News & Politics

April 2006 Dirt Cheap Eats

70 Delicious Meals for under $15

Don’t let the headline fool you. Though every meal described here—including drink and tip—can be enjoyed for under $15 a person, none of it will make you feel as though you’re scrimping. In some cases, you might even think you’ve been guilty of splurging as you tuck into flaky, lentil-filled pastries from Little Ethiopia, tear into a rack of luscious pork ribs grilled by one of the biggest chefs in town, fold slices of bronzed and buttery Peking duck into thin pancakes, dig your spoon into a vanilla-infused panna cotta with strawberries, or kick back with a soothing honey­dew bubble tea. Affordability has rarely tasted so delicious.

That’s because Washington is full of ethnic centers rich with culture, culinary and otherwise. You can spend days wandering through the Eden Center in Falls Church unearthing the treasures coming out of its Vietnamese and Chinese kitchens or investigating the markets and taquerias of Riverdale’s Little Mexico. We also have top chefs reaching out to a new generation of diners with inexpensive specials, whether it’s a free wine lesson in the spiffy lounge at DC’s Vidalia or a bargain lunch at Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria.

When picking our favorites for this list—whether it was a carryout or a date-worthy dining room—the decision came down to one thing: the quality of the cooking. In some cases, a single dish made us dream of returning. In others, the restaurant won us over with a mix of good cooking, warm atmosphere, and friendly service.

Square Meals

Alberto’s (2010 P St., NW; 202-986-2121). Some pizza lovers prefer the cracker-crisp thin crust, others the weighty, oozing-with-cheese stuffed crust. Whichever camp you belong to, there’s no disputing that this below-street-level carryout in DC’s Dupont Circle serves something still too rare in Washington: really good pizza. Walking by? Stop in for one of the extra-large slices ($3 for cheese, $3.50 for pepperoni, $3.75 for all others), available till 4 am on weekends. Even better, order a whole pizza scattered with several of the nearly 40 toppings (medium thin-crust starts at $10.95, medium stuffed crust $17.95). It’s worth the wait.

Lunch special at Amma Vegetarian Kitchen (344 Maple Ave. E., Vienna, 703-938-5328; 3291 M St., NW, 202-625-6625). The Vienna branch of this all-vegetarian southern-Indian cafe has the vibe of a cafeteria, plastic trays and all. The Georgetown outlet is more suitable for a sit-down meal. Both places serve a $6.99 lunch special—a few crisps of pappadam with mini-cups of lentil stew, brothy sambar, and a drier mix of spiced squash and carrots. Be careful with the ultra-bitter lemon pickle—it’s meant to be tasted in tiny swipes. Relief from the assertive spices can be found in a heap of rice and the small cup of sweet, cardamom-scented vermicelli that comes for dessert.

Nightly poster-board specials at Clare and Don’s Beach Shack (3014 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-7873). If that e-saver flight to the Florida Keys just isn’t coming up, check out this beachy Clarendon bar, where beer comes in $1.50 cans and nobody will turn up a nose if you order a frozen mango daiquiri. Every day brings a different meal deal tacked up on poster boards. On Mondays, a plate of fish and chips is $6; Wednesdays is Beaches and Cream day, when a nicely grilled grouper sandwich and a scoop at the nearby ice-cream parlor Lazy Sundae is $11. Thursdays it’s tequila-marinated chicken and a margarita for $12. For Saturday lunch, there’s a coconut chicken sandwich with a piña colada for $11. And there’s no worry about a sunburn.

El Charrito Caminante (2710-A N. Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-351-1177). Find a stool and spread out your lunch on this popular carryout’s narrow counter. You’ll barely have room to eat, but it’s better than trying—and failing—to snack while you drive. As we learned the hard way, the excellent overstuffed tacos ($2 each), loaded with lettuce, salsa, and a choice of meats, including beef, beef tongue, chorizo, chicken, and goat, require all your attention and dexterity to eat without making a mess. For eating behind the wheel, we recommend a pupusa ($1.50) stuffed with loroco, a fragrant, edible bud from a Salvadoran flower.

El Golfo Latin American Family Diner (8739 Flower Ave., Silver Spring; 301-608-2121). This mostly Mexican restaurant offers comfort aplenty, from the tables dressed with white tablecloths and fresh flowers to the homey, satisfying meals. Start with the queso fundido ($5.95), a baked fonduelike dish of mild Chihuahua cheese topped with crunchy bits of piquant chorizo sausage. Move on to the yucca con chicharron ($5.95), thick wedges of deep-fried yucca, a starchy root vegetable, accompanied by crisp chunks of pork and pickled cabbage (curtido). Like the appetizers, entrées cover the range of Latin American cuisine. Our favorite: Peruvian lomo saltado ($12.95), juicy strips of sautéed beef tossed with grilled onions, tomatoes, and green peppers.

Chicken kebabs at the Food Factory (8145 Baltimore Ave., College Park; 301-345-8888). There’s nothing automated about this Afghani grill, which serves up slow-cooked deliciousness at fast-food prices. Go for the bone-in chicken kebab ($6.19)—easily the best of the mouth-watering meats, which also include tender lamb chops and minced, pungently spiced ground beef. It’s cooked to order over charcoal and requires a wait of up to 20 minutes. Sit tight. The finished product, served with a mound of rice and a salad, both just okay, has all the juicy, smoky appeal of a picnic barbecue.

Half Moon BBQ (8235 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-585-1290). Paper plates, plastic utensils, and eau de smoke scream “real barbecue joint.” And this sliver of a club/restaurant doesn’t disappoint. Though purists swear by pork and beef, the moist, tender quarter chicken ($7) may be the best smoked bird around. That’s not to dis the North Carolina pulled-pork sandwich ($4.50), Memphis ribs ($10.50 for a half rack), Texas-style hot links ($8), and brisket ($5.50), with their vinegary sauce. Boardwalk-style fries, tart collards, slaw, and potato salad ($1.50 each) are equal to the main event. Come early to get one of the handful of tables—patrons divide and multiply when live rockabilly bands start playing in the snug back room. No worries if you don’t. The barbecue tastes just as good at the bar.

Fried fish at Horace & Dickies (809 12th St., NE; 202-397-6040). The hunger-inducing aroma of fried fish hits you half a block away. Inside this Capitol Hill carryout there’s room for little but the five deep-fryers and three staffers, so grab loads of napkins and spread out your meal where you can. The big hits are the four weighty filets of hot, crispy fried trout and croaker, the stewed collard greens, and the moist and generously iced strawberry cake. All that plus fried chicken and French fries, and we still had something left for the tip jar after breaking a twenty.

Goat curry at Jerk Hill (6543 Ager Rd., Hyattsville; 301-422-6351). On weekends, the lines never seem to thin at this Jamaican storefront along East-West Highway. With good reason: Seldom do you come across a goat curry as good as this one ($6.83 small, $10.24 large), its brown depths teeming with shreds of stewed baby goat that have all the peppery bite you could hope for. This is hearty, home-style cooking. Eat it with the same lusty brio as the customers in the small dining room adjoining the kitchen—tear off a hunk of the excellent coco bread and swab it through the curry so you don’t leave any behind.

Lebanese Butcher (113 E. Annandale Rd., Falls Church; 703-241-2012). Who would guess that a cafe with an adjoining butcher shop—yes, that high-pitched whine is a saw cutting through slabs of meat—could deliver so much civilized comfort? Hummus ($3.49) arrives sprinkled with verdant olive oil and pine nuts. The intensely smoky baba ghanoush ($3.99) is as velvety as we’ve found; it’s a shame, though, that both come with cardboardlike pita. As you’d guess from the hulking, Halal-approved cuts in the butcher case, lamb is the star here, whether it’s tightly rolled up with pickled eggplant for shawarma ($8.95) or doused with luscious yogurt for fateh ($7.95). One caveat: Though there are only nine tables, service can be leisurely.

Peking duck at Oriental East (1321 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring; 301-608-0030). Peking duck always feels extravagant. Oriental East is the rare place that makes it affordable without sacrificing quality. For $12.50, you get a generous half portion of duck, its crisp lacquered skin concealing tender, juicy meat; $23.95 nets you the whole bird. Both come with a stack of thin pancakes, hoisin sauce, and shredded scallions. Feeling frugal? Request that they pack the duck’s carcass to go, then use it for duck stock.

Pho at Pho 88 (10478 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-931-8128). They don’t call it Vietnamese penicillin for nothing. As anyone who’s ever enjoyed a bowl in the midst of a hangover or a lingering cold can attest, few things are as restorative as a bowl of pho (pronounced “fuh”). The rendition of beef noodle soup ($5.72) at Allan Tan’s strip-mall shop—with a richer broth than most and aromatic bits of anise, clove, and cinnamon—is a good way to stave off hunger, too.

Fried chicken at Pollo Campero (in Falls Church, Herndon, Langley Park, and Wheaton). Pollo Campero’s mascot, a jaunty chicken, sends the signal. It may be fast food, but this Guatemalan-style fried chicken goes beyond finger lickin’ with a crunchy, seasoned crust sheathing the moist bird within. Soupy beans with bits of sausage and pepper are soulful, perfect for rolling up in hot tortillas. And tomatoey Spanish rice and crisp (albeit frozen) French fries make worthy sides. Cool things down with horchata, the refreshing Central American milk drink.

Barbecue at Red Hot & Blue (677 Main St., Laurel; 301-953-1943). Go ahead and pooh-pooh the fact that it’s a chain. Pooh-pooh the way the staff touts the onion loaf to every table, or the way the Stax-fueled soundtrack makes for a canned good-time vibe. But the Laurel branch of this barbecue franchise remains a cut above the others, turning out plates of Memphis-style ribs ($13), pulled pork ($9), smoked chicken ($10), and catfish ($11) that are as lip-smacking as they are consistent. And should your meat lack moistness, send it on back; the high-spirited staff is happy to oblige.

The Reef (2446 18th St., NW; 202-518-3800). For a first date, the Reef covers all bases: low lights and quiet music, a second-floor view of Adams Morgan’s street scene, and an eclectic, cheap-without-tasting-cheap menu. Ask for a table near one of the aquariums but don’t get hung up on fish when it comes time to order. Land-based dishes are best. We’re partial to the mini pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches (two for $5, four for $7, six for $9), and the moist, cumin-scented veggie burger ($10) with its heaping side of fries. The staff practically lives off the Monte Cristo sandwich ($9).

Lickity Split menu at Restaurant Eve (110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450). During the week at this cushy destination restaurant, you can lunch in the cozy bistro for what feels like a pittance. A mere $13.50 gets you any two items from the Lickity-Split menu of sandwiches, main courses, wine, cocktails, and desserts. Sure, you’ll find nice herb-scattered salads, but chef Cathal Armstrong’s Irish BLT, made with cured pork loin, is hard to pass up. Ditto his bacon, egg, and cheese salad. It’s just as hard to figure out how to finish—Todd Thrasher’s fresh green-apple cocktail or a hunk of pink-iced birthday cake?

Rock Creek Catering Company (11210 Triangle La., Wheaton; 301-949-8838). This top-tier caterer opened its storefront carryout about two years ago, and the neighbors want them out. “They’ve been fattening us up,” jokes the owner of the locksmith shop next door. That’s no surprise. The cookies, cakes, breads, and other sweet treats ($1.15 to $6), by co-owner and White House pastry veteran Laura Schwartz, are irresistible. The standout panna cotta ($2.95), delicately infused with vanilla and topped with strawberry sauce, is enough for two. But don’t skip the main-course salads and sandwiches, especially the strapping black-angus burger ($5.50) on a freshly baked onion roll—and spring for the bacon, an additional 50 cents.

Satay Sarinah (512-A S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria; 703-370-4313). You can eat like a royal for less than it costs to see a movie at this unassuming Indonesian stop. Try the satays—besides beef and chicken there’s fragrant lamb to dunk in spicy peanut sauce. Lamb curry is a balancing act between searing and lush. And fried things have just the right snap. The best: beef-filled potato croquettes ($3.95), crispy corn cakes flecked with herbs ($4.75), and Bogor chicken ($8.95), marinated and fried bone-in pieces with the brittlest of crusts. Es Campur ($2.95) is a volcanic eruption of a sweet: a mini-mound of shaved ice, perfumey pandan syrup, and cool bits of lychee and pineapple.

Bar Lunch at Teatro Goldoni (1909 K St., NW; 202-955-9494). At lunchtime Teatro is often as studded with local celebs as the Palm or Cafe Milano. But you don’t have to be a power player to enjoy lunch at the long marble bar, where you get an entrée and a glass of house wine for $12.50. The menu is abbreviated and more casual than what you’d get at the corner banquette. We keep returning for the indulgent stuff: fried calamari with spicy marinara; a tall burger topped with a fried egg; and a thick twirl of spaghetti carbonara.

Salmon with red curry at Thai X-ing (515 Florida Ave., NW; 202-332-4322). Taw Vigsittaboot’s salmon with red curry ($10.95) will make you swoon. Unlike at most high-volume Thai kitchens, Vigsittaboot takes the low and slow route. He favors poaching the fish over grilling or searing it, setting his salmon to swim in a fiery, slow-bubbling coconut-milk broth. The result is a curry sauce that takes on some of the sweet, oily richness of the fish and a salmon, infused with its broth, that comes apart in soft, luscious flakes. Impressive—especially considering that it comes from a one-man operation in an English-basement carryout.

Tropicana (725 Florida Ave., NW; 202-588-5470). Don’t be alarmed when the cook smothers your chicken with thick jerk sauce. In fact, ask for extra. The full-flavor sauce is heavy on nutmeg and light enough on hot peppers that it won’t scorch your tongue. Each order (small $6.95, large $8.95) comes with garlicky rice and peas. A flaky-crusted beef patty ($1.45) is also a must at this Jamaican carryout close to Howard University. (There are three other locations in DC and one in Maryland). We like the curried goat ($7.95), but beware of the bones.

Viet Bistro (6799 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-7575). Seafood is a specialty at this stylish Eden Center lounge. Baby clams turn up in a hash full of fried bacon, chilies, and garlic along with a pile of thick black sesame cakes for scooping up the mouth-tingling mixture ($7.95). Caramel fish ($7.95) has a deep, dark color and a peppery finish—an ideal contrast to its filets of meaty catfish. Frog’s legs are featured prominently—tossed, in one memorable version, in a hot yellow curry sauce with cellophane noodles ($10.95). There’s no turning down of the heat for Westerners here—the excellent squid in lemongrass sauce ($7.95) is a scorcher—and no dumbing down of flavors. This is no place for the timid of palate.

Zorba’s Cafe (1612 20th St., NW; 202-387-8555). There’s a good reason Zorba’s has been around for more than two decades: It serves generous portions of satisfying, consistent, and reasonably priced food. The meat platter is a feast for the common man—a heaping plate of gyro meat, souvlaki, stuffed grape leaves, chicken kebabs, rice, salad, and bread for $10.95. But there’s more to explore, and not just if you’re a lover of lamb: excellent spanakopita ($4.75), garlicky hummus ($3.95), and a wonderful salad of chickpeas tossed with olive oil and green onions ($2.25). The atmosphere won’t transport you to the Aegean, but the good cooking and gentle tabs may make you forget you’re in the heart of downtown DC.

2 am falafels at Amsterdam Falafel (2425 18th St., NW; 202-234-1969). This tiny walk-up has established itself as a trusty late-night destination for hot, freshly prepared food in the midst of a chaotic 18th Street lineup of bars, pizza shops, and fast-food joints. Partiers in Adams Morgan have come to depend on Amsterdam’s double-fried potatoes ($2.75 to $3.85; the Belgian mayo is the best dipper) and Israeli-style falafel ($3.85 to $5.50)—fried-to-order chickpea patties stuffed in warm pitas—which can be dressed up with such toppings as a tart yogurt and dill sauce, earthy hummus, and veggies like beets, red cabbage, and eggplant. Yes, it’s open until 4 am on weekends, but these terrific little pockets are worth fueling up on anytime.

Banh mi at Banh Mi DC Sandwich (3103 Graham Rd., Arlington; 703-205-9300). Banh Mi DC’s version of the Vietnamese submarine are long and slim and well priced ($2.25 to $2.75). Two banh mi stand out here: One is stuffed with sardines, the other with slices of ham, pork bologna, and a spread of pâté. The deli has no seating, but the sandwiches travel well, so buy five (the sixth is free) and feed your friends.

Happy-hour cheeseburgers at Chef Geoff’s (3201 New Mexico Ave., NW, 202-237-7800; 1301 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, 202-464-4461). The bistro burger at these low-key neighborhood hangouts is nothing fancy, just a great, bacon-topped take on the saloon classic. It’s even better after 3 Monday and Tuesday, from 3 to 7 the rest of the workweek, and all day on weekends, when it’s discounted to $5. The very best time to indulge? On the last Monday of every month, when bottles of wine are half price.

Italian cold-cut subs at Cornucopia (8102 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-1625). At the Italian gourmet shop Cornucopia, the first sign you’re in good hands is the hand-cranked prosciutto slicer from Verona, which lets owner Ibrahim Selmy pare his meats into translucent shavings. His subs ($7.99), crusty and compact, come brushed with balsamic and piled with meats like bresaola, prosciutto from Parma, and delicious sweet and hot soppresattas.

Anything pork at Galileo Grill (1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191). When Roberto Donna started his lunchtime grill two summers ago, the $5 pork-shoulder sandwiches, racks of ribs, and grilled sausages were a delicious word-of-mouth secret. Now lines are commonplace, and the menu has grown to include pizza, soups, messily good meatball subs, and black-and-white cannoli. But we keep returning to the originals: the tender pork ribs served with Piedmontese green sauce—an herby spread punctuated with anchovy and capers—and the wonderful pork-shoulder sandwich. The grilling occurs only when the vagaries of Donna’s schedule allow for it—that can mean four days a week or none at all. An e-mail list you can sign up for at alerts you to when he’s firing up next.

Italian cold-cut sub at the Italian Store (3123 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 703-528-6266). The huge subs ($5.79 to $7.69) from the Italian Store in Arlington feel like New England deli grinders. Thick slices of mortadella, Genoa salami, and Italian ham are layered with lettuce and tomato, sweet and hot peppers, provolone, and Italian dressing.

Banh mi at Song Que (6773 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-536-7900). Song Que’s banh mi, Vietnamese hoagielike sandwiches, are bigger than their price tag suggests. Two and a half bucks fetches a warm and crusty baguette stuffed with pickled carrots, slices of jalapeño, a pile of fresh cilantro, a smear of mayo, and your choice of meats, including chicken, pâté, and meatballs. Our favorite is the grilled pork. Crisp and slightly sweet, the sandwich is set alight by a vinegary pepper sauce. An iced bubble tea will put out the flame.

Roast-beef sandwich at Steamship Carryout (826 18th St., NW; 202-338-8795). At first this looks like any old deli, fulfilling the Snickers and Vitamin Water hankerings of nearby World Bankers, until your eye wanders to a glistening round of rare, crimson roast beef on the sandwich counter in back. There, $5.25 buys a kaiser roll piled with thick, peppery slices heavily drizzled with jus and a side of thick fries or neon-orange mac ’n’ cheese. It beats the gray slices at the neighboring sandwich chains any day.

Carved sandwiches at 3rd & Eats (500 C St., NW; 202-347-8790). A huge slab of roast beef, its exterior crisply charred, sits gleaming on a cutting board. Close by, steam rises from a freshly roasted turkey breast. Between them, a server with a sharp knife and a smile—sometimes a song—waits to slice abundant portions for made-to-order sandwiches such as the roast beef, known as the District ($5.10), and the turkey, or VIP ($5.10). In a world of chain sandwich shops, 3rd & Eats is a small nonprofit restaurant run in partnership with Community Family Life Services for the poor and homeless. It not only competes with the big boys, it thrives.

Focaccia sandwiches at Vace (3315 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-363-1999; 4705 Miller Ave., Bethesda, 301-654-6367). The thin pizzas at these Italian delis get all the attention, but the raft-size focaccia sandwiches are sleeper hits. The olive-oil-soaked squares are filled with either fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil, or Genoa salami and provolone. They’re ultra-cheap—$4 each—and just big enough to feed two.

Empanadas at Bread Line (1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900). It’s worth occasionally stepping away from the sandwiches at Mark Furstenburg’s much-praised sandwich shop and bread bakery for a plate of his empanadas ($4.95). The two cornmeal-flecked turnovers come filled with a cumin-scented blend of ground beef, hard-boiled eggs, raisins, and green olives, with an elegantly dressed field-green salad on the side. And you can always get a baguette to go.

Dumplings at China Bistro (755 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 301-294-0808). This small North Rockville carryout is a fine standby for the usual Chinese-American fare, but the menu of “Mama’s dumplings” is really special. Mama is co-owner Rita Lee, the soft-spoken woman behind the counter. When she’s taken your order, she’ll head back to the kitchen to make and steam or fry the dumplings. Excellent varieties include beef with celery and Chinese parsley; Mama’s special, stuffed with pork, shrimp, chives, and Napa cabbage; vegetable; and shrimp with chive. They’re $5.95 to $7.50 a dozen. You’ll find a good selection of bubble teas too, from a soothing honeydew to a tangy lemon-kumquat ($2.63 to $4.15).

Tacos at the DMV: Delgado’s Eatery Place and El Trucko (both parked outside the Motor Vehicle Administration, 15 Metropolitan Grove Rd., off Clopper Rd., Gaithersburg). Tongue and cheek are our two favorite tacos at Delgado’s, a taqueria on wheels. Here the pillow-soft, well-seasoned meat is piled high on a double layer of corn tortillas and generously topped with fresh, chunky guacamole, mild salsa, and sprigs of cilantro. Chicken and steak round out the choices among Tarsis and Nicolasa Delgado’s $2 tacos. Overstuffed burritos—black beans and rice, with or without meat—are $4. A few lawn chairs offer the only seating, so wait for nice weather or get lunch to go.

A few yards away, El Trucko delivers a true purist’s experience: Mexican-style tacos in which the meat—marinated pork, the juicy, fatty beef known as barbacoa, and carne asada, grilled flank steak seasoned with cumin and vinegar—goes solo on a double layer of tortillas. Natives might spritz on some lime or ask for a slick of fiery salsa, but the meats are flavorful enough to stand alone. Owner Gregorio Garcia keeps a stash of avocado and sour cream behind the counter for insistent gringos. All the fixings—meats, beans, and salsas—are homemade, but the tacos are assembled on the spot at the truck counter. Wash them down with a can of Sidral Mundet, a fizzy apple cider.

Salteñas at Luzmila’s Cuisine (809 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-237-0047). Salteñas, a traditional Bolivian weekend treat, are similar to empanadas, only a lot drippier. There’s an art to eating them—biting the tip of the turnover invariably makes some of the savory filling seep out the other end. Practice over the terrific salteñas at Luzmila ($2)—one variety is filled with chicken, potatoes, and peas; the beef version is loaded with black olives and hard-boiled egg. They’re worth the risk of a stain.

Thai-accented fast food at Simply Home DC (1412 U St., NW; 202-232-8424). This recently renovated Thai carry­out has added a serene dining room and upped its prices, but there are still a few bargain snacks worth seeking out. Chicken nuggets ($4.95 for six) are fried rounds of minced chicken scented with kaffir-lime leaves and served with a chili-flecked dipping sauce. A paper cup of fried taro, yucca, and sweet potato ($2.95) is an unusual spin on the expected side of French fries.

Happy hour at Vidalia (1990 M St., NW; 202-659-1990). The best drinking special in town is at this chic Southern dining room. And not just because much of it is on the house. On Tuesday nights from 5:30 to 7, affable sommelier Doug Mohr’s free, thematic winetastings are both high-spirited and educational. The rest of the week, there’s a menu of 20 by-the-glass selections for under $7. Chef RJ Cooper sweetens the deal with his nightly rotation of complimentary hors d’oeuvres, including house-made charcuterie, deviled eggs, ham-and-cheddar biscuits, and caramel popcorn.

Dosas at Woodlands (8046 New Hampshire Ave., Langley Park, 301-434-4202; 4078 Jermantown Rd., Fairfax, 703-385-1996; 18216 Contour Rd., Gaithersburg, 301-963-4466). Some of the best, cheapest food in the area can be found at these Indian restaurants, outposts of the popular London chain. Woodlands specializes in southern-Indian cooking, with its emphasis on rich, creamy vegetarian curries and breads. Its claim to fame is its dosas ($5.50 to $7.50)—gigantic rice-flour crepes, gently browned and crispy as a tuile, that come to the table looking like rolled-up architects’ blueprints. Tasty on their own, they’re even better stuffed with a few spoonfuls of filling. Don’t miss the version with minced onions, mashed potatoes, and black mustard seeds—snack food doesn’t get more addictive.

Chilaquiles at El Tapatio (4309 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg; 301-403-8882). Chiliquiles is poverty food in the best sense—it transforms leftovers into something memorable. Old tortillas are shingled atop one another with layers of red or green sauce (we prefer the red) to form a kind of casserole. It’s then baked until the tortillas soften and the flavors deepen, becoming one of those addictive dishes whose sum is greater than its parts. The tasty version at El Tapatio, with a fried egg on top ($8.99), is an ideal breakfast if you’ve had one too many the night before. It’s also a mammoth order, so unless you’re painting a house—or moving one—you may want to split it.

Market Lunch (225 Seventh St., SE; 202-547-8444). The popular blueberry pancakes ($4.50) at this small Eastern Market eatery can only be had on Saturdays, inspiring a line that snakes out the door and down the block, as well as a no-lingering policy. Show up on a mellower weekday morning and you can relax over omelets oozing with cheese ($4.95 to $5.95) and sides of hot, creamy grits ($1.25). A long slab of French toast ($3.50) soaks up syrup just as well as the pancakes. And if you’re craving blueberries, grab some at one of the market’s produce stalls a few feet away.

Mocha Hut (1301 U St., NW; 202-667-0616). There are more laptops than newspapers at this cool coffee shop on the ground level of the glassy new Ellington apartment complex. The daily variety of scrambled eggs ($2.65 to $3.50), which might be sun-dried tomato or bacon, onion, and cheddar, come nestled against toasted brioche. Salmon cakes ($2.50), with just a hint of Old Bay, are paired with thick, creamy grits. On weekends, the brunch swarms invade, so be prepared for a line.

Eggs Benedict at Polly’s Café (1342 U St., NW; 202-265-8385). There’s no beating the eggs Benedict ($12) this smoky cafe serves daily at brunch. Each half of a crisply toasted English muffin supports a perfectly poached egg, its yolk swelled just shy of bursting and dressed with freshly made hollandaise. You can order the traditional version, with the eggs atop sliced ham, or take our advice and ask for thick slices of avocado instead. Six other variations (like smoked salmon and spicy Southwestern) mean eggs Benedict eight days a week. Pass on the French fries in favor of the crusty roasted red potatoes.

Coffee and Armenian pastries at Cafe Arax (5852 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-532-3320). When Starbucks ennui sets in, Cafe Arax is just the antidote. With only eight tables, the cafe has a homey vibe courtesy of the Lebanese-Armenian owners. The usual lattes and chais are on the roster plus Armenian coffee, a strong brew similar to Greek coffee, and the Euro-style cafe glasse, as good an excuse as any to try the house-made ice cream ($1.40 to $3.75). All this java begs for a nibble. Look for the khorabia ($1.50), a crumbly butter cookie that melts in the mouth; nutty pistachio baklava ($1.50); and a hybrid Middle Eastern–American sweet made with mixed nuts and graham-cracker crust. For the truly hungry, there are wonderful cheese-filled pastries, spicy meat pizzas ($2.25), stuffed grape leaves ($1), and baba ghanoush and hummus ($4.75) to swipe with hot, papery pita.

Door County Cherry Sundae at the Dairy Godmother (2310 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-683-7767). Yes, the pecan pie is dreamy, and the Tollhouse cookie rocks. But at this Wisconsin-inspired frozen-custard shop (formerly known as the Del Ray Dreamery), these specialty flavors come around once in a blue moon. The Door County Cherry Sundae ($3.75 to $4.50)—named for the Midwestern provenance of the sour cherries—is a bowl of vanilla custard cloaked in ultra-sweet marshmallow sauce, then balanced with a mess of tart, soupy cherries. Thank goodness owner Liz Davis keeps it around all the time.

Gelato and sorbet at Dolcezza (1560 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-4646). Owners Robb and Violeta Edelman Duncan spent two years in Buenos Aires learning to make the Argentinean-style gelato (lots of cream, no eggs) for their mod Georgetown cafe. As you’d expect, there’s plenty of dulce de leche in the case (try it swirled with coconut). But the most addictive flavors are pistachio, Italian coffee chocolate chip, and croccantino, a delightful melange of nuts, honey, and rum. The couple is forever experimenting with sorbet flavors (blood orange or mango), often with terrific results. $3.25 a scoop.

Alfajores at El Patio (12303 Twinbrook Pkwy., Rockville; 301-231-9225). Cafe culture is alive at this casual, family-run Argentinean enclave in Rockville. The best afternoon nibble to go with a coffee or maté? Alfajores ($1.50)—delicate cornflour cookies sandwiching a thick center of pale dulce de leche (caramel made from condensed milk) and rolled in coconut. The only ruffle in the relaxation? The often cramped wait for a table.

Ginger salad at Myanmar (7810-C Lee Hwy., Falls Church; 703-289-0013). There’s plenty to graze over at this little Burmese joint in a Falls Church strip mall: splendid satays and noodle soups, fragrant curries. The ginger salad ($6.99) is listed on the menu as an appetizer, but we like it as an end to a meal. The heap of cool, kicky ginger shavings tossed with chilies and lime is calmed by a handful of roasted peanuts. It’s a sweet, spicy way to cleanse the palate.

Korean Pastries at Napoleon Bakery (4217 Annandale Center Dr., Annandale; 703-914-1101). Owner and baker Chong Cho claims not to have slept for two months after taking over this French-accented Korean bakery, formerly known as Le Matin de Paris, last year. His diligence can be tasted in the impeccable pastries he bakes every day. Fill a wicker basket with manju—soft, briochelike breads filled with lightly sweetened pastes of red, white, green, or mocha bean ($1.35). Korean pastries, like Napoleon’s croissant ($1.50), are good news for the calorie conscious: They rely less on butter than their Western counterparts. A healthy treat for two is the thinly iced mugwort custard cake ($3.95), which tastes of (and looks like) green tea. The staff will happily guide you through the unfamiliar goodies.

Reeves Restaurant and Bakery (1306 G St., NW; 202-628-6350). Few places have been making pie as long or as well as Reeves. Open since 1886, with the occasional hiatus and change of address, this downtown DC bakery and restaurant turns out a justly famous strawberry pie—large, full-flavor fruit fills a tender crust. It’s $3.25 a slice; we prefer the baked pie over the fresh. Don’t overlook the many other choices, all served in triangles big enough for two. The banana cream pie is also wonderful, as is the lemon meringue, both for $2.75 a slice.

Cupcakes at Stacy’s Coffee Parlor (709 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-538-6266). This lovably ragtag coffee shop is a foot-tapping-free zone—the kind of place where the scruffy kid behind the counter takes an extra minute getting to your order because he’s debating a book review with a customer on the couch. It’s also the kind of place where you can expect indisputably homey desserts, like the adorable cupcakes ($2) brought in daily from Falls Church baker Robyn Savage. The moist cakes are dolled up with swirls of almond-scented sugar icing in shades of pink and magenta. And if you’re pressed for time, they’ll even tie them up in a ribboned box to go.

Dirt Cheap Destinations

Some neighborhoods are well-suited to a wandering meal—a snack here, an entrée down the block, dessert around the corner. Here are four areas packed with good culinary choices. Prices are low enough that a meal can be put together for under $15.

Little Mexico in Riverdale

Taqueria Tres Reyes (5403 Kenilworth Ave.). The name notwithstanding, the thing to get here is the quesadilla—bigger and lighter than the usual happy-hour version. The salty, fetalike queso blanco puts to shame the yellow goo that gives Mexican food a bad name.

La Sirenita (4911 Edmonston Rd.). The growing community of Mexican immigrants living around Bladensburg and Riverdale swarm this storefront for its simple, soulful cooking. The tacos are the area’s best. The pebbly, two-ply corn tor­tillas are stuffed with the likes of tongue, salty beef, chorizo, and carnitas and topped with minced onion, sliced radish and cilantro. An order of two makes a superb meal.

Super Chicken (4323 Kenilworth Ave.). Super Chicken boasts juicy, liberally seasoned birds with dark, crispy skins tasting faintly of curry. Sides, including soupy beans and freshly cooked rice, are very good.

El Tapatio (4309 Kenilworth Ave.). Go here for the torta sandwich—especially a version made with chopped brisket. The beef is spooned onto an almost weightless roll and generously topped with cooked pinto beans, half an avocado, lettuce, tomato, and onion. It’s a luscious sandwich. You won’t be disappointed by the tacos, chilaquiles, or huevos rancheros, either.

La Flor de Puebla II (5024 Edmonston Rd.). Take a cafeteria tray and begin picking out goodies from the cases—a wonderful array of traditional Mexican cookies, tarts, and cakes. Don’t miss the tortas—they’re very light. And the cream-filled sugar doughnuts are worth the trip.

Little Ethiopia in Shaw

Dukem (1114–18 U St., NW). Having initiated the eastward drift of Ethiopian cooking in DC, Dukem has settled into a comfortable, elder-statesman role. Its cooking, though it lacks the bold spicing of its neighbors in Little Ethiopia, remains a model of consistency. Go for the kitfo, the Ethiopian beef tartare enlivened with crushed cardamom pods; scoop it up with torn injera, the spongy flatbread, and get a pinch of both the house-made cottage cheese and the pungent berbere powder.

Etete (1942 Ninth St., NW). This stylish Ethiopian bistro boasts the most accomplished cooking in Little Ethiopia, from addictive sambusas—peppery lentils folded into a pastry and fried to a crunch—to a variety of intricately spiced lamb stews spooned from little black iron pots by the gracious staff onto rounds of injera.

Axum (1934 Ninth St., NW). The other restaurants on the block grew up around this townhouse cafe. Nowhere in Little Ethiopia is the Italian colonization of Ethiopia evoked so powerfully, from the waitresses who convey the languor of extras in a Fellini movie to the cabbies who drop by the bar in the afternoon for a plate of chicken Milanese and some conversation.

Queen Makeda (1917 Ninth St., NW; currently closed for renovation). The smell of frying onions wafts through the old townhouse, a promise of the home cooking to come. Kafye, the owner, will take your order if you want, but she’s just as happy cooking up whatever she feels like. Usually that means an order of gomen (cooked with bits of meat and resembling American-style collard greens); long hunks of beef in a fiery, berbere-based sauce; a buttery lamb stew strewn with slices of onion; a dish of slow-cooked carrots; and gelatinous strands of tripe that challenge even the most adventurous of eaters. She’s prone to checking to see if you’re actually eating everything you’ve been given.

Downtown Wheaton

Rock Creek Catering (11210 Triangle La.). Warm up at this cute carryout, home to what may be the world’s best bacon-cheddar scone. Ask the counter staff to heat it up, then pull apart the flaky biscuit, smoky with bacon and riddled with rivulets of cheddar. Take a few home for later—one often is not enough.

El Pollo Rico (2541 Ennalls Ave.). This casual eatery serves some of the most flavorful Peruvian chicken around. The secret? A revolving spit with rows of birds that baste one another as juices flow. These fork-tender, bronzed chickens can stand on their own, but mayo-mustard sauce and a vivid cilantro-and-green-chili relish make them even more delectable. Fries, tortillas, and slaw are savory foils, but why fill up on extras when the bird is so fine?

Irene’s Pupusas III (11300-B Georgia Ave.). Ready for a snack? Head here for a Salvadoran pupusa and a Honduran baliada. Pupusas with pork, cheese, or the squash-broccoli hybrid known as loroco buds are all marvelous. The trick is in the pupusa pocket. Irene’s are thin and delicate and crackle with every bite. The baliada delivers refried beans, ripe avocado, hard-cooked egg, and bits of spice-rubbed beef on a warm, open-faced flour tortilla. The challenge: to get some of each flavor and texture in a single bite.

An Binh Oriental Grocery & Deli (11216–18 Georgia Ave.). At this market/teen hangout, start with a tightly wrapped bò bía summer roll. The earthy, crunchy bundles are rolled to order, with layers of roast pork, sausage, egg, jícama, dried shrimp, and basil. Then move on to the banh mi, a Vietnamese sub on crisp French bread, a holdover from the country’s French colonial days. Moistened with house-made mayo, the sandwiches come filled with pork in various guises—roast, sausage, and pâté—along with pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, and daikon.

Eden Center in Falls Church

Song Que (6773 Wilson Blvd.). Even in cool weather, an icy smoothie loaded with tapioca bubbles is a terrific pick-me-up. The best are at this excellent deli and banh mi shop owned by the four sisters behind the spiffier restaurant Huong Que. Flavors range from avocado (super creamy) to ultra-sweet coconut (ask them to go easy on the sugar); our favorites are two mellow exotic fruits—jackfruit and guanabana ($3 each). In the window, flaky, croissantlike pork-and-onion rolls share space with puffs of sponge cake. Buy a few of each and save the sponge cake for later.

Huong Viet (6785 Wilson Blvd.). At this bustling dining room, the cool lotus-root salad—crunchy stalks with shavings of smoky pork and firm, pink shrimp—makes a sure start. Follow with a Saigon Pancake, loaded with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts, then eaten with lettuce, cilantro, and the tangy dipping sauce nuoc mam.

Hai Duong (6795 Wilson Blvd). This simple northern-Vietnamese cafe, tucked inside the western wing of the Eden Center, has developed a loyal following for its array of bun, or noodle bowls. One standout version is topped with hunks of grilled pork and shrimp, a sliced-up spring roll, crushed peanuts, and mint. More than a meal in a bowl, this is a meal for two in a bowl—at an exceptionally good value. Another version, with the noodles swirled in a rich, meaty broth along with thin cuts of brisket (and a handful of basil from an accompanying dish of extras), is nearly as good—a heartier alternative to pho.

Thanh Son Tofu (6793–A Wilson Blvd.). This narrow take-out makes all its tofu and soy milk in-house. There’s usually a long line for fried tofu but not at the back counter, where you can buy a pint of warm ginger-tofu pudding. A drizzle of ginger-infused sugar syrup intensifies the flavor.

Cafe Mimosa (6779 Wilson Blvd.). Wind down with a milky Vietnamese coffee and dig into that sponge cake.

Where Cooks Eat Cheap

“Full Kee Chinese restaurant has the very best wonton noodle soup in town for only $4.95. I’d also get their fried shrimp with the head on for $9.95.”

—Massimo Fabbri, chef de cuisine, Ristorante Tosca

“I’d go to Jimmy T’s on the Hill for breakfast and get ham and eggs. Then the American Indian museum for lunch—I’d get their Cedar Point salmon. And I’d go to Sonoma for dinner for their Wagyu burger.”

—Ian Reeves, line cook, IndeBleu

“I like Pho 75. I get the well-done beef brisket and the rib eye; the brisket has a little more flavor. For breakfast, I like Moses’ Pupuseria on 14th Street. I always get the chorizo con huevos. When I want a beer, there’s Asylum in Adams Morgan. They have 25-cent tacos and Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

—Ron Tanaka, line cook, CityZen

“The roasted chicken with hot sauce, white rice, and green salad from a little Peruvian chicken place called La Granja D’oro in Adams Morgan. It’s great.”

—Leigh Weinfield, pastry chef, Circle Bistro

“When it’s a late night, I go to Amphora in Vienna. It’s a 24-hour diner, and they specialize in Greek food. I’m a big breakfast fan, so I get pancakes or an omelet. It’s a place that keeps you coming back.”

—John Leonard, sous chef, Kinkead’s

“I’m Korean, so I go to Sorak Garden in Annandale. Lunch is very good there.”

—Chun Oh, line cook, L’Auberge Chez François

“At the lunch buffet at Bombay Bistro in Fairfax you can get four meats, two varieties of bread, five vegetables, and a dessert, all for $7.”

—Bala Balamurugan, line cook, Indique

“I’d get whatever the special is at Pizzeria Paradiso in Georgetown. I really like the white pizza with roasted vegetables and the pizzas with prosciutto. That and a beer.”

—Stefano Frigerio, sous chef, Maestro

“I’d go to Haydee’s in Mount Pleasant and have steak with shrimp, rice, and a salad. And a Coke.”

—William Rivera, line cook, Matisse

“Me and two other sous chefs here, we go to Manouch’s hot-dog stand at 21st and I streets in Foggy Bottom. Manouch is the guy’s name. Usually a lot of people from Kinkead’s go there, and GW students. He sells hot dogs and pretzels with this tomato-and-onion relish to go on them. It’s about two bucks for everything, so you can eat a bunch of them.”

—Jason Meadows, sous chef, Willow

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.