Articles > Food & Drink
June 2006 Cheap Eats
100 Bargain restaurants where you’ll find lots of flavor and fun
A striking aspect of this year’s list of 100 Best Bargain Restaurants is the number of ethnic restaurants. Where are the American restaurants that serve consistently interesting, well-prepared food that won’t cause you to wince when the check arrives?
In other parts of the country, roadside restaurants and diners are more plentiful—and large immigrant communities are more scarce. Here, in an affluent cosmopolis with a rapidly soaring cost of living, if you want to keep prices low and eat food that feels familiar, your options are limited to fast-food joints or the likes of Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Bennigan’s. Nothing wrong with those when you’re stranded on the highway, but they hardly set our mouths to watering. And they don’t come close to satisfying our criteria for good, distinctive cooking.
We scoured the area for great homey American places. And I do mean scoured: For every place on the list, there are four others we tried, considered, and ultimately rejected. We can recommend only a handful. Not coincidentally, almost all are rooted in a single style (soul food) or built around a specific dish (barbecue).
Every week on my online chat, I hear from newcomers carping about what the area lacks and lamenting the absence of the sort of ethnic cooking that is no longer considered ethnic. I tell them it’s futile to look for what they had elsewhere—San Francisco’s Chinese restaurants, Chicago’s steakhouses, New York’s delis and pizzerias—and encourage them instead to embrace what this area does best and most distinctively.
Cuisine follows culture. Italians have never existed in great numbers in the city, so you’re not likely to see a critical mass of good, checkered-tablecloth restaurants. Upscale Italian is a different story—there’s no shortage of places where you can sup on modest portions of agnolotti stuffed with fava-bean purée and knock back double-digit glasses of wine.
On the other hand, this area has experienced a flood of immigrants over three decades. Unprecedented numbers of Salvadorans, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Ethiopians, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Iranians, Koreans, Thais, and Indians have adopted Washington as their home and, in so doing, transformed eating out in the region.
Some gastronomes like to say that in the last few years the city has arrived as a fine-dining city, citing the explosion of new restaurants, the arrival of big-name talent.
True enough, but the larger reality is that fine dining is finally catching up to the excitement that ethnic restaurants have been generating for years.
Kebab houses have become as ubiquitous in Virginia as burger shops were a generation ago. Pupuserias and pupusa trucks are as common a sight in the Maryland suburbs as the beloved Hot Shoppes used to be.
Dig into the boneless, butterflied trout at the Peruvian gem Granja de Oro and you may wonder why American restaurants can’t serve such sweet, meaty fish for under $12. Bite into the crunchy Cubano at Blue Mountain Café with its succulent slices of roast pork and you might wonder why anyone would agitate for more deli.
Savor the rich lamb stews at the Ethiopian bistro Etete, the complex and fiery lamb and chicken stews at the Pakistani haunt Ravi Kabob, or the creamy, layered curries at Bombay, Woodlands, Minerva, or Udupi Palace and you might wonder why you dropped $100 on a fancy meal that didn’t deliver a fraction of the satisfaction.
So good and varied is the Indian cooking here these days that you might say that what French food was to Washington in the ’70s Indian food is now. Chinese has surrendered its place to Thai, Vietnamese, and even Malaysian. And Chinatown has surrendered its place to Rockville, home to Joe’s Noodle House, Bob’s Noodle 66, and Seven Seas, all of which boast better, more distinctive cooking than anything in DC’s Chinatown.
Individual communities have been cropping up all over the area, often centered around clusters of restaurants. There’s a Little Mexico in Riverdale, a Little Korea in Annandale, a Little Ethiopia along U Street in DC, and a Little Vietnam in Falls Church—the sprawling Eden Center, with its 30-plus restaurants and eateries and ten bakeries. Exploring these cuisines has never been more interesting or rewarding.
The places on this year’s Cheap Eats list all share a common denominator: There’s an energy coming from the kitchen that manifests itself on the plate in cooking that is full of care, attention, and love.
More than cheap eats, they’re good eats.
When was the last time you had a sandwich at a Chinese restaurant? For an experience that challenges your notions of what Chinese cuisine is, head to these northern-Chinese dim sum parlors. Both locations attract a youngish crowd. Rockville, with trapeze lighting and spice-colored walls, is a bit trendier. Annandale has a more traditional look: faux stone and a mural of China.
Unlike the dumplings and noodles that characterize Hong Kong–style dim sum, the northern-Chinese version revolves around bread. The reason? The cold, dry climate of the north is suitable for growing wheat and millet rather than rice, a staple in the south. Breadstuffs include thousand-layer pancake (it actually has about 20) and what can only be described as a sandwich—two flaky, sesame-studded rectangles of dough with bits of pork or beef between them. To take a bite is to experience happiness.
Delicious dumplings the size of a Cuban cigar are stuffed with pork—they may look odd, but the taste is familiar. Steamed spareribs with spiced rice powder are worthwhile morsels, as are razor-thin shavings of pork. More substantial are two show-stopper soups. One has the bite of mustard greens; the other, a fiery beef stew, woos with chilies.
Dim sum items 95 cents to $5.95. No credit cards.
A&J Restaurant, 4316-B Markham St., Annandale, 703-813-8181; 1319-C Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-251-7878. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
A la Lucia
Old Town Alexandria
When Michael Nayeri left Galileo after nearly 20 years as maître d’ to open a place of his own, he didn’t try to go head-to-head with his old boss, Roberto Donna. Reasoning that Washington was well-stocked in high-end Italian, he set his sights on filling the demand for affordable Italian cooking—the kind of place you can go for a good plate of cannelloni and a nice glass of wine without feeling that you are splurging. His bright, color-filled restaurant on the edge of Old Town has justified his instincts by drawing an almost continuous stream of customers.
Not everything on the menu of pastas, fish, and chops will honor the Cheap Eats budget. A linguine with lobster will push hard against its constraints, as will the excellent double-cut pork chops—a deal at $21, but probably admissible only if you share them. Look to pastas instead.
They’re no comedown. The cannelloni is arguably the best in the area, two tubes of firm pasta encasing a generous portion of beautifully seasoned ground veal. Malfadine is a seldom-seen dish and an intriguing one: lasagna sheets reduced to thick bands of pasta, the ruffled edges scooping up a rich, if salty, veal ragu.
Hearty satisfactions, not subtle refinements, are the kitchen’s strength. A creamy polenta with veal stew is full of simple pleasures, as are many of the soups, particularly the lentil soup and white-bean soup. A bowl of either, plus a well-pressed panini, makes a fine light meal. The wine list is good and reasonably priced, thanks to Nayeri’s also owning the wine shop on the corner.
Appetizers $4.95 to $8.95, entrées $10.95 to $26.99.
A la Lucia, 315 Madison St., Alexandria; 703-836-5123; www.alalucia.com. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
You can’t miss Giovanni Diotaiuti. He’s the smiling guy in the white chef’s apron greeting customers and imbuing his cozy U Street trattoria with the same warmth he brought to Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle.
The hands-on approach goes a long way. So do the gentle tabs. In an age of double-digit glasses of wine, Al Crostino has fashioned a list of imports where nothing tops $10. Tuscan-style rib-eye steak isn’t going to make you forget the thick, charred slabs at Charlie Palmer Steak, but it’s a generous portion of good, juicy meat, and the thin, crispy sliced potatoes it comes with are deserving of their own, separate dish. Vitello tonnato is exactly the sort of inelegant but lusty dish that more Italian restaurants would do well to include on their menus. This one shows why: It’s a small plate that tastes big. The pastas are sometimes memorable (spinach ricotta in a Gorgonzola sauce), sometimes ordinary (mushroom ravioli with sage butter), but always evince a distinctly Italian reverence for simple, unfussy preparations and fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Specials often showcase hard-to-get or seasonal items by doing as little to them as possible; a recent plate of soft-shells in a light, lemon-butter sauce aimed to get out of the way of the delicacy of the meat. Given the prices, you might be glad for merely competent service, but in fact it’s excellent—smart and solicitous.
Appetizers $7 to $9.50, entrées $13.50 to $17.50.
Al Crostino, 1324 U St., NW; 202-797-0523; www.alcrostino.com. Open daily for dinner.
Owner Amina Toopet personally scours her storefront restaurant every day, and it shows—the dining room is sparkling clean, the hardwood floors glimmer, the yellow and blue walls gleam.
Toopet, a Muslim Thai, is just as hands-on at mealtime. Her head bound in a colorful scarf, she stops by tables making sure diners are happy and beams contentedly at words of praise. Which is what you’ll undoubtedly utter as you make your way through the vivid cooking. Nibble on crisp vegetable-filled spring rolls with nary a trace of grease or share a many-textured shrimp “salad” sour with lime and fiery with roasted chili paste. Bigger plates like the green shrimp curry, fragrant with coconut milk, and the tender eggplant redolent of Thai basil are no less delicious. Because the restaurant adheres to Islamic dietary law, there’s no pork or alcohol. The pork you’re not likely to miss, but a Singha would provide a welcome bit of relief from all the fire.
For dessert, deep-fried bananas wrapped in a rice-paper packet, to be dunked in a honey or chocolate sauce, are a new twist on an old favorite.
Appetizers $4.95 to $7.95, entrées $9.95 to $13.95.
Amina Thai, 5065 Nicholson La., Rockville; 301-770-9509; halalthaicuisine.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
On a Saturday night it seems that all of Fairfax is at this sprawling restaurant with its three-sided bar and bilevel dining room. The lobby’s jammed, and the conversational din drowns out the Foo Fighters on the sound system.
The draw? Supersize portions of deftly done American comfort food, a hallmark of the Great American Restaurants chain. You can make a meal of a starter or salad or split an entrée, sometimes three ways. The place may feel factorylike at times—seat ’em, feed ’em, send ’em on their way—but service is chipper and the call-ahead policy a boon for diners who don’t like to wait.
Rich lobster bisque, scented with sherry, is the best of the soups. The chopped salad combines crunch with the retro creaminess of buttermilk dressing. Jumbo lump crab cakes are easily shared—skip the fries and go for Parmesan potatoes, really a luscious gratin. Other plates made for twosomes are pecan-crusted trout—the nutty flavor and buttery citrus sauce works well with the mild fish—and the Black Angus rib eye, a meaty hunk infused with hickory smoke and mated with a baked potato loaded with bits of bacon, cheese, and green onion. Fusiony dishes like Tex-Mex egg rolls filled with smoked chicken and jalapeño jack don’t work as well, and at times the menu descends into fast-food territory: Chicken tenders?
Save room for dessert. The fudgy flourless chocolate waffle with house-made vanilla ice cream is fabulous.
Appetizers $6 to $10, entrées $9 to $24.
Artie’s, 3260 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax City; 703-273-7600; greatamericanrestaurants.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch.
Bamian Afghan Cuisine
Glittering chandeliers and silky window treatments take Afghan cuisine into fine-dining territory at this restaurant named for an Afghan city where the Taliban destroyed two ancient Buddha statues. But while the space is suited to a grand wedding, the cooking has a personal, homespun feel.
Mantu and aushak, those oversize raviolis, at first seem familiar. Mantu is filled with ground beef, aushak with chopped scallions, and both get a blanket of tomato and yogurt. But they also get a generous shake of spicy sumac, the Lawry’s salt of the Middle East, used with abandon in Persian cooking but less often in Afghan. Even more of a scorcher is carrayee, a stir-fry of lamb chunks, onions, tomatoes, green pepper, and crushed hot red peppers. By contrast, a sauté of eggplant, smoky and sweet, is a welcome respite from the heat, as is kadu chalau, sautéed pumpkin with a dollop of yogurt and a splash of tomato.
Tender garlic-laden lamb chops, called lamb ribs here, are the best of the kebabs, although they’re well done rather than rosy. Stir-fried spinach turns up bland, and boolawnee, a large triangle of dough filled with potato and leeks, could have used more time in the oven. But Bamian has enough going for it to let a few missteps slide.
Appetizers $3.95 to $4.95, entrées $9.95 to $14.95.
Bamian Afghan Cuisine, 5634 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-7880. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Too often the glitziness of Thai restaurants is in direct correlation to the blandness of what comes out of the kitchen.
You don’t have to choose between great cooking and good looks at this family-run spot. It’s got an array of fruity martinis and single-malt Scotches and the feel of a stylish, low-lit lounge. But it isn’t shy about flavor.
“Fiery” and “spicy” are the adjectives of choice—the staff will tone down the heat if you ask. But many dishes are studies in hot and cool. Green-papaya salad, sprinkled with peanuts, fish sauce, and lime, is both refreshing and sweat-inducing. Mint and roasted-rice powder help soothe the burn from the grilled-beef salad. Catfish—shredded, quickly fried, and set atop a mango salad—almost melts in the mouth and leaves the fire on your tongue.
Lusher preparations include pork belly, lined with ribbons of fat, and roasted duck, both sautéed with chilies and basil. There are good renditions of red, green, and Mussaman curries, too. Don’t miss dessert—especially the coconut ice cream, served in a hollowed coconut shell, and bua loi, balls of taro in a martini glass with coconut cream.
Lunch special $5.95, appetizers $3.95 to $10.95, entrées $6.95 to $12.95.
Bangkok 54, 2919 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-521-4070; bangkok54restaurant.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Blue Mountain Café
Good Cuban cooking is so rare in this area that aficionados tend to hail any promising new place as the genuine article. That puts a heavy burden on places like this newcomer, housed in an industrial park in an area of Rockville that borders Gaithersburg.
For one thing, the menu is as much Jamaican as it is Cuban, a reflection of chef and co-owner Edgardo Zuniga’s upbringing as the child of a Cuban mother and a Panamanian father and his marriage to a Jamaican woman. So although you’ll find crusty cubes of sour-orange-soaked pork in a plate of masitas and a lively picadillo—the ground-beef hash full of raisins, olives, and white wine—you’ll also find plump, tender jerk chicken smothered in spices, and a delectable oxtail stew, fragrant with allspice, clove, and juniper berry and strewn with peas. The Cubano features thick slices of slow-roasted pork—freshly carved, not the thin leftovers you usually find—beneath a layer of ham and another layer of cheese, with a smear of mustard and a pickle to lighten the load.
Because portions are ample—all entrées include rice and a side of plantains, sweet and properly sticky—you might want to cut right to the main course, bypassing a handful of underwhelming appetizers and forgoing the trio of desserts, which includes a too-sweet tres leches cake. It’s also a way to exit in less than two hours. Island time is not the same as mainland time. Still, Zuniga and his wife would do well to keep a more vigilant eye on the waitstaff—lingering is one thing; being neglected is another.
Appetizers $4 to $8, entrées $11 to $17.
Blue Mountain Café, 15855 Redland Rd., Rockville; 301-926-6666. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Bob’s Noodle 66
Even on weeknights Bob’s small, white-walled dining room is packed with regulars—Chinese expats and Westerners who’ve moved beyond Chinese-American fare into new territory. Prices on the sprawling Taiwanese menu are low enough to take risks, so go ahead and order those duck tongues with ginger and basil. They’re fabulous little slivers of crunch. But you don’t have to indulge in oddities to tap into what’s good here.
Taiwanese hamburger—really a savory hunk of pork—in a steamed bun with greens is easy to love. So are a meaty pork chop with scallion sauce, five-flavor snapper, and peppery sautéed riblets of beef called “veal chop.” Then again, loofah with salty shrimp is one of those love-it-or-hate-it plates. It looks like honeydew, has the texture of cucumber, and tastes like okra. When in doubt, ask owner Bob Liu, a chatty ex-journalist.
There’s a full bar, beer, and a short wine list. Kids will love the papaya milkshakes with tapioca balls and double-wide straws. The sparkling mounds of shaved ice with rivulets of red beans, lychee, and taro will speak to the kid in everyone.
Entrées $2.95 to $15.95. No credit cards.
Bob’s Noodle 66, 305 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-315-6668. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Hidden away in a White Oak strip mall, this Indian gem with native watercolors and purple sconces is a pleasant spot to while away a few hours. At lunchtime, the place fills up with cabbies, a good sign. They give way at night to extended Indian families, from sari-clad grandmas to infants with tiny rubies in their earlobes.
The cooking is fiery but not incendiary, aromatic but not overbearing. These are complex Indian hits made with passion—you can see the split cardamom pods, the toasted mustard seeds, the torn curry leaves.
Chef Anthony Binod’s kitchen sends out some of the flakiest samosas and pakoras you’ll come across as well as some of the lushest curries. The coconutty Goan fish curry has complex, layered spicing, and a shrimp curry laced with mustard seeds is remarkable for its depth of flavor. Even more-familiar plates, like smoky tandoori lamb chops, shallot-studded biryani, and malai kofta—the vegetable patties springy and delectable in a sauce of toasted almonds and cream—are done with finesse. Spicier picks—a tomato-based okra stew and the cheese pakora with a cilantro-mint-chili dipping sauce—breathe true fire.
As wonderful as the food is, Bombay falls short in some basics. The welcome could be warmer and the pacing of the meal a bit swifter—the lag between starters and main courses can be glacial. There’s already plenty of time to savor every bite.
Appetizers $3.50 to $6.95, entrées $8.95 to $18.95.
Bombay, 11229 New Hampshire Ave., White Oak; 301-593-7222. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Bombay Curry Company
A raft of new Indian restaurants has opened in the last several years, each hot new arrival in a race to outstrip its predecessors in stylishness and trendiness. This simple storefront restaurant lacks the boldness of those newcomers, not to mention the backing capital. It speaks quietly but distinctively—from the antique ceiling fans that set off the olive-colored walls and give the tiny room an air of languor to the pepper shakers (filled with red, not black, pepper) to the black-marker-scrawled menu.
Just two pages, it contains a surprising number of seldom-seen dishes: Chicken kadai, a northern-Indian dish, brims with tomatoes, garlic, and ginger, and pathar kebab does a neat trick in turning the expected sausage inside out—the result is a scallopine of sorts, a pounded filet of lamb tossed on the grill and given a quick charring, then plated alongside a round of naan still hot from the tandoor.
More familiar dishes are not ignored. As often as not, they’re more pungent, vivid, and interesting than their counterparts elsewhere; the kitchen’s rendition of Butter Chicken is more tomatoey than most, and it’s impossible to miss the presence of the toasted clove and cardamom. And its Goan fish curry is made by stirring a handful of coconut shreds into the coconut milk—a textural chewiness that plays against the silken flakes of halibut.
If there’s a weakness, it’s that the meats are occasionally not as tender as they could be, failing to match the intensity or interest of their complexly rendered gravies.
Dessert is an unexpected strength, from a delicate, saffron-infused rice pudding to a superb version of gulab jamun, those light, sweet fried dumplings bathed in a thin honey sauce.
Appetizers $1.95 to $4.95, entrées $7.95 to $10.95.
Bombay Curry Company, 3110 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-836-6363. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Marvelous Market and Bread Line founder Mark Furstenburg is credited with bringing excellent bread to Washington—you’ll find the latest examples in the baskets behind the register here and on the tables at restaurants like Citronelle and Maestro. Though Furstenburg sold his stake in Marvelous Market years ago and in Bread Line last year, the breads and sandwiches at Bread Line remain largely unchanged—and delicious.
World Bank expats, White House staffers, media hotshots, and even Mayor Williams regularly line up for small-batch fruit sodas, terrific salads, and the best workday sandwiches in the area. The lunch rush can be crowded and chaotic, but there’s usually a seat to be found along the wooden counter or outside under an umbrella.
What to order? Tough call. It’s hard to turn down the shavings of prosciutto piled with watercress on mascarpone-slathered walnut bread, or egg salad topped with house-made sun-dried tomatoes on olive bread, or salads like Persian chicken, tabbouleh, or lentil and feta. Daily specials are uneven: The bland Philly cheesesteak, the too-cuminy Cubano, and the grease-soaked Reuben are skippable. So, too, the underseasoned soups. But the fried oyster po’ boy, BLT, and fried-soft-shell-crab sandwich are summertime treasures. The best dessert? Another sandwich: two soft, slightly salty chocolate cookies stuffed with mascarpone.
Sandwiches $6.90 to $9.95; salads $5.95.
Bread Line, 1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900; thebreadlinedc.blogspot.com. Open Monday through Friday for breakfast and lunch (open Saturdays in the summer).
Named for Istanbul’s still-snazzy Divan Hotel, this snug cafe on Wisconsin Avenue in upper Georgetown proves that style and substance are not incompatible. The glass-walled dining room looks like a page out of Metropolitan Home, the people-watching crowd is a mix of old and young sophisticates, and the food goes well beyond Turkey’s greatest hits.
Besides perfectly fried sigara borek, cigar-shaped rolls of dough deep-fried and oozing cheese, the kitchen turns out (on weekends only) the rarely seen sous borek, a delicately layered affair of house-made dough and parsley-flecked feta baked in the wood oven. There’s also a lovely iman bayaldi, the classic stuffed-eggplant dish, sweet with tomatoes and glistening with olive oil, which easily surpasses the timid eggplant salad.
Doner kebab, thin slices of meat shaved from a large roast of lamb and veal cooked on a vertical spit, is especially good, whether you have it solo or in a dish called iskander kebab, in which the meat is tossed with bits of pita and tomato sauce. Two other can’t-miss lamb dishes are kuzu guvec, a hearty lamb-and-eggplant casserole, and lamajun, a thin, crispy, open-faced pie with ground lamb and piquant bits of pepper. Lighter fare includes boat-shaped “Turkish pizzas” sporting the unlikely but delicious mating of kasseri cheese and fried eggs.
Kazan dibi, a silky rice-flour pudding with a scorched crust—the Ottoman answer to crème brûlée—is a sweet finish.
Appetizers $3.95 to $5.95, entrées $5.95 to $16.
Cafe Divan, 1834 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-338-1747; www.cafedivan.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Located behind a flashy Thai restaurant in the rear of an office building, this tiny Italian/Austrian cafe feels like an oasis of simple comfort. It’s nothing fancy: Posters of Innsbruck and Salzburg share wall space with shelves bearing mini bags of Cheetos. Many patrons get dinner to go, and you bus your own table. But the handful of seats inside and out looks onto a happy dog park. The customers, equal parts retirees and young professionals, tend to come back week after week. And the small staff is all smiles.
Chef/owner Vic Kreidl makes unpretentious, feel-good food—more like the work of a talented home cook than a chef who spent years cooking through Austria and Switzerland, then drizzling sauces at the late Tiberio, one of DC’s fancier Italian restaurants.
The star of the menu is his Wiener schnitzel—veal pounded thin and breaded with a wonderfully light crust. All it needs is a squeeze of lemon and Kreidl’s darkly roasted potatoes. Simple salads, such as slices of tomato with goat cheese and black olives, or spinach with mushrooms, are fresh and well dressed. Elsewhere, stick to the soul-satisfying fare as opposed to the diet-conscious—a heaping tangle of linguine with flavorful tomato sauce and finely spiced meatballs, say, or veal scallopine napped in lemony butter. A recent special of grilled salmon with cucumber salad was dull. And a plate of fat green asparagus arrived oversteamed.
Tarts—with raspberries, pears, or blueberries—apple strudel, and cannoli all make a lovely finish.
Appetizers $3.75 to $6.95, entrées $4.95 to $16.95.
Cafe Tirolo, 4001 N. Fairfax Dr., No. 16 Arlington; 703-528-7809. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Thursday.
Some of the area’s most spot-on Jamaican fare comes out of the tiny kitchen of this fish market and restaurant popular with the Caribbean community. Everyone gets a warm welcome from owner Yvonne Edwards, who skips from kitchen to dining room to fish market and back with speed and grace.
Don’t see any fish? They’re buried in mounds of ice, giving the place an old-fashioned feel. The homey vibe carries on in the dining room, which is brightened with colorful fishnets and seafaring artwork.
Nearly everything on the menu is a keeper, with the possible exception of the bland steamed fish with okra. The Caribbean mainstay, escabèche—fried fish smothered with melting onions in a tart vinegar sauce—might be the most swoon-inducing. But the brown stew fish is a close second, the snapper hitting the palate with an intensely winy, briny flavor. The Blue Mountain–style shrimp turns up the heat with a blast of red pepper and coriander, while fish ’n’ chips, a nod to Jamaica’s colonial past, crackles with a brittle, greaseless crust. That same clean frying shows up in the crispy Jamaican fritters called Festival, a sort of ultra-delicious hushpuppy. Even the rice and peas accompanying most plates are more flavorful, more coconutty, here.
Because everything is cooked to order—even the wonderful fruit juices like pineapple ginger are made in-house—and because the staff is small, waits can be long, which is probably why the place does a brisker carryout than eat-in business, at least on weekdays. But that feels authentic, too. In the Caribbean, things unfold at a slower pace. They call it island time.
Appetizers about $3.50, most entrées $8 to $15, lobster $25.
Caribbean Sea, 6869 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring; 301-891-3497. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner; closes at 8 Sunday.
Style and substance converge at this high-energy bar/restaurant/lounge in Silver Spring, where standard Latin American dishes like ceviche, roast chicken, and fritters get fresh interpretations, while the modern dining room appeals to a crowd that’s comfortable stopping in for a caipirinha and nibbles or a full meal.
Novel approaches to classics like papas a la huancayna are hallmarks of this kitchen. Here the traditional boiled potatoes with peanut sauce go elegant with a blob of creamy ricotta, crunchy crushed peanuts, and roasted potatoes under a velvety yellow-pepper purée. Fried potato wedges steal the show in a garlicky sauté with chorizo. Oversize fritters are crusty and greaseless: One, an oval of corn soufflé, oozes Gruyère; the other is a mix of shredded chicken punctuated with cilantro and capers. Roast chicken cured with beer and cumin is as crisp and delicious as any fried bird, while a pork rib is caramelized till even the fat is golden brown. Seafood includes a perfectly balanced, classic ceviche and a beautifully turned out whole fish of the day.
Comfort can be found in locro ecuatoriano, a creamy potato soup with avocado and soft-boiled eggs, the sort of thing you might crave after one too many of the bar’s bracingly tart mojitos.
Appetizers $5 to $10, entrées $5 to $21.
Ceviche, 921-J Ellsworth Dr., Silver Spring; 301-608-0081; latinconcepts.com/ceviche. Open daily for dinner, Monday through Friday for lunch.
Ching Ching Cha
The great pleasure of teahouses is the prospect of escape from the noise and bustle of life. It’s a testament to the transportive power of this one that you’re likely to forget you were near the corner of M and Wisconsin when you walked through the door.
Plush red pillows on the floor encourage shoeless, lotus-style sitting—there are also tables—while the tinkling music and skylight create a mood of serenity. Somehow, the place never devolves into New Age kitsch.
Lunch is the time to go, when lingering over a cup of tea seems as good an answer as any to your worldly cares. The menu provides pithy descriptions of the 48 varieties, which range in flavor from the floral to the resiny to the hauntingly smoky. It’s probably best to think of the small dishes available as snacks meant to complement slow sipping. Begin with a bowl of spicy peanuts or any of three varieties of steamed dumpling, including a peppery, Mongolian-style lamb tucked within a hearty, northern-Chinese-style wrapper. Then move on to an elegant little plate of salmon—two succulent, steamed filets with a miso-mustard drizzle—and a bowl of lightly steamed kale that retains its vivid green color and its crunch. The great prices—nothing on the menu tops $11—induce a serenity all their own.
Appetizers $1.50 to $4.25, entrées $11, teas $4 to $20.
Ching Ching Cha, 1063 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-8288. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner; closes at 7 on Sundays.
Gillian Clark has created a restaurant in Brightwood Park as witty and referential as a postmodern novel. You’ll find Norman Rockwell–style bric-a-brac, Aunt Jemima–style red-kerchief napkins, and straight-to-the-soul cooking, which on a recent visit encompassed an updating of a TV-dinner classic—chicken à la king in puff pastry—and an homage to holiday tradition, meatloaf with matzo balls.
Staying within the parameters of the Cheap Eats budget at dinner requires planning, though you can order without worry at brunch, one of the best, if simplest, in town (don’t miss the eggs Benedict or the crispy fried fish with house-made tartar sauce). Clark’s nighttime menu features appetizers, small plates, and main courses. Ask your server for recommendations on the changing menu—service is finally keeping pace with the cooking.
Some small plates, like a tasty leek-and-onion tart, are filling enough to build a meal around; one of the smartly dressed salads or creamy soups makes a nice pairing. A couple of small plates and an entrée to share would be plenty filling, especially if the entrée is the mammoth corn-flake-crusted pork chop with sides of braised red cabbage and spaetzle.
Clark’s asparagus is nearly irresistible—thick, meaty spears are perfectly braised, and the two goat-cheese fritters are both complement and condiment. Or spend on dessert: a piece of pineapple upside-down cake or a warm chocolate tart.
Appetizers $4.50 to $13, entrées $14 to $19.
Colorado Kitchen, 5515 Colorado Ave., NW; 202-545-8280. Open Friday for lunch, Wednesday through Sunday for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch.
Roasted eggplant tossed with smoky mozzarella and parsley. Bosc pears with fresh mint and pecorino shavings. Coppi’s is known mostly for its wood-oven pies, but these elegant preludes show it’s much more than a pizza joint.
Not that the pizzas are anything to scoff at. They start with fresh basil leaves, creamy mozzarella, and a respectable crust and benefit from such toppings as spicy crimson soppresatta with mint, parsley, and cremini mushrooms or chard with raisins and ricotta. Much of the organic menu changes with the seasons. Pastas are made in-house—we lean toward the traditional Ligurian trenette, thick ribbons dressed up with lamb sausage and red peppers.
It’s not all cheap—most entrée pastas are over $20—and it doesn’t all taste quite as good as it sounds. A salad of seared butternut squash with ricotta salata, capers, and pine nuts was muted by flat seasoning.
Even so, booths in the narrow, deep-red dining room—covered with black-and-white photos of Italian cycling hero Fausto Coppi—are hard to find, especially on weekend nights.
Appetizers $5.95 to $8.95, pizzas $12.95 to $19.95, entrées $17.95 to $23.95.
Coppi’s Organic, 1414 U St., NW; 202-319-7773; coppisorganic.com. Open daily for dinner.
Even before you order at this Peruvian restaurant partway between Ballston and Clarendon, you’re welcomed with a bowl of thick, roasted corn kernels, salted like popcorn and just as hard to stop eating. They’re even better when you swipe them through the salsa verde, a thick, iridescent purée of chilies that signals that the kitchen is in good hands. This addictive snack pairs perfectly with a tart pisco sour, a concoction of pisco brandy, sugar-cane juice, and frothed egg whites.
It goes down smoothly, as does much of the cooking here. What elevates Costa Verde above a slew of pan-Latino restaurants in the area is its consistency and attention to detail. Even the rice, an afterthought at many places, is so good you find yourself wanting to order seconds. Ceviches—there are six kinds—are sharp and tangy, full of good, firm fish and seafood. As befits a cuisine born along the coast, fish and seafood predominate. You’ll find a garlicky shrimp soup enriched with a splash of cream, an excellent crispy whole fried fish, and a plate of octopus and calamari sautéed in a garlicky white-wine sauce.
Not everything that comes from the water is bound for greatness; sometimes a filet of mahi-mahi, as in the escabèche, or in the saltado de pescado is thready, not moist. The menu, which looks long, is full of duplications, variations on a few themes. But whatever quibbles you might have, they’ll be erased by the time you dig into the luscious tres leches cake for dessert.
Appetizers $4 to $7.95, entrées $9.95 to $17.95.
Costa Verde, 946 N. Jackson St., Arlington; 703-522-6976. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Cuba de Ayer
Cuban food is simple and soulful—the antithesis of most restaurant cooking. The places that do it best don’t try to pretty up their plates or embroider them with detail to try to woo an upscale audience.
This newcomer is a mom-and-pop that knows how to translate home cooking into a restaurant setting. It’s pretty—a narrow slip of a place with red walls and handsomely framed pictures of antique cars—and the food comes to the table on sleek plates. But the embellishments end there. The food is so unfussy and so lovably homely that it could have come straight from a mother’s kitchen.
All the expected dishes are here, all treated with care—even the rice, well-slicked and fluffy, has been lavished with attention. Ham croquettes are addictive, two-bite poppers, a crisp armor of fry concealing a hammy, creamy interior. Beef empanadas boast a wonderfully flaky pastry crust.
Ropa vieja—shredded beef laced with stewed peppers and onions—is first-rate, the beef properly stringy but more yielding than most. A plate of masitas boasts thick hunks of pork marinated six hours in a sour-orange juice, then deep fried; the outsides are brown and crisp, the insides succulent. Picadillo, the popular beef hash that’s often a catchall for the kitchen’s leftovers (and often tastes like it), is given its due; the kitchen doesn’t stint on the raisins, olives, or white wine. There are also wonderful plantains, sticky-sweet without being greasy, good black beans—soupy, lightly garlicky, and not mushy—and a Cubano sandwich that won’t make anyone long for Miami.
A square of tres leches cake is irresistible, as creamy as any we’ve had.
Appetizers $2 to $7, entrées $8 to $15.
Cuba de Ayer, 15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville; 301-476-9622. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
Seeing chicken wings on the menu of an Indian restaurant inspires anything but confidence in the quality of the kitchen. What it inspires are thoughts of toned-down food that panders to Western sensibilities. That is, until you taste the ones at this tiny storefront place that condo-dwelling locals seem intent on keeping all to themselves.
Fired in the tandoor, these red-hued, peppery wings are so hot and spicy that they turn doubters into believers—and prompt you to dig deep into the roster of northern-Indian dishes.
This is assertive cooking, intended for a knowledgeable audience, though it will be rewarding for diners innocent of the flavors of the subcontinent. The tandoor-baked breads arrive hot and crispy—one variety, stuffed with house-made cottage cheese, offers a nice textural contrast—as do the marvelous spinach-and-potato fritters. Crab cakes are brought to life with a shot of ginger and a pinch of diced green chilies. Five-spice Bengali shrimp offers the pleasures of a slow burn, the warmth building in your mouth with each bite. Curries are more pungent and sharply defined than most and sometimes boast wonderful distinguishing touches—ground pistachio in the chicken curry, long-smoked eggplant in the tomato-rich bhuna bhartha.
Sometimes the centerpiece of a dish, the meat, will turn up dry, and you’ll find yourself spooning the terrific, black cardamom-scented rice into the various gravies, so fascinatingly complex that you might not even miss the meat.
Appetizers $3 to $6.75, entrées $8.50 to $19.50.
Delhi Club, 1135 N. Highland St., Arlington; 703-527-5666; delhiclub.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
The only thing harder to find than good deli is a good overstuffed sandwich that doesn’t sell itself as “gourmet” and leave you feeling overcharged.
That accounts for the popularity of this faded-orange building in Northeast DC, where all the cultural strands of the city converge—black and white, young and old, white-collars and blue-collars and no-collars.
The sandwiches include Polish ham, a thinly cut roast beef that tastes as if it’s been soaking in its own jus, a corned beef that could use more spice but is luscious without it, and, above all, the house-made pastrami—a generous portion of meltingly tender, well-smoked meat cut from the navel of the brisket and served on good if soft rye bread. It might not eclipse anyone’s memories of the definitive version at Katz’s on New York’s Lower East Side, but it’s plenty good.
The name “deli” is something of a misnomer, especially for those who might be inclined to look for the likes of black-and-white cookies by the counter. The rest of the menu is taken up with reliable versions of soul food, from smothered pork chops to fried haddock. And although there are several tables and chairs, most customers are here for carryout.
Whether you eat in or opt for takeout, a part of the charm is the people-watching: businessmen stroking their ties as they pace, colorfully hatted grandmothers sitting with hands folded primly in their laps, and sunburnt construction workers streaming in to take lunch back for the crew.
Sandwiches $2.25 to $6.50, entrées $6.95 to $9.95.
Deli City, 2200 Bladensburg Rd., NE; 202-526-1800. Open Monday through Friday for breakfast and lunch.
Ever wonder why it’s so hard to get good barbecue in the city? Nelson Head can tell you why. His place used to be located on Capitol Hill. But even he confesses it wasn’t a real ’cue joint, not with all the salads he cranked out to satisfy his audience of young professionals. So he moved out to Woodbridge ten years ago and renamed his operation Dixie Bones.
He hasn’t regretted leaving the city. And no wonder—the line at the door seems to never diminish.
A trip out to Dixie Bones is a trip back in time, a roadside diner where the display of old typewriters and radios is meant to evoke nostalgia for what we’ve lost, the arrangement of police-department patches is intended as a tribute, and the low-and-slow method (low heat, slow cooking) is cherished as a fading art in a time when speed governs everything in our lives.
The pork shoulder and beef brisket are cooked overnight over hickory logs in gas-fired pits. The ribs take four or five hours, the chicken four hours. The smoke, not the sauce, is the key, and both the pork and brisket come to the table with hardly any blanketing. There are four sauces on the table. The brisket benefits from, but hardly needs, a shake of the tangy red sauce. The ribs, barely slicked with sauce, are wonderfully smoky, the pink-tinged meat a mite short of luscious. The chicken is the standout, a juicy, tender, and smoky bird.
In most ’cue joints, the sides rarely measure up to the meats. Here they do. The potato salad is rich, eggy, and sweet, the leaves of cabbage are slicked with pork juice, the beans are house-made and full of smoke and tang, and the cornbread is as good as any version we’ve tried, a pan-griddled cake full of sweet butter.
No meal here can be considered complete without a slice of the pecan pie. The filling is made with Karo syrup and brown sugar while the top is given a second crust with a dense layer of thickly chopped pecans. It’s as fine a pecan pie as you’re likely to find outside of the Deep South.
Sandwiches $4.50 to $5.25, entrées $8.95 to $13.95.
Dixie Bones, 13440 Occoquan Rd., Woodbridge; 703-492-2205; dixiebones.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
In the middle of a neighborhood known primarily for chicken joints, this Eastern European/Scandinavian restaurant owned by an Asian-American and with an African-American at the helm of the kitchen speaks to the multicultural promise of the city. Few restaurants are as fascinating. From the cement floors and crystal chandeliers to the mix of sandal-clad urbanites and white-haired suburbanites, Domku makes you think its incongruities are natural and inevitable.
What makes the place more than a curiosity is the quality of its cooking. Gravlax shows up in a variety of forms—in a tasty sandwich with cream cheese, in a twist on eggs Benedict, and in a cold platter that includes salmon roe, cornichons, and diced red onion. There’s pickled herring and a plate of smoked sprats, both begging to be washed down with any of ten house-made aquavits.
Chef Eric Evans spent his formative years in Norway, and his plates have a relaxed simplicity that makes them seem less like restaurant food than good home cooking. With one notable exception: The chef practices strict portion control. These are, for the most part, small plates masquerading as big ones.
Mussels steamed in a rich, aquavit-spiked cream and laden with shallots are worth a trip all by themselves. Pierogi, stuffed with two different fillings, are light and supple. Swedish meatballs are buoyed by a light gravy and whipped potatoes that, for all their butter and cream, are fluffy. This propensity for lightening heavy traditional fare vanishes at brunch. The Norwegian pancake is properly eggy, and Finnish buttermilk cheese, a mound of sweetened house-made cheese, is gloriously rich.
Appetizers $5 to $8, entrées $6 to $18.
Domku, 821 Upshur St., NW; 202-722-7475. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday for lunch, Friday through Sunday for breakfast.
It’d be easy to miss this little Bolivian dinette hidden in a strip mall. The name above the door reads pike pizza. There’s a steel pizza oven in the back corner, and cardboard pizza boxes are stacked nearby. But the place hasn’t served pies—not the Italian kind—for years. The ovens and to-go boxes are devoted to salteñas. These cornmeal-crusted turnovers—a staple on the streets of La Paz—look like empanadas but trickle savory, soupy fillings of olives, raisins, egg, and peas. El Pike’s renditions, stuffed with shreds of chicken or beef, are delicious.
Salteñas aside, weekends are the best time to come. That’s when the yellow booths are lively with Bolivian families, the kids chowing down on huminitas, a husk-wrapped cornbread, the parents noshing on spicy green-chili salsa. It’s also when you’ll find traditional Andean fill-ups like sopa de mani, a hearty broth loaded with peanuts, potatoes, and beef shanks, and stews of tripe and kidney.
Entrées could fill you for the whole day. The menu highlights proteins, such as thinly pounded steaks and rugged chorizo sausages, but each plate gets a heavy dose of starches. The falso conejo, a round of thin, breaded beef smothered in potent pepper sauce, hides four: rice, a boiled potato, hominy, and a rustic salad made from eggs and chunos—Andean freeze-dried potatoes. The simple lomo, a flatly pounded steak, is enhanced by a zippy marinade, buttery rice, and two runnily cooked eggs.
To drink, there’s mochachinchi, a pleasant refresher made from stewing dried peaches with cinnamon and sugar, and Inca Cola, a soda that tastes somewhere between Brazilian guarana and bubble gum.
Appetizers $1.35 to $6.95, entrées $5.15 to $11.50
El Pike (Pike Pizza), 4111 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-521-3010. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
El Pollo Rico
Some of the area’s worst traffic jams occur at these chicken joints come dinner time. The smoky perfume drifting up from the grill draws passersby, and lines spill out the door as the counter staff struggles to fill orders and keep dozens of chickens swirling on the spit.
None of the Peruvian rotisserie places that have cropped up in the area turns out a bird with as much flavor. Tender, juicy, succulent—this is a chicken to rhapsodize over. Ask for extra sauce—both the mayo-yellow mustard and spicy cilantro-lime, which come in tiny plastic containers, are addictive. Don’t miss the crisp (albeit frozen) fries. The mayo-logged slaw has never been a strong suit.
In Maryland try the moist rum cake, soaked with enough liquor to make you tipsy; alfajores, those Latin sandwich cookies with a slather of dulce de leche, are the sweet of choice in Virginia.
Quarter chicken with sides $3.90, half chicken with sides $6.30, whole chicken with sides $11.70.
El Pollo Rico, 932 N. Kenmore St., Arlington, 703-522-3220; 2541 Ennalls Ave., Wheaton, 301-942-4419. Open for lunch and dinner daily.
From house-made tortillas to mole-blanketed enchiladas, the Guadalajaran family that runs this restaurant in Bladensburg knows its stuff. This is the real thing, not Tex-Mex, not Salva-Mex, but honest-to-God Mexican food.
The jukebox can be blaring, and servers aren’t always fluent in English, but take it as a stamp of authenticity and settle in with the Latinos who gather for the filling and familiar plates.
A can of Tecate arrives with a wedge of lime, and the basket of crisp house-made chips is paired with warm, just-spicy-enough salsa. Chiles rellenos, done up with an airy, eggy batter and a restrained stuffing of cheese—may be the best around. Enchiladas poblanos get a blanket of mole sauce, sweet with chocolate and spicy with chilies. Soft tacos filled with crusty chunks of chicken and pork—plus a slice or two of radish, a sprig of cilantro, and lime for spritzing—are elevated by the house-made tortillas (usually available to go, six for $1). The stupendous torta is a house-baked torpedo roll filled with breaded Milanese-style cutlets of pork or chicken, or, best of all, beer-stewed beef; a big spoonful of beans and a smashed avocado half makes it a substantial meal. Just as memorable are the chilaquiles, a heaping scramble of torn tortillas, crumbly white queso, and your choice of red- or green-chili sauce; a hit of vinegar brings all the flavors together.
Appetizers $2 to $2.50, entrées $10 to $13.
El Tapatio, 4309 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg; 301-403-8882. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Ethiopian restaurants aren’t all dimly lit dens or smoky bars filled with cabbies kicking back after work. This narrow warren, with its gleaming wood floors and dangling lights and candy-colored cosmos, is as cool and contemporary as any Modern American bistro. The cooking has as much substance as the room has style. Of the recent restaurants to crop up in DC’s Little Ethiopia, Etete is the most accomplished.
The name means “mama,” and what passes through the doors of Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn’s kitchen is the sort of home-style cooking that is rare these days. There are snares for the timid or unaware—a plate of beef with peppers and onions looks for all the world like fajitas. Avoid these halfhearted efforts and pay attention instead to the wonderful sambusas, spicy, tangy lentils stuffed into folded pastry; to the intricately spiced lamb stews, slow-cooked to lusciousness and spooned at the table from a little black iron pot; and to the array of vegetable dishes, including the terrific azifa—green lentils brought alive by a dash of Ethiopian mustard and a dice of green chilies. Don’t miss a long-simmered stew of potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes and the excellent gomen, good enough to make a Southerner forget collards.
Etete’s coffee, a dark-roasted brew, is a good end to a meal in which you will be encouraged to linger and treated to a little pampering.
Appetizers $2.75 to $5, entrées $10 to $14.99.
Etete, 1942 Ninth St., NW; 202-232-7600. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
Hidden among flashier neighbors on a stretch littered with noisy cafes and bars, this Afghan place has quietly become one of Bethesda’s best restaurants by turning out cooking that makes no compromises yet still manages to feel familiar.
The stars of the small menu are aushak and mantu—large, thin squares of pasta stuffed with scallions or meat and blanketed with tomato and yogurt. Seldom do you find such big, intense flavors for so little cash. Almost as good are a garlicky lamb-and-spinach stew and a rice dish, quabili pallow, studded with raisins, shredded carrots, and hunks of lamb.
Except for the cumin-scented kofta, kebabs are probably best bypassed. Look instead to a couple of extraordinary vegetable dishes. Kadu is a melange of sweet pumpkin, tart yogurt, and acidic tomato, while badenjan tempers the pungency of eggplant into a smoky forkful. Order one of the huge coiled ovals of just-baked bread—they’re good enough to tempt even a die-hard low-carber.
The waitstaff can be friendly or taciturn—details beyond the menu description of a dish are hard to come by. Still, Faryab is a gem in a downtown where inexpensive ethnic restaurants are fast disappearing.
Starters around $6, entrées $12.50 to $18.95.
Faryab Afghan, 4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-3484. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
Flavors Soul Food
The first time, you might drive right past this drab building set back from a muddy parking lot next to a complex of garden apartments. But Francine Helton and her two sons have been running this kitchen for close to a decade, and once people find it, they come back.
During the week, workday regulars pile in for lunch. Weekends are a quieter stream of churchgoers, couples, and guys looking up from their meat-and-twos to catch a minute of a Redskins game or the Food Network, depending on the season.
The Heltons are experts at smoking and frying. It takes 20 minutes for Troy Helton to fry his chicken. Wait it out in a booth—he’ll yell when it’s done. Faithful to his Virginia great-grandmother’s recipe, it’s a juicy, hulking portion with a brittle, peppery crust. Pounded-thin pork chops and curling filets of whiting and croaker get similar, if quicker, treatment. Meat from a slab of ribs, smoked over hickory, glides off the bone. The smoked-pork-shoulder sandwich is tasty, too.
Our favorite side is the potato salad, both vinegary and creamy and thick with hard-boiled egg. Candied yams and pepper-spiked mashed potatoes are both winners. Mac ’n’ cheese would benefit from a sharper cheddar but has a nice golden crust.
What’s not to love? Maybe the greasy sweet-potato pie, the too-sweet tea that sits in a plastic cooler. But all that is easy to let go after one bite of fried chicken.
Sandwiches $5.75 to $6.50, dinners $7.95 to $10.95.
Flavors Soul Food, 3420 Carlyn Hill Dr., Falls Church; 703-379-4411; flavorssoulfood.com. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
Falls Church, Reston
Monday through Friday, the dining room is intermittently filled, and you feel like you’ve wandered into a big banquet hall after the party has broken up. Come Saturday morning, the crowds arrive for dim sum, and the place crackles with energy. Snagging one of the coveted tables in the middle of the room as the metal carts go rattling by and the hawkers advertise their wares is thrilling.
The selection of dim sum is extensive and generally top-notch. There’s an array of dumplings (including scallop, shrimp, pork-and-chive, shark’s fin), delicately folded shrimp balls, elegant noodle crepes, sesame-seed-topped savory pastries, plates of expertly roast chicken and pork, and warm egg custards. What disappointments do creep in are probably as much a function of the vast number of choices as anything else. Prices have risen and are slightly higher than what you’d pay elsewhere, but there’s been no attendant drop in quality.
During the week, you can order dim sum off the menu until 3 pm or roam among the Cantonese menu, which, though it turns out its share of genericized dishes, excels in its simply sauced seafood, from preparations of cuttlefish to heads-on shrimp to fresh lobster.
Appetizers $2.75 to $6.50, entrées $8 to $28.
Fortune, 6249 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church, 703-538-3338; 1428 Reston Pkwy., Reston, 703-318-8898. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
The name refers to the traditional metal cauldron used to cook the long-simmered broths that are the specialty of this Korean restaurant, a handsome mall spot with stylish tiled floors, two-tone wooden tables, and mahogany-vinyl booths.
The best of the design touches is the open kitchen, rare for a Korean restaurant. If the menu doesn’t persuade you to order one of the many entrée-size soups, called tangs, then watching the action in the kitchen will. Keep your eye on the stove, where fistfuls of vividly colored vegetables are layered atop flame-licked bowls of broth laden with meat and left to steam before being brought to the table.
Coaxing the flavors from oxtail (meat, bones, and cartilage) over 48 hours produces a rich, distinctive broth, milky in color and surprisingly delicate in flavor. Sul Leung Tang adds to this broth chewy rice-noodle disks, strands of egg, and thin strips of beef; you can eat the broth and the meat together, or pull the meat from the broth and dip it into a tiny saucer of soy, garlic, and chilies. As with eating pho, the broth remains the constant in each of the many variations; what’s different is the mix of meats and vegetables.
There are good dishes beyond the broths, including beef-and-scallion dumplings (whether fried or steamed), buckwheat noodles tossed with chili-paste-dabbed slices of beef, and sweet, sesame-dusted barbecue pork.
This last is modestly presented—no sizzling portable tabletop grills employed here—and is just one of a small handful of barbecue dishes, which typically form the backbone of many Korean menus. By the same token, the kitchen sends out fewer panchan—the little snacks that precede a meal and turn every Korean dinner into a surfeit of dishes—than most. Too bad. The kimchee, cut with scissors at the table, disappoints, but a dish of blood sausage is rare and delicious, as is a dish of sliced, soy-marinated Asian pears.
Appetizers $4.95 to $11.95, entrées $9.95 to $19.95.
Gamasot, 6963 Hechinger Dr., Springfield; 703-256-0780. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Gom Ba Woo
Kimchee is, at best, an acquired pleasure for most Westerners. A staple of the Korean diet, the cold pickled-cabbage dish is for many too fiery, too tart, and often too limp. The version at this cozy, blond-wooded lair in a shopping center in Annandale’s Little Korea has the power to alter perceptions. The cabbage is firm, the pickling is light and fresh, and the thick red-chili paste it’s bathed in has an insinuating heat that encourages you to keep eating.
Most of the cooking follows in this appealing way, from the panchan (the mouth-awakening snacks that inaugurate every meal) to such meals in a bowl as a pot of oxtail with green onions, whose gelatinous textures may take some getting used to but which is soothing pleasure.
Lots of Korean restaurants offer barbecue; this one goes beyond the novelty of DIY tabletop cooking. The grilling is done in the kitchen, and the meats that emerge, from the luscious short ribs to the sumptuous pork belly (the menu lists it as pork with red-pepper sauce), are succulent and full of wonderful char. Rolled up in a lettuce leaf with a spoonful of steamed rice and a dollop of house-made bean paste, they reach a new level of interest. The staff—as solicitous and warm as can be despite the language barrier—will help you through these and other intricacies.
Appetizers $8.95 to $12.95, entrées $7.95 to $27.95.
Gom Ba Woo, 7133-C Columbia Pike, Annandale; 703-642-1577. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
Good, authentic Mexican cooking is so rare in the area that this lovably funky restaurant with sometimes uneven execution and lax service has become a standard-bearer.
Many of Guajillo’s charms show up early. The salsa is full of kick and complexity, the chips are fried on the premises, the mojitos are potent, and the bar is stocked with beer imports like Sol and Pacifico. Among the starters, the addictive queso fundido uses manchego, not cheddar, and is studded not with chorizo but with sautéed mushrooms, and the shrimp ceviche, presented in a cocktail glass, is among the best in the area.
The atmosphere on weekends is a rowdy table or two short of rollicking. The conversation flows, one mojito becomes two, and soon your expectations begin to drift along with the painted clouds that appear to be sliding across the blue ceiling.
Thereafter, a bit of the bloom comes off. The profusion of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas could lure you into thinking that these Tex-Mex staples are a strength. They’re not—although they surpass the efforts of all but a handful of kitchens in the area. Guajillo is at its best when it mines the rich territory of Mexican regional cooking. Whether it’s a luscious, brick-colored mole or a rusticky, wine-braised rabbit with onions (an occasional special) or delicate tamales flecked with bits of corn, there’s a surprising depth to the cooking that justifies the excitement.
Small plates $5 to $11, entrées $9 to $18.
Guajillo, 1727 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-807-0840. Closed for Saturday lunch.
Hollywood East Café
Both locations of these Cantonese siblings, only a boulevard apart, turn out succulent roasted meats, earthy clay-pot casseroles, and, at the Café on the Boulevard, some of the area’s best dim sum.
The original restaurant on Price Avenue has the spirit of a Chinatown eatery. Its slicker spinoff on University Boulevard is more dazzling and is open until 2 am. Both have their place in a food lover’s little black book.
Menus are nearly identical except that dim sum is available at the newer address. You can order it off the menu during the week or pick from carts on weekends. High points are plump dumplings and noodle crepes laden with whole shrimp, steamed buns full of crunch courtesy of minced water chestnuts, carrots, and bamboo shoots, and a silky steamed turnip cake with bits of sausage and a drizzle of soy. Unusual morsels routinely turn up, such as a slippery noodle crepe filled with fried bread—a curiously engaging combination of dim sum and carny treat.
Beyond dim sum, both kitchens have a way with layered, complex casseroles—roast duck paired with sweet taro, lamb with strips of bean curd in dark gravy, briny oysters mated with smoky roast pork and shiitake mushrooms. Similarly, both make the most of vegetables, be they tender stir-fried snow-pea-shoot leaves or slightly bitter Chinese cress with salty shrimp paste.
On a menu this large, there are bound to be disappointments—Eight Treasure Duck has an overly gelatinous sauce, and fried shrimp dumplings are all about the dough and little else. Still, in a world where second acts often falter, Hollywood East is one instance in which the sequel is as good as the original.
Dim sum $2.50 to $5.95, appetizers $1.25 to $12.95, entrées $5.75 to $27.95.
Hollywood East Café, 2312 Price Ave., Wheaton, 301-942-8282; Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard, 2621 University Blvd. W., Wheaton, 240-290-9988; hollywoodeastcafe.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Hong Kong Palace
The array of Cantonese cuisine at this Falls Church restaurant, much of it esoteric, makes for a meal that feels like an adventure.
Pale-pink walls with Chinese-red accents suffuse the place in a rosy glow, while an oversize photograph of Hong Kong by night is almost as riveting as the tanks of lobster and tilapia.
The menu careens from the mundane—think moo goo gai pan—to the marvelous, earthy spareribs and kidneys in casserole. There’s also a board full of specials written in Chinese on red slips of paper. Agitate for a translation or you might miss a gem like the golden oyster omelet or dry-sautéed slices of beef crusty with five spice and bits of fried shallot and green chili.
The unexpected usually trumps the conventional. Think chow fun (wide noodles) in an oily (in a good way) and slightly spicy black-bean sauce with fried rounds of battered grouper or the house special chicken that’s been steamed tender. Salt-baked items like pork chops or oversize shrimp with heads on are crowd pleasers.
Casseroles also triumph. Try one with stir-fried oysters, ginger, and scallions or with lamb and dried bean curd. There are dishes devoted to shark’s fin, abalone, and sea cucumber, but these likely will blow the Cheap Eats budget. And at this find, you don’t have to eat expensively to eat well.
Appetizers $2.50 to $5.95, entrées $4.95 to $9.95.
Hong Kong Palace, 6387 E. Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-532-0940. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Huong Que (Four Sisters)
Of the more than two dozen restaurants in the Eden Center, the cultural hub of Northern Virginia’s Vietnamese community, none has as broad a following as this high-ceilinged space done up with orchids and a gold-framed portrait of the four founding Lai sisters.
Sprawling families, giggling babies, and cuddling dates, about half Vietnamese and half not, stream in and out. Credit some of Huong Que’s popularity to its endorsement several years ago by the Inn at Little Washington’s Patrick O’Connell, a regular of the restaurant (he always starts with the garden rolls). O’Connell persuaded the owners to adopt the easier name “Four Sisters.”
It’s the most accessible restaurant in the Eden Center for non-Vietnamese diners: Menus are in English, and forks are on the table. Service is gracious and refined. The tradeoff? It’s not as adventurous as some of its neighbors. Plates of generically sweet lemongrass chicken and five-spice beef make you think the kitchen is playing more to perceived Western tastes than to its roots. And sometimes the kitchen gets sloppy: A rice crepe arrived one night heavy with grease, and the rice-paper wrappers on an order of garden rolls were stale and stiff.
Still, Huong Que has its charms. Shredded green-papaya salad, dashed with chilies and lime juice, is full of pink shrimp and slivers of roasted pork. Peppery pork spring rolls are lightly fried and crisp. A sauté of baby clams and finely chopped pork, served with pebbly sesame-rice crackers, makes a marvelous canapé. A big bowl of clams with black-bean sauce is a nice starter for a group. And meals-in-a-bowl such as pho and bun are dependable.
Appetizers $3.50 to $9.50, entrées $6.50 to $26.95.
Huong Que, 6769 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-6717. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
With its wood paneling and rows of cafeteria tables, you might think you’ve wandered into a Midwestern beer hall, not the area’s best, most consistent Vietnamese restaurant, now well into its third decade.
Few servers speak English, but genial owner Hai Huynh is bound to check on each table. Order Chim Cut Quay, an appetizer of roasted quail, and he’s there telling you to season its beautifully lacquered skin with lime juice and a bit of black pepper—then give you license to tear at the bird with your hands. Banh Cong, dense muffins crowned with shell-on shrimp, feels less like breakfast when bundled with mint and basil leaves and washed in the thin, sweet fish sauce nuoc nam. Pork spring rolls and cool lotus root spiked with lime juice are nice small bites, too.
There are fine renditions of bun, heaps of cold vermicelli that show off grilled meats and fresh herbs, but you can find it on most Vietnamese menus. Turn instead to the excellent soups, many big enough for four. They might bob with plump shrimp and roasted pork, but their wonderfully complex broths make them special. A bowl of Canh Chua Tom, sweet-and-sour shrimp soup stirred with rice, gets a perk-up from fragrant celery. Also deserving of attention are the more-unusual noodle preparations, the caramel seafood hot pots, and the herb-strewn rice crepes.
What to drink is a tough choice. Almost a dozen flavors of teas and juices float with tapioca bubbles or slivers of gelatin. While coconut and strawberry varieties are wincingly sweet, don’t miss the tart, tropical varieties like jackfruit and soursop. Soda Lemon, a sparkling mix of seltzer and fresh lemon juice stirred with sugar, is bracingly addictive. Vietnamese iced coffee, thick with condensed milk, is better as a dessert.
Appetizers $3.50 to $12.95, entrées $6.95 to $12.95. No credit cards.
Huong Viet, 6785 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-7110. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This strip-mall restaurant in north Rockville is the kind of place where the cooking takes you back to a time when eating Italian food meant eating Italian-American—when not even sophisticates had heard of agnolotti.
The short menu showcases simply and carefully prepared northern-Italian classics, from a lightly dressed tangle of arugula with speck and shaved Parmigiano to a generous plate of gnocchi whose lightly rich Gorgonzola sauce never obscures the flavor of the well-made dumplings, to a veal Sandra in a wine sauce fragrant with rosemary and sweet with raisins.
Sticking with a glass of house white or red is a necessity if you want to keep costs down, but there are some well-chosen half bottles of Chianti for diners willing to splurge. Be forewarned: Savoring and lingering over your meal takes work. For all the attention lavished on the food by the kitchen, the waitstaff is intent on turning tables; one course follows another with a brusque efficiency more suited to a truck stop. A parfait-style variation of tiramisu, heavy on the mascarpone and the espresso, makes a terrific end to a meal. Too bad the check is apt to hit the table before you’ve set your spoon down.
Appetizers $4.50 to $6.50, entrées $10.95 to $19.95.
Il Pizzico, 15209 Frederick Rd., Rockville; 301-309-0610. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
Irene’s Pupusas III
There are scores of pupuserias in the area, but none captures the essence of this Salvadoran meal-in-a-pocket as well as Irene’s crisp, pancake-thick flour tortilla oozing fillers like cheese, pork, beans, and loroco, a squashlike vegetable.
Pupusas are not the only reason to head to Irene’s. The same care that goes into the national dish informs the rest of the cooking. An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink beef soup with a greengrocer’s worth of vegetables is a hearty meal in a bowl. On weekends a seafood soup shimmers with shrimp. Plainer but no less delicious is stewed chicken on a heap of smoky rice and beans.
Two Honduran specialties are uncommonly good: open-faced “tacos” with cubelets of seasoned beef and pico de gallo, and baliadas, oversize flour tortillas slathered with velvety refried beans and spicy beef, topped with slices of hard-cooked egg and avocado. The friendly vibes come from the Latin tunes on the jukebox and a bartender who delivers Tecate with a smile.
Appetizers $1.25 to $14, entrées $7.50 to $13.
Irene’s Pupusas III, 11300-B Georgia Ave., Wheaton; 301-933-2118. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Irish Inn at Glen Echo
This yellow house in the woods—which has seen days as both a brothel and a biker bar—is loaded with character. In its pub room, carefully prepared burgers and bangers are accorded as much attention as the perfect pours of Guinness.
While most of the inn is taken up by staid dining rooms with a more expensive menu, the mood in the barroom is laid-back. Palisades regulars and drop-ins share laughs across the tables or hunker over the bar for a pint. Some nights there’s live Celtic music, and you’ll always hear plenty of brogue—many servers come from Ireland.
The kitchen turns out excellent fish ’n’ chips, with lightly fried, Guinness-battered cod and an herbed tartar sauce. Two sandwiches stand out: the Kildare melt, a gooey mess of grilled Irish ham and cheddar, and the Angus burger, laden with cheddar and onions. Shepherd’s pie, served in a miniature copper pot, is a success, but other Irish classics—a plate of boiled ham and cabbage with watery parsley-cream sauce or bland potato-and-leek soup—fall short. Still, details like the warm currant scones that kick off brunch prove this isn’t everyday pub grub.
Pub menu $9 to $14.
Irish Inn at Glen Echo, 6119 Tulane Ave., Glen Echo; 301-229-6600. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch, daily for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
Almost two years ago, Jackie Greenbaum tacked a faux-fur curtain across the doorway to an old auto-parts warehouse off Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. She hung Lucite cutouts from the rafters and a movie screen in front of the dining room, threw around some shaggy throw pillows, pulled in a cook from Cashion’s Eat Place, and gave the place her name. A jumping hotspot on a desolate corner, Jackie’s seemed impossibly trendy and a little alien, like a teenager showing off her new tattoo to Grandma.
These days it’s a hit with both teens and grandmas as well as with Silver Spring’s new wave of condo dwellers, who sip foam-topped mango martinis while they wait for a table.
Chef Sam Adkins does comfort food proud. Elvis burgers—mini-patties dolloped with pimiento cheese—are addictive. So are chili-spiked pork riblets and nachos with whipped avocado and pico de gallo. More refined are mussels wrapped in shredded phyllo, fried, and served with pale-yellow aïoli, and a beautifully simple appetizer of seared scallops with buttery portobello mushrooms.
Main courses, such as flatiron steak with celeriac mashed potatoes, are sophisticated but expensive. Bargain-friendly Nostalgia plates, which rotate weekly, are worth seeking out, especially Wednesday’s golden fried chicken and potato salad and Saturday’s killer meatloaf.
Appetizers $2.50 to $9, entrées $15 to $25.
Jackie’s, 8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-565-9700; jackiesrestaurant.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Sunday for brunch.
Chef José Andrés has created other small-plates concepts since he opened this tapas house more than ten years ago—including two bigger but less consistent Jaleos in Bethesda and Crystal City—but it’s here that you can feel his presence most.
The no-reservations dining room—friendly to children (including Andrés’s own tiny daughters), theatergoers, and celebrating groups—is rustic and loud. Sherry- and manzanilla-spiked specialty cocktails flow along with pitchers of sparkly Cava sangria. The menu balances tradition (classic red and white gazpachos) with innovation (flan with orange-scented foam) but keeps its wide appeal: You can have a salad and single tapa for around $10 or spring for a more lavish spread.
Look for dishes that show off Spanish delicacies. Blue cheese from Cabrales is an accent mark in a beet-and-walnut salad and plays the lead in a dish of roasted potatoes. Serrano ham or manchego cheese cloak crusty, tomato-rubbed bread. Paprika adds depth to cold mussels marinated in olive oil and orange rind. A sausage plate bears earthy chorizo and slices of cured pork lomo. Never had blood sausage or tripe? Here’s your chance. The sausage gets a simple garlic sauce, the tripe is in a deep, peasanty stew. Less exciting are the short list of entrées—grilled chicken, grilled beef—and the paellas sized for four.
Tapas $3.95 to $9.95, entrées $14.95 to $16.95.
Jaleo, 480 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-7949; jaleo.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Joe’s Noodle House
The message here is clear: Chilies rule. The little red peppers are all over this dirt-cheap Szechuan favorite—hanging behind the counter where you place your order, decorating the aprons worn by the waitstaff who deliver your food, and all over the menu, where a single pepper alerts diners that a dish is “hot and spicy” and a chili with a star signifies that it’s “numbing.”
Dim lighting and spartan surroundings matter less once the food arrives. Noodle soups, rich with bitter greens and beef or pork and blazing with a slick of red-chili oil, are feasts for one. You’ll see families, many of them Chinese, passing larger plates of Szechuan string beans, eggplant with garlic, and flash-fried squid, scattered with garlic and more chilies. A whole steamed tilapia is terrific smothered in chilies and cabbage and just as good with a milder covering of scallions and ginger. The $12.50 price tag makes it feel like stealing.
There are plenty of foils for the heat—tender dumplings that hold minced pork, vegetable buns, warm chive pockets and scallion crepes, and crisp, cool salads of bamboo shoots and cucumber.
Appetizers 95 cents to $6.95, entrées $4.95 to $10.95.
1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-5518; joesnoodlehouse.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Johnny Boy’s Ribs
The first law of barbecue is that your chances of finding memorable barbecue increase the farther you get from the city—and not just because good ’cue is all about open space and billowing smoke. In this area, it’s because most jurisdictions either prohibit open-pit cooking or closely regulate it. Charles County is an exception, and cooking over an open pit is what separates the meat at this legendary place from so many urban pretenders.
Johnny Boy’s isn’t pretty—it’s a shack with peeling paint—and there’s no indoor seating. The second law of barbecue might well be “The more dilapidated the place, the better.” Those gusts of hickory and oak smoke spiraling up and over the little white shack are beauty enough.
Walk up to the window and place your order. Inside, there’s a grill over an open fire and a team of workers hacking away with cleavers, dividing rib racks, shredding slabs of pork shoulder, reducing beef briskets into a manageable mince. Then take a seat at one of the 16 picnic tables.
The ribs are thick, the meat faintly pink along the edges—a sign that smoke has permeated the meat—and there’s a pronounced taste of celery salt in the crusty exterior. Mama Sophie’s red sauce—equal parts tang, sweetness, and spice—makes ideal match. See if you can resist dragging some of the beautifully crisped fries through it.
The pulled pork hardly needs Mama Sophie’s help, but meat and sauce make a terrific match, especially on a bun with cool, creamy coleslaw. The threads of pork look almost spun. Bits of char find their way into the tangle, and the whole thing is suffused with smoke and salt.
Entrées $2.25 to $22.75.
Johnny Boy’s Ribs, Rt. 301 and St. Mary’s Ave., La Plata; 301-870-2526. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Kabul Kabob House
To walk into this small cafe, you’d hardly expect that culinary discoveries await. A lone waiter smiles and silently proffers a menu. A TV in the corner stays tuned to American sitcoms. A few solitary diners unwind over mugs of cardamom-spiked green tea.
Then the food arrives, seducing you with the charms of some of the area’s best Afghan cooking. The kebabs are cooked to order and well worth the 20-minute wait; the chicken and lamb are juicy and succulent. The house pilaf is another winner—fragrant rice studded with carrots, almonds, currants, and hunks of lamb that could easily feed two or more. Smaller pleasures include the fried samosas, turnovers stuffed with ground beef and sprinkled with mint, and warm vegetable sides like stewed pumpkin and crushed chickpeas. And don’t miss the warm, puffed flatbread with a dipping sauce of cilantro and vinegar.
Skip the carryout menu—it’s an Americanized mix of gyros and soups that doesn’t include many highlights of the sit-down menu.
Appetizers $2.99 to $4.90, entrées $5.99 to $11.95
Kabul Kabob House, 514-A Van Dorn St., Alexandria; 703-751-1833. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Inexpensive sushi? The prospect is dubious, like the promise of bargain steak. But it’s a fact at this tiny walk-up on MacArthur Boulevard in the Palisades.
Chef and owner Hisao Abe maintains a small, bare-bones operation (just three employees) and keeps his menu a model of minimalism. No tempura, no noodles, no rotobuki, no teriyaki, no daily specials. Even the soundtrack hews to the minimalist philosophy: all Beatles, all the time. Abe doesn’t dazzle you with beguiling juxtapositions of ingredients but wins you over with his eye for high-quality fish. Yellowtail—red-edged, cool, firm, and sweet—is consistently good, as is white tuna. This is the kind of place that rewards venturing beyond the holy trinity of salmon, tuna, and yellowtail, but at $2 for two, it’s hard to resist the temptation to order nothing but nigiri.
The uni—sea urchin—is some of the best in the area, with its custardy texture and bracing, salt-watery finish. Kamameshi, rice casseroles topped with chicken, eel, or vegetables, are full of comforting pleasure, and panchan-like snacks offer some of Abe’s finest moments—a lobster salad, light on the mayo, is sweet and lightly gingery. Oshizushi, a pressed sushi made famous in Osaka, is a standout: Abe presses a thick slab of pearly-skinned mackerel into a bed of vinegared rice, then anoints the top with marinated, translucent seaweed. Its salty rich sweetness is reminiscent of eating a freshly caught fish.
A small wooden box is an ideal vehicle for a serving of cold sake; add to the sipping pleasure by spreading a thin line of salt on the rim with a tiny porcelain spoon.
Sushi $1 to $2, appetizers $1.50 to $10.
Kotobuki, 4822 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-625-9080; kotobukiusa.com. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
La Granja de Oro
The salad bar at this festive, pennant-festooned Peruvian restaurant may strike you as a relic of the ’70s, but it says something about the generosity on offer. You’re not going to go away hungry. And you’re not likely to go away unsatisfied.
Peruvians revere their fish, and the long and varied menu abounds in sure-handed preparations, whether they’re fried, broiled, sautéed, or uncooked. Ceviche is easy to botch, an overlong soak in its lime marinade easily turning good fish into pickled mush. This one—big, firm hunks of snapper and octopus and whole pink shrimp topped with rings of red onions, the limey tang neatly balancing the chili-fired heat—gets it right.
Chupe de camarones is a zippy chowder, a big bowl teeming with shrimp, ears of corn, egg, and rice. Another cream-based dish, picante de mariscos, features firm, sweet shrimp, squid, and scallops over a mound of rice and potatoes. Nowhere is the piscatory worship more evident than in a plate of head-on trout. Butterflied, expertly deboned, and pan-fried until golden, it’s a glorious dish.
Fish is not the only game here. Granja turns out tasty short ribs marinated in garlic, the slight toughness of the meat mitigated by the creamy dipping sauce, and lomito al vino, thick strips of juicy sirloin smothered in a red-wine-based cream sauce.
The smiling waitresses are eager to please. No matter how full you are after such gargantuan portions, they make it hard to resist dessert. Opt for the excellent alfajores, two huge shortbread cookies with a thick layer of caramel in between—a kind of New World linzertorte—and a cup of cinnamon-topped cappuccino.
Appetizers $4.95 to $9.95, entrées $11.95 to $15.95.
La Granja de Oro, 2920 Annandale Rd., Falls Church; 703-534-5511. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Mexican food, prepared by Mexicans—it’s a relatively novel notion here. For a long time, much of what we’ve been eating has been Salvadoran cooking masquerading as Mexican. Thanks to the influx of Mexicans over the past few years into Riverdale and Bladensburg, we’re now getting our first tastes of authentic Mexican cooking. Southern Californians may sniff at the results, but it’s a promising development.
La Sirenita is the best and most versatile of these places, a sort of roadside diner where the jukebox booms out Latin hits and the crowd of construction workers unwinds after a long day. There are terrific tacos (pebbly corn tortillas hinting of lime and bulging with any of nine kinds of meat, including excellent chorizo, lengua, barbacoa, and salty beef); gargantuan meals-in-a-bowl (the spicy seafood soup is teeming with shellfish, the red-tinged posole is fiery and filling); a roast quail with salsa verde; and a simple and satisfying shrimp with peppers and onions. Wash it down with a pitcher of melon, a cantaloupe drink, or horchata, an almond milk spiced with cinnamon and sugar.
You can end your meal with flan, although the sheet-pan version is nothing special, or a large cocktail glass of strawberries topped with a sweetened cream, which is. The staff’s grasp of English is tenuous, so if your Spanish is lacking, articulate clearly and smile sweetly.
Appetizers $2.50 to $12.50, entrées $8 to $18.50.
La Sirenita, 4911 Edmonston Rd., Hyattsville; 301-864-0188. Open Wednesday through Monday for lunch and dinner.
The name sounds like some meanie on The Sopranos, and the soundtrack is apt to sound like shrieking bone saws, but trust us: The Lebanese Butcher is nothing to fear. Tucked away in a strip mall, this halal butcher shop/cafe is home to splendid ingredients and cooking.
Kheder Rabbabeh, the Lebanese butcher, immigrated here in the mid-1980s and set up shop a few years later. Much of the meat in the butcher case and kitchen comes from his Warrenton slaughterhouse.
Inside the ivy-draped cafe—fading desert prints share a wall with a neon los angeles sign—one young woman works the takeout counter and keeps an eye on the nine tables. Still, she’ll take the time to walk you through the menu and steer you to her favorites. The choice is tough: a bowl of hummus with deep-green olive oil and a handful of pine nuts, a bracing tabbouleh salad, or the smokiest baba ghanoush around?
Rabbabeh’s lamb is much more flavorful than what you’ll find in most markets. Whether it’s tightly rolled with Lebanese pickles for shawarma, nestled into rice for ouzi, or blanketed in sharp, thick yogurt for fateh, make it the center of your meal. Choosing is easier when it comes to dessert—a few tiny squares of delicate, rose-water-scented baklava.
Appetizers $3.99 to $5.99, entrées $6.95 to $14.99.
Lebanese Butcher, 109 E. Annandale Rd., Falls Church; 703-241-2012. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Lebanese Taverna Café
Annapolis, Rockville, Silver Spring
The concept is fast-casual, usually the product of corporate calculation. But these homey offshoots of the Lebanese Taverna restaurants dish up authentic cooking at rock-bottom prices. Little wonder they draw crowds heavy on stroller moms at lunch and singles at dinner.
Combo platters are great deals, but many of the best items are to be found elsewhere. For starters, go for hummus topped with meat (and lovely meat juice) and crunchy pine nuts and almonds. Order a round of the creamy Lebanese cheese lebneh to slather on hot pita, or indulge in the fragrant m’saka, a sort of eggplant stew studded with chickpeas. Sharhat ghanam—spiced, thin slices of lamb drizzled with lemon-parsley-garlic butter—is one of the more memorable big plates. So are the fattehs, layers of toasted pita, yogurt, and a choice of lamb, chicken, or eggplant, which makes for a great vegetarian meal. And though the Lebanese are not known for roast chicken—most of us think of France or Peru for that—the version here, with an intense garlic sauce, is mighty fine.
Appetizers $3.75 to $5.50, entrées $5.75 to $12.50.
Lebanese Taverna Café, 2478 Solomons Island Rd., Annapolis, 410-897-1111; 1605 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-468-9086; 933 Ellsworth Dr., Silver Spring, 301-588-1192; lebanesetaverna.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Leopold’s Kafe & Konditorei
A far cry from the old-timey Georgetown saloons that line M Street, this contemporary Austrian coffeehouse/lounge/restaurant pays as much attention to its modern European food as to its sleek design.
You can sit at the bar, take a seat in one of the flower-shaped chairs by the windows, or try for a perch next to the outdoor fountain in the Cady’s Alley courtyard.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is choosing among the appealing Austrian dishes to keep the tab for two around $50. Several robust classics make a persuasive case for themselves: crostini topped with mildly spicy whipped Liptauer cheese spread and a salad of fava beans; dense spaetzle with fried shallots; or bratwurst perched on sweet, bacony sauerkraut next to a swipe of Dijon mustard.
The lemon roasted chicken is sometimes superlative, sometimes merely good, but always an excellent deal at $16. Salads, such as arugula and parsley with dates and ricotta salata or cucumber with honey and dill, are beautifully balanced.
Though Leopold’s strives to mimic Viennese cafe culture—the elegant coffee service is available all day—the pastries aren’t quite up to standards. They’re gorgeous in the case, but some taste like they’ve been sitting for days. Go for the tea sandwiches instead.
Appetizers $7.25 to $13, entrées $13 to $22.
Leopold’s Kafe & Konditorei, 3315 Cady’s Alley, NW; 202-965-6005; kafeleopolds.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Lilian’s might look like a jock bar. Jumbo TVs (usually tuned to soccer) abound, and a mostly male, mostly Salvadoran crowd turns out for Coronas served by belly-baring waitresses. But then you sink your teeth into the pupusas—puffy, grilled rounds of masa stuffed with cheese or chicharrón and topped with tart cabbage and a good douse of hot sauce—and realize there’s action on the plate, too.
The two ladies in charge of the kitchen imbue the cooking of their homeland with care and love. The giant consome de camarones is an elegant, mildly peppery seafood soup teeming with big shrimp and leaves of cilantro. The ropy flat steak on the Tipico Salvadoreño plate is a little grizzled-looking but marvelously full of flavor, in part thanks to its long soak in pepper, cumin, lemon, and mojo criollo. That same mojo—a Creole garlic sauce—perks up a sauté of chicken and onions. And if you’re looking for something to snack on with a beer? Fried plantains, moist, sweet, and dunked in sour cream, might be the perfect bar food.
Appetizers $8.95 to $10.95, entrées $9.95 to $15.95.
Lilian’s, 3901 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-837-8494. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Things are not quite what they seem at this Bolivian restaurant, whose unpronounceable name conjures up the image of an Incan god. Inside the storefront exterior across the street from Loehmann’s Plaza in Falls Church is a bright, clean dining room and a genial waitress who provides a warm welcome without uttering more than a couple of words of English.
Food comes out of the kitchen in heaping portions. Tear off a hunk of one of the light, airy breads and sink it into the small bowl of salsa, a fresh green-pepper purée, and you begin to glimpse the possibilities.
Bolivian menus are typically endless variations on a single theme—beef. This one is more varied. There are steaks topped with two fried eggs, a generous portion of beef tongue, and several varieties of beef soup—notably an excellent wine-spiked asado borracho teeming with carrot, onion, tomato, red and green peppers, and a hard-boiled egg. There’s also duck—a generous leg, thigh, and breast lightly deep-fried and served with a trio of starches: rehydrated potatoes mixed with eggs, rice, and boiled potato. You can have the same plate with a juicy fried quail instead.
Lots of Bolivian restaurants serve falso conejo, a pounded steak battered and deep-fried to approximate the texture and taste of rabbit. This one serves a kind of falso falso conejo: It’s actually rabbit. Juicy, not stringy or tough, the lambreado de conejo is bathed in a tangy red-wine-and-tomato sauce and topped with strings of onion.
There’s more atmosphere here on a weeknight than at many places on a weekend. If you’re lucky, you’ll be serenaded by a customer keening along to a ballad playing on the three TVs.
Appetizers $5, entrées $11 to $11.50.
Llajtaymanta, 7236 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-204-0593. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Amid the strip clubs and saloons on M Street, this hideaway purveys the exotic flavors of a cuisine that takes cues from India, China, and Thailand.
An alabaster Buddha oversees the subterranean pine-paneled dining rooms, where vinyl booths are sometimes repaired with electric tape. Its broad, beatific smile seems to say, “When the food is transcendent, why concern yourself with outward appearances?”
A large loose-leaf binder with pictures of each dish prompts experimentation, a good thing because some of the menu’s most winning plates are less familiar ones.
Roti canai is a flaky round of bread to dip in creamy chicken curry, the bits of bird still on the bone, the reddish curry spicy enough to heat the tongue. Lo bak is succulent pork combined with a paste of sweet jícama and rolled like a sausage—the skin crackles at every bite. There are banana-leaf packets of steamy sticky rice with a dusting of chicken and shrimp ground to a powder, and chunks of lamb in an intense curry gravy. Even stir-fried Chinese broccoli surpasses most others with flecks of crispy garlic.
Go back to the roti, billed as a “crispy crepe,” for dessert. With a thin layer of lotus paste inside, it’s a marvelous finish to a marvelous meal.
Appetizers $2.25 to $6.95, entrées $8.50 to $15.95.
Malaysia Kopitiam, 1827 M St., NW; 202-833-6232. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
The move from a snug cafe in College Park to a larger dining room in Silver Spring may have sapped this Burmese restaurant of some of its charm—service hasn’t been the same since the Myint family took on a larger staff—but the kitchen still has its vigor.
Burmese cooking isn’t as bright or hot as Thai, it isn’t as complex in its spicing as Indian, and it lacks the regional breadth of Chinese. It borrows elements from all three neighbors and synthesizes them.
You taste it in dishes like Baya Gyaw Thoke, where pleasantly grainy gram fritters are a counterpoint to a slaw of shredded cabbage and carrots sprinkled with peanuts, or a big spring-roll salad, all crunch and tang, or a filet of salmon bathed in an onion-and-tomato curry.
Vegetarians and vegans will find much to like. But omnivores are luckiest, able to dip into both halves of the menu for something savory—flavorful vegetarian curries like fried tofu in silky coconut cream or an onion-based curry blanketing tender eggplant or meatier fare, like a pork curry cut with sour pickled mangoes.
Onion-tomato curry is the dominant theme in the hot-dish lineup—you can have it with meats and vegetables. A number of plates—notably the noodle variations and several tougher beef preparations—taste less like restaurant creations and more like clunky home cooking.
For dessert, the sticky rice—caramel-hued with brown sugar and coconut cream—and the shweji, poppy-crusted baked cream of wheat, are delicious and go admirably with a steaming cup of Yay Nway Gyan made with hand-picked green-tea leaves from Myanmar.
Appetizers $4 to $7, entrées $8 to $11.
Mandalay, 930 Bonifant St., Silver Spring; 301-585-0500; mandalayrestaurantcafe.org. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Mark’s at Mark and Orlando’s
“This place is like my living room,” says the bartender who presides over the top floor of this split-personality restaurant. The downstairs dining room is all starched linens and $20 entrées; one floor up the scene is more sneakers and sweats. People hanging out at the few tables or by the bar seem like old pals. Slightly battered sofas, a flat-screen TV tuned to hockey or American Idol depending on the crowd, and a dartboard in the corner make it feel like a bachelor pad.
Chef Orlando Hitzig cooks for both floors, but this scruffy roost is billed as the domain of Mark Medley, his sommelier and co-owner. The abbreviated Mark’s Menu might sound like the usual roster of sports-bar standards: chicken wings, burgers, Caesar salads. But here the seemingly simple stuff is well thought out and surprisingly sophisticated.
Meals—even a half dozen wings—begin with wedges of sourdough and a palette of flavored butters and vegetable purées. And don’t bypass the Caesar—long leaves of romaine grilled to a smoky wilt and accented with good Parmesan and house-baked croutons. Order it with shrimp and they arrive plump and charred, heads still on. Tomato soup is rustic and rich with lager and cream. You can get the crab cake with apple slaw, but it’s better sandwiched on fresh brioche. There are whimsical house-made ice creams for dessert—some are successes (saffron, black pepper), while others seem like failed experiments (ancho chili). Hitzig’s warm chocolate cake is a sure bet.
Mark’s Menu items $6 to $12.
Mark and Orlando’s, 2020 P St., NW; 202-223-8463; markandorlandos.com. Open daily for dinner.
Mark’s Duck House
Eating at this Hong Kong–style restaurant is a little like wandering the streets of that chaotic city—a jumble of signs and sensations. From the fish tanks stocked with eels, lobsters, and sea bass to the faded placards taped all over the restaurant announcing house specials in addition to the 400-plus choices on the menu, Mark’s can be a bewildering, if fascinating, experience.
And then there are weekends, when the crush of customers waiting for dim sum stretches out the door and the dining room looks to be on the verge of anarchy: carts zipping past, tiny dishes of noodles and dumplings being auctioned off. You don’t just eat at Mark’s; you submit. And often happily.
The game here is duck. It is prepared in a multitude of ways, almost all of them with care bordering on reverence. Peking duck is carved tableside, the servers tucking the lacquer-skinned meat into thin pancakes and fashioning little bundles of them with their tongs. Honey-roasted duck is a delicious testament to the unity of opposites—the outside crispy, the inside soft and luscious, the sweetness of the honey glaze offset by the ginger and garlic in the pool of soy sauce.
Baby pig—available only on weekends and then usually gone by afternoon—is as good as any of the duck preparations, its thin, burnished skin as crisp as crackling.
Equally rewarding is to take your cue from the tanks out front and order up one of the fresh fish—sauced lightly so as to tease out its natural sweetness. The market prices can push the cost beyond the Cheap Eats boundaries, but an order is often large enough for two to share. Other preparations, like a stir-fry dish of head-on shrimp in a garlic-and-ginger sauce, are satisfying if unspectacular.
Dim sum, served all week, has its moments—atypical offerings like pillowy scallop dumplings and fishcakes wrapped in seaweed are finds—but others in the area do it better. None, though, offers the option of ordering up a plate of roasted duck or pig.
Appetizer $1.95 to $7, entrées $7.95 to $28.
Mark’s Duck House, 6184-A Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-2125; marksduckhouse.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
A smart list of microbrews and imported beers and clever pub grub make this an ideal destination before and after a game or concert at the Verizon Center. Unfortunately, it also makes for exceptionally long waits when you want a table most.
Angus burgers, mini or otherwise, are as beefy as ever—the minis get pickles and onion straws, the regular bistro burger a heady sprinkle of red-wine-infused Gorgonzola; both come on an eggy house-baked brioche bun. The open-faced flatiron-steak sandwich is a neat riff on the classic, with cremini mushrooms, Gruyère, and horseradish mayo creating a flavor powerhouse. You can make a meal of the simple but nicely put-together bistro salad with fresh pears and warm goat-cheese croutons or one of the brick-oven pizzas—we like the robust sausage and onion with roasted peppers and an elegant white sauceless prosciutto pie with ricotta.
Most of the big plates will take you beyond the Cheap Eats budget unless you share. The exceptions are a homey pasta dish or two and crunchy pecan-crusted chicken with pan gravy and mashed sweet potatoes.
Appetizers $5 to $12, entrées $6 to $25.
Matchbox, 713 H St., NW; 202-289-4441; matchboxdc.com. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Fairfax City, Herndon, Chantilly
At night, the drop-down screen in the Fairfax dining room of these Indian standbys flickers with Bollywood-style videos. Diners can’t resist looking up from their curries and biryanis to watch the sinuous, colorfully clad dancers while cooling their mouths.
At lunchtime, the screen goes up—and no wonder: The buffet is show enough.
The restaurant has established two stations to handle the dizzying and mostly delicious array of dishes—dosas, samosas, pakoras, curries, biryanis, tandoori meats, breads—and the hungry hordes that stream through the doors on weekdays for one of the area’s best bargains at $8.95 a person.
Given the pride of place the restaurant accords its buffet, it’s probably to be expected that dinner is a less-rewarding experience. Cooking in large, mess-hall-size batches, the kitchen tends to accumulate a backlog of items that never make it out to the buffet, some of which find their way into dishes later in the day. And what might constitute fine service at a buffet, where minimal attention is to be expected, can feel like neglect come dinner time.
Still, the cooking is generally full of bite and heat and depth, and the curries, brought to the table in little copper pots, are all worthwhile. And Minerva is one of the few restaurants in the area with an Indian/Chinese menu—a separate slate of dishes well worth exploring.
Appetizers $3.95 to $7.95; entrées $8.95 to $13.95; buffet $8.95 weekdays, $10.95 weekends.
Minerva, 10364 Lee Hwy., Fairfax City, 703-383-9200; 2443-G Centreville Rd., Herndon, 703-793-3223; 14513 Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy., Chantilly, 703-378-7778. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Devotees of Vietnamese cooking are inclined to head to the Eden Center, where strength lies in numbers. In an apparent declaration of independence, or defiance, Anh Nguyen chose Clarendon and set up shop in the ground floor of a bank; it’s easy to miss the place when you’re driving on Wilson Boulevard.
The going hasn’t been easy, and Nguyen has flirted with returning home to San Jose, where he worked as an engineer before 9/11 and where his family operates three restaurants. But Minh’s has succeeded, in part because it provides a more comfortable setting—white tablecloths, plush carpeting, cloth napkins—than most of its competitors, and in part because its cooking is bright, vivid, and consistent.
The frying is careful, which lifts the spring rolls (greaseless and crunchy) above the ordinary and elevates the shrimpcake, a big concoction of fried yam and shrimp, into something memorable.
The 100-plus-item menu can be daunting, so it helps to know that the kitchen’s strength is its grill—grilled pork to be exact. The kitchen threads thin filets of pork on long skewers and gives them a quick but proper char, resulting in meat with a smoky succulence. Sizzling catfish comes on a piping-hot skillet ringed by loops of onion and fronds of dill and trailing a cloud of steam. It tastes as good as it looks. All the grill dishes are flanked by heaping platters of mint, lettuce, and basil, as green and fragrant as if they’d been picked from a nearby garden. The idea is to fold a bit of protein, a spoonful of rice, and a mound of greens into a leaf of lettuce and convert your meat-intensive dishes into fragrant bundles.
There are pitfalls. Vegetarian dishes lack finesse, the curries occasionally miss, and the pho is not worth the trouble—leave that to the parlors that devote time and attention to coaxing depths of richness from the meat-based broth. Still, few Vietnamese restaurants do so many things so well.
Appetizers $3.95 to $9; entrées $7.50 to $14.50.
Minh’s, 2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-2828; minhrestaurant.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Tucked inside one of the curves of the Smithsonian’s American Indian museum, the Mitsitam Cafe is a treasure—a museum cafeteria where you might learn as much as you do from one of the exhibits.
The cafe, with its curving booths and glass walls that let the sun stream in, echoes the museum’s fluid layout.
There are five food stations, each with a different menu focusing on a Native American region and its indigenous ingredients. The downside: It’s hard to figure out where to start after you’ve grabbed a plastic tray. And at peak times, crowds of zoned-out tourists can create traffic jams at each counter.
Though menus shift daily, the South American station near the entrance is the best all-around bet. Beneath the husks of the chicken tamales is a wealth of smoky cornmeal, tender dark meat, peanuts, and green chilies. Quinoa salad, with its fine dice of cucumbers and fruity vinaigrette, feels like something you might find at Komi.
A heartier dish is a spicy stew of yucca, tomatoes, and chicharrón. Plantain empanadas, lightly fried and filled with sweetened milk, are billed as a side but make a fine dessert. And while other stations have sodas or mini-bottles of Woodbridge Chardonnay, this one offers chicha fresca, a smoothielike mix of blue-corn meal, pineapple, and citrus juices.
Head over to the Northwest Coast area for a cut of salmon roasted on a cedar plank plus a bright salad of fiddlehead ferns, charred onions, and fennel. Skip the gloppy vegetable salads and kiddie-geared chicken tenders at the Great Plains stand, but don’t miss its fry bread—warm puffs drizzled with honey and cinnamon.
Entrées $7 to $13.95.
Mitsitam Cafe, National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth St. and Independence Ave., SW; 202-633-1000; nmai.si.edu. Open daily for lunch.
Moby Dick House of Kabob
DC, Maryland, Virginia
The rice and bread alone are enough to keep you coming back to these small, fluorescent-lit operations, part of a local chain now almost two decades old.
The oblong, blistered pita are baked continuously—and it’s worth waiting for a fresh one. Add a salad of onion, parsley, feta, and olives and a container of creamy, garlicky hummus and you have a satisfying light meal.
Rice is perfectly cooked, fluffy and butter-topped, each grain distinct; a few shakes of sumac, the brick-red herb, lends a peppery complexity.
The kebabs may not reach the savory heights of the area’s very best, but they’re impressive for their consistency. The standouts are the kubideh, well-seasoned minced ground beef fashioned around a skewer and set on the grill, and the swordfish, thick chunks of juicy, lightly charred sea steak. The kubideh can be had in a sandwich, but the kebab soaks the pita, dampening its pleasures. The better option is to order a platter, which comes with rice, and a round of bread on the side to be appreciated for itself.
Appetizers $3 to $4, entrées $5.49 to $13.39.
Moby Dick House of Kabob, nine area locations; mobysonline.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
U Street, Columbia Heights
How is it that this local mini-chain, with two DC locations and one slated to open next year in Petworth, is wooing away the Starbucks crowd? The coffee’s better—management crafts its own roasts from Baltimore’s Java Journey—and so is the food.
The U Street shop, our favorite, is done up with spritely Gerber daisies and red-washed wooden booths and offers free wi-fi. It mirrors the neighborhood: There are dreadlocks and blond ponytails, Patagonia pullovers and pinstripe suits. Writers camp out in the tall chairs by the window with a slushy mocha, a laptop, and a set of earbuds. On a weekend night you might catch a round of spoken-word poetry.
Sandwiches, such as a pressed panino of grilled chicken, provolone, and curried mayo, are perfectly serviceable. Better still are salads like a creamy, pepper-flecked Caesar. Breakfast, served all day, is the best reason to settle in. The Daily Scramble—eggs with the likes of sun-dried tomatoes or smoky bacon—is piled onto thick-cut brioche. Frittatas change daily but always emerge with a coppery crust. Salmon cakes hint of Old Bay and pair well with a spoonful of grits. There are Belgian waffles with maple syrup and butter, bananas, or a mess of pecans. The fried chicken and waffles, though, are oddly disappointing. Get your salt fix from thick bacon, turkey sausage, or scrapple.
Breakfast $4.25 to $9.95, sandwiches $5.75.
Mocha Hut, 1301 U St., NW, 202-667-0616; 4706 14th St., NW, 202-829-6200. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Salads are little more than afterthoughts at many restaurants, a wan reach-out on the part of the kitchen to dieters, picky eaters, the carniphobic, and the allergic. But not at this Burmese gem.
Burmese cooking blends the styles of its neighbors Thailand and India into something bracing and original, and nowhere is that more evident than in the salads here. “Salad” is perhaps a misleading term for such intricate concoctions as these, full of sharp, contrasting flavors and varied textures. Green Tea Leaf Salad, made from fermented tea leaf, garlic, tomatoes, onion, and broad beans, is a smoky, resiny, utterly mysterious dish. Nearly as good are the ginger salad and mango salad, both lively and bright.
The menu is brief, and it’s not particularly deep beyond the salads and starters and soups. Among the latter, the keeper is the Ohnno Kaukswe, a delicate, comforting brew made from chicken broth, coconut milk, shredded chicken, and egg noodles. Still, the adventurous are sure to find something to stir their imaginations—a shrimp in chili sauce with Chinese cilantro and tomato or a stir-fried pork with fresh mango, either of which will provide a jolt for any palate jaded by generic Asian cooking.
Appetizers $5 to $7, entrées $8 to $11.
Myanmar, 7810-C Lee Hwy., Falls Church; 703-289-0013. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.
DC, Gaithersburg, Mitchellville, Silver Spring
You’ll find soulful renditions of sweet-spicy jerk chicken, robust oxtail stew, and other Jamaican specialties at these friendly, order-at-the-counter dining rooms. Assertive spicing and flavors make them hits with the Caribbean community and dependable stops for anyone trying to recapture the flavors of an island vacation.
The DC and Silver Spring locations are smaller and do more takeout, though there are a few tables; Mitchellville and Gaithersburg have roomier dining rooms. In all of them, the cooking rings true, from the floral-tasting house-made sorrel juice (sorrel is a member of the hibiscus family) to the spicy goat curry (watch out for the bones).
Roti, a roll-up of crepelike bread filled with curry—we like the coconutty chicken—makes for a filling meal. Pattie, a flaky turnover with different stuffings, is another pick-up-and-goer—the spicy beef version is tops. For Caribbean heat, try the “escoveitched” fried whole red snapper smothered with tomatoes, onions, and mild and hot peppers. Oxtail stew, a few notches down in spiciness, is robust, the meat tender enough to cut with a fork. Need a reminder of what jerk chicken should be? Negril’s is authentically pungent. Buttery coco bread and coconutty rice and peas round off most meals. Slabs of banana and rum cake make for a sweet, islandy finish.
Appetizers 65 cents to $3.90, entrées $6.25 to $9.85.
Negril, Northwest DC, 202-332-3737; Gaithersburg, 301-926-7220; Mitchellville, 301-249-9101; Silver Spring, 301-585-3000; negrileats.com. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
This red-sauce trattoria has wit and style—and the feel of Little Italy. Much of the food tastes like it came from the kitchen of an Italian nona, and no wonder: The two thirtysomething brothers who run the place—one cooks, the other manages—copped recipes from their own.
Snug and cozy with dark wood tables and chairs, vintage family photos on the frescoed walls, and a faux fireplace that’s really a TV screen, Olazzo is both romantic and family friendly. Young servers amp up good cheer, as do Monday’s half-price wine night and Tuesday’s $5 martinis.
But even without the boozy come-on, the place is a find. Crisp fried tendrils of calamari heaped in a giant martini glass will make you smile. The best big plates are the traditional ones: well-seasoned meatballs with al dente spaghetti; lasagna with a robust Bolognese sauce; chicken cardinale with tomato-cream sauce; crusty thin-pounded chicken Milanese. Less successful are dishes catering to modern health concerns, like salmon with mango relish and a flavorless vegetable pasta. A nice house salad comes with all entrées, but get the dressing on the side—the kitchen tends to overdo it.
For nostalgia’s sake, splurge on a crisp-shelled cannoli for dessert, the essence of Little Italy in a few crunchy bites.
Appetizers $6 to $8, entrées $11 to $16.
Olazzo, 7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9496; olazzo.com. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
Oohhs & Aahhs
The area’s best soul-food spot is this U Street hole in the wall whose home-style cooking has attracted everyone from blinged-out NBA superstars to neighborhood folks grateful to still find good, reasonably priced food amid the profusion of condos and boutiques.
Thirteen dollars fetches a meat or fish dish and two sides—a certifiable deal for a meal you likely won’t be able to finish. And only a churl would complain about the Styrofoam containers the food is served in. The fried chicken is superb, the mac ’n’ cheese is so cheesy it pulls away in thin, ropy strings, and the Cajun-spiced turkey chop (turkey breast pounded thin, coated in a mix of garlic salt, red pepper, oregano, and black pepper and plunged into the fry basket) is an addictive pleasure. Beef ribs are bathed in a sweet, smoky glaze. An order of fat shrimp sits atop a tangle of sweet, sautéed peppers and onions, and on Friday and Saturday there’s even lobster—cracked open, then prized from its shell, floured, and fried.
A plate of three tasty sides goes for $7.95. Co-owner Indiah Wilson, a Connecticut native and onetime model, disdains the use of pork fat to flavor greens and the liberal use of salt in soul-food cooking. Collards are cooked only with vinegar and sugar, and she and partner Oji Abbott make their own seasoning blends for meats.
The space has been recently renovated—new stools downstairs, tables, chairs, and a couch upstairs—and Wilson’s warm greeting suggests that she’s as interested in caring for the soul as in feeding it. But you don’t come here for the niceties—you come for good, home-style cooking.
Entrées $7.95 to $24.95.
Oohhs & Aahhs, 1005 U St., NW; 202-667-7142. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Osteria del Galileo
Having extended his culinary empire to more than a dozen restaurants in the ’90s, Roberto Donna has consolidated over the last few years. One restaurant now houses four experiences. Laboratorio is the grandest of these, and although it’s a wonderful indulgence, who can afford to spend either their allotment of calories or their money on the likes of duck-liver custard and truffled risotto every day? That’s what makes the simple, inexpensive pleasures of the Osteria so attractive.
For less than half the price of what you’d pay in the main dining room, you can sit at one of 12 tables around the bar (or at several more on the patio out front) and dine on some of the best Italian cooking around.
Chef Donna—with executive chef Amy Brandwein—is at his best when he’s crafting the hearty pleasures of his native Italy. For lunch, when nothing costs more than $9, that might mean a few house-made pork sausages with Piedmontese salsa verde, eggs baked with tomatoes and decadently crusted with mozzarella, or braised rabbit legs with black olives, red wine, and a piping of mashed potatoes.
There’s a longer, multicourse menu at dinner (be sure to ask for the osteria menu at the door). The Piedmont staple bollito misto, loaded with veal cheeks, veal tongue, and short ribs, is a steal at $10. Few do pastas and ragus like Donna, and there are many to choose from: pappardelle with a lusty braise of venison; handmade spaghetti with peas and wild mushrooms; ricotta dumplings with spicy eggplant. Dessert brings chocolate-drizzled cannoli and a lovely apricot cake.
Osteria and bar menu $4 to $12.
Osteria del Galileo, 1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191; galileodc.com. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday for dinner.
This is Mexican the José Andrés way: foam-topped margaritas and $7 gorditas on shareable small plates, all served up in a stunner of a space.
It’s hard to keep your eyes from wandering. At the end of the dining room, a floating blue painting backlit with an amber glow has a Rothko-like effect. Dia de los Muertos skeletons are having a party above the door of the tiled room where tortillas are griddled. A massive bamboo fixture hides a skylight. It couldn’t be a starker contrast to the Crystal City office park outside.
There’s plenty to get your attention at the table. Beyond the margaritas, mezcals, and premium tequilas, there’s fragrant sangria and a refreshing pint glass of Tecate and lime juice on ice. Antojitos—Mexican small plates—are meant to be shared. Two tableside preparations—traditional guacamole and a Cardini-style Caesar salad, full of salty anchovies, Parmesan, and coarse pepper—are sure starts. The palmitos salad, a mix of hearts of palm, avocado, oranges, and radish, sings with flavor. Some plates come with unexpected accessories: flank steak with pineapple and peanuts, plantain fritters with cool coconut sauce for dunking. Pastry chef Steve Klc’s desserts are delicious, and his version of tres leches cake is a knockout.
Andrés, the creative force behind his restaurant group, is everywhere in evidence. An ad for his Spanish cookbook is on each table, the menu touts “José Andrés’s favorite fried potatoes,” his press clippings are framed and hung. Sometimes, though, the execution of a dish makes it seem he’s everywhere but here. Albóndigas—beef-and-pork meatballs—have been watery and tasteless. There were more olives and onions than chunks of halibut in the Veracruz-style ceviche. And SoCal expats will have to keep up their quest for perfect fried-fish tacos—the tilapia version here is ho-hum (go for the tacos al pastor, carnitas, or grilled-chicken varieties instead). That said, Andrés’s beloved fried potatoes—smothered in mole, thick crema, and cojita cheese—are in great shape.
Antojitos $4.95 to $10, entrées $7.50 to $16.95.
Oyamel, 2250 Crystal Dr., Arlington; 703-413-2288; oyamel.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch.
The balloon wineglasses, weighty silver, and overstuffed banquettes hardly cry out “budget.” They are bonuses to dining in this elegant restaurant’s no-reservations front cafe, which has become a foodie pilgrimage in its own right.
“I’d eat here every night if I could” is a remark we hear often. The house-made hot dog, 45-minute roast chicken, and truffled-cheese-topped burger garner most of the praise, and they’re certainly deserving. But there are lots of sleeper hits in chef Frank Ruta’s cafe repertoire.
The short menu shifts from night to night. The charcuterie plate, which tends to show up on Tuesdays, shows Ruta’s attentive approach—he spends months curing bresaola, capicola, and other sausages. More whimsical is a plate of fried lemons, potatoes dauphinoise, and onion rings. And Ruta, who once worked in Italy, has a masterful hand with pastas—oxtail-stuffed raviolini, gnocchi with nettles.
Our one gripe? Pastry chef Ann Amernick’s desserts—defrosted layer cakes, berries topped with wan crème anglaise—seem tired.
All cafe items $10 to $14.
Palena Cafe, 3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250; palenarestaurant.com. Open Monday through Saturday for dinner.
Pho begins as humble oxtail bones floating in water and ends up, 12 hours later, as an aromatic elixir that many claim has curative properties.
Every pho place waters down its giant stock pots throughout the day to extend the life of the broth. So it matters that this Beltsville cafe, whose cheery warmth stands in contrast to the brusque efficiency of some pho parlors, begins with a liquid that’s extra rich—an almost oleaginous broth that results from the collagens in the connective tissues of the simmering oxtail bones.
Even when the broth gets thinner than it should be, the difference is appreciable. Much as an oily chicken noodle soup provides a boost of homey comfort, this beefy richness gives the tired and the rundown—a prime pho-eating demographic—a sense of being nursed back to life.
Oddly, the add-ons of beef—including beef brisket, beef tendon, beef flank—are not quite as soft and tender as they could be, but a platter of mint, holy basil, and sprouts is as fresh as any you’d find in a farmers market.
An assortment of freshly prepared bubble teas and smoothies might not be an ideal fit with your meal, their intense sweetness tending to obscure the subtler charms of the pho, but they make a good finish.
Appetizers $3.09, entrées $5.72 to $10.
Pho 88, 10478 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-931-8128. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Arlington, Falls Church, Herndon, Langley Park, Rockville
Pho is often called a soup, but it’s really more of an elixir. The fiercely beefy broth with notes of star anise and legendary restorative powers draws legions of fans to these streamlined parlors.
Go on a Sunday at noon for the ultimate experience: Vietnamese fathers teaching toddlers how to slurp the noodles just so, grandmothers liberally shaking hot sauce into their steaming bowls, teenagers giggling and sipping on fresh-squeezed lemon sodas. All of it unfolds at long communal tables arranged in cafeteria-style rows.
For a one-dish concept, the menu is miles long. Besides the broth and thin rice noodles, you get your pick of beef: brisket, fatty brisket, soft tendon, flank steak, tripe, meatballs, and more. You can customize your bowl with as many beefy bits as you like. And you can add sprouts, a spritz of lime, green chilies, or Asian basil to taste—all of which you’ll find on a heaping plate that arrives with the soup. A dash of soy sauce and a shot of hoisin and you don’t need much more to find bliss.
Large bowl of pho with choice of meats $6.80, small bowl $5.95.
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 to 8.
Dupont Circle, Georgetown
Both branches of this Neapolitan-style pizza bistro offer enviable pies with blistered, cornmeal-dusted crusts. Both are brilliant successes.
And both, naturally, are overrun with business. Be prepared for a lot of squeezing in at the original Dupont location, which 15 years after opening is still no bigger than a studio apartment. Here, families and first-daters spill onto the front stoop while they wait for one of the handful of tables set under a trompe l’oeil sky. The newer Georgetown location—dinner spot of choice for many an undergrad—is roomier. It’s also home to Birreria Paradiso—manager Thor Cheston’s curated lineup of esoteric stouts, pilsners, and ales.
Whichever you pick, stick with what comes out of the wood oven. Our favorite pizzas are the Bottarga, with generous tosses of garlic, parsley, Parmesan, and its namesake mullet roe with an oozing egg; the Atomica, with salami and hot-pepper flakes; and the simple Margherita, which lets the pizza’s elemental ingredients shine.
Happy-hour specials run at both spots. On Tuesday nights, two people get a plate of antipasto, a 12-inch pizza, and a bottle of wine for $50.
Appetizers $4.95 to $6.95, entrées $9.95 to $17.95.
Pizzeria Paradiso, 2029 P St., NW, 202-223-1245; 3282 M St., NW, 202-337-1245; eatyourpizza.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Chinese, Japanese, and Korean plates are all given Modern American tweaks at this pan-Asian eatery with the look and feel of a neighborhood diner gone trendy. Weekdays and weekends the dining room is abuzz—from empty-nesters nibbling on fatty tuna to toddlers gobbling shrimp and pork dumplings.
In the ’60s, when families wanted a budget meal, they went for chow mein. These days they go for California rolls. Raku does those and more. In Seoul Train, cool, buttery tuna meets crunchy chili-hot kimchee. Sweet hoisin and Chinese mustard lend sweet and spicy notes to a smoky duck roll. Yellowtail sashimi gets a slick of sweet-hot wasabi ponzu sauce, and the signature tuna tartare crunches with peanuts and herby lemon basil.
Bigger plates like strip steak marinated with cilantro, chili, and shallots are likely to blow the Cheap Eats budget unless you share. So slice it up and let everyone have a taste. Noodle soups like the dreamy, creamy red Thai curry with shrimp bring the tab back on track. So do the lunch bento boxes stocked with smoky barbecue eel or surprisingly good rib-eye teriyaki. Both come with delicate crab shu mai; portobello-and-green-bean salad, a ying and yang of soft and crunchy textures; and those ubiquitous California rolls.
Sushi $3 to $10, appetizers $4.50 to $10, entrées $8.25 to $23.
Raku Bethesda, 7240 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-8680. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Ravi Kabob House
Don’t let the name limit your choices. Good as the kebabs are at this Pakistani cash-only operation—and they are among the area’s best—the jewels here are the three variations of karahi. Presented in small, hammered-steel bowls resembling handleless woks, they’re brimming with long-marinated meats (the lamb arrives with a still-pink interior) in a sauce ignited by slivers of ginger and a scattering of green chilies. Combining the fire of Szechuan cooking with the complexity of Indian cooking, they will have you digging your plastic fork in long after you’ve had your fill, just to unravel its secrets. And each is big enough for two, possibly three.
There are seven kinds of kebab—lamb, beef, and chicken varieties, all marinating in a refrigerated case up front before hitting the grill and sending out their seductively smoky perfume. Tender, lightly spicy lamb chops are adorned with aluminum-foil caps to prevent the jutting bones from burning. Seekh kebab, an aromatically spiced ground meat molded around a metal skewer, is juicy and well-charred but still slightly pink on the inside. The red-tinged bone-in chicken is perfectly moist.
All orders come with two sides—the gently spiced chickpeas are slowly simmered and luscious—and a round of hot, puffed bread, ideal for tearing and wrapping around a hunk of meat.
There are no waiters, but the lack of table service doesn’t mean you won’t be looked after. A kind, white-capped gentleman watches over the dining room and will pack leftovers with as much care as his colleagues at the grill lavish on the cooking.
Appetizers $1.25 to $2.50, entrées $9 to $17.
Ravi Kabob House, 305 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington; 703-522-6666. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Red, Hot and Blue
Purists will tell you that no good barbecue can come from a chain, that proper ’cue doesn’t pull away so easily from the bone, and that righteous barbecue joints don’t attempt to do much more than one kind of meat, one kind of way. All good points.
But there’s just something winning about the Laurel branch of this local chain, launched in the late ’80s by a group that included the late Republican consultant Lee Atwater and patterned in the likes of the legendary Corky’s in Memphis. It may not do any one thing brilliantly, but it does a mess of things very well.
The ribs, whether swabbed with sauce or treated to a dry rub, don’t always come to the table as moist as they should be, but the amiable servers—many of whom have been with the place since it opened and are as integral to the party atmosphere as the Stax-Volt soundtrack—are always happy to swap them for another batch.
And ribs are only a part of the story: The restaurant does a terrific smoked chicken, a crispy fried catfish that could make a Southerner pine for home, and a pulled-pork sandwich that goes from good to great when you ask to substitute the roll it’s served on for the hot, buttered roll that comes with the ribs. And there’s not a single afterthought among the sides, which include smoky baked beans, a sweet corn relish, and excellent seasoned French fries.
Appetizers $5 to $7.60, entrées $11 to $15.
Red, Hot and Blue, 677 Main St., Laurel; 301-953-1943. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Amid the big-box superstores of Fairfax, Sakoontra stands out like the mohawked kid in homeroom, from its color scheme—the walls are done up in purples, blues, teals, and burgundies—to its often sharp, zippy cooking.
You’re not likely to see these charms right off. Appetizers yield only occasional pleasures. Tod mun, those minced shrimp cakes, are springy not crunchy, and kanom jeeb, tiny steamed pork-stuffed dumplings, draws intriguing, if perplexing, parallels to American barbecue.
Frying is not the kitchen’s strong suit. Instead, turn your attention to the soups (a hot-and-sour lemongrass soup that doesn’t stint on the sour) or the lively salads, including one memorable iteration that brings together deep-fried watercress, whole cashews, poached shrimp, and chicken and squid, the whole thing drizzled with a spicy lime sauce.
It’s with its main courses that the kitchen reveals its strengths. A lot of Thai kitchens pander to their audiences by recalibrating their dishes—sweetening their sauces and toning down the heat until the needed peppery punch is barely a love tap. This one, under the direction of Vilai Chivavibul, obeys the essential sense of balance that Thai cooking demands, resulting in a raft of curries whose fire is kept in check by a pronounced sourness and creamy sweetness and bright, colorful stir-fries that seldom devolve into a gloppy indistinctness.
The kitchen doesn’t use fish sauce in its vegetarian dishes, which is bound to inspire the abiding devotion of vegetarians. What will inspire the abiding devotion of omnivores is the fact that the restaurant regularly scours the local seafood markets for specials—and that Chivavibul and crew are smart enough to let the goods speak for themselves. A recent special included two plump, meaty softshells, lightly fried and bathed in a sweet-and-sour sauce shot through with basil and green chilies.
Entrées $6.95 to $12.95.
Sakoontra, 12300-C Price Club Plaza, Fairfax City; 703-818-8886; sakoontra.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
There’s a partylike atmosphere at this Salvadoran eatery on University Boulevard. Maybe it’s the icy pitchers of tart margaritas. Or the walls in shades evoking Fiestaware. Or the generosity of spirit.
The heaping plates of savory Central American classics—fluffy chicken-stuffed tamales and the marinated carne asada—are almost a bonus. The menu offers Mexican standards like fajitas and enchiladas, but that’s not where the kitchen’s heart is. Look instead to a whole trout, moist within and crisp without. Or delicious morsels of pork spiked with the bite of mustard and bitterness of oranges. Pupusas have an appealingly brittle crust—besides the usual pork and cheese, there’s a wonderful seafood version with bits of shrimp and scallop.
Little things are done well, too—house-made tortilla chips, soupy but flavorful black beans, and well-slicked, garlicky white rice so pleasing it could be eaten by the bowlful.
Appetizers $3.95 to $10.95, entrées $10.95 to $23.95.
Samantha’s, 631 University Blvd. E., Silver Spring; 301-445-7300. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
At first glance, this hidden-away Rockville dining room, with its dove-gray booths and crimson walls, feels plush and unexciting. There’s a sushi bar offering California rolls and a Westernized menu of candy-coated chicken dishes. Then out comes a fish in a plastic bucket. “Look okay?” the server asks.
Some diners might blanch at meeting their meal face to face, but the rewards are great. Whole fish—grouper, tilapia, or black bass, depending on the season—are best steamed and covered with ginger and scallions. When they’re available, consider a shareable pile of sweet, meaty Dungeness-crab legs with vinegar and salt for dipping. Or a whole lobster chopped and sautéed with hot sauce. Manila clams make delicious appearances in a restorative ginger soup or with black-bean sauce.
Most of these are market price, and all are enough for two. The only accessory needed is a dish of pea-shoot leaves sautéed with garlic.
Appetizers $1.40 to $12.95, entrées $8.25 to market price.
Seven Seas, 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville; 301-770-5020; sevenseasrestaurant.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
You can hardly drive a mile in Arlington or Falls Church without passing yet another place offering skewered meat. Some of these kebab houses deliver the goods. But so far, no single kebab can match the kubideh at this small, noise-filled Persian restaurant on the ground floor of an office building in Tysons.
Aggressively but deftly seasoned, the minced beef is molded around a skewer in such a manner as to allow crucial air pockets to form, then set atop a flaming grill. The result is meat so soft, so full of juicy savor, you don’t so much chew it as let it melt in your mouth. No other kebab on the menu reaches that level of greatness, which isn’t a complaint—these are excellent kebabs—merely a declaration of how extraordinary the kubideh is.
At many kebab houses, the rice is an accompaniment, or an afterthought; here it’s often as good as the kebabs. Cilantro and chopped pistachios enliven a pilaf that conceals thick, flaky hunks of roasted salmon. In another pilaf, a dice of sour cherries mingles with buttery grains of fluffed rice to make a simple dish of startling contrasts. Be sure to ask for an egg on the side when you order the kubideh. You get a cracked-open raw egg in a plastic cup. Make a ravine in the mound of rice and dump the contents in, stirring so the egg coats each grain. Simple bliss.
A glass of tangy doogh, the herb-flecked yogurt drink, is a fine way to wash it all down.
Appetizers $2.59 to $4, entrées $5 to $15.
Shamshiry, 8607 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-448-8883. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Steamed pork shank is an unprepossessing name for the stunner of a dish at this Chantilly restaurant, which two years ago relocated from Crystal City and dropped the name Formosa Café. Steamed for six hours until the bones dislodge from the meat, the pork shank glistens with a sauce of red chilies, ginger, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, Chinese broccoli, and squares of country ham.
The pork provides a precis for eating at a place where the translated names on the Chinese menu often sound blander than they are. Occasionally, they even sound unappetizing. One dish is called Ant on Tree—a spicy minced pork that clings to a tangle of house-made potato noodles.
As tempted as you might be to consider the Chinese-American buffet that keeps the place in business, you can always enlist the help of the owners’ daughter, Lilly, who speaks idiomatic English and is an excellent guide for unlocking the secrets of the menu. Or you can approach each meal as an adventure as you order, sitting back and enjoying the consistently good, occasionally brilliant work that comes from the restaurant’s team of cooks, all of them graduates of the renowned Sichuan Culinary College.
Street Dumplings sounds like a toss-off name for a dish as elegant as this, a bowlful of delicate dumplings stuffed with ground chicken and green onion, sprinkled with sesame seeds and bathed in a thin red-chili sauce. Green Bean Jelly With Black Pepper is likely to conjure up an unsettling image for many Americans. Keep an open mind and you’ll be rewarded by a bowl of chewy, gelatinous noodles tossed with the famed Szechuan numbing peppercorns and fragrant leaves of celery.
The kitchen excels in its preparations of lamb as well as in its array of cumin-spiced dishes. That makes the cumin lamb a high-priority item, with its tender slices of meat ignited by a sauce of green chilies, green onions, and some liberal pinches of the aromatic ground seed. Seldom are you singed by the heat of any of these dishes. Rather, you’re left with an insistent warmth.
One scorcher is the ma po tofu. If you’ve never tried this classic, which submerges cubes of tofu in a smoky red-chili sauce, this is the version to consider. The family hails from the Szechuan province, and it was a distant relative who is said to have invented the dish, preparing the tofu from scratch five times a day using well water in the back of the restaurant.
Entrées $6.50 to $21.95, lunch buffet $8, dinner buffet $9, weekend buffet $10.
Sichuan Village, 14005 Lee Jackson Hwy., Chantilly; 703-631-5888; sichuanvillage.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
You can almost feel the collective loosening of J. Press ties at this Hill wine bar. Weekday lunch is usually jammed—it’s one of the only walking-distance options for BlackBerry addicts seeking to escape the Senate cafeteria or a steakhouse. Weekend nights draw a different breed: urbanites who want to linger through the tasting-friendly wine list and chef Drew Trautmann’s menu of simple pleasures.
The small plates, abundant cheeses, and affordable tasting pours of wine—there are 50 by the glass—are made for grazing over and passing around. The charcuterie board is heaped with prosciutto, soppresatta, and bresaola paired with pickled ramps and wine-steeped figs. The cheese board might include cuts of Pleasant Ridge, Humboldt Fog, and Old Chatham Camembert.
Linguine alla Vongole, with a balance of hot chilies, tiny, sweet clams, and house-cured bacon, is billed as an appetizer but is perfectly sized for a main course. The opposite goes for an entrée of grilled, rosemary-speared prawns with chickpea purée. The pizzas tend to be flimsy and overdressed, but the Wagyu burger topped with grilled onions and Taleggio you’ll want to keep for yourself.
Cheese and charcuterie boards $7 to $39, small plates $7 to $17.
Sonoma, 223 Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-544-8088; sonomadc.com. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant
Vegetarians, vegans, macrobiotic eaters, and, yes, omnivores find plenty to like about this pan-Asian cafe, which seems to have been transplanted from a crunchy New England college town. Big sunflowers are everywhere—on the teacups, the wind chimes, the curtains, and the happy to be a vegetarian T-shirts tacked up for sale.
The feel-good mood makes this a nice place to dine alone—many bring a book for company, especially at lunch, when you can get an entrée, rice, and salad for $6.
Everything is meat-free, and plenty of dishes stay away from dairy. Though some items, such as the tofu pies for dessert and the vegetarian sushi, are the sort of pleasureless creations that some might expect from a vegetarian’s diet, the menu doesn’t misstep often. The mock-meats are the stars. Start with an earthenware plate of “chicken” nuggets—darkly fried bits of tofu that are a ringer for the real thing—flavorful wonton soup, or nicely fried cabbage-stuffed spring rolls. Two more “meat” dishes—the kitchen’s takes on General Tso’s chicken and sweet-and-sour pork—have just the right texture.
You won’t go wrong with veggies either. Marinated tofu is tossed with fresh broccoli and fragrant, crunchy bamboo shoots. Super-green kale and burdock root are tossed in a light ginger sauce.
Appetizers $2.50 to $7.50, entrées $5.50 to $11.
Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant, 2531 Chain Bridge Rd., Vienna; 703-319-3888; crystalsunflower.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Taqueria Distrito Federal
Few places offer as much warmth and attention as this hole in the wall on 14th Street—all courtesy of the scraggly-bearded guy in the baseball cap. Owner Luis Marroquin is there to welcome you, take your order, and offer you free refills of drinks.
The cooking is left to Margarita Cruz, who sends carefully prepared, slow-cooked snack foods out from her tiny kitchen. This is the most authentic Mexican cooking you’ll find this side of Riverdale’s Little Mexico.
The menu is minuscule—11 varieties of tacos, 12 kinds of burritos, and a combination plate—and seating is limited. The burritos are big and tasty, stuffed with fresh rice, stewed beef or pork or chicken, and cubes of salty white queso—no dollops of sour cream or gobs of melting Colby here; they also benefit from being baked right before hitting the table. The tacos, two-ply corn tortillas stuffed with meats and little else, are delicious and satisfying—the tongue, cooked for 3½ hours, is luscious; just as memorable are the stewed goat, with its spicy, sweet guajillo-chili sauce, and succulent slices of pork ribs.
They go down nicely with a cold glass of horchata, a sweet, cinnamony drink made from pulverized rice, or marañón, a nectar squeezed from the fruit of the cashew plant.
All items $2 to $6.
Taqueria Distrito Federal, 3463 14th St., NW; 202-276-7331. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Taqueria el Poblano
Arlington, Del Ray
Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, and Salvadoran flavors mix at these taquerias, which have gone beyond serving cheap, tasty food to become friendly neighborhood gathering spots. On weekends the Del Ray patio is taken over by twentysomethings soothing hangovers with huevos rancheros, while the bigger Arlington outlet is the stop of choice for the Little League crowd.
The menu is the same at both. Lightly salted tortilla chips and salsa show up on every table along with smoky red salsa. Tacos are the thing here, but a few appetizers—pork-flecked frijoles charros, a plate of tiny charred onions called cebollitas, and lime-shot guacamole—are worth pausing for.
Tacos are sold singularly, so it’s easy to try a bunch. The traditional tacos al pastor, which come out only after 5:30, pile thin shavings of adobo pork with cilantro, pineapple, and red-chili sauce. We love the grilled-shrimp soft taco, with its sweet-tart red-onion escabéche and avocado drizzle, and the LA-style crispy taco, filled with adobo pork.
If there’s anything to complain about—besides surcharges for extra salsa—it’s the kitchen’s lack of consistency. Fried mahi-mahi and duck carnitas tacos are sometimes winners, sometimes dried out. The lime-marinated skirt steak on the tacos al carbon can be overcooked, or just right.
Appetizers $2.25 to $7.25, tacos $2.95 to $4.95, entrées $6.25 to $14.95.
Taqueria el Poblano, 2400-B Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-548-8226, open Wednesday through Monday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch; 2503-A N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-237-8250, open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch, daily for dinner, Sunday for brunch; taqueriapoblano.com.
Taste of Morocco
Where else can you get dinner-and-a-show at prices like these?
The good news is that the nightly belly-dancing and pungently spiced Moroccan standards are equally deserving of your attention at this lively restaurant in Silver Spring’s City Place mall.
While dipping into a bowl of buttery black olives in harissa-flecked oil, consider the rest of the meal. Do you start with an elegant hummus rife with tahini or a lemony eggplant salad? Make it easy and order both, while lamenting that the bread isn’t better—both hummus and eggplant cry out for a good dipper. Move on to the sweet-savory chicken bestilla (ask that the kitchen go light on the powdered sugar), the spicy little meatballs glazed with a sauce of tomato and harissa, or a tart but delicious chicken tagine with preserved lemons and green olives. Then settle back with Moroccan sugar cookies and mint tea and take in the swirl of scarves as the belly dancer does her thing.
Appetizers $3.95 to $4.95, entrées $11.95 to $14.95.
Taste of Morocco, 8661 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring; 301-588-4003; tasteofmorocco.net. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Taste of Saigon
The dining room of this family-owned restaurant is done up in the decorative palette of the 1980s: black lacquer, glass cubes, lots of mauve and muted gray. But outdoors, the trellis-lined patio has a tropical aura that’ll make you forget you’re in a Rockville parking lot. As will the faithful, sometimes inspired renditions of dishes from every region of Vietnam.
The kitchen is at its best when exploring the cuisine’s French and Chinese influences. That means forgoing the brisket pho and bowls of vermicelli bun in favor of shrimp, steak, and lobster. The signature black-pepper shrimp—a shareable pile of crunchy, deliciously spiced shrimp—stands up to its reputation. Shrimp mousse, spread on baguette and deep-fried, is a terrific riff on shrimp toast. Lobsters from the tank near the door are nicely showcased in the goi du-du tom hum salad, sprinkled with shreds of papaya. And beef is almost always well-tended, whether it’s charred, thinly sliced, and dressed with crushed peanuts in a classic xa-lach bo nuong salad or marinated in lime juice, grilled, and topped with a runny egg.
Appetizers $3.95 to $6.95, entrées $7.95 to $23.95.
Taste of Saigon, 410 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 301-424-7222; tasteofsaigon.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This sweet Arlington dining room—the destination of choice for Thai expats who want a fix of home cooking—gets better and better. It elevates the familiar into something memorable while also making the unconventional feel comfortable.
Salads here are heaping mounds of crunch and texture, whether it’s a tangle of green papaya with tomato and peanuts, flank steak with crunchy roasted rice, or minced pork and pork rind with ginger. Pad Thai is a perfect balance of sweet, tart, and fishy; pad see-ew (get it with pork) with caramelized rice noodles is a high point, too. Curries, such as the fiery country-style curry with eggplant, green beans, and a choice of meats, are intricate in flavor.
Adventure awaits in a plate of crunchy fried squid with basil—even the basil leaves are fried crisp—and a dish of catfish that gets a double whammy of chili peppers and paste. Even better is fragrant pig-knuckle stew, a braised knee-joint of pork with cinnamon and star anise. And chili-dusted, sun-dried beef or pork is fireworks on the palate.
Look to specials for sweets. Most revolve around sticky rice with ripe slices of mango or a spill of coconut cream.
Appetizers $3.50 to $9.50, entrées $8.95 to $12.95.
Thai Square, 3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-685-7040; www.thaisquarerestaurant.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Trattoria da Franco
Old Town Alexandria
It’s the kind of place you may have presumed no longer existed, especially in a city lacking a Little Italy—a big-hearted restaurant with charm to spare and simple cooking that minds the details.
The setting is an old townhouse in Old Town Alexandria adorned with lace curtains, a fireplace, and old opera posters. Chef Franco Abbruzzetti is the owner, and he’s got the old-time restaurateur’s knack for making everyone who walks through the door feel like a big shot—among the memorabilia lining the entryway is a note from Pope John Paul II teasing his “good friend” for his sins and a picture of Abbruzzetti sitting down with Lorena Bobbitt. Regulars drop by to sit at the bar and order “the same thing I had yesterday.”
Thoughtful touches abound, from the fresh-cut roses on the table to the ground basil at the bottom of the dish of olive oil that accompanies the bread basket to the Chianti poured from a bottle bound in a straw basket to the strongly made cappuccino and espressos.
In an age when Italian cooking has made micro-regionality its muse, the menu with its procession of cannellonis and tortellinis and piccatas feels reassuringly familiar. No one will be left scratching his head at either the ingredients or the modes of preparation—Abbruzzetti trades on execution, not novelty. Bruschetta holds no surprises, unless you count the fact that the thick, garlicky toasts spilling over with roughly diced tomatoes and onions are surprisingly addictive. A stirring of egg and a toss of fresh spinach transforms a delicate chicken broth into a delicious soup.
All the pastas are house-made, and all benefit from being cooked perfectly. Linguine carbonara is not the creamy, gooey lump of so many inferior versions; this one’s bound only by Parmesan and egg and is studded with bits of smoky rendered bacon. Linguine alla vongole is graced by a scattering of fresh, sweet clams. There are also a handful of veal dishes, all simply sauced, all of them tasty.
Given the bargains to be found elsewhere on the menu, dessert is oddly expensive at $7 per sweet and, at those prices, not rewarding. But for those of a certain age, it might be hard to resist the tug of nostalgia and indulge in the likes of spumoni, cannoli, and tartuffo.
Dinner entrées $14.95 to $24.95.
Trattoria da Franco, 305 N. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-548-9338. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
With its black-and-white checkered floors and unadorned yellow walls, this paean to simple pleasures has an airy urbanity. But show up during family dinner hours and it feels more like a romper room. Children are everywhere—downing pizzas and apple juice, scribbling on the tables, knocking into waiting patrons—the place doesn’t take reservations. But there’s a reason the kids make a ruckus—and the kid-free endure it all.
Dressy pizzas from a wood-burning oven might be easy to come by these days, but great pizza isn’t. These Neapolitan-style pies are baked in accordance with the rigorous standards of the Italian government. The result is something close to pizza perfection. The margherita is a thing of beauty, with its rich mozzarella made from buffalo’s milk, freshly torn basil, and high-quality sea salt and olive oil. Order it plain or with one of the excellent Italian meats or sausages. The terrific, tomatoless Vongole alludes to the classic linguine with clams. Salty shards of grana padano set off sweetly briny cockles in their shells, accented by capers, parsley, and fiery peppers.
This isn’t just a pizza parlor—there are other pleasures on the menu. Deviled eggs with salsa verde, roasted olives, and risotto fritters are nice, and the house-made ice creams and sorbets are some of the best in the city—as are the marvelously eggy Sunday-morning doughnuts.
Appetizers $3.95 to $6.75, pizzas $7.95 to $12.95.
2 Amys, 3715 Macomb St., NW; 202-885-5700; 2amyspizza.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
In a bustling intersection where Indian meets Latin American meets Asian, this vegetarian southern-Indian eatery will wow even a carnivore with a laundry list of choices.
Whether it’s a buttery footlong dosa (rice crepe) filled with gently spiced potatoes and peas or the put-hair-on-your-chest chili pakora—deep-fried hot peppers—a meal in this large, lively dining room is never ho-hum.
The buffet is an unusually good one, the only downside being that breads and curries tend to be tepid rather than hot. So serious diners tend to order from the menu—puffy flatbread to tear and dip into chickpea curry; addictively satisfying curd rice with yogurt; malabar adai, an appealing little pancake studded with vegetables; and a complex, aromatic eggplant curry (one of 25 curries to be had).
Thali platters—samplers with the likes of fried-lentil doughnuts to dip in a spicy vegetable sauce or a coconut-based vegetable curry—are no-brainers if you want to leave it to the kitchen to pick starters and entrées.
Save room for one of the 35 neon-hued Indian sweets on display in the sweet shop—we like the almond burfe, sort of like almond fudge.
Appetizers $3.95 to $9.95, entrées $10.95 to $11.50.
Udupi Palace, 1329 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park; 301-434-1531; udupipalace.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Thanks to a renovation, a real dining room has been added to this popular carryout, and wine and beer are now available. But lest you think Urban has gone upscale, the menu is the same—an irreverent ode to barbecue with jokey junk-food concoctions like Buried Corn Dogs and Redneck Fondue.
For the best barbecue, go for pork—a slab of beautifully crusted ribs redolent of applewood and hickory or pulled pork on a bun. A splash of Yella, a sauce of brown sugar and mustard tart with lemon juice, or the even more assertive Carolina, a brew of vinegar and hot peppers, enhances the smoky thrill. Chicken and brisket are less exciting.
Don’t be too ’cue-centric: Urban makes a juicy burger with applewood bacon, cheddar, and jack, and that same bacon does a whopping BLT proud—the secret’s in the thick slices of Texas toast. Most of the sides are superfluous, but don’t miss the potato salad, whose mayonnaisey glory screams picnic.
Redneck Fondue, a cheese-and-chili concoction with tortilla-chip dippers, or Buried Corn Dogs (they’re buried in the fondue) are sure to bring out anyone’s inner child. Urban Legend is a pig-laden take on seven-layer dip—a heaping pile of brisket, sausage, and barbecue beans on a raft of Fritos.
Appetizers $4 to $6, entrées $5 to $17.
Urban Bar-B-Que, 2007 Chapman Ave., Rockville; 240-290-4827; urbanbbqco.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
This Eden Center restaurant might give every impression of being a lounge—TV blaring above the long bar, smokers lingering at the black-lacquered tables like members of cafe society—but it turns out some of the most uncompromising food to be found in this sprawling plaza of 30-plus restaurants.
The staff isn’t as practiced in the art of reaching out to a Western audience as the team at the crossover hit Huong Que (Four Sisters), which means there’s no one to guide you through the multipage menu. It also means the staff is inclined to doubt your claims of being able to withstand the really spicy stuff.
Here, hot means hot. A plate of plump rings of squid arrives in a lemongrass sauce that will have you summoning your server for refills of water. Dishes not marked spicy still emit a gentle, insistent heat. Sweet, meaty frog’s legs are coated in a yellow curry that sends waves of heat through your mouth. Baby clams are tossed in a hash full of rendered bits of bacon and a generous handful of diced chilies that cut the oiliness of the dish but also ignite it. Scoop it up with one of the puffy rice cakes studded with black-sesame seeds.
Just as the food hasn’t been recalibrated to satisfy more timid palates, neither is it too sweet, the other common snare for many Asian restaurants. Caramel fish comes not with the cloying glaze one often encounters but with a light, amber-colored sauce shot through with pepper and vinegar, a fitting foil for its filets of catfish.
Appetizers $3.50 to $12.95, entrées $6.95 to $26.95.
Viet Bistro, 6799 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-7575; vietbistro.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Woo Lae Oak
The energy is high at this sleek outpost of the Arlington original. You’ll find the usual Korean barbecue, casseroles, and noodle dishes but also a beguiling lineup of Asian small plates. Rich slices of duck are countered with the sweet graininess of roasted figs. Seared scallops get a drizzle of lemon-chili oil and bits of buttery avocado and pineapple. Steak tartare is nestled alongside Korean pear, a quivering quail egg, and sweet, nutty sesame sauce.
Other corners of the menu offer pleasures like jeon, batter-coated morsels of meat or fish, and a plain but soothing dumpling soup. Noodle dishes like chap jae, vermicelli infused with soy sauce and enlivened with bits of meat and vegetables, are the bargains. So are casseroles like bibim bap—rice crowned with filaments of meat and seaweed to mix with a runny fried egg, soy sauce, and chili paste. Short ribs slow-cooked in a dense brew of chestnut and dates, and barbecue items like lean bul goki (boneless rib eye) or carmelized spicy pork will take the tab higher. All come with a bevy of Korean condiments known as panchan, tiny dishes filled with tidbits like cucumber kimchee, fried fish to eat whole, and sweet-sour pickled sprouts. Add a noodle dish and you won’t go hungry.
For dessert, take your cue from the Korean clientele, who skip the Western sweets—chocolate-mousse cake, a trio of crèmes brûlée—and sip on cups of cool cinnamon tea with floating pine nuts. Ritual calls for holding the cup with both hands.
Appetizers $7 to $13, small plates $4 to $7, entrées $7 to $29.
Woo Lae Oak, 8240 Leesburg Pike, Vienna; 703-827-7300; woolaeoak.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Fairfax City, Langley Park, Gaithersburg
Buffets conjure up thoughts of food languishing beneath flavor-killing heat lamps, the quantity intended to offset the lack of quality. Indian food is the exception to this rule, its curries benefiting from the steady simmer, the spice-laden flavors deepening as they sit.
These sparsely decorated southern-Indian vegetarian restaurants—spinoffs of the London original—serve up one of the best buffets in the area, a varied feast that attracts hordes of customers at lunch during the week and especially on weekends. Quality plus quantity is hard to beat, particularly at prices that rival a Friday’s or Bennigan’s.
The regular menu is just as reliable. Omnivores won’t miss their meats, not with curries this rich and complex—if anything, the varieties using coconut milk, like the vegetable korma, are prone to being over-rich. The fry breads are hot, puffy, and addictive, if a little greasy. No visit is complete without an order of the fabulous dosai, crispy, thin rice-flour crepes that look like giant tuile cookies and, when stuffed with a black-mustard-seed-dotted mixture of potatoes and onions, make a meal all by themselves. Among the list of lassis is a beguiling lychee lassi, at once creamy, tangy, and sweet.
Lunch buffet $6.95 weekdays, $8.95 weekends; appetizers $3.50 to $7.50; dinner entrées $6.95 to $14.75.
Woodlands, 4078 Jermantown Rd., Fairfax City, 703-385-1996; 8046 New Hampshire Ave., Langley Park, 301-434-4202; 18216 Contour Rd., Gaithersburg, 301-963-4466; woodlandsrestaurants.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Just as Georgetown undergrads have Five Guys, young Korean-Americans in Northern Virginia have Yechon. Sure, there are older folks unwinding over steaming casseroles and smoking cigarettes in back, and the gray wood paneling and leather chairs lend an air of formality. But at night this 24-hour bulgogi-and-sushi house fills with teens and twentysomethings in denim skirts and stocking caps and buzzes like a school cafeteria.
Japanese/Korean restaurants are a familiar sight around Annandale’s Koreatown. But while Yechon’s sushi and sashimi are fine, you won’t see Volcano Rolls on many tables. Instead, waitresses in billowing robes deliver trays stacked with panchan, the tiny tastes that come free with every Korean meal. Of the nine items, fiery pickled radishes, sesame-dusted seaweed, sweetly vinegared cucumbers, and mild cabbage kimchee are all standouts. A TV-dinner-like mashed-potato salad dotted with peas and carrots seems out of place.
Korean barbecue—a grill is inlaid in many tables—is a feast for two. The traditional bulgogi—a wild mess of thinly shaved beef, mushrooms, and leeks—is grilled, then bundled into a lettuce leaf with a dollop of nutty soybean paste. Lusher versions are made with short ribs, slices of pork, or spicy squid.
Soups, generally served as side dishes rather than starters, tend to be more about their aromatic broths than the meat cuts, leeks, and other vegetables that flavor them. An exception is the clam stew—you’ll want to savor every littleneck that turns up in the sweet, briny liquid.
Appetizers $3.95 to $7.95, entrées $6.95 to $24.95.
Yechon, 4121 Hummer Rd., Annandale; 703-914-4646. Open 24 hours.
Chef/restaurateur José Andrés has built his mini-empire by plucking authentic flavors from faraway cuisines, crafting them into small plates, and showcasing them in stunning settings. The formula works, and this homage to Greek, Turkish, and Mediterranean mezze might be his most consistent and rewarding.
The angular two-level space—a wash of stark white and Santorini blue that soars as high as a ship’s mast—stays crowded and loud. The no-reservations policy during peak times means that waits for one of the sleek tables can be up to two hours, especially on weekends. The rush makes lingering difficult; servers tend to bring the little dishes out fast, sometimes all at once.
There are a few duds—such as the ouzo margarita—on the menu of overpriced cocktails. Go for a glass of crisp rosé instead. It’s hard not to overload on perfectly flaky spanakopita, Santorini-style fava-bean purée, or slabs of milky feta with tomato marmalade. Garides me anitho—shrimp sautéed with dill and lemon—and hünkãr begendi, braised hunks of lamb over smooth eggplant purée, are both crowd pleasers.
Save room for pastry wiz Steve Klc’s desserts, especially the Turkish Delight sundae, a wonderful layering of goat’s-milk mousse, walnut ice cream, and honey-vanilla gelée, or the semolina cake with muscat cream.
Mezzes $3.50 to $9.95.
Zaytinya, 701 Ninth St., NW; 202-638-0800; zaytinya.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
In a neighborhood not known for restaurant bargains, Zorba’s homey Greek cooking at Filene’s Basement prices is a welcome change from fast-casual chains.
Two decades-plus have not tarnished the cafe’s charm. Beyond the umbrella-topped patio lies an airy music-filled dining room with floral tablecloths and the usual Greek talismans: ocean-blue beads and heads of garlic to ward off the evil eye. Order at the counter, pay, then wait for the wisecracking Greek owner to hand you a place-mat-lined tray wafting garlicky aromas.
Then tuck into classics like cool yogurt-and-cucumber tzatziki; taramasalata, a fishy, salty purée of salmon roe; a pile of the smoky, orange-scented pork-and-lamb sausage known as loukaniko; and one of the best gyro plates around. Fasolatha, a grandmotherly Greek soup of white beans and vegetables, is a better choice than the white-bean salad, fasolia plakee, whose beans are undercooked. And this isn’t the place for rice-stuffed grape leaves, which are mouth-puckeringly sour.
Moussaka, a layered casserole of ground beef, eggplant, and potato topped with a cloud of béchamel, is lighter than most versions. Perhaps best of all, though, are keftethes, meatballs packed with bits of parsley and onion and finished on the grill. They go especially well with the wonderful, hot house-baked rolls.
The dense house-made yogurt with honey, crushed walnuts, and cinnamon makes for a simple and authentic dessert.
Appetizers $2.25 to $4.75, entrées $5.95 to $10.50.
Zorba’s Cafe, 1612 20th St., NW; 202-387-8555; zorbascafe.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
HOW TO GET THE MOST FOR YOUR MONEY
Some people live to eat. Others live to eat cheaply.
But who’s to say you can’t eat cheaply—a meal for two that costs less than $55, including tax and tip—and deliciously, too?
In some cases that means letting go of notions about what constitutes a meal. Three courses? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the place. Maybe you skip starters and make a meal of a few entrées. Or you go the small-plates route and order several appetizers. Or split a starter and get two entrées.
Ethnic restaurants have always been ideal for mix-and-match flexibility—and for sharing plates. And the small-plates revolution has made eating how we want and what we want even more acceptable. Supersizing also makes it easier—two can share an entrée that’s meant for one but sometimes is enough to feed a family of four.
Eating cheaply isn’t about slumming. It’s about adventure.
The Ten Commandments
The beauty of eating ethnically is being able to experience another way of life simply by going out to dinner. It’s like traveling abroad without leaving home. Also, in many instances, like traveling abroad without a map.
Here’s how to demonstrate that you are someone with the requisite savvy and smarts to be able to cross over into another culture. Trust us: The quality of your next meal may depend on it.
1. Do some homework.
Acquainting yourself with staple dishes of a cuisine by perusing an article or two can go a long way toward ensuring a good experience. The more knowledgeable you are, the better—it helps if you can work in a reference to falso conejo at a Bolivian restaurant. Don’t worry about your Spanish. The attempt will count for something.
2. Don’t accept what’s popular; find out what’s good. Even if you get a server you can communicate with, you may have to dig a little to find out what a restaurant does best. Servers are inclined to tell you what’s popular. Sometimes their suggestions reflect what many customers enjoy, but often they’re meant to direct you to the safe dishes meant to satisfy a broad audience. Push the servers to tell you what they eat.
3. Focus on the sauce, not the steak. Meats and fishes are never going to be as good at small ethnic places as they are at four-star restaurants. The cooks’ talents are less about careful shopping than about putting their hearts into the sauces, thus turning humble ingredients into food that is rich and complex.
4. Look around you. At many Vietnamese, Chinese, and even Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants, you’ll often see customers hovering over big, steaming bowls. You might be inclined to order the chicken, but those bowls ought to entice you. Whatever it is, order it. Most likely, that bowl contains the best and truest experience of the place.
5. Don’t point. It’s considered rude in many cultures—even to draw your tablemates’ attention to a painting on the wall or to single out an ingredient.
6. Order to the cuisine’s strengths. Stick to beef or pork when you eat Korean, focus on fish when you eat Peruvian. At many Indian restaurants, vegetarian dishes are superior to meat dishes.
7. Load up at the beginning. First courses, being smaller, are generally easier to share than entrées. They’re also generally more interesting. If it’s just the two of you, consider ordering three or four appetizers and one entrée. More flavors, more chances to learn what the place does best.
8. Think communally. You might prefer to eat from your own dish, but hoarding an individual dish runs counter to the spirit of much ethnic eating. Many ethnic restaurants are accustomed to serving family-style, which means sharing dishes.
9. Meet the cuisine on its own terms. Divest yourself of your cultural biases. Don’t blame the languid pace of many Caribbean restaurants for making you miss your movie; don’t bristle at Asian restaurants for being so efficient that you’re not left to linger at the table. You may ordinarily frown upon eating with your hands, but scooping up stews at an Ethiopian restaurant with torn bundles of injera is one of the most civilizing eating experiences you can have that doesn’t involve foie gras and Champagne.
10. Take home leftovers—even if you have no intention of finishing them. Uneaten food can be construed as rejection.