale, 703-813-8181. No credit cards.
When a restaurant combines good food and low prices with attractive decor, there's reason to celebrate. The tables here are well spaced, the chairs are comfortable, and Indian paintings and artifacts are illuminated by beams of light. Except for seafood, no dish costs more than $10. The menu is not long, but there are many excellent choices.
Appetizers come from the south of India as well as the north, such as Tandoori chicken wings and chicken chat, a mixture of chicken strips and vegetables served cold.
Excellent main courses are prawns bhuna, large shrimp sautéed in butter with herbs, greens peppers, onions, and tomato; the tandoori chicken served on a sizzling platter; lamb biryani made with saffron-flavored basmati rice; and lamb saagwala--lamb and spinach in a mixture of exotic herbs and spices. Ten vegetarian dishes will satisfy diners who eschew meat or simply want a delicious meal. The breads are good and cheap. The four Indian desserts are also bargains.Aarathi Indian Cuisine, 409 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-938-0100.
Indian restaurants have come and gone, but Aditi remains, dependable as an old friend, at the corner of M and 33rd streets in Georgetown. The restaurant looks better than ever. Two years ago the owners installed several large windows on the main level. It's much more inviting now--full of light during the day, a good place to watch Georgetown street life in the evening.
Appetizers break no new ground but are well prepared. Good choices include spicy Malabar prawns; Masala Paneer, grilled cheese cubes with bell pepper, tomatoes, and onions; and a nicely fried samosa stuffed with potatoes and peas. Among the main courses, two lamb dishes stand out: the moderately spicy lamb vindaloo with its vinegary tang, and a delicate lamb korma in a creamy sauce with almonds. Tandoori chicken on the bone is crisp-skinned and moist. Seafood dishes include a very good Malabar fish curry in a sauce of coconut milk and tomatoes, and the Konju Masala, shrimp sautéed with spices, tomatoes, and green peppers. Breads are delicious, particularly the Pudbina Paratha, sprinkled with mint leaves.Aditi, 3299 M St., NW; 202-625-6825. No wheelchair access.
This is a very good Japanese restaurant, but it is also the most expensive Virginia entry on the Best Bargain list. A few of the dishes, such as sukiyaki and yellowtail teriyaki, approach $20. But many preparations are much cheaper.
The sushi and sashimi are first-rate, with a few hard-to-find specials listed on the blackboard over the sushi counter. Many choices are $3.95 or lower, including tuna, salmon, shrimp, and surf clam. Good appetizers are the chicken yakitori; gyoza dumplings; very tender negimaki, slices of beef encircling scallions; and edamame, boiled and salted soybeans. A blackboard special of ika sansai--morsels of smoked squid with winter vegetables--is excellent.
Fine main courses under $15 are salmon teriyaki and the very impressive shrimp tempura. For under $12 you can get mixed tempura; chicken teriyaki; udon with fresh vegetables and egg with shrimp tempura on top; and katsu don, an omelet of breaded pork with sautéed onions and scallions.Akasaka, 514-C S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria; 703-751-3133. Closed for lunch Sunday.
AMMA INDIAN VEGETARIAN KITCHEN
The popularity of tandoori chicken and lamb curries tends to obscure the fact that many Indians are vegetarian, and a whole world of Indian vegetarian cooking seldom appears on the menus of local Indian restaurants.
The unpretentious Amma Indian Vegetarian Kitchen is a good place to explore the world of dosas--pancakes made of rice and lentil flour--one of southern India's favorite treats for mealtimes or snacks. You can order them plain or buttered, to eat as bread or wrapped around any number of vegetables and spices or cheese. The most popular dish on the menu may be the Masala Dosa, the crisp pancake wrapped around a flavorful mixture of mashed potato and onion.
There are delicious vegetable curries on the menu--chickpeas and potatoes; spinach and cheese; eggplant with tomato. Paired with the terrific deep-fried, puffy bread called poori, they make a satisfying light meal. Indian beer is a good accompaniment to the food, but there are also wines, juices, coffee, tea, and a selection of the yogurt drinks called lassis.Amma Indian Vegetarian Kitchen, 3291 M St., NW; 202-625-6625. No wheelchair access.
ANNIE'S PARAMOUNT STEAKHOUSE
Three great things about Annie's Paramount Steakhouse, a mostly gay but straight-friendly steakhouse on Dupont Circle's 17th Street dining strip: bargain-priced steaks, breakfast, and great burgers. The steak you get at Annie's is not the USDA Prime, dry-aged steak you'll find at Morton's or the Palm, but it's good quality beef, cooked to order, and at a price that gives you a satisfying dinner for less than the $50-a-couple Cheap Eats limit. Steaks are priced, depending on size, from $12.50 to $24.95. For that you get two sides--it's best to stick with a salad and French fries.
Breakfast at Annie's is served daily. It's a hearty three-eggs-plus-meat affair, not a brunch, and Annie's is one of the few places in town where you can order your eggs scrambled soft and have a good chance of getting them that way. Annie's burger, once limited to lunches and weekends but now available anytime, is very good--moist, cooked to order, and accompanied by thick-cut steak fries. If you venture much beyond the steaks, breakfast, and burgers on Annie's large menu, the results are less dependable.Annie's Paramount Steakhouse, 1609 17th St., NW; 202-232-0395. Open daily for lunch and dinner and continuously from 10 AM Friday to 1 AM Monday.
Thai art and elegant carved wooden screens take these modern Thai dining rooms into nice-enough-for-a-date territory. But nice doesn't mean tame--and the kitchen doesn't hold back on chili power. Thai salads and curries are as authentic as you'll find at traditional mom-and-pop places. And there's a bonus: more artful plates and better cuts of meat. Notable are red duck curry and green curry with a choice of meats and seafood. Both perfectly balance the fire of chilies with the sweetness of coconut. Dumplings fat with chives, an occasional special, are not one-biters--two or three is more like it. And spring rolls packed with chicken and carrots are as crisp as they get.
Noodle dishes like savory pad Thai and spicy see eew, both available with assorted meats and seafood, are jumbles of texture and flavor. Deep-fried duck may sound like a grease fest, but it's the dish everyone will want a second go at. Thai beers, colorful fresh-fruit daiquiris, and Thai coffee and Thai iced tea are the drinks of choice. The last two are sweet enough to pass for dessert if sticky rice with mango fails to entice.Benjarong Thai Restaurant, 885 Rockville Pike (Wintergreen Plaza), Rockville; 301-424-5533. No Sunday lunch.
Half the fun of going to Bob's Noodle is Bob. He's the owner, he's funny, and he's invaluable when it comes to ordering from this vast Taiwanese menu. You can go offbeat with items like snails with Chinese basil or traditional with the likes of Chinese watercress with garlic. Rock-bottom prices encourage taking a chance on unknowns. You'll discover that shrimp with loofah, a variant on the Brillo-like sponge you're supposed to use to exfoliate, is blissfully edible. The same goes for eggs with dried radish, not high on sex appeal but pleasing all the same.
Kidneys with sesame oil and duck blood with leeks may be over the top for some, but they have their fans. Five-flavor red snapper is easy to love, as are deep-fried cod with basil and red-chili beef. The oversize papaya milkshake is really a bubble drink with blueberry-size tapioca balls. Liquor, beer, and wine can be had as well. Save room for the dessert extravaganza, Taiwanese shaved ice, a mound of ice flooded with condensed milk and lychee, red bean, and taro syrups. It's almost as much fun as Bob.Bob's Noodle, 305 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-315-6668. No credit cards.
Bombay Bistro is one of those restaurants you'll want to return to again and again. It's not that the menu is never-ending; it's just that these expertly turned-out renditions of northern and southern Indian fare shine brighter than at most other restaurants. Take the dal--no big deal in most places. Here it's thicker and smokier than most, worth ordering as a starter to swipe with torn naan or poori rather than relegating it to the sidelines. Other zippy classics include shrimp curry, lamb vindaloo, and a potato- and onion-filled dosa, the airy mega-size southern Indian crepe.
House specialties like spicy lamb with cilantro or rockfish cooked in the tandoor may mean skimping elsewhere to stay in the Cheap Eats price range, but they're worth splurging for. The larger Fairfax location has more going on in the glamour department. Rockville, where an open kitchen allows you to commune with the cooks, feels more like home.Bombay Bistro, 98 W. Montgomery Ave., Rockville, 301-762-8798; 3570 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, 703-359-5810.
BOMBAY CURRY COMPANY
At a time when many Indian restaurants, including Haandi and Jaipur, have priced themselves off of the Best Bargain list, it is reassuring to see this fine restaurant continue to offer good Indian food at reasonable prices--$10.50 is about as high as a main course goes. The restaurant pleases the eye as well as the palate. The cozy dining room is strewn with Indian rugs and wall hangings.
Despite its southern name, most of the dishes originate in the north of India, where the spice level is more moderate than in the fiery south. Two good appetizers are the chat papri, a many textured salad that includes yogurt, chickpeas, and rice crisps, and bhaji, potato-onion fritters. Tandoori cooking is a specialty, and diners would do well to order chicken or lamb cooked in the clay oven. Good curries abound. Try the spicy lamb vindaloo, the fenugreek-laced fish curry from Goa, the creamy butter chicken, and one of the saffron-infused biryanis made with basmati rice. There's a selection of very good vegetarian dishes, including eggplant, potato, chickpeas, and house-made cheese. Don't forget the tandoor-roasted naan and roti.Bombay Curry Company, 3110 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-836-6363.
Very good food, reasonable prices, and an attractive setting help this restaurant pull in more than its share of diners from the Indian-American community. Paintings of former maharajas and maharanis adorn the walls. The ceilings are high and the chairs comfortable. Whether it's for the daily buffet, the more elaborate weekend buffet, or the regular dinner menu, the place is worth a visit. Prices are moderate--only seafood and lamb chops cost more than $11.95.
A good starter is the assorted kabob platter, which serves two or three, or you can order one of the individual appetizer kabobs, such as the chicken tikka with mint or the lamb seekh kabob made with minced lamb. Other good choices are the deep-fried pakoras and samosas and the aloo papri chat, a combination of chopped potatoes, garbanzos, crisp rice cakes, yogurt, and tamarind chutney.
The main-course tandoor dishes are very good--try the chicken, lamb chops, or prawns, or, if in a spending mood, the house assortment. Butter chicken, spicy lamb vindaloo, and coconut-flavored fish curry are highly recommended, too. The sauceless biryani dishes provide a good complement to the curries. Vegetarian specialties are all under $9. Don't forget to include one or more of the Indian breads.Bombay Tandoor, 8643 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-734-2202.
The reason to go to Mark Furstenburg's Bread Line is the quality of the food, not the ambience--the place is noisy and chaotic--or the service, which is minimal. A lunchtime clientele crowds the place daily for the great bread and bread-based food--sandwiches, knishes, empanadas, topped breads like pizza, and grilled breads, such as piedini. There are two soups every day--the Mediterranean fish soup is terrific--plus six salads and a selection of small pastries for dessert.
The menu varies seasonally--maybe a great barbecue sandwich or fork-tender beef brisket in the winter, and one of the best BLTs around in the summer. A recent innovation has been the Lexington Burrito Wrap--nicely seasoned ground beef and cheese in a tortilla. Bread Line's sandwiches are the best in town. Order them for takeout or go before or after the lunch-hour rush to enjoy them.Bread Line, 1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900. Open Monday through Friday until 3:30 PM.
The Bubba of Bubba's comes to Falls Church from Iran via Memphis (Tennessee, not Egypt), where he learned his stuff. As is evident from the decor, dominated by statuettes and pictures of pigs, his restaurant is dedicated to pork. The ribs come both dry-style, with the spices rubbed into the meat, and wet, with a Memphis-style sauce. Diners who like a tart bite in the finish should order the ribs dry and add one of the sauces on the table. Tomato-based, mustard-based, vinegar, and hot sauces are there for the taking. Pulled pork and minced pork are other winners.
Bubba does other meats. On a recent visit the barbecue chicken was excellently seasoned and unusually moist. Beef brisket has just enough fat to bring the flavor out. Other choices are smoked London broil and pulled chicken. The menu includes some deli favorites and even an Atkins special. The sides are typical--the spiced fried potatoes, cole slaw, and baked beans outshone the overcooked string beans and dull onion rings. Beer lovers will be pleased--a 16-ounce draught of Budweiser is $1.75, a bottle of Samuel Adams just $2.75.Bubba's Bar-B-Q, 7810-F Lee Hwy., Falls Church (Merrifalls Plaza); 703-560-8570. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.
This modest Chinatown restaurant--it's on the second floor--specializes in the delicious and unfamiliar cooking of the country now called Myanmar. Although the cooking style and ingredients will be familiar to patrons who have eaten other Southeast Asian cuisines, Burma has a few unusual dishes that should be part of an initial encounter with its cooking. First is the pickled green-tea-leaf salad, a mixture of tea leaves, ground shrimp, and ground peanuts that is a marvelous combination of flavors and textures.
More familiar appetizers are spareribs glazed with honey and basil, and crisp-fried, almost greaseless spring rolls. Another characteristic Burmese dish, and one that Burma Restaurant does very well, is pickled mustard greens with a choice of chicken, pork, or shrimp--the pork is particularly delicious. The taste of the mustard greens and pork will be a delight to any Southerner who grew up putting pepper sauce on mustard greens. The menu includes a number of curries--chicken curry with potatoes is very good--and noodle dishes. Kaukswe Thoke, noodles with ground shrimp, hot pepper, garlic, and lemon juice, tastes spritely and fresh.Burma Restaurant, 740 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-1280. No lunch on weekends. Call to arrange wheelchair access.
CACTUS CANTINA AND LAURIOL PLAZA
Cleveland Park and Dupont Circle
These popular Tex-Mex restaurants have the same owners and, except for some Latin American dishes at Lauriol Plaza, the same menus. Lauriol Plaza is a phenomenon: At dinner time on weekdays, and from opening to closing on weekends, the place is packed with a young crowd drawn by the beer and margaritas, the outdoor seating on the sidewalk and top-floor deck, and the inexpensive Tex-Mex fare.
Plates of enchiladas, tacos, chiles rellenos, and combination platters are the most popular items on the menu, and they are a cut above those found in the run of Mexican-Salvadoran restaurants in this area. The best eating on the menus is found among the grilled specialities, all cooked over mesquite wood and charcoal. Tacos al Carbon and Fajitas al Carbon, filled with either beef or chicken, are the best in town. Grilled quail are terrific. Grilled shrimp, never dry, are very good. These are available on combination platters, and any one of the platters, perhaps preceded by a single tamale, will give you more than enough for a meal.Cactus Cantina, 3300 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-686-7222. Lauriol Plaza, 1835 18th St., NW; 202-387-0035.
This stylish Turkish restaurant, with windows on both sides of its narrow dining room, is on a triangular lot across Wisconsin Avenue from the Georgetown Safeway. As at any Middle Eastern restaurant, the way to start is with a selection of mezze: hummus, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, chicken with walnut sauce, or Sigara Bórek, deep-fried cigar-shaped rolls of feta cheese and parsley.
The main attractions here are the kebabs, particularly the wonderful doner kebab, a Turkish specialty in which layers of lamb and veal are alternated on a vertical spit, then shaved off in thin slices. Often restricted to particular days at other Turkish restaurants, it is available daily here. Other good kebab choices are yogurtlu kebab, made from beef tenderloin, and the terrific adana kebab, spicy ground beef and onions roasted on a charcoal grill. Another treat, available only on Thursdays, is a whole roast baby lamb.
Pide, Turkish pizzas from the wood-burning oven, make a good light meal or shared appetizer. The Sucuk Pide, with spicy sausage, cheese, chopped tomatoes, and black olives, is particularly delicious.Cafe Divan, 1834 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-338-1747.
A small place with bare-bones decor, Cafe Monti is an eatery of impressive range and variety. Diners order at a counter and take their seats until a server delivers the food to the table. After eating, customers bus their own tables. The kitchen offers specialties of Austria and Italy--nothing fancy, just honest food and reasonable prices.
Good choices from the Italian list are the capellini with basil and tomato sauce, linguine with clams in a sauce with clam juice and butter, spaghetti and meatballs, and grilled Italian sausage with green peppers, onions, and a side of spaghetti. Asparagus is a very good bet in season. Austrian specialties include Wiener schnitzel with roast potatoes and goulash with bread dumplings. Subs are good, too. House-made desserts are a specialty--try the apple strudel, Italian-style cheesecake, the pear tart, or the blueberry tart. There is a very good selection of beers, including several from Austria, and drinkable wine for $12.95 a carafe.Cafe Monti, 3250 Duke St., Alexandria; 703-370-3632. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday.
This handsome Mediterranean bistro is perfectly located for a meal before or after a movie at the Cineplex Odeon theaters around the corner, but it's so good that you might find yourself looking for other excuses to go to Tenleytown. For most diners, the centerpiece of the menu is the selection of pan-Mediterranean mezze. The menu recommends three per person as a meal, but most people would find two sufficient--you can always order more if you're still hungry.
Among the highlights are a terrific tagine of lamb served over couscous; a grilled lamb kebab served over a purée of roasted eggplant and pepper; grilled Merguez sausages with tomatoes over garlic mashed potatoes; and for vegetarians, a grilled portobello mushroom topped with caramelized onions and goat cheese. An inexpensive and well-chosen wine list works well with this spicy cooking.Café Olé, 4000 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-244-1330.
CAFE PARISIEN EXPRESS
The motto on the menu tells the story--"French cuisine made affordable." The restaurant is short on frills, but it delivers with good, down-to-earth French food. The main dining area is colorful; posters and prints adorn the walls. Diners place and pick up their orders at a counter. With minor exceptions, everything is house-made.
The menu ranges from sandwiches and salads to more elaborate dishes; daily specials include a fish preparation. House specialties include escargots served in hollowed-out slices of baguette; onion soup; a selection of quiches; and crepes. A slice of quiche with a house salad for $8.75 is a good choice. Other winners are Brie or pâté on a croissant or baguette with a salad. Main courses of a roasted half chicken and steak frites are dependable. Desserts of crepes, crème caramel, and tarts are good endings. For breakfast, nothing beats the omelets. Wines are drinkable and well priced.Café Parisien Express, 4520 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-525-3332. Open Monday through Saturday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, brunch on Sunday. No credit cards accepted; checks accepted with proper ID.
Vic Kreidl cooked all over Europe before becoming chef at Tiberio, an upscale DC dining emporium that was the area's top Italian restaurant a generation ago. A visit to Cafe Tirolo proves that he hasn't let his cooking standards slip, although one must be willing to accept ordering at a counter to enjoy his very good Italian and Austrian cooking at bargain prices.
The permanent menu has many treats, including excellent soups like minestrone, lentil, and thick goulash. A recent special of cream of asparagus soup was wonderful. Pastas are almost always terrific--made to order and served al dente. Other winners are veal scallopine, grilled Italian sausage, and Wiener schnitzel. Good beers are available from the Old Country. Desserts are house-made and excellent. Try the almond pear tart and the ricotta cheesecake, and wash them down with first-rate espresso. The wine list is short but adequate.Cafe Tirolo, 4001 N. Fairfax Dr. (behind Tara Thai), Arlington; 703-528-7809. Open Monday through Thursday for lunch and dinner; Friday for lunch only.
Barbecue lovers in DC have two good choices. Those for whom barbecue means pork--which is most of the South--head to Rocklands for the best pork ribs in town. Those from the beef belt--that is, Texas--go to Capital Q for the long-cooked beef brisket. Owner Nick Fontana's tiny Chinatown establishment doesn't have many seats, and it's closed up tight by 7 on weeknights and 8 on Friday and Saturday, but it's worth planning ahead to eat that great brisket on a sandwich, on a platter, or in bulk to take home.
In Texas, a link or two of spicy sausage is a traditional accompaniment, but Capital Q also has good potato salad, black-eyed pea salad ("Texas Caviar"), collard greens, and black beans. For dessert, there's pecan pie and banana pudding.Capital Q, 707 H St., NW; 202-347-8396. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
China Garden is on the mezzanine floor of an office building in Rosslyn. Luckily, the large Chinese-American community in the area knows where to find the place, which offers some of the best Cantonese cooking around. The excellent weekend dim sum draws large crowds.
Instead of appetizers, which rarely shine in Chinese restaurants, try ordering one of the elaborate soups for two or more. Sliced winter melon with chicken, or mustard greens with roast duck, are pleasing choices. The menu is big and ranges from the standard Chinese-American dishes to exotic combinations. Consider pan-fried whole flounder Cantonese style, crispy duck stuffed with mashed taro, shredded chicken with chili and black-bean sauce, grilled shrimp with the head and shell left on, huge baked oysters with black-bean sauce, and sizzling chicken with either eggplant or tofu with salty fish in a casserole. There are excellent thin, medium, and thick noodle dishes and a large variety of vegetable dishes, such as baby bok choy and mixed vegetables Buddhist-style (totally vegetarian with few customary ingredients).China Garden, 1100 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn; 703-525-5317.
It takes a bit of doing, but you can put together a remarkable meal at this family-run Chinese eatery. Ask for a Chinese menu, which has more home-style dishes than the one usually handed out to Westerners. There's also a short Thai menu, but it seems to attract mostly the takeout crowd.
China Star is known for its noodles, hand-pulled from a big blob of rice dough, so a tureen of noodle soup--be it seafood, pork and Szechuan radish, or spicy beef--is a fine idea. Other flavor explosions are spicy wontons with chili sauce; camphor tea-smoked duck; pork with snow cabbage and soybeans; and shrimp with snow-pea leaves. A few northern Chinese dim sum offerings, like steamed pork buns and flaky Chinese flatbread filled sandwich-style with lamb and pork, can be had all day. The daring will want to try such delicacies as shredded jellyfish, sliced pig ears moistened with chili oil, and "100-year-old eggs," which taste better than they sound--or look. Taro-sesame cake and eight-treasure rice cake make for a sweet end.China Star, 18204 Contour Rd. (behind Lakeforest Mall), Gaithersburg; 301-947-0104.
Until a year ago this was a neighborhood restaurant serving Chinese-American cooking. Then it added 100 authentic Szechuan dishes--the kind the Chinese eat in the provinces, which makes China Star one of the very few places in the region where you can get that interesting cuisine. The old menu remains, so diners can choose from a wide range of Chinese-American and authentic Szechuan dishes. Many of the latter are spicy; the degree of heat is indicated by one chili pepper, two chili peppers, or a star, which means, according to the restaurant, that the dish is "numbing."
The appetizer list is long, varied, and appealing. Try room-temperature salty duck, mixed-flavor chicken, or five-spice bean curd, or warm crispy shredded tofu. Northern-style dim sum is available, too--among the treats are pork scallion pie, baby wantons with chili sauce, and steamed dumplings. Good main courses are spicy beef shank, braised fish, filet mignon with sour mustard, Lake Windless prawn, and, for the daring, princess pig's feet. Beer starts at $2.50 a bottle.China Star, 9600-G Main St., Fairfax; 703-323-8822.
The floor show at this modest Chinatown restaurant, best viewed from the sidewalk in front, is a chef who makes fresh noodles in the front window. He mixes and stretches the dough, folds it back on itself, restretches it, repeats the procedure several times, gives it a snap, and it collapses into perfectly formed noodles. The appreciative audience on the sidewalk often applauds.
The dumplings, lai mein, are served--either stir-fried or boiled--as meal-in-a-bowl soups with a slice of beef or chicken for the low price of $4.95. The other main attraction at Chinatown Express is the Shanghai soup dumpling, listed on the menu as "Steamed Bun (Pork) (8 pieces)." These dumplings filled with broth are a bit of a challenge to eat but worth the effort.Chinatown Express, 746 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-0425. No wheelchair access.
While there's a lot of talk about "the new U Street," the neighborhood is stronger in music and clubbing than in good places to eat. A delicious exception is Coppi's Organic, run by chef Elizabeth Bright and her husband, Pierre Mattia. When the Bright-Mattias also ran Coppi's Vigorelli on Connecticut Avenue, the U Street location was known mostly as a pizza parlor, and Coppi's still makes one of the best authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas in town.
Less well known is that Coppi's also offers a daily-changing selection of antipasti, pastas, meat and fish dishes, and desserts, which are Italian in inspiration and made from the best organic ingredients chef Bright can find. A recent dinner menu featured vegetable antipasto of asparagus, fava beans, and English peas, sautéed in house-made basil-pesto sauce--delicate, delicious, and startlingly fresh tasting. Ravioli were filled with a mixture of borage, nettles, and ricotta, and sauced with a fresh asparagus pesto. A sensational pasta dish combined trenette with organic New York strip steak, tomato, porcini mushrooms, and pine nuts.
Full orders of these main courses are not cheap. What makes Coppi's a bargain is that they may be ordered as half-portions for around $12 or $13. Combine one of these small plates with a salad or appetizer, and you'll come in well under $50 for two.Coppi's Organic, 1414 U St., NW; 202-319-7773. Open for dinner daily.
There is lots of color here, some of it supplied by waitresses in traditional Thai silk. Pretty lighting and a relaxed atmosphere make Crystal Thai enjoyable for fine Thai cooking. Good service and unusually low prices--few main courses exceed $9--make it a very good value, especially because Crystal Thai prides itself on using fresh ingredients. Let your server know if you want your food spicy.
When soft-shell crabs are in season, they're a must, though they're not cheap. The restaurant offers up to nine versions, including one with chili sauce and one with Thai basil. Another good high-end dish is the crispy fish in chili sauce. Good lower-priced items are pork sautéed with garlic sauce; thick drunken noodles; and chicken stir-fried with onions and peppers. Thai curries--red, yellow, and green--are different from Indian curries in that they're made with curry paste and coconut milk. Singha beer is one of the best you can find.Crystal Thai, 4819 N. First St., Arlington; 703-522-1311.
The wall at this strip-mall storefront is a who's who of Cuban luminaries, from household names like Gloria Estefan to lesser knowns like Nils Diaz, head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Where there aren't photos and placards, vivid murals of beach scenes and palm trees cover the walls.
Food is plentiful, homey, and cheap. Start with an empanada of cheese and green olives, ham croquettes, or yucca fritters. Stars of the menu are fork-tender cubes of pork sautéed with thinly sliced red onion, green olives, and pimentos; ropa vieja in dark meaty gravy; a cumin-scented sauté of red snapper filets; and the Cubano sandwich. Rice and garlic-scented black beans are worthy accompaniments, and fried plantains add a jolt of sweetness. For dessert, go exotic with guava and cream cheese; for comfort with sweet rice pudding; or lush with a thick mango milkshake. And remember, Cuban cigars may be banned in the United States, but Hatuey beer--now distributed in Baltimore--is a Cuban treasure worth trying.Cuban Corner, 825 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 301-279-0310. Closed Sunday.
DRAGON CHINESE RESTAURANT
Northern Chinese dim sum all day, every day. A light-filled dining room with persimmon walls and gray wainscoting. A Chinese-English menu for every diner, Chinese or Western. And an owner who's happy to answer culinary questions. What more could you ask for? Chicken wings marinated in rice wine? Spicy wontons in red chili sauce? Don't expect them to show up on carts Hong Kong-style. Here you order dim sum from the menu.
Soups and rice dishes are homier propositions--wheat-noodle soup with fried pork chops and fried chicken with mustard pickle over rice really hum. Noodles with ground pork, shredded cucumber, and bean paste are good. Pork rolls or beef rolls--hoisin-dabbed pancakes rolled with paper-thin slices of meat and scallions--add to the fun. So is the pancake that pulls apart to reveal layers of flaky dough. More unusual are pan-fried beef buns--hamburger-shaped rounds filled with beef or pork and a dollop of gelatin that melts when they're seared in the wok. Fire-breathers will want to test their mettle with roasted beef noodle soup. After all the heat, a cool bubble drink--made from tea, coffee, or fruit juice--with jumbo tapioca pearls is just the thing.Dragon Chinese Restaurant, 227 Muddy Branch Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-330-6222.
Seven Corners is the spot for excellent Chinese food in Northern Virginia. Two recent arrivals, Dragon Star and Lucky Three, join Mark's Duck House to make the intersection a destination on any tour of the area's best Chinese restaurants. Dragon Star is in the Eden Center, a bustling hub for the area's Vietnamese community. Menus of the Chinese restaurants are written in Chinese, English, and Vietnamese.
Hanging on hooks near the front of the restaurant are roasted ducks, chicken, pork loin, and pig. But the more interesting items are in the tanks--fish, lobster, Dungeness crab, and sometimes eel and shrimp. Order the larger seafood with ginger and scallions, and the smaller creatures, including clams and oysters, with black-bean sauce. Good land-based dishes are the deboned and stuffed taro duck with brown sauce, eggplant in hot sauce in a casserole, pepper-salt pork chops, and house lo mein. The soups, including Hong Kong-style noodle soups and yellow leek with dried scallop soup, are worth a try, and the dim sum served at lunch is excellent.Dragon Star, 6793 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church (Eden Center); 703-533-8340.
Duangrat's is the only restaurant to win both a Blue Ribbon Award on the January list of 100 Very Best Restaurants and a place in June's 100 Best Bargain Restaurants. With white tablecloths, fresh flowers, crystal chandeliers, and striking artifacts, this Thai restaurant is a place for a special night out. Most remarkable is that the food is elaborate and refined--and affordable. With the exception of a few signature and seafood dishes, almost nothing is over $12, and many dishes are under $10. Professional service accompanies the fine food.
Appetizers start at $3.50 and go to $7.95 for some that are large enough to share. Good choices are the salmon-and-ginger salad, duck with cucumber salad, grilled beef with red onion, chilies, and lime juice, and Shell Sea--shredded shrimp and crabmeat with coconut and cilantro in crispy rice paper. Good main courses are catfish with red chili paste; beef or pork with fried garlic cloves; Panang chicken with coconut-peanut sauce and basil; a trio of bronzed quail with white pepper, soy sauce, and steamed garlic; and tofu with ginger-bean sauce. An excellent nonalcoholic drink is Thai iced tea with a dollop of half-and-half.Duangrat's, 5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-5775.
After disappearing for a couple of years when its original Seventh Street location fell to redevelopment, Eat First came back in 2001 and regained its position as one of Chinatown's most accomplished--and friendliest--eating establishments. Your server will be happy to discuss the menu and make recommendations about what is particularly fresh or unusual, though there are many dishes on the regular menu that are seldom found elsewhere. Excellent bets include live shrimp of wonderful sweetness, steamed and served in their shell; Fantail Shrimp with Old Fashion Jiannan Special Sauce; shrimp cake with Chinese broccoli; spicy pork and eggplant served in a clay pot; and wonderful crisp-skinned, tender roast duck.Eat First, 609 H St., NW; 202-289-1703. No wheelchair access.
It's easy to let cares slip away in this colorful Salvadoran cantina. Margaritas are strong and tart, portions generous, and servers friendly. Weekends bring live musicians to the tiny stage, and recorded tunes keep the vibe going other times. Culinary treasures are many, starting with the warm, piquant salsa. It makes a fine dip for chips, taquitos (corn tortillas rolled with shredded beef and deep fried), and steamed pork tamales that have the sweetness and texture of corn pudding. Other worthy beginnings are pupusas filled with ground pork and cheese and fried yucca with crunchy pork cracklings, also known as chicharron.
Two soups are attention-getters, one featuring tripe and the other shrimp--the latter a briny broth studded with shellfish, cilantro, and whole hard-cooked eggs, which really make the dish. More-conventional choices--chiles rellenos, enchiladas verdes, and fajitas of juicy chicken or beef--are good, too. About the only downer is the too-long-in-the-fridge guacamole that accompanies many of the plates. If you're a guac hound, spring for a bowl as an appetizer, which sports big hunks of avocado and is good enough to eat with a spoon.El Gavilan, 8805 Flower Ave., Silver Spring; 301-587-4197.
Out on the patio, families enjoy triple-decker tea sandwiches, savory tarts, and flaky empanadas. Inside, fans watch soccer, place orders for edibles and bakery goods, and pick up five-pound bags of yerba mate, the Latin American cure-all tea, from the grocery shelves. A popular stomping ground for Argentine expats and homesick Latinos, the cafe has more-substantial items on its menu--these days, steak, fried fish, and, if you dare, cow tongue--but the best morsels are still those involving bread or pastry.
Savory tarts--Argentina's retort to the quiche--come in various guises: with ham, cheese, and eggs; spinach and Parmesan; chicken and green and red peppers. There are also Spanish tortillas--thick omelets cut into pie-shaped wedges and eaten at room temperature. Empanadas range from the classic beef with olives and hard-cooked eggs to the odd but delicious corn with bechamel. Most satisfying are the sandwiches on fresh-baked breads. Standouts include Argentine sausages on a house-made baguette; proscuitto with cheese on a soft roll called pebete; and any of the triple deckers called migas. Sweets sporting dulce de leche dominate--get the one with the largest dollop of that sugar-and-cream elixir you can find.El Patio, 12303 Twinbrook Pkwy., Rockville; 301-231-9225.
EL POLLO RICO
Henry Ford said of his cars that you could have any color you liked as long as it was black. El Pollo Rico takes a similar approach: You can have any entrée you want as long as it is rotisserie chicken. Although chicken outlets have proliferated, including many with Peruvian roots, none surpasses this long-standing favorite.
Service is rudimentary. Walk along a counter, give your order for a quarter, half, or whole chicken, and watch as it is pulled from the rows of birds revolving against a searing fire, quartered or halved, and set on a Styrofoam plate. While the blistered fowl look great, it is the marinade--a closely guarded secret--that does the trick. Choose among sides of crisp fries, tortillas, or excellent coleslaw. Added to the plates are small containers of hot sauce and a milder yellow-mustard-mayonnaise sauce.
If that isn't enough food, begin with a chicken empanada, which is not quite up to the standard of the main event, or end with a dessert of flan or alfajores--shortbread cookies with a caramel filling. Sweet-toothed patrons might try the Inca Kola from Peru.El Pollo Rico, 932 N. Kenmore St., Arlington, 703-522-3220; 2541 Ennalls Ave., Wheaton, 301-942-4419.
El Tapatio is a family affair, and the efforts of this enterprising clan are not in vain. House-made tortillas are singular--you can take home a stack of five for $1--and so are many of the classic Mexican dishes.
El Tapatio is not Tex-Mex, or Cal-Mex, or Salvadoran-Mex. Its menu is devoted to authentic Mexican and Guadalajaran dishes. Huevos rancheros are the real thing. So are enchiladas blanketed with earthy mole sauce, soft chicken and pork tacos, and one of the best renditions of chiles rellenos around--poblano chilies sheathed in airy egg batter and filled sparingly with cheese. Chilequiles--a humble plate of torn tortillas, cheese, and chilies--is a hall-of-famer. And little things are done right, too, like chips made from those fabulous tortillas, guacamole, and warm salsa that's just piquant enough to make you reach for another sip of Tecate.El Tapatio, 4309 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg; 301-403-8882.
Stark white walls, framed photos of Kabul and Kandahar, and Afghan textiles make a striking backdrop for this cuisine that eats like a cross between India and the Middle East. Kabobs, eggplant, and basmati rice are all here. But it's a pasta dish that gets raves: Oversize squares are filled with scallions (aushak) or meat (mantu), then finished with dabs of tomato and yogurt. They are seductive, and it's tempting to order a platter of each and be done with it.
But the menu offers other pleasures. Deep-fried savory turnovers filled with meat or potatoes--basically Afghan samosas--make a good beginning. If vegetables are your thing, consider kadu--sautéed pumpkin with yogurt and tomato--and badenjan, an intensely flavored eggplant stew. Kabobs come in various guises, but cumin-scented kofta is the standout. Quabili Pallow--rice punctuated with lamb bits, raisins, and shredded carrots--adds fun to the party. And the aptly named Elephant Ears--coiled fried rounds of dough dusted with sugar--are just the thing with cardamom-spiced tea.Faryab Afghan, 4917 Cordell Ave. Bethesda; 301-951-3484.
Alexandria, Springfield, Herndon, Manassas, Woodbridge, DC
In one sense these eateries are fast-food restaurants: Patrons order at a counter then wait for their numbers to be called, the menu focuses on burgers and hot dogs, service is quick, and prices are low. But it breaks the mold in one important respect--the freshly prepared items are first-rate. If you love burgers, this is the place to go.
The basic burger is $3.79, with cheese or bacon a half-dollar more, both for a dollar more. Toppings, such as fried onions, or mushrooms, are free. Grilled hot dogs are $2.49. The fries are sliced daily with the skin on and fried in peanut oil to a perfect crispness. The standard portion, which is sizable, sets you back $1.79. There is also a freebie: a tub of roasted peanuts in the middle of the dining area, from which you can nibble while waiting for your order to be called or treat them as a garnish to go with the hamburgers and fries. Soft drinks are the beverage of choice.Five Guys, West Alexandria, 703-671-1606; Old Town Alexandria, 703-549-7991; Fairfax County, 703-717-0090; Springfield, 703-913-1337; Herndon, 703-860-9100; Manassas, 703-368-8080; Woodbridge, 703-492-8882; Downtown DC, 202-393-2900; Northwest DC, 202-986-2235.
FLAVORS SOUL FOOD
This fine eatery concentrates on food, much of which awaits customers on steam tables--an appropriate treatment for many soul-food dishes, which benefit from steeping in their own juices. Flavors is a hangout where regulars sit around and talk or watch sporting events.
The fryer is king here, with fried chicken, thin pork chops, and fish--usually whole croaker, whiting filets, or sea-trout filets--among the most popular and successful dishes. These dishes are cooked to order, so don't expect to pop into and out of Flavors like you would a fast-food factory.
Other simple pleasures are the meaty ribs, macaroni-and-cheese, and pork barbecue, all with accompaniments of collard greens, potatoes with gravy, and black-eyed peas when you order a dinner rather than a sandwich. There is a full bar as well as beer and soft drinks. The favorite dessert of many is the sweet-potato pie, but the cakes and fruit cobblers have their followings.Flavors Soul Food, 3420 Carlyn Hill Dr., Falls Church; 703-379-4411. Closed Monday.
There really are four sisters. And then the brothers and parents--this is the consummate family restaurant. Service is impressive. The dining room, while not luxurious, is nicely decorated and comfortable. The restaurant is in the southwest corner of the Eden Center, where the Vietnamese community keeps a vigilant watch on its restaurants.
The menu is big--more than 200 items. Familiar items seem to be better here than just about anywhere else. Among them are starters of crispy spring rolls, stuffed crab claws with shrimp paste, and green papaya salad with shrimp and pork. The deep-brown roasted quail are excellent. For an inexpensive lunch--around $6.50--try grilled pork chops or lemongrass chicken over rice or rice vermicelli. More substantial fare includes beef sautéed with eggplant, caramelized shrimp with onions, curry chicken in coconut milk with a spicy sauce, and tofu sautéed with mixed vegetables. For a splurge, try the crispy jumbo shrimp sautéed with black-bean sauce, or the whole fish steamed, deep-fried, or grilled.Four Sisters (Huong Que), 6769 Wilson Blvd. (Eden Center), Falls Church; 703-538-6717.
Near panic ensued among Chinese food aficionados this past year when Full Kee closed for remodeling. It is open again and in a spruced-up interior is again serving some of the best food in Chinatown. No visit to Full Kee is complete without a bowl of the Hong Kong-style shrimp-dumpling soup--thin wrappers plump with shrimp in a bowl of rich broth with a sprinkle of green onion.
Depending on the size of your party, you might follow your soup with one or more of the dishes for which Full Kee is justly well known: the wonderful oyster casserole with ginger and scallions; clams in black-bean sauce; snow-pea leaves stir-fried with garlic; chicken-and-eggplant casserole; or tofu stuffed with shrimp.Full Kee, 509 H St., NW; 202-371-2233. No credit cards. No wheelchair access.
If you're after weekend dim sum, arrive early: After 1 or so, the pickings get slim. This is the place to try the stuffed duck's feet, beef innards with turnip, and chicken feet with black-bean sauce. Less esoteric plates also grace the carts that make the rounds in this lively Hong Kong-style dining room. Baked roast pork buns, pan-fried pork-and-chive dumplings, beef shu mai, and slippery rice-noodle crepes filled with shrimp or beef are among the treasures. Offerings are not as numerous as those at New Fortune in Gaithersburg or Oriental East in Silver Spring, but there's plenty to satisfy. There are also several sweet options, including shiny baked pineapple buns and crunchy fried sesame-seed dumplings.
From the menu you can assemble a repast with the likes of Cantonese-style roast duck or fried chicken, an oyster casserole thick with ginger and scallions, beef chow foon noodles, and sautéed greens--get the Chinese watercress with garlic if it's available. If you've never had Hong Kong-style chow mein, this is the place to sample it. Forget the goop of your childhood. The dish put before you here is another experience entirely.Good Fortune, 2646 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-929-8818.
This fine Mexican restaurant sits in a strip mall that houses the very good restaurant Ray's the Steaks and another Best Bargain winner, Pho 75. The menu here is not long, but the quality is high, the prices are good, the food is authentic.
Start with the house-made tortilla chips and salsa and the big margaritas. The menu includes the standard items plus a number of more-elaborate dishes, all excellently prepared. Appetizers of queso fundido, guacamole, and tamales are good. Main-course successes include tacos, enchiladas, and chimichangas, but there are also very good shrimp and steak fajitas either grilled or sautéed with onions. The star is the chicken mole, made with a sauce of unsweetened chocolate, chilies, cumin, cinnamon, and other spices atop a chicken breast. For dessert try the sopapillas, deep-fried bread puffs topped with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, served with or without ice cream.Guajillo, 1727 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-807-0840. Closed for Saturday lunch.
HALF MOON BBQ
Barbecue, blues, beer--Half Moon delivers it all. And you don't have to settle for one region's smoked bliss over another's. You can sample it all--North Carolina pulled pork, Memphis pork ribs, and Texas hot links--courtesy of combo plates. Or gorge on a rack of ribs. And don't forget the sauce. One secret of good barbecue is hickory smoke, another is the sauce--one with just the right amount of zip. Half Moon's leans in the direction of North Carolina, fiery and vinegary at the same time. Sides of potato salad, hand-cut fries, and slaw take blue ribbons.
Not a barbecue fan? There's a great burger and a decent fried-catfish sandwich, too. Beers on tap include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Pilsner Urquell, both of which mate well with barbecue, and there are some 50 others to choose from. As for the blues--and rockabilly and zydeco--live bands play five nights a week. Longtime music fixture Bill Kirchen may have made tracks for Austin, but Half Moon rocks on.Half Moon BBQ, 8235 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-585-1290. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
HOLLYWOOD EAST CAFÉ
So much food, so little time--it's just another reason to become a regular here. Make a meal of Hong Kong-style noodle soup--shrimp dumpling is a steaming bowl that chases away the blues. Or try flounder, fresh from the tank, steeped in ginger, or any pan-fried fish sprinkled with spring onions and soy sauce. Salt-baked shrimp (really sautéed) to peel and eat are finger lickers. Ditto for clams with bean sauce and conch with chives.
Tantalizing roast meats dangle from hooks. Go for crispy chunks of pig, glossy skinned duck, barbecue roast pork, and steamed chicken. And get a server to translate not-on-the-menu specials posted on the neon blackboard. Shredded duck rolled in lettuce leaves, baked salted chicken, and duck-and-taro casserole are among the possibilities.
For an ultra-cheap meal, try a rice bowl with soy chicken, beef brisket, or roast pig or duck. Hollywood East is a neighborhood favorite, so it's crowded most nights of the week. In that way it's not unlike the mural of bustling Hong Kong harbor that anchors one end of the dining room.Hollywood East Café, 2312 Price Ave., Wheaton; 301-942-8282.
Sure, you can have old standbys like double-cooked pork and moo goo gai pan. Or you can ask for the Chinese menu with English translations--where Hunan fare is left behind for Shanghai and Taiwan. Put together a feast of three-cup chicken with whole garlic cloves and ginger; wu shi spareribs with bits of Chinese spinach; five-flavor beef; and crispy leek pancake folded over and filled with minced leeks and tofu.
Also delicious are chili-spiked oyster casserole crowned with a fried egg; and delicacies like sea cucumber with shrimp eggs and pork intestine with sour cabbage. The crystal-chandeliered dining room with Chinese still-life prints is an oasis of calm compared with many Chinese eateries--and a counterpoint to the fireworks cuisine.Hunan Palace, 9011 Gaither Rd. (Shady Grove Center), Gaithersburg; 301-977-8600.
Chalk up another winner for Falls Church. The head chef's credentials include a turn at the Sheraton Hotel in Shanghai. Cooks from Japan and Thailand prepare the dishes originating in those countries. The deep-red dining room features a piano--owner Robin Wang is getting her doctorate in music at the University of Maryland. On occasion she will sing arias for her customers. Otherwise, the soundtrack is likely to be opera.
The standard menu is standard. The sophisticated, authentic menu is written in Chinese characters, meaning that non-Chinese customers are shut out unless they know there is such a menu and ask the staff to translate or suggest items from it. There are treats of all sorts--chicken, duck, pork, fish, and other seafood, house-made noodles, just about everything. Press the staff for ideas. Maybe someday Ms. Wang will make life better for everyone and translate the menu.Jasmine Garden, 8106 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-208-9989.
People who grew up with New York deli food are passionate about it. Krupin's isn't Katz's. It's not even the Parkway Deli, but it's the best DC has to offer. The food is good, plentiful, and relatively cheap.
On Krupin's big menu, you'll find all the stuff of New York deli legend: terrific chopped liver; intensely smoky whitefish salad; sandwiches piled high with thinly sliced tongue or pastrami; stuffed cabbage; corned beef and cabbage; beef in the pot--a catalog of homey goodness.
Krupin's doesn't have a license for beer or wine these days, but you can slake your thirst with Dr. Brown's cream soda or celery soda.Krupin's, 4620 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-686-1989. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Turkish and Russian cuisine might seem unlikely bedfellows, but at this engaging, yellow-walled cafe the combination works. Family-friendly, with bare, wooden tables and schoolroom chairs, Kuzine wows with rich Russian stars like pelmeni--ground beef dumplings with a slick of sour cream--and more restrained Turkish preparations like Imam Bayaldi, eggplant baked with tomatoes, onions, and parsley. You can indulge your cravings with breaded veal schnitzel or Kievski Kotlet, a fried chicken breast oozing butter, or go healthy with kebabs of ground beef and kofta and chicken.
In between are nicely seasoned kofta, lamb chops, and Hungarian goulash--beef simmered with bay leaves and vegetables. There are boat-shaped, thin-crust pide pizzas--the one with kaseri and Turkish sausage soars. And there are gems like borscht with a blob of sour cream, and Olivia salad, a mayonnaisey toss of potatoes, carrots, pickles, and peas. Rice pudding and baklava are sweet finishes. And on weekday evenings (4 to 6 PM), the $10.95 special--three courses plus tea or coffee--is an even better deal.Kuzine, 302 King Farm Blvd., Suite 110, Rockville; 301-963-3400.
Don't expect fancy frills at a Best Bargain restaurant, especially one serving European cuisine. La Piazza is one of several restaurants in Northern Virginia providing an array of good Italian dishes at very reasonable prices. Diners order at a counter and servers bring dishes to the table. Main courses are around $10, and include a fine house salad made of iceberg and romaine lettuce and an oil-and-vinegar dressing.
Pastas are excellent. When asked that they be served al dente, a counter attendant replied, "That's the only way we do it." Try the bucatini all'Amatriciana, made with pancetta, tomato sauce, and pecorino; the penne with vodka sauce; the rigatoni with radicchio; or the simple spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil. Veal and peppers and eggplant parmigiana are well prepared. With the main courses comes good garlic bread. On the short wine list, red and white wines go for $15 to $18 a bottle; among the beers is a pair of Italian brews.La Piazza, 535 E. Braddock Rd., Alexandria; 703-519-7711. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
LEBANESE TAVERNA CAFé
You could think big and go for the Supreme Feast--a platter starring Lebanese classics, from kibbeh and baba ghanoush to lamb kebabs and baklava. Or revel in less extravagant pleasures like the creamy farmer's cheese known as lebneh, lovely to slather on pita, or a plate of fatteh, an archaeological dig of a meal in which chicken, lamb, or eggplant is layered with chickpeas, toasted pita, and yogurt sauce. Simple but unusual is Sharhat Ghannam--thin slices of lamb punched up with lemony, parsley-flecked garlic-butter. Specials like lamb-and-okra stew and braised cabbage leaves stuffed with a spicy meat mixture shouldn't be ignored either.
Saffron-yellow walls and copper accents give this counter-service place pizzazz. This is no McDonald's. Kebabs are cooked to order, as are juicy rotisserie chickens with garlic sauce--to eat in or to go.Lebanese Taverna Café, Congressional Plaza, 1605 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-468-9086.
Lunchtime patrons at Lei Garden have an opportunity to see the full range of this dependable Chinatown restaurant. In the large dining room, dim sum is served from rolling carts every day, not ordered from a menu as is usually the case in restaurants with less business.
The kitchen's best cooking, however, must be ordered from the Szechuan specialties on the menu: the Spicy Tangy Dumpling; Very Spicy Boiled Beef, which the menu boastfully but accurately proclaims "Best in Town"; the duet of shrimp and scallops in a ginger-and-garlic sauce; Hot & Spicy Combo Delight, beef, shrimp, scallop, and chicken cooked with mushrooms; orange beef; and the tangy Yu-Shion Chicken with garlic, ginger, and vinegar.Lei Garden, 629 H St., NW; 202-216-9696.
The name may derive from the fact that this is the third Chinese restaurant to open at the site. The first two were Fortune and Maxim's. Based on several lunchtime and dinner visits, the third time may be a charm. The ownership is the same as at the excellent New Fortune in Gaithersburg (no relationship to Fortune or Good Fortune).
Chinese buffet luncheons usually leave a lot to be desired; Lucky Three's weekday version is an exception. In addition to the usual lo mein, beef with vegetables, and spring rolls, you'll find several kinds of dim sum, brought out at intervals to keep them hot and fresh; deep-fried shrimp with head on; hard-shell crabs; and clams with black-bean sauce that disappear almost as soon as they hit the buffet table. On weekends dim sum rules. Served from rolling carts, it is very good.
The 200 or so items on the dinner menu will satisfy anyone. A recent meal of whole steamed fish in brown sauce, baby beef ribs with black pepper, roasted squab, oysters with ginger and scallions, and minced pork and eggplant with hot sauce in a hot pot was excellent. Hong Kong-style noodles, noodle-and-dumpling soup, and barbecued meats add yet another dimension.Lucky Three, 5900 Leesberg Pike, Falls Church; 703-998-8888.
Leslie and Penny Phoon's Malaysian restaurant is one of the culinary treasures of DC. Because Malaysian cooking is not as familiar as Chinese or Thai, the Phoons make every effort to help novices order. The menu has extensive notes, and they have produced a menu with photographs of every dish. If this isn't enough, they'll gladly consult with you. It's a treat, particularly when dining with a large group, to be able just to tell Penny Phoon how much per person you want to spend. She'll ask about dietary restrictions or preferences, then you can relax over a beer or a glass of wine and wait for the food to arrive.
Recent meals designed by her have included, for starters, a wonderful baby oyster omelet; sticky rice stuffed with minced chicken and shrimp and grilled in a banana leaf; Roti Canai, a flatbread served with a bowl of chicken curry for dipping; and satays of chicken and beef served with peanut sauce.
Main course choices are identified as spicy or nonspicy. Good spicy choices include Beef Rendang, simmered with curry and coconut milk; Malaysian chili shrimp or scallops; and Assam Curry Fish with okra, eggplant, and tomatoes in a spicy broth. If heat is a problem, try the perky ginger chicken or the crisp cereal shrimp.Malaysia Kopitiam, 1827 M St., NW; 202-833-6232. No wheelchair access.
Restaurants are admired for their cooking. What makes a place loved is usually a connection with a person. Even though Mama Ayesha is no longer with us, her spirit of hospitality and generosity still fills this much-loved Adams Morgan institution, where you'll find a warm welcome and good Lebanese food at fair prices.
The beginning at a Middle Eastern restaurant is a selection of mezze: hummus, puréed chickpeas rich with tahini and olive oil; smoky baba ghanoush made from roasted eggplant; spritely tabbouleh, ground wheat enlivened with mint, parsley, and lemon juice; Helen's Salad (named for longtime customer Helen Thomas), diced cucumbers dressed with garlic, mint, and yogurt; crisp-fried falafel; and cabbage stuffed with ground lamb and spices. They're available separately or in a combination platter that's a bargain at $14.50.
For a main course, you won't go wrong with the kebabs--lamb, beef, chicken, or fish with vegetables and rice. On the "From the Oven" section of the menu are a succulent lamb shank and Musakan, a delicious half chicken baked with onions, pine nuts, and sumac.Mama Ayesha's, 1967 Calvert St., NW; 202-232-5431.
Bored with the usual culinary suspects? Take a trip to Mandalay, one of the area's few Burmese restaurants. Cuisine reflects Burma's location between India and Thailand. Start with fritters made from Asian squash or gram flour, yellow split peas, ginger, and cilantro. Then consider shrimp sautéed with sour mustard and onions; shredded chicken with a triple whammy of lemon soy sauce, crushed peanuts and sesame-seed sauce; or pork simmered in pickled mango curry. All seduce with offbeat flavors and textures.
More familiar tastes are to be found in such dishes as beef in onion-tomato curry; egg noodles stir-fried with pork or chicken, cabbage, and green onions; and deep-fried fingers of eggplant. A lengthy vegetable roster makes this a find for vegetarians. Don't be put off by the plain exterior: Inside, Burmese art and animated conversation--this is an academic and student hangout--make the place most inviting.Mandalay, 9091-A Baltimore Ave., College Park; 301-345-8540. Closed Monday.
There are hints of the Caribbean and Southeast Asia in this appealing cuisine, but the cooking of the Philippines is distinctive. Manila Cafe is a good place to sample it. The decor is simple and the prices reasonable--main courses range from $7.25 to $12.50 for a shrimp stew with mixed vegetables in a tamarind broth.
A good introduction is the restaurant's weekend buffet, which for $12.50 offers a wide range of dishes, including whole suckling pig with crisp skin protecting tender pork; adobo, pieces of chicken and pork braised in vinegar and soy sauce; menudo, stewed pork with potatoes and bell peppers in a tomato sauce; ampalaya con carne, bitter melon sautéed with beef and black-bean sauce; afritada, chicken with potato and bell pepper in a tomato sauce; sautéed noodles; and fried and steamed rice.
These dishes and more are available on the regular menu, too. Good appetizers are the crisp rolls of ground pork and onions and steamed buns stuffed with pork or chicken filling. A refreshing dessert is the halo-halo, sweet Philippine fruits topped with crushed ice and milk.Manila Cafe, 7020 Commerce St., Springfield; 703-644-5825.
Stop in on a weeknight and you'll find teenagers gobbling pizza--the Heavenly, with meatballs and pepperoni, is a favorite. But there are pleasures beyond post-soccer-match fare. At first glance, the menu is no big deal, with the usual lasagna, cannelloni, and ravioli. But discerning types who spot the house-made mozzarella and baked goods will suspect, rightly, that there's more to the place. Most of what comes out of the tiny kitchen tastes like someone's black-garbed Nonna made it.
Vegetable lasagna is a lead player here, with perfectly al dente green noodles and a black-pepper-spiked mix of ricotta and spinach. Traditional meat lasagna delights with bits of hard-cooked egg and a robust ragoût. Pappardelle with a sauce made from braised chunks of rabbit is as memorable as it sounds and as chichi as things get in this counter-service dining room. If holidays are imminent, you might find a dense ring of cassatiello, a doughnut-shaped bread studded with proscuitto and salami--the deli case has a small array of Italian meats--and perhaps the pastiera, or sugar pie. Sfogliatelle--crisp little shell pastries filled with almond cream--are tempting every day. Give in.Marcella's, 8540 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-951-1818. Closed Sunday.
MARK'S DUCK HOUSE
This stellar Cantonese restaurant is well known in the Chinese community. The menu is big. It would be a mistake to order the clichés of a generation ago when some wonderful authentic dishes are available for the asking. Where else do you see salt-baked lobster with chili and butter-garlic sauce, a casserole of braised roast pig with shrimp paste, sliced boneless roasted duck with bitter melon, or baked marinated pork chops with white creamy sauce?
If it's vegetables you want, try the sautéed chive sprouts with anchovy or the sautéed snow-pea shoots with crabmeat sauce. The whole steamed flounder with black-bean-and-garlic sauce or pan-fried with ginger-soy sauce are also treats. Oysters steamed with ginger-and-scallion soy sauce are terrific. A suggestion: Order a dish a little more exotic than you think you can handle. You'll manage--and be glad you did.
At lunch seven days a week, rolling carts display some of the best dim sum around.Mark's Duck House, 6184-A Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-2125.
This neighborhood hangout for Latinos and Westerners has an easy vibe and a peachy-pink glow courtesy of apricot walls. Food is Tex-Mex by way of El Salvador, making for an expansive menu. Zero in on chunky guacamole with sprinkles of onion and cilantro for pop. And try one of the first rate pupusas--grilled dough pockets filled with cheese and squash or pork. Fajitas and soft tacos of beef or chicken, and cumin-and-red-pepper-rubbed ribs stand out on the Tex-Mex side of things. There's also a satisfying Texas-style (no beans) beef chili.
Capers, olives, and tomatoes give zip to pan-fried snapper, while skirt steak gets the full treatment with fried eggs and sautéed peppers. Refried beans, rice, and fried plantanos accompany most plates. And whatever your feelings about deep-fried-banana cheesecake, it is a conversation piece of a dessert--and on weekends, just the thing to fortify before a round of Spanish-English karaoke.Matamoros Restaurant, 2322 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-949-2929.
This pair of restaurants continues to attract crowds in spite of, or maybe because of, its decision not to fancy up the decor and raise prices. That's how Matuba remains on this list while places like Sushi-Ko and Tachibana are left to those with bigger budgets. Its prices do not permit bargain hunters to go on sushi or sashimi binges, but almost everything else fits within our Cheap Eats guidelines.
For starters there is the standard sushi selection of rolls and sashimi; tempura, including soft-shell crab; salads, including spicy tuna; and dumplings, including pan-fried gyoza. Main courses feature the staples: grilled fish; chicken, beef, and salmon teriyaki; pork tonkatsu; and donburi, seasoned rice with a topping such as spicy tuna, tempura, or eel. More-exotic offerings are on lists tacked to the walls. Noodle lovers can select one of the thick, rice-based udons.
The Bethesda operation boasts an all-you-can-eat luncheon buffet in a very Japanese format: Patrons sit at a rectangular conveyor belt and pluck sushi, maki rolls, chicken teriyaki, fried dumplings, edamame, and other treats that are continually replenished by a sushi chef in the center or from the kitchen. For $11.50, it's a good deal.Matuba, 2915 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-521-2811, no lunch on weekends; 4918 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-7449, no lunch Sunday.
Entering this little storefront restaurant can be a blinding experience. The walls practically vibrate from the bright colors--orange, mustard, green, red, and blue. The small dining room is filled on weekend evenings while the bar reverberates with noise. In good weather outdoor dining reduces the inevitable weekend wait. It's not just the atmosphere that brings people in--the place has first-rate Salvadoran and Mexican cooking.
The menu is short but more than sufficient. Among the appealing appetizers are pupusas, quesadillas, and nachos with various fillings and toppings. Tamales--either wrapped in a corn husk with yellow corn or in a banana leaf with chicken or vegetables--are good, too. The Mexican menu features such standards as tacos, enchiladas, and flautas, plus unusual twists like a marinated tilapia taco. The skewered marinated pork is loaded with flavor and grilled to perfection. The fresh shrimp, sautéed with onion, tomato, garlic, and cilantro, is excellent. Sunday brunch features huevos rancheros and grilled chorizo and eggs.Mexicali Blues, 2933 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-812-9352. Open until 4 AM Saturday and Sunday.
If you're wondering where Indians go for Indian food, look in on one of these restaurants. The luncheon buffets are among the most elaborate in the area. Because most Indian dishes are stews, the food loses very little on a steam table. Items that should be served fresh, such as tandoori dishes and naan, are replenished frequently. At $7.95 on weekdays and $9.95 on weekends, the buffets are great bargains.
The dinner menu is remarkable for its breadth. Among the 16 appetizers are a hard-boiled egg breaded and deep-fried. There are six soups, including a chicken garlic soup. Choosing among the more than 80 main courses is the next task. Try the butter chicken, mutton rogan josh, kadai shrimp, tandoori chicken, and lamb biryani. A section of 20 southern Indian specialties offers some rarely seen treats. Dosas are huge, thin rice crepes stuffed with such fillings as potatoes or seasoned chicken, folded over, and doused with a sauce. Uttappams are thicker and smaller lentil pancakes studded with a choice of vegetables. Be sure to enjoy the fine Indian breads as part of your meal.Minerva, 2443G Centreville Rd., Herndon, 703-793-3223; 10364 Lee Hwy., Fairfax, 703-383-9200.
This is a place to have a business lunch or take visiting relatives for dinner. On the ground floor of a modern office building, the setting is dramatic, with high ceilings, plenty of windows, and the walls alternating between beige and deep red. Service is professional while prices are reasonable. Almost every main course is under $10.
The varied menu is supplemented by blackboard specials. Good appetizers are the deep-fried spring rolls, the deep-fried shrimp cake that includes yam, and the steamed snails in the shell with ginger and onions. For a main course try the deep-fried whole snapper with a sweet-and-sour sauce created with a base of charred tomatoes, sizzling skewers of catfish with peanut sauce, five-spice chicken with lemongrass, or marinated beef short ribs with lemongrass.
The coconut-milk-based curries and the vegetarian dishes, including tofu with red peppers, are worthy parts of any meal. Soups, such as sour catfish soup and sour shrimp soup, come in main-course-size portions. The Halfmoon Crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts is a fine light entrée.Minh's Restaurant, 2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-2828.
Owner Pepe Montesinos is very much a presence in this popular, authentically Mexican restaurant near the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road, moving from table to table, chatting with customers in English and Spanish, making sure everyone's happy. Mixtec grew from a grocery store into a two-room restaurant because of the demand for the tacos that Montesinos sold over the counter. Those soft tacos are still on the menu, and trying a couple of them is a good way to start a meal--unless you can't resist the appeal of some of the best tamales in town or the warming Sopa Azteca, a bowl of rich broth with tortillas and cheese.
From there you might go on to one of Mixtec's delicious tortas, a sort of Mexican sub filled with grilled meat, guacamole, chiles, and sauce. If you're still suffering from the excesses of the night before, Mixtec's Menudo o Mondongo, a restorative tripe soup, is a legendary cure for a hangover.Mixtec, 1792 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-332-1011.
NAM'S OF BETHESDA
This cozy Vietnamese place is popular with locals looking for a reasonably priced meal. Gracious service, a well-priced if not particularly adventurous wine list, and a hefty lineup of specials are other lures. Flashy ways to start are oversize prawns with ginger salad or the Vietnamese crepe, a platter-size half-moon filled with julienne carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts, and a choice of meats, tofu, chicken, or shrimp. More low-key: soups like basil lemongrass with Chilean sea bass, rice noodle with crab, cabbage dumpling, and spicy chicken with ginger and red chili paste.
Good main courses include flounder with basil tamarind sauce, coconut chicken and vegetable curry, and ginger duck or chicken, the birds long simmered with hunks of fresh ginger. Vermicelli--with different combinations of meat, seafood, and poultry--makes for a filling meal in a bowl. Tropical ice creams and flambéed bananas are fine, but the French cream puffs, a legacy from Vietnam's colonial days, are an even better sweet to share.Nam's of Bethesda, 4928 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-2635.
NAM'S OF WHEATON
It's a slow Tuesday night, and the teenage son of the owners is waiting on tables and taking advantage of lulls to do homework. Mom is cooking, and Dad is meeting with a sales rep. Yes, this is a family-run restaurant. The scene is homey, and authentic cuisine the draw.
Like the trappings--porcelain vases of silk flowers affixed to the walls and a wooden boat model from the old country--the pleasures here are simple. Golden fried rice-paper spring rolls with a savory filling of seafood, vermicelli, and onions. Sugar-cane shrimp. Grilled grape leaves stuffed with ground beef. Steamed tilapia--or whatever fish is available--with ginger and scallion. Shrimp and pork simmered in spicy brown sauce in the style of central Vietnam's Hue province. Bo dun, the famous Vietnamese take on beef tenderloin, marinated in honey and wine and grilled in chunks on skewers. There are soups, including the national dish, pho, and clay-pot casseroles--seafood sate with chili paste and a lineup of grilled meats and seafood hums.
From time to time, Mom ducks in to see if her diners are happy. And as the hour grows late, siblings show up to relieve the teenager, who returns to his back-of-the-room lair and his dog-eared copy of Catcher in the Rye.Nam's of Wheaton, 11220 Georgia Ave., Wheaton; 301-933-2525. Open daily for dinner and carryout; lunch buffet Monday through Saturday. No wheelchair access.
Some places shout. Others, like Napa Thai, woo quietly. Not that the kitchen is chili shy. This sliver of a restaurant with blue skies painted on the ceiling and a tiny outdoor patio has some of the most authentic Thai food in the area. Culinary highs include Thai-style rack of lamb with roasted chili paste, and spicy-tangy salads like pla goong--lemongrass-fragrant shrimp tossed with chili sauce and crispy vegetables.
Two of the spiffier starters are corn tod mun, a variation on the classic Thai fishcake, and chive-filled dumplings. Curries like the classic Panang with coconut milk are top-notch, as are noodle dishes like see eew and drunken noodles--available with assorted meats, chicken, or seafood. Desserts go beyond the usual repertoire. And the Coconut Ice Cream Royale, a sundae sporting sticky rice, among other things, is stupendous.Napa Thai, 4924 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-8590.
Silver Spring, Mitchellville, Gaithersburg, Northwest DC
Jamaican flavors have found their way into American cuisine via jerk chicken and fish. But for authentic Jamaican cooking, head to one of these order-at-the-counter storefronts. Go native with fish tea--a spicy fish broth. Then move on to salted, fried, and battered codfish cakes or the flaky, spicy turnover known as beef pattie. Seafood stars include mild curried shrimp, and escovitch--red snapper that's fried and smothered with sautéed onions and tomatoes.
Curried goat, stewed oxtail, and chicken fricassee are the pillars of Jamaican cookery, and they are textbook correct here. Roti--Jamaica's take on the sandwich--is a paper-thin crepe filled with chicken or goat curry. Round things out with fried plantains, rice and peas, and hunks of the addictive, slightly sweet coco bread. To drink, there are typical island quenchers like the house-made fruit punch and sorrel juice, plus other nonalcoholic options. For dessert, banana and carrot cakes rule. The Gaithersburg and Mitchellville locales have airy dining rooms; Silver Spring and DC are mainly takeout operations.Negril, Silver Spring, 301-585-3000; Mitchellville, 301-249-9101; Gaithersburg, 301-926-7220; and Northwest DC, 202-332-3737.
NEISHA THAI CUISINE
Baileys Crossroads, Tysons Corner,
This fine Thai restaurant has expanded again. What started out as a modest storefront in a strip mall between Baileys Crossroads and Seven Corners expanded to Tysons Corner a few years ago and, recently, to the DC's Tenleytown neighborhood.
The menus use a zero-to-three-chili system as a spiciness gauge--and do an honest job of it. Good two-chili appetizers, which will challenge most diners, include grilled flank steak or grilled eggplant cooked with scallions, red onions, and a spicy lime dressing. Unusual salmon rolls that bear a resemblance to maki; deep-fried spring rolls; and fried calamari with sweet-and-sour sauce are nonspicy alternatives.
Good main courses are Spicy Pacific Noodle, a combination of seafood with vegetables over egg noodles with a brown sauce; Passion Beef, marinated beef served on a sizzling platter with fresh ginger; and Goong Gai Prik Pow, chicken and shrimp stir-fried with scallions in roasted chili paste. Soothing desserts of house-made coconut ice cream and mango with sticky rice are good endings.Neisha Thai Cuisine, 6037 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, 703-933-3788; 7924 Tysons Corner Center, McLean, 703-883-3588; 4445 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-966-7088. No wheelchair access at Falls Church.
In this vast dining room, two-tiered dim sum carts arrive as soon as you sit down. They bear roast pork and skinned duck; salt-and-pepper shrimp and black-bean-drenched crabs; chicken feet and congee. New Fortune has all the mainstays of Hong Kong-style dim sum and then some. Blink and you might miss such wonders as crimped pork dumplings, beef chow foon, soy-braised eggplant, and stir-fried asparagus and green beans. There are fried dumplings in every shape and with every filling imaginable--a sesame-sprinkled bundle of flaky dough stuffed with shrimp and walnuts is the showstopper. Be warned that the kitchen doesn't stint on oil.
Among the stars on the printed menu are lobster with ginger and onions, black-pepper pork chops, and soy-sauce squab. If you ask, owner Tony Tran--who recently repurchased his original Fortune restaurant in Falls Church and renamed it Lucky Three--will regale you with tales about traditional dishes.New Fortune, 16515 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg; 301-548-8886.
The brothers Pietrobono--one cooks, the other manages the front of the house and the bar--haven't let success go to their heads. They're still busy minding the store. Olazzo's short menu of house standards hasn't changed much, but why mess with a good thing? Fried calamari, served in an oversize martini glass, is as crunchy as ever. Pastas--like fettuccine Alfredo with Milanese sauce and breaded cutlets of chicken, and Cardinale with chicken and tomato-shot cream--are served al dente and with a gloss of sauce. The new Salmon Mango over vegetables is a welcome nod to carb counters. On Monday nights, wines on the short list are half price. On Tuesdays, all martinis are $5.
Weathered-wood trattoria tables and chairs and black-and-white family photos from the old country--Mom and Dad are from Alatri, a town between Naples and Rome--made the place look lived in from the day it opened. The long-rumored gelato for dessert hasn't shown up yet, but a spiffy tiramisu and crisp cannoli are done with panache.Olazzo, 7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9496.
OODLES NOODLES/ NOOSHI
Bethesda, Downtown DC
The addition of a sushi bar has led to a name change for the downtown Oodles Noodles. It's now called Nooshi, a hybrid of noodles and sushi. Both are better than the cute name. The noodles part of the menu offers the same selection of pan-Ansian noodle dishes that has been packing in crowds since the place opened. Good choices include the very spicy Phuket noodles with chicken and ginger; a delicious version of pad Thai; curry-flavored Singapore stir-fried noodles; and the very good Curry Laska with chicken, string beans, egg noodles, and rice noodles.
A number of the "specials" will be familiar to patrons of Spices in Cleveland Park, also owned by Jessie Yan: orange-peel beef with red chili and tangerine-peel sauce; and tamarind chicken or shrimp with pineapple and spicy sauce. As at Spices, the large selection of sushi is of good quality and is fairly priced.Nooshi (Oodles Noodles & Sushi), 1120 19th St., NW; 202-293-3138. Oodles Noodles, 4907 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-8833. No Sunday lunch.
Forget the shrimp feast at Red Lobster. Check out the dim sum feast at Oriental East, where shrimp comes every which way on carts rolling around the pink-and-gray dining room. A move across the street last year glammed up the look of this Silver Spring fixture. Larger digs means waits aren't quite as long for weekend dim sum, though if you show up late, say, 12:45, you might have to cool your heels for 20 minutes.
Back to the shrimp. Golden-brown mini egg rolls of shrimp. Beautifully crimped steamed dumplings with shrimp. Shrimp-stuffed sheets of bean curd. Salted-and-spiced fried shrimp. Tender fried eggplant slathered with shrimp paste is a high point, as are half-moon-shaped shrimp dumplings.
Venture into different but no less delicious territory with roast duck and sweet rice swathed in lotus leaves, or pork pies filled with the sweet barbecue pork usually found in pork buns. Or go vegetarian with fried bean curd and scallions. For fans of congee--the rice gruel traditionally eaten after a big night out--several varieties are ladled out here.Oriental East, 1312 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring; 301-608-0030.
This restaurant has lost, temporarily, its Vienna branch, the victim of an electrical fire. That leaves, for now, just one location for sampling this interesting cuisine. As a result of war and upheavals over the last quarter century, émigrés from Afghanistan, the landlocked and mountainous country among Iran, Pakistan, and several former Soviet republics, have opened a number of restaurants. Most are authentic. Panjshir is one of the best.
For the most part the cooking is straightforward and accessible. Kabobs are a major item, with choices among marinated chicken, lamb, and beef, all served with saffron rice and the peculiarly Afghan flat and ridged flatbread. Palows--cousin to the Indian biryani--are chunks of meat in white rice with tomato sauce, onions, garlic, and occasionally carrots. Similar vegetarian dishes, employing potatoes, spinach, pumpkin, or turnips as the main ingredient, are called chalows. Aushak, worth having as an appetizer or main course in any meal, is a flat dumpling filled with scallions and topped with seasoned yogurt, diced vegetables, and a sprinkle of mint.Panjshir, 924 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-536-4566. Closed Sunday. No wheelchair access.
The line snakes out the door on weekends, and even on weekdays this welcoming Italian restaurant can get jammed. The reason? Good food at good prices. If you're allergic to waiting, get a seat in the adjoining cafe, where you can order thin-crusted pizzas as well as from the dining-room menu. Patrons who stick it out usually find the wait not as long as advertised--and well worth it for classics like mozzarella en carroza and crunchy flour-dusted fried calamari. Robust marinara and meat sauces make familiar southern Italian dishes like lasagna, eggplant Parmesan, and spaghetti-and-meatballs sing.
Chef Sabatino Mazziotti also has a way with delicate house-made pastas like ricotta-and-broccoli-rabe-filled agnolotti glazed with brown butter and sage. Most arresting are the Abruzzi specialties made with the paper-thin, eggy crepes the region is known for. The best is Timballo alla Teramo, in which the crepes are layered lasagna-like with ground meat, mozzarella, and marinara. Torta di ricotta, the very Italian-tasting house cheesecake, will make you wonder when Tony Soprano is gonna walk in.Pasta Plus, 209 Gorman Ave., Laurel; 301-498-7878. Closed Monday.
Arlington, Falls Church, Herndon, Langley Park, Rockville
In the mood for a soothing breakfast, lunch, or light dinner? Come to one of these soup parlors. Only one dish graces the menu, but it comes in two sizes and is offered with a variety of ingredients. Although the dish originated in the north, it is a favorite among all Vietnamese--and increasingly among diners who savor the food of Southeast Asia. This small chain was an early entrant among the legion of pho purveyors that opened shop after the collapse of South Vietnam. Diners sit at communal tables amid spartan surroundings.
Pho consists of steaming beef broth perfumed by star anise and loaded with thin rice noodles, sliced onions, and the diner's choice of thinly sliced meats--brisket, flank steak, soft tendon, tripe, and meatballs. Served separately are bean sprouts, basil or Asian mint, lime, and green chilies that the consumer adds to the mix along with hot chili sauce and hoisin sauce. Drink powerful drip coffee or an iced soft drink such as fresh lemon or fresh plum.Pho 75, Arlington, 703-525-7355; Falls Church, 703-204-1490; Herndon, 703-471-4145; Langley Park, 301-434-7844; Rockville, 301-309-8873. Open daily from 9 AM to 8 PM.
Dupont Circle and Georgetown
What distinguishes a great restaurant from a good one is consistency. Pizzeria Paradiso has it, not only at its original P Street location but at its new larger place in Georgetown. The crust is always tender and yeasty, toppings are applied with a gentle hand, and the cooking in the intense heat of the wood-fired oven produces a pie that's not flabby, not too crisp, but cooked until just a few delicious burned spots appear. Naples has nothing better.
Resist the temptation to pile too many toppings on this superb pie. It's hard to beat the set combinations--the Atomica with salami and hot pepper, the Genovese with potatoes and pesto, or the Margherita with tomato, basil, and mozzarella.
Pizzeria Paradiso has announced some changes. Available through the month of May and perhaps longer is a whole-wheat crust and the option of substituting vegan mozzarella and vegetarian Parmesan for the real things. The whole-wheat crust, owner Ruth Gresser says, "has the breadlike quality of our regular dough with a distinct sweet, nutty flavor." Maybe--it's hard to improve on perfection.Pizzeria Paradiso, 2029 P St., NW, 202-223-1245; 3282 M St., NW, 202-337-1245. No wheelchair access at P Street.
Although it has moved across the street into larger quarters, this Thai eatery continues to act like the family restaurant it is. Now there is attractive artwork on the walls, music in the air, and space between tables, but the menu remains short and the prices low. Aside from whole fish, which is priced according to market, nothing on the menu reaches $10.
Good appetizers are the traditional deep-fried spring rolls; pork or beef satay, the latter with a smooth peanut sauce; spicy fried-fish patties with a tart sweet-and-sour sauce; and fried minced shrimp and pork wrapped in bean-curd skin. Salads, such as sliced grilled beef with hot spicy sauce, or steamed squid with lemon juice, onions, and chili, serve as an appetizer for two or a light main course. Meats, seafood, and vegetarian dishes are offered in a choice of preparations, such as garlic sauce, red curry, broccoli with oyster sauce, or basil. The whole deep-fried fish is a winner.Po-Siam, 3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-3925.
This excellent Thai restaurant is the less formal sibling of Duangrat's, just around the corner. Rabieng provides bamboo placemats where Duangrat's proffers white tablecloths. Although casual, Rabieng is comfortable, offers good service, and charges low prices for its country cooking.
Good salads are the fried marinated beef strips with Thai hot sauce and the green papaya with shrimp and chili-lime juice. Appetizers to consider are the mee grob--thin rice noodles and shrimp with a sweet-and-sour sauce--and Tidbit, a crispy rice cake served with a coconut-and-pork dip. Rabieng's roast pork is special: tender meat in a sweet, dark soy sauce with cilantro, pickled young ginger, and chili vinaigrette. Other successes are southern satoh shrimp sautéed with chili paste and fava beans; peppercorn beef; green curry chicken with bamboo shoots and Japanese eggplant; and tofu with chili sauce and basil. Singha beer is excellent and marries well with the cooking.Rabieng, 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-671-4222.
RIO GRANDE CAFé
Bethesda, Gaithersburg, Arlington, Reston
Pastel hues and curvy Southwestern architecture make Rio Grande's new Bethesda outpost hard to miss. The Grande, which moved from cramped quarters on Fairmont Avenue to this roomier locale last fall, still has the rustic Tex-Mex feel of all the restaurants in this local chain. And the tortilla-making machine still cranks out corn tortillas--one reason why the place is a magnet for families.
Beef tacos and chicken enchiladas with salsa verde are good deals. At brunch, chilaquiles--eggs scrambled with tortilla chips, cheese, and mesquite-grilled chicken--are the way to go.Rio Grande Café, Bethesda, 301-656-2981; Gaithersburg, 240-632-2150; Arlington, 703-528-3131; Reston, 703-904-0703.
ROCKLANDS BARBECUE AND GRILLING CO.
Glover Park, Arlington, Alexandria
There will never be complete agreement about what makes a great rack of barbecue ribs. The pork, the fuel, the timing, the sauce--all should combine to produce ribs that are tender but not falling off the bone, crisp on the outside but not burned, subtly smoked and sauced in a way that doesn't obscure the taste of the meat. John Snedden's three locations of Rockland's Barbecue cook upward of 150,000 pounds of pork a year, and with few exceptions those ribs are right on. The secret, Snedden says, is in the pit, where he uses only red oak and hickory and hardwood charcoal. You can get Rockland's ribs in whole, half, or quarter racks to eat in--though there's not much seating in the Glover Park location--or to take home. The sides are worth attention on their own, particularly the eggy, home-style potato salad and the delicious Texas corn pudding. You can order three sides and a piece of the spicy honey-jalapeño cornbread for just $6.
For a party, Rockland's will do a whole barbecue pig for just $4.99 a pound--one pound serves one person, and pigs up to 120 pounds are available.Rocklands Barbecue and Grilling Company, 2418 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-333-2558; 4000 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, 703-528-9663; 25 S. Quaker La., Alexandria, 703-778-9663.
Dupont Circle, Cleveland Park, Arlington, Bethesda
There are flashier Thai restaurants, but Sala Thai's sure touch with the classics of Thai cooking is hard to beat. Good selections from the salads and appetizers section of the menu are a terrific, spicy version of Yum Talay--shrimp, squid, and scallops with lemon juice and hot peppers; green papaya salad with shrimp; steamed dumplings filled with crabmeat, shrimp, and pork; and a very good Tod Mun, that pleasantly springy fishcake served with cucumber sauce.
Thai curries, both red and green, are done very well here--the red curry roasted duck is delicious. Chicken ka prow, sautéed with basil, hot chili, and garlic, is a treat for lovers of hot food. If you prefer something milder, order the shrimp sautéed with asparagus in oyster sauce. Sala Thai's version of pad Thai, the Thai national noodle dish, is a classic--not too sweet and studded with a generous number of shrimp. Around the first of August, look for a fifth Sala Thai location near the corner of 13th and U streets, Northwest.Sala Thai, Dupont Circle, 202-872-1144; Cleveland Park, 202-237-2777; Arlington, 703-465-2900; Bethesda, 301-654-4676.
You'd think that the cuisine of Indonesia, with 17,000 islands and the world's fourth-largest population, would be more familiar. Its food is varied and appealing, and there are several very good Indonesian places in the area. In the first rank is Satay Sarinah, which opened in Georgetown 19 years ago and moved to Alexandria five years ago. The dining room is attractive, and the prices are low--no dish other than whole fish costs more than $10. But if you want to go first-class, you can order the 15-course rijsttafel for $22.95.
For starters, two can share the fine satay, which comes with chicken, lamb, beef, tofu, and shrimp. Also good are the deep-fried spring rolls filled with beef and vegetables; fried mashed-corn cakes; and fried croquettes of mashed potatoes, spiced beef, and vegetables. Chicken is special--try the well-marinated fried Bogor chicken, the chicken in coconut sauce, and the spicy grilled chicken. Rendang, practically the national dish, consists of marinated beef cubes cooked slowly in a spicy sauce. Whole fish is another treat. Fried rice, noodles, and vegetarian preparations round out the menu.Satay Sarinah, 512-A S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria; 703-370-4313.
Franco Nuchese's beautifully designed new restaurant near Dupont Circle is aimed at a younger crowd than his Georgetown place, Cafe Milano. The menu is short and simple--a selection of antipasti, pizzas from a wood-fired oven, and a selection of pasta dishes designed by Cafe Milano's executive chef, Domenico Cornacchia.
The list of antipasti is similar to what you'd find in a simple restaurant in Italy--Neapolitan-style fried mozzarella; a dish of marinated olives and pickled vegetables; roasted red peppers and eggplant; and an assortment of very good Italian cold cuts. These may be ordered in individual portions or as an assortment for the table.
Better pizza can be found a couple of blocks away at Pizzeria Paradiso, but the pastas are delicious, cooked al dente and sparely sauced with top-quality ingredients. Mezzani Cacio e Uova--ziti with pancetta, black pepper, and a sauce of pecorino cheese--is a treat. All pastas are about $12.Sette Osteria, 1666 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-483-3070. Open until midnight Sunday, 2 AM Monday through Thursday, 3 AM Friday and Saturday.
SEVEN SEAS RESTAURANT
Seven Seas has gone glam with Chinese red walls and mahogany chairs. But the fish tanks--full of lobster, tilapia, and, in season, Dungeness crab--are still bubbling away. The best way to get a great meal here is to chat with the manager. Fabulous preparations like searingly spicy beef stew topped with chili oil are likely to come your way.
Despite their price, Dungeness crabs are worth penny-pinching elsewhere. Try them at their elemental best with small bowls of vinegar and salt for dipping. Or go for whole tilapia fresh from the tank with ginger and scallions or dark soy and black mushrooms. Roasted salted duck and pork with leeks and shredded dried bean curd are worthy alternatives to fish. Seasonal greens like snow-pea tips, Chinese watercress, and Chinese broccoli round things out nicely. The sushi bar with its small menu in the back has a following, but with the Chinese bounty here, it almost seems besides the point.Seven Seas Restaurant, 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville; 301-770-5020.
This restaurant offers very good Persian cuisine. It has exquisite fabrics on the walls, plants and flowers hanging from the ceiling, and a diverse clientele. Five of the six appetizers cost less than $3; the other is $3.95. Main courses average $11. The menu also lists vegetarian rice dishes, which consist of crusty rice with such ingredients as sour cherries, red currants, and fava beans, for $4.98. One of these can be shared to accompany the main courses.
Two appetizers have a yogurt base, two are salads, one is goat cheese, and the last is a pickled relish of eggplant, parsley, garlic, mint, cilantro, salt, black caraway, and spices. The main-course section is dominated by kabobs--chicken, Cornish hen, beef, or salmon. The rice is special. Traditionally, diners make a hole in the middle of a mound of rice, drop in an egg yolk (available for 75 cents extra), add butter, then sprinkle with sumac--a complex and tart mixture of herbs and spices--and mix well. Drinks are nonalcoholic and include Persian tea and doogh, a cold yogurt drink. Desserts include chewy saffron ice cream and cinnamon ice cream.Shamshiry, 8607 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-448-8883.
This place hops. To the left as you enter is a large bar that usually has an enthusiastic crowd and television sets tuned to sports. To the right is a dining room with an aura of a New Orleans bordello. In the busy dining room servers deliver excellent Southern regional cooking, ranging from Louisiana's Cajun territory to the Low Country of the Carolinas.
Ask for the Boardinghouse Breadbasket of buttermilk biscuits, sweet potato biscuits, and cornbread when you order drinks. Good appetizers are the deep-fried crab and sweet-corn fritters, Southern chicken strips with the house version of remoulade sauce, grilled shrimp with pan-fried soft noodles, and oysters two ways. Good main courses are the chicken-fried steak, blackened catfish, thick gumbo, and the Low Country Shortcake--roast chicken, oysters, and mashed potatoes layered with cornbread and coated with gravy. There are some very good choices on the list of 18 draft beers and the shorter selection of wines. For a special treat, go to Sunday brunch and enjoy the pecan pancakes and Southern eggs Benedict.Southside 815, 815 S. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-836-6222.
Another favorite for before- or after-movie meals for the patrons of the Uptown Theater, the pan-Asian Spices is the handiwork of the talented Jessie Yan, who also owns Oodles Noodles, Nooshi, and Yanÿu. The sushi bar dominates the restaurant, and almost half the menu is devoted to sushi. The quality is good, and the prices are low. Individual pieces start at $1.50. Rolls start at $3. Some of the chef's specials, like the spectacular Rainbow Roll, go up to $10.
The other half of the menu is a mixture of Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese favorites of remarkable authenticity. You could start a meal with a Chinese hot-and-sour soup or Vietnamese spring rolls and progress to a Thai chicken curry or Japanese shrimp tempura. The spicy ginger chicken and the tangerine-peel beef are special treats.Spices, 3333-A Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-686-3833. No Sunday lunch.
Suporn is a reminder of how good ma-and-pa restaurants can be. Trappings may be plain in this strip-mall storefront, but service is gracious and the food authentic. Here is one of the area's best pad Thais, a heap of noodles tossed with crushed roasted peanuts and scallions and not even a hint of the tomato paste that taints so many local versions of this dish. Spring rolls stuffed with chicken and water chesnuts are crispy bliss. So are chive dumplings--fried tastes better, but steamed is better for you.
One of the more interesting salads is yum kun chiang, with Chinese sausage, cucumber, and onion in tart lime juice. Spicy charcoal beef with toasted rice keeps the crunch thing going, while pla jian, steamed whole flounder with ginger root and plum sauce, is flaky and moist--prices change, so check before ordering. Vegetable highs come from watercress stir-fried with bean-and-oyster sauce and from tender Asian eggplant redolent of Thai basil. You get the feeling someone's mother is back there cooking--which is what the family-run eatery is all about.Suporn, 2302 Price Ave., Wheaton; 301-946-7613. Closed Monday.
Linger too long at the sake bar where boutique brews abound and you're likely to blow the Cheap Eats budget--and you don't want to scrimp too much on the marvelous edible tidbits. Grilled items called robatayaki, like gingko nuts and sardines, are among the more budget-minded options. Also well priced are the donburi, bowls of rice topped with chicken or pork, and stir-fried noodles with various goodies.
Check the specials roster for precious morsels like fish cheeks and red snapper sashimi--the beauty of sushi is that you pay by the piece. All the usual suspects, from California rolls to cone-shaped salmon skin maki, can be had. Some of the more interesting tempura choices are squid, mussels, and shiitake mushrooms. Stir-fries and teriyaki dishes also satisfy. Vegetarian options include black seaweed with fried tofu and green tea, and soba noodles with various toppings. While the sake bar, with its whooshing wall of water, is Zenlike and laid back, the dining room, with its hits of red and teal and its kicky lighting, is definitely high energy.Tako Grill, 7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-7030.
Finally, a place swanky enough for a big date yet reasonable enough for a slim wallet. Shimmering silks, elegant mirrors, and a ceiling mural of the midnight sky make for an exotic experience. Jazzy cocktails--fruit daiquiris, mango coolers, and lassis--are poured in the bar. Nibble on crisp lentil-flour pappadams with dipping sauces of pomegranate, mustard, and cilantro and mint. Or go for the Raj Kachori, a mini-pillow of fried poori that yields chickpeas, yogurt, mint, and chutney. Other tasty morsels are prawn pakora, garlic shrimp with honey, and an unassuming chicken drumstick, called haryali kabob, that teases the palate with mint and hot chilis. Prices are a bit steeper than at other Indian restaurants, but unless you go for high-ticket items like whole leg of lamb cooked in the tandoor, you should be fine.
Curries like Bombay fish with tomatoes and onions and creamy chicken makhani are delicious. Lamb vindaloo is appropriately scorching, while lamb korma kashmiri sways gently with fruit, nuts, and cream. Of the kebabs, the ground-lamb Seekh version is always dependable. An impressive vegetable lineup includes the house specialty--potatoes stuffed with Indian cheese. Scoop up the excess with Kashmiri naan filled with nuts and dried fruit. Fruit is a motif at dessert, too. Both house-made mango or pistachio kulfi are dressed with ribbons of tropical fruit purée.Tandoori Nights, 106 Market St., Gaithersburg; 301-947-4007.
TAQUERIA EL POBLANO
This pair of restaurants stands out for freshness and clarity of ingredients often lacking at Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants. In either place, you get excellent Tex-Mex and Salvadoran food in large portions and attentive service at good prices. South-of-the-border beer and margaritas quench the thirst.
The standard specials are done well: quesadillas with a choice of fillings; taquitos, rolled tortillas stuffed with pork or chicken; shrimp tacos served hard or soft; guacamole of ripe avocado studded with tomato; and sweet grilled onion. Standouts among the main courses are lime-marinated steak sliced into strips and served à la fajitas with onions and peppers; similarly prepared strips of pork loin; and a very fine large chiles rellenos. The chicken mole lacked the intensity that is the hallmark of the dish. The best dessert is chocolate fritters with ice cream. Sunday-brunch fanciers will find solace here: The huevos rancheros are excellent.Taqueria el Poblano, 2400-B Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-8226. No lunch Tuesday. 2503-A N. Harrison St., Arlington; 703-237-8250. Closed Tuesday; no lunch on Monday.
TASTE OF SAIGON
Rockville, Tysons Corner
Sitting on the patio amid lush flora, a pond gurgling in the background, is about as soothing as it gets on a summer afternoon--never mind that Rockville Pike is just beyond the shrubbery. In Tysons Corner, outdoors has more the feel of a sidewalk cafe sidling up to an officeplex. Both restaurants have modern interiors done in shades of green with Vietnamese art and artifacts. And both carry on the tradition of founder Ba Tu, whose recipes result in culinary fireworks.
This is most evident in dishes like the bright vinegary salad of lobster and green papaya called Nha-Trang and the steamed whole fish with black-bean sauce, which could break the Cheap Eats bank unless sides are carefully considered. More budget-friendly but equally satisfying are noodle dishes like vermicelli with grilled lemongrass beef and fresh egg noodles topped with seafood.Taste of Saigon, 410 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, 301-424-7222; 8201 Greensboro Dr., McLean, 703-790-0700.
Forget the bad rap about buffets. The weekend spread at Tiffin offers as varied a meal as you could put together from the menu. And the price is right at $9.95 ($7.95 on weekdays). Another clue that quality is high: Indian and Pakistani families are as likely to go for the buffet as Westerners. Beyond the buffet, there's plenty on the menu. Some plates, like the surprisingly moist, skinless tandoori chicken, are familiar. Others, like the complexly spiced bharwaan baigan curry made with Asian eggplant, are less so.
Diners who can stand the heat will want to try kadai chili chicken or goat curry. The Indian beer Taj and the house-made lemon soda and yogurt lassis go well with the fiery fare, and there's a wine list, too. Tandoori-baked breads are expertly done--it's worth ordering a round fresh from the oven even if you're headed for the buffet. Creamy mango pudding for dessert is a West-meets-East creation, as charming as a Mira Nair film.Tiffin, 1341 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park; 301-434-9200.
Good sushi is not cheap, and cut-rate sushi is not a very appealing idea. Tono Sushi in Woodley Park offers sushi made from pristinely fresh fish at prices that are just a little lower than at its competitors, and while you have to order carefully to stay within the $50-for-two Cheap Eats limit, it's possible to dine here without breaking the bank. Individual pieces of sushi are priced from $1.25 for the sweet omelet or tofu to $2.95 for uni, or sea-urchin roe. Rolls are $2.50 to $10.50. The sushi dinner--six pieces and a roll or just eight pieces--is a bargain at $14.95; the Jo-Sushi dinner, ten pieces and a roll, is $18.95. Both come with a bowl of miso soup.
There's more than sushi on this menu--it also includes tempura, teriyaki, beef negimaki (beef wrapped around scallions with teriyaki sauce). And there's a new menu of pan-Asian food and Asian stir-fries, which are not as appealing as dishes on the Japanese menu.Tono Sushi, 2605 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-332-7300. No wheelchair access.
TONY CHENG'S SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
Upstairs from Tony Cheng's Mongolian Barbecue, where every customer's carefully constructed dish tastes pretty much the same, is Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, which, despite its shopworn appearance, has perhaps the best kitchen in Chinatown. Although the fish tanks at the entrance would lead you to think of this as a Hong Kong-style restaurant, the kitchen also does Szechuan and Hunan cooking very well.
Still, those fish tanks are your best clue for what to order here: Dungeness crab, if it's available, stir-fried with ginger and scallions; fresh shrimp wrapped in lotus leaves and steamed in soybean paste; whole fish; fresh seafood on crispy noodles.
Dim sum is served from a menu at lunchtime during the week, but a larger selection is available from rolling carts on weekends.Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, 619 H St., NW; 202-371-8669.
NEAPOLITAN PIZZERIA, proclaims the sign on the front window, and Peter Pastan's 2 Amys comes pretty close to the real thing. He has even gone to the trouble of having his pizza certified authentic by the Asscciazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, which approves only those pizzas that conform to the guidelines for true Neapolitan pizza. The pies at 2 Amys are sparely topped and cooked in a wood-burning oven; the crust is thin, not crisp, but soft enough to be rolled into a cylinder to eat. The result is wonderful pizza, both the authentic varieties like the Margherita and more fanciful variations like the Etna, with eggplant confit, olives, capers, and oregano.
The menu at 2 Amys has been expanded to include a few things beyond pizza and salads. The selections change every few weeks; recent offerings included a terrific panino, an Italian sandwich of lamb meatballs, buffalo mozzarella, and tomato sauce, served with a salad of sliced raw fennel simply dressed with lemon and very good olive oil; a soup of fresh mussels and pesto; and a salad of asparagus, orange sections, and herbs.
The only problem with 2 Amys is getting a table. There's a wait on most evenings, particularly weekends.2 Amys, 3715 Macomb St., NW; 202-885-5700. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.
Vegetarians will revel in the number of choices at this no-meat, no-poultry, no-seafood restaurant--there are 25 vegetable curries--and even diehard carnivores are apt to see Udupi Palace for the eating adventure it is. If you want to avoid the what-should-I-order quandary, multicourse thalis--platters of assorted appetizers and main courses--are the ticket.
Choosier adventurers might go for Kancheepurum iddly, space-saucer-shaped rice-and-lentil patties blitzed with carrots, cashews, and coriander, or the malabar adia, a pancake studded with vegetables. Tamarind rice and curd rice with yogurt, mustard seeds, and cilantro are tops among the rice dishes, while channa batura--puffy bread with chickpea curry--gets kudos in the flatbread lineup.
If your palate can take it, chili pakora--chilies dipped in chickpea flour and deep fried--are searing explosions of flavor. Milder sustenance comes from the coconut-based vegetable curry and the dosas, oversized rice crepes filled with vegetables and sometimes cheese. A version with potatoes and onion cooked in butter is one of the more satisfying pleasures around.Udupi Palace, 1329 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park; 301-434-1531.
This fine Cantonese restaurant is very popular, and it recently expanded. The lengthy menu, written in Chinese, Vietnamese, and English, covers lots of ground. The specialty is seafood, as evidenced by the tanks of swimming fish, lobsters, and Dungeness crabs. But there is a lot more.
The simplest dishes are barbecued appetizers and Hong Kong-style soups, which include noodles, dumplings, and toppings. Consider starting with roast duck or chunks of whole pig, soy-sauce chicken, or the more exotic pigskin with turnips. Next consider sautéed beef ribs with black pepper, clams with black-bean sauce, sautéed shrimp with fresh macadamia nuts, whole steamed fish, and deep-fried squid with salt and pepper. Casserole dishes range from simple chicken to the more complex, such as oyster with roasted pig or Chinese squid, dry shrimp, and vermicelli. Good vegetable dishes are stir-fried snow-pea leaves and stir-fried eggplant with garlic sauce; recommended noodle dishes are pan-fried vermicelli and pan-fried egg noodles, both with a choice of toppings.
Vinh Kee, 3103-D Graham Rd., Falls Church; 703-645-0118.
CHANGES IN THE TOP 100
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
**NAM-VIET PHO 79
**STAR OF SIAM
**HALF MOON BBQ
100 WASHINGTONIAN Bargain Restaurants
Where You'll Find Lots of Flavor & Fun
*DENOTES CRITIC'S CHOICE
|A&J Restaurant Rockville, 301-251-7878; Annandale, 703-813-8181||Rockville, Annandale||Chinese|
|Aarathi 409 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-938-1011||Vienna||Indian|
|Aditi 3299 M St., NW; 202-625-6825||Georgetown||Indian|
|Akasaka 514-C S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria; 703-751-3133||Alexandria||Japanese|
|Amma Indian Vegetarian Kitchen 3291 M St., NW; 202-625-6625||Georgetown||Indian|
|Annie's Paramount Steakhouse 1609 17th St., NW; 202-232-0395||Dupont Circle||Steak|
|Benjarong 885 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-424-5533||Rockville||Thai|
|Bob's Noodle 305 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-315-6668||Rockville||Chinese|
|*Bombay Bistro Fairfax, 703-359-5810; Rockville, 301-762-8798||Fairfax, Rockville||Indian|
|Bombay Curry Company 3110 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-836-6363||Alexandria||Indian|
|Bombay Tandoor 8643 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-734-2202||Vienna||Indian|
|Bread Line 1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900||Downtown DC||American|
|Bubba's Bar-B-Q 7810-F Lee Hwy., Falls Church; 703-560-8570||Falls Church||Barbecue|
|Burma Restaurant 740 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-1280||Chinatown||Burmese|
|Cactus Cantina (202-686-7222) and Lauriol Plaza (202-387-0035)||Cleveland Park/Dupont Circle||Tex-Mex|
|Cafe Divan 1834 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-338-1747||Georgetown||Turkish|
|Cafe Monti 3250 Duke St., Alexandria; 703-370-3632||Alexandria||Austrian-Italian|
|Café Olé 4000 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-244-1330||Tenleytown||Mediterranean|
|*Café Parisien Express 4520 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-525-3332||Arlington Fast||French|
|Cafe Tirolo 4001 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington; 703-528-7809||Ballston||Austrian-Italian|
|Capital Q 707 H St., NW; 202-347-8396||Chinatown||Barbecue|
|China Garden 1100 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn; 703-525-5317||Rosslyn||Chinese|
|China Star 18204 Contour Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-947-0104||Gaithersburg||Chinese|
|China Star 9600-G Main St., Fairfax; 703-323-8822||Fairfax||Chinese|
|Chinatown Express 746 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-0424/0425||Chinatown||Chinese|
|*Coppi's Organic 1414 U St., NW; 202-319-7773||U Street||Italian|
|Crystal Thai 4819 N. First St., Arlington; 703-522-1311||Arlington||Thai|
|Cuban Corner 825 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 301-279-0310||Rockville||Cuban|
|Dragon Chinese Restaurant 227 Muddy Branch Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-330-6222||Gaithersburg||Chinese|
|Dragon Star 6793 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-533-8340||Falls Church||Chinese|
|Duangrat's 5878 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-5775||Falls Church||Thai|
|Eat First 609 H St., NW; 202-289-1703||Chinatown||Chinese|
|El Gavilan 8805 Flower Ave., Silver Spring; 301-587-4197||Silver Spring||Salvadoran|
|*El Patio 12303 Twinbrook Pkwy., Rockville; 301-231-9225||Rockville||Argentinean|
|El Pollo Rico Arlington, 703-522-3220; Wheaton, 301-942-4419||Arlington, Wheaton||Chicken|
|El Tapatio 4309 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg; 301-403-8882||Bladensburg||Mexican|
|Faryab Afghan 4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-3484||Bethesda||Afghan|
|Five Guys nine area locations||Northern Virginia, DC||Burgers|
|Flavors Soul Food 3420 Carlyn Hill Dr., Falls Church; 703-379-4411||Falls Church||Southern|
|*Four Sisters (Huong Que) 6769 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-6717||Falls Church||Vietnamese|
|*Full Kee 509 H St., NW; 202-371-2233||Chinatown||Chinese|
|Good Fortune 2646 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-929-8818||Wheaton||Chinese|
|Guajillo 1727 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-807-0840||Arlington||Mexican|
|Half Moon BBQ 8235 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-585-1290||Silver Spring||Barbecue|
|Hollywood East Café 2312 Price Ave., Wheaton; 301-942-8282||Wheaton||Chinese|
|Hunan Palace 9011 Gaither Rd., Gaithersburg; 301-977-8600||Gaithersburg||Chinese|
|Jasmine Garden 8106 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-208-9989||Falls Church||Chinese|
|Krupin's 4620 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-686-1989||Tenleytown||Deli|
|Kuzine 302 King Farm Blvd., Suite 110, Rockville; 301-963-3400||Rockville||Turkish/Russian/Eastern European|
|La Piazza 535 E. Braddock Rd., Alexandria; 703-519-7711||Alexandria||Italian|
|*Lebanese Taverna Café 1605 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-468-9086||Rockville||Lebanese|
|Lei Garden 629 H St., NW; 202-216-9696||Chinatown||Chinese|
|*Lucky Three 5900 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-998-8888||Falls Church||Chinese|
|*Malaysia Kopitiam 1827 M St., NW; 202-833-6232||Downtown DC||Malaysian|
|Mama Ayesha's 1967 Calvert St., NW; 202-232-5431||Adams Morgan||Lebanese|
|Mandalay 9091-A Baltimore Ave., College Park; 301-345-8540||College Park||Burmese|
|Manila Cafe 7020 Commerce St., Springfield; 703-644-5825||Springfield||Philippine|
|Marcella's 8540 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-951-1818||Chevy Chase||Italian|
|*Mark's Duck House 6184-A Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-2125||Falls Church||Chinese|
|Matamoros Restaurant 2322 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-949-2929||Wheaton||Tex-Mex|
|Matuba Arlington, 703-521-2811; Bethesda, 301-652-7449||Arlington, Bethesda||Japanese|
|*Mexicali Blues 2933 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-812-9352||Clarendon||Mexican-Salvadoran|
|*Minerva Fairfax, 703-383-9200; Herndon, 703-793-3223||Fairfax, Herndon||Indian|
|Minh's Restaurant 2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-2828||Arlington||Vietnamese|
|Mixtec 1792 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-332-1011||Adams Morgan||Mexican|
|Nam's of Bethesda 4928 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-2635||Bethesda||Vietnamese|
|Nam's of Wheaton 11220 Georgia Ave., Wheaton; 301-933-2525||Wheaton||Vietnamese|
|Napa Thai 4924 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-8590||Bethesda||Thai|
|Negril four area locations||Suburban Maryland, DC||Jamaican|
|Neisha Thai three area locations||Northern Virginia, DC||Thai|
|New Fortune 16515 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg; 301-548-8886||Gaithersburg||Chinese|
|*Olazzo 7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9496||Bethesda||Italian|
|Oodles Noodles/Nooshi Bethesda, 301-986-8833; Downtown DC, 202-293-3138||Bethesda, Downtown DC||Asian|
|*Oriental East 1312 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring; 301-608-0030||Silver Spring||Chinese|
|Panjshir 924 W. Broad St., Falls Church, 703-536-4566||Falls Church||Afghan|
|*Pasta Plus 209 Gorman Ave., Laurel; 301-498-7878||Laurel||Italian|
|Pho 75 five area locations||Suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia||Vietnamese|
|*Pizzeria Paradiso Dupont Circle, 202-223-1245; Georgetown, 202-337-1245||Dupont Circle, Georgetown||Pizza|
|Po-Siam 3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-3925||Alexandria||Thai|
|Rabieng 5892 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-671-4222||Baileys Crossroads||Thai|
|Rio Grande Café four area locations||Suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia||Tex-Mex|
|Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Co. three area locations||Glover Park, Arlington, Alexandria||Barbecue|
|*Sala Thai four area locations||DC, Arlington, Bethesda||Thai|
|Satay Sarinah 512-A S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria; 703-370-4313||Alexandria||Indonesian|
|Sette Osteria 1666 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-483-3070||Dupont Circle||Italian|
|*Seven Seas Restaurant 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville; 301-770-5020||Rockville||Chinese|
|Shamshiry 8607 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-448-8883||Vienna||Persian|
|Southside 815 815 S. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-836-6222||Alexandria||Southern|
|*Spices 3333-A Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-686-3833||Cleveland Park||Asian|
|Suporn 2302 Price Ave., Wheaton; 301-946-7613||Wheaton||Thai|
|Tako Grill 7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-7030||Bethesda||Japanese|
|Tandoori Nights 106 Market St., Gaithersburg; 301-947-4007||Gaithersburg||Indian|
|Taqueria el Poblano Alexandria, 703-548-8226; Arlington, 703-237-8250||Alexandria, Arlington||Tex-Mex|
|*Taste of Saigon Rockville, 301-424-7222; Tysons Corner, 703-790-0700||Rockville, Tysons Corner||Vietnamese|
|Tiffin 1341 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park; 301-434-9200||Takoma Park||Indian|
|Tono Sushi 2605 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-332-7300||Woodley Park||Japanese|
|Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant 619 H St., NW; 202-371-8669||Chinatown||Chinese|
|2 Amys 3715 Macomb St., NW; 202-885-5700||Cleveland Park||Pizza|
|Udupi Palace 1329 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park; 301-434-1531||Takoma Park||Indian|
|Vinh Kee 3103-D Graham Rd., Falls Church; 703-645-0118||Falls Church||Chinese|
WHERE THEY ARE
*DENOTES CRITIC'S CHOICE
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Burma Restaurant Burmese
Capital Q Barbecue
Chinatown Express Chinese
Eat First Chinese
*Full Kee Chinese
Lei Garden Chinese
Tony Cheng's Chinese
Cactus Cantina Tex-Mex
Café Olé Middle Eastern
*Sala Thai Thai
Tono Sushi Japanese
2 Amys Pizza
Bread Line American
Five Guys Burgers
Nooshi (Oodles Asian
Dupont Circle/Adams Morgan
Annie's Paramount Steak
*Coppi's Organic Italian
Lauriol Plaza Tex-Mex
Mama Ayesha's Lebanese
*Pizzeria Paradiso Pizza
*Sala Thai Thai
Sette Osteria Italian
Amma Indian Indian
Cafe Divan Turkish
*Pizzeria Paradiso Pizza
Rocklands Barbeque Barbecue
Napa Thai Thai
Oodles Noodles Asian
Rio Grande Café Tex-Mex
*Sala Thai Thai
Tako Grill Japanese
College Park/Langley Park/Prince George's County
El Tapatio Mexican*Mandalay Burmese
*Pasta Plus Italian
Pho 75 Vietnamese
China Star Chinese
Dragon Chinese Chinese
Hunan Palace Chinese
New Fortune Chinese
Rio Grande Café Tex-Mex
Tandoori Nights Indian
A&J Restaurant Chinese
Bob's Noodle Chinese
*Bombay Bistro Indian
Cuban Corner Cuban
*El Patio Argentinean
*Lebanese Taverna Lebanese
Pho 75 Vietnamese
*Seven Seas Chinese
*Taste of Saigon Vietnamese
Silver Spring/Takoma Park
El Gavilan Salvadoran
Half Moon BBQ Barbecue
*Oriental East Chinese
Udupi Palace Indian
El Pollo Rico Chicken
Good Fortune Chinese
Hollywood East Chinese
Bombay Curry Co. Indian
Cafe Monti Austrian-Italian
Five Guys Burgers
La Piazza Italian
Rocklands Barbeque Barbecue
Satay Sarinah Indonesian
Southside 815 Southern
A&J Restaurant Chinese**Café Parisien Fast French
Cafe Tirolo Austrian-Italian
China Garden Chinese
Crystal Thai Thai
El Pollo Rico Chicken
*Mexicali Blues Mexican/ Salvadoran
Pho 75 Vietnamese
Rio Grande Café Tex-Mex
Rocklands Barbeque Barbecue
*Sala Thai Thai
Falls Church/Baileys Crossroads
Bubba's Bar-B-Q BarbecueDragon Star Chinese
Flavors Soul Food Southern
*Four Sisters Vietnamese
Jasmine Garden Chinese
*Lucky Three Chinese
*Mark's Duck Chinese
Neisha Thai Thai
Pho 75 Vietnamese
Vinh Kee Vietnamese
Pho 75 Vietnamese
Rio Grande Café Tex-Mex
Five Guys Burgers
Manila Cafe Philippine
*Bombay Bistro Indian
Bombay Tandoor Indian
China Star Chinese
Five Guys Burgers
Neisha Thai Thai
*Taste of Saigon Vietnamese
Five Guys Burgers