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Washington's 40 essential eats photo
(Jason Berger)

Washington's 40 essential eats

Lavanya Ramanathan  |  Updated 01/08/2015

We spent months eliciting reader help in pointing out Washington area's most necessary eats, the dishes no local should go without consuming at least once. See a photo of each dish.


El Pollo Rico

Arlington, VA

"If my son grows up to love El Pollo Rico, it's because I went there every few weeks while pregnant," wrote Arlington's Dara Lieberman of this neighborhood Peruvian chicken purveyor, which has won over countless fans with its impossibly juicy, crispy birds. But the chicken isn't the only lure: The shop's two sauces, created to accompany the chicken, are wildly popular and are free with orders. ($10.85 for a half-chicken portion; whole chicken, $16.10.)


Vace Italian Delicatessen

Bethesda, MD

Beginning at lunch hour, lines form for the thin-crust wedges of pizza served at the Bethesda and D.C. locations of this Italian deli and market. (Order a plain slice here, and it's nearly unrecognizable: The sauce is carefully smeared on top of the cheese.) "It's always very crisp and fresh, but my favorite thing is that they load it up with toppings," wrote Yvette Menase of Kensington. Her must-have slice? The white pie with spinach. ($1.70 a slice; medium pizzas start at $8.)


Fast Gourmet

Washington, DC

"If you're going with something new in the District, then the chivito hands-down gets the nod," Martin Rundle of Washington wrote of the Uruguayan-style sandwich that has captivated the local bloggerati in the past year. Found only at Fast Gourmet - located in a Lowest Price gas station not far from U Street - the pressed sandwich layers not one, but three kinds of meat, including beef tenderloin, plus a hard-boiled egg. ($13; includes soda and fries.)


R&R Taqueria

Elkridge, MD

The beef tongue is just one of a dozen fillings that could fill your soft corn tortilla at the diminutive R&R Taqueria in Elkridge (yet another reader favorite in a gas station), but it gets the vote as a rare offering you need to try for yourself. Not that you would do poorly ordering something else. Of R&R, a commenter on the Going Out Gurus blog wrote: "My Mexican boyfriend and his Mexican parents swear it's the best and most authentic Mexican food they've had in the U.S." ($2 each.)


Amsterdam Falafelshop

Washington, DC

Sure, the fried-to-order falafel and frites are irresistibly crunchy at this Adams Morgan institution, but as Amber Wilkie of Arlington noted, "The allure of Amsterdam, without question, is the toppings bar - a veritable wonderland of Middle Eastern relishes, pickles, spreads and condiments. It's impossible to fit everything into your pita, though it is possible to try and wind up very messy." ($4.25 for a small falafel and $2.95 for a small order of frites; $5.95 and $3.95, respectively, for a large.)


Good Stuff Eatery

Washington, DC

The smoky-sweet taste of a campfire s'more is captured in liquid form at celeb chef Spike Mendelsohn's Good Stuff Eatery, where, since 2008, many a Capitol Hill office worker has waited in queue for this hand-spun, uberthick shake laced with real charred marshmallows and sour cream. "It took every ounce of class in me not to stick my fingers in the shake to grab the mallow," wrote Shari Grunspan of Florida, who nominated this sweet little number for Washington's most essential eat. "Class lost. Mallow won." ($4.50 for a 12-ounce shake; $5.25 for 16 ounces.)


Pho 75

Arlington, VA

Vietnam's legendary bowl of steaming beef broth, noodles and meat is having a moment. But one of the region's go-to pho purveyors - Arlington's Pho 75 - has been around far longer than Washington's recent upstarts. "For years I was afraid of the stuff. I just didn't get it. Then one day my wife took me to Pho 75, and I almost fell out of my chair because of the complexity of the broth," wrote David King of Washington, who crowned soups at the bare-bones eatery "the must-try benchmark for D.C. pho." King favors the No. 8, which comes out with slices of raw skirt steak to cook at the table. (Regular $6.95; large $7.95.)


Pasta Plus

Laurel, MD

In a city with surprisingly few red-sauce joints, the votes came in for Laurel's Pasta Plus, where, blog readers gushed, the fresh pastas - made in-house - were the hands-down specialty. "The name does not do it justice," wrote Kathy Sowa. "The Italian fare there is definitely worth the drive." Co-owner Massimo Mazziotti says the restaurant's secret is making the pasta fresh every day and cooking it to order. The most popular dishes include the ravioli and the seafood-loaded linguine. ($11.50-$29.95 for dinner entree.)


Ravi Kabob House

Arlington, VA

The spicy, tender chickpeas dished out by this popular Arlington kebab house (and its offshoot that's across the street) are the stuff of legend among heat seekers. Blissfully, a hearty ladleful accompanies many of the meatier dishes. "The lines are always long for their spicy chicken kebabs, flavorful chickpeas and fluffy nan," noted reader Kimberly Van. ($3.95 for a side order; entree portion, $7.99.)


Bayside Bull

Edgewater, MD

For Alex Sullivan of Annapolis, few comfort foods can top this meaty sandwich, served carryout style with scant toppings to muss with its true star: the tender pork that's neither too vinegary nor too sweet. "I typically will stop by and order it on a gray day in the winter," says Sullivan, who once worked at Bayside Bull during her summers home from college but now stops in just for a bite. "The stick-to-your ribs quality provides comfort and warmth you seek on a drab winter day." ($5.50; additional toppings, including coleslaw, 25 cents.)


Sardi's Pollo a la Brasa

Beltsville, MD

It's chicken, and only chicken, that matters to the clientele at the three Sardi's locations in Maryland, where the Peruvian-style fare is juicy and budget friendly. Ed Sites of Beltsville wrote: "My extensive resume as a hobbyist competitive eater is more than enough to vouch for this place." (Half-chicken, $8.55-$9.25; whole chicken, $16.25 includes two sides.)


Earl's Sandwiches

Arlington, VA

At Earl's, otherwise basic meats prove the building blocks for a menu full of creative sandwiches. "I order the Beer Mustard Barbeque almost every time I go," wrote Mike Gill of Arlington. "Every ingredient is fresh, meats properly and tenderly prepared, all served up by a friendly staff. Earl's is where it is at." (Beer mustard barbecue, $7.29; other sandwiches, $7.29-$8.99.)


Kabob n Karahi

Silver Spring, MD

Not one but two chaats made our list, and it's easy to see why: The spicy South Asian salads mingle crunchy elements with sweet and kicky chutneys, making them addictive snacks. Bryan Elrod of Silver Spring offered a nod to the chaat samosa at Pakistani restaurant Kabob n Karahi in Silver Spring: "A samosa piled high with diced onions, tomatoes, cilantro and spices - delicious!" $2.49.


Wild Onion Cafe

Hyattsville, MD

"Can't be beat," Ralph Shierling of Adelphi wrote of the creamy potato side dish at Wild Onion Cafe in Hyattsville. Chef Rasheed Abdurrahman uses redskin potatoes to make this popular mash, leaving the skin on to keep them from absorbing too much water. "I guess the thing that makes them special," Abdurrahman says, "is preparing them with proper cooking techniques." (Included with main entrees, $7.95-$9.95; can be purchased separately for $8.50 a pound.)


Blanca's Restaurant

Falls Church, VA

A battle for the best pupusa in Washington would be hugely contentious; there is no end to the quaint strip-mall restaurants patting out incarnations of the Salvadoran staple, which resembles a hefty tortilla stuffed with pork or cheese or, on occasion, such vegetables as the vine flower loroco. But the large, butter-scented Blanca's in Falls Church won a well-deserved vote from Melissa Teates of Falls Church, who noted that the pupusas here, which arrive soft and hot off the griddle, "are moist and well-stuffed." ($2.25 each.)


2 Amys

Washington, DC

"Every time I go to 2 Amys I literally want to bury my face in the Margherita D.O.C. pie," wrote reader Claire Welo of Madison, Wis. The Cleveland Park eatery's D.O.C. is, indeed, something special: a Neapolitan pizza made to the exacting specifications of the Italian government (it's even certified), from the dough recipe and wood-oven cooking method to the perfectly gooey islands of real buffalo mozzarella that grace it. ($11.95.) 2) A simple crispy ball hailing from Rome is a deceptively addictive appetizer at 2 Amys. Inside the crunchy, golden-brown exterior hides soft, seasoned rice, which in turn hides a center of mozzarella cheese. ("Telefono" refers to the way the melted cheese will stretch out, like an old telephone cord, when you pull this snack apart.) How do you pronounce it? Who cares. Just request, as reader Lauren Wright does, the "mozzarella ball." $4.95.


Bistro Provence

Bethesda, MD

From start to crackling, golden-brown finish, the signature dish of chef Yannick Cam's Bethesda kitchen takes upward of eight hours to create. But it's the last-minute touches - the slow pan roast that begins the moment an order is placed - that give the dish its unmatched crispiness. "The duck confit literally melts in your mouth," wrote Tasha Kovacs of Bethesda. "I have had the same wonderful experience each time." ($27.50.)


Ledo Restaurant

College Park, MD

The staff wasn't surprised to find this Washington institution, which opened nearly 60 years ago in Adelphi, among the nominees, both because of its longevity and the unique crust that graces every pie and calzone. "The thin, flaky crust and the sauce make Ledo's pizza the best," wrote Andrew Mele of Gaithersburg. "My father always took us to Ledo growing up, and it has been a family tradition ever since!" Multiple locations. (Plain pizzas are $5.49-$13.24; toppings are extra.)


Granville Moore's

Washington, DC

The moules at this homey H Street NE brasserie are unrivaled; even Bobby Flay couldn't top the mussels turned out by head chef Teddy Folkman when the pair went mano a mano on "Throwdown! With Bobby Flay." Mussels come five ways at Granville Moore's, but it's the rich moules bleu - swimming in a broth of white wine, shallots, pork belly and blue cheese - that made our list. "Whichever style mussels you order at Granville Moore's," wrote Jeremy Bailey of Washington, "make sure you ask for extra bread, because you'll be dipping into the delicious broth long after the mussels have been consumed and the shells discarded." ($17; on Mondays from 5 to 10 p.m., $12.)


Central Michel Richard

Washington, DC

Why does it feel so subversive to walk into posh Central - 2008 James Beard Award-winning restaurant - and walk out with a bucket of fried chicken, a la KFC? Admittedly, this particular bucket nominated via Twitter is a crunchy, tears-of-joy-inducing dish that's perfectly in keeping with the high-concept/lowbrow fare of the downtown power spot (the bucket starts at nearly $20). If you must keep it classy, you can always nosh on the chicken at the restaurant - bucket not included. (Dinner, $23; lunch takeout bucket available Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., $19.95-$34.95 (served with mashed potatoes.))


Rasika Penn Quarter

Washington, DC

The Post's Tim Carman has called it "iconic." Nearly 300 of Rasika's Yelp reviews mention it. And Rebecca Yang of Washington sang its praises in all-caps. If one can finagle a table at the four-star Penn Quarter Indian restaurant, it's hard not to notice table after table of diners oohing over bowls of Vikram Sunderam's paper-thin, flash-fried spinach appetizer - lightly tossed in tamarind chutney and sweet yogurt and flecked with red onion. Our humble opinion? It's worth every word of hype. ($9 at lunch; $10 at dinner.)


Market Lunch

Washington, DC

Maybe it's because these berry-spiked buckwheat pancakes are served just one day a week and attract lines like no other breakfast food, but these fluffy hot cakes, topped with a too-generous scoop of butter, are legend in these here parts. Order a plate, grab a corner of the communal table at Eastern Market's Market Lunch and prepare to fall under their spell. ($6. Available Saturdays 8 a.m.-noon.)


Hello Cupcake

Washington, DC

While others pay little mind to the cake itself, Hello Cupcake gets it right, reader Amelia Stobaugh argued on Facebook. (The M Street behemoth known as Georgetown Cupcake didn't receive a nomination.) "Peanut Butter Blossom at Hello Cupcake," she wrote, "is the very best of the best!" The diminutive chocolate cake comes topped with a perfect little mountain of peanut-butter frosting, atop which sits a Hershey's Kiss - a classic combo. ($3.25; dozen, $36.)


Plaka Grill

Vienna, VA

"The Plaka gyro at Plaka Grill in Vienna is by far the best gyro I've ever had outside of Greece itself," wrote a blog reader. But a jaunt through Greece is hardly necessary to appreciate this wrap filled with marinated pork shoulder, drizzled with tzatziki and - this is what makes it "Plaka" - stuffed with thick-cut french fries. ($7.)


Sunshine General Store

Brookeville, MD

In a region not lacking in celebrity-chef burger joints, it was the simple burger at a quaint mom-and-pop in Brookeville that won adoration from more than one blog reader. In fact, the hand-formed, fresh-not-frozen burger is the only one that won a nod. Sunshine "absolutely has the greatest hamburgers," wrote one reader. "Maaan, those burgers," chimed in another. "Juicy but not greasy, hand-formed. Amazing." ($4.95; cheeseburger, $5.25.)


Sticky Rice

Washington, DC

This school-cafeteria staple is an incongruous addition to the pan-Asian menu at Sticky Rice, but give in and order them, and you'll find yourself wondering why you ever stopped eating tots back in the fifth grade. (These are, for the record, vastly more crunchy and delicious than what you remember.) "It seems weird to order a big bucket of tots along with your sushi and noodles, but it works," noted Jeremy Bailey of Washington. (Bucket, $8; side portion, $3.)


Pho Royal

Leesburg, VA

It's not common for pho fans to choose a chicken-based pho, not when there are brisket and rib-eye and, for the adventurous, tripe incarnations. But it was the pho ga at Pho Royal that earned a nomination from a blog reader. This hearty beef-broth soup comes packed with light and dark meat chicken, with bean sprouts, basil and lime on the side - think of it as a Southeast Asian twist on chicken soup. (Small, $7.45; large, $8.45.)


Pho Royal

Sterling, VA

It's not common for pho fans to choose a chicken-based pho, not when there are brisket and rib-eye and, for the adventurous, tripe incarnations. But it was the pho ga at Pho Royal that earned a nomination from a blog reader. This hearty beef-broth soup comes packed with light and dark meat chicken, with bean sprouts, basil and lime on the side - think of it as a Southeast Asian twist on chicken soup. Small, $7.45; large, $8.45.


Founding Farmers

Washington, DC

Every day, this nifty little appetizer at Founding Farmers, nominated by reader Kelly MacKenzie, is seasoned with a new batch of spices ground in-house. Some days, find the bowl of freshly popped kernels scented with rosemary and sprinkled with Parmesan; on others it's drizzled with Old Bay butter. Just one thing is constant: At $2 a bowl, it's a far better bargain than the oversalted neon-yellow stuff you get at the movies. ($2.)


El Nopalito Grill

Silver Spring, MD

The bar at this Silver Spring restaurant is a popular destination, thanks in part to the margaritas, a classic take on the lime-and-tequila mixed drink that's perfect for washing down the restaurant's signature duck tamales. ($6.)


Gom Ba Woo

Annandale, VA

Vietnam isn't the only place to offer the West an utterly addictive, steaming soup bowl: Meet gal bi tang, the slow-simmered Korean short-rib soup. More than one blog reader offered a nod to the gal bi tang at Gom Ba Woo in Annandale, where the soup can be had two ways: mild or fiery. All the better to pair it with the specialty of the house - the dumplings. ($10.95 lunch special; $12.95 at dinner.)


Parkway Deli

Silver Spring, MD

So beloved is this New York-style Jewish deli that the reader who named Parkway couldn't narrow it down to just one dish. But trust us, stick with the classic deli fare - the corned beef sandwich or the Reuben Grill, which features the corned beef, are fine choices - and do not, under any circumstances, miss the complimentary pickle bar. (Reuben Grill, $9.35; the king-size hot corned beef sandwich, $8.45. Takeout prices vary.)


Lost Dog Cafe

Arlington, VA

"Lost Dog is absurdly good," one blog reader wrote of the Arlington eatery that counts 53 sandwiches - with such names as the Yuppie Puppy and the Cowboy - as specialties. It's the Phoenix that scored the nomination: It features healthy, baked chicken breast served on a pita with mozzarella cheese, lettuce and garlic mayonnaise. ($7.50.)


Taco Bar

Gaithersburg, MD

"The best randomly tasty tacos" is how one blog reader described the fare at this tiny taqueria - located, naturally, in a gas station - in a busy shopping district in Gaithersburg. Distinctly Mexican where many others in the area mix Salvadoran and Peruvian fare, the restaurant serves six meaty varieties of taco, including lengua (beef tongue) and pork tacos marinated in pineapple juice. ($2.69-$2.99 each.)


Crisfield Seafood Restaurant

Silver Spring, MD

Crisfield Seafood was nominated by a blog reader for both its fare and its "no-frills setting." The dish to get? The legendary crab cakes, which are made with backfin crab and cracker and seasoned, as any Maryland staple should be, with Old Bay. (Crab cake sandwich, $9.75; crab cake platter with two crab cakes and two sides, $20.)


La Granja de Oro

Falls Church, VA

This dish, a fave of one blog reader, is a traditional Peruvian stir fry, featuring chicken, red onions and tomatoes with french fries tossed into the mix, rather than served on the side. Want something a little racier? Try the beef version, called lomo saltado. (Lunch, $14.95; dinner, $15.95.)


La Granja de Oro

Washington, DC

This dish, a fave of one blog reader, is a traditional Peruvian stir fry, featuring chicken, red onions and tomatoes with french fries tossed into the mix, rather than served on the side. Want something a little racier? Try the beef version, called lomo saltado. Lunch, $14.95; dinner, $15.95.


Port City Brewing Company

Alexandria, VA

If you're in search of the most essential beer in Washington, it's suddenly a crowded field: Washington has a spate of new brewers, including Port City, D.C. Brau, Mad Fox and Chocolate City Brewing. But Martin Rundle of Washington swears it's the chocolatey porter by Alexandria's Port City Brewing that tops them all. It's served at such bars as Dodge City and Iron Horse Taproom, but you can also pick it up at a visit to the brewery. Tours are held every Saturday. (Tours, $7. Six pack, $11.99 at Port City Brewing.)



Vienna, VA

New Mexican food may draw from a melange of sources, but if there's one defining characteristic, it's chile - as in, red and green chile sauces, doused on everything from enchiladas to eggs. Anita's "New Mexico-Style Mexican" restaurants pour it into their popular, bargain breakfast burritos stuffed with eggs, potato and cheese. Despite their name, they are served all day. "The red chile sauce will solve all your problems," wrote Sam Williams of Arlington. "Refried beans are impeccable. I have yet to have a bad meal there." ($1.39 each. Multiple locations in Virginia.)


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