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12 fancy-schmancy D.C. chefs reveal where they go for cheap comfort food

These are some of the foods that make chefs go mmmmm. (Express Illustration /Express Illustration)

Once D.C.’s best chefs are done cooking their elegant dishes for others, what do they eat while off the clock? Most likely, they’re scarfing down a hot dog at 7-Eleven or tacos at a carryout joint. It’s true, these chefs — even Michelin star and James Beard Award winners — feast on their favorite cheap comfort foods, just like us. Here, some notable names share their go-to places for fast, easy indulgences.

Cathal Armstrong

Co-owner and chef of Kaliwa and Hummingbird

Chef Cathal Armstrong calls himself “a man of simple taste,” despite running two of D.C.’s buzziest restaurants, including Kaliwa at The Wharf. “When my wife and I opened Restaurant Eve [in 2004], we would go to McDonald’s for date night on Fridays and grab a Quarter Pounder,” Armstrong says with a laugh. And while he’s cut back on the Mickey D’s and amped up his workout regimen, exercising six days a week now, he still indulges at his comfort spots, including Duangrat’s Thai Restaurant in Falls Church and, on occasion, Five Guys and Shake Shack. “Five Guys does that double cheeseburger with bacon and goes all out, and at Shake Shack I go for the classic ShackBurger.”

Teresa Velazquez

Head chef and co-owner of La Betty

The family empire behind A Baked Joint and Baked & Wire offers some reprieve for diners with food restrictions with its new restaurant, La Betty. “When I design anything, I try to make sure that anybody in any food group or allergens group can eat something on the menu,” says the Mount Vernon Triangle restaurant’s co-owner and head chef Teresa Velazquez. Since Velazquez spends the majority of her time cooking up American dishes, including veggie corn dogs and slow-roasted beef, her tastes outside of work skew toward other nations’ cuisines. “We can get great soup dumplings from Shanghai Lounge,” she says of dining out with her family. “My son lived in China for a while, and when we went to visit, we realized what they’re actually supposed to taste like.”

Yuan Tang

Executive chef and co-owner of Rooster & Owl

When you’re digging into the shiitake larb or crispy pig ear at 14th Street NW spot Rooster & Owl, it’s meant to be a communal experience. The sharable, four-course small-plate menu takes its cues from the way Yuan Tang and his wife, Carey, dine out. But when Tang’s not sharing food — or can’t go to his other indulgence spot in Arlington, Quarterdeck — he makes a pit stop after work at 7-Eleven. “This is going to be very embarrassing, but I like 7-Eleven hot dogs,” he says. “There’s a 7-Eleven two blocks away from the restaurant. One of my other guilty pleasures is their iced coffee. It’s cheap and it’s good. And I always get a hot dog with it.”

Haidar Karoum

Head chef and owner of Chloe

When Haidar Karoum opened his first solo venture, Chloe, last year in Navy Yard, he didn’t want to be pigeonholed with the menu. “At an early age I was really lucky enough to experience a lot of different cuisines, and I think that’s where my passion for food came from,” Karoum says. His Michelin-recognized restaurant features Western and Eastern dishes, including crispy soft-shell crab and potato gnocchi. But even with his worldly culinary tastes, Karoum can’t help but rave about the $17 shrimp deal at Woodley Park’s Hot N Juicy Crawfish. “It’s such a great deal for what you pay for a pound of shrimp. It’s fantastic,” he says. “It’s always just super fresh — they serve it shell-on, head-on. When you suck on the head, it’s the best part.”

Eric Ziebold

Chef and co-owner of Métier and Kinship

Métier, which sits below restaurant Kinship, takes fine dining seriously — that means men are required to wear jackets, and you’ll need to shell out at least $200 per person for the seven-course tasting menu that includes a sauteed filet of branzino and a pan-seared squab breast. Sure, chef Eric Ziebold owns one of the swankiest spots in town, but he’s also got a soft spot for a cheap Salvadoran carryout joint in Alexandria. “It’s by one of the farmers markets I go to — I stopped on a whim one day and ‘discovered’ it,” he says. “Rosita’s Restaurant and Carryout on Richmond Highway has really good tacos de barbacoa and a decent michelada.”

Robert Curtis

Executive chef of Hazel

Before Robert Curtis married Tuğçe Salihoğlu, the couple had a long-distance relationship that involved Curtis making a trip to Istanbul. “I went to my first meyhane [a traditional Turkish restaurant] and saw the style of restaurants and the way people were eating with the small plates,” Curtis says. “It was amazing.” Shaw’s Hazel takes inspiration from his experience abroad, featuring dishes such as the carrot haydari (a Turkish yogurt dip) and bulgur kofte. When he’s craving Turkish food outside of work, Curtis and Salihoğlu swear by downtown casual street-food spot Tempo. “My wife and I would go to it every week if we could,” he says. “It’s one of the closest things I’ve had to authentic Turkish food in the states, and the best kumpir I’ve had outside of Istanbul.”

Erin Clarke

Executive chef of Sfoglina Van Ness

Pulling off Sfoglina’s extravagant dishes, such as the pappardelle noodles and the BBQ-stuffed spinach tortellini, takes a veteran chef like Erin Clarke who knows how to make pasta from scratch. To perfect her craft, Clarke has traveled far and wide — including to Paris, where she trained under a Michelin-starred chef. After she’s prepared her decadent noodle dishes and checked out for the day, Clarke sometimes heads to one of her favorite go-to cheap eateries, located in an Arlington strip mall. “Hands down, the best Thai food ever is Thai Square. It’s like, if your grandmother was Thai, this is what you’d be eating,” she says of the long-standing eatery’s menu. “Their papaya salad [the somtum] is the best — I always get two orders of it. My friend and I always try to re-create it, but we just end up leaving it up to them.”

Matt Baker

Executive chef and owner of Gravitas

Gravitas is ideal for indecisive diners who can’t pick just one entree — even if their lives depended on it. The Ivy City restaurant has several tasting menus featuring seasonal American fare that change regularly. Matt Baker’s favorite indulgence spots include Capitol Hill’s Chiko, Union Market’s Stellina Pizzeria — and Cracker Barrel. “I grew up in Texas, so I’m always in the mood for a fried chicken or chicken fried steak or anything that’s going to be stick-to-your-ribs-type cooking,” he says. “I went again to Cracker Barrel maybe three weeks ago and I got the fried chicken. It was phenomenal.”

Reid Shilling

Executive chef and owner of Shilling Canning Company

Reid Shilling’s Mid-Atlantic restaurant in Navy Yard, Shilling Canning Company, pays homage to his family’s former food processing business of the same name. “We work with 30 or 40 different farmers, producers or fishermen that bring their products to us directly from the farm or from the dock,” he says. Shilling admits he spends most of his time eating at the restaurant, but sometimes those $2.75 salteñas at Luzmary Bolivian Restaurant in Falls Church can be too hard to resist. “They’re Bolivia’s version of a pocket pie. They’re filled with chicken or beef, the dough is rich and they’re a little bit sweet and super beautiful,” he says. If he can’t get to Luzmary, another indulgence awaits him in a supermarket aisle: “A $5 chicken from Giant or Costco or whatever is a good, easy grab.”

Jon Sybert

Chef and co-owner of Tail Up Goat

Tail Up Goat shot up the ranks in just a few months when it was awarded a Michelin star in 2016. But the folks behind the Mediterranean spot in Adams Morgan aren’t letting the honor go to their heads, says chef and co-owner Jon Sybert. “My wife’s [Jill Tyler, service director and co-owner] constant refrain ‘smart and kind’ is really the cornerstone to our service ethos,” Sybert says. When he’s not crafting Tail Up’s succulent dishes or putting the finishing touches on his soon-to-open casual eatery down the street, Reveler’s Hour, he’s chowing down on a $3.64 beef chili- and cheese-filled tortilla. “Meats & Foods in Bloomingdale has a few of my favorite snacks in D.C., period, and is an amazing, inexpensive and delicious option,” he says. “The Chilito is maybe my favorite single dish in the city.”

Ris Lacoste

Owner of Ris

In D.C.’s cutthroat restaurant scene, Ris Lacoste’s West End namesake has held strong for the past decade. And to celebrate this milestone, Ris will soon undergo an extensive interior face-lift that will also add more savory American dishes to the menu. As a longtime D.C. resident, Lacoste has a list of favorite indulgences, one being &pizza’s gluten-free pizza topped with spicy tomato sauce, vegan cheese, spinach, mushrooms, grilled onions, bacon, sausage, black olives, banana peppers and garlic oil. “I rarely change [the toppings],” she says. “I did cheat on the dairy and wheat once and had the buffalo chicken pizza, and it was delicious!”

Nicholas Stefanelli

Chef and owner of Masseria and Officina

If you order carbonara at Nicholas Stefanelli’s Officina at The Wharf, you’ll get cheesy fritters instead of a plate of hearty pasta. The chef isn’t afraid to play with his food, but he doesn’t go completely off the rails either. “We make sure that the heart and soul of what we’re trying to work on stays intact,” he says of his Italian outposts. “If there’s a slight variation on that, or something that we change creates a nuance, you still feel like the dish has some soulfulness to it.” One of his favorite foods to eat during his downtime — besides peanut M&M’s — isn’t quite as nuanced. “I like going to El Rinconcito Cafe on 11th and M for their sopa de res, which is a short-rib beef stew that’s very good.”