The $20 Diner Manifesto: Finding flavors to savor with none of the hype

February 28, 2013

Look, I like being pampered as much as the next Washingtonian who drops $100 on dinner and expects two hours of exquisite cooking and tableside fawning to readjust his attitude, sort of the fully clothed equivalent of flotation therapy. But this is therapy that few of us can afford on a regular basis, at least not without a generous expense account or access to our parents’ credit cards.

While we’re at it, here’s another cold slap of reality: Those of us still employed are working more than ever, and those smartphones in our hands are spoiling more personal freedom than an ankle bracelet on a house-bound parolee. We frequently have neither the time nor the inclination to make our own supper. We need better and cheaper options on which to spend our dining dollar.

This is the void into which the $20 Diner will step.

• The $20 Diner: Kenyan mash-ups make for thrilling cheap eats at Swahili Village

One of the biggest lies out there is that fine dining is dead. It’s not. It’s just dead to a great majority of eaters. I mean, look at Jose Andres’s Minibar, which recently doubled its seating capacity and jacked up its price to $225 per person. Someone is filling those seats, even if it’s not you and me. Our inability to cover a tab at Minibar, however, is no reason to shed a tear into our deconstructed beer. We simply need to widen our dining worldview.

Whether we admit it or not, many of us have an unhealthy fascination with media-driven restaurants and chefs, those people and places regularly featured on reality TV, magazines, Web sites, blogs, social media, YouTube, newspapers and every other medium on which we consume information. It can be a self-feeding cycle: The chefs and restaurants with the highest visibility (and biggest PR budget) get the most media attention because the media, caught up in their own struggle for relevancy in a fragmented landscape, are hungry for more clicks and eyeballs and people willing to pay for this product.

Relative outsiders can and do manage to worm their way into this frequently closed-loop conversation. They do so by their own ingenuity, hard work and perhaps outside assistance; chefs such as Erik Bruner-Yang (Toki Underground) and Johnny Spero (Suna) leap to mind. But soon enough, these outsiders become mainstreamers themselves, enjoying the same perks as the long-standing members of the media-driven chef club. The newest members tend to hail from established restaurant groups or trendier neighborhoods, whether Penn Quarter or Columbia Heights, where the confluence of money, human density and Metro access make it easier to “discover” new chefs and restaurants.

The places I want to feature in the $20 Diner will likely never enter the popular food media. I can’t imagine Swahili Village Restaurant and Bar, the subject of my debut column, earning regular mentions on Eater.com or being included in some multi-page spread on trendy D.C. eateries in Food & Wine. But owner Kevin Onyona’s establishment on Baltimore Avenue in Beltsville exudes energy and comfort in a way that often escapes some overpriced, over-conceptualized haunt down on Dupont Circle. (Yes, Ping Pong Dim Sum, I’m thinking about you.)

If I’m honest with myself, many of my favorite dining experiences over the years have occurred in restaurants that will never aspire to a James Beard Award. I still remember with the clarity of a first kiss the time I was introduced to genuine ma-la cooking at Great Wall Szechuan House near Logan Circle in 2006, nearly seven years ago. Chef Chen Yuan proved to me that flavor and searing spice were not incompatible, even when his heat levels approached those of a smelting furnace. My tasting was not just the thrill of discovery, but also the thrill of discovering a favorite new food. I had a similar reaction the first time I tore into tere sega, or chunks of fresh raw beef dipped in awaze sauce, at Abay Market in Falls Church. I felt like a pig on “Animal Farm,” being given access to a dish prohibited to the average draft-horse diner.

There may be good reasons why you will never care about the restaurants featured in the $20 Diner: Your main mode of transportation could be a bicycle or Metro, and the thought of taking either to some far-flung suburban eatery may sound as palatable as deep-fried gophers. (I will try to be sensitive to this and scour the District as well.) Or perhaps you just can’t imagine leaving your comfortable circle of restaurants to sample a cuisine that may be foreign to you on at least two levels. I understand this.

So let’s talk frankly about cheap-eats joints: They’re not destination restaurants, not usually. The service at some will border on emotional abuse with their neglect. The decor — or whatever you call poorly framed travel posters and a rabble of mismatched chairs and tables — will remind you more of a VFW hall than a Relais & Chateaux property. The dishware and utensils may very well be Styrofoam and/or plastic.

But there are frequently trade-offs to the downmarket conditions — not the least of which is that these places are indeed cheap. (I have set the bar at $20 per person for a dinner, excluding alcohol, but hope to hover well under that.) These places also tend to be straightforward in their aims: You want a bowl of pho? They’ll give you a bowl of rich aromatic pho, and little more. There is rarely an attempt to squeeze you for more. The concept of padding a diner’s check with a half- dozen overpriced small plates is foreign in this neck of the dining world.

More important, though, the Washington area market is awash with immigrant groups that have brought their native foods with them; you may never again live in a city with such a wealth of international offerings. If you really desire the experience, you can sample foods as immigrants ate them back home.

Consider that last point for another minute: In the heart of the District, we have many international cuisines available, from Mexican at Oyamel to Japanese at Sakuramen, but sometimes they’re interpreted by chefs not raised on the food. This is a tricky argument, because a skilled and determined chef can produce a quality facsimile of any dish. Scott Drewno, with his Pan-Asian menu at the Source, is just one example. But I suspect that a good number of these tinkerers know the truth about their situation: No matter how familiar they’ve become with a foreign cuisine, they will never have that instant recall of how a dish should be spiced or when it’s off by a hair. Their palates were not calibrated at youth for such tasks.

My hope is to find you some of those chefs who have that inherent knowledge. Or at least find you a decent cheap place to eat.

Follow @timcarman on Twitter

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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