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Immigrant Food Plus elevates the museum dining experience

Server Natalie Wright takes orders from Jenny Yuan, left, and Quentin Jallerat. Seated at right are Julia Schwartz, left, and Kayden McKenzie. (Laura Chase de Formigny/for The Washington Post)

Since he left Baltimore for Washington, Enrique Limardo has done much to make the nation’s capital a more exciting place to eat, and at all price points.

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His maiden effort in 2017, Chicken + Whiskey on 14th Street NW, married a self-service chicken joint with a cocktail bar accessed via a refrigerator door in the back. Next, Seven Reasons, also on 14th Street, introduced duck tongue chicharron and a chic jungle look, making such a delicious impression, I named it the No. 1 restaurant in my 2019 fall dining guide. Limardo’s third contribution, the fast-casual Immigrant Food near the White House, celebrated fusion bowls from around the world while promoting the work of pro-immigrant organizations. Washington also has the Venezuelan chef to thank for dreaming up Imperfecto, the stylish fine-dining lair in the West End, where servers in suits introduce dishes weaving the Mediterranean with Latin America.

If José Andrés has a friendly rival in Washington, it’s Limardo.

Take a look at his latest project, a third branch of Immigrant Food at Planet Word, a museum devoted to language in the historic Franklin School on 13th Street NW. (Union Market is home to the second Immigrant Food.) The new restaurant has a few things in common with its siblings, chiefly a daytime menu of international sandwiches, salads and bowls and a handsome wooden map of the world that serves as both interior design and mission statement. But the third location is the most ambitious yet, with an evening menu featuring top-shelf cocktails and table service as well as connections to Planet Word. Hence the expanded name, Immigrant Food Plus.

The lunch drill involves ordering at a counter in the rear and waiting a few minutes for something superior to Subway, Potbelly or similar mass feeders. Make that the Old Saigon, a crusty banh mi crammed with succulent adobo chicken and an Asian slaw, and Mumbai Mariachi, a bowl of soft marinated steak on a garden of spinach, charred corn, carrot threads, roasted potatoes and more made sweet and smoky with a dressing of mango and chipotle. Yes, there’s a lot going on, but also lots of flavor. In a nod to Kamala Harris, Madam VP’s Heritage bowl brings together curried chicken, turmeric-tinted rice, sweet plantains and juicy pineapple: a little Indian, a little Jamaican, altogether lively and lovely.

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The choice place to enjoy takeout on a nice day is across the street, where you can see how $21 million transformed Franklin Park. Customers are also welcome to a stool at the bar, its laminated counter set with book jackets and letters from famous immigrants, or beyond a sheer curtain, in the cozy front dining room whose rafters are green with plants. Either landing spot is a nice break from the office (unless, of course, you’re still working from home in your sweats).

Night is when I appreciate Immigrant Food Plus most, though. The sense of fast-casual is erased by soft lighting, hosts showing you to your table and entrees that pair novelty with sophistication. Chicken Milanesa might have Italians scratching their heads, but also eating to the finish. The golden crust relies on ground cassava versus breadcrumbs for its crunch; a topping of fontina cheese and tomato sauce slips berbere, the warm Ethiopian spice blend, into the meld. (Oh, yeah, the plate also comes with buttery mashed potatoes and a well of chicken gravy, both fab.) Thai steak is true to its words, sliced beef cooked the color you ask, dappled with crushed nuts and a bacon-laced chimichurri and served opposite a semicircle of fragrant rice topped with microgreens. A lighter plate is swordfish carpaccio, slicked with a caper dressing and chive oil, and all but hidden beneath a cover of cherry tomatoes, diced cucumbers and flat croutons.

Drinks are priced like the upscale restaurant the venue becomes at night. They’re also easy to enjoy. My poison of choice among the classics is the $15, pleasantly bitter Toronto, suited for the season with bourbon and Fernet Branca. Coasters double as teaching moments. Turn them over to find three icebreakers. One reads: “Name the one who is not an immigrant” followed by a list of the CEOs behind Tesla, Microsoft, Google, Uber and Apple. (Correct answer: Tim Cook of Apple.)

Your server is likely to pitch the “dim sum experience” for $20 a person. Take the plunge or miss the biggest thrill on the menu: a series of “world bites” presented in a three-tiered bamboo steamer. Revealed first are crisp “Latin” wontons with centers of plantains, carrots and other vegetables that blossom with a dip in their fiery chile sauce, and one-bite tacos featuring shiso leaves wrapped around tuna tartare, fruity and refreshing with minced pickled pineapple. Cute: The tiny tacos are held together with miniature clothespins. The second basket — meaty, minty kibbe and ground chicken bound in spiky shredded phyllo — leaves me wishing for more than a morsel per person. The bottom tier extends the fun with pillowy steamed buns stuffed with shredded pork, stinging onions and kicky mayonnaise.

As they do with everything they create, Limardo and chef de cuisine Mileyda “Mile” Montezuma, 30, sketched out on paper their ideas for the show. Their plans for the worldly dim sum involved the most “spiderweb of flavors,” says the chef de cuisine responsible for all three outlets. (And to think the snacks were initially meant for customers at the bar.)

Maybe you want less drama. Check out the trio of Middle Eastern dips — hot-with-harissa hummus, crunchy-with-walnuts muhammara, green-with-herbs shanleesh — accompanied by hot striped pita. The spread is enough finger food for two or three.

Opened in October, Immigrant Food Plus is still finessing a few recipes. Alphabet soup, a shout out to Planet Word, has “coming soon” attached to its description. Montezuma says she and her boss are still trying to find a suitable pasta for the letters. The sweetest link to the museum — the Globe, inspired by one of its interactive exhibits — is a reality. Diners crack a chocolate shell to access the coffee-flavored chocolate mousse inside.

Not until my last dinner did I experience the restaurant’s second dining room, to the side of the bar. The additional space is quieter than up front, thanks to a ceiling draped with rugs, and it comes with a link to the 19th-century building’s past: a big black furnace door that a host might open to reveal … a wall of white bricks these days. The restaurant’s mission to get diners to think about the larger world practically follows them out the door. Checks are dropped off in what looks like a passport.

Washington’s museum restaurants tend to be afterthoughts, designed more for refueling than reflecting. Until recently, the most notable exception was Sweet Home Cafe, the expansive food court in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Immigrant Food Plus goes a step further, staying open after Planet Word closes for the day.

In every way, the restaurant is a plus.

Immigrant Food Plus 925 13th St. NW. 202-888-0760. immigrantfood.com. Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Lunch sandwiches and salads $11 to $15; dinner shareable bites (for two) $14 to $22, shareable plates (for two to three) $21 to $38. Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The (heavy) front door is preceded by a slight slope; ADA-compliant restrooms.

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