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Going Out Guide

The happy hour destination you probably never thought of: Fast-casual restaurants

August 16, 2018 at 10:00 AM

Taco Bamba's “El Bacho” happy hour nachos are served with a choice of 12 proteins, including cabeza, or braised beef cheeks. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post/)

Fast-casual restaurants are taking over the city and changing the way we dine. But can they also change the way we do happy hour?

An increasing number of restaurants offering affordable rice bowls, sandwiches and tacos are expanding their selections to include beer, wine and even hard liquor. Like traditional restaurants, some of them also knock a few bucks off their prices between 4 and 7 p.m. You might not think of the informal lunch-to-go place by your office as a place to meet friends for a drink after work, but fast-casual happy hours can be a lure for anyone looking for discounts on top of an already reasonably priced meal.

Related: [A guide to the best happy hours in D.C.]

Taco Bamba, 777 I St. NW.
Happy hour: Monday to Friday from 4 to 7 p.m.
Deals: $5-$10 wines by the glass, $4 beers, $6-$8 margaritas and sangria, $6 nachos.

The fourth location in chef Victor Albisu's burgeoning Taco Bamba chain is his first in Washington, and it's just what the city's taco lovers needed: a casual bar and dining room that slings creative tacos, overstuffed tortas and spicy margaritas, with AC/DC and Kiss cranked on the stereo. While “Taco” features prominently in the name, however, none are included on the happy hour menu — after all, they're only $3.50 or $4.50 at regular prices.

Instead, Taco Bamba offers El Bacho, a heaping individual mountain of nachos. Pick one of a dozen different proteins: the familiar grilled steak or spicy sausage, or try tripe, braised goat, or beef tongue or cheeks. (Vegetarians are covered with a spicy roasted squash in brown butter.) No matter the base, it's dressed up with a colorful assortment of toppings: salsa verde, pico de gallo, pickled chile peppers and cotija cheese. There's some heat lurking there, so make sure you have a drink: Draft Mexican lagers are $4, the house margaritas are $6, as is the sangria, which is made with brandy and an Argentine Malbec. Pro tip: Grab stools at the bar and you don't have to wait in a separate line to order from the food counter. Just don't save them for your friends.

Arepa Zone's mini-arepa trio, cheese-filled teque-pops and Alhambra Roja beer. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post/)

Arepa Zone, 1121 14th St. NW.
Happy hour: Monday to Friday from 4 to 7 p.m.
Deals: $5 wine by the glass, $4-6 draft beers, $4-$6 snacks.

Arepa Zone's blandly decorated storefront near Thomas Circle doesn't have much in the way of atmosphere, beyond a few TVs and speakers playing pop music. But that's fine: What looks like a minimalist fast-food restaurant offers solid value. Arepa Zone started as a food truck hawking Venezuelan street food, and its namesake snack is still the headliner: Get three pint-size corn arepas stuffed with shredded beef, shredded chicken, and chicken salad and avocado, or a vegetarian trio with black beans, queso fresco, and tomato and basil, for $6. Another $6 sampler offers three palm-sized empanadas, filled with beef, chicken and queso fresco.

But nothing disappears faster than teque-pops: little fried dough tots full of chewy, salty cheese, perfect for dipping in a spicy cilantro sauce. A bowl of eight costs $5; with a group you may need to order two. You'll sip your wine or beer from a clear, thin plastic cup, which is a clear reminder you're not in a bar — but at least it goes with the recyclable cardboard containers and plastic cutlery.

Happy hour at Nando's is designed for groups: The pitcher of sangria contains five glasses, and the hummus is more than enough for two. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post/)

Nando's Peri-Peri, multiple area locations
Happy hour: Sunday to Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m.
Deals: Sangria ($3 glass, $8.50 pitcher), Cara Viva red or white wine ($4 glass, $15 bottle) and $3 beers. $19.95 platter of 24 peri-peri wings, $5-$6 hummus, $4 large fries and spiced “perinaise” mayo.

Happy hour at Nando's is clearly designed for groups. Why else would specials include a carafe of fizzy white wine and peach slices that yields five glasses of sangria or bottles of wine that cost less than three individual glasses? (The bubbling soundtrack, full of Afrobeat and world music, suggests a party in the offing.) Food-wise, the platter of two dozen hot wings seems more suited to watching Sunday football. Even the bowl of hummus — two giant scoops surrounded by pita strips, veggies or both — looks daunting to a solo diner.

But fear not: The drinks are so inexpensive — when's the last time you saw $3 DC Brau cans or Super Bock bottles? — that ordering from the regular, non-happy-hour food menu means you'll wind up saving a few bucks, even if you go back for a second round.

Rasa offers only drink specials at happy hour, such as the Masala Gin and Tonic (right), but the food is affordable enough that it won't make a difference. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post/)

Rasa, 1247 First St. SE.
Happy hour: Monday to Friday from 3 to 7 p.m., and two hours before and after all Nationals and D.C. United games.
Deals: $5 wine, $5 draft margaritas and gin and tonics, $3-$6 canned beer, $5 draft beer.

Rasa, located a block from Nationals Park, is an assembly-line fast-casual joint in the spirit of Chipotle or Sweetgreen — pick a base, pick a topping, pick a sauce — except the flavorful, made-from-scratch Indian bowls stand far above most competition (Post food critic Tom Sietsema awarded it two-and-a-half stars). So I can overlook the fact that they don't discount any of their food at happy hour.

Two cocktails are served on draft: a margarita bursting with tamarind aroma and flavor, and a gin and tonic that's a bit overwhelmed by masala spices, to the point where it became a masala-and-tonic. The beer selection is wide, from a $3 tallboy of Pabst Blue Ribbon to a $6 22-ounce bottle of Taj Mahal. Both would pair well with the mini samosas ($2.50 each) or the lamb kebab bowl ($11.77), or you could just sip a $5 pint of the Mango Saison, brewed by 3 Stars exclusively for Rasa.

READ MORE

The best happy hours in D.C.

D.C.'s cider scene is blossoming. Here's where to go and what to try.

Stuck in a lunch rut? Head to a D.C. farmers market for barbecue, crab cakes or Mexican street food


Fritz Hahn has covered bars, drinks and nightlife for The Washington Post's Weekend section since 2003, but he also writes about a variety of local entertainment topics.

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