Upscale Eats at Dirt-Cheap Prices

Craving a round of Middle Eastern small plates, or maybe the $21 seafood gumbo at Acadiana? These eateries dish up flavors similar to the cooking at popular upscale restaurants—at much lower prices.

By: Todd Kliman, Ann Limpert, Cynthia Hacinli, sara levine, Erin Zimmer

>> See the full Dirt Cheap Eats list 

Greek Treat. If you like the refined modern-Greek eatery Mourayo near DC’s Dupont Circle, head for Athens Grill (9124 Rothbury Dr., Gaithersburg; 301-975-0757), where heaping plates of Greek classics are a fraction of the price. The place is lunch-counter casual, but the taramosalata, tzatziki, wood-grilled pork and lamb kebabs, and orzo with leg of lamb have the tang and taste of home. Leave room for the mammoth diamond of baklava drizzled with honey sauce.

The Rage in Cajun. It doesn’t have the slickness of its better-known Cajun counterpart, Acadiana, but Bardia’s New Orleans Cafe (2412 18th St., NW; 202-234-0420) is no slouch when it comes to spiciness and satisfaction. The cozy Adams Morgan storefront has stayed packed for 14 years by never stinting on the portions—or the butter. The strength of the kitchen is in its zesty gumbo and étouffées and in the fine brunch, which includes eggs Sardou—a soft biscuit spilling over with creamy spinach and artichokes. Don’t miss the beignets, which conjure memories of Jackson Square.

Try a New Thai. It’s no competition for Arlington’s Bangkok 54 when it comes to mood, decor, or location. But Thai X-ing (515 Florida Ave., NW; 202-332-4322), a tiny takeout operation in an English basement in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, produces dishes of depth and distinction. Owner Taw Vigsittaboot does most of the cooking, and the bright-flavored dishes are often better than what’s served in elegant Thai restaurants. For his salmon red curry, Vigsittaboot poaches the fish in a rich, spicy, coconut-milk-spiked gravy, creating one of the lushest curries in town. The larb gai, a cold salad of minced chicken with onion and cilantro, is both refreshing and fiery; drunken noodles are perked up with lots of Thai basil, chili, and garlic.

Fish Tale. Much of the blue-collar and no-collar crowd that descends on the carryout Horace & Dickies (809 12th St., NE; 202-397-6040) at lunchtime wouldn’t be caught dead munching on fried oysters and sipping Sancerre at Hank’s Oyster Bar in DC’s Dupont, but, hey—a fish fry is a fish fry. Horace & Dickies’ house specialty is a “fish sandwich” in name only—four slices of beautifully fried white fish come with a few slices of white or wheat bread. Break off a piece of crunchy fish, stuff it between just enough bread to keep your fingers from getting greasy, add a few generous shakes of hot sauce, and bite into an enduring classic of old DC.

Small Plates in the Palisades. When you’re hankering for the pan-Mediterranean small plates at the Penn Quarter mezze hot spot Zaytinya, head to the more casual but no less cool Figs (4828 Mac­Arthur Blvd., NW; 202-333-7773) in the Palisades. The glass cases hold sharply smoky baba ghanoush ($4), hummus with red peppers ($4), and slices of bastilla—tissue-thin phyllo pastry filled with chicken and crushed almonds ($6). The brightly flavored salads ($4 to $6) range from fragrant tabbouleh to artichokes with corn and edamame. For dessert, look to crunchy baklava and crumbly date-filled cookies. The pillow-strewn cafe has loads of bohemian personality: Nigella Lawson cookbooks share space with a Bob Marley snapshot, Scrabble boards, and stacks of Europop CDs.

Bargain Bistro. Yes, dining at a Left Bank–style bistro such as Montmartre on Capitol Hill is largely about the hearty decadence of the cooking. But it’s also about the mood of the place—bent forks, warbly tunes, and all. And though the bargain plates of beef bourguignon and coq au vin at Café Parisien Express (4520 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-525-3332) come with plastic cutlery, they’re full of slow-simmered goodness. Add to that $3 tumblers of icy Lillet Blanc, house-baked baguettes, and some of the butteriest chocolate croissants around, and you’re likely to be swept away just the same.

Indian Surprise. Beguiled by the exotic flavors of Rasika but can’t afford frequent visits to that outpost of Indian fusion cooking? Head for Masala Country (6007 Centre­ville Crest La., Centreville; 703-815-8000), the region’s first location of the Indian fast-food chain. Diners used to conventional tandoor and curries are in for a surprise: The menu mingles Indian street snacks (puffy, spiced lentil-batter doughnuts called medu vada, steamed cakes called idli), Indian-Chinese staples (Manchurian Cauliflower, battered florets in an incendiary garlic-chili sauce), and a cross-cultural imagination (a Mexican dosa is one of 112 varieties of the Indian crepe). At its best, the cooking rivals what you’ll find at more tastefully appointed Indian restaurants, and nothing on the menu tops $9.