News & Politics

February 2005 Dirt Cheap Eats

From adobo pork tacos to stuffed waffles to Vietnamese subs, here's where to get a great meal for under $15 a person

There is life after cheap pizza. Three of our twentysomething staffers set out to find their favorite meals for $15 a person or less. There are cheap spots here for every young and hungry taste: from bustling dim sum houses to ritzy restaurants with bargain menus to bare-bones taco joints to what might be the best falafel stand in town. Start counting your change.

Breakfast and Brunch Bargains

BLACK MARKET BISTRO, 4600 Waverly Ave., Rockville; 301-933-3000. This four-month-old cafe, housed in a charming Victorian next to a playground in Garrett Park, is perfect for a brunch date. There are faux-fireplaces in two rooms. Small herb plants like rosemary or sage sit on tables. Servers seem happy to see you.

The menu for brunch, 10 AM to 2 PM on weekends, is heavy on lunch but has three delicious breakfast dishes. A plate of perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, wheat toast, hash browns, and a small salad is $8. Two thick slices of orange vanilla-bean French toast served with fruit salad are $7. Our favorite: buttermilk pancakes ($7). Other entrées include a burger with crispy fried onions ($8) and a fried-chicken sandwich with arugula and a mustard cream sauce ($9).

EVENING STAR CAFE, 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-549-5051. This laid-back cafe in Del Ray looks like it was transplanted from a New England college town. The pressed-tin ceiling, mustard-yellow walls, and light fixtures made from maple-syrup pitchers and Mr. Peanut figurines lend a funky-cool vibe.

It's easy to fill up at brunch (11:30 AM to 2:30 PM Sundays) for under $10 a person. We like the buttermilk pancakes ($8), scattered with pecans and served with thick-cut applewood bacon, and the good bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich ($6). On the lunch side, look for a grilled-chicken sandwich on a kaiser roll ($7) and a pear and stilton salad ($7).

FINN MACCOOL'S IRISH PUBLICK HOUSE, 713 Eighth St., SE; 202-547-7100; Flat-screen televisions along the bar broadcast the day's games, but Finn's doesn't feel like a sports bar. The brick interior and fireplace provide a calm setting for Sunday brunch.

Waffles ($9.95) come stuffed with chocolate chips, strawberries, or pecans. Make your own hefty omelet ($11.95) with your choice of fillings. Or try traditional plates such as fish and chips ($10.95) or Dubliner Pie ($9.95) topped with potatoes and filled with carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, and beef.

FLORIDA AVENUE GRILL, 1100 Florida Ave., NW; 202-265-1586. Only a row of silver bar stools with red vinyl tops separates the booths from the open kitchen, so diners hear bacon sizzling. Breakfast at the 61-year-old grill, where walls are covered with autographed photos of athletes and entertainers, is greasy but good.

Hotcakes ($3.75 for three) are thin and buttery. Three-egg omelets ($7.95)–try the one stuffed with cheese and turkey bacon–come with grits, fried apples, or home fries. Southern-style sides include biscuits smothered in sausage gravy ($3.95), corned-beef hash ($2.75), and scrapple ($2.75).

MOSAIC CUISINE & CAFE, 186 Halpine Rd., Rockville; 301-468-0682. Mosaic gets creative with waffles, the highlight of its long breakfast menu. The sweet waffle with strawberries ($5.95) is served with a caramel cream sauce and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Egg lovers can mix the two: A waffle stuffed with scrambled eggs and maple-cured bacon is $6.75.

Heavier choices include the waffle ham croque ($6.75), filled with ham and a Swiss-cheese sauce. Anti-carb folks can order eggs Benedict topped with grilled chicken sausage or sautéed spinach ($8.25). Three-egg omelets ($6.75) come with three fillings, including corned beef and salami, plus roasted potato hash and a half waffle. Instead of coffee, try a hot minted swiss chocolate ($2.15) or a mimosa ($4.95).

ORIENTAL EAST, 1312 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring; 301-608-0030; This relocated dim sum house is now bigger and set in a strip mall. Dim sum is available daily from 11 AM to 3 PM and is served rolling-cart style on weekends, when you can expect at least a half-hour wait.

Once you squeeze into a table and get a pot of tea, the parade of Cantonese nibbles begins. The carts bear congee ($4.95)–a Chinese rice porridge–and plates of steamed shrimp dumplings ($2.50), shrimp and pork shu mai ($2.50), sesame balls ($2.25), and baked and steamed pork buns ($2.25). Highly recommended: shrimp rolled in rice-noodle crepes ($3.25), doused with sweet soy sauce, then snipped with scissors.

POLLY'S CAFE, 1342 U St., NW; 202-265-8385. Several hours after last call, this basement bar transforms itself into a quiet spot for brunch. The drinks keep flowing–mimosas, Bloody Marys, and screwdrivers come by the glass ($2.75) or pitcher ($8.25).

Eight varieties of eggs Benedict include avocado, portobello mushroom, smoked salmon, and spinach. We recommend the spicy Southwest Benedict ($12) with chipotle pepper sauce, black beans, cheddar, and tomato salsa served over a corn tortilla. Crispy French toast ($11) is dipped in a vanilla cinnamon batter and comes with bacon, sausage, or ham.

SAVORY CAFE, 7071 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park; 301-270-2233. Nobody notices if you've just rolled out of bed. At Savory, bikes and strollers are parked near the door, diners sit outside with their dogs, and some of the furniture looks like it belongs in your kitchen. The food is as homey as the atmosphere.

On Sundays from 9 AM to 2 PM, the all-you-can-eat brunch is $10. Fill up on the basics: scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, eggs Benedict, and waffles you can top with glazed strawberries. There's a toaster for your bread. Coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and hot tea are included; espresso drinks are available. We couldn't stop eating the cinnamon twists and mini blueberry muffins. While you're ordering at the counter, check out the desserts–we were glad we took home a piece of carrot cake ($3.25).

TASTEE 29 DINER, 10536 Lee Hwy. (Rt. 29), Fairfax; 703-591-6720; Johnny Cash sings on the jukebox and breakfast is served 24 hours a day at this landmark greasy spoon.

With prices that range from $1.45 for a heaping plate of home fries to $3 for a short stack of pancakes, Tastee is about as cheap as you can get. Everything is slathered down with plenty of butter before it's put on the griddle. On the more expensive end of the menu, try the ten-ounce steak with eggs, home fries, and toast ($10.75).

Let's Do Lunch

CAFE ASIA, 1550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-741-0870; 1720 I St., NW, 202-659-2696; With high ceilings, cool lighting, and mod decor, both locations of this pan-Asian restaurant and bar offer great atmosphere for a lunch date.

To start, share crispy shrimp tempura with vegetables ($5) or wontons ($4) stuffed with crabmeat, cream cheese, and herbs. A sushi lunch special ($7.50) comes with a dozen or so pieces of seven varieties plus a bowl of miso soup. The salmon and tuna rolls are especially good. Classics like pad Thai ($8 to $10) and General Tso's chicken ($10), and four versions of fried rice ($7 to $10), including a spicy Indonesian rendition, are all delicious.

DOUGHBOYS, 251 W. Market St., Gaithersburg; 301-330-3212; Even though you order at the counter, Doughboys is a nice spot for a casual date. Every table has fresh flowers.

Wood-fired pizzas include the Quatro Formaggi ($8.95), a mix of Gorgonzola, fontina, mozzarella, and provolone, and the Southwestern ($11.50), with skirt steak, red onion, roasted red pepper, corn, and pepper jack. Share a pizza and a salad and you might have room for house-made tiramisu, focaccia bread pudding, or gelato ($4.50 each).

Panini, served on pizza crust, range from $6.95 for an unusual fruit creation to $8.95 for roasted lamb or steak. We prefer the roasted chicken with spinach, tomato, and mozzarella. Ask for a side of basil pesto, which is so good you'll probably dip your chips in it. The hot-dog panini ($6.95) with mozzarella, once only a kids-menu item, is now popular in an adult size.

THE GRILL AT GALILEO, 1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191; Last summer, the Grill was the best lunch secret in DC. Now fans line up in the back room of Galileo restaurant for chef Roberto Donna's indoor grill, smoking with pork shoulder, sausages, and ribs. Everything on the menu is $5, except for $1 sodas and the $2.50 black-and-white cannoli. Most take lunch to go, but when it's warm you can sit at outdoor tables.

The most popular offering is the pork-shoulder sandwich: slices of crispy-skinned pork are layered on grilled ciabatta with lettuce, tomato, green peppers, onions, and Donna's famous "green sauce," a purée of herbs, olive oil, anchovy, and hardboiled egg. House-made pork sausage and grilled chicken breast get the same treatment. The ribs are amazingly tender. The grill opens at 11:45 AM and goes until everything's gone. By 1 PM most days, they've sold out. The grill isn't an everyday occurrence; call first or sign up for the restaurant's e-mail notices.

HARVEST OF INDIA, 364 Elden St., Herndon; 703-471-8149. Dinner prices at this relaxed spot aren't dirt cheap. But the lunch buffet–$8.95 on weekdays, $9.95 on weekends–is a deal. The offerings change daily.

We found tasty batata wada fried potato cakes, chicken tandoori, shrimp kolhapuri in a tomato-base sauce, and creamy chicken xcuti in coconut-vinegar sauce. Naan is hot, fluffy, and perfect for dipping into sauces. Finish off with a kheer rice pudding, flavored with raisins and pistachios.

LUCIA'S, 2531 John Milton Dr., Herndon; 703-476-4400; Lucia's is easy to walk past–it looks like your everyday pizza-and-subs restaurant. What a surprise. You'll know that cardboard crust and pink tomatoes aren't in your future from the first cup of flavorful minestrone soup ($2.95)–it's house-made.

The subs, some named for southern Italian towns, come on fresh, crusty bread. The Capricciossa ($5.95) is filled with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and red peppers. You can get a traditional Italian sub ($5.50) with quality pepperoni, capicola, salami, mortadella, green-leaf lettuce, oil and vinegar, hot peppers, and provolone. Thin-crusted white pizza ($12.95) and torpedo-shaped calzones ($6.95) are cheesy and filling.

MALAYSIA KOPITIAM, 1827 M St., NW; 202-833-6232; The decor might be a little tired, but the food's not. Owners Penny and Leslie Phoon pay tribute to Malaysian street food. If you've never had Malaysian cooking, check out the photos of every dish on the menu. Servers are glad to make suggestions, too.

A reliable start is the roti canai ($3.95), a flaky, crispy bread served alongside a bowl of spicy curry chicken. The satays ($3.95), curries, and noodle soups ($7.50 and up) are very good.

MARKET LUNCH, 225 Seventh St., SE; 202-547-8444. Market Lunch isn't just for lunch. It's also not the place if you're in a rush–or looking to linger. The line in front of the Eastern Market food stand starts at 7:30 AM and lasts until closing at 3 PM; it can take a half hour to get through. There's a rule against leisurely reading while you eat when seats at the counter or outdoor picnic tables are in short supply.

On weekday mornings, Hill-dwellers gather for $1 coffees and plates of grits, eggs, and toast ($2.95), and scrapple or bacon ($1.50). Later, the focus turns to Market Lunch's famous crabcake sandwich ($6.75), a small, deep-fried cake hidden in a fresh-baked roll. A better value is the excellent North Carolina-style barbecue pork sandwich ($4.50), the bun piled high with vinegary pork. Our favorite sides are the tangy coleslaw ($1.10) and thin-cut fries ($1.25).

MI RANCHO, 8701 Ramsey Ave., Silver Spring; 301-588-4744. The enchiladas are gooey, filled with cheese and smothered in it, which is why we love this Silver Spring cantina. We can't get enough of the chips–they're paper thin–and salsa. The inside is festive, but we'd rather sit outside: The patio is a cozy spot for sipping margaritas ($4.25) on a summer evening, and it's heated for the winter.

A lunch menu is available Monday through Friday. You can't go wrong with Tex-Mex favorites like chicken soft tacos ($7.95), steak quesadillas ($7.25), or a pile of nachos ($6.95 with chicken or beef). Leafier choices include the ensalada del chef ($7.95), with avocado, hearts of palm, and artichokes, and the chicken taco salad ($7.95).

3RD & EATS, 500 Third St., NW; 202-347-8790; Freshly carved roast beef, turkey, and ham are the core of this sandwich shop's menu. "Good works . . . good eats" is the core of its philosophy. 3rd & Eats' mission is to train the unemployed and provide aid to the poor and homeless.

Along with the philanthropy, it serves up a mean deli sandwich for $4 to $5. The roast beef on the District sandwich ($5.10), served on a soft kaiser roll with bacon and cheddar, is red, thick, and juicy. There is a salad and pasta bar, but most people go to 3rd & Eats for the good deeds and the tasty meats.

Dinner Deals

ANZU, 2436 18th St., NW; 202-462-8844. Nothing on the menu at this chic Italian trattoria in Adams Morgan is more than $11. But the dim dining room and attentive wait staff make it feel fancy.

We recommend starting with the caprese ($7), a salad of mozzarella and plum tomatoes that three can share, then digging into a personal pizza. Anzu's pies, named for places in Italy, are big on toppings–if you like sauce, ask for extra. Our favorites: the Cinqueterre ($10), with mushrooms, roasted peppers, and spinach, and the Verona ($10), topped with grilled chicken breast and portobello. Pastas include linguine with mussels, clams, and scallops ($11), and a big bowl of pappardelle with Bolognese sauce ($9). Anzu, which has a full bar and a lounge upstairs, is open only for dinner.

THE BRICKSKELLER, 1523 22nd St., NW; 202-293-1885; This Dupont Circle saloon holds the Guinness world record for the most varieties of beer available for purchase–more than 1,000 choices, ranging from $2.75 to $45.95. Tasty exports include the dark and sweet Czech Boom beer (11.2 ounce) for $3.50.

The kitchen, open until 1 AM Sunday through Thursday (2 on weekends), has a nice selection of pub fare. Start things off with two pierogi ($4.25) fried or steamed with an onion and butter sauce. The juicy buffalo burger ($6.95) and the crispy fish 'n' chips ($6.95) are also good. Sandwiches range from $4.50 for a burger to $8.95 for the shrimp sandwich, and all are served with fries or German potato salad.

EL MARIACHI, 765-C Rockville Pike; Rockville; 301-738-7177. Don't expect to start off the night at the bar–there isn't one. Diners crowd the doorway waiting for a table on weekends, but nobody seems to mind. Sombreros and Latin American art add life to an otherwise plain dining room.

Try not to fill up on chips and salsa–combo platters are huge. We like the Plato Norteno ($8.95), which includes a chicken burrito, cheese enchilada, guacamole, rice, and beans, and the sizzling chicken fajitas ($12.95). Dishes you won't find at most Tex-Mex spots: mussels in sherry wine with ginger and garlic ($5.95), and broiled trout with Acapulco sauce ($12.95), a mixture of shrimp, white wine, lobster, cream, scallions, and Monterey Jack cheese.

FUDDRUCKERS, 1216 18th St., NW; 202-659-1660, and 11 other area locations; We all need comfort food. Our advice? A burger or chicken sandwich with fries and a strawberry milkshake so thick the fruit gets stuck in your straw. If that doesn't cheer you up, the atmosphere should: Colorful abstracts and pictures of hamburgers cover the walls. Upstairs there's patio furniture with umbrellas. The fun '50s tunes might have you singing along.

Burgers range from $4.35 for the 1/3-pound "original" to $8.35 for a one-pound "hot rocks" with smokehouse bacon, cheddar, and chipotle barbecue sauce. The $7.35 salads, including Southwest taco, oriental, and barbecue chicken, are big enough for two. Some locations offer a design-your-own cookie ice-cream sandwich.

HALF MOON BAR-B-QUE, 8235 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-585-1290; It's a good sign when the server asks the patrons near you how their meal is and they say, "Good–as always." After a big combination platter of hickory smoked chicken and pork ribs ($9.75) coated with barbecue sauce, we agreed. The hand-cut fries–platters come with two sides–remind you of the boardwalk.

Also on the menu: smoked sausage, barbecue beef, pulled pork, and catfish sandwiches for less than $5. There's nothing even half-fancy about the place–vintage signs and license plates cover the walls; mirrors and colored lights hang behind the bar–but that's what we like. There's live blues, jazz, or R&B music five nights a week, an open-mike night on Tuesdays.

OLAZZO, 7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9496. Too often, simple Italian-American dishes like spaghetti with meatballs and chicken Parmesan come up bland. Not at Olazzo. This cozy spot serves flavorful versions of such classics. The dark, rustic dining room is romantic enough for a date, casual enough to pop into. Be careful not to fill up on the crusty bread, because entrées are large–enough for two.

Start by sharing a plate of bruschetta ($7) or a martini glass full of crispy calamari ($8). A fresh green salad–no iceberg lettuce here–comes with each main course. There are pastas galore, from fettuccine alfredo ($12) to the satisfyingly salty linguine with clams and white wine ($13). The chicken cardinale, in a tomato cream sauce, gets raves. The wine list is affordable, with lots of glasses between $6 and $9. Mondays are half-price wine night; Tuesdays, Olazzo pours $5 martinis.

RED DOG CAFE, 8301-A Grubb Rd., Silver Spring; 301-588-6300; The food is so good at this cute neighborhood cafe that you should plan on sharing. We started off with a $12.95 brick-oven wild-mushroom pizza with roasted red peppers, caramelized shallots, smoked Gouda, and mozzarella, and fought over the last piece.

Tasty sandwiches include an $8.95 overstuffed roasted lemon chicken ripieghi–the word is Italian for "fold-over"–with cucumber yogurt dressing, and a muffeleta sandwich ($9.95) with salami, ham, mortadella, provolone, and olive relish. A half-order of mac and cheese ($3.50)–penne pasta smothered in cheddar and baked–and a medium chocolate milk ($1.30) will make you feel like a kid again.

THE REEF, 2446 18th St., NW; 202-518-3800; Before late nights start getting crazy, the second floor of this Adams Morgan bar doubles as a romantic restaurant, serving high-style food without the prices or dress code. The creative modern-American menu changes nightly.

Our free-range roasted chicken breast, marinated in garlic and herbs, was tender and juicy. Also on the menu were Guinness-battered fish 'n' chips ($10) and mushroom risotto ($9). Main dishes come with crispy fried potatoes and seasonal vegetables. The Reef is perfect for a date: Aquariums with tropical fish line the walls. After dinner, head to the third-floor open-air bar for a glass of wine ($6.75 to $9) by moonlight.

SAMANTHA'S, 631 E. University Blvd., Silver Spring; 301-445-7300. Many diners here greet their servers by name. After one visit, we can see why the place has regulars. Chips and salsa, and a strong margarita, might make you think you're here for Tex-Mex, but you don't have to be.

The sizzling chicken fajitas ($11.95) are delicious, but Samantha's also has more than 25 Latin American specialties, including Salvadoran-style trout ($10.95), pork ribs ($10.95) grilled in house-made barbecue sauce, and Peruvian-style chicken ($9.95). The $11.95 camarones entomatados, shrimp sautéed with tomatoes and onions in white-wine sauce, is a good seafood choice. Under $10: enchiladas, chiles rellenos, Salvadoran soup, taco salad, and the seafood burrito.

SIGNATURES, 801 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-628-5900; Signatures is two restaurants in one. In front it's a fun, sexy lounge; in back, a staid dining room decorated with historical documents. Chef Morou's creative cuisine is better suited to the bar.

His "nosh" menu offers 16 items for under $10.95. Order one of the clever cocktails and graze over sharable plates of chicken wings with cashews and a smoked chili glaze ($7.25), shaved Kobe steak and cheese ($8.95), and Maryland blue-crab poppers with garlicky sauce ($9.95). When it comes to soups, Morou's take on New England clam chowder ($5) is stellar, and his pumpkin soup ($3) comes in a close second. Among pastry chef Leon Baker's whimsical desserts, the lemony cheesecake lollipops ($8) are terrific.

SUNFLOWER VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT, 2531 Chain Bridge Rd., Vienna; 703-319-3888; Most of the menu items at this Japanese/Chinese-fusion spot are vegan, but some of the tofu dishes taste even better than meat versions elsewhere.

The fried chunks of tofu in the delicious General Tso's surprise ($10.60) have the meaty texture of chicken. Spring rolls ($3) and pan-fried dumplings ($4) are among Sunflower's tastiest appetizers. There are big bowls of soups ($2.50) such as spicy wonton and salty miso. The sunflower-themed decor includes bees hanging from the ceiling and an Anne Geddes sunflower doll perched on a wall.

TAQUERIA EL POBLANO, 2400-B Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-548-8226; 2503-A N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-237-8250; This eatery's two locations are bright spots on the local South-of-the-Border scene. Families with toddlers, groups of teens, and couples crowd the colorful dining room.

Here's why: exceptional roasted tomato salsa and lime-y guacamole ($4.95), with jìcama and corn chips for dipping; tender, charred cebollita onions ($2.25); soft tacos with grilled shrimp, red-onion escabeche, and avocado ($4.50 each); crispy LA-style tacos with adobo pork ($3.25 each); and delicious fresh limeade, served with a dropper of sugar water on the side ($1.95). Margaritas, also made with fresh lime juice, are blended with top-shelf tequilas.

TARA THAI, 226 Maple Avenue W., Vienna; 703-255-2467; and five other locations. Spicy sauces, colorful cocktails, and good food make Tara Thai a bargain at any price.

If you like spicy food, begin with the mussels ($5.50) and move on to the Kapow chicken ($8.95) or spicy eggplant ($7.95). If you don't like heat, try the chicken satay ($5.50) in a tasty peanut sauce or crispy spring rolls ($4.50) to start, and then the tender honey-roasted duck ($10.95) or Siamese beef ($10.95). Beef fried rice ($8.95) is one of the best items on the menu.

TEMARI CAFE, 1043 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-340-7720. The mostly Japanese clientele and menus written in Japanese are a good sign. At this tiny cafe, filled with twentysomethings, you can go beyond the usual teriyaki-house fare.

Start by sharing fresh spicy tuna maki ($4.25) and crab shu mai ($4.25). Entrées are huge and come with a bowl of mesclun salad drizzled with delicious soy dressing. Fried pork katsu-style ($10.50) with Japanese potato salad is enough for two. Ditto the fried chicken katsu ($11.45). The Japanese hamburger and bowls of ramen get high marks, too.

VIENNA INN, 120 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-938-9548; Vienna Inn recently celebrated its 45th anniversary, and the prices at this Virginia institution remain a bargain.

Juicy chili dogs topped with mustard, diced onions, and melted cheese are $1.50. Lighter fare is limited to house salads ($3 to $7), but people don't come here to eat green. There are burgers, brats, and brisket sandwiches ($3.45 to $6), wings slathered in buffalo sauce ($4.95), and chili cheese fries ($2).

Cheap beer is the hallmark of a great watering hole: Domestics are $1.69, and premium brews no more than $3. Though you might run into the occasional surly waitress, most of the staff makes first-time customers feel like regulars.

Cheap Meals to Go

AMSTERDAM FALAFELSHOP, 2425 18th St., NW; 202-234-1969; Not much beats fried food after a night of bar hopping in Adams Morgan. Amsterdam, which opened in September, is a welcome addition to 18th Street's late-night pizza parlors and burrito shops.

The menu consists of two items: Israeli-style falafel ($3.50 to $4.95) and Dutch-style French fries ($2.50 to $3.50). Stuff your falafel to the brim with salad, cucumbers, and tzatziki from the topping bar. And fill your pita–just as they do in Israel–with the double-fried, home-cut French fries, some of the best in the city.

CAFE MOZART'S GERMAN DELI, 1331 H St., NW; 202-347-5732; This deli/market/cafe acts as the entrance to the fancier Cafe Mozart restaurant. While the deli has only a few tables and doesn't have the ambiance of the restaurant, it does have beer steins lining the shelves. And you can get hot meals to go, buy fresh deli meats, or shop at the German-stocked market.

The hot turkey turnovers ($2.95) are a good start. Spicy "hunter style" chicken ($7.95), sautéed with onion, mushrooms, tomatoes, green peppers, and paprika, is filling. Sandwiches ($3.65 to $5.95) include such specialties as Westphalian and Black Forest ham. For an even more authentic taste, sausages are $3.95 for a plain bratwurst to $5.45 for the venison brat. The cafe offers house-made tortes and cakes ($3.75 a slice), and desserts go as low as $2.50 for a Napoleon, $2.95 for a chocolate éclair.

CHICKEN ON THE RUN, 4933 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-9004. Bethesda families love this place, which serves crispy-skinned, well-spiced Peruvian chicken. The "fiesta for four" ($19.99) comes with a whole chicken plus four sides. Our favorites are the fresh coleslaw, black beans and rice, and brightly flavored salsa fresca. To really economize, you can get the "chop chop" ($6.50), a hearty mess of pulled chicken, black beans, and salsa on a bed of rice. The six tables don't leave much room for relaxing, so most take their meals home.

CHUTZPAH, 12214 Fairfax Towne Center, Fairfax; 703-385-5855; This kosher-style deli in the middle of the suburbs calls itself "a real New York deli"–and backs up the claim. Sandwiches are overstuffed with piping hot brisket, pastrami, and corned beef. The menu warns not to "embarrass yourself and ask for mayonnaise" on corned beef and pastrami, but you can't go wrong by requesting coleslaw and Russian dressing.

The chicken noodle soup with kreplach ($3.95) is as good as a Jewish mother's. The Mendel, a tuna melt ($7.95), is better than the New York original and is served with crispy fries. Traditional Jewish sides such as knishes, kasha varnishka, and kugel range from $1.25 to $4.95. Desserts like rugalach, chocolate babka, and "real New York cheesecake" are $2.50 to $3.25, egg creams $1.95.

CORNUCOPIA, 8102 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-1625. The woman at the head of the line proclaims, out of nowhere, "I love this store!" The Italian gourmet shop is filled with treats: One table is piled with platters of Italian-grandmother cookies. A dessert case holds house-made cannolis ($1.89 to $3.99). There are pots of olives, shelves of imported cheeses and meats, jars of preserves and honey.

It's hard not to go wild and run up the tab, but stick to the pastries and high-quality sandwiches ($6.99 to $7.99), like transparent shavings of prosciutto with balsamic, olive oil, and provolone, and Italian roast beef with Gorgonzola sauce.

EL CHARRITO CAMINANTE, 2710-A N. Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-351-1177. Charrito isn't much to look at–it's a Mexican dive with a small counter and a few stools. Fans of Chipotle and Baja Fresh can get the standards here, but there are also adventurous finds.

Cilantro-sprinkled soft tacos can be had with beef, chicken, beef tongue, or goat. Delicious chicken, chorizo, and steak burritos are loaded with guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, lettuce, rice, and beans ($4). The place specializes in Salvadoran pupusas ($1.50), discs of masa warmed on the griddle and filled with a choice of beans, herbs, cheese, or chicharron, fried pork skin. Cabbage slaw comes on the side. Or indulge in a side of decadently fried plantains ($3.50) with sour cream and beans. There are five tropical juices, such as sour tamarind and mango ($2).

EL POLLO CAMPERO, 496 Elden St., Herndon, 703-904-7500; locations in Langley Park and Falls Church; This Guatemalan chicken chain is the Latin American equivalent of Kentucky Fried Chicken, but better. On a recent Sunday night the line was out the door.

Prices are in line with ordinary fast food, but Pollo Campero is different. The chicken is seasoned and crisped and served with soft tortillas instead of hard biscuits. The French fries taste homemade. Side options include rice and beans. In addition to soft drinks, Campero offers Latin American fruit drinks for about the same price. For a sip of Central America get a harchato, a traditional juice made with nuts and rice that tastes like a vanilla milkshake.

EMILIO'S BRICK OVEN PIZZA, 22207 Shaw Rd., Unit A-10, Sterling; 703-444-2555; Emilio's touts its "special crust" on nearly every menu item. The best way to sample it is with an order of Emilio's Bread, served drizzled with olive oil, rosemary, and Parmesan ($3 for a small order; $4 for a large). Cheese calzones ($7.99) are fat, filling, and come with a good marinara.

The main event is the pizza. You can top 10-inch pizzas ($7.99) or 16-inch pies ($13.99) with toppings ($1 to $2.50) such as prosciutto, artichoke hearts, and green or black olives. Finish your meal with a cannoli ($3.49), just sweet enough and reminiscent of Manhattan's Little Italy.

JETTIES, 1609 Foxhall Rd., NW; 202-965-3663; Families and Georgetown students pack this sandwich shop, run by Smith Point chef David Scribner. Sandwiches are named for Nantucket beaches.

The Nobadeer ($6.95), a pile of fresh-carved turkey, house-made stuffing, and cranberry sauce on sourdough, is tops. The Polpis ($6.95) is good-quality pastrami with great spicy mustard and Muenster cheese on rye, but better without the caramelized onions that are included.

At night, there are three comfort classics: chicken pot pie, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, or half of an herb-roasted chicken with mushroom gravy and stuffing (all $9.95). For dessert, choose from a dozen flavors of Giffords ice cream.

SIMPLY HOME CUISINE, 1412 U St., NW; 202-232-8424; It's no surprise this tiny Thai place is so pretty–it was opened by the team behind the chic Simply Home furniture store and the Logan Circle Thai restaurant Rice. Though there's no place to sit, white walls lined with jars of loose tea, candles, and fresh flowers make a zen-cool waiting area.

Grab a Thai iced tea ($2.50) and start with the chicken nuggets ($2.95), fried patties of chicken ground with aromatics and served in a paper cup with peanut-chili dipping sauce. Pad Thai ($9.95) is light and balanced, with crushed peanuts, shreds of spring onion, and large shrimp. Sautées, like chicken with ginger ($9.95) and tofu and vegetables with green curry ($9.95), come with jasmine rice and spring rolls on the side. Don't miss the fries combo ($2.95)–a paper cup filled with shards of taro, yucca, and sweet potato.

SONG QUE, 6773 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-536-7900. Few sandwiches pack a flavor wallop like the banh mi. One bite of this Vietnamese sub may be fiery, another sweet or smoky or refreshing. The sandwich is traditionally made on a crusty baguette and filled with vinegary shreds of carrot and daikon radish, slivers of jalapeño pepper, cilantro, and grilled meats or cold cuts.

The best banh mi we found was the crispy grilled pork sandwich ($2.50) at Song Que. The deli is run by the owners of Four Sisters, a restaurant next door in the Eden Center, the strip-mall hub of the Northern Virginia Vietnamese community. Song Que's liver-y ham and pâté ($2) is another good choice.

A close runner-up is the grilled-pork sandwich ($2.50), served on bread straight from the oven, at the new DC Banh Mi (3103-C Graham Rd., Falls Church; 703-205-9300), just down the road from the Eden Center.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.