Over the years, I’ve come to loathe the term “cheap eats,” with its connotation of marginalized, second-class dining. While their dishware, decor or service may not match those at a fine-dining restaurant, the people behind these superb suburban eateries are as devoted to their missions as any Michelin-starred chef. The places on this list are culled from my five-plus years of scouting for the $20 Diner column I write every week.
10. Frankly ... Pizza! (10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, Md.; 301-832-1065, franklypizza.com). Chef Frank Linn belongs to a growing fraternity of pie-makers who were inspired by Neapolitan pizza but not beholden to the tradition’s techniques or its self-serving country-of-origin rules. Linn’s rounds are idiosyncratic and, often, extraordinary.
9. Vinh Kee (3103 Graham Rd., Suite D, Falls Church; 703-645-0118, vinhkeerestaurant.com). The fish tanks near the door tell you that Vinh Kee specializes in seafood, with an emphasis on Cantonese preparations. But a few years ago, the place added a dim-sum chef, who has designed a superb menu balancing the expected plates (steamed pork buns and snow pea dumplings) with seldom-seen ones (XO turnip cakes, shrimp wrapped in tofu skin).
8. Just Jerk (9005 Lanham Severn Rd., Lanham, Md.; 301-459-5375). If your meal from this functional, no-frills takeaway makes it out of the parking lot, you’re faring better than I. The aromas wafting up from the signature jerk chicken — an alchemy of smoke, animal and allspice — compel me to tear the lid off my container right there in the car. Every time.
7. Saba’ Restaurant (3900 Pickett Rd., Fairfax; 703-425-1130). Yemenis share a tradition of pampering every guest who dines with them. You’ll understand this custom at Saba’, where chef and owner Taha Alhuraibi serves up portions generous enough to feed a small family — but delicious enough to finish on your own.
6. Peter’s Carry-Out (8017 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-656-2242, peterscarryout.com). There must be a million places that serve better food than Peter’s, but none that makes me feel as good as this short-order grill that specializes in human kindness. When you sit on one of the stools here, you will eat well — and come to understand the true meaning of a neighborhood restaurant.
5. Chettinadu Indian Cuisine (15124 Frederick Rd., Rockville; 301-251-8991, chettinadurocks.com). Though its menu roams the subcontinent, Chettinadu specializes in a cuisine rarely seen in this area, one first created by a caste of wealthy Chettinad traders whose travels influenced their cooking. The best example is Chettinad chicken, a preparation with the heat of a South Indian dish but the creamy body (and meat) of a North Indian curry.
4. Nazret Ethiopia Restaurant (3821-D S. George Mason Dr., Falls Church; 703-347-9911, nazretexpresseatery.com). Chef Zewdu Mekonnen has taken his training in European cooking and applied it to the cuisine of his native country. His approach honors the ingredients as well as the spirit and flavors of the original Ethiopian dishes.
3. Amoo’s Restaurant (6271 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, 703-448-3868, amoosrestaurant.com). This family-run restaurant ventures far beyond the kebabs that define so many Persian restaurants in America. You’ll find complex stews, crispy rice dishes known as tahdig and even a few modern Persian twists on American ingredients.
2. Royal Nepal (3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 571-312-5130, royalnepalva.com). The owners — each with years of experience in fine dining — have devoted their talents to perhaps the region’s first farm-to-table Nepalese restaurant. The momo dumplings with ground buffalo meat. The lamb chops marinated in a housemade yogurt sauce. So many irresistible dishes.
1. Xi’an Gourmet (316 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-875-5144, xiangourmetrestaurant.com). Like its older sibling, the District’s wild and unpredictable Panda Gourmet, Xi’an Gourmet specializes in dishes from Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces. The focus is on noodles. But only the cold liang pi noodles are made in-house, and they offer a blunt intro to the captivating sour-and-spicy flavors of Shaanxi cooking.