News & Politics

Best of Arlington: Dining Guide

In the mood for a juicy burger or a sublime lemon cupcake? Here’s where to go.

Pizza Fix

Wood-oven-baked pies aren’t the only reason to pull up a chair at Clarendon’s Liberty Tavern—chef Liam LaCivita excels with delicate salads and rustic roasts—but the pizza is terrific. We head for the rounds dotted with fennel-scented sausage or done up with a Vermont-inspired mix of white cheddar and apples.

At the two locations of Lost Dog Café, you can go classic (salty pepperoni and onions) or creative (garlic butter and crabmeat). We also like the mess of veggies on the Rin Tin Tin and the not-too-sweet barbecue-chicken pie.

Larry Ponzi pays homage to two great styles of pizza at Crystal City’s Café Pizzaiolo, and both have their merits. The brittle-crusted Neapolitan pies are best suited for simple basil and mozzarella or a light scattering of mushrooms, while the New York–style rounds can handle a pileup of toppings.

It’s Italy all the way at Pupatella, a tomato-red food cart that pulls up by the Ballston Metro (between Stuart and Ninth sts.) on Thursday and Friday. Can excellent Neapolitan pizza come out of a tiny propane oven? One bite of the crisp Margherita turned us into believers.

Hefty Sandwiches

Your head says no, but your stomach says bring it. We’re talking about the house specialty at Earl’s (2605 Wilson Blvd.; 703-248-0150): a ciabatta roll brimming with roasted pork, sweet pickles, chipotle mayo, and . . . French fries. We were dubious, but it was delicious.

At Jackson’s Famous Roasting & Carving Co. (933 N. Quincy St.; 703-312-1073), the meatloaf sandwich slathered with Thousand Island dressing and cheddar is worth at least a week of field-greens penance.

Many a sub—from the double-ham Milano to a simple hard roll with Genoa salami and hot and sweet peppers—has a following at the Italian Store, and for good reason. The old-school sandwiches are generously layered with high-quality ingredients, and they’re cheap. Call in your order ahead of time to avoid a 45-minute wait.

Spice Addicts

At the Delhi Club in Clarendon, the walls are the color of cayenne—a clue that the kitchen doesn’t hold back when it comes to spicing. Whether you go for tandoori-charred chicken wings, Bengali shrimp, or lamb rogan josh, your mouth will likely feel the burn.

The biggest drawback to many Thai restaurants is that dishes are often too sweet and tamely seasoned. Not at the darkly lit, sleekly appointed Bangkok 54. Chilis enliven a square of tofu, show up in the pleasantly fiery minced-chicken salad called larb gai, and cut the sweetness in a toss of fried, lacquered duck. It makes for some of the most assertive, brightly flavored Thai food in Washington.

Chefs to Watch

Barry Koslow landed near the top of our 100 Best Restaurants list when he headed the kitchen at Georgetown’s Mendocino Grille & Wine Bar. Earlier this year, he took up residence at another wine-focused dining room—Tallula in Arlington’s Lyon Park neighborhood. His creations so far—hamachi with green gazpacho, halibut in a saffron-clam sauce—prove that the neighborhood regulars and date-night couples scattered among the tables have much to look forward to.

Eventide might appear to be all about its dramatic decor: glittering black chandeliers, sapphire-blue velvet drapes, whimsical vintage mirrors. The rooftop dining area is pretty special, too. But some of chef Miles Vaden’s plates, such as linguine-like strands of summer squash and a lovely salmon over spring-pea ragoût, have grabbed our attention just the same.

A Little of Everything

The Crystal City spinoff of small-plates master José Andrés’s Jaleo is great for groups—tapas are meant to be passed and shared—but just as good for solo diners, who can sample three or four dishes at the bar. There’s lots to explore on the Spanish menu, but we keep coming back to the bacon-wrapped dates, marinated mussels, tomato-rubbed flatbread with Manchego, and jamón Ibérico.

It’s the same concept, different cuisine at the often-jammed EatBar, where you can graze on an eclectic array of dishes such as Old Bay–spiced shrimp, steak tartare, mini-burgers, and bruschetta. The bar serves nearly 70 wines by the glass.

In the mood for mezze? You’ll find nice Lebanese dips, salads, and kebabs at Me Jana in the Courthouse Neighborhood and at both locations of Lebanese Taverna (1101 S. Joyce St., 703-415-8681; 5900 Washington Blvd., 703-241-8681).

Meat Masters

A recent pair of visitors on their White House lunch break has turned the small, cash-only Ray’s Hell-Burger into a tourist destination. Still, we’ll patiently wait for the black-pepper burger with blue cheese, the Diablo with aged cheddar, or just a plain old cheeseburger. They’re the best, messiest burgers around.

The burgers are made from beef trimmings culled from Ray’s the Steaks, Landrum’s casual, value-driven steakhouse (no stranger to lines, either). Former Citronelle sommelier Mark Slater has curated an affordable wine list to go with the excellent hanger steaks and cowboy cuts that have had loyal fans for years. We like to start with the sherry-scented cream-of-crab bisque and finish with a wedge of Key-lime pie.

Thirsty Bernie, a sports-obsessed neighborhood bar, gained notice when high-end chef Jamie Stachowski took over the kitchen. He’s since moved on, but you can still find his specialty—a butcher board holding myriad charcuterie—on the menu, along with his veal bratwurst and kielbasa.

The kebabs at Ravi Kabob House and Ravi Kabob II—skewers of lamb and bone-in chicken marinated for 18 hours and grilled over charcoal—are the draw here. If there were a cheap-eats hall of fame, these cash-only Pakistani stops would be near the top.

At the divey Ballston outpost of El Pollo Rico, ignore the greasy sides and head straight for the chicken. The super-flavorful (and super-cheap, at $14.99) whole birds deserve star billing.

Maryland Envy

Don’t feel like road-tripping to the Eastern Shore? Grab a table at the Quarterdeck (1200 N. Fort Myer Dr.; 703-528-2722), where blue crabs are steamed to order at least through mid-October. All you need are a Bud Light, some slaw, and a mallet. It’s not fancy, but no good crab shack is.

High-End Happy Hours

Mondays at Restaurant 3, a menu of “bar bites” is half off from 5 to 8. That means you can score fried oysters for $5 and duck lettuce wraps for $4.50.

Every day from 4 to 7, Franco Nuschese’s slick Italian spot Sette Bello offers half-price wine and small plates, such as a $7 salumi plate for two, at the bar.

The best time to get a seat at the roomy, saloon-like bar at Ballston’s Willow is 5 to 7 weekdays, when cocktails, glasses of wine, and a Modern American bar menu—mini-Reubens, halibut sliders, pork spring rolls—are all $5. (The bar-menu part of the deal lasts till closing and includes Saturday as well.)

Hangover Cures

You can always go the bacon/egg/cheese route after a long night, but we find the bowls of soothing Vietnamese beef soups at Pho 75 far more restorative, especially with a good shake of Sriracha. If you subscribe to the hair-of-the-dog theory, Harry’s Tap Room (1100 S. Hayes St., 703-416-7070; 2800 Clarendon Blvd., 703-778-7788) serves a mean Bloody Mary with lemon, lime, olives, and celery. It pairs nicely with the classic eggs Benedict or even one of the restaurant’s freshly ground burgers.

Tasty Tacos

The perfect meal at the family-friendly Taqueria Poblano: an order of citrus-heavy guacamole, two grilled-shrimp tacos with avocado cream and escabèche-style onions, and a margarita or limeade.

To go with the corn-tortilla-wrapped pockets of chorizo, chicken, and even lamb at Guajillo, it’s jalapeño-spiked shrimp ceviche and fried plantains all the way.

And if you’re dining on the cheap, the no-frills carryout El Charrito Caminante puts out satisfying and authentic versions stuffed with goat, chorizo, and lengua for $2 each.

Comfort Cooking

Carlyle takes only limited reservations, and there’s usually a wait. That’s because this brasserie-like restaurant has nailed a formula of spot-on service, strong classic cocktails, and a menu full of alluring choices. From the lobster pot stickers swimming in gingery lobster sauce to the warm-goat-cheese salad to the deliciously bad-for-you jambalaya pasta in Creole cream sauce, it’s hard to decide where to start. Ending is easy, though—the lemon meringue pie and flourless chocolate waffle are the top sweets hands down.

Much quieter but no less pleasing is Minh’s, an unassuming Vietnamese dining room in a Clarendon office building. The kitchen excels with the fryer, turning out greaseless yam-and-shrimp cakes and pork-stuffed spring rolls. This is also home to some of the area’s best bun, the cool vermicelli-noodle bowls topped with mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, and skewers of charred, sweetly basted pork.

If you’re looking for a carb binge, Café Assorti is your place. The pretty Eastern European hangout excels at yeasty stuffed buns, beef-filled dumplings, and ethereal pastries.

Cupcake Cravings

Neither Best Buns Bread Company in Shirlington (4010 Campbell Ave.; 703-578-1500) nor Mother’s Macaroons (2442 N. Harrison St.; 703-532-6991) is a bakery built around cupcakes, but both put out really good ones. At Best Buns (also known for interesting breads) big, airy cakes meet fluffy lemon, vanilla, and peanut-butter buttercreams. Mother’s, a 21-year-old bake shop in the back of a strip mall, has smaller offerings, but the chocolate and vanilla cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles are a reminder of the school-assembly treats of childhood.

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.