Just because a dining guide is published doesn’t mean it’s complete. To my way of thinking, my recent list of the 25 best casual restaurants in the D.C. area is more open-ended than finite. I mean, 25 percent of the lineup could have been different, depending on which day or week I compiled the guide.
Plus, if I’m honest with myself, a significant portion of my list could have been populated with pizzerias and taquerias had I cratered to my lifelong affection for these handheld bites, which have attained a kind of spiritual perfection, at once simple in appearance and complex in execution. But such a guide would not represent the full spectrum of dining in Washington, or even all of my personal tastes. It would just be a list of my indulgences, which has less value than a broader accounting of my favorite places to eat.
So difficult choices are made. Restaurants that I love were not included, among them the five places below (plus one honorable mention). I thought I’d give you some insights into my decision-making, while giving you more places to try.
1. Charcoal Town Shawarma, 2019 11th St. NW, 202-232-2330; charcoaltown.com.
Why it didn’t make the list: The Middle East is a vast expanse that encompasses so many styles of cooking. Arguably, I could have picked a handful of restaurants that represent the region, with little to no overlap among them. But I had already included two. A third, no matter how different, would have required me to sacrifice a restaurant serving food from another part of the world. I decided I couldn’t make that sacrifice.
Why it should have: I had no shawarma on the list — at all. Plus, brothers Bashar and Kinan Mihyar serve the kind of shawarma found in their native Jordan, a rarity in our part of the world. It starts with marinated meat carefully layered onto a skewer and cooked over lump charcoal. The chicken shawarma is what you want. Sliced to order, the chicken, mostly thigh meat, is pressed into crisped-up markouk flatbread, along with housemade pickles and a garlic sauce. There is nothing like it.
2. El Sol Restaurante and Tequileria, 1227 11th St. NW, 202-815-4789; elsol-dc.com.
Why it didn’t make the list: Unfortunate timing. Just three months earlier, I had compiled my list of the region’s best taquerias. El Sol came in at No. 4. I thought it too soon to feature too many taco shops in the dining guide, so I limited it to one (Taqueria Habanero in College Park).
Why it should have: In the weeks since I last visited El Sol, chefs, siblings and co-owners Alfredo and Jessica Solis have finished their renovations, which have more than doubled the capacity of their taqueria. They’ve also expanded the menu to include some dishes (including those amazing basket tacos) from their sibling restaurant, Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana. El Sol is now making a serious run for the No. 1 taqueria in Washington.
3. Frankly . . . Pizza!, 10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, Md., 301-832-1065; franklypizza.com.
Why it didn’t make the list: Perhaps I overcompensated, but I didn’t want pizzerias to dominate the list. (See my introduction.) I had already included two. A third would have surrendered more than 10 percent of the available selections to pizza shops. I wasn’t comfortable with that.
Why it should have: Like all my favorite chefs, Frank Linn is obsessive. He has spent countless hours perfecting his recipes, worrying over every last detail. His pizzas reflect his passion — and his particular tastes. They’re based on the Neapolitan tradition, but not bound to it. These are some sweet pies.
4. Lucky Buns, 2000 18th St. NW, 202-506-1713; luckybunsdc.com.
Why it didn’t make the list: When Barack Obama occupied the White House, Washington couldn’t open burger joints fast enough, each seemingly erected to cater to the then first family’s affection for ground beef. Burger shops, in a sense, became our down-market steakhouses, one more way for outsiders to consider our city a culinary backwater (which, increasingly, they don’t anymore). I have this fear, right or wrong, of perpetuating the image.
Why it should have: Chef and owner Alex McCoy prepares juicy, mountainous, 20-napkin burgers that borrow from his peers across the world. There’s not a dud in the bunch. What’s more, bartender Fabian Malone’s cocktail list keeps getting deeper, and more interesting, by the day.
5. Saba’ Traditional Yemeni Cuisine, 3900 Pickett Road, Fairfax, Va., 703-425-1130.
Why it didn’t make the list: I guess I could invoke the same Middle East argument that I made for Charcoal Town Shawarma, but that wouldn’t truly reflect my thinking on the matter. The fact is, I wanted to include Saba’, but in my desire for geographical and culinary diversity, I just couldn’t find a spot for this outstanding Yemeni restaurant. It was No. 26, an outsider looking in.
Why it should have: Chef-owner Taha Alhuraibi is like so many immigrants before him: He learned that if he wanted a taste of his native country, he would have to cook it himself. He’s now serving traditional Yemeni dishes to Washingtonians, whether his simple cup of maraq soup or his chicken aqdah, a cauldron of meat and vegetables topped with a cloud of fenugreek foam. Alhuraibi is so committed to the cuisine of Yemen that he prepares fresh rice every 30 minutes.
Honorable mention: Bub and Pop’s (1815 M St. NW, 202-457-1111; bubandpops.com.) The second great omission in my guide — after shawarma — was a sandwich shop. More than five years in, Bub and Pop’s is still producing generous, two-fisted sandwiches that lean heavy on Philadelphia traditions, including, without question, the best Italian hoagie in town.