Food

These Are the 27 Best Dishes in Washington Right Now

Luxe bucatini, fabulous fish sandwiches, and the best fried chicken in this fried-chicken-obsessed town.

Fried artichokes with herb aïoli at Stellina.

Fried Artichokes

Where: Stellina399 Morse St., NE

Fried artichokes are one of those dishes that can go south quickly—they can easily be too tough or turn greasy. You’ll have none of those worries at this Union Market–adjacent pizza shop, where the flash-fried leaves are always feathery yet stand up to the herby mayo that accompanies them.

Vaca Frita

Where: El Sapo, 8455 Fenton St., Silver Spring

It took chef Raynold Mendizábal years to get this Cuban staple right. The method he came up with “has nothing to do with the way it’s done,” he says. Instead of boiling and pan-frying brisket, Mendizábal packs the meat in salt for a week, then braises it so that its fat melts, turning it into something close to a confit. The meat is pan-fried; doused in lime, chilies, onions, and garlic; and shredded with a spoon at the table.

Fried Chicken

Where: Anju, 1805 18th St., NW

Alabama-style white barbecue sauce—tangy and mayo-based—has been cropping up more and more up north. Even at this Korean kitchen. Here, the sauce is made with Japanese Kewpie mayo and serves as a drizzle for the superlative double-fried chicken. The bird is glazed in fire-red, tongue-tingling gochujang. Even so, you’ll want more of the white stuff for dunking.

Snapper Escoveitch

Where: Cane, 403 H St., NE

Chef Peter Prime says this is the simplest of all his dishes at his Trinidadian restaurant. Maybe it’s easy enough to prepare—whole snapper is marinated in soy and lime, then flash-fried till it crunches—but it’s far more exciting to eat. Prime finishes the plate with fistfuls of fresh herbs, house-made pickled chilies, and best of all, the kitchen’s wondrous, deep-green cilantro sauce.

Detroit Pizza

Where: Della Barba 

Haven’t been to Della Barba? Well, neither have we—attorney turned pizzaiolo Joey Barber’s outfit is delivery and curbside pickup only. (He works out of Ivy City’s Union Kitchen.) Barber doesn’t specialize in any one style of pie—his New York slices are as good as his Sicilian squares—but besting them all are his thick Detroit pizzas, baked in the regional style’s requisite steel pans and topped with Wisconsin brick cheese, cheddar-like slices that bubble and caramelize.

Jackfruit Dumplings

Where: Punjab Grill, 427 11th St., NW

You may have heard about the gold-leaf-topped lamb or the flower-laden cocktails at this glitzy Indian dining room. We’re drawn to something far less flashy: chef Jaspratap Bindra’s jackfruit-stuffed dumplings, which are dusted in panko, draped in creamy tomato-and-cashew sauce, and finished with cilantro.

Pork-and-Mango Stew

Where: Thamee, 1320 H St., NE

Fellow acid-heads—lovers of all things citric and vinegary—should make their next stop this mom-and-daughter-run Burmese restaurant. Chef Jocelyn Law-Yone’s stew is a celebration of sourness—the curry contains green, fresh, and spice-marinated mangoes as well as tomatoes. All the tanginess is perfectly countered with slabs of meltingly rich pork belly.

Tacos Arabe

Where: Poca Madre, 777 I St., NW

Lebanese-meets-Mexican pork tacos at Poca Madre.

Victor Albisu’s take on this popular Lebanese-by-way-of-Mexico snack involves something he doesn’t usually use: a sous-vide machine. “I think it’s cheating,” he says. But the flavors of his yogurt-marinated pork-rib chop, which is then grilled, “were so next-level I couldn’t deny it,” he says. The tender meat is the centerpiece of these assemble-yourself tacos—pile that puffy, blistered flour tortilla high, then add eggplant crema, pickled turnips, sliced chilies, and mint.

Cheesesteak and Fries

Where: Philly Wing FryUnion Market, 1309 Fifth St., NE

You may have noticed that chef Kwame Onwuachi is on a roll. Last year, he released a memoir, now slated to become a movie, and won a slew of awards. Well, here’s more praise for him, or rather for his fancified but ridiculously satisfying cheesesteak, made with dry-aged rib eye, provolone, garlic mayo, and pickled pearl onions. His waffle fries deserve just as much attention—they get their kick from a dusting of Ethiopian berbere spice. [Note: Philly Wing Fry has closed.]

Kaiserschmarren

Where: Cut, 1050 31st St., NW
Some of our favorite moments at this Georgetown steakhouse—temporarily closed due to a fire—come when owner Wolfgang Puck sneaks allusions to his Austrian heritage onto the menu, such as this dessert. The fluffy pancake-meets-soufflé could easily feed two and is crowned with toppings that change with the seasons, such as brown-butter-caramel-splashed apples.

Shrimp Tacos

Where: Bandit Taco, 1946 New Hampshire Ave., NW; 4629 41st St., NW

Too often, tacos are stuffed to the point of falling apart, or skimp on good ingredients. Not so at Mauricio Flores Turcios’s taquerias, which serve griddled-to-order tortillas perfectly portioned with fillings, bright herbs, and house-made salsas. We’re partial to the crunchy togarashi-spiced shrimp with a creamy cabbage slaw.

Ax-Handle Rib Eye

Where: St. Anselm, 1250 Fifth St., NE

Vegetable-centric menus are all the rage, but when we’ve got a caveman-like craving, nothing is more exciting or indulgent than the massive bone-in Roseda Farm rib eyes at Joe Carroll and Stephen Starr’s Union Market restaurant. The prep isn’t fancy: salt and pepper, the char of an old-school steakhouse broiler, and a slap of melty garlic-parsley butter on top. But when that beast emerges from the kitchen—the starting size is three pounds—it turns heads.

Warm Shrimp Salad

Where: Le Diplomate, 1601 14th St., NW

Warm shrimp salad with loads of butter at Le Diplomate.

“Your salad smells wonderful” isn’t something we hear often, but that comment recently came from a diner at the next table when this warm shrimp salad landed on ours. “Salad” is a bit of a misnomer—the plate is really plump poached shrimp and a fan of avocado swimming in a truffle-lemon beurre blanc sauce—hence the pleasant aromatics—served with a chilled, citrusy pile of greens. The balance is beautiful, as is mopping the leftover butter sauce with one of the kitchen’s famed baguettes.

Roasted-Lobster Bucatini

Where: Iron Gate, 1734 N St., NW

Squid-ink bucatini with roasted lobster and bread crumbs at Iron Gate.

This romantic Dupont restaurant isn’t a place you want to be transported from—the wood-burning fire, the wisteria-covered patio—but it’s hard not to feel as if you’re dining by the Mediterranean with this lobster pasta. Chef Anthony Chittum roasts the crustacean over an oak fire, tops it with garlicky butter and bread crumbs, and serves it alongside a tangle of house-made squid-ink bucatini in lobster-tomato-basil sauce.

Farmer’s Stir-Fry

Where: Mama Chang, 3251 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax

There are plenty of flashy dishes such as whole ginger-scallion fish at chefs Peter and Lisa Chang’s latest restaurant, but this favorite from family matriarch Ronger Wang is among the humblest. A farmer from Hubei, China, Wang—Peter’s mother—harvested hot and green peppers, celery, and fresh eggs from her garden for the stir-fry, cooking it all in house-made stock with tender tofu skin. Here, the produce comes from local farms for the same fresh, homey flavors.

Burger

Where: Reverie, 3201 Cherry Hill Ln., NW

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Chef Johnny Spero serves up splurges at his modernist Georgetown dining room, but you don’t need to get the $115 duck for thrills. We’ll become regulars for the rib-eye burger, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. Take the cheese—smoked cheddar coaxed into a melty American texture thanks to molecular wizardry—or toppings such as miso pickles and smoked-egg special sauce. And the bun? “A Martin’s potato bun,” says Spero. “I could never make it as good as that.”

Shrimp and Grits

Where: Johnny’s Half Shell, 1819 Columbia Rd., NW

Diners may be obsessed with what’s next, but sometimes the best dishes are the tried and true. Chef Ann Cashion has been making the same shrimp-and-grits recipe since opening the first iteration of the Half Shell on P Street 20 years ago. That kitchen’s former occupant left behind a bag of Old Virginia Byrd Mill grits, whose intense corn flavor and creamy texture still shine in the dish today. The other secret: a zesty Cajun-style sauce, which Cashion says she makes “with a good bit of butter and a good bit of beer.”

Fried Rice

Where: Bad Saint, 3226 11th St., NW

Bad Saint’s fried rice tossed with lump crab, Chinese sausage, and crab fat.

After years of chicken and duck-fat everything, we’re hoping 2020 is the epoch of crab fat, known as aligue in Filipino cooking. “I’ve used it in a sauce for grilled prawns. I’ve made a crab-fat pasta,” says Bad Saint chef Tom Cunanan. “It’s such a craveable and versatile ingredient.” For this crab-fat fried rice, the rich “mustard” that makes Chesapeake crabs better than any in the world (yeah, we said it) is blended with dashi, then tossed in a hot wok with rice, lump crabmeat, Chinese sausage, and scallions. Topped with pops of trout roe, it’s the kind of plate you want for dinner, then late night after the bar, then breakfast.

Olive-Oil Cake

Where: Thompson Italian, 124 N. Washington St., Falls Church

Olive-oil cake with Madeira-poached raisins at Thompson Italian.

Katherine Thompson created this cake 11 years ago when she was working as a pastry chef in New York City, and it remains that restaurant’s bestseller. Lucky for us, she’s reprising the hit here. Thompson toyed with changing the accents—the moist cake is paired with crème fraîche mousse and Madeira-poached raisins—but wound up sticking to her original recipe, even down to the brand of olive oil.

Duck à la Pressé

Where: Bresca, 1906 14th St., NW

Tableside preparations are having a moment. The most elaborate around here comes courtesy of chef Ryan Ratino’s antique duck press, a gift from D’Artagnan owner Ariane Daguin. Roasted duck bones are pressed in the 19th-century contraption, turning the juices into a luscious bordelaise-style sauce for dry-aged duck breasts presented alongside a braised-duck-leg tart, salad, and milk-bread buns. Get there early—only four are available per night.

Whole Sea-Robin Crudo

Where: Fiola Mare, 3050 K St., NW

Sea robins—often considered “trash fish” when caught during a hunt for more luxurious species—get their moment in the limelight from chef Anton Bolling. The fish, often from New Zealand, is presented whole, its delicate meat served two ways: in sashimi-style slices and in a bright ceviche.

Clams With Sherry

Where: Etto, 1541 14th St., NW

Former owner Peter Pastan, also of 2 Amys, is a master when it comes to simple, sophisticated small plates. His penchant for anchovies and sardines is well documented, but we’re fans of his clams as well—roasted with dry Spanish sherry and house-made butter and served alongside house-made sourdough bread for sopping up the juices.

BG Ramen

Where: Dokiya Ramen, 785 Rockville Pike, Rockville

Frequently, the pork belly in a ramen bowl is bland and forgettable. Not so at this unassuming soup shop, where the tonkatsu-style broth is bolstered by rich, charred slabs of pork belly. The boldly flavored bowl is arrayed with a jammy egg, pickled ginger, and black-garlic oil.

Tofu

Where: Sushi Taro, 1503 17th St., NW

If your experience of tofu is spongy blocks from the grocery store, be prepared for a revelation at the hands of Nobu Yamazaki. His made-to-order version, which takes 15 minutes, is as creamy as custard and served in a bowl with warm dashi broth.

Jo-Jo’s Pansit

Where: The Game, 2411 18th St., NW

Filipino pansit noodles are usually the homey sidekick to showstoppers like sizzling sisig. At Jo-Jo Valenzuela’s sports bar, which serves dishes from his native Philippines, it’s the star player. Thin cornstarch noodles are studded with mushrooms, vegetables, and hunks of pork belly, all tossed in a savory blend of fish sauce, soy, and beef stock. Better yet: It easily serves a small crowd of fans.

Catfish Sliders

Where: The Dabney, 122 Blagden Alley, NW

The best dish at chef Jeremiah Langhorne’s wood-fired Shaw restaurant isn’t even on the menu. Just ask for “the sliders”—house-made sweet-potato buns stuffed with crunchy catfish, sweet pickled green tomato, ramp tartar sauce, shaved onion, and lettuce. (The secret is out—the kitchen makes about 100 a day.) An added perk: They’re good for the environment. “I was looking for a way to serve [blue] catfish every day, because of the damage they do to the Chesapeake Bay,” says Langhorne. “It was just a matter of developing the most delicious fried-fish sandwich we could.”

Bomboloni

Where: Piccolina, 963 Palmer Alley, NW

Centrolina pastry chef Caitlin Dysart started churning out these Italian doughnuts for the restaurant’s weekend brunch a few years ago. When her boss, chef/owner Amy Brandwein, opened a new cafe across the alley, Dysart knew they would become a daily fixture. Her version starts with a brioche dough, which is rolled into balls, fried, and dusted in cinnamon sugar. Somehow, they stay incredibly airy and light, even when filled with rich vanilla custard.

This article appears in the December 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.