This story has been updated.
Every once in awhile, when my mood darkens to the shade of Starbucks coffee, I start to fret that the pool of high-quality, low-budget restaurants is draining faster than an environmentalist’s hope for the future. On those days, I fear for the $20 Diner’s life.
Don’t get me wrong: I know there are tons of small, affordable restaurants scattered across the region. But many of them — perhaps most of them — don’t rise to the level of mainstream attention. I’ve sat inside many a strip-center restaurant, ruminating over the plates in front of me and whether they merit your time. Too often, I sigh, they don’t.
It doesn’t help my mood to read in PoPville that the Florida Avenue Grill is on the auction block this month, even if owner Imar Hutchins tells me to relax when I reach him by phone. “The grill is not closing,” he assures. He couldn’t elaborate further.
But even in my bleaker moments, I see hope on the cheap-eats beat. Some of my favorite chefs and restaurateurs are expanding. They’re opening second locations or launching tangentially related restaurants that stretch their talents in new directions. These projects are evidence that Washington’s best bargain eateries have become self-replicating, even if they require us to trust that the new places will double our pleasures, not dilute the original ones.
Take, for instance, the next project from Ankur Rajpara and Jonathan Allen, the owners of Pizza CS in Rockville, which landed on my list of favorite cheap eats last year. The guys expect to open CSNY Pizza this spring in the Edmonston Crossing shopping center at 1020 Rockville Pike. Their future pie hole will not be an homage to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; their motto won’t be, “Our pie is a very, very, very fine pie.” No, the carryout’s CSNY acronym is a mash-up of their first pizzeria’s CS abbreviation (“come sempre” in Italian, or “like always,” a daily reminder of the importance of consistency) and the initials of the style of pizza they plan to serve: New York.
Allen says CSNY will actually offer four styles, including thick, crusty, pan-baked Sicilian pies and the thin, 16- and 18-inch rounds sold on almost every street corner in Manhattan. But Allen and Rajpara have also experimented with “grandma pizza,” a lesser-known Sicilian-style pie with dough proofed for only a brief period. They’ll even have meatballs subs and eggplant parm. Everything will be sold, Allen says, for takeout or delivery. He’s not sure the tiny storefront will even have a single stool on which to enjoy your pies on the premises.
And how would Allen respond to those who say New York pizza is all about the water in Gotham, impossible to replicate in the Maryland ’burbs?
“I don’t know,” he says, with a laugh. “There might be some truth to it. We’ll have some filters in the shop . . . I also think it’s about the ingredients. I think all food is about the ingredients.”
If the 14th Street corridor near Logan Circle has ceded some of its hipster cred to the Shaw neighborhood, then the strip might consider annexing a section farther north. Next week, the 3700 block of 14th Street NW will be home to not one, but two destination Mexican restaurants. On Jan. 13, Alfredo and Jessica Solis, the siblings behind the chef-driven El Sol, will debut Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana , their more expansive review of south-of-the-border cooking. It’ll sit at 3714 14th St. NW, just two doors down from the excellent Taqueria Habanero.
The Solises had first envisioned Mezcalero as a small-plates emporium, but they changed the concept after talking to neighbors, who convinced the owners to create a restaurant closer in spirit to the original location of El Sol, which the siblings shuttered last year. “There’s not a lot of places you can go and have a meal, a good meal,” Alfredo Solis says of the neighborhood. “That’s why I changed it.”
Mezcalero will feature a menu similar to El Sol’s on 11th Street NW, but with more options across the board. The chefs will also offer Mexican guisados, or stews, and pork chops (or pork spare ribs — Alfredo Solis hasn’t decided which yet) marinated in guajillo sauce. Everything will be made in-house, whether the tortillas for tacos or the bolillo bread for torta sandwiches.
Arturo Zaloga, an American born to a Mexican mother and Polish father, will manage the bar side of Mezcalero. Expect between 50 and 60 mescals and about seven house-made cocktails. “At the most,” Alfredo Solis says about the number of cocktails. “I want a small menu, really small and good. I told [Zaloga] that I don’t want those fancy drinks. I want it cheap but good.”
Zaloga’s seasonal cocktails will “not only complement Alfredo’s food but pay homage to the men and women who craft these spirits,” emails the bartender, who has previously worked for the Hilton brothers at Marvin, the Brixton and El Rey.
What else can cheap eaters look forward to in 2017? Myron Mixon, the celebrity pitmaster behind Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters,” will open Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbecue on Jan. 16 in the former Overwood space at 220 N. Lee St., in Old Town Alexandria. Mixon will have to compete with DCity Smokehouse, which just reopened at 203 Florida Ave. NW, under pitmaster Shawn McWhirter, who took over when Rob Sonderman left to launch his own project, Federalist Pig in Adams Morgan.
If that’s not enough barbecue for you, the team behind Texas Jack’s in Arlington is pondering a second location of the upstart smokehouse, the reigning champ in my annual barbecue rankings. “We are looking at Tysons and D.C.,” texts co-owner Steve Roberts. But the Texas Jack’s operators are experiencing something akin to sticker shock as they review rental rates in the District.
Which is why this bargain hunter is always prowling the ’burbs in search of something good to eat, even if I routinely come up empty-handed.