The $20 Diner: Cheap D.C. eats for the discerning intern

July 25, 2013

Allow me to begin this special intern installment of the $20 Diner with a confession: I’ve never actually been an intern, though I’ve done something similar. I’ve worked in journalism. My first job was as a clerk/reporter/indentured servant at the Kansas City Star, which paid me in dead pheasants. I had to pluck and roast them for sustenance in my tiny subterranean studio apartment where my stereo competed with the rattle of washing machines situated outside my door.

So, yes, I can feel your pain (and perhaps your penchant to exaggerate your poverty for sympathy and free food). Even better, I can help you find comestibles that fit your budget, which I understand hovers around zero.

Despite this pesky fact, my network of $20 Diner informants tells me that interns are sophisticated eaters these days. They’re not looking for a box of 2.0 Twinkies that they can split among their fellow New Silent Generation thumb-wizards while watching a DVR’ed episode of “Under the Dome.” No, they want to discover the foods unique to Washington, especially if those eats can be had for the price of, say, a Red Bull vodka Jell-O shot.

This, of course, means one thing: You’ll likely have to split plates in order to enjoy the best meals at the most economical prices. But for a generation that shares bikes, cars and living spaces, that shouldn’t be a stretch. And besides, even your grandpa shares his pizza.

Pizza

Newcomers love to tell us how lousy the pizza is in the District, especially if they’re from New York, where the city’s famous water has apparently flushed out that part of the brain capable of rational thought. I grant you that neither the rectangular pies at Ledo nor the custom rounds at Pizzeria Paradiso — both institutions in the D.C. area — would crack the Top 50 in a real pizza market. I won’t even bother recommending these joints, nor will I suggest you visit 2 Amys, because you likely have a small stack of guidebooks already praising the genuine thrills of its Neapolitan pies.

Instead, may I suggest you hop on the Metro to Columbia Heights, Clarendon, Friendship Heights or Silver Spring and order an 18-inch white-clam pie ($26, suitable for two or three mouths) from Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza? This small, locally owned chain is a prime example of a common D.C. phenomenon: A business that strives to recreate a flavor from another region to keep the transplants (and the rest of us) happy. Prices are $14.50 and $19 for a 14-inch and 18-inch cheese pizza, respectively. Toppings cost extra.

Beer

The District, you might have heard, has evolved into a two-fisted craft-beer town. Of course, some bartenders might as well wear a ski mask as they pull a draft of $9 suds; at those prices, you practically feel robbed. But take comfort, you members of the exploited working class. A local brewery, 3 Stars Brewing, hosts a tasting every Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. You can sample several 3 Stars beers at its facility at 6400 Chillum Pl. NW for absolutely no charge. As in free. The brewery even brings in food trucks, such as DC Slices and PORC, to fill your belly. You have to pay for the victuals.

food trucks

Is it just me or is it actually hard to find a decent food truck these days? Our streets are clogged with vendors of no great distinction, a rolling bazaar of kebabs, cheesesteaks and bland Indian dishes barely touched with curry gravy. Among the trucks worth chasing down is the mobile version of the Sundevich sandwich shop near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center; the vendor serves up a tidy menu of globally themed sandwiches built from local ingredients, including good Canela Bakery bread. The sandwiches cost $7 each.

Ethiopian

The DMV — that’s the District, Maryland and Virginia for you short-timers — boasts one of the largest Ethio­pian populations in the country. These immigrants, thankfully, brought their cuisine with them, which you can find in heavy concentrations in Silver Spring and in Little Ethi­o­pia on Ninth Street NW. This finger food, with its collection of stews spread out on injera flatbread, is custom-made for sharing.

The U Street corridor, near Ninth Street, is home to several satisfying, home-style Ethio­pian restaurants such as Dukem, Etete and, a bit further away, Zenebech Injera. And because the $20 Diner knows that many of you millennials have sworn off meat, you should know that Ethio­pian eateries are veg-friendly. You can, for instance, buy a combo platter of six dishes at Zenebech for $11; it could easily feed two hungry interns. Conversely, you could go all Paleo diet at Lucy Ethio­pian Restaurant in Silver Spring, where you can get a full pound of raw, well-marbled rib-eye for $12.75.

peruvian chicken

The key to getting decent pollo a la brasa is to demand your chicken fresh from the smoker, where the skewered birds spin slowly over red-hot charcoal until they turn the most mouthwatering shade of brown. Peruvian chicken stands are scattered all over the DMV, and lately I’ve been revisiting a few. The best, so far, remains El Pollo Rico in Wheaton, where you can buy a quarter bird and two sides for $5.62 (dark meat) or $5.88 (white meat). The Metro ride to and from Wheaton will probably cost you more than that.

sal-mex

The metro area is home to thousands of Salvadoran natives who fled their war-torn country and established an identity all their own in the District. Well, sort of. They’ve opened dozens of small, neighborhood eateries that freely mix and match Salvadoran and Mexican dishes, proudly placing the pupusa alongside a plate of carne asada. It’s not always easy to find a quality Sal-Mex place, but I’ll mention two: El Aguila in Silver Spring (which serves a great platter of sizzling fajitas) and Pupuseria La Familiar in College Park (which sells rice-flour pupusas, a rare treat).

You interns might not appreciate this, but I just recommended more than 10 places, none of which is Ben’s Chili Bowl . One day, if you actually secure full-time employment here, you’ll understand what a minor miracle this omission is.

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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