Who would have thought you’d find some of the most authentic Lao food in the Washington area in a restaurant flanked by a tobacco shop and a nail salon? Or that one of the city’s best taquerias is a few doors down from a karate studio where little kids practice snap kicks?
Strip malls are most commonly home to a hodgepodge of tanning salons, tax prep offices and discount-mattress outlets, which may be why you’re overlooking the acclaim-worthy restaurants next door to those places.
Because rents are lower than they would be in a stand-alone restaurant location, strip-mall spaces often appeal to first-time restaurateurs. Many of the ones who made this list are first- or second-generation immigrants with a passion for recipes that reflect their culture.
“People want to bring [their recipes] to their new home and share food from their country,” says Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and author of “An Economist Gets Lunch.” Even better, Cowen says the savings from these no-frills spots can get passed on to diners.
We shine a spotlight on a few of our favorite eateries, chosen for their selection of fine-tuned dishes steeped in authenticity.
6395 Seven Corners Center, Falls Church; 703-533-9480, bangkokgolden7corners.com.
There’s no shortage of stellar Thai food in the area. But Lao food? Not as much. You can get both at Bangkok Golden, where you’ll find a separate menu for each cuisine. (Combined, the menus contain more than 80 dishes.) Though it shares its western border with Thailand, Laos has developed its own style of cooking. “We use the same kind of herbs [as Thailand], like lemon grass and ginger and fish sauce, but the matter of cooking it is different,” says Seng Luangrath, who opened the 50-seat restaurant in March 2010. Of note is the Nam Khao (crispy rice salad) served with shredded coconut, lime juice, onion and ham ($9) and the beef larb served in a spicy sauce with lime leaves, rice powder, shallots and sticky rice ($11). Bangkok Golden’s success has come mostly from word of mouth, and Toki Underground chef Erik Bruner-Yang (no stranger to standout Southeast Asian food) is a fan.
2190 Pimmit Drive, Falls Church; 703-639-0505, tacobambarestaurant.com.
Chef Victor Albisu’s position in Idylwood Plaza Shopping Center is an advantageous one: His mother’s market and butcher shop, Plaza Latina, is just a few doors down. “We get a lot of our ingredients there,” says Albisu, who also owns Del Campo, a South American grill in Mount Vernon Square. Albisu’s Latin American roots influence Taco Bamba’s offerings, which include Mexican standards like barbacoa, al pastor and carne asada tacos ($3 each), as well as inventive options like grilled pork belly and sweetbread tacos ($4 each). “We try to make sure our food is on-culture,” Albisu says. “Taco Bamba will never be anything but good Mexican.”
11403 Amherst Ave. Wheaton, Md.; 301-693-0806, rens-ramen.com.
Founded by chef Eiji Nakamura and his wife, Yoko, in 2009, this ramen house has gained a loyal fan base for its wok-prepared ramen. Of the four varieties offered (miso, tonshio, shoyu and vegetable shio), miso is the most popular, Yoko says. It’s characterized by a rich, heavy, pork-based broth mixed with soybean paste, roast pork, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, scallions, onion and ground pork. What really separates the Nakamuras’ ramen from the rest are the thick wavy noodles they use, which are imported from Hokkaido, Japan (all bowls are $10).
755 Hungerford Drive, Rockville; 301-294-0808.
Dumplings are straightforward enough: seasoned meat wrapped in dough and pan-fried or boiled. But China Bistro has raised the Chinese standard to an art form with its quality stuffings. Though it also offers such traditional fare as hot and sour soup and beef with broccoli, the Rockville institution draws crowds for its 12 varieties of made-to-order dough balls. Of note are Mama’s special dumplings (12 for $7.95) filled with a perfectly proportioned mixture of pork, shrimp, chives and napa cabbage as well as the pork and ji cai (a sweet, leafy Chinese herb) dumplings (12 for $7.50). Opt for yours boiled: The pillowy dough better complements the supple filling.
Cuba de Ayer
15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, Md.; 301-476-9622, cubadeayerrestaurant.net.
Forget everything you know about Cuban cuisine — if anything. “Most people assume Cuban food is like Mexican or that it’s very spicy,” says Cuba de Ayer owner Jessica Rodriguez. “But there are no burritos, and it’s more seasoned than spicy.” Recipes at this no-frills restaurant come from Rodriguez’s Cuba-born mother-in-law and reflect the food found in a pre-revolution Cuba. (Cuba de Ayer translates to “Cuba of Yesterday.”) One of the most popular dishes is the ropa vieja (shredded beef in tomato sauce, $14.25), which is prepared traditionally with no modern twists. The three-hour process includes boiling the meat, shredding it, sauteing it in spices, and letting it simmer in tomato sauce for 30 minutes. “We always cook with the authentic Cuban version in mind,” Rodriguez says. “We never cut corners.”