Dinner deals: Oohs and Aahs on U Street NW

By Justin Rude
Friday, August 27, 2010

At a glance: This U Street restaurant is easy to overlook, with only an inconspicuous white sign with the name in faded red script hanging above the front window. But its word-of-mouth praise is harder to ignore: D.C. soul-food fans know that Southern comfort food at Oohs and Aahs is among the city's best. Opened eight years ago by India Wilson and Oji Abbot, this greasy hole-in-the-wall serves up heaping helpings of classics such as fried whiting fish, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and shrimp, catfish and collard greens.

At first, the prices -- which can go as high as $21.95 for platters that include crab cakes or a T-bone steak -- don't seem especially friendly. That is, until you see the size of the servings. By the time they loaded up a recent order of fried catfish, I had begun to worry about the integrity of the Styrofoam container. It was splitting at the sides, with enough mac 'n' cheese, collard greens and catfish for two.

On the menu: The restaurant's menu is a product of Abbot's culinary school background and family recipes, and everything tastes like it came from grandma's kitchen. During lunch hours, noon to 4 p.m., you'll find subs, burgers, sandwiches and salads. For dinner (served all day), diners pick a main course from a list that includes teriyaki salmon, grilled shrimp, lamb chops and turkey meat loaf, and they get two sides to accompany it.

Oohs and Aahs does seafood particularly well. Fried catfish is perfectly cooked; the batter is light and crisp, never burying the flavor of the fish. The shrimp also stand out, especially when grilled. And teriyaki salmon, a favorite among regulars, is sweet and tangy without being cloying. Fried boneless chicken breast and wings benefit from the same deft touch with batter and are a perfect vehicle for Oohs and Aah's sweet-and-tart barbecue sauce. T-bone and rib-eye steaks, as well as lamb and pork chops, come off the griddle well seasoned.

And then there are the sides: tangy collard greens, creamy rice and gravy, potato salad with a mustardy bite, perfectly sweet yams and macaroni with a cheesiness that would be hard to exaggerate. On a return trip to the restaurant, I struggle with whether to order an entree or just load up on sides.

Late at night, things switch up slightly. From midnight to 4 a.m., the restaurant serves a hearty menu of chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits and home fries to a crowd seeking post-club sustenance. Abbot occasionally cooks up specials during regular hours, too, including entrees such as turkey spaghetti or lasagna, and sides such as black-eyed peas or baked beans.

On a recent visit a passerby stuck his head in the door and asked, "What are your specials today, man?" Unfortunately, he was out of luck. "Didn't cook up any today," Abbot called from behind the counter, "but we've still got lots of good food. My shrimp are always special."

The man speaks the truth.

At your service: Food is ordered from a carry-out counter just inside the front door. Diners can eat at a small section of tables near the counter or carry their meal to an upstairs dining area that seats about 40. Service is prompt, and to-order items, including steaks, chicken wings and shrimp, are cooked on the flattop griddle or in the fryers, which are right behind the counter. The friendly and helpful staff works double duty, switching between taking orders and cooking.

What to avoid: The menu is full of wonderful sides, but stay away from the just-overcooked string beans. Arguments that the lump crab cakes have too much filling are not without merit, so be warned, but the home-style way they're cooked makes me defend them a touch.

Wet your whistle: Iced tea, lemonade and bottles of soda from a cooler are your only options. But the restaurant plans by early next year to have an upstairs bar with beer along with additional seating. "But don't worry," manager, host and cook Jeff Jones assured me, "it's gonna stay friendly in here; that's not gonna ever change."

Oohs and Aahs 1005 U St. NW Contact: 202-667-7142 Hours: Tuesday- Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday noon to 4 a.m. Prices: Sides $1-$4.50, salads $3.95-$17.95, sandwiches $6.95-$12.95, entrees without sides $8.95-$17.95, entrees with sides $12.95-$21.95. Wheelchair access: No. Kid-friendly: No highchairs, no kids' menu, but it's the kind of food most children like.

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