News & Politics

Top-Dollar Cravings on a Loose-Change Budget

In the mood for the shrimp ’n’ grits at Vidalia or the $32.50 crab cakes at Johnny’s Half Shell? The following budget-friendly alternatives should leave you satisfied.

Have a yen for the terrific Ipswich clams at Kinkead’s? The fried bivalves at Tackle Box in Georgetown are nearly as tasty and a fraction of the price. Photograph by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.

Miss Charlotte’s (4193 Minnesota Ave., NE; 202-397-8517) is a long way from Johnny’s Half Shell—a different world even if it’s in the same city. Its signature crab cake (four ounces $7.45, six ounces $9.70) is served in a Styrofoam container, and unlike the $32.50 version at Johnny’s, no lobbyist is going to bring a client to try it. But it sure is good: lump meat and backfin mixed with mayo and mustard, molded into thick, fist-size patties, and dunked in hot oil. The outsides are a gorgeous light amber and curiously dimpled (for more surface crunch); the insides are creamy.

The $28 short ribs at Central Michel Richard are separated from their bones, cooked at low heat for 72 hours, and finished on the stove. The slow cooking produces meat of incomparable lusciousness. Kerry Britt at KBQ Real Barbecue (12500-B1 Fairwood Pkwy., Bowie; 301-352-8111) achieves a similar effect with his marvelous brisket ($10.29 with two sides), which he smokes for hours until the meat is somewhere between liquid and solid. The thick slices are flanked by your choice of sides (we like the smoky, sweet beans). Meat this cheap is seldom this good.

Blustery evenings are perfect for lingering over a big pot of moules à la marinière—mussels steamed in white wine and showered with parsley—with a baguette and blond ale. It’s hard to beat the tiny bivalves served for $19.95 at the French bistro Café du Parc, but the plumper Prince Edward Island specimens ($16) swimming in aromatic broth at Granville Moore’s (1238 H St., NE; 202-399-2546) come close. And they’re even sweeter Mondays between 5 and 7, when a shareable portion is $10.

A $29.50 bowl of shrimp ’n’ grits, bringing together head-on shrimp, house-made andouille sausage, and sweet-onion ravigote, is the most popular dish at Jeff Buben’s Vidalia. A few blocks away, a humbler rendition of the low-country specialty appears most Thursdays at C.F. Folks (1225 19th St., NW; 202-293-0162), a feisty downtown lunch institution. The shrimp aren’t as photogenic, the sausage isn’t house-made, and instead of ravigote there’s a white-wine sauce, but it’s a tasty, generous plate for $11.95.

The $17 appetizer of fried Ipswich clams at the seafood restaurant Kinkead’s is close to perfect: The clams are crisp, chewy, greaseless, and accompanied by house-made tartar sauce and frizzled lemon slices. At the much more casual Georgetown fish shack Tackle Box (3245 M St., NW; 202-337-8269), fried clams—full-belly in summer—also make a stellar appearance in a pile with tartar sauce or in a made-for-the-restaurant bun as a clam roll (each $12).


Dirt Cheap Eats 2008 

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 Logan Circle.