I don’t know what this says about the Washington restaurant scene or me personally. Maybe a lot. Maybe nothing more than women are getting more opportunities to run their own restaurants — and they’re making the most of it. All I know is that my three favorites noshes in 2019 came from the hands of women.
10. Silpancho’s House
Silpancho’s House is not a fast-casual in the way that Americans have come to define the concept in recent years: Customers don’t customize their dishes here, nor are the restaurant’s farmers listed on a chalkboard so the owners can brag about their sourcing. Regardless, this stand-alone eatery, a repurposed residential home in Alexandria, moves Bolivian cuisine ever so slightly into fast-casual territory with its counter service and clean, modern design. The family-run business is led by Eulogia Cabero and her sister and chef, Rosemary Vasquez (whose previous experience was cooking at BGR: The Burger Joint). Vasquez clearly has chops. She adds small grace notes to a cuisine not always known for it, whether her sopa de mani (peanut soup) or the namesake dish, a massive beef cutlet pounded into one of the thinnest, juiciest and largest entrees you’ll find anywhere.
3401 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-664-0000.
9. Grazie Grazie
By the time the owners of Taylor Gourmet cried uncle last year, refusing to sink more money into their lost cause, the hoagie chain was already on cruise control. You could still rely on the place for a decent lunchtime bite, which I frequently did on deadline, but its best days were behind it. Despite Taylor’s unceremonious exit, co-founder Casey Patten never lost his passion for the concept. Patten, in fact, tried to buy Taylor Gourmet’s assets at a bankruptcy auction. When he lost, he simply charged ahead with Grazie Grazie, a Philly-style sandwich shop with more than a passing resemblance to Taylor Gourmet. There is much to love about Patten’s return: the Italian hoagies, the risotto balls, the cheesesteaks (with rib-eye from grass-fed steers). Man, I didn’t realize how much I missed Patten’s Italian hoagies until I tried them again, as if for the first time.
85 District Square SW. 202-216-2999. graziegrazie.com.
Aside from a few obvious partisans — I’m eyeballing you, Hill Country — most Washington pitmasters take an egalitarian approach to barbecue in a market where diners could be from anywhere in the country: Texas, Alabama, Tennessee or the Carolinas. Smoking Kow founder Dylan Kough, a Bethesda native, apparently didn’t get the memo. He’s deeply in the pocket of Kansas City barbecue, though it might not be clear at first glance. Or first bite. Kough’s original sauce bows in the direction of Kansas City with its careful balance of molasses/brown sugar, vinegar and heat. Yet sauce is often an afterthought when you dig into the meats pulled from Smoking Kow’s Ole Hickory smoker: the chopped brisket, the pulled chicken, the burnt ends, the pulled pork, they’re often smoked and seasoned to the point where sauce is wholly unnecessary.
3250 Duke St., Alexandria. 703-888-2649. smokingkowbbq.com.
7. Stellina Pizzeria
Tino’s, Sonny’s and Andy’s. They sound like red-sauce houses in a dying New Jersey town, their awnings frayed and faded, but their dishes still vibrant. In reality, they’re the names of three sweet pizzerias that debuted this year. As good as they are, though, the trio pale next to Stellina, a joint project between restaurateur Antonio Matarazzo and chef Matteo Venini. A large part of Stellina’s appeal lies in its ambition. The pies — their crusts flavored with a touch of biga, the slightly fermented starter — are worth a visit to Stellina all by themselves. But Venini has other attractions, too: the Roman-style fried artichokes, the mouthwatering paccheri all’Avellinese (with its melting layer of aged sheep’s milk cheese) and the two-fisted porchetta panini. Stellina is a superb pizzeria where you can enjoy the place without ever ordering a pie.
399 Morse St. NE. 202-851-3995. stellinapizzeria.com.
6. The Game Sports Pub
Sometimes on Thursdays, when co-owner Jo-Jo Valenzuela can get his hands on the ingredient, he invites customers to try the Philippine street food known as balut. It’s a fertilized duck egg, simply boiled and served with spicy vinegar and coarse sea salt. To those who didn’t grow up with duck embryos, balut is largely thrown into the stunt food category, which is regrettable. The snack conceals many pleasures for those who know how to eat it. Regardless, the fact that Valenzuela offers balut at a sports bar, where the deep fryer is king, should give you an idea of his commitment to the foods of his mother country. A man better known for his mixology skills, Valenzuela has matured into an accomplished cook, particularly with Philippine dishes. It makes me happy beyond measure to watch a Nationals game and feast on sizzling sisig, gambas al ajillo or a Pinoy barbecue hot and cold bowl. Valenzuela is making sports bar fare as international as the players in pro sports. The move makes total sense to me.
2411 18th St. NW. 202-846-1952. thegamedc.com.
5. Lanzhou Hand Pull Noodle
Within the past decade or so, Lanzhou beef noodle soup has become one of China’s main exports. Restaurants specializing in the soup (first developed by the Hui, the Chinese-Muslim ethnic minority) have popped up in Japan, Canada, France and, now, suburban Maryland. Lanzhou owner Jerry Chan has not one, but two chefs who pull noodles to order at his shop in the Rio shopping center. Chefs Zhen Wei Zhang and Hai Liang Chen have different styles when it comes to noodles — Zhang’s are chewier and paler than Chen’s — but both are worth exploring in the wide variety of soups and stir-fries available at this sunny storefront. The dish to order, of course, is the beef noodle soup, its clear, pho-like broth packed with your choice of meat, white radish and greens. Unlike in China, however, the chile oil is optional: It’s available on a back counter to add at your discretion. Apply it with caution. The stuff is weapons-grade hot.
3 Grand Corner Ave., Gaithersburg. 240-403-7486. lanzhounoodlemd.com.
4. Mansa Kunda
Washington is so flush with Ethiopian restaurants that you can select the kind of experience you’d like, from white tablecloth (Das Ethiopian) to fast-casual (Ethio Express Grill). West African cooking doesn’t have that kind of depth or representation in the region, but things are beginning to change, and not just from chef Kwame Onwuachi at Kith and Kin. Hatib Joof, a former operations manager at Spring Mill Bread Company, has created a fashionable space that pulsates with West African art and culture. Even better, the menu, created with the help of the French-trained chef Abdoulie Singateh, channels of the flavors of Senegal and Joof’s native Gambia, though those flavors may sometimes be tempered for American palates. If the supakanja stew, ebbeh seafood soup or peanut butter chu are a tad too mild for your tastes, you can always spike them with a dollop of kaani, a habanero-based condiment that dials up the heat on everything it touches.
8000 Flower Ave., Takoma Park. 301-589-8222. mansakunda.com.
3. Fahrenheit Asian
Memory is a powerful thing. It can romanticize and distort the past. But memory can also be harnessed to make the present a better place. Take, for example, Fahrenheit Asian in McLean. The modest storefront is an archival project of sorts for Lilly Qin, an accountant by training. Qin’s mother, Sharon Lu, is a chef who has mastered the art of Sichuan cooking. Lu and her husband, David Qin, also a chef, used to run Sichuan Village in Chantilly before they moved into semiretirement. Lilly Qin has the flavors of her folks’ food buried deep in her DNA, and Fahrenheit Asian is her way to give those family recipes a second life. The restaurant’s menu borrows ideas from Korea and Thailand, but its best dishes, as you’d expect, are Sichuan, such as the Dan Dan noodles and Chongqing spicy noodles. The plate to order, however, is Lu’s mapo tofu, a version that sets the standard for all others.
1313 Dolley Madison Blvd., McLean. 703-646-8968. fahrenheitasian.com.
2. Green Almond Pantry
I don’t love Green Almond Pantry just for its honest, unfussy food — though God knows, that’s enough — I also love it for what the lunch counter represents to working chefs: a way to break the chains that keep them in the kitchen, away from spouses, children and other loved ones. Chef and co-owner Cagla Onal-Urel designed Green Almond specifically so she could spend more time with her daughter, Su. As such, the tiny eight-stool counter serves lunch only (though you can purchase many dishes for takeaway until 7 p.m.). Onal-Urel’s menu reflects her experiences as an executive hotel chef in her native Turkey as well as a cook and/or chef at Obelisk and Etto, a pair of well-regarded Italian restaurants in Washington. Her salads, dips and vegetable-forward plates are built on intuition as much as tradition. Start with her Little Little in the Middle, a small sampling of housemade salads, and move on to heartier plates such as the superb seven-minute egg sandwich or the eggplant confit sandwich with goat. There’s nary a miss on the menu.
1314 Ninth St. NW. greenalmondpantry.com.
1. CB Chinese Grill
In retrospect, the idea seems obvious: Take the traditional Chinese dish called chun bing — a seasonal offering often compared to a burrito — and create an American-style fast-casual around it. Yet no matter how self-evident the concept seems now, it took the singular mind of Hua Wang to conceive it. No one should be surprised. Wang, after all, is the chef and owner behind Northwest Chinese Food, the exceptional College Park restaurant dedicated to the dishes of Liaoning and Shaanxi provinces. The format of CB Chinese Grill allows you to roll your preferred proteins, toppings and sauces into a flour pancake or spoon them atop rice. The housemade pancake — thin, stretchy and chewy — is the only way to go. With so many fillings available, the chun bing combinations are almost endless, though I’d advise adding the umami-rich Beijing-style sweet bean sauce to any wrap you engineer. Don’t overlook the specials either. The hot-and-sour jelly noodle rice bowl is just killer.
4370 Knox Rd., College Park. 240-770-6791. cbchinesegrill.com.
Honorable mentions: The mochi doughnuts at Pike Bakery in Rockville (though not much else at the food hall), Brew Belly in Olney, Yunnan by Potomac in Alexandria, Astoria DC on 17th Street NW, Tequila and Mezcal on 14th Street NW, Tino’s Pizzeria in Cleveland Park, Sonny’s Pizza in Park View, Barrel on Capitol Hill and Republic Cantina in Truxton Circle.