For some, summer is known as bikini season. We prefer to think of it as barbecue season—and burger season, too. Dig into our annual guide to bargain dining and find the area’s tastiest indulgences that can be had for $25 or less per person.
By Todd Kliman, Ann Limpert, & Anna Spiegel.
Photographs by Scott Suchman.
What makes a great burger? The answers to that question are endless: It might be made of lobster or ground chuck, smashed on a griddle or grilled to a perfect medium-rare, gloriously messy or carefully constructed. We devoured all kinds to find the 25 best patties in the area.
800 F St., NW, 202-800-9930; 1216 18th St., NW, 202-683-9922; Nationals Park, 1500 S. Capitol St., SE; no phone
Ten years ago, high-end restaurateur Danny Meyer smartly raided the grocery aisle—not the four-star kitchen—for the fixings at his New York burger stand, which has since launched 24 more locations around the country. American cheese, Martin’s potato rolls, green leaf lettuce, pickles, and mayonnaisey ShackSauce are all these just-greasy-enough burgers need.
You’ll surely wonder, as you chomp down into this decadent spin on an American classic ($16), why all bacon cheeseburgers don’t come with bacon ground into the beef. This is a full five-napkin affair—a lusciously sloppy handful that makes other high-end burgers look prim and proper by comparison. Here’s to a burger with pedigree that’s gloriously unafraid to be gut-busting junk food. 1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington; 703-888-1920.
Here it is, the Platonic ideal of a cheeseburger ($11.99). No twists on tradition, no cheffy touches—just a hand-ground, prime-beef patty, well seasoned and perfectly charred on the grill. Two slices of American cheese enhance the meat without upstaging it, while a thickly cut beefsteak tomato provides a welcome touch of sweetness. Michael Landrum has been a quixotic presence on the scene these past couple of years, but this burger is a reminder of the pure pleasure his restaurants can bring. 1650 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-974-7171.
Ype Von Hengst said that his goal in making Silver Diner more health-conscious was to ensure that his restaurants had an audience for the next 25 years. He never said anything about coming up with a burger to compete with the area’s best. The bison patty ($15.48) is slathered with local goat cheese, capped with a slice of roasted red pepper, and given a generous dollop of fresh pesto. It’s diner-like in that it’s a hefty handful, but it’s worthy of a trendy bistro. Multiple Maryland and Virginia locations.
Wolfgang Puck is fond of saying that we eat first with our eyes, and the mini-burgers ($8 for two) at his Penn Quarter restaurant make a compelling case for that claim—they’re so perfectly engineered for their close-up that you don’t know what to do first when they arrive, eat them or snap a picture. Don’t let the tiny package deceive you: These miniatures pack more flavor than most regular-size burgers. Credit the mix of prime aged and Wagyu beef and a superlative bun. 575 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-637-6100.
We tend to roll our eyes when we hear “truffle” and “burger” in the same breath, but chef Michael Harr has created a masterpiece ($17). In fact, the often overpowering flavor of the fungi, which are in the sottocenere cheese and whipped into an aïoli, recedes into the background, allowing the rest of the burger—a house-ground patty piled with sweetly pickled and crispy fried onions plus roasted portobellos—to take the spotlight. 7272 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-8008.
If Brie and honey on a beef patty sounds like sacrilege, this Del Ray burger shop—the sister to nearby Pork Barrel BBQ—will likely convince you otherwise. The caramelized onions, puffy brioche bun, and thick-cut bacon make this burger the perfect union of savory and sweet. To go with it, grab an order of onion rings or sweet-potato fries with rémoulade. 2312 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-666-8616.
Chef Cedric Maupillier has a proven track record with riffs on French fare, and it turns out he can throw down when it comes to the most American of dishes, too. A mound of juicy dry-aged beef ($17) takes a turn on the wood grill, then is finished with melty cheddar and a fistful of smoky bacon. 1813 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-234-6732.
1601 14th St., NW; 202-332-3333 It’s hard to imagine, but pretend you were homesick in Paris—wandering around and looking for something familiar to soothe you. This French bistro puts out the burger you’d fantasize about finding, an homage to the Golden Arches with perfectly salted, skinny double patties, creamy “special sauce,” red onions, pickles, and American cheese. On the side: excellent, salty fries that will also remind you of a drive-through—in the best way.
This fast-food chain is Washington’s entry into the national burger conversation—what started as an Arlington carryout now has more than 1,000 red-and-white-tiled locations across the country. It’s easy to taste why. The double-stacked burger ($6.29 to $6.79) itself is a simple thing: all salty, greasy, diner-thin goodness. There are no fancy cheeses—just American—but the toppings are up to you. We go for a tried-and-true mix of ketchup, mustard, mayo, pickles, lettuce, and onions. Multiple area locations.
The handful of dried cranberries that adorn this thick turkey patty ($10) don’t inspire much confidence—until you take a bite and realize how nicely the sweet-tart fruit accents the burger. Zestily spiced sour cream and pepperjack cheese make good accessories, too. 11922 Democracy Dr., Reston; 703-796-1008.
You won’t go wrong with any of the bar menu’s burgers (also served in the restaurant at lunch), from classic beef to succulent turkey, at this haute steakhouse. Still, we most often crave the Greek-inspired lamb rendition ($19), made with house-ground meat from local Border Springs flocks. An olive-oil bun enriches the dish, while dill tzatziki, tangy feta, and tomato confit conjure the best gyro imaginable. Skip beer—this burger deserves one of the lounge’s stellar cocktails. 2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-944-2026.
At his folksy milkshake-and-burger joints, Spike Mendelsohn dolls up fast-food-style burgers (thin, griddled patties; squishy buns) with an offbeat array of accoutrements. This tribute to Washington’s most famous burger fan—who has brought his staff to the Capitol Hill location for lunch—is our favorite, with crumbles of Roquefort cheese, thick and crisp bacon, and sweet onion marmalade. ($6.98) 303 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, 202-543-8222; 3291 M St., NW, 202-337-4663; 2110 Crystal Dr., Arlington, 703-415-4663.
Chef Michel Richard pioneered the seafood-burger trend in Washington and kicked off the era of $20-plus patties. His lobster version ($30), on his bistro’s menu since the day it opened in 2007, remains the gold standard. Sweet tail and knuckle meat bound with scallop mousse tastes truly luxurious tucked between pillowy brioche buns and dressed simply with oven-roasted tomato, mayonnaise, and crunchy potato tuiles. If any burger can stand the test of time, this is it. 1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-626-0015.
An unlikely blend of two bistro staples—French onion soup and hearty burgers—makes for an addictive invention ($18). Melty Comté cheese and caramelized onions blanket the grass-fed Virginia beef patty, but it’s the final step that drives the flavors home: The kitchen dunks half the onion bun in onion-soup broth just before it’s served, creating extra-juicy bites. 555 Eighth St., NW; 202-783-6060.
There’s a bouillabaisse bowl’s worth of ingredients in this longtime favorite ($18), a holdover from the days when seafood master Eric Ripert was overseeing things. The patty is fashioned from chunks of striped bass, then topped with roasted tomatoes, ribbons of fennel, and a finishing touch of saffron aïoli. 1190 22nd St., NW; 202-974-4900.
775 G St., NW; 202-737-7663
Two of chef Haidar Karoum’s favorite Vietnamese dishes inspired this lunchtime creation:sugar-cane shrimp and bánh mì. You’ll taste flavors of both between the deep-fried shrimp patty and the brioche bun swiped with spicy sambal mayo and layered with bright veggies and cilantro.
1309 Fifth St., NE; 202-547-0172 Union Market’s lone full-service restaurant has endured an uneven opening, but one thing it has nailed is this retro classic. Wisely, chef John Mooney has elected not to gussy the sandwich up beyond recognition. Instead, he has put his effort into perfecting each element: griddled rye that crunches like a dream, a tightly packed patty that blushes pink, melted cheddar that delivers gooeyness and tang, and caramelized onions that have never tasted sweeter.
We love our meat burgers, but the vegetarian version ($17) at Woodmont Grill has been a staple on the menu since the restaurant’s early days (when it was known as Houston’s) for good reason. The black-bean-and-rice patty gets its hue—and flavor—from beets and chopped prunes, and the slight sweetness is an excellent foil for the toppings: lettuce, pickles, jack cheese, yellow mustard, and mayo. 7715 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-656-9755.
Few burgers do high/low as well as Nathan Anda’s ($10). Shredded lettuce, Thousand Island–like sauce, and a blanket of cheddar recall our favorite short-order creations, but there’s nothing budget about the ingredients. Anda blends local brisket, short rib, sirloin, and chuck for the patty, while bread guru Tiffany MacIsaac crafts perfectly buttery buns. 1309 Fifth St., NE, 202-524-6807 (burger available only on Friday); 709 D St., NW, 202-524-5244; 8298 Glass Alley, Fairfax, 703-676-3550.
2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-270-1500 Bertrand Chemel’s creation is the Bentley of burgers ($19). The luxe patty is made of house-ground duck—leg, skin, and breast—then topped not with cheese but with a melting slab of pepper-cured foie gras and set on an olive-oil brioche bun. It makes for an insanely rich bite, but Chemel saves it from its own excess with a mound of tangy onions cooked down in Banyuls vinegar.
1513 17th St., NW; 202-733-5623 You may not look proper devouring this East London–inspired pub’s burger, but it’s worth attacking with abandon. Two Creekstone Farms beef patties—thick enough for medium-rare—make for a mouthful, smothered in a sweet-tangy mix of melted Gouda, chili sauce, aïoli, house pickles, and arugula. ($12)
Prized Ibérico pork most often appears in cured form, but it’s fresh meat from Spain’s famous acorn-fed pigs that stars in these mini-burgers. The common curse of sliders—dryness—is banished by the nutty fat, while garlicky aïoli and piquillo peppers enrich each bite. ($7) 480 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-7949.
Beef Wellington—that pastry-wrapped staple of ’50s dinner parties—is the inspiration for this rock ’n’ roll burger chain’s behemoth ($8.99). The dry-aged patty is grilled, then laden with sautéed mushrooms and onions, plus loads of blue cheese. It’s probably the most elegant thing you’ll ever eat while surrounded by Journey album covers. Multiple area locations.
2121 K St., NW, 202-974-6260; 8150 Baltimore Ave., College Park, 240-542-4702; Westfield Montgomery Mall, Bethesda, 301-767-3943; Potomac Mills Mall, Woodbridge, 703-490-2121 For Bobby Flay, the important numbers when it comes to burger making are 80-20. Twenty refers to the percentage of fat in the beef and explains why the patties here are so juicy. We’re partial to this smart Southwestern spin, which cloaks the beef in an unexpectedly sophisticated queso and adds heat and crunch with green chilies and pickled red onions. Points, also, for an assertively salted and peppered patty and a seeded bun that doesn’t ride high. ($7.95)
Peanut butter on a patty? We gave it a try.
Everyone from politicos to Guy Fieri have dropped by this Capitol Hill dive for the ultimate greasy-spoon burger ($9.49): a griddled patty dunked in paprika-spiked beer batter, deep-fried, and set on a potato roll with a melted slice of American cheese. Would we eat it every week, arteries be damned? No—the Tune Inn Burger, with its crisp onion straws, delivers more satisfying crunch. But as far as novelty burgers go, it’s tasty. 3311/2 Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-543-2725.
New York chef Keizo Shimamoto drew national acclaim for his ramen-burger pop-ups. This local, miniaturized knockoff ($12) boasts a similar bun fashioned from ramen noodles and browned on top for texture, but we wouldn't queue up for it. The structure quickly disintegrates, while lettuce and tomato make odd bedfellows for the hoisin and Sriracha aïoli spreads. Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, 3100 South St., NW; 202-912-4100.
At first, fusing a PB&J with a burger had us asking why. But Ted’s creation ($12.79) proved us wrong. The peanut butter, on both sides of the puffy bun, is subtle—it’s really all about the sugary tomato jam, applewood bacon, and ultra-juicy medium-rare patty. Salty, smoky, sweet—what’s not to like? 505 Eighth St., SE, 202-544-8337; 1818 14th St., NW, 202-265-8337; 11948 Market St., Reston, 703-956-9510.
Want to dine at upscale restaurants but save some cash? Try these tricks for scoring a less expensive meal.
Whether you’re craving pies in the style of New York, Naples, or New Haven, we’ve got your place
909 Bay Ridge Ave., Annapolis; 410-990-1846 Yes, believe it: A wine bar in Annapolis is sending out the best pizzas in the area. Chef Justin Moore has an unerring sense of what combinations work best, and his crusts—light and airy but remarkably sturdy—combine the best qualities of brick-oven and wood-burning pies. The Charcuterie pizza is a typically virtuosic display, in which nine ingredients (including American Berkshire prosciutto, bacon, spicy soppresatta, and local mushrooms) are made to taste, miraculously, like one.
4926 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-6427 Owner Mia Ballinger will likely be the one greeting you at the door at this seven-year-old, yellow-painted pie shop. The stacks of white and red oak outside are a harbinger of what’s to come—terrific wood-oven pizzas with bubbling edges and Neapolitan-inspired crusts that aren’t so thin that they disintegrate under their toppings. There’s a lovely Margherita, but the Salsiccia—with its fiery mix of pepperoni, sausage, pepper flakes, and mozzarella—might just be our favorite.
3715 Macomb St., NW; 202-885-5700 It used to be that people came for the pizzas and “discovered” the small plates. Now they come for the small plates and “rediscover” the pizzas. Many pies call themselves Neapolitan; many emerge from a wood-burning oven. But few are as topographically complex. Here, the variegated surface—bubbling and marvelously hillocked—makes for a different bite nearly every time. Chef Peter Pastan is obsessive in his pursuit of high-quality ingredients, so splurge for that cockle pie knowing that the title ingredient is as clean and sweet as possible.
1063 31st St., NW; 202-337-4444 The crusts are an almost perfect balance of chewy and crisp, and the wood-burning oven lends them an irresistible smoky perfume. In the Neapolitan fashion, you should expect a certain wetness at the center. Fold the flap back, and—in the case of the excellent La Regina—enjoy the blend of creamy disks of buffalo mozzarella and tender prosciutto di Parma. Pizzerias, by nature, are designed for quick and efficient meals, but plan on making a night of it here: The views of the C&O Canal in Georgetown are downright romantic.
5104 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 571-312-7230 You don’t expect to find a slice of Naples in an Arlington strip mall, but co-owner Enzo Algarme has recreated a sense of his home. A red-tiled wood oven, churning out certified Neapolitan pies, greets you as you enter. Pick from 20-plus rounds, ordered at the counter and brought to tables alongside tumblers of wine or not-to-miss risotto balls. You can do well with a simple Margherita; still, we gravitate toward less orthodox combinations, particularly a pie with chorizo and red peppers or garlic-roasted tomatoes with artichokes.
400 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church; 703-226-3460 At this pizzeria from the 2941 Restaurant team, Neapolitan pies are better eaten in than carried out—the crusts, pillowy at the edges and thin at the center, prove too delicate for travel. Thankfully, the sunny dining room and patio are pleasant places to order classic-leaning pies, such as zesty pepperoni or a garlicky white pizza topped with prosciutto. Weekly deals, including buy-one/get-one-half-off pizza on Thursdays, make this an even more enticing option.
1400 Irving St., NW, 202-332-7383; 4940 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-237-7383; 3017 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, 703-527-7383; 962 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring, 301-588-7383 The plain slices are great gets at this local chain of Connecticut-style pizzerias, sporting just-thick-enough crusts. Even better are the more offbeat creations, such as the Boola Boola—loaded with meatballs, caramelized onions, and hot peppers. Vegetarians will find lots to love, especially the Edge of the Woods, with fried eggplant, spinach, and ricotta.
2711 12th St., NE; 202-248-3946 This tiny 33-seater was constructed as an altar to the Neapolitan ideal of pizza. That means slightly wet pies you cut with a knife and sparely applied toppings. It’s an unforgiving formula if the operation isn’t fanatical in its pursuit of perfection, and a certain inconsistency has crept in of late. But at his best, Ettore Rusciano turns out pies of balance and delicacy. Always a favorite: the crust holding prosciutto, arugula, and cherry tomatoes.
4509 Knox Rd., College Park; 301-422-8122 It’s been so comforting to so many for so long that it’s easy to forget that this landmark—for decades a fixture in nearby Adelphi—produces such a strange and singular product. It’s rectangular. The crust is slightly sweet. The cheese is smoked provolone, and toppings include green olives and bacon. There are a lot of great pizzas out there, but nothing says home quite like this one.
300 Massachusetts Ave., NW; 202-408-7800 This snug cafe is like the New York pizza shop we always dream of—and can never quite find. The massive pies and slices are nothing fancy. What sets them apart is the layer of slightly sweet sauce, touches such as house-made mozzarella, and a sturdy crust that never turns greasy, like so many of its kind. The basil-strewn Margherita is the standout, but a more biscuity version called the Grandma is pretty wonderful, too.
Spike Mendelsohn channels his Grecian heritage with this cast-iron-baked creation ($4 a slice, $20 a pie) topped with kalamata olives, threads of red onion, tomatoes, plenty of oregano and feta, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. 305 Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-544-4008 (Crystal City location opening soon).
Our favorite bet at this Chipotle-style Indian eatery: a baked-till-crunchy naan loaded with spicy lamb kadai, mozzarella, finely chopped chilies, and cilantro ($9). 5501 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville; 301-209-0080.
A Neapolitan-style pie meets Alsatian flammekueche—the wonderfully rich bacon-and-onion tart—and the marriage makes for one of our favorite pizzas. The salty-sweet, sauceless round with pancetta, Gruyère, and caramelized onions is set off by a dusting of Parmesan ($15). 4926 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-6427.
These twin pizza-and-beer hangouts think beyond the mozz’ for many of their pizzas—and this Spanish-inspired pie ($13 for a small, $19 for a large) is one of their best. Besides nutty, melty Mahon cheese, the expert crust holds chorizo, colorful roasted peppers, and olive tapenade. 2350 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, 703-527-8700; 201 Harrison St., SE, Leesburg, 703-779-8400.
This peanut-sauced pizza ($13) with peanuts, cilantro, crunchy bean sprouts, and mozzarella sounds dubious, but trust us: It works. The ten-incher comes with smoked chicken, but we liked it even better when we asked the kitchen to sub in shrimp. 5123 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville; 301-927-2740.
A 900-degree wood-burning oven is just one of the requirements for a Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified pizza.
From a Japanese izakaya to a ham-and-sherry bar, our favorite places to eat while imbibing
705 Sixth St., NW; 202-589-1600 The izakaya trend has taken off in Washington, but few places evoke these Japanese pubs like co-owner Daisuke Utagawa’s wood-accented watering hole. You can while away an evening over Japanese beers and whiskeys plus a parade of small plates that range from sake-grilled oysters to crab croquettes. On the meatier side, don’t miss the grilled skewers and the fried chicken with Kewpie mayo-chili sauce.
1833 14th St., NW; 202-265-1751 Chef Jesse Miller has given a jolt of energy to this nine-year-old hangout. There’s a surprising elegance to many of the small plates, such as a lamb-belly Bolognese with gnocchi or meaty sea scallops with smoked pecans and pears. Happy hour brings creatively topped pizzas and crocks of decadent mac and cheese for $5 each. And it’s hard to say no to the zesty half-smoke, laden with bacon jam and fried onions.
1612 14th St., NW; 202-319-1612 At this bar above sister restaurant Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, teen movies are projected behind the bar and there’s a bocce court in the back. But those are mere distractions from the kitchen’s talents, which include boozing-friendly fare like stellar French fries, duck-stacked nachos, and chili dogs with fried onions. To drink, there’s a nice selection of craft beers on draft and a terrific tequila-and-grapefruit Paloma.
2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-778-9951 Despite an annoying “small plates come out as they’re prepared” serving ethos, which can lead to a traffic jam at the table, this wine bar is one of our favorite grazing spots. Chef Robert Rubba is as deft with a skillet of cornbread as he is with a barbecue-pork pupusa. But if there’s one thing to get, it’s the deliciously sticky chili-lime wings.
5123 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville; 301-927-2740 There are rewards aplenty for the cost-conscious chowhound at Mike Franklin’s brewpub: salt-roasted mussels; a rich crab dip; and burgers ground from Roseda Farm beef. The beer menu, with as many as a dozen house-made options, is worth a visit in itself.
4928 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 240-800-4266 Skull murals and strollers share space at this Mexican joint, where you’ll find good ginger-hibiscus margaritas plus fabulous crispy-fish tacos with Sriracha cream. There’s a nice lineup of shareable snacks, too, such as duck nachos and chorizo-stuffed dates.
480 Seventh St., NW, 202-628-7949; 7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-913-0003; 2250-A Crystal Dr., Arlington, 703-413-8181 You’ll have to skip the larger plates and anything with Ibérico in the name to stay within the Cheap Eats budget, but there’s still plenty to devour at José Andrés’s tapas houses. Grab a sangría, then fight over who gets the last bite of the crackly-thin tomato bread and the shrimp with garlic and olive oil.
1843 Seventh St., NW; 202-316-9396 Derek Brown’s bar is dedicated to the glories of two things: ham and sherry. Linger over plates of Mangalitsa ham, and order a small plate—such as the smoked-trout-and-potato salad, so good we often put in for a double—to go with it. This is a great place to learn about sherry, but there’s a nice gin-and-tonic on tap, too.
827 Slaters La., Alexandria, 703-224-5051; 4075 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 571-384-1820 We’d be happy skipping the pizza and sticking with the snacks at these bistros. Start with a Buffalo-wing-inspired dip, then move on to pork-belly sliders and a marvelous grilled Caesar salad. To go with it, there’s the extensive beer list curated by suds guru Greg Engert.
624 T St., NW; 202-607-2337 Shaw’s of-the-moment beer haven—which commands hour-plus waits on weekends—draws plenty of folks with brews such as the citrusy Raised by Wolves. We also head there for the Southern-inflected parts of the menu, like pork rinds with pimiento cheese, a riff on a Chick-fil-A sandwich with fried chicken and pickles, and peppery mac and cheese.
Blue cheese, mango-pineapple relish, and dill pickles are among the many creative hot-dog toppings at Haute Dogs & Fries.
Grab a Wet-Nap—here’s where to tear into the best, smokiest pulled pork, brisket, and ribs
9100 Woodmore Centre Dr., Lanham; 301-322-1527 After an 18-month absence from the scene, Kerry Britt is back. Don’t let the buppie cool of the dining room fool you—Britt remains committed to the countrified ideal of low and slow. His ribs are seasoned with a blend of herbs and spices more complex and aromatic than any chain can muster, and they sport a nice, crusty bark. The ribs don’t come doused with sauce; that’s a pit man’s bravado telling you they’re good enough to stand on their own. And they are.
5822 Urbana Pike, Frederick; 240-674-5805 The mobile ’cue scene continues to grow, as more and more food trucks try to recreate the pleasures of ribs and pork dished up roadside. But this truck remains the smoky, tangy standard. Go for the pulled pork—shredded with care, doused with spicy vinegar, piled on a kaiser roll, and capped with creamy slaw. You likely won’t have room, but spring for the hushpuppies anyway—they’re served hot from the fryer, with whipped honey butter.
410 Seventh St., NW; 202-556-2050 On the whole, it skews a little Disney for our tastes, with a just-so rustic atmosphere and prices that are more theme park than trailer park. But we adore the moist brisket. That’s code talk for fatty, and the long, thick strips glisten under the heat lamps. Did we say Disney? Because this smoky, supremely tender meat is the real deal, son, and takes us back to none other than Lockhart, Texas—barbecue-brisket capital of the world.
677 Main St., Laurel; 301-953-1943 Purists may ask: What business does a chain barbecue outlet have appearing on this list? Add the fact that most of the franchises are inconsistent and the argument appears cut and dried. But the Laurel lo-cation is different—it has the friendly air of a personal operation. And where it counts most, the kitchen kills it. These are some of the most rewarding ribs around. If you get a dry rack, your server will gladly replace it with something juicier.
118 S. Market St., Frederick; 301-662-9090 It’s hard to find one-stop shopping when it comes to barbecue. If a place puts out good ribs, it comes up short with sides. If it puts out good ribs and sides, it falters with brisket. This one comes closest to being all things to all people. The ribs are dependably meaty, pink, and smoky; many of the sides sing (beans, slaw, cornbread); and some of the ancillary meats, such as the Arkansas beef, are so good as to make you think that next time you’re coming only for them.
There’s no shortage of places in Annandale’s Koreatown to go for Korean barbecue, the gateway dish for many Americans unfamiliar with, or squeamish about, the cuisine. But Kogiya (4220 Annandale Rd., Annandale; 703-942-6995) represents the apotheosis of the idiom—Korean barbecue at its most generous and lusty and indulgent. The sheer variety of options—marinated duck, soy-marinated short ribs—is refreshing, and the quality of those meats is high, too. Add to that an energetic, helpful staff and an atmosphere that simultaneously conjures a nightclub and a family picnic and you have more than a meal: You have an instant party.
How do you tell your Memphis ribs from a Kansas City rack? Check out our cheat sheet.
Soul-satisfying dishes come in many guises, and these have one thing in common—they’re all delicious
Chef David Guas may host a grilling show on the Travel Channel, but his pastry-chef roots shine through in these warm buttermilk biscuits at Bayou Bakery (1515 N. Courthouse Rd., Arlington; 703-243-2410). Smother them with pepper jelly and Creole cream cheese all day long or opt for breakfast versions with Benton’s bacon and scrambled eggs.
It’s the quality of the broth that keeps us coming back to Pho 88 (10478 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville; 301-931-8128) for the soup known as Vietnamese penicillin. At its best, it’s richer and more balanced in its spicing than the competition’s. Even if you’re partial to leaner meats, it’s worth getting a bowl strewn with fatty brisket and tendon—the thin bands of fat melt into the steaming broth, adding even more body.
Fried rice too often tastes like leftovers, even when made from scratch. At Thai Taste by Kob (11315 Fern St., Wheaton; 301-942-0288), chef Phak Duangchandr’s version is the exception. She loads the dish with fistfuls of fresh basil and laces it with hand-ground chilies for smoke and punch. With shrimp or without, it sings with conviction.
At Nava Thai (11301 Fern St., Wheaton; 240-430-0495), 32 ingredients go into this seemingly simple dish, which is so far from the usual mélange of sweet, sticky noodles as to make you think you’re eating something else entirely.
What’s so special about a baked potato? At Potato Valley Cafe (47 State Cir., Annapolis; 410-267-0902), the monstrous spuds are roasted until the skin peels away and crunches like a snack chip. An all-veggie version, loaded up with artichokes, fried onions, and mango, is oddly sublime. But even a potato with cheese is a wonderful, simple meal.
At Rus Uz (1000 N. Randolph St., Arlington; 571-312-4086), Uzbek chef Bakhtiyor Rakhmatullaev is a master of boiled dough, producing dumplings of such lightness and delicacy—thin, mint-stuffed pillows called manti and tortellini-like pelmeni filled with ground veal—it’s a wonder they’re so soul-satisfying.
Sardi’s (multiple Maryland and Virginia locations) is the king of the crowded pollo a la brasa scene. The long lines don’t just testify to its success; they’re the reason for it—the marinated birds come off the spit and are quickly hacked into juicy parts.
Nicolas Guardado’s restaurant, Guardado’s (4918 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-4920), is Spanish—he was once a line cook at Jaleo. But the Salvadoran chef has a masterly way with the griddled corn cakes that are a staple of his native country’s diet. They’re crunchy, never greasy—and an ideal delivery system for cheese and beans.
The great challenge of this Greek soup is to balance the acidity of the lemon with the soothing comfort of the chicken broth. The version at Trapezaria (11 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-339-8962) does, beautifully, making for a dish that tastes light even as it delivers richness and depth.
If gray-looking meat sliced from slabs that look the same wherever you go is your idea of a gyro, prepare to be dazzled at Plaka Grill (110 Lawyers Rd., NW, Vienna; 703-319-3131). Pork, not lamb, is the meat of choice, and the crusty edges of the slices give the sandwich distinction. So does the fistful of hot, hand-cut fries—a detail straight out of Athens. The crowning touch: a dollop of tangy-sweet tzatziki.
There are loads of good kebab houses out there. The one we head for is Khan Kabob House (4229 Lafayette Center Dr., Chantilly; 703-817-1200). Go for the bone-in chicken kebab (bone-in means more juice) or, for a thrilling alternative, a bone-in chicken kebab karahi—in which the hunks of meat are tossed in a heady stew of garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and cilantro.
A special-occasion dish for most Ethiopians, this rich, berbere-laced stew of chicken and a hard-boiled egg is a fixture at Ethiopian restaurants around the area. What elevates the one at Ethiopic (401 H St., NE; 202-675-2066) is the quality of the raw materials and the care in the cooking.
A larder’s worth of ingredients—including ginger, saffron, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, parsley, garlic, tomatoes, preserved lemon, and Atlas olives—goes into the complex and aromatic sauce that clings to the slow-roasted Cornish hen at Zeïtoon (21950 Cascades Pkwy., Sterling; 571-313-0947).
If you think of tofu as a bland substitute for meat or fish, get a load of this uncompromising Szechuan staple at Sichuan Jin River (410 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 240-403-7351). The bean-curd cubes, jiggling like Jell-O, are drenched in a sauce that’s by turns smoky, pungent, and nose-clearingly spicy.
Foggy Bottom feels far from Bourbon Street, but less so when you’re perched at a picnic table on the patio at Bayou (2519 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-223-6941), rolling up your sleeves for one of Rusty Holman’s po’ boys. Traditional Leidenheimer rolls arrive fully “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato, and pickle), and the best are stuffed with gravy-rich roast beef or fried shrimp.
Japanese comfort fare isn’t all about ramen—rice bowls are an equally worthy obsession, especially at Donburi (2438 18th St., NW; 202-629-1047). Toothsome grains are heaped with crisp pork, steamed egg, pickles, and onions cooked in sweet-savory sauce or stacked with standout shrimp tempura or eel. It’s tough to go wrong with any of the toppings, eat-in or carryout.
The only thing small about Bub and Pop’s (1815 M St., NW; 202-457-1111) is its size. Flavors and portions are robust, especially in the over-the-top brisket sandwich. Jonathan Taub slow-braises beef, dips the slices in veal jus, and piles them atop a roll, topped with apple-horseradish cream sauce and aged Gouda. Add a fried egg ($1) for true decadence.
Plenty of bad (read: thick, dry) falafel crowds the market, which makes finding the good stuff even more sublime. We love the traditional chickpea-and-parsley balls at Max’s Kosher Café (2319 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-949-6297)—a staple for 17 years, they’re tucked into pita with tahini and a garden’s worth of pickled vegetables. Equally addictive: Barry Koslow’s version at DGS Delicatessen (1317 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-293-4400), where carrots, onions, and lemon zest enrich the crispy disks.
When it comes to Mexican comfort food, masa cakes crowned with shredded pork are tough to beat. Homey street-style renditions—topped with refried beans, slow-cooked pork, and pico de gallo—can be found at Mama Chuy (2620 Georgia Ave., NW; 202-667-6262). At Victor Albisu’s Taco Bamba (2190 Pimmit Dr., Falls Church; 703-639-0505), we’re addicted to his riff, with crispier masa cakes that come laden with tender pork confit, bean purée, tomatillo sauce, and grilled-cactus salsa.
They may not be traditional, but the noodle soups at Toki Underground (1234 H St., NE; 202-388-3086), the graffiti-scrawled perch overlooking H Street, are still the most crave-worthy in town. The deep bowls, about the width of a soccer ball, hold rich, porky broths—we like the red-miso and kimchee varieties best—plus a vivid array of extra flavors: pickled ginger, bitter Chinese greens, and house-made chili oil. They’re equal parts soothing and thrilling.
You won’t find your typical nonna’s meatballs inside the sesame-seeded roll at G by Mike Isabella (2201 14th St., NW; 202-234-5015). The orbs are lighter than most (thanks to ricotta), brightened up with lemon zest, braised in tomato sauce, and dotted with fresh basil. But this is still a hearty handful, thanks to a layer of rich pork ragu.
The fact that the fish tacos from, well, Fish Taco (7945 MacArthur Blvd., Cabin John; 301-229-0900) hold their crunchiness after a car ride is impressive enough. What makes these most special, though, is the quality of the catch (often flounder) and the attention to detail from chef Michael Harr, who slips chilies into the batter and brushes the tortillas with charred-corn mayonnaise.
The silken, hurts-so-good red curry at Ruan Thai (11407 Amherst Ave., Wheaton; 301-942-0075) could be draped over just about anything and we’d lap it up. Luckily, the tender meats—whether pork, duck, or chicken—deserve applause, too.
The cool vermicelli noodle bowls, known as bun, at Huong Viet (6785 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-7110) are a riot of flavor and texture, even without the skewers and spring rolls that rest atop them. Toss the noodles with the crushed peanuts, carrots, cucumbers, and lettuce, dress it all with nuoc mam, and dig into one of the most exciting salads you’ll ever eat.
This aromatic, almond-based curry is the very definition of Indian comfort food, and the gravy at Jewel of India (10151 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring; 301-408-2200) is as luxuriant as Alfredo sauce. Sop it up with a buttery round of naan.
At Jaleo (480 Seventh St., NW, 202-628-7949; 7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-913-0003; 2250 Crystal Dr., Arlington, 703-413-8181), these fritters are delivered in a glass sneaker. But beyond that dash of surrealism, José Andrés doesn’t mess with tapas-bar tradition. The velvety interiors hold a simple blend of nutmeg-scented béchamel and shredded chicken.w
Year in and year out, this soothing soup at Full Key (2227 University Blvd. W., Wheaton; 301-933-8388) remains one of the most rewarding dishes in the area—at any price. The dumplings, packed with shrimp and seasoned with white pepper, pop when you bite into them.
What makes Cheryl Harrington’s patties the best in the area? The same thing that makes the cakes and cookies at her charming Shortcake Bakery (4700 Rhode Island Ave., Hyattsville; 301-779-2836) so good: She starts from scratch and rolls out her own dough. The tender Jamaican pastries—filled with subtly seasoned chicken or beef—taste rich but eat light. An order of two makes a substantial meal. And you’ll be hard put to find anything better that’s cheaper.
Australian native Fiona Lewis is behind the District Fishwife (Union Market, 1309 Fifth St., NE; 202-543-2592), one of DC’s most sparkling—and expensive—fish counters, but beyond the cuts of rosy tuna lies a relative bargain: her fish and chips. The beer-battered hunks of blue catfish are so crunchy you can practically hear your neighbor bite into one. All they need is a little house-made tartar sauce, thick and heavy on the capers. Meanwhile, at Eamonn’s (728 King St., Alexandria; 703-299-8384), we’ve long been hooked on paper bags of sweet, meaty filets of basa and cod, plus good fries and tangy, creamy Marie Rose sauce.
As much as we love a good 1 am “super” grilled cheese at Stoney’s (1433 P St., NW, 202-234-1818; 2101 L St., NW, 202-721-0019)—an overstuffed, overbuttered collision of bacon, onion, tomato, and American cheese—we tend to spend our more alert hours craving the refined sandwiches at Cheesetique (4056 Campbell Ave., Arlington, 703-933-8787; 2411 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-706-5300), including a terrific straightforward version with sweet Iowa cheddar that goes nicely with tomato soup. The menu standout, though, is the pressed sandwich oozing with Taleggio and onion confit.
Don’t get us wrong—we love good old buttermilk fried chicken. But dashes of lemongrass, Sriracha, and even Greek yogurt give these birds extra oomph.
at the subterranean cocktail bar 2 Birds 1 Stone, located below Doi Moi(1800 14th St., NW; 202-733-5131).
at Cava Mezze (527 Eighth St., SE, 202-543-9090; 2940 Clarendon Blvd, Arlington, 703-276-9090; 9713 Traville Gateway Dr., Rockville, 301-309-9090).
at A&J Restaurant (1319 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-251-7878; 4316 Markham St., Annandale, 703-813-8181).
at the Latin American chain Pollo Campero (multiple area locations).
at Bonchon (multiple Maryland and Virginia locations).
at Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken (1308 G St., NW; 202-809-5565).