Some chefs credit their Michelin-starred mentors for shaping their culinary vision and style. David Guas gives biggest props to his 69-year-old aunt Boo, a cooking-school teacher who hails from Abbeville, Louisiana. Her Cajun-country influence is the reason he keeps his zesty jambalaya extra-moist—unorthodox trick: a little tomato purée—and his crawfish étouffée stays on the mild side (dress it up with hot sauce if you like). Not everything nods toward Louisiana: A BLT with roasted tomatoes is simply a really terrific BLT, and a kale Caesar has nudged its way onto the menu. Guas spent most of his career as a pastry chef, so the sweets cases at these homespun cafes—holding fabulous cookies (try the salt-topped chocolate Doppios or the Oreo-like Dat-os) and pralines—are as much of a draw as the savory stuff.
Some restaurants are obsessed with playing hip-hop or power pop. At Bonchon, you’ll encounter another kind of soundtrack—a symphony of relentless crunching. That’s how ridiculously crispy the chain’s Korean twice-fried chicken is, even—it defies culinary logic—when doused in sticky-sweet garlic-soy glaze. The famed birds are the number-one reason to visit (or to call for carryout, though waits can stretch to an hour-plus), but some locations such as Arlington, Centreville, and Navy Yard serve well-made cocktails and a short list of starters, too.
The breezy taco stands of Tulum were the inspiration for this chic, pale-pink-walled George-town cafe. That means braised and fried meats are ditched in favor of brightly flavored local veggies, and flavor-boosting accessories come in the form of swipes of yogurt and copious handfuls of herbs and micro-greens. Sound a little too much like lunch at a yoga retreat? We thought so, too, until we tore into a pebbly corn tortilla holding a creamy stew of fingerling potatoes and kale enriched with pepperjack. Or another swaddling meaty mushrooms set off with tangy red sauce and briny crumbles of feta. The fillings are, across the board, as wonderfully satisfying as they are surprising. To drink, you can go the cold-pressed-juice route, but tacos and fizzy Lambrusco are an even better match.
Chase the Submarine
While some chefs focus a place tightly on one dish (say, kolaches or Korean tacos) or at least a cuisine, Tim Ma takes the broad view. His sandwich shop pings around the globe, with stops in places as diverse as Vietnam, for a messy pork-belly bánh mì, and Philly, for a fabulous riff on a cheesesteak. Ma manages to pull off his scattered vision, thanks to grounding elements like house-smoked meats and smartly whimsical accessories: A take on a Cuban sandwich gets its tangy sweetness from pickled apples and a swipe of lychee. The place doubles as a small market, where you can pick up local vinegars and Ma’s pickles and kimchee, or sign up for a CSA.
Leave it to cheese obsessive Jill Erber to transform a gooey crock of French onion soup into something even gooier—a sourdough grilled cheese spilling with Gruyère and deeply caramelized onions. At her twin wine bars, each fronted by a gourmet shop, she raids her sprawling cheese cases for pretty much every dish on the menu. Rich, funky Taleggio gives a cheesesteak a luxe upgrade, while goat Gouda and Asiago go into a superb breadcrumb-topped mac. Or opt for the stuff in its purest form—the staffers behind the Carrara-marble bar will help you put together just the right cheese board.
There’s something decidedly not now in the atmosphere at this Bosnian gem, its tables laid with workmanlike white cloth and bearing untrendily gargantuan portions. You’re ten miles from DC, but it might as well be ten hours. Just order a plate of ćevapčići, tight-cased beef sausages with more juice than some fruits. Or bite into the massive Bosnian burger, a beef patty marinated in onion juice and black pepper, cooked to perfect pinkness, and dolloped with sour cream. Either will pair nicely with one of the earthy Croatian reds on the list. The larger the plate, the less precise the cooking, but the wiener schnitzel is as tender and crunchy as you’d hope. Don’t skip dessert—in particular the crempita, a special that’s a glorious testimonial to the Old World love of creamy and caloric confections.
Crisp Kitchen & Bar
With its clever cocktails and $5 shots of cinnamon-infused whiskey, this bilevel hangout has fast become the drinking spot of choice for many Bloomingdale locals. But it’s the smart comfort food from chef—and Next Food Network Star also-ran—Alex McCoy that’s worth crossing town for. Mac and cheese tastes more cacio e pepe than it does Kraft, thanks to a hearty grind of black pepper. Finely chopped coleslaw balances sweet, cool, and creamy, recalling the best kind of picnic fare. And fried-to-order Nashville hot chicken is bathed in a singeing glaze of lard and cayenne.
Cuba de Ayer
The rice here is textbook, each grain distinct and slicked with oil; so are the beans, delivered in an inky simmered soup that sings of garlic and oregano. Devotees of Cuban cooking will know at once that we’re telling you about more than, yes, the rice and beans. If a Cuban kitchen understands the importance of these backbone elements of the cuisine, it can probably be trusted with everything else. And this one can. The cooking has the soulful heartiness you look for, from the crunchy croquetas with bits of ham to the rich hash of ground beef, potatoes, and olives known as picadillo to the diet-exploding tres leches cake, a confection of milk, cream, and meringue held lightly together with flour.
A line is usually snaking out of this cubby-size Penn Quarter ramen shop, where you might wait for two hours to balance on a wooden stool and slurp a bowl for 20 minutes to the tune of Wham and the Spice Girls. Here’s why it’s worth the hassle: the restorative Sapporo-style broths, conjured from a stock made of pork, beef, and chicken bones that have been simmered for 18 hours. And the noodles, beautifully bouncy and slightly curly. And the finishing flourish—the practice of sloshing toppings (Brussels sprouts, wood-ear mushrooms, crumbles of pork) in a wok for an extra kick of smokiness. The elements all come together to create the best bowls of ramen in the city, no matter which of the five broths you go for. While you wait, hit the upstairs izakaya for standout cocktails and happy-hour beer specials.
Naming the best Ethiopian in Washington is a bit like picking a top New York slice—great options abound, and small differences at each spot (the tenderest tibs, house-made injera) breed loyalists. What keeps us coming back to owners Samuel Ergete and Meseret Bekele’s serene restaurant: the quality of ingredients and the care with which the kitchen prepares each dish. Stepping into the warmly lit, brick-walled dining room feels like entering a home, as does the pleasant welcome and offer of a drink from the varied list of Ethiopian beers and wines. If anywhere, this is the place to try kitfo, the traditional tartare-like dish, here made with prime beef and house-made spiced butter. The seven-vegetable combination plate makes for a wonderful share. Garlicky collard greens, deeply caramelized string beans, lentils, and split peas (bright kik alecha, richly spiced mesir wat) make for a satisfying tour of the kitchen’s breadth.
If you’re tired of the ultrathin, sparely appointed Neapolitan pies that everyone and his nonna seem to be pulling out of pizza ovens, get yourself to Frank Linn’s cozy Kensington place. Here he makes a sturdier, chewier crust, which is subjected to a good amount of char in the brick oven he built himself. On top? Accessories such as house-made bacon and pickled jalapeños (on the excellent Hot Mess) or an earthy, seductive mix of cremini mushrooms, shallots, Gruyère, and porcini salt. Linn keeps himself focused pretty tightly on pizzas, but the few other things on the menu—abundant, well-dressed salads and not-too-sweet house-made sodas—are given just as much thought.
Glen’s Garden Market
Eating local and eating cheap rarely go hand in hand, which is why environmental lawyer turned grocer Danielle Vogel keeps prices modest for the prepared foods at her two markets. (“You can’t spread the word if no one walks in the door.”) Start at the bar, where craft drafts are always $4 and can be paired with superb sourdough-crust pizzas (Dupont location only) or ultra-gooey grilled cheeses and shared around tables inside and out. The health-minded will do well with seasonal salads—pick a heaping plate of four for $10—and Pennsylvania chickens, roasted over potatoes to catch the delicious drippings. The market acts as a showcase for other local purveyors, so look for guest stars such as Bullfrog Bagels sandwiches on weekend mornings.
Gringos & Mariachis
This ongoing margarita-and-nachos party can be a tough ticket—especially on weekends, when waits can top an hour. It’s worth holding out. Not only are those cocktails deftly made, but you don’t have to spring for a top-shelf rendition. (We maintain that cheaper tequila makes a better marg.) When it comes to your plate, home in on duck nachos spiked with orange and jalapeños, smoky chicken mole poblano, and a spread of tacos—the slow-cooked lamb with salsa verde, Baja-style fish with Sriracha cream, and melty short-rib versions are fabulous. Fixings here are bright and fresh, flavor pileups interesting, and spice levels adjustable. While there are some creative interpretations, much of the cooking is solidly rooted in regional Mexican traditions.
Jewel of India
It’s prettier than most suburban curry houses, with a stylish bar and a colorful, low-lit dining room. It’s prettier, too, on the plate—but that doesn’t mean much if the kitchen can’t keep pace with the atmospherics. This one, overseen by the folks behind the vegetarian stalwart Woodlands, can. The menu aims to balance traditional tastes and street foods, classical approaches and more contemporary ones, and has no demonstrable weak spots. It does have a clear strength, and that’s in its vegetable curries, carried off with a finesse (and lack of oil) not often found elsewhere. Seafood, too, is handled with care, notably a preparation of shrimp moilee in which prawns are matched up to a creamy, coconut-rich gravy loaded with crunchy mustard seeds and dark, fragrant curry leaves.
It’s been around long enough, and on this list long enough, that the fact that it fronts a seedy-looking motor lodge should no longer be pertinent. We linger on this not because we’re preoccupied with appearances; it just makes it that much more incongruous and exciting for the first-timer to discover what’s inside: a colorful, cozy bistro with warm, attentive service, good rum-laced cocktails, and some of the area’s best South American cooking. The ideal strategy is to load up on soups (peanut or black bean, both richly creamy and superb) and maybe a salad, such as a lively one of corn, avocado, and greens. Then spring for multiple orders of excellent arepas—griddled, not fried, and stuffed with a variety of fillings, including the zesty (shredded beef, tomatoes, onions, and garlic) and the simple (a warm scrambled egg).
On a recent Saturday night, the line stretched out the door and customers waited in a cold rain. No bigtime chef is attached to the venture, nothing about the atmosphere even remotely suggests a scene, and the cooking makes no attempt to push boundaries. The draw? The consistency and quality of this small Peruvian strip-mall cafe. Fish is the focus, whether lightly cooked with lime juice (as with the bright and attractive presentations of ceviche or tiradito, the latter a fan of white fish atop a vividly yellow pool of aji-pepper sauce) or fried (most memorably, a whole trout flanked by rice and yuca). Potatoes are transformed into an array of treats, including the papa rellena, with spuds mashed and molded around a mix of raisins and ground beef, and the papa Huancaína, in which a lightly spicy cheese sauce drapes tender squares of steamed potato.
This Brookland pizzeria, dedicated to the pure and sometimes almost austere Neapolitan ideal, has had its ups and downs since the founding partners split, but a recent visit showed it to be more up than we’ve seen it in a while. The pies are constructed on excellent foundations: a bright and sweet tomato sauce, tangy slices of fresh mozzarella, and a crust (cooked quickly in the custom-built wood-fired oven from Italy) that hovers between chewy and crispy. The pizza dough is wisely repurposed for excellent calzones and sandwiches, which deliver the crunch of a grill-pressed Cubano. A heads-up for hop-heads: The craft-beer list is unexpectedly deep and interesting for such a tiny operation.
Mi Cuba Cafe
Even a weeknight can feel like a party at this bustling, tropical-hued restaurant in Columbia Heights. Couples pack two-tops in front while groups take over the back, boisterously conversing over mojitos. Cuban classics emerge from the kitchen, comforting and without a hint of heaviness—a danger in less skilled hands. There’s a toothsome ropa vieja (pulled beef stewed with tomatoes), one of the city’s best Cuban sandwiches, and juicy, crisp-skinned chicken served with a bright orange-garlic mojo sauce. All entrées arrive with buttery white rice and beans plus a side—the caramelized plantains are worth a trip in themselves.
NaiNai’s Noodle & Dumpling Bar
This zippy noodle parlor takes a pan-Asian approach to bao, those pillowy steamed buns that keep popping up all over town. Beyond the usual pork-belly and duck fillings (both done with flair), there are rave-worthy takes such as seared teriyaki Spam with mango salsa. The kitchen is even better with noodles. The Streets of Taipei bowl brings together hand-rolled strands with five-spice beef brisket, mustard greens, crispy garlic, and bok choy in a spicy beef broth. And pai gow—a tangle of noodles, ground pork, sprouts, and scallions tossed with soy sauce and chili oil—is lovely.
Flickering candles, dark wood, and vintage photos give these dining rooms a Mulberry Street vibe. The lineup of red-sauce plates fits the theme. This is the place to rediscover retro classics—a robust lasagna, linguine with sausage and melty peppers, or eggplant and veal Parmesans that are lightly sauced and dotted with cheese. Fried calamari have just the right crunch, and arancini are nearly the size of a bocce ball. To keep the tab especially low, check out weekday specials such as half-price wine on Monday and $6 martinis on Tuesday.
Neapolitan-style pies have all but taken over Washington’s pizza scene, but few in our area bear the authoritative stamp of Verace Pizza Napoletana, the Naples-based organization whose mission is to protect the dish and the way it should be made. Pretty impressive, given that the chef who snagged the designation is Bertrand Chemel, a Frenchman who took up pizza-making two years ago. At this cheery, kid-friendly dining room, his rounds sport a crust that’s sturdy enough not to disintegrate under the buffalo mozzarella and other high-quality toppings. (Just try not to pluck off all the nickel-size coins of piquant pepperoni while the pie is cooling.) And the other accoutrements—lovely desserts, brittle, olive-oily crostini—show the work of an accomplished chef who doesn’t overlook the little things.
The red-tiled beauty that anchors this narrow dining room is the Maserati of wood-fired pizza ovens. Imported from Naples, it runs hotter and cooks more evenly than its competitors. So whether you order a straightforward Margherita or a more embellished Calabrese, with olives, basil, and anchovies, you can expect tender crusts with just a bit of char. The casual, art-filled space is a friggitoria (fry shop), too—we love the creamy Ping-Pong balls of mozzarella, the prosciutto-studded potato croquettes, and the gooey cheese-and-eggplant arancini. For those who want to sidestep the line that snakes out the door, a fixture during dinner, carryout pizzas travel well.
Ray’s Hell Burger
The crowds have long since died down, and President Obama no longer is showing up to treat a head of state to a quintessential taste of American fast food. But Michael Landrum’s burgers—hand-ground from trimmings of the prime beef he sources for Ray’s the Steaks, his working-class steakhouse—are still as good as ever, thick and dripping with juice. The Mack remains the area standard, the cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion of our dreams, but it’s hard to resist the more clever combos, including a burger topped with chili and jalapeños. Don’t expect atmosphere—seriously, most fast-food joints have more going on in the room—but one of the “adult” milkshakes, spiked with booze, will go a ways toward cocooning you. The unorthodox Landrum recently debuted a “restaurant within a restaurant” at the Arlington location, devoted to what he calls Zemblan cuisine—Nabokov fans will get the reference, though you need not have read the émigré Russian master to appreciate the many varieties of the famed Georgian cheese bread khachapuri on offer, including one topped with superb steak tartare.
Red Apron Butcher
You likely know the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s trio of butcher shops for their humanely raised meats, vast array of house-made charcuterie, and gut-busting sandwiches. All good things. But Red Apron should get just as much attention for its fried chicken—even at a time when chefs all around town are obsessing over crispy birds. What makes the chickens so flavorful? They’re brined, given a turn in the rotisserie, and fried in beef fat, which imparts a thin, brittle crust (terrific when dunked in hot-sauced honey). The sandwiches are still superb—the Italian sub, for instance, is packed with translucent slices of cured meats, aged provolone, crunchy iceberg, and pickled peppers.
The truth is you could stand blindfolded in the Eden Center—a restaurant-rich shopping mall that amounts to a Little Vietnam for the region—point in any direction, and probably get a good meal. There are shops specializing in pho, bánh mì, bánh cuon, mock meat, bánh xèo,and bun bo Hue, to name just some of the staple dishes that define the extraordinarily diverse culinary culture of a country smaller than some US states. One of the great pleasures of Rice Paper is that it’s a kind of mini–Eden Center, bringing together all those tastes under one attractive roof as well as an encyclopedic range of dishes from northern, southern, and central Vietnam. It’s not just volume and breadth, though, that make the place great. It’s the consistency of the cooking and the quality across the board—the bright, popping salads; the delicate, crunchy crepes; and the clay pots of meats and fishes that somehow manage to hit every pleasure center of your brain at once.
The cooking might be composed of strapping plates of Russian and Uzbek fare, but to get the most out of a meal at this dandelion-yellow dining room, it helps to approach it as you would dim sum: Focus on the myriad dumplings and pastries that make up the front end of the menu. There are sesame-sprinkled, flaky pirozhki filled with silky potato purée and mushrooms; caviar-topped tarts filled with cream cheese; and samsa, thin turnovers filled with ground lamb. It’s easy to stuff yourself silly on just those, but it’d be a shame to ignore the Uzbek specialty plov, a heaping platter of gently spiced rice with hunks of lamb, or the old-school dessert tray—you’ll want to head straight for the cloud-like honey-nut cake.
Sabai Sabai Simply Thai
Blackboards advertising “Thai tapas” and local beers such as DC Brau are telling signs that this colorful restaurant has embraced a few dining trends. Thankfully, you won’t find tiny portions at big prices: Minus a few flourishes, owners Fred and CiCi Hart are true to the Thai eatery’s name, which translates to “relax, relax.” The large menu is split between two categories—classics and street fare—with bountiful vegetarian options, including the traditional (terrific chive-stuffed dumplings) and the unorthodox (a dish called You Think It’s Duck Curry). That’s not to say avoid meats and seafood, whose quality shines. The must-try for carnivores: kao kha moo, a heaping platter of tender braised pork leg, pickled dark greens, fresh herbs, and a bracing black-vinegar sauce.
On a list teeming with all sorts of exciting possibilities for armchair travel, it hardly seems right to include a chain diner (local, but still) dedicated to the kinds of things you can make yourself: eggs and bacon, burgers, meatloaf. But Silver Diner isn’t your average diner. The drinks list includes a number of local beers and wines, the quality of ingredients has spiked dramatically with the commitment in recent years to more local produce and meat, and the kitchens work with a surprisingly light hand. This is far from the greasy spoon you might have presumed—witness the excellent huevos rancheros with a spicy hash of ground bison. Yes, service can drag, and the ten-page menu has more than a few potholes (the misguided salmon sliders on oat buns, for one), but then you take a chance on an unexpectedly juicy bison burger with pesto, goat cheese, and red peppers and all (well, almost all) is forgiven.
Sudhir Seth is the man behind one of the area’s best Indian restaurants, Bethesda’s solemn, elegantly appointed Passage to India. This is his more affordable place, where he allows his kitchen to loosen up a bit. At both, the spicing in the gravies—witness the aromatic chicken nilgiri—is painstakingly conjured and complex. But here’s where you’ll find the kind of small plates you might crave after one too many Kingfishers: meaty wings bronzed in the tandoori oven, a chili-cheese toast that tastes like Welsh rare-bit gone subcontinental, and Snugly wrapped kathi rolls. Many are even cheaper on the happy-hour menu, weekdays from 5 to 7.
Chef Seng Luangrath’s Columbia Heights eatery often takes the spotlight from its more modest sibling, Bangkok Golden. We can see why: The cooking tends to be hotter and brighter, the dining room is spiffier, and the bar serves creative drinks that go well beyond staple Asian beers—split a liter carafe of luad, a blend of Malbec, sherry, and citrus. Adventurers should heed the call of the “jungle menu,” an exhilarating array of dishes that run super-fiery (shredded green papaya with dried shrimp), exotic (minced-alligator larb), or both, such as an addictive chilled phosalad with unfiltered fish sauce and crispy pig ears. Though such a trip is doable in the Cheap Eats budget, beware going overboard—pricier proteins such as local blue catfish, and cocktails, can add up.
Some bowls of ramen show an almost Marie Kondo–like restraint, with clear, delicate broths and sparing applications of pork and egg and scallion—they inspire sipping, not shirt-staining slurps. This is not that kind of ramen. Take the broth for this kitchen’s Toki Classic bowl—it’s hefty, porky, almost creamy, the result of a daylong simmer of pork bones, which is mixed with chicken stock and a dashi broth. The base soup alone is worth standing in line for, even without the chewy noodles and smart accessories like slow-poached egg, pickled ginger, and greens. The dining room’s 28-stool setup—most face the wall—isn’t exactly made for lingering, but the excellent cocktails and fabulous chocolate-chip cookies will likely convince you otherwise.
The long, blond-wood communal tables at this Ballston noodle bar look straight out of any 21st-century ramen shop. And while chef/owner Jonah Kim’s noodle soups here are satisfying enough, it’s the bar snacks and shareable salads that keep us nudging our way into the narrow space. How in the world do Kim’s Brussels sprouts stay so crisp? Turns out the chef took a cue from Outback Steakhouse’s “bloomin’ onion” and scores the bulbs to their quicks before frying them. A chili-flecked bean-sprout salad gets another dose of crunch from a scattering of Marcona almonds. And a small waffle, topped with luscious uni, pops with briny flavor thanks to pearls of salmon roe. Not feeling small-plates? If it’s Sunday, go for a communal platter of soy-brined fried chicken served with biscuits and kimchee.
See what other restaurants made our 2016 Cheap Eats list. This article appears in our May 2016 issue of Washingtonian.