More than six years ago, we launched a column to review some of the hundreds of mom-and-pop eateries that fly below the radar in Washington. As the years flew by, we occasionally wandered into places with more pedigree. But whether their restaurants were located in a strip mall or a downtown office building, these chefs and owners all had stories to share and, just as important, food to serve, often from the countries they used to call home.
After all the miles and all the meals, we realized that it was time for a dedicated guide to the best of these places. But please, whatever you do, don’t call it a “cheap eats” guide. None of these restaurants deserve to be burdened with a label that could pigeonhole their business, and their food, for years to come. Restaurants, like you and I, deserve to grow and reach their potential.
If the 25 restaurants, bars and taverns listed below have not yet realized their full potential, they’ve come awfully close.
Note: Restaurants are not ranked; they are listed alphabetically.
One bite into my Sicilian marinara — a cheeseless pizza topped with tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, capers and herbs — and I’m already smitten with the second location of All-Purpose, hard by the Anacostia River. Honestly, I’m surprised by my reaction, given it took me several visits to warm up to All-Purpose’s first pie spot in Shaw. But co-owner Mike Friedman isn’t shocked. Even though the recipes at both outlets are identical, he says the rounds at the Riverfront have a chewier, Neapolitan-type consistency, due in part to differences in deck ovens and dough handling. Whatever the reason, I’m convinced that chef de cuisine Vince Campaniello, a Jersey boy like Friedman, is producing some of the finest pizzas in Washington. Campaniello has also left well enough alone with the AP Caesar, a sharp, semi-pungent preparation that will restore your faith in this overworked salad.
79 Potomac Ave. SE
Anyone who’s made Persian rice knows it’s a process, a painstaking, multistep process that results in saffron-tinted basmati grains that delight the eye and caress the palate. You could argue that one reason the rice is so valued at the Persian table is because of the work involved. Over at Amoo’s, chef and co-owner Sebastian Oveysi serves not one, but five kinds of rice, including an almost candied preparation with glazed pistachios, barberries, orange peel and more. You can also order tahdig, the crackly layer of rice-taffy from the bottom of the pot, and add your choice of stew on top. If it’s not obvious already, Amoo’s is an establishment that stretches the boundaries of what an Iranian restaurant can be in America. Think: Saffron-and-cirtrus sea bass, bison tenderloin and jerk-chicken kebabs. Oveysi has even added alcohol to cater to those who want something stiffer than a doogh yogurt drink.
6271 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, Va.
Owen Thomson and Ben Wiley are bartenders by profession, really good ones at that, but since they opened their tiki room, Archipelago, they’ve assumed the duties of chef, too. Bookish by nature, Thomson and Wiley have buried their noses in research to pull together a menu that bows in the direction of China. Tiki bars have long been connected at the hip to Chinese cooking, sometimes cheapening all cultures in the process, but Thomson and Wiley are such respectful students of food and drink that everything they touch feels like an homage, not kitsch. Their best dishes seek a sweet spot between Chinese regional cuisine and bar food, such as their mapo tofu served atop white rice or their kung pao wings or their chicken steam buns, a clever riff on Nashville hot chicken. The dishes are the perfect foil for the bartenders’ true specialty, those rum-based drinks.
1201 U St. NW
Lately, no matter how much I savor my meal at this sunny fast-casual, I can’t escape a thought that flickers in the back of my brain: My order, even if a single crisp arepa stuffed with shredded chicken, is probably more than many Venezuelans will eat today. It’s the kind of thought that reorganizes your priorities in a flash, and your meal becomes a communion with another country and its hardships. You become a stand-in for those who cannot afford to eat, and you revel in the meal as if it will be your only one for the day. This ritual, of course, is not necessary to appreciate the homestyle plates served by co-owners Gabriela Febres and Ali Arellano, whether it’s the ham-and-cheese arepa, the torpedo-shaped cheese pastries called tequeños or the chicken patacón, Venezuela’s answer to the five-napkin burger.
1121 14th St. NW
The owners of Baan Thai knew they had a hit on their hands even before they officially changed the name of the space where they launched their pop-up. More diners at Tsunami Sushi and Lounge were asking for the Thai menu than the regular Japanese one, remembers managing partner Tom Healy. Once the name change became legal, Baan Thai became a destination for both locals and visitors, who fell hard for the food of Jeeraporn Poksupthong, a chef better known by her nickname, P’Boom. Poksupthong may have an affinity for the fermented, unfiltered flavors of Isaan cuisine, but she’s adept at re-creating dishes from across Thailand. She makes seven curry pastes in-house, including one for her khao soi gai, a Northern Thai noodle dish that sets the standard for all others. Poksupthong will probably expand her repertoire even more when Baan Thai moves to a new location next year.
1326 14th St. NW
With its high ceilings, exposed ductwork and commercial refrigerators, Balaji Cafe looks as if it set up shop in an abandoned supermarket. Actually, that’s pretty accurate: Balaji occupies the former Pooja Groceries, a cavernous spot that seems about three sizes too large for the restaurant, like a kid in his dad’s sport coat. Pay the space no mind. You’ll eat extremely well under this industrial big top. Chefs Renu Soni (she handles the breads and street foods) and Jayamani Karuppaiah (he takes care of the South India dishes) serve up a dizzying array of chaats, samosas, dosas and parathas. The kitchen prepares about nine batters and doughs daily, and you shouldn’t miss any of them. But let me single out three: the balloonlike bhatura, which is brought back down to earth by its hot-and-earthy channa masala; the buttery gobi paratha paired with incendiary Indian pickles; and the rava sada dosa, a rice-flour-and-semolina batter griddled into this fragile sheet, at once crispy and cratered and crazy delicious.
298 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon, Va.
In a city with so many bowls of good Japanese ramen, I adore this Chinatown shop most for its unabashed embrace of American fast-food culture, beginning with its name and decor. Carved out of a former Burger King location, Bantam King plays off the hamburger chain’s royal moniker, which the owners reinforce with a wall of plastic cafeteria trays and a seasonal “walk-up window” (think: drive-through without the car) dedicated to soft-serve confections tricked out with chicken (yes, chicken) flavors. Credit Katsuya Fukushima, executive chef and partner with Daikaya Group, who finds inspiration everywhere, whether it’s modernist cookbooks or McDonald’s. Chicken is indeed king here, and look no further than the cloudy, paitan chicken broths used in most of the ramen bowls, each so concentrated they taste like black holes of flavor.
501 G St. NW
When owner Omar Masroor asked his father, Kamal, for a two-word description of Afghanistan, the elder didn’t hesitate: warrior-poet. Those opposing poles of the Afghan spirit — the fighter, the lover — are mirrored in Bistro Aracosia’s food (big meaty, bone-in plates; sweet butternut-squash stews) and in its dining rooms (one with portraits of conquerors and royals; the other with framed Rumi quotes). This elegant Palisades restaurant is the Masroor family’s project to reclaim Afghan cuisine — a seamless blend of Persian, Chinese, Indian, Mogul and Middle Eastern influences — through recipes almost lost to years of civil war, drought, famine and neglect. There is so much tradition, and aroma, to breathe in here: slow-braised stews such as the sabzi chalou; delicate dumplings and warm turnovers stuffed with fillings either spicy or sweet; and a lamb shank served atop a spicy tomato-based stew. Step into old Afghanistan and stay awhile.
5100 MacArthur Blvd. NW
Call Your Mother
In New York, bagels are a religion. In Washington, they’re a prayer, as in, “I wish I could find a bagel as good as those in New York.” Thank God for Call Your Mother. The Park View operation — billed as a “Jew-ish” deli, partly because founder Andrew Dana calls himself half-Jewish and partly because the place has little patience for orthodoxy — produces terrific wood-fired bagels, with a malty sweetness that identifies the rounds as part of the Montreal tribe. The everything bagel adds an extra layer of spice to your pastrami with the Shyne, a breakfast sandwich without peer, while the plain round serves as a soft, chewy base for the Pizza Bagel Life, a pepperoni-and-cheese powerhouse with the sweetest little licorice kiss of micro-basil. Even the non-bagel bites call my name, especially a vegetarian cheesesteak called the Landsman.
3301 Georgia Ave. NW
The Senegalese restaurant just celebrated its fifth anniversary, but from the way owner Mamadou Fall talks, it could be its last. At least the last under Fall’s watch. He’s been thinking about selling, an idea that fills me with angst. I can’t imagine what life would be like without the finest West African restaurant in the area. Or without chef Binette Seck’s yassa chicken, a plate of chargrilled drumsticks that you can mix and match with a sweet, lemon-scented onion sauce or a Jamaican hot-pepper condiment so monstrously hot it should be registered as a weapon. Lunch is the primary meal in Senegal, which is why the midday options are more robust than those for dinner. Don’t fret: You can still order the lamb in peanut-butter sauce, okra soup or the signature thiebou diene stuffed fish at any time of day.
5124 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville, Md.
Though some of its dishes borrow from Thai and Korean traditions, Fahrenheit Asian is a Sichuan restaurant at heart, serving up sensational, multisensory versions of mapo tofu, dan dan noodles and Chongqing spicy noodles. Lilly Qin, an accountant by training, coaxed her parents, both chefs, out of semiretirement to give their vast experience in Sichuan cooking one more turn upon the stage. Yet the family isn’t simply reanimating Chinese provincial dishes for McLean diners. They’re also isolating the compelling intersections of competing cuisines, as they do with their soups, which mine a rich seam between Korean bone broths and Sichuan hot pots. Best of all? They roll out the wrappers for their pot stickers, these large, toothsome specimens that rank among the best anywhere.
1313 Dolley Madison Blvd., McLean, Va.
More than a year ago, when I first reviewed Fava Pot, chef-owner Dina Daniel had not yet installed the oven necessary to bake aish baladi, the pillowy, whole-wheat bread that’s so essential to Egyptians they use the same word (“aish”) to mean both “bread” and “life.” If Fava Pot was good before the addition of aish baladi — back when the place still served lifeless, third-party chips — it’s at least two times better now. That’s how many loaves accompanied my recent spread of baba ghanoush, garlic-infused tzatziki, pickled eggplant and koshary, the latter a chaotic pile of starchy ingredients brought into harmony with a thunderously spicy tomato sauce. Daniel is a stickler for quality ingredients, which her kitchen transforms into a rich variety of dishes, from a yogurt-marinated Cornish hen, grilled hard, to crackly falafel, these pecan-colored balls that break open to reveal a verdant crush of fava beans, cilantro, chives and parsley.
7393-D Lee Hwy., Falls Church, Va.
The Game Sports Pub
The name is generic. The food is not. The Game specializes in Philippine plates, each doted over by Jo-Jo Valenzuela, a veteran bartender who has long wanted to show off the regional cuisines of his homeland. For years, Valenzuela rubbed shoulders with some of Washington’s most accomplished chefs, and their influence is apparent in how he prepares and plates his food. His sizzling sisig, his Pinoy BBQ bowl, his gambas al ajillo, his binagoongan fried rice: They all balance tradition with refinement while never putting on airs. Valenzuela is not aiming for gastronomic heights beyond his reach. When you realize that you can pair your meal with one of his drinks, well, your pleasure deepens into something like joy. The Game is a sports bar where the cooking and the cocktails — not the TV — are the center of attention.
2411 18th St. NW
Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana
Don’t make the same mistake I did during a recent visit to the area’s preeminent pizzeria: showing up at 7:45 p.m. and expecting to sample chef and owner Tony Conte’s line of pies. His operation isn’t built for volume. He preps a limited number of dough balls daily, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. In this sense, Inferno behaves like a Texas barbecue joint with a limited number of briskets to slice each day. There’s reason the locals love Conte’s pizza. He has developed a dough like no other. When pulled from the oven, his rounds arrive hot and charred, the crust so puffy it looks like Conte took an air hose to it. The bread at the base of your pie is, by turns, airy, complex, ephemeral, perfect for any topping, but particularly the margherita or the “organic egg,” with its heady truffle sauce spread. And don’t fret if you miss the pies: Conte’s appetizers are just as creative.
12207 Darnestown Rd., Darnestown, Md.
Chefs and owners Nick Wiseman and Ronen Tenne cut their teeth on the New York fine-dining scene, preparing luxe dishes for folks with only the fattest wallets. Little Sesame, a fast-casual dedicated to hummus bowls and pita sandwiches, is their way to spread the wealth of their cooking beyond the 1 percenters. The founders source premium ingredients and whip them into a velvety hummus with the sweetest little bite of garlic. Their spread serves as a canvas for the kitchen equivalent of spatter paintings: hummus bowls crowded with a colorful collision of seasonal toppings, sauces, spices and anything else that Wiseman and Tenne can coax into a cohesive bite. “Our goal is to feed as many people as possible . . . around the $10 price point,” Wiseman says. To that end, the owners have opened a second location in Chinatown (can’t vouch for it yet) and have plans, it seems, to build a mini -hummus empire.
1828 L St. NW
Mi Cuba Cafe
The state of Cuban cooking has never been better in Washington, as more chefs put their own spin on the island’s cuisine. On this flourishing scene, Mi Cuba Cafe behaves more like a paladar — a small, family-run restaurant tucked into a residence — than a chef-driven establishment with a gleaming open kitchen. Mi Cuba’s intimacy is its charm, as diners suck in their guts to navigate the 25 seats found in co-owners Jacqueline Castro-Lopez and Ariel Valladares’s tiny dining room. The intimacy is extended to the menu, a feast of empanadas, sandwiches (its Cubano is destination-worthy) and big, meaty entrees, each executed with the kind of care you’d expect from a gracious home cook. Speaking of which, the affable owners will soon add a second level to extend the pleasures of their Cuban table to 39 more Washingtonians.
1424 Park Rd. NW
It’s been a tough year for chef and owner Andrew Chiou: He’s weathered a public split with his former girlfriend and erstwhile business partner, who has since sued him. He also had to deal with the unfortunate spoilage of his prized tare, the fermented, umami-rich sauce that Chiou had been nurturing since the neighborhood restaurant debuted last year. Despite the setbacks, Momo Yakitori is showcasing better than ever. Chiou has revamped his menu to draw a brighter line between the vegetarian small plates (the binchotan-blackened corn served with tamari corn butter is a brilliant take on grilled corn on the cob) and the skewers, each a textbook example of how a well-crafted sauce can complement, not mask, grilled meats. Incidentally, the charcoal-toasted marshmallow remains on the dessert menu. Chiou can’t replace it. Riots would ensue — led by me.
2214 Rhode Island Ave. NE
Nazret Ethiopia Restaurant
The beef shipments arrive on Wednesdays and Thursdays, says Endalkachew Mekonnen, the chef and mastermind behind the region’s best Ethiopian restaurant. This fact helps explain why his restaurant, tucked into the back end of Build America Plaza, tends to fill with diners on those days. They’re looking to slice into Mekonnen’s tere sega, a raw-meat dish that, if you desire, features fresh slabs of New York strip steak, their cool and buttery flesh the perfect foil to the fiery awaze sauce and mitmita powder. That Mekonnen alternates between expensive strip steak and cheaper hind cuts beloved by Ethiopians tells you much about his approach. A professionally trained chef, Mekonnen is constantly looking for ways to refine his food, starting with ingredients. His approach suffuses every bite at Nazret, from breakfast fare to raw meat to the vegetarian dishes that dominate the Ethiopian table for much of the year.
3821-D S. George Mason Dr., Falls Church, Va.
Northwest Chinese Food
Located steps from the University of Maryland, Northwest Chinese Food has helped change the way students eat when they wander off campus. Sure, they still grab a slice or order a short stack at the diner, but many also crowd into this tiny storefront to experience owner Hua Wang’s full-throated interpretations of Xi’an and Liaoning dishes. A native of Shenyang in Liaoning province, Wang has little interest in watering down the fare from her mother country. You’ll encounter flavors as bold and monolithic as the Chinese flag: Sour ones. Spicy ones. Earthy ones. Even sweet ones. Northwest Chinese Food specializes in noodles, some soupy, some dry, all undeniable. But don’t skip the appetizers, which pull no punches either, including two of my favorites: black vinegar peanuts and spicy shredded potatoes.
7313 Baltimore Ave., College Park, Md.
There is no better way to erase status in Washington than to slurp a Vietnamese soup at Pho 75. Whether a white dude in a dress shirt or a young Salvadoran mother with a cranky child, everyone is treated here with the same brutal efficiency. This outlet — one of the chain’s seven shops — trades on noodle soups, most variations on pho bo, a slow-simmered beef broth that first tantalizes the nose with the aromas of star anise and ginger. Personally, I go with the No. 1 bowl, with soft tendon and tripe and then ignore the tabletop condiments in favor of two optional sides: hanh dam (sliced onions in vinegar) and nuoc beo (fatty broth with spring onions), a combination that adds acid and depth to every slurp. It’s as close to perfection as you’ll get for $10.
1510 University Blvd. E., Langley Park, Md.
Quarry House Tavern
Looking back on it, I’m not sure how we limped along without the real Quarry House — not the street-level impostor that popped up in its absence — for three miserable years as owner Jackie Greenbaum rebuilt the venerable pub after it fell victim to twin disasters. Lovingly restored last year to its grubby glory, the new Quarry House grasps something elemental about the bar business in the 21st century: People may love a dive, but they still want their craft beer and a multipage whiskey menu that collects bottles from the finest distillers, large and small. They also want their burgers — which QH serves up, good and greasy — in a room that feels lived-in, not some soulless space based on an architect’s checklist of what millennials love. QH is a bar for the ages — and for the trendy.
8401 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.
Ravi Kabob House I
This Pakistani stalwart has only a handful of tables, but on the weekends, when the halal establishment serves lamb trotters and nehari (a beef curry whose spice clocks you like a sucker punch), families will push a few tabletops together for a giant feast. You can instantly spot the Pakistani old-timers: They will dispense with the plastic cutlery and use the housemade naan as their utensil, scooping up portions of assertive chicken or lamb karahi with the puffy flatbread, still warm from the tandoor. As the name suggests, Ravi specializes in kebabs, and you can view the options in the refrigerated case, each lanced on a skewer and ready for a trip to the charcoal grill. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but the marinated lamb chops, crusty and hot, are irresistible, their spicing perhaps a notch or two below the typical blast furnace of a Pakistani curry.
305 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington, Va.
Along with the drink and dinner menus, the servers at this Nepalese restaurant hand you a laminated sheet that sings the praises of yak meat. Under the headline “Once You Try Yak, You’ll Never Go Back,” the one-pager builds a case for the nutritional benefits of yak over beef. It’s fairly persuasive as far as tabletop lobbying goes. More important, the literature shows, yet again, how invested the owners are in the food culture of their native Nepal, a majority-Hindu country that reveres the cow and dines on yak. Several dishes from chef Subash Rai feature yak, including his momo dumplings paired with a roasted tomato sauce that buzzes with timur peppers, the citrusy cousin to Sichuan peppercorns. Rai’s menu has more highlights than an ESPN clip: yogurt-marinated lamb chops, wild boar curry, buffalo momo and, of course, sel roti, the fried, ring-shaped bread that’s your introduction to this elegant statement on Nepalese cooking.
3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va.
Like “The Empire Strikes Back” and T2, the College Park sequel to Taqueria Habanero is even better than the original. Husband-and-wife owners Mirna Montero-Alvarado and Dio Montero have laid the same foundation — red and green salsas, fragrant tortillas, all made in-house — at their suburban outlet as they did with their first restaurant on 14th Street NW. But they’ve also pumped up the volume in Maryland. They’ve added tableside guacamole, saucy mixed-seafood ceviches and a family-style dish that will turn heads from across the dining room. Called a molcajete mixto, the dish is an explosion of ingredients from a ferociously hot volcanic-rock mortar. It’s basically a build-your-own taco bar right at the table. It’s also essential eating at the DMV’s essential taqueria.
8145 Baltimore Ave., College Park, Md.
The owners behind Panda Gourmet made two important decisions when they opened a second location: They secured a spot in Rockville, a community with deep connections to China, and they dropped the term “Panda,” with its association to cornstarch-slathered nuggets tucked into clamshell containers. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with Chinese-American cooking — unless you’re a restaurant dedicated to Shaanxi and Sichuan cuisines and want to get the point across that you’re not related to Panda Express. Xi’an Gourmet is a stylish space, too, appointed with opera masks and drawings from master artist Haixia He. It’s an appropriately serene setting for the sour-and-spicy or hot-and-numbing dishes from chefs Zhaoxing Wang and Shibao Hu, including the superb Shaanxi cold-steamed noodles, the Shaanxi flavor fish and the spicy trotters.
316 N. Washington St., Rockville, Md.