Food

The Best New Restaurants to Eat Under $25 in DC

Taco Bamba.
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.

Bandit Taco

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.

Bombay Street Food

1413 Park Rd., NW

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.

 

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.

Wood-fired bagels at Call Your Mother.

Chaia Tacos

3207 Grace 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

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 bulgogihoagie (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.

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.

Colada Shop

1405 T St., NW

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mezcalero’s patio.

Oohh’s and Aahh’s

1005 U St., 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Taco Bamba

777 I St., NW

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

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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 that this 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.