10 Under $10

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 25, 2005

One of the great things about Christmas and Hanukkah: all the gifts! One of the scary things about those and other holidays: all the bills that tend to accompany such acts of generosity.

More than ever, you can use a break from spending, which is why I'm ending the year with a roundup of dishes that won't worry your financial planner but are likely to put a smile on your face. From around the Washington area, I've gathered 10 mouthwatering meals -- all recently taste-tested -- for under 10 bucks. Think of them as stocking stuffers, my little gifts to you.

An order of chicken wings at Oohhs & Aahhs (1005 U St. NW; 202-667-7142) will have you saying just that -- "Oohh" and "Aahh" -- as you marvel at the abundant meat, flawless fry job and house-made sauces (there are three) that help draw soul food lovers to this friendly shoebox and keep its handful of counter seats occupied. Owners Oji Abbott and India Wilson take turns in the exposed kitchen, frying the wings to a shade of gold and then tossing the eight pieces ($7.95) in a wok with your choice of moistener. "You want the sauce to stick," explains Abbott. Talk about good things in small packages! The kitchen's barbecue sauce -- tart with vinegar, sweet with sugar, hot with red pepper -- sticks to my fingers and lingers in my mind. A choice of sides comes with the order; I'm always torn between the mustardy potato salad and tangy collard greens.

The main attraction at Pho 75 (1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-7355) is available in nearly 20 versions, which is why I like to ask my server for his or her favorite. "No. 12," one of them recently shared, steering me to a big bowl of beef broth teaming with thin rice noodles, sliced onions and shreds of barely cooked brisket and eye-of-round steak. The steaming Vietnamese classic (pronounced FUH) is good on its own, better when a diner adds a few accents from the accompanying plate of licoricelike Thai basil, crisp bean sprouts, fiery jalapeno and fresh lime. Pho 75's dining hall is not much to look at, just row after row of tables in a utilitarian box, and the service, while speedy, can vary from cheerful to sullen. But in all likelihood, you'll be too busy slurping your meal-in-a-bowl ($5.45) to care.

A plethora of new Indian restaurants has kept me away from Bombay Curry Company (3110 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-836-6363), a small storefront operation whose gentle prices and generally appealing cooking continue to lure loyal neighbors and fans of Indian food. So I was pleased to return recently and find the kitchen cooking as well as ever. Among its seductions are onion bhaji -- four fat onion-and-potato cakes that will set you back a mere $2.50 at lunch ($2.95 at dinner). The piping hot appetizer offers waves of flavor -- coriander seed trailed by dried red chilies -- and comes with a pale green dip of yogurt, lemon juice and fresh cilantro to cool things down.

Some things never change, and thank goodness for that. Drop in at the lunch-only C.F. Folks (1225 19th St. NW; 202-293-0162) on a Monday, and you're apt to find opera playing in the background, owner Art Carlson trading barbs with a regular, and red beans and rice ($8.45) on the board of specials. The New Orleans staple has been on the menu for "at least 15 years," says Carlson. One taste of the dish -- made heartier with slices of snappy andouille sausage and rounded out with a nice salad -- and you'll know why the owner can't erase it from the menu: "We'd get beat up!"

Yes, there are oodles of noodles at Bob's Noodle 66 (305 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-315-6668). But that shouldn't stop you from exploring the rest of the vast Taiwanese menu in this boxy and bustling space, including the strapping shredded pork with mustard leaves ($9.95). Squiggles of lightly marinated meat are tossed with thinly sliced celery, verdant bitter greens and hits of black pepper and fresh ginger for a rousing deal of a meal. Pressed for time? Not to worry. The food comes out almost as fast as you can ask for it.

Brunches are a dime a dozen in Washington, so I'm always looking for anything that sets one apart. Georgetown's Peacock Cafe (3251 Prospect St. NW; 202-625-2740) counts several charms: a light, airy and art-filled dining room; convenient hours (brunch starts at 9 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and runs to 4 p.m.); and good-for-you drinks that might swirl together carrot, beet, apple and ginger -- the aptly named Red Zinger. While all the usual eye-openers can be found on the menu, I tend to pick something that won't require me to take a nap immediately afterwards -- say, a breakfast sandwich ($8.50) built with ham, cheddar cheese, fluffy eggs and a croissant. "I prefer it with whole-wheat toast," a server shared. "It's less greasy." She's right.

Fresh fish is rarely a bargain, but among the affordable catches at the art deco-inspired Oceanaire Seafood Room (1201 F St. NW; 202-347-2277) is its clam chowder ($7.95 a bowl). You could almost eat the treat with a fork -- it's so packed with sweet chopped clams, diced skin-on potatoes and celery. But use a spoon; you won't want to miss a drop of this soothing comfort, which becomes a meal when it's accompanied by the gratis relish tray and half-loaf of bread that precedes an order here. The best place to savor the repast is from one of the red leather stools at the gleaming bar, overlooking a display of iced seafood.

The pan-Asian "tapas" at Mantis in Adams Morgan (1847 Columbia Road NW; 202-667-2400) average about $7 a plate -- not bad, given the fashionably minimalist setting and a clientele that reminds us that not all people like to wear a suit when they're off the clock. Settle on a couch or see-through chair, and home in on craggy shrimp fritters served with a tingling Thai curry remoulade or grill-singed beef skewers flanked with a nest of soba noodles and a sauce of peanuts and ginger. Each dish is priced like a first-run movie, $8 a snack. The lounge's cool tunes and resident eye candy prove icing on the cake.

It's hard for me to move past appetizers at the modestly romantic Afghan Grill (2309 Calvert St. NW; 202-234-5095), where the introductions include fragile, leek-filled fried turnovers, delicate meat-topped steamed dumplings and my path of least resistance: cubes of sauteed pumpkin draped in a garlicky yogurt sauce and a fine crumble of beef, and dusted with fresh herbs. The last adds up to a lot to savor for just under $5; order it twice, and you've got a full dinner.

The rosy dining rooms, with their enthusiastic servers and Mexican paintings, set the scene for a relaxed meal at El Golfo (8739 Flower Ave., Silver Spring; 301-608-2122), and the kitchen helps by playing along. Soup is a high point here, as is the lusty lomo saltado, a stir-fry of beef and potatoes. But any lunch or dinner should begin with a pair of chicken-filled tamales ($3.95), their soothing texture and flavor nicely balanced with a blazing salsa. Some of us know how to best put out the fire: with a margarita.

A revised and updated version of Tom Sietsema's book, The Washington Post Dining Guide, was published earlier this month. To chat with Tom online, click on Live Online at www.washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.

Ask Tom

Having dined at the recently reviewed Foti's in Culpeper (November 27 issue), Joe Nordsieck wrote in to agree with my three-star assessment of the restaurant but also to challenge my $90 cost estimate per person for dinner. "Four of us got by for just under $200, including tax and tip," the reader from Locust Grove, Va., e-mailed, adding that his group ordered four appetizers and entrees and a bottle of wine, but no dessert or coffee. "In this day and age," he suggests, "I think you are doing the restaurant (and your readers) a disservice by saying they can expect to pay" as much as I suggested. For the Dining column, my dinner averages are based on a full meal -- typically three courses plus a moderately priced bottle of wine, tax and 18 to 20 percent gratuity -- and they frequently include ranges based on my multiple visits to a restaurant. Certainly it's possible to spend less at Foti's. But I'd rather err on the high side --based on a dinner that reflects a soups to nuts experience -- and have diners spend less than they expected to, than have them be surprised by a tab that is significantly higher.

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.

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