As someone who makes about 30 reservations a month, you could call me a planner. With an eye on tax day next month (remember to file by April 18), I figured my roundup of March favorites should emphasize restaurants offering distinctive value — you know, just in case you have to write a check to the government. I threw in a splurge from a star chef, too, in the event you are counting on a check from Uncle Sam. The cool thing is, my favorite dish at each restaurant costs $18 or less.
Doro Soul Food
What happens when an Ethiopian chef, trained in fine dining, applies his skill set to soul food? In the case of Elias Taddesse, you get some of the best fried chicken in Washington, coleslaw tinted with turmeric mayonnaise, and creamy pudding layered with vanilla wafers and mango, instead of bananas.
Also, depending on your order, you get sweat on your brow and hiccups, but more on that in a bit.
The fast-casual hybrid, introduced last November, is part of a virtual food hall near Howard Theatre in Shaw. Several stools facing the street suggest you can graze inside the storefront, a notion erased by plants crowding the counter. Get thee to a nearby park, then, or enjoy it at home or in your car if you’re impatient or hangry.
If you like what Taddesse cooks up at Melange, his popular burger spot in Mount Vernon Triangle, you’re apt to appreciate his merger of American comfort food with Ethiopian spice blends at Doro Soul Food.
Taddesse buys whole chickens from the pedigreed D’Artagnan; whips up a batter from buttermilk, rosemary, cumin, garam masala and berbere; dredges the chicken parts in several flours; and fries them in shortening. The effort pays off in chicken that’s craggy and crisp outside, juicy and succulent within. There are three heat levels, from “naked” (boring!), to berbere (hot) to mitmita (which prompted my aforementioned sweat and hiccups but didn’t stop me from making short work of the pleasure-pain).
The sides get similar attention. The chef’s stretchy macaroni with cheese is crisp with injera crumbs and spiced like doro wat, Ethiopia’s signature dish, and the sturdy cornbread, dipped in spiced clarified butter, comes freckled with black cumin seeds.
Doro Soul Food’s attractive yellow branding — on the menu and the bags to go — hints at future branches. Fingers crossed there.
Twice I tried to order vegan versions of chicken here, made with jackfruit, and twice they were unavailable. No complaints here. Two encounters with the chef’s fried signature has already made Doro my happy spot.
1819 Seventh St. NW. dorosoulfood.com. No phone. Open for takeout and delivery. Sandwiches and plates, $10 to $16.
The Bazaar by José Andrés
Thirty years after he first dreamed of opening a restaurant in the Old Post Office building in Washington, José Andrés presents the Bazaar by José Andrés, the splashiest addition yet to his local portfolio. Set in the Waldorf Astoria, it’s a gift to the city that made Andrés the chef and humanitarian he is today, the son of Spain says.
Your eyes won’t know where to focus. In one part of the opulent, second-floor dining room, a carver wields a knife like a surgeon on the cured leg of an Iberian pig fed a diet of acorns. In another, a server is whipping up a caipirinha from a silver bowl of liquid nitrogen, lime juice and the spirit cachaça. Multiple long tables reinforce the chef’s idea of the American Dream: “longer tables, not higher walls,” says the Man Who Needs No Introduction.
The epic menu looks backward and forward but also lets diners savor the here and now. The late America Eats Tavern is recalled with dishes including a “Philly cheesesteak” rethought with Wagyu beef and blimp-like “air bread” filled with a whip of cheddar cheese, along with the country’s daintiest chicken wings. Served on skewers, the deboned, pressed and fried wings are glossed with a rich hot sauce and finished with a cube of blue cheese. No need to lick your fingers, but you’re likely to smack your lips with every glorious bite.
The food, incorporating ideas from Jaleo, Minibar and the star chef’s other dining draws, comes in well-paced waves. Imagine an onion soup that’s by turns hot and cold in every spoonful and a salad of Japanese peaches and burrata arranged as if by an artist. Andrés is fascinated with frying and fritters. Spring for the sumptuous conch fritters — near-liquid with bechamel and onion in the center and light and golden as the best tempura outside.
Reservations aren’t easy, but price-wise, the Bazaar is one of the city’s more accessible special-occasion retreats.
1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-868-5088. thebazaar.com. Open for indoor dining. Snacks, tapas and medium-size dishes, $9 to $42.
The narrow storefront with an easy-to-miss sign on 14th Street NW faces lots of competition close by. Why choose Chicatana over the other Mexican restaurants?
Because its three principals, two from Guerrero in southwestern Mexico, are doing something different — ants are sprinkled throughout the menu, for instance — and incorporating touches that you tend to see at fancier places, in pricier parts of town. Drinks are made with fresh-squeezed juices, and almost everything is cooked to order, a process you can see for yourself if you park yourself in front of the kitchen counter (which you should, in part to chat up co-owner Marcelino Zamudio, one of two chefs responsible for the fetching sopes, gorditas and whole fish brushed with zesty adobo).
Zamudio, who has cooked at both Oyamel and Boqueria in the District, likes to think of his polished versions of Mexican street food as “tapas in a taqueria.” Half the pleasure of the tacos at Chicatana are the tortillas, shaped from masa harina, pressed to near-tissue thickness and brushed with lard before they’re warmed on the plancha. The rest of the fun are the top-notch fillings: braised tongue seasoned with cloves, garlic and bay leaves; shredded pork, juicy from orange juice and warm with allspice; crisp grasshoppers sauteed with mezcal, onion and chipotle.
Chicatana is small, fewer than two dozen stools, in a narrow dining room whose brick wall is a showcase for the paintings of Washington street artist Jah One. But it comes with a big heart. The owners want you to feel as if you’re eating in their home, a point they nail by offering the occasional preview of a new dish or a gratis drink if you’ve dropped in a few times. One visit easily leads to becoming a regular.
3917 14th St. NW. 202-516-4924. chicatanadc.com. Open for inside and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Tacos, $3.50 to $5; entrees, $13 to $28.
Photographs of mushrooms and pigs decorate the walls of a Baltimore restaurant that bills itself as “hyper-seasonal.” So it should come as no surprise to find mushrooms and pork parts, lots of them, on chef Chris Amendola’s menu. I know of no other restaurant serving tongue, snout, chin, spare ribs and kidney (in a glorious hot pocket) or more than a dozen kinds of handpicked mushrooms in a stew at peak fungi season (August, promises the avid forager).
Servers tell you the portions are “small to medium,” a philosophy in line with the way the chef likes to eat. “After three bites,” he says, “I want to taste something different.”
We think alike, although lamb neck that is glossed with a reduction that takes three days to make and served on a suggestion of creamy, skin-on potatoes and wilted scallions is best eaten with some bread to fill any gaps. Foraged bakes its own sourdough focaccia, which it offers with whipped butter and radishes. Spring for the deliciousness. The “crab cakes,” fashioned from lion’s mane mushrooms and seasoned with Old Bay, lead you to imagine you’re eating seafood; the catch of the day is probably an invasive species and Amendola’s way of “helping out the Bay.”
Look for last year’s bounty (say, preserved peaches) in this season’s dessert, a coffee cake swirled with warm spices and set off with whipped cream and crushed hazelnuts. Chocolate chip cookies sweeten the arrival of the bill and underscore the chef’s preference for small portions: One-biters, they arrive in an oyster shell.
1709 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-235-0035. foragedeatery.com. Open for indoor dining. Small plates, $8 to $28.
Does Peter Chang ever sleep? Is he really two people? I only ask because the onetime Chinese Embassy chef recently launched another restaurant — No. 14. His latest draw unfolds in the Merriweather District in Columbia, Md., and is small by the native of Hubei province’s usual standards, just 75 seats in the blond dining room and 56 items on the menu.
Quality and flavor infuse almost every dish. The dumplings are the sort you wish every dim sum parlor offered. “Grandma’s” noodles reverberate with the racy heat of chile oil, minced garlic and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. The vegetable dishes — snappy and smoky green beans, cabbage and Chinese yam seasoned with five-spice powder — are a testament to the reverence the Eastern school of Chinese cooking has for produce. If there’s a miss on the menu, it’s the wan Peking duck with its oil-drenched, kinda-crisp skin. That means more stomach space for crowd-pleasers like the scallion bubble pancake made famous by Chang’s wife, chef Lisa Chang, and shredded pork with spicy garlic sauce.
The common thread among the sundry Chang restaurants is consistency. The family-owned enterprise overstaffs in preparation for future restaurants and as a way to advance loyal employees. If the latest Peter Chang tastes as if the busy star were in the kitchen, it’s because chef Yabin He, who cooked with Chang back in China decades ago, is a great mimic.
6000 Merriweather Dr., Columbia. 410-413-5887. peterchangcolumbia.com. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout. Entrees, $16 to $36.
It’s like at first sight at this seductive little dining room in Old Town Alexandria, where dogwood flowers dress the ceiling, the wine list promotes women’s work and chef-owner Nicole Jones says she cooks “what I’d do if I had friends over.”
Lucky company. Think salads jump-started with gochujang; sole meunière that brings to mind a top French restaurant; and crumbled lamb, feta cheese and breezy mint affixed to their plate with tahini — small plates that yield big pleasure. I’d order the juicy burger, made in part with lamb, just for its fistful of delicious, double-cooked fries.
The all-female service staff is one of the best around. “I tell them to treat guests like revered family members,” says Jones — and they do, reminding me that hospitality is as much a reason to pick a restaurant as what’s on the menu.
The restaurant is connected to Mae’s Market & Cafe, named for the chef’s great-grandmother and the source of things you crave from morning to night — baguettes, meals to go — plus the fun-flavored ice cream sandwiches you’ll want to end the night with at this darling in Virginia.
277 S. Washington St., Alexandria. 703-664-0445. virginiasdarling.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Entrees, $12 to $20.