Few would describe the section of Baltimore Avenue that runs through Beltsville, Md. as scenic. The highway cuts through a blue-collar commercial corridor littered with auto body shops, muffler shops, tire shops, strip malls, gas stations, lumber outlets, fast-food joints — the big, sweaty armpit of American life that’s typically socked away in the suburbs to calm the savage NIMBY.
Where to eat in Beltsville: Where to eat in Beltsville
For nearly three years, the $20 Diner has been roaming the metro area in search of bargain vittles. But since August, I’ve been keeping an eye out for destinations where diners can sample a variety of flavors in one centralized area. I’ve considered strip centers, small towns and destinations familiar to even casual food scouts. But none of them surprised me — and delighted me — as much as the restaurants along Baltimore Avenue in Beltsville, which has been a way station for travelers seeking sustenance since the late 1700s.
This Prince George’s County suburb has the perfect ecosystem for cheap eats: The rents are low (at least compared to the trauma-inducing ones in the District), the population is diverse (home to a heady mix of blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians) and landlords are more open to restaurateurs without a track record.
Like Michael Harrison, the 37-year-old owner of Yia Yia’s Kitchen, a high-quality dealer in gyros, dips, spanakopita and other casual Greek fare.
“I wasn’t attracted to that area to begin with, but you have to start somewhere,” says Harrison, stepson of Pete Gouskos, owner of the Parthenon in Chevy Chase. “It’s very hard to go mainstream right out of the blocks.”
Since Harrison opened Yia Yia’s in 2013, he’s become a true believer in Beltsville, in part because of its residents. “Nobody’s stuck up,” Harrison says. “You’re dealing with very nice people.”
Ahmet Kantar, the owner and chef behind Remington’s, a jukebox-intensive neighborhood pub, has watched the community morph from a predominantly white suburb to a multicultural one. He’s seen the chains and fast-food joints cede some ground to independent restaurants launched by immigrants from South Korea, El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries.
“It’s changed a lot,” says Kantar, son of a retired hotel chef who taught him how to cook. Previously, “all you had in Beltsville was KFC, Burger King, Wendy’s and McDonald’s.”
Not to worry. You can still stuff your pie hole with the finest fast foods engineered for maximum pleasure. But you can also dig into Filipino pancit palabok, Guatemalan garnachas, Kenyan kuku choma, Korean jajangmyeon, Vietnamese pho, Peruvian pollo a la brasa and many other dishes from around this big blue marble, all available along a 1 1/2 mile strip of Baltimore Avenue that slices through the eastern side of Beltsville.
I fell for Beltsville, in part, because the people are quick to make you feel welcome, even when you’re an overdressed gringo pulling up a stool at a Salvadoran bar, right between middle-aged men merrily knocking back Mexican lagers. When I first arrived at El Sombrerito Tex-Mex, I felt like a multi-cell thunderstorm that had washed out a family picnic. When I left, I felt like a friend of the house.
The difference? A Guatemalan with slicked-back hair and a shy smile bought me a Modelo just as I was settling my tab. I have no idea why he made the gesture, but I like to think it was because I attacked my plate of Salvadoran steak and eggs with gusto, savoring how the salty queso duro jacked up the flavor of everything it touched.
The Guatemalan and the Nebraskan spent the next 30 minutes fumbling through a conversation, employing a mostly convoluted mix of Spanish and English nouns. We struggled as much as we succeeded while searching for common ground among our dissimilar histories and interests. We were a Central American Tex-Mex platter: a clash of cultures that somehow transcended our ignorance and limitations. I bid my friend goodbye after buying him a couple of beers. He’s a Corona man. I wasn’t trying to trump his earlier show of generosity; El Sombrerito just enforces a stiff credit card minimum.
Such acts of human kindness happen routinely in Beltsville — at least they happened to me, and I don’t believe any of these restaurants knew (or cared, for that matter) that I am a critic. At Manila Mart, a Filipino grocery with a microscopic cafe in back, members of the Boic family will give you samples of anything on the steam table, and these freebies, I swear, can be as sizeable as a small plate at Oyamel. The courtesies extend to full-service restaurants, too: If the kitchen is in the weeds at Pho 88, the server won’t take your order without first asking if you have time to wait.
I visited that Vietnamese noodle shop on the day Snowzilla stomped into Washington. The place was packed with those looking for a last slurp or seeking to stock up on soup before the storm forced us into housebound hibernation. And yet: Pho 88 wasn’t about to send out watered-down bowls just to satisfy the heavy demand, even as snow began burying cars in the parking lot.
Then, nearly 40 minutes later — the longest I’ve ever waited for pho — my No. 1 bowl arrived. I was prepared to hammer the place for making me sit there like a stoner who can’t feel his legs. Until I tasted the pho, this well-developed broth that’s achieved only with a patient simmering of meat and bones. It struck me as an unorthodox pho, the broth cloudy and seemingly unstrained, but its flavors were balanced and bottomless. Some things are worth the wait, even if your car fishtails all the way home on snow-slicked streets.
My down time at Pho 88 gave me a moment to size up the crowd, which was almost evenly split among Asians and Latinos, with a few black and white diners scattered among the customers. I wanted to chalk up the cross-cultural clientele to the inherent appeal of pho, but then I talked to other restaurateurs who say that as the face of Beltsville changes, they must find ways to expand beyond their traditional customer base, which is likely shrinking.
In such a market, some restaurateurs might try to compete by adding dishes that cater to other cultures. But that’s a losing proposition if the kitchen doesn’t have the skill or the palate to execute such dishes. In Beltsville, the dining community has taken a different approach: They’ve decided to do what they do as best as they can.
“If you’re not doing the right thing,” says Kantar of Remington’s, “they’re not going to come to you.”
Inyoung Choe, manager and co-owner of Da Rae Won, provides a case study. When she and her husband, Hyeong Mu Choe, opened their noodle house in 2003, Beltsville had a thriving Korean community, the manager says. But in the late 2000s, when the housing bubble burst, many started to migrate to Germantown and Ellicott City in search of better homes and schools.
The Choes responded by doing what they’ve always done: making their own supple, lush and ever-so-toothsome noodles. You can tell when Hyeong Mu Choe is working the dough. It sounds like a WWE match in the kitchen, as he pounds the dough against the counter, the blows as concussive as a wrestler’s body thrown to the canvas. This is serious business.
When I first wanted to write about Da Rae Won, in June 2013, Inyoung Choe said her husband preferred that I wait until fall or winter. Confounded, I wondered why. The noodles, she told me, are better in colder weather. In heat and humidity, they can become flabby. “The chef is always nervous about summertime,” she told me then.
That story has become something of a touchstone as I explored the eateries along Baltimore Avenue. The anecdote reminded me that, to some chefs and restaurateurs, excellence is its own reward, above critical recognition or awards. Excellence, of course, can also generate a different kind of publicity: a word-of-mouth buzz that keeps a restaurant humming in the community.
But at this moment in its evolution, the small, diverse Beltsville dining scene deserves more than local buzz. It deserves the attention of diners from across the D.C. region. You can start with these 10 places.
Da Rae Won
Don’t be alarmed. The thunderous thwacking you hear is only chef Hyeong Mu Choe and his team beating the dough into shape. They make the noodles fresh for every bowl ordered, including the lush, sweet and earthy jajangmyeon, a Korean comfort food from Seoul to Annandale. There is no dessert menu, but every check comes with a 2-ounce “frozen dessert,” which goes down like a slushy orange creamsicle.
What to order: jajangmyeon (above, listed as “noodle with fresh black bean sauce”), noodles with vegetables and spicy seafood, fried pork dumplings.
Da Rae Won, 5013 Garrett Ave., 301-931-7878.
The no-frills Filipino market features a cafe in back where customers can feast on a wide range of dishes from the archipelago. The place is run by Antonio and Emma Bioc and their children, who are quick to navigate newbies through the menu, which offers both entry-level snacks (barbecued pork skewers marinated in Sprite) and advanced, Pinoy-centric plates (the barnyard-funk of dinuguan, a pork dish that incorporates pig’s blood and palm vinegar).
What to order: pancit palabok (above, rice noodles with shrimp, hard-boiled egg, scallions, pork rinds and garlic crumbles), pork skewers, Bicol Express (semi-spicy pork simmered in coconut milk).
Manila Mart, 5023 Garrett Ave., 301-931-0086.
Myoung Dong Noodle
One of several Korean restaurants in Beltsville, Myoung Dong has a slightly broader menu than the noodle-heavy Da Rae Won, although both serve the homey jajangmyeon. One attraction at Myoung Dong is its page of “new” items, including a buckwheat noodle dish served with raw stingray, pickled cucumbers and a chili paste that will blow smoke out your ears. The restaurant doesn’t make its own noodles, but the strands submerged in the kitchen’s soups still exhibit a satisfying freshness and suppleness.
What to order: jajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce), buckwheat noodles with raw stingray, steamed pork dumplings and the Myoung Dong kalguksu (chicken noodle soup).
Myoung Dong Noodle , 11114 Baltimore Ave., 301-595-4173.
Like its numerical soul mate, Pho 75, Pho 88 focuses almost exclusively on the Vietnamese noodle soup, perhaps to the detriment of the few other items here. Avoid the garden rolls, which come bloated with watery lettuce. Stick with the main attraction, the big white bowls brimming with beef broth — rich, cloudy and aromatic. No matter what bowl you order, it will come packed with your choice of meat and offal. And I mean packed.
What to order: pho No. 1 with eye of round, well-done flank, fatty brisket, soft tendon and bible tripe. Order it with a side of nuoc beo, spring onions in rendered fat.
Pho 88, 10478 Baltimore Ave., 301-931-8128.
This corner shop, located in a strip center hard against the B&O Railroad, is named for the beautiful, iridescent quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. Any place brave enough to adopt such a handle had better deliver the goods, and El Quetzal does. The kitchen serves up these crispy little masa discs topped with stewed beef and an acidic mixture of cabbage, carrots and jalapeno slices. Called garnachas, these Guatemalan snacks come alive with a few drops of Picamas hot sauce.
What to order: garnachas (above), grilled marinated pork ribs, Mexican Coke.
El Quetzal, 11121 Baltimore Ave., 301-595-3511.
This boisterous pub-cum-sports bar takes its neighborhood responsibilities seriously: Chef and owner Ahmet Kantar and his team prepare almost everything from scratch. Kantar’s sons are often behind the bar, which leans toward flavored vodkas, not small-batch spirits. But you’ll find craft beer, including bottles from Flying Dog. Perhaps I don’t need to say this, but the suds pair far better with pub grub than Three Olives Loopy vodka, which tastes like Froot Loops mixed with furniture polish and desperation.
What to order: Buffalo chicken tenders (above), Philly steak-and-cheese sandwich, white pizza with garlic butter and mozzarella, fish and chips platter.
Remington’s, 11500 Baltimore Ave., 301-937-6809.
Sardi’s Pollo a la Brasa
Carved out of a former Pizza Hut, this Sardi’s location speaks to the changing nature of Beltsville, which has shifted from a predominantly white suburb to a multicultural one. The line routinely snakes to the front door, and everyone is essentially waiting for the same thing: the Peruvian birds slowly browning on spits over a smoky charcoal fire. When Sardi’s is on its game, nobody can top its chicken.
What to order: pollo a la brasa (above), seviche mixto, lomo saltado, Peruvian fried rice.
Sardi’s Pollo a la Brasa, 10433 Baltimore Ave., 301-595-3222. www.sardischicken.com.
El Sombrerito Tex-Mex
It’s best if you ignore the Tex-Mex descriptor altogether, especially if you’re from, say, San Antonio and have strong opinions about the cuisine. The Salvadorans who run Sombrerito aren’t catering to Tex-Mex hard-liners. The owners are merely trading on the name to get you in the door to sample their Salvadoran dishes, which are built on traditional ingredients and are uniformly excellent. Even the kitchen’s free-form attempts at Tex-Mex and Mexican fare exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations.
What to order: pupusas, the “plato paisano” with steak and eggs, guacamole,
trio de enchiladas (above).
El Sombrerito Tex-Mex, 11510 Baltimore Ave., 301-931-2223. www.elsombreritotexmex.com.
This spot offers Washingtonians a rare chance to belly up to the Kenyan table, which draws from British, Indian and native Maasai cuisines. One of the stars is the goat wet-fry, a name that tells you next to nothing about the dish. The bone-in goat is first grilled, then tossed in a saute pan with vegetable oil, tomatoes and onions. The unorthodox method produces meat of exceptional flavor and depth. Kenyans prefer to eat their grilled proteins with a tomato-and-onion salad called kachumbari. You should follow suit.
What to order: Goat wet-fry, Kenyan kuku choma (spicy grilled chicken), curry chicken, fried tilapia in masala sauce (above), samosas.
Swahili Village, 10606 Baltimore Ave., 240-965-7651. www.swahili-village.com.
Yia Yia’s Kitchen
About a year ago, owner Michael Harrison changed the color scheme of Yia Yia’s, adopting the blue-and-white hues associated with Greece, so locals could immediately grasp the food available here. Yia Yia’s specialties are its chicken and pork gyros, with juicy meats carved from rotisserie towers prepared especially for the restaurant. The meats are crisped up and stuffed into a pillowy pita with tzatziki, tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese and a handful of french fries. These gyros are the gold standard in the area.
What to order: pork or chicken gyros (above), spanakopita, dip sampler,
chicken or pork souvlaki.
Yia Yia’s Kitchen, 10413 Baltimore Ave., 301-595-1855.