Tuesday, May 29


Word of Mouth …

You may never have set foot in Zenebech Injera (608 T St.NW; 202-667-4700) but if you've eaten Ethiopian food in this city, you've probably eaten there by proxy.

The two-table grocery and carryout makes most of the injera — the spongy, pockmarked sourdough that constitutes serving platter, utensil and breadstuff at a communal Ethiopian repast — for the restaurants in town. It also boasts a pretty terrific kitchen, turning out some of the best cooking to be found in the dense cluster of shops and eateries that make up a six-block stretch of U St known as Little Ethiopia.

The beef tartare called kitfo turns up a mound of lightly cooked, soft-textured meat as pungently spiced as any in the area. A rendition of the popular stew of cabbage, potatoes and carrots ranks as the best I've ever tasted, the flavors knit together into a coherent, intensely rich dish that hardly deserves the label "side dish." The same goes for the yellow lentil stew kik alicha, which proves every bit as creamy, sweet and soothing as a bowl of cheesy, souped-up grits.

On the way out, be sure to pick up one of the kitchen's breads, baked, as is the custom, in swaddlings of banana leaf. Five bucks gets you a terrific loaf of subtly spiced, lightly sweet wheat bread. Actually, loaf is something of a misnomer: The breads are the size, and shape, of first base. …

… From the outside, La Palapa Too (7500 Montpelier Rd., Laurel; 301-725-3111; www.lapalapatoo.com) has the look and feel of one of those Tex-Mex restaurant franchises that cop all the right details — the bright colors, the festive vibe, and the peppy music — yet still succeed into turning the place into something canned and generic.

Inside, it's a different story. La Palapa Too, is, in fact, a spinoff of the original, hugely successful Ellicott City restaurant — La Palapa. But little about the place comes across as a knockoff. The space is warm, inviting and tasteful, with its wrought-iron lamps and dramatic, color-washed walls. And the cooking has more than its share of surprises.

Given its location, a strip mall servicing the dense clusters of office buildings in and around Columbia, the likes of fajitas, quesadillas, and taco salads on the menu are probably to be expected. But even as the restaurant makes sure to feed the lunchtime and happy hour masses, it manages to slip in a bit of ambition, too. There's a wonderfully complex, gently seasoned tortilla soup; a fabulous asado de puerco served in a bubbling crock (its thick, cumin-stoked red chili sauce cloaking rough-cut chunks of braised pork); and a lushly creamy version of tres leches cake.

I prefer actual pieces of stewed chicken in my mole, rather than clean-cut slices, and the kitchen isn't above oversalting at times. But these are quibbles. I'd be eager to return to explore more of the menu.


Petworth, DC
Hi Todd: I just got the newest issue and I wanted to thank you for the Cheap Eats list. As always, it is a great tool and really informative. I thought you made some provocative choices this year. I noticed that Colorado Kitchen wasn't on your Cheap Eats list. I was wondering what might have kept them from being included. I know sometimes to stay in a budget there I have to keep it to just 2 courses, but I find a bill for 2 there to be pretty palatable (ACK…I crack me up)!

What kept them from being included this year? Not my most recent experience there, which was pretty underwhelming.

No, what kept them off the list is simple — the ever-creeping prices. Oh, it's possible to eat there for under $55 for two, just not all that easy.

And there's a lot, a lot, a lot of competition out there in the area for terrific bargain dining.

I'd be interested in hearing what you think are the "provocative" choices on the list — the goal was, as always, deliciousness, not provocation.

A lot, a lot, a lot of work went into that list.

I like the fact that we have twenty-five newcomers this year. And I hope readers and restaurateurs alike will recognize that the list is a thing in flux. Making it one year is no guarantee of making it the following year, and a place that failed to survive the final cut this year is not written off next time around.

Anybody else?

What inside dope can I offer you on our long, painstaking process? What surprises did you find? Disappointments?


Friendship Hgts, DC
I'm originally from Southern California, where we used to go to tiny shops with large ceiling fans for the most delectable carnita buritto. Is there anything in the district, or nearby for that? I don't mean Baja Fresh or Chipotle, but real, authentic Mexican carnitas.

You need to pick you up a copy of Cheap Eats, Friendship Heights.

The place you're looking for is Taqueria Distrito Federal at 14th and Otis Sts., in Columbia Heights. It's tiny, there are only a few seats to choose from, and the menu is small. But the food, the food.

I think, right now, it makes the single best taco in the area — look for the costillas, or pork ribs, the carnitas, and the stewed goat.

There's a lot more competition in this area than there used to be, and La Sirenita in Riverdale and El Charrito Caminante in Arlington are both right up there.

Whichever you pick, you're bound to come away happy — so long as you check your So Cal chauvinism at the door: None of these places would merit much attention in that part of the world, where you can find a good taqueria on every other street corner.


Washington, DC
What action can a consumer take with a restaurant who offers bad delivery service, other than to just not go there anymore? A few different friends have been to Jandara on Wisconsin Ave. in Friendship Heights and they raved about it. So I ordered from them for delivery for a small family gathering. The food arrived 20 minutes after I put down the receiver and it was cold, and the restaurant is about 7 minutes drive in light traffic. The portions were small, the food not so tasty, but worst of all, all of us had stomach issues the next day. Regardless of how good the reviews may be for food in the restaurant, we will never dine or deliver from them again.

This doesn't sound to me like a case of bad delivery service. It sounds like you just didn't like your food.

For that, you can write a letter and see how the restaurant handles your complaint; and I'd be curious to have you chime in with a follow-up.

But before I move on to the next question, I want to speak to a couple of the points you bring up.

* I don't think it's not fair to judge takeout food against food that's eaten at the restaurant. Seven minutes might not sound like much, but it only takes a couple of minutes of steaming inside the styrofoam containers to change the texture of whatever it is that you've ordered. 

(That's one reason why, if I get a pizza to go, I always pop the top on the box. I don't mind if it gets cold in the car on the drive home. I just don't want it to steam and go soggy. I can always reheat it in the oven.)

* The fact that your food arrived in twenty minutes — I'd consider that a roaring success. Delivery usually requires a thirty-minute wait, at least.

and finally …

* I don't know where you're reading good reviews of Jandara. Certainly not from this magazine. And it's worth pointing out to you and everyone else that it's important to look at the dates of reviews. In this business, six months is a lifetime — so much can happen in that time. Four, five, six years? That's an epoch.

McLean, VA
You've listed Gom Ba Woo as the best Korean barbecue dish in the June issue. Have you been to Annangol in Annandale? They have the best grilled pork belly.

Have you been to Gom Ba Woo?

Annangol is a fun place, with great texture and great people-watching, but the food isn't nearly as good. And the pork belly hardly approaches the luscious, smoky, peppery, sesame seed-strewn version at Gom Ba Woo. 

Cheverly, MD
I work just next to La Palapa Too– there are certainly some hits and misses! If they have fish tacos on the menu I would highly recommend them. And the happy hour massive pitcher of sangria is tasty and a good value. I haven't been impressed with burritos or enchiladas, and after a few tries I stick with the special of the day– which is usually quite nice. If you are up in the area I would highly recommend stopping at Maiwand Kebab in Burtonsville– I think they have the best kababs and veggie plates around, and are good folks.

Careful, now — there's an awful lot of great kabobs in the metropolitan area these days. Maiwand is good. But flat-out fantastic? No. I think, right now, Shamshiry in Tysons and Ravi Kabob I and II in Arlington are easily the best around.

And thanks for chiming in with your regular's eye report on La Palapa Too.

I think that's pretty typical of a lot of the pretty good Mexican places, that the generic, chow down over drinks stuff misses more often than not and the more interesting, more personal stuff tends to find its mark. I would go back in a second for the tortilla soup and the puerco de asado.

Alexandria, VA
Sunday we went to the Cafe du Parc and had one of the best French meals we have had outside of France. Actually it was as good as any bistro meal we had in Paris in the two weeks we spent there last Christmas. The room is delightful, subdued and quiet so we could converse easily. The service was understated but attentive and warm.

I agree with you.

I haven't had many dishes there that absolutely knock my socks off, but nothing has fallen short of the mark, either, and just about everything has been really good and delicious.

And the prices make it a terrific value, too. Particularly with wine.

Double digits have become the norm these days; it's impossible at many good places to find a good glass of wine anymore for less than $14 a pop. Two glasses of wine, and you're talking about the price of an entree! Ridiculous.

The wine list, put together by Caterina Abruzzeti, is full of smart, underappreciated gems, most of them under ten bucks, including a number of southern Rhone wines from local importer Bobby Kacher.

Arlington, VA
Can you recommend any VA or DC restaurants with good crab legs?

Crab legs?

Around these parts, we like to chow down on the claws and the body, too. 

You could head to Cantler's Riverside Inn, in Annapolis (458 Forest Beach Rd., Annapolis, Md. 410-757-1311) or, if you're willing to venture further afield, Captain Billy's Crab House in Pope's Creek (11495 Popes Creek Rd, Popes Creek, Md.; (301) 932-4323), in a town called Newburrg, in Charles County.

At both places, you'll find big, hot, meaty, well-spiced steamed crabs, and a good, fun atmosphere for pickin'.

Alexandria, VA: Cheap Eats and Pho
Good Morning Todd, I wanted to say that I appreciate all the hard work that goes into the Cheaps Eats issue, and I look forward to it every year. i also wanted to mention that the pictures are food porn! They are so well done and layed out, that it really draws one in to read all the places you detail. Best Dishes stood out as a real "go to" page to answer those perenial inquiries "Where do I get the best..". Great idea there. On to my question: Have you tried Pho King in Alexandria (really Arlandria on Mt. Vernon Ave.)? I've read positive comments on online blogs and boards and was wondering if you've sampled the Pho there? Thanks.

Food porn! You just made the designer of the section, Eileen Crowson, and the photo editor, David Hicks, very, very, very happy.

Thanks for the comments.

There's a lot of good pho out there, and I like Pho King a good bit — hey, no cracks out there!  

With pho, it's often all in the timing. The broth is the all and the everything with pho, and it helps to go early in the day (even mornings; in Vietnam, it's often breakfast) or early in the evening, when the kitchen has yet to water it down to extend it.

Maybe the best pho right now is the pho being served at Tay Do, in the Eden Center. It's not a pho parlor, curiously enough, but a full-service restaurant and one of the best places in the area to experience this rich and lively and infinitely varied cuisine.

Washington, DC
No cheap eats in Capitol Hill? What's a poor Hillie supposed to do? (On that note, have you tried Taqueria Nacionale, next to the new Johnny's Half Shell? We wanted to try their much-lauded Monday pimento cheese burger special yesterday, but they were memorializing Memorial Day.)

I haven't yet, no.

And as for the absence of great cheap eating on Capitol Hill — I feel your pain.

It's not just Capitol Hill, either. There's not a lot of really worthwhile bargain dining to be found in the rest of the city, either.

You can blame the ever-soaring rents if you want. And I do, at least in part. But places like Zorba's and Taqueria Distrito Federal and Malaysia Kopitiam show that, yes, it can be done. These restaurants deserve a boatload of credit.

The city is a more interesting, more happening place than it's ever been, but if you want to eat well and cheaply, and if you want to experience the real, true food culture of this area, then you have to get a car and drive out into Arlington and Alexandria and Falls Church and Wheaton and Riverdale.

The city can no longer be defined as that small, misshapen diamond of land that appears on all the maps — not anymore.

The fact is, there's more urbanity, more texture, to be found in places like Arlington and Wheaton than there is in Cleveland Park and Tenleytown.

Washington, DC
Back when I lived in NYC, I was a big fan of the "rice ball," a staple of local pizza-by-the-slice places. It was a breaded and deep-fried ball of rice, stuffed with red sauce, cheese, and sometimes meat. Very cheap, too. Can these be had in the DC area?

I wish I had an answer, but unfortunately, I'm not aware of any places that offer it.

Is anyone? 

Petworth, DC
About the choices being provocative, my meaning was that it was nice to see you changing our perceptions and adding new restaurants and ways to stay under that $55.00 mark. Most people wouldn't think of Bebo as being a Cheap Eat, but you stated your case as to why it could be. A lot of folks wouldn't think of going to some of the ethnic eateries you listed just simply because they don't have the time to try all the little Mom & Pop shops to find out which ones are good. This lists helps us eat well but also lets us use your resources to do so.

Ah, gotcha. Thanks for the clarification. And thanks for the good words, too.

Reston, VA
Two Amy's makes the "rice balls".

Of course they do! And delicious ones, too.

Good catch, Reston! 

South Bend, Indiana
Where is the best place to have lunch on Saturday in Shirlington or Alexandria? We are celebrating a graduation and would like to stay close to Episcopal High School….great food and atmosphere??? Thank you. Leslie Dashiell.


I'd give The Majestic a whirl. It's a restored, retro-fitted diner, right smack in the heart of Old Town. I think the crowd (a mix of younger and older, yes?) would probably get a kick out of the place, and the food is likely to fit the bill, too — a bunch of rich, comfort food classics, often with sly contemporary tweakings.

And be sure to look out for the cake of the day — a huge wedge of layer cake, baked that morning.

I hope that helps, and I hope that you'll write back next week and tell us all how things turned out. 

Service and tipping
Hi Todd. I know that the standard tip rate for dining out is 20% – and while I certainly favour tipping well for service well provided, I can't help but wonder when I hear, read and experience such lackluster service – why is it that the industry standard amount for tipping for basic-level service has shifted from 15% to 20%, yet, the level of service has either not improved incrementally with the increase of the standard tip – or, has even become more subpar. What's a diner to do? Thanks

The thing is, the uptick has nothing to do with quality — it has to do with hikes in the cost of living. City living is expensive, and DC is one of the most expensive places in the country.

Look, it's your call to make. There's a reason that tips aren't built into the check. If you feel slighted, you're entitled to make the necessary adjustments. 

But if you've been treated well — not pampered, mind you, but well — then I think you owe it to your server to tip twenty percent.

One more thing: If the kitchen screws up, for whatever reason, it's not right to take it out on a server for the sins of the chef and his or her staff.

Now, if you happen to bring that screw up to the attention of a server, and the server doesn't respond as he or she should, and swiftly … then that's an entirely different story, and you're well within reason to adjust the tip downward.

Lincoln Park
I just wanted to write in and say thank you. I think you do an amazing, thoughtful job. I appreciate that you seem to really listen & encourage conversation during an hour I look forward to every week.

How wonderful! You just made my day. Thank you, Lincoln Park.

I really look forward to this time with all of you — sharing my dispatches from the field, learning about new things and new places from all of you who chime in, and even mixing it up and going mano a mano from time to time. It's one of the high points of my week.

I'm very, very, very lucky to be doing what I'm doing, and very, very, very lucky, also, to have such knowledgeable, devoted and passionate readers and choggers.

Bethesda, Maryland
Todd–We have never seen mention in the media of our very favorite restaurant. It's a family-owned place on Cordell Ave. in Bethesda named Trattoria Sorrento. The decor is kind of kitschy, but the welcome is warm and the food is wonderful. We have been eating there for years all over the menu–pasta, carne, and pesce–and have never had a meal that wasn't first-rate. Thought you'd like to know. Tom and Joan Henley

Thank you, Tom and Joan.

I went once, a while ago — a long, long while ago. I can't remember, now, what I thought of it then.

That's often telling, but not always.

Anyway, prompted by your enthusiasm, I will be sure to return and give the place a fresh appraisal.


best coffee in dc – take away and for the home brew
Todd, I'm making an assumption that you love a good cup of coffee, as many people do (myself included). Where in DC if you had to get a takeaway cup of coffee would you stop? How about for making coffee at home? Thanks

I like Murky Coffee a lot — there's locations in Arlington and on Capitol Hill. I also like the coffee (and atmosphere) at Kefa Cafe, in Silver Spring — it's a small shop with sandwiches and pastries run by two gracious, charming sisters from Ethiopia.

At home, we use Illy for capuccino and espresso, and sometimes Kimbo.

I sure could go for a cup right about now …

That's all the time I've got for today, everyone. If you're not a subscriber (well, shame on you!), then be sure to go out and pick yourself up a copy of Cheap Eats, which is out right now on newsstands and in bookstores.

As for the rest of you — get cracking on that list!

Eat well — and cheaply — and let's do it again next week at 11. Be well, everybody …