Food

The Best New Restaurants to Eat Under $25 in Virginia

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

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.

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.

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.

Tacos and smashed avocado at Chop Shop Taco.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Meokja Meokja server Paul Ahn.

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.)

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.

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

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, Reston

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.

 

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.

Stomping Ground

2309 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria 

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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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.