Best Thing I Ate: Vietnamese Fish with Turmeric, Cuban Sandwich

Washingtonian’s food team shares favorite dishes from their past seven days of dining.

Get yourself to Hai Duong for a taste of this Vietnamese fish with plenty of dill and turmeric. Photograph by Anna Spiegel.

Todd Kliman

Azifa at Enat

I could pick any of half a dozen dishes to highlight why Enat is the best Ethiopian kitchen in the area right now, but let’s go with this.

Azifa—the sharp, mustardy green lentil salad that many Ethiopian restaurants include on their vegetarian or fasting platters. It’s a great change-of-pace dish to have, if you’re also eating, say, a beef tibs and/or kitfo, a beef tartare, maybe the original beef tartare. But at many places, that’s all azifa is—a respite of cool from the warming heat, a bit of chew amid so many softer, more tender bites.

Here, though, you’re eating something that could stand alone. What makes it superior to other versions of the dish in the area? How about everything. The flavors are sharper and more focused, for one, so that everything pops in a way it doesn’t, usually. The tang is tangier. The mustard bite, more mustardy. It’s also a pleasure to see lentils that are cooked perfectly—no crunchiness, no mushiness.

It’s an exciting, vibrant dish—but again, as I said, one of many at this remarkable restaurant.

Ann Limpert

Torta cubana at Taco Bamba

At his Penn Quarter steakhouse Del Campo, Victor Albisu slings an almost comically large chivito. The sandwich, which hails from Uruguay, consists of layers upon layers of thinly sliced meats, cheese, tomato, and fried egg. It’s delicious, and eating it tends to leave your shirt looking like a Liz Lemon relic.

Over at his way-more-casual Tysons taqueria, Albisu applies a similar approach to his torta cubana. It’s a towering thing—a departure from the thinly pressed versions you usually see—and it’s as over-the-top rich as Michel Richard’s once-a-year potato puree. For one, there is a generous heaping of tender carnitas along with the ham. Then, two cheeses—melty cheddar and salty chihuahua. Albisu slathers it all with yellow mustard to cut through the glorious fattiness, and swaps pickles for vinegary pickled jalapeños (a great touch, and the kind of surprise detail Albisu is so adept at). The fillings are excellent, but the bread—soft, airy, slightly sweet—is just as special.

Anna Spiegel

Vietnamese fish with turmeric and dill at Hai Duong

The “house special” section of any large menu can be tricky to navigate—sometimes it’s filled with pricier dishes the restaurant hopes to sell, other times it’s a genuine reflection of the kitchen’s finest work, and often, it’s a mix of both. Judging from the items I recently tried at Hai Duong, an unassuming eatery right off the Eden Center parking lot, there’s no upselling here. House specials are a reflection of what the chefs do best, and as an added perk, most come in at $15 and under.

Get a big table in the brightly lit, banquet-like room if you plan to order large. Plates are generous, and dipping sauces many. The menu is also expansive, though doesn’t stretch itself thin—you can do equally well with a bowl of pho or a Northern-style pork bun, here a mix of grilled meat and sausage marinating in a bowl of nuớc chấm. Of the specials, two are absolute musts. First, the banh xeo crepe, both ethereally light and crispy, studded with sweet shrimp and stuffed with bean sprouts. The other, cha ca thang long, fish with turmeric and dill. Two skewers arrive on a sizzling platter, warmly hued by the spice and sitting atop a bed of quickly-caramelizing onions and abundant fronds of the herb. The fragrant plate arrives alongside another heaped with fresh mint, Thai basil, shiso, and chilled vermicelli noodles, plus lettuce leaves for making brightly flavored wraps. More than just a signature, the dish is a reason to visit on its own.

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.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.