Cuisine follows culture. With the influx of immigrants over the past three decades, ethnic eating in the area has never been better or more varied. Here’s a primer to the dominant cuisines, their signature dishes, and great places to find them.
Pho 88, 10478 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-931-8128
You’ll find at this storefront cafe one of the area’s best renditions of what some call Vietnamese penicillin—a rich, flavorful soup made from simmered oxtail bones, perfumed with ginger, star anise, and cinnamon, and topped with bean sprouts, chilies, and sprigs of holy basil.
Ethiopian (doro wat)
Etete, 1942 Ninth St., NW; 202-232-7600
This gem in the U Street area does the national dish proud, submerging a leg of stewed chicken and a hard-boiled egg in a peppery red sauce made from caramelized onions and berbere powder.
Irene’s Pupusas III, 11300-B Georgia Ave., Wheaton; 301-933-2118
This is the reigning go-to spot for pupusas, those soft griddled corn cakes stuffed with cheese or cheese and beans and topped with a sharp, peppery slaw.
Thai (honey-roasted duck)
Thai Square, 3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-685-7040
The honey-roasted duck at this hole in the wall might be the area’s definitive version of this classic dish—lightly sweet, wonderfully crunchy, and virtually grease-free.
Indian (chicken tikka masala)
Passage to India, 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-656-3373
Also called Butter Chicken, the dish here is a textbook version of this northern Indian staple, its rich creaminess offset by the tang of the tomatoes.
La Sirenita, 4911 Edmonston Rd., Hyattsville; 301-864-0188
Few dishes are more comforting than the heaping bowls of posole at this roadside diner, in which cubes of pork, red chilies, hominy, chopped onions, and slices of avocado come together in a gutsy, restorative stew.
Gom Ba Woo, 7133-C Columbia Pike, Annandale; 703-642-1577
The classic cabbage dish is brought to vivid life here, the crisp, lightly pickled leaves swabbed in a fresh, kicky chili sauce.
Shamshiry, 8607 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna; 703-448-8883
The kebab e kubideh here is the gold standard, the spiced, minced beef expertly molded around its skewer and meltingly soft as it comes off the flame.
Faryab, 4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-3484
These pillowy dumplings—stuffed with mint, topped with a tomato-based meat sauce, and drizzled with yogurt—are both rustic and refined.
Jamaican (jerk chicken)
Caribbean Delight II, 11000 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-595-4667
Many versions of this popular dish stint on the vinegar and the heat, but the jerk chicken at this storefront restaurant is full of spice and tang. It’s also wonderfully plump and succulent.
Peruvian (spit-roasted chicken)
El Pollo Rico, 2541 Ennalls Ave., Wheaton, 301-942-4419; 932 N. Kenmore St., Arlington, 703-522-3220
These golden, juicy birds are as good as chicken gets—as the long, snaking lines in and outside these smoke-billowing shops attest.