A Special Best Bargains Dining Chat

A special chat! Todd's on assignment, so in honor of our upcoming Best Bargain Restaurants issue, we have in the owners and key players in the world of cheap eats.

The magazine's Best Bargain Restaurants issue hits newsstands next week, with more than 25 newcomers nudging their way onto the annual list of 100 — not to mention an up-close and personal look at the key players in the world of cheap eats and a celebration of some of the region's defining dishes (pho, dosas, kabobs, wats, pupusas).

With that in mind, and with food and wine editor Todd Kliman on assignment, we thought it only fitting to convene a special cheap eats panel to host Kliman Online this Tuesday at 11.

Our guests may lack the pedigree and the publicity machine of their counterparts in the world of fine dining, but they are forces, nonetheless: Yared Tesfaye, the owner of Etete in DC's Little Ethiopia, the best Ethiopian restaurant in the region; Larry Ponzi, the proprietor and pizza-maker at Cafe Pizzaiolo, in Crystal City, home to one of the most addictive pies in town — boutique or otherwise; and Kerry Britt, who runs KBQ in Bowie, which serves up stellar country-style 'cue and sides.

What's the secret to the complex and fiery wats made by Tesfaye's mother, Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn? And why does Stevie Wonder always seek her out when he comes to town? What are the keys to Ponzi's cracklingly thin crusts? And why does he think 2 Amys is not pizza nirvana? How does Britt produce such irresistible 'cue without benefit of an open pit (forbidden in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, but permissible in Charles County)? And what's his personal connection to Fred Wesley, the legendary trombonist best known for his work in the '60s and '70s with James Brown's JB's?

Get your questions in early …

To read the chat transcript from May 13, click here.

Producer's note: Yared Tesfaye is running a little late today, but will jump in to the chat shortly. 

Tenleytown, DC
What's the key to running a good, affordable restaurant?

Larry: I would say a consistent product is number 1. Good quality ingredients that keep people coming back, number 2. Making people feel very welcome, that we care that they're there, number 3. I set out to make it a place where people would feel comfortable coming 2 or 3 times per week. A lot of our customers may have lunch or dinner at our place once a week, and do take out or delivery once a week. People are eating out now 2 or 3 times a week, so they want to find good food that's affordable at that frequency.

Kerry: People want a good quality for what they're going to spend. You have to make sure that your pricing is actually to a point where it's good quality food and the pricing is at that same point. We have people who come 2 or 3 times per week, maybe more. When you do research, you want to see what your competitors are doing, and you want to be in that range. If you have a good consistent product, you won't have any problems.

Arlington, Va.
Larry, thanks for coming on today. I love your pizzas … I remember an article Todd did last year about the changing pizza scene and you talked some in it about your personal philosophy, which I found interesting in light of how pizza has gotten to be so fancy and so expensive. It seems like you keep it in mind that pizza is supposed to be pizza, not gourmet dining. Elyse
Larry: I definitely agree with you – that's what we do, that's our approach. We'd like to be able to bring that simple approach to more neighborhoods in the Northern VA area, keeping with our philosophy of simple, straightforward, just good pizza.
Hi Kerry, So what is your personal connection with Fred Wesley? Been a big fan of Mr. Please Please Please going waaaaaay back …
Kerry: Fred Wesley is my father-in-law. Both my wife and my sister in law are the other owners of KBQ with me. It's a family business. It's partly because of Fred that I decided to go into the business. I was on a little mini-tour with him in Paris. I had a little epiphany, that I wanted to be in and around music and to be able to barbecue. That's my passion.
Adams Morgan, DC
OK, I'll bite … why is 2 Amys not pizza nirvana?
Larry: I think 2 Amys is a great place to go, but you don't have to go there for great food or great pizza. There are other options in the suburbs now, and you can get great pizza for even better value in your neighborhood.
If each of you had carte blanche to open a second restaurant, what would you do? A spinoff of your current restaurant or something different? And why? And where would you put the new place and why?

Kerry: I would do another KBQ. I think that's where I am at this point, to have something that's very consistent. As far as placing one, it would be…I'd love to do one in DC, but it's so expensive. I'd love to do one in DC, maybe even in Old Town. My goal is also to build one on Grand Cayman. I'm not lying.

Larry: We would like to continue with our name of Cafe Pizzaiolo, we would expand our wine list and have more of an element of a wine bar with our next location. We'd keep the pizzas very similar but expand on our pastas. We'd like to go into neighborhoods that we know. We live in the Del Ray area so we'd like to do something there. And we've been approached to do something in DC on Wisconsin Avenue, in the Glover Park area. We would really want to draw from the neighborhood. 

Kerry, Love your beef brisket. What's the secret? Or if you can't say, what's the technique? Nobody else is doing brisket as good around here.
Kerry: Brisket is a very tough cut of meat. In order to break it down, you have to cook it or smoke it at a low heat for a looong time. At least 12 hours. So if you've got 12 hours to spend in your backyard, by all means. It's also the seasoning and the wet/dry rub that we use.
Why is an open pit forbidden in PG and Montgomery counties?
Kerry: I think it's all a part of the Health Department regulations. Initially I wanted a chimney going up to the roof and I couldn't even do that. So I have a large, commercial wood-burning smoker that can cook 600 pounds at one time. I'm happy with what I have right now. 
College Park, Md
In the intro, it makes an interesting point of talking about how each of you doesn't have the resources and the "publicity machine" of the restaurants in the fine dining world. I'm just curious to know how that works usually, and how that puts you at a disadvantage? In some ways is it maybe at times a good thing?

Kerry: We're at a disadvantage from the big boys, so to speak, but I also had an advantage. I have a sister-in-law who's a freelance writer, who worked for the AP at one point, and my wife is in food marketing. So with the combination of those, we were able to put out a lot of things to different people. It's not what you know, it's who you know. We were able to send out press releases to everyone and let them know about us. That helps. Use your friends, use your family. Every little thing helps. 

Alexandria, Va.
I make pizzas at home. What are three things I should know — and can do easily — to improve the quality of my pizzas?
Larry: Three things. Develop a fresh yeast. Turn your oven up as high as you can get it. Use San Marzano tomatoes.
Kerry ……….. If I said you could drive up to four hours away for great barbecue, where would you go? What are some names? Excluding yours of course.
Kerry: I do like Johnny Boy's in La Plata. That's pretty good. Actually, quite surprising even though it's a small chain, I thought Dinosaur's in Manhattan was pretty good. It's on the West Side in Harlem. And then they have some in upstate NY.
First of all, congratulations to all three of you. That's a real honor to be included, and also to be included in this chat. I've eaten at all of your restaurants and I have to say the thing that jumps out at me is the fact that your places are all so consistent. Consistent and inexpensive and good. I go out to eat a fair amount, and I don't find that kind of consistency when I dine, if you catch my drift. I've been to many of the best restaurants in the city, and sometimes I've had exquisite meals and sometimes I haven't. But I've always paid exquisite prices. I guess I'm wondering if there are any lessons the fancy places you hear about all the time can learn from the little guys?

Larry: I think a good lesson is to have different price points on the menu and give people the option to taste your food and experience your food.

Kerry: When you get larger, you have to keep your finger on that pulse. Consistency is key, you're right. 

I notice that the new issue will talk about some of the "region's defining dishes — pupusas, dosas, kabobs, wats and pho." Pizza and barbecue are both missing from that list, which I think is interesting. How do the two guest hosts feel about that? Is that a mistake on the part of the magazine? Or does it more say something about what's going on in the area in terms of its ethnic foods?
Larry: I was confused about why they wouldn't have pizza or barbecue on that. Especially because of the amount of people who like to talk about that, and what's the best in their neighborhood. People want to go out in their neighborhood for barbecue and for pizza.
What do you think about the potential of the county for growth when it comes to the restaurant scene? The new Harbor development sounds interesting but there are a lot of chains going in there which I don't think bodes well. Every time I hear a developer or politician in the county talk about the future and what they hope to bring in, they always seem so happy with a chain restaurant. Why aren't they more aggressive in recruiting real restaurants? There are so many good ethnic places to eat over in Montgomery and Arlington and Falls Church. So my question is: Why not in Prince George's?
Kerry: I don't want to get too political. That's a very, very good question. There is room for everyone in PG county. One issue that I see is that there is not a lot of industry, per se, which is why they are courting all the big brands. The National Harbor is really nice, but the rents there, no small business can afford to go there. 
What are some of your favorite cheap eats in the area?

Larry: I like Eddy's Chicken and Steak on King street. They should be on the list! Peruvian chicken. They're pretty inexpensive, very tasty. It's mostly the Latino community that knows about it. I like Los Tios on Mount Vernon Ave. Awesome carne asada.

Kerry: My wife and I used to go to a little Mexican joint on Capitol Hill… When I first moved to DC, I used to go to El Tamarindo all the time. 

Yared: Thai. The Thai restaurant right on 11th and New York Avenue. Had Thai. Pad See Ew with beef. 

Silver Spring, MD
KBQ is the best Q in the area by a long shot, but the bread pudding may be the best in the world – where did you get THAT recipe?
Kerry: If I tell you, I have to kill you. The bread pudding is prepared by my sister in law, Ms. Shana. She hates the name "Queen of Bread Pudding", but that's what she is. We tell people, "Enjoy in moderation. Do not buy three today." It is addictive.
Silver Spring, MD
Why did you choose the location you chose for your restaurant?

Kerry: We actually looked at the entire metro area. The reason I didn't go to Old Town is because the Woodrow Wilson bridge isn't finished, and going over there every morning is no joke. I could do a place in Southern Maryland that would do well, but why not go to a place that is not saturated and doesn't have a lot of barbecue places? In Bowie, there are a couple of chains, but that's it. 

Larry: We chose the old restaurant row in Crystal City because we wanted a neighborhood feel, not a corporate park. It's close to our home, about 2 miles. And the facility worked for what we wanted to do. 

Yared: Because one the U street area was becoming an Ethiopian destination. It was very hard to get into Adams Morgan because of the rents, and U Street was less expensive than Adams Morgan. There were a lot of Ethiopian restaurants and markets and stores on Ninth Street and we figured if we can get the District to get to recognize it as Little Ethiopia like there is in Southern California–which we are still trying to do. It's an excellent location because I have two metros in between me. 

Alexandria, VA; for all…
First, I love cheaps eats and am very fortunate to have access to so many affordable and delicious food living in NoVa. My question is-How are you managing to keep your prices affordable, while the cost of basic ingredients (flour, eggs, butter, milk) is rising sharply? How does it impact your business? Thank you all.

Larry: The rising food costs is something we've always been challenged with in the restaurant business. It comes down to the consistency of your portioning and your food, and the handling of your food is even more critical. Sourcing fresh produce from local markets and staying in season is also critical. We can't change our ingredients, because they make our food what it is, but we can negotiate pricing and lock in pricing. We have to be very diligent with how we handle our product.

Kerry: I totally agree. As your sales increase in your company, you can go back and negotiate further with your distributors and vendors. You'll buy more from them, and negotiate lower prices. 

I love Ethiopian food and would like to try to make it at home. I'm a pretty decent cook with a lot of cuisines. Any ideas on where I could turn for help? A book? Classes? I love the food at Etete, keep up the great work!
Yared: My mom would be a great teacher for you. Whenever you're ready to come and learn, she'll open her kitchen door for you guys. Her kitchen is her second home. She's always willing to teach anybody who's willing to come and learn. There are some books, but someone has to really show you how to do it. It's not calculated with recipes. I believe the best way to learn to be would be with someone who knows how to do it, which would be my mom. 
Columbia Hts
This question is for Yared. Yared, I have heard people talking about how Etete is very modern looking and gets a lot of people from diverse backgrounds, and so therefore it calls into question how authentic the restaurant is. Which I don't exactly agree with. But I think that people, some of them, do. My question is, is that something you have to continue to work at, to make people aware that your restaurant is good and authentic because of the way it looks and the kinds of people who got there? Thanks in advance.
Yared: The food is very authentic. If you ask an Ethiopian person about the food in my restaurant, they'll tell you it's like eating back home. The reason we did the restaurant they way it looks–modern–is that we want to be able to welcome all kinds of people. I see the difference. If a place is dark and not attractive, people tend not to come in. You can still have a modern, attractive look and an authentic kitchen. It's really worked for us. Sometimes even myself personally I go to a restaurant because of how it's designed, before I know about the food. I'm curious about the food because of how it's designed. 
Dupont Circle
You can't go all chat long without telling us about the Stevie Wonder connection!
Yared: He likes my mom's food. She used to make food for him. There used to be a restaurant she used to work in Adams Morgan called Fasika's. When it closed, he called the owner and asked where the chef went and he told him she'd opened her own restaurant. So ever since, he comes. He comes often.
U St
There were some tensions a while back on U St. between the African Americans and the Ethiopians concerning what some African Americans thought was a coopting of their historical neighborhood. What is the situation these days? And do you feel that any one people can lay claim to a neighborhood? I look at U St now and there are so many kinds of people and they all come to have a good time. But still some people are angry all the time. They want it to be, I think, one people having a good time all the time.
Yared: I think the way people are thinking is changing every day. I believe it was kind of a misunderstanding that what we would like to have. We didn't ask to change history. We just want to be recognize. Not change a name, just get recognized, like Chinatown. It's still H Street. Just get name recognition, not change anybody's history or culture. I think we need to just clarify what we want. 
Upper NW
This is primarily a question for Yared, but applies to all: When I try to bring new diners to your restaurant I have to explain not only the cuisine, but also the neighborhood. Help me make a positive point to get people outside of their comfort zones and tucked into one of your tables. Please — I'm thinking about dropping folks from friend to acquaintance status because I can't bear another chain-food meal with them.
Yared: People used to think that the U Street or Ninth Street area used to be very bad. But if people could see the changes, then I bet they wouldn't go to Georgetown or Adams Morgan again. You can't even walk on the sidewalk on a Saturday night it's so crowded! You don't have to drive–all you need to do is hop on the train. There are bars, restaurants, theater, art galleries. It's a very small, unique destination. I think the only way to change their minds is to bring them somehow so they can believe the change. 
Upper Marlboro
How are you able to maintain reasonable pricing with the every changing increase of raw food cost?
Yared: It's becoming a challenge. Everything has gone up in price. We're still maintaining to keep the quality standard of the food. And we are planning to change a small price increase of the food, but not that much. And also, my mom's the chef. She watches everything–she makes sure there's no waste. One of the biggest problems in the restaurant industry is waste. There's no food left over. She makes a very small amount, and she maintains her waste. I think that will keep us where we want to be with our price range. That makes us very unique. And another good thing is that here, everything gets made when you order. There's nothing that gets set down for the next day. I think that helps a lot.

Kerry, Yared and Larry want to thank everyone for your support of our restaurants and for sharing the excitement in our food. We're excited to be part of the Cheap Eats list and hope to see you soon!

Thanks for the great questions.

To see all of Washingtonian.com's chats, head here. To submit a question in advance for next week's chat, click here.