For the past 12 months, I've traveled across the Washington-Baltimore region in search of meals worth featuring for the $20 Diner. My car wore out before I did: It visited the shop twice this year for extended repairs. I ate through colds, the flu and even the college football season, when I'd prefer to veg out on the couch all day, a beer and a plate of barbecue by my side.
But whether sick or in top condition, my vehicle and I stopped at more than 100 restaurants in 2017, returning three, four and occasionally five times to make sure I had sampled widely enough to issue a fair opinion of the place. Sure, there were duds along the way, but more often than not, I encountered cooking informed by tradition, training, family history and the sheer love of the cuisine. As I reflect on the year, I don't regret any of the miles. How could I? They led me, ultimately, to these 10 restaurants, my favorites of the year.
10. Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken (5810 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt, Md., 240-965-5821, gusfriedchicken.com). This Tennessee-based chain made a play for our hearts and wallets, a smart move given that many locals still prefer Popeyes over any bird fried in more homey or chef-obsessed environs. At its best, the fried chicken at Gus's shatters under tooth, the skin and meat animated by the chain's signature chile pepper heat, pronounced but not overpowering. When you have the nerve to describe your chicken as "world famous," you better back it up. Gus's often does.
9. Melt Gourmet Cheeseburgers (525 East Market St., Leesburg, 703-443-2105, meltgourmetcheeseburgers.com). With so many choice burgers available in Washington, you might wonder what makes these whoppers worth a trip to Leesburg. Let me spell it out: The half-pound burgers are a blend of freshly ground short rib, brisket and chuck cuts, each patty slipped into a house-made sourdough bun and topped with your choice of decadent spreads, cheeses and garnishes. Each burger is piled so high it must be held in place with a skewer, lest this monument to indulgence topple under the weight of its own ambition.
8. LoKL Gourmet (8100 Old Dominion Dr., Suite E, McLean, (844) 328-5655, eatlokl.com). Part gourmet market, part health food store, part locavore sandwich shop, LoKL is the kind of daytime destination that would be an attraction in any neighborhood. The owners source many of their ingredients locally. They stock their shelves with condiments, coffees and cookies from local producers. They create some mouthwatering sandwiches, like Dad's Meatball Sub, a big, sloppy bite based on a family recipe and steeped in homemade pleasures.
7. Dera Restaurant (7030 Spring Garden Dr., Springfield, Va., 703-866-2233, deraspringfield.com). The odds are good that the servers won't even hand you a menu. They'll just direct you to the buffet, a generous spread of Pakistani stews, salads, curries and tandoori meats, some so spicy you'll wonder if your meal is a form of self-injury. As good as the buffet can be, don't overlook menu attractions such as the Frenched lamb chops, blackened with char and absolutely biting. Also, don't miss chef and owner Ghulam Rubani's colorful assortment of Pakistani desserts, available for takeout should you overindulge on the buffet, which you will.
6. Salumeria 2703 (2703 12th St. NE, 202-699-2397, salumeria2703.com). Chef and co-owner Ettore Rusciano wanted to re-create the Naples markets of his youth with this sliver of a shop in Brookland. You know: A place where locals would pick up house-made pastas and sauces — perhaps some cured olives and a loaf of freshly baked bread, too — and prepare their own meal. But customers demanded prepared sandwiches and lasagnas, too, and Rusciano dutifully complied. I call it the great compromise.
5. Big Wang's Cuisine (16051 Frederick Rd., Derwood, Md. 301-977-7676). Co-owned by a mysterious, publicity-shy gentleman named Bo Wang, this unpresuming strip center spot specializes in the DIY bowls known as dry pots, which have supplanted the dip-your-own-dinner hot pot as the de rigueur Chinese communal dish. If you're clever enough to construct a dry pot that's more than a pantry dump of ingredients, you're golden. If not, you'll find plenty of other Sichuan specialties to light up your palate, each customizable to your heat tolerance.
4. Federalist Pig (1654 Columbia Rd. NW, 202-827-4400, federalistpig.com). Pitmaster Rob Sonderman's place didn't land the top spot in my annual barbecue rankings — its weakness is a gas-enhanced Southern Pride unit that huffs and puffs but can't seem to generate the necessary smoke levels — yet the pit crew still turns out distinctive 'cue, riffing on a range of regional styles. If the Pig's meat-by-the-pound options are a notch below the area's best, its sandwiches have no peer. The Carolina on My Mind, a sublime chopped pork shoulder creation, is required eating.
3. Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana (3714 14th St. NW, 202-803-2114, mezcalerodc.com). Mezcalero is a more sweeping version of El Sol Restaurante & Tequileria, the 11th Street NW operation that introduced us to Alfredo and Jessica Solis's refined Mexico City street fare. The siblings have broadened their vision at Mezcalero, adding a line of inventive snacks under the umbrella term "antojitos," as well as a selection of mescals and tequilas. With ceviches, stews, gorditas, tortas, huaraches, moles and an expansive list of tacos wrapped in house-made tortillas, this place can do it all.
2. Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana (12207 Darnestown Rd., Darnestown, Md. 301-963-0115, inferno-pizzeria.com). Tony Conte used to devote his restless mind to luxe tweezer food at the Oval Room, the kind of haute stage that chefs are supposed to embrace to show off their finest, four-star work. Conte gave it up to bake Neapolitan-style pizzas, a nod to his family's roots in Italy. His modest storefront produces the finest margherita in the region, but Inferno's pleasures run much deeper. Conte's beet salad, featuring cherries soaked for a year in olive brine, underscores the obsessiveness that still courses through his cooking, even at a pizzeria in suburban Maryland.
1. Royal Nepal (3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va., 571-312-5130, royalnepalva.com). Before this Alexandria restaurant opened in March, Nepalese cooking was often treated as a curious sidekick to the more powerhouse Indian dishes on local menus. The owners of Royal Nepal, each steeped in the world of fine dining, have brought refinement and sophistication to their native cuisine, while keeping true to the flavors. It makes for an often exhilarating ride across the Nepalese landscape. My favorite dish of the year was produced in chef/co-owner Subash Rai's kitchen: crusty, yogurt-marinated lamb chops served atop a slab of pink Himalayan salt. I gnawed on those bones like a dog.
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