Food

Eat Great Cheap! The 62 Best New Restaurants Around DC to Eat for Under $25 a Person

Our annual list of where to eat (and not break the bank) right now.

Eat Great Cheap! The 62 Best New Restaurants Around DC to Eat for Under  a Person
Hummus topped with greens and a soft-boiled egg at Little Sesame. Food styled by Nichole Bryant at THE Artist Agency.
Eat Great Cheap 2019

About Eat Great Cheap 2019

This article is a part of Washingtonian’s Eat Great Cheap feature, our annual list of where to eat (and not break the bank) right now. Our food editors put together the best new restaurants around DC where you can find Detroit-style pizza, Japanese egg-salad sandwiches, chicken-nugget-filled tacos, and more—for $25 or less per person.

What do Detroit-style pizza, Japanese egg-salad sandwiches, and chicken-nugget-filled tacos have in common (besides deliciousness)? They’re all things we couldn’t find in Washington until recently. Here are our 62 favorite new places where you can eat wonderfully well for $25 a person or less.

Agni

46005 Regal Plaza, Sterling

Lady Gaga is blasting, and cutesy inspirational phrases hang on the wall at this strip-mall spot. Odd match for its Southern Indian cooking—known for fiery flavors and a love of sharp-elbowed ingredients such as tamarind and mustard seeds—but no matter. There was a chili-fueled kick to every curry we tasted, from a cilantro-heavy stew of chicken to a creamy, cashew-based bowl of vegetables. You don’t want to miss the pepper fries—whether cauliflower or goat. Temper the heat with a dosaserved with cool coconut chutney.

Akira Ramen & Izakaya

1800-H Rockville Pike, Rockville

Fragrant broths and hand-pulled noodles elevate the bowls at this ramen parlor. Heat junkies will want to go for the Volcano, a robust broth riddled with hot pepper and torch-singed pork. (The miso ramen is a gentler alternative.) The izakaya side of the menu offers small plates such as a fabulous yellowtail collar; crunchy karaage chicken; and okonomiyaki, the egg-and-cabbage pancake with shrimp and bacon.

Alatri Bros. 

4926 Cordell Ave., Bethesda 

It’s easy to eat your veggies at this high-energy pizza place. They get star billing on a shareable board showcasing spicy carrots and roasted beets and on wood-oven pies such as the eggplant-and-mushroom-laden Verdura. Still, it’s hard to pass up ’njuda-topped deviled eggs (who knew?), meatball sliders on brioche buns, and the Multi Carni pizza (pepperoni, sausage, and pancetta). Smart cocktails, sangrías (we like the white), a deep list of beers, and a killer happy hour are as much of a draw as the food.

Amber Spice*

13524 Baltimore Ave., Laurel

The daytime buffet at this gray-toned dining room—lined with chicken tikka masala, palak paneer, and the other usuals—has legions of fans. We’re here for a taste of chef Saravan Krishnan’s home region of Southern India. Greaseless dosas stuffed with spiced potatoes; roasted lamb or goat sukka; a lemon rice that pops with chilies and mustard seeds; and kotthu paratha, a mess of chopped flatbread, egg, and onions. His most famous dish is his tomatoey egg curry, lush and searing at once and sided with warm, flaky paratha. Don’t skip the desserts—they’re little and lovely and made in-house.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Bandit Taco

4629 41st St., NW; 4629 41st St., NW

You’ll make out like the taqueria’s namesake at Mauricio Flores Turcios’s twin places. Street-style tacos, burritos, and melty quesadillas run $4 to $9. (There are also bowls, but we wouldn’t skip the griddled-to-order tortillas.) For fillings, we love beer-braised carnitas, pork al pastor, or crunchy togarashi-spiced shrimp—most showered with herbs, onions, and matchstick radishes. There’s no alcohol—splurge on elote instead.

Bistro 1521*

900 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington

Don’t let the glassy, sprawling dining room fool you—chef Amy Genayas’s Filipino cooking is as homey as we’ve tasted around here. The all-day menu delivers delicious classics: ukoy fritters, crunchy tangles of shaved vegetables and shrimp; lechon kawali, or crispy pork belly; barbecue chicken with pickled papaya; and the shaved-ice dessert called halo-halo. Still, the dish we couldn’t stop eating was the most delicate of all: sinigang na hipon, a shrimp-and-tamarind soup heaped with peppery watercress.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Crab malabar with lemon rice at Amber Spice.

Bombay Street Food

1413 Park Rd., NW; 524 Eighth St., SE

Restaurateur Asad Sheikh ran Indian restaurants in the Virginia suburbs (London Curry House, 1947, and Curry Mantra) before selling them and opening this ode to the street foods of his childhood. Enjoy vicarious nostalgia with the vada pav, a “Bombay burger” with a potato patty and a savory-sweet combo of chutneys, as well as Indo-Chinese fried cauliflower in a tangy glaze. For a wider sampling, the thali for two offers six curries, along with tandoori chicken, raita, mango chutney, salty mango pickles, naan, and gulab jamun.

Brew Belly

18065 Georgia Ave., Olney

This cavernous market/bar offers an eclectic selection of under-the-radar Maryland brews on tap (go for the Chuck Brown ale from Odenton’s Crooked Crab Brewing Co.). To pair with your pints or tasting pours, a bar menu is packed with stomach-padding delights. Front and center are the cheese­steaks—eight styles, including Korean-accented and Greek. But for Philly die-hards, we haven’t found a closer “wiz wit” clone. Fighting words, we know (and yes, it’s okay to order yours with mushrooms and rosemary gravy).

Call Your Mother*

3301 Georgia Ave., NW

Sorry, Rose’s Luxury and Bad Saint, but the line-of-the-year award goes to this turquoise-and-pink-painted sorta-Jewish deli, where hourlong waits on weekends are the norm. Here’s why you should go anyway: The wood-fired bagels are better than anybody else’s in town—just chewy enough but a little soft, slightly sweet, and heavily sprinkled with za’atar or “everything” spice. Order a pizza bagel or one of the excellent sandwiches—say, the smoked-salmon-laden Rihanna-Flex—and get a dozen to freeze at home. When you pop one into the toaster, you can laugh at all those fools in line.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Wood-fired bagels at Call Your Mother.
Wood-fired bagels at Call Your Mother.

Chaia Tacos

3207 Grace St., NW;  615 I St., NW

What started as a farmers-market stand drawing lines for beautifully prepared vegetables in fresh-pressed corn tortillas has evolved into two popular DC taco shops. The sunny new Chinatown outpost offers more seating and an expanded menu worth exploring for crisped open-faced tlayudas and seasonal shrubs on tap (go for the strawberry-basil). Still, it’s the tacos stuffed with either creamy kale and potato or braised mushrooms and feta that make the place a destination. Meat? What meat? You won’t miss it at all.

Chiko*

423 Eighth St.,  SE; 2029 P St., NW

Chefs Scott Drewno and Danny Lee recently expanded their Chinese-Korean fast-casual beyond its Capitol Hill flagship to Dupont Circle (and San Diego). High energy and bold flavors, along with cold beer and booze, make both counter-service restaurants worthy dinner destinations. The new shop has longer hours, with lunchtime rice bowls, a mean bulgogi hoagie (think Korean steak-and-cheese), and, at brunch, XO shrimp-and-grits and bloodies. Great any time: fiery lamb noodles and that now-famous chopped brisket with furikake-buttered rice.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Chop Shop Taco 

1008 Madison St., Alexandria

This past year has seen a flood of upscale-Mex, modern-Mex, and regional-Mex restaurants and taquerias. What sets this former auto-body shop apart? Chef Ed McIntosh, a man of many talents who’s also behind the excellent pizza at nearby Pendleton Carryout. Here, he rolls elote in za’atar, tricks out “smashed avocado” with serrano-pepper ash and scallions, and spit-roasts or confits meats such as pork shoulder and brisket for tacos. It goes without saying that he pays just as close attention to the tortillas, made with imported masa and hand-pressed throughout the day.

Cielo Rojo 

7056 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park

Co-owners Carolina McCandless (director of operations) and David Perez (chef) met while working at a vegan restaurant in San Francisco. And while cashew cream, farmers-market greens, and meatless posole make appearances on their cozy taqueria’s menu, they don’t shun animal products entirely. You can dig into heirloom-masa rounds (they’re a thing) filled with some of the area’s best carnitas, braised in oranges and Negra Modelo, or stewed chicken cloaked in a complex mole. Still, don’t miss the potato-and-poblano or grilled-cactus tacos or the lime-heavy guacamole.

Cinder

800 Upshur St., NW

We usually down our barbecue with beer, but this Petworth joint has a long roster of small-batch whiskeys. Given the steak-like quality of its star attraction—slabs of salt-and-pepper-rubbed Angus brisket smoked for 15 hours—the liquor list makes sense. Get it either plain or in a stellar sandwich with slaw and pickles (and don’t forget a splash of the bourbon-spiked house barbecue sauce). On the porcine end, ribs are meaty and messy, and paprika-dusted pork rinds have become one of our favorite snacks.

Digging into a Korean stew at Chiko.
Digging into a Korean stew at Chiko.

Colada Shop

1405 T St., NW;  21430 Epicerie Plaza, Sterling

We need more all-day spots like these tropically hued Cuban cafes where you can drop in at any hour for a coffee or cocktail—we love Barmini alum Juan Coronado’s piña coladas and fresh-mint mojitos. Start the day with a cortado and avocado tostada or linger in the evenings over flaky empanadas, ham croquetas, and one of the best Cuban sandwiches in town. (The lovely rooftop in DC is the place in nice weather.) Look for a third location to open at the Wharf this fall.

Curry N Tandoori

6347 Columbia Pike, Falls Church

If you take the restaurant’s name as a directive for what to order, you’ll find plenty of satisfying Indian staples at this dining room. But there’s more to the menu. Owner Raj Khadka hails from Nepal and offers a selection of specialties from his home country. Nepalese-style chow mein packs more spice and flavor than its American-Chinese counterpart, while a goat curry seethes with heat if you ask for it “Nepalese hot.” Don’t miss the thinly wrapped chicken jhol momo in a creamy nut gravy.

Dokiya Ramen

785 Rockville Pike, Rockville

Brimming ramen bowls are the stars at Rockville’s latest noodle shop. We devoured spicy miso-pork bone broth crowned with charred pork belly, bamboo, and a jammy egg; ditto the BG ramen, a tonkatsu version with black-garlic oil, red ginger, and fishcakes. Don’t be afraid to experiment—crispy chicken katsu with yellow curry broth or a vegetarian miso-mushroom ramen is just as delicious.

Dolan Uyghur*

3518 Connecticut Ave., NW

Noodles are likely what will get you hooked on Uyghur cuisine, a crossroads of Middle Eastern and Chinese flavors from China’s Muslim minority. Chewy hand-pulled laghman noodles with stir-fried beef and vegetables are the signature attraction at this Cleveland Park dining room, while wider ribbons star in the “big plate chicken,” smothered in a spiced gravy with potatoes and peppers. Other doughy delights include dumplings filled with pumpkin and a Uyghur-style pizza stuffed with ground beef.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Tacos and smashed avocado at Chop Shop Taco.

Fava Pot*

7393 Lee Hwy., Falls Church

This cheery cafe, with its chalkboards touting lattes and Virginia rosé, doesn’t appear to be much more than a leisurely lunch spot. But wait . . . is that kunafa, the honeyed Egyptian pastry, on the counter? And what’s with the wall painted with portraits of Egyptian athletes and intellectuals? Turns out some of the area’s most satisfying food—and some of our only Egyptian cooking—comes out of this kitchen. Go for anything lamb (shanks stewed with okra, chops spritzed with lime) plus comfort plates such as za’atar-spiced feta pie, or koshary, a tomatoey mix of rice, lentils, and macaroni. The milky bread pudding is a glorious ending even if you’re stuffed.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Fish in the Neighborhood*

3601 Georgia Ave., NW

Bill White’s Park View institution shut down after a fire in April 2017, but the cash-only seafood shop/carryout returned better than ever a year and a half later. You need only glimpse the ice-packed display case to see the freshness of each specimen. Catfish and whiting filets are the staples, but the kitchen expertly fries more than a dozen types of fish, plus juicy shrimp and oysters, in a flavorful cornmeal crust. Regulars know to ask for extra mango sauce on the side.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Green Almond Pantry

1314 Ninth St., NW

Former Etto chef Cagla Onal’s Mediterranean cafe/carryout is a hidden gem you want to tell your friends about—just not too many. (The lunch counter seats only eight.) The Turkish native, who also runs farmers-market stalls, bakes divine focaccia, serves tender lamb atop hummus, and has a way with seasonal vegetables such as braised artichokes and saffron-laced cauliflower. Dinner is takeout-only till 7; by day, we like to post up for a “little little in the middle,” which translates to a plate of veggies and dips plus a slice of mousse-like chocolate cake.

Hot Lola’s

4238 Wilson Blvd. (Ballston Quarter), Arlington

The best reason to visit Ballston’s Quarter Market food hall is this hot-chicken sandwich place from Kevin Tien, also behind DC’s top-tier Himitsu. His menu features just a few things—fried-chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders, Kewpie-mayo slaw, and curly fries. The standout offering is the Szechuan-meets-Nashville sando, layered with an ultra-crunchy, chili-oil-painted breast, plus cooling slaw and creamy comeback sauce on a sesame bun. Among the five heat levels, we go for the pleasantly searing OG hot and the tingly and numbing dry hot.

A trio of dips and appetizers at Fava Pot.
A trio of dips and appetizers at Fava Pot.

Hot Pot Legend

595 Hungerford Dr., Rockville

This offshoot of a Chinese chain does hot pot—in which you dip an all-you-can-eat spread of raw ingredients into a roiling broth at the table—a little differently than its competition in these parts. Once you order your broth (we liked a split of Szechuan spiced and mellow tomato bases), you take a tray and peruse a grocery-store-like display of ingredients: three kinds of tofu, myriad mushrooms and leafy greens, quail eggs, even Spam. Then you hit a fixings bar and concoct a dipping sauce. There are recipes for staff favorites, but you can’t go wrong with a fragrant blend of sesame oil, garlic, and heaps of scallion and cilantro.

Inca Social

2670 Avenir Pl., Vienna

Our favorite beginnings at this Peruvian dining room include an offbeat flash-fried ceviche and a trio of whipped potato cakes topped with shrimp, chicken salad, and beets. Then move on to shares such as arroz con pollo, which marries crisp-skinned chicken with savory rice tinted green with cilantro, and chaufa—quinoa or rice done up with soy sauce, egg, and spring onion. While tres leches cake may beckon, it’s the suspiro a la limeña—a velvety caramel dessert—that makes us swoon.

Katsu Go

12238 Rockville Pike, Rockville

You may have seen suddenly trendy katsu sandos in food mags or on New York restaurant menus. In Washington, they haven’t been so easy to find—until this fast-casual counter/Japanese grocery arrived in May. Here’s what we’ve been missing out on: thin slabs of toasted milk bread holding panko-crusted cutlets of pork or chicken and a sheen of tangy-sweet sauce. Japanese egg-salad sandwiches—yes, the ones that are all over Instagram—make an appearance, too. The less photogenic fare offers plenty of satisfaction, whether shrimp tempura and rice in a sweet dashi broth or fried pork with curry sauce.

Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

5268 Nicholson Ln., Rockville

As its name suggests, it’s all about the lechon belly at this fast-casual Filipino spot. Javier Fernandez rolls his lemongrass-scented boneless pork belly, then slow-roasts it until the skin crackles. Still, don’t overlook the sisig, a heap of sautéed pig ears and head cheese stoked with garlic and Thai chilies. Or the chicken adobo flavored with soy sauce and vinegar—on Thursdays there’s a deliciously crispy version tucked into a bao.

Petworth resident Pilar Henderson grabs takeout from Fish in the Neighborhood.

Lanzhou Hand Pulled Noodle

3 Grand Corner Ave., Gaithersburg

Few culinary sights are as transfixing as a chef pulling, flipping, and slapping a small mound of dough into what looks like a thousand strands of noodle—in less than a minute. At this counter-service spot, you choose your noodle thickness and protein, then take a place by the counter and watch. Chewy knife-cut noodles paired well with roast duck, while thick noodles were bolstered by a fortifying broth floating with rounds of oxtail, daikon-radish crescents, and bok choy.

Laos in Town

250 K St., NE

Nick Ongsangkoon, who also owns Soi 38, and chef Ben Tiatasin, formerly of Esaan, are Bangkok natives enchanted by the spicy, funky flavors of their neighboring Laos’s cuisine. Start with crunchy rolls wrapped in lettuce, lemongrass-laced pork sausage, or pickled-papaya salad. A whole fried rockfish hewed into crunchy, tamarind-glazed pieces is worth the splurge, though don’t underestimate modest-sounding dishes such as grilled chicken. The charcoal-kissed bird, dipped in vinegary chili sauce and paired with a cold beer, is transportive on the balmy patio.

Little Sesame*

1828 L St., NW; 736 Sixth St., NW

There’s hummus, and then there’s the luscious, never-eating-Sabra-again version at Nick and David Wiseman’s bright shops near Dupont Circle and Chinatown. Chef Ronen Tenne pays homage to the flavors of his native Israel with accessories such as airy pita and seasonal toppings including summer greens with mint pesto and almond gremolata. Offerings are largely vegetarian, though we love the chicken shawarma with smashed cucumbers. Round out a meal with salatim (little salads) and a swirl of vanilla-tahini-chocolate soft-serve.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

London Curry House

4906 Brenman Park Dr., Alexandria

The talented owner of Royal Nepal took over this opulent Cameron Station dining room earlier this year. Curries still have a deep richness and complexity—we especially love the Madras lamb, earthy with black pepper and lush with coconut milk, and the bone-in goat curry. But new to the menu are momo dumplings, a Himalayan specialty stuffed with ground bison, and a toss of fried kale with lotus, yogurt, and mint. Bruléed rice pudding will make you wonder why other chefs don’t torch this familiar sweet more often.

Szechuan Province meets Nashville in Hot Lola’s chicken sandwich.

Lucky Buns*

2000 18th St., NW

We know, we know: Who doesn’t serve a snazzy burger these days? Still, chef Alex McCoy crafts our ideal—a juice-dripping, jaw-stretching burger—at his spirited Adams Morgan pub. Single or double beef patties are tricked out with cheffy ingredients like bacon XO jam and spicy ’nduja, but we’re partial to the “Alfie’s bun” with grilled pineapple, pickled beetroot, and a runny egg. It was inspired by the Australian-run burger shacks McCoy encountered in Thailand. Fabulous fried-chicken sandwiches get their own world tour. They range from Japanese katsu to Indian tandoori and are ideally enjoyed from the patio on a sunny day.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Lucy’s

3907 14th St., NW (inside Little Coco’s)

After rotating through kitschy seasonal pop-ups, the owners of Little Coco’s have transformed the space above their Petworth Italian restaurant into a laid-back burger bar. The menu has just four burgers—all served on buttered Lyon Bakery potato buns. Minced white onion and Dijon-mustard aïoli top the most basic patty, but our fave is the deluxe, piled with bacon, cherry peppers, and white American cheese. Thin, salty fries mimic McDonald’s, but Lucy’s beats any fast-food joint when it comes to the drink list, heavy on classic cocktails and craft brews.

Makeda

516 S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria

Chef Senait Tedla’s Ethiopian cooking stands out for both its technique (her rib-eye tibs are perfectly cooked) and its intensity. Stir-fried lamb singes the tongue with awaze, a brick-red spice paste. A colorful platter of vegetarian stews—turmeric-laced yellow split peas, zesty red lentils, fiery mushroom tibs—practically leaps with flavor. And if you test an Ethio kitchen with its doro wat, Tedla’s chicken stew gets an A.

Masala Story

3301 12th St., NE

This vibrant Brookland cafe with a covered patio turns out Indian curries and street snacks with fire and finesse. Fried things—Amritsari fish, extra-spicy Punjabi-style fritters, crisp spinach rolls sheathed in chickpea powder—are must-orders, as are herb-flecked curries of lamb, goat, and chicken. If meat isn’t on your menu, go for kadi pakora, vegetable dumplings adrift in a yogurt sauce, or the eggplant stew called baingan bhartha. Drinks run from cocktails to local beers to a lovely masala chai that doubles as dessert.

Little Sesame’s hummus topped with chicken and pickled onion.
Little Sesame’s hummus topped with chicken and pickled onion.

Mason Dixie Biscuit Co.

1819 Seventh St., NW

“Butter,” scrawled across the ceiling of this Shaw chicken-and-biscuit shop, says it all. The pastel-hued diner excels in indulgences such as sausage-gravy-smothered eggs over buttermilk biscuits—breakfast runs all day—and warm biscuit sandwiches stuffed with crackling fried chicken. (For lunch, go with the spicy ranch version.) Southern-style sides including spiced wedge fries and creamy cheddar grits round out the menu. And of course, for dessert—we’re long past worrying about calories—get the strawberry shortcake.

Meokja Meokja*

9619 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax

It’s a good sign that there’s already a wait by 6:30 pm on a Tuesday at millennial owner Christopher Kim’s Korean barbecue joint. (Take advantage of a new call-ahead policy for parties of four or more.) Once you’re seated at the tabletop grills, surrounded by sizzling meats, it’s easy to see why. Generous portions of pork and beef—and not just their marinades—shine. Top of our list: thick-cut pork belly, marinated galbi (short ribs), and the whole 16-ounce rib eye for those who can splurge with a group.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Mezcalero

3714 14th St., NW

Mexico City natives and siblings Jessica and chef Alfredo Solis pack in hungry and mezcal-thirsty crowds at their Columbia Heights cantina. The main draws: bubbling queso fundido; beans-chorizo-and-chicharrón-stuffed tacos de canasta (tacos in a basket); huitlacoche quesadillas; and enchiladas with inky mole. At lunch, go for the Hawaiian torta, which tastes like the pizza in sandwich form. Dipping into the bar’s extensive agave-based spirit selection can hike up your tab—go for the tasty $8 house margaritas instead.

Oohh’s and Aahh’s

1005 U St., NW; 5933 Georgia Ave., NW

This U Street carryout upgraded to a roomier, more polished space at its second location in Brightwood’s Walmart complex, but the soul food remains every bit as soulful. Hefty appetizers such as lemon-pepper fried chicken wings and fried livers smothered in gravy will easily send you into a food coma. But stay alert for silky catfish—good either blackened or fried—or meatloaf. Hot-sauce-spiked collard greens and sweet yams are our go-to sides.

Fried chicken sandwich at Lucky Buns. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
The spicy fried-chicken sandwich at Lucky Buns.

Philly Wing Fry*

1309 Fifth St., NE (Union Market)

Kwame Onwuachi—the Kith and Kin chef and memoirist—has had quite a year. (Perhaps you recently caught him on The Daily Show.) Our question: Why aren’t more people talking about his cheesesteaks? The seven-to-ten-inchers, which he sells out of a stand at Union Market, are some of the city’s top sandwiches. Don’t come expecting anything resembling the ones at Philly stalwarts like Geno’s or Jim’s. Onwuachi’s tightly rolled steak version holds juicy dry-aged rib eye, smoked provolone, and both caramelized and pickled onions. Chicken and spicy-mushroom renditions are nearly as wonderful, as are the berbere-dusted fries.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Pit Stop*

46230 Cranston St., Sterling

The smartest marketing move the Cascades shopping complex could have made was landing this barbecue spot, which sends tantalizing hickory smoke far into the air. Cops, teens, and lunch-breakers cram into the joint, a spinoff of a popular roadside stand in Aldie, for near-perfect ribs, smoked-chicken-salad sandwiches, and the famed brisket, which runs out as fast as you can say “More, please.” The menu doesn’t bother with lots of sauces or tons of sides. (The slaw and potato salad are winners.)

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Pizzeria Al Volo

1299 Pennsylvania Ave., NW

Daniele and Matteo Catalani, an uncle-and-nephew chef team from Italy, have expanded their pasta-centric Al Volo empire from a Union Market stall to a string of casual eateries across the city. Thick, chewy squares of Roman-style pizza join the fresh pastas here. The sourdough crusts, fermented three days, are airy but support toppings such as spicy pepperoni and mozzarella well. We’re also fans of the Italian cold-cut sandwiches. Not counting carbs? Look for pizza-pasta combos, plus freshly fried zeppole (doughnuts).

Rasa

1247 First St., SE

Childhood buddies Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod grew up in local Indian restaurants—their fathers own Indique and Bombay Bistro. The younger generation’s interpretation of hospitality is fitting for the times: a bright fast-casual restaurant where you can swing in a basket chair while sipping a masala-spiced gin and tonic and diving into cheekily named bowls. Our favorites include the vegetarian Aloo Need Is Love (lemon rice, coconut-ginger sauce, charred eggplant, pickled veggies) and the Home Cooking, with vermicelli, gingery shrimp, and mango-coconut yogurt.

Meokja Meokja server Paul Ahn.

Rice Crook

4238 Wilson Blvd. (Ballston Quarter), Arlington

“Another day, another bowl place,” you might be thinking. But Scott Chung’s stand inside Ballston’s Quarter Market food hall isn’t just any fast-casual mall spot. His Korean-accented bowls are composed of nicely grilled meats (we like the lemongrass chicken or barbecue beef), excellent kimchee, freshly whipped aïolis, and micro-greens from DC’s Little Wild Things farm. Oh, and rice. There are three to choose from—slightly sticky purple grains, fluffy jasmine, and crunchy brown. Whichever you go with, the flavors here are kaleidoscopic.

Royal Nepal

3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria

Even the most jaded food lover is likely to find a surprise at this farm-to-table Nepalese restaurant, where jars of pickled daikon radishes and carrots line the windows. Goat Bhutan turns out to be a funky stew of organ meats—lungs, liver, kidneys—in an intense curry. Yak chili marries chunks of jerky-like meat with a jammy sauce of tomato, ginger, chili, and garlic. (Yak is also the base for the marvelous momo dumplings drizzled with green-chili sauce.) A dreamy dish of whipped goat yogurt, adorned with pomegranate seeds and saffron, is all you need for dessert.

Sen Khao

Tysons Galleria, McLean

If anything can liven up the quiet top floor of Tysons Galleria mall, it’s Seng Luangrath and Bobby Pradachith’s vivacious Laotian corner of the Urbanspace food hall. The menu will look familiar to fans of the chefs’ Thip Khao and Padaek: an abundance of herbs, curries, and fish sauce, plus searing heat (if you ask). Beyond tasty spring rolls and crispy-rice salad, dishes fall into two camps: entrées with sticky rice or noodle bowls. Crunchy lemongrass catfish and fiery chicken wings were favorites in the former, while Laotian pho is punchier and more complex than its Vietnamese cousin.

Señor Ramon Taqueria

11790 Baron Cameron Ave; 4500 Daly Dr., Chantilly; 22455 Davis Dr., Sterling; 38 S. King St., Leesburg

The tacos that come from this fast-growing chainlet are maximalist in every way. They’re big and bountiful, served in two-ply tortillas, and embellished with things like chipotle aïoli and pepper jelly. Somehow, meats such as savory carnitas and juicy barbacoa still manage to stand out (and you can get them the street-stand way, with just cilantro and onion, if you want). While you’re at it, grab an order of corn nuggets—airy fried puffs served with creamy cilantro sauce.

Mezcalero’s patio.

Smoking Kow

3250 Duke St., Alexandria

This pair of barbecue spots—plus a food truck—offer up a wide array of smoky pleasures: charred baby back ribs, burnt ends, fork-tender pulled pork, and a blue-ribbon brisket sandwich. Cut the richness with vinegary corn salad, and load up on the potato salad, which isn’t too heavy on mayo. Barbecue isn’t the only fire-licked treasure here. The wooden picnic tables have been stained with a blowtorch.

Sonny’s*

3120 Georgia Ave., NW

We love ubiquitous Neapolitan pies as much as the next pizza fanatic, but the grandma-style rectangles at this Park View joint are a welcome break. Pan-crisped slices come with thick crusts and minimalist toppings such as salami and arugula. Other highlights include eggplant parm and Italian cold-cut sandwiches on focaccia, as well as beef-and-pork meatballs with ricotta. Grab a bench—salvaged from a bowling alley—in the retro dining room or head to the back patio for beer, wine, and cocktails served out of a vintage milk truck.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Sorellina

2029 P St., NW

Bowls have taken over the downtown lunch scene, but rest assured you can still get a good sandwich. This unassuming Italian cafe serves a mean meatball sub with sweet tomato sauce and a cold-cut sandwich dressed with hot-cherry-pepper relish, chimichurri, and giardiniera pickles. Service isn’t limited to lunch, either. Stop by in the morning for your bagel-and-lox fix (it’s upgraded with smoked-caper schmear), during happy hour for a salad and Aperol spritz, or late night for Stachowski’s pastrami on rye.

Stomping Ground

2309 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 2001 International Dr.Tysons Galleria, McLean

Giant, fluffy buttermilk biscuits are the thing at Nicole Jones’s sister bakeries—the stroller-crammed Del Ray original and the newer Tysons Galleria kiosk. They’re fabulous on their own or with a simple swipe of house-made jam. There’s no elegant way to eat them in sandwich form—crammed with bacon, egg, and cheese or with fried chicken, honey, and benne-seed tahini—but their pros outweigh the mess.

Philly Wing Fry’s cheese­steak, made with dry-aged rib eye Food styled by Nichole Bryant at The Artist Agency.
Philly Wing Fry’s cheese­steak, made with dry-aged rib eye Food styled by Nichole Bryant at THE Artist Agency.

Swizzler

Find food truck locations here.

Curlicued hot dogs with gourmet toppings make Swizzler one of our favorite food trucks, and a new sister vehicle serving burgers is even more reason to reroute your lunch plans. That menu offers just one meat and one vegetarian option. The grass-fed-beef burger contains two smash patties oozing with cheddar, tangy-creamy sauce, pickles, and shallots. The lentil patty is just as satisfying, especially with a side of fries covered in Parmesan and truffle oil.

Taco Bamba

777 I Street., NW; 2190 Pimmit Drive., Falls Church; 164 Maple Ave., West Vienna; 6691-A Backlick Rd., Springfield; 10629 Braddock Road., Suite B-8 Fairfax

Stoner savior or taco genius? Chef Victor Albisu—also behind upscale Poca Madre in Penn Quarter—is both, making us believers in improbable creations such as tacos with poutine, tacos with patty melts, and, at the newest Fairfax location, tacos with chicken nuggets and honey mustard. What’s impressive is that his more straightforward stuff—posole, guac—is pretty terrific, too.

Taqueria Habanero

3710 14th St., NW

Standout street tacos and sopes are a given at these taquerias—the Columbia Heights original and the eight-month-old College Park dining room/takeout counter. Freshly pressed tortillas swaddle savory carnitas, lengua, and barbacoa. But it’s only at the newer spinoff that you’ll find regional delicacies such as the meal-in-a-bowl known as the molcajete mixto, a sizzling crock layered with steak, shrimp, chicken, and jalapeños, among many other things.

Taqueria Los Compadres*

Please note: The restaurant is now closed. 3213 Mount Pleasant St., NW

Mexico City native Juan Carlos and wife Nelly Romero, who hails from Puebla, specialize in overflowing tacos at this colorful spot in Mount Pleasant. Handmade tortillas wrap a bounty of meats, including lengua (tongue) and lamb barbacoa, but don’t ignore the many vegetarian options, especially squash blossoms and huitlacoche (a corn fungus also known as “Mexican truffle”). Not feeling tacos? Zero in on chicken with mole poblano, creamy poblano-and-cheese tamales, and pulpy cucumber-mint aguas frescas.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Korean barbecue beef bowl at Rice Crook.
Korean barbecue beef bowl at Rice Crook.

The Game Sports Pub

2411 18th St., NW

You can barely hear baseball over the sizzle of sisig at this sports bar specializing in Filipino fare. (The crackling cast-iron pan of pork ears and belly, peppers, and chicken-liver aïoli easily steals the spotlight, too.) Co-owner Jo-Jo Valenzuela, a longtime DC bartender, taps his Philippines roots for both the drinks—try the Rizal with gin and guava/calamansi-orange soda—and some of the menu. Traditionalists can order burgers and wings, but the biggest winners include garlicky crab-fat linguine and pancit noodles with pork belly.

The Girl and the Vine

7071 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park

Two Elle alums are behind this pretty wine shop/deli/cafe, open breakfast through dinner. We like it best during the day, when you can snag a table on the patio and laze over snacks such as spiced labneh, fennel with Green Goddess dressing, or the surprisingly great nachos. Sandwiches are no slouches, especially a medley of vegetables perked up with chimichurri, a potato-chip-laden pork sandwich, or a play on an Italian sub slathered with roasted-garlic aïoli.

Tsehay Ethiopian Restaurant*

3630 Georgia Ave., NW

Selam Gossa grew up around her mother Tsehay’s Addis Ababa cafe, where she dutifully studied her mom’s care for both customers and ingredients. Now Gossa—who also owns a neighboring salon and spa—is honoring her late mother’s recipes and sense of hospitality with this Ethiopian newcomer. Beef tibs and a turmeric-tinted yellow lamb stew are popular orders, and the veggie combo stands out for vibrant red lentils, garlicky green beans, and a gravy-rich shiro made of chickpea flour, tomato, and garlic. A spacious patio out back makes the Park View destination even more inviting.

*Named as one of our Top 15 from this list.

Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot

2972 Gallows Rd., Falls Church

Hot pot might be in this restaurant’s name, but it’s no longer the main attraction since the former owners of Tempt Asian in Alexandria took over earlier this year. The best finds are concentrated under the “chef specialties” section of the menu—in particular, the handmade noodles, whether cumin-scented strands stir-fried with lamb and peppers or the wide, chili-oil-soaked ribbons in the “city large plate chicken.”

Pizza options at Sonny's.
Pizza options at Sonny’s.

Urban Hot Pot

1800 Rockville Pike, Rockville

Snag a booth by the conveyer belt at this mod all-you-can-eat hot-pot restaurant and watch ingredients such as dumplings, lotus, and bok choy parade by. Cook it all in personal pots of bubbling broth—we like spicy chicken-and-pork—and pick from a plethora of dipping sauces. If you want to maximize your two-hour limit, home in on proteins such as lamb, head-on shrimp, and tofu before loading up on starches like dumplings and noodles. Deal-seekers, the best time to visit is lunch, when a feast is $18.99.

Wooboi

139 Spring St., Herndon

The word is out about this tucked-away, weekday-only hot-chicken spot—and Facebook foodie groups aren’t the only ones going nuts for it. On a Tuesday at 1:30, the line was still winding back to the front door, the air tingly with cayenne. The sandwiches are great—even if, like us, you make it to only the second spice level out of the six you can choose from. (Brave the two hottest and you’ll have to sign a waiver.) Even with the vinegary slaw and pickles, creamy sauce, and buttery bun, our mouth stayed on fire for hours. Sides of sweet-potato fries and fried okra are a good buffer.

Skirt steak and al pastor tacos at Taco Bamba.

Yunnan by Potomac

814 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria

Come seeking comfort at this southwestern Chinese noodle house steps from the Potomac River. In a quiet room hung with tapestries from co-owner Zongmin Li’s native Yunnan, you’ll find chrysanthemum tea and the soft rice noodles called mixian. The spaghetti-like strands are the specialty here, either in delicate soups or a homey toss of tender braised beef and its jus (a summery alternative: the refreshing liang mixian salad with marinated chicken and vegetables). Bowls can make a meal, but small plates—tangy cucumbers, steamed lotus-leaf buns with pork belly or tea eggs—are worth the diversion.

Zenebech Restaurant

2420 18th St., NW

Few DC institutions have survived as many changes as Zenebech, which opened as an injera bakery in Shaw 26 years ago. Since then, it has expanded to include a carryout, transformed into a full-service Adams Morgan restaurant, and, last year, reopened after a devastating fire. These days, you’ll find a large, diverse Ethiopian menu on which classics such as kitfo and richly flavored stews are joined by local beers and a page-long vegetarian lineup (we like the veggie ferfer). True to its roots, the house-made injera is worth the extra cost.

What’s New? All of the places on this list have, in the past two years, opened or reopened, experienced ownership changes, or debuted additional locations.

This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

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.

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.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.