I began the year by writing about a semi-covert concept called Baan Thai, an intoxicating place forced to share tables with an Americanized sushi house on 14th Street. I closed the year with a fruitless search for another Thai joint, this one purportedly buried in the crusty corridors of Eden Center, the Falls Church mall better known for its Vietnamese cooking.
One restaurant secured a spot on my year-end list. The other made a different list, the one that begins with an “s” and an “h.”
Before I serve up my favorites for 2015, however, a confession: I have loved lists since I was a boy and obsessively thumbed through “The People’s Almanac Presents the Book of Lists.” I loved the almanac’s mix of seemingly useful information (“13 Presidents Who Won With Less Than 50% of the Vote”) and sheer trivia (“Stephen King’s 6 Scariest Scenes Ever Captured on Film”). It was clickbait in a book.
Who would have guessed that the Internet, the medium without a word limit, would become the home of listicles, these hardened checklists that purport to offer the “best of” this or the “hottest of” that, all without the hassle of discernible criteria or sometimes even ethics. Still, the implied totalitarianism of these online lists, at the very least, generates arguments, which can be played out in real time at your computer or phone, as you ignore all other earthly concerns.
Perhaps you’ll want to mix it up after reading the $20 Diner’s list of favorite restaurants for the year. I hope so. The eateries are presented in reverse order, from my 10th favorite to the place I loved the most.
Order a stack of pupusas from La Casita, and you will wait. The minutes, in fact, may pass like hours on a Saturday night, when the pupuseria is packed with Anglos and Latinos alike. They all wait for the same reason: The kitchen prepares pupusas to order, each a thin, browned masa shell concealing a vein of stringy hot cheese paired with your choice of ingredients. The pupusas are merely the gateway drug; there are many more mind-tripping dishes available here, including breakfast sandwiches built on French bread. La Casita Pupuseria and Market, 8214 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring. 301-588-6656. lacasitapupusas.com.
Perfectionists can make for terrible bosses, spouses and parents. But they make for great cooks. Hoang and Ann Nguyen, the Vietnamese couple behind this pho parlor, practically obsess over their pots, in which they produce a broth that ranks among the finest around. Their soup does not boast a perfume cloud of star anise; instead, it aims for balance, the aromatics never subjugating the sweeter, more subtle ingredients. The couple also understands the importance of noodles, the kind that faithfully ferry flavor to your tongue, which in turn plants a big wet one on your brain’s pleasure center. Pho Real, 13876 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring. 301-879-9700.
Many diners already knew that Curry Leaf’s chefs had first made their bones at Udupi Palace, the esteemed (and shuttered) South Indian restaurant in Langley Park. But what I didn’t know until recently is that brothers Saravan “Sam” Krishnan and Venkatesan “John” Krishnan also prepare Sri Lankan dishes at their current outpost. This place is worth a trip just for the egg curry with Ceylon paratha, in which the coiled-and-buttery paratha flatbread serves not only as a dining utensil but also has a counterpoint to the cardamom-and-coconut-milk curry. Curry Leaf, 13919 Baltimore Ave., Laurel. 301-497-2017. curryleafmd.com.
With their move from Rockville to Arlington, Harun and Shiuli Rashid were able to shed some unwanted baggage, namely the Indian persona that the Bangladeshi couple had created to ingratiate themselves to the Maryland suburb. At their new location, the Rashids are free to focus on the food from their homeland, including its deceptively simple street fare. The couple has even devised a secret menu, so transplants can fill up on river fish, a staple of the Bangladeshi diet. Aladdin, 5169 Lee Hwy., Arlington. 703-533-0077. aladdinsweets.com.
As the U Street corridor becomes more of a nightlife destination, Ethiopians who once dominated the area have migrated elsewhere. You’ll find plenty of Ethiopian and Eritrean natives parked at CherCher, where they enjoy the pleasures of the flesh: animal flesh, often raw, heated with only a combustible awaze sauce or berbere spice blend. Follow their lead, and you’ll understand the primal attraction of CherCher. CherCher Ethiopian Restaurant, 1334 Ninth St. NW. 202-299-9703. chercherrestaurant.com.
Some people continue to supersize the sushi hand roll in hopes that, one day, they can build a specimen that will do battle with Mothra. Darren Norris does just the opposite at his grab-and-go shop: He designs hand rolls not to impress us with volume, but to impress upon us the vital role of each ingredient, including the toasted sheets of red algae known as nori. No mere binder, the nori comes entombed in cellophane to maintain its crackle, a quality that you’ll deeply appreciate as you bite into these splendid rolls. Maki Shop, 1522 14th St. NW. 202-545-6333. getmakishop.com.
Don’t worry if you don’t know the difference between Senegalese laamb and Senegalese poulet yassa. Mamadou Fall and his partner, Binette Seck, will guide you through the country’s food and culture with grace and good humor. Even better, they’ll serve you a plate of that poulet yassa — you compose your own bites, combining chargrilled chicken with an acidic onion sauce and a hot-tempered condiment built from Jamaican peppers — while a nearby television broadcasts Senegalese pro wrestling, known as laamb. It’s a priceless full-immersion West African experience. Chez Dior, 5124 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville. 240-696-5907. chezdior.com.
Few restaurants symbolize the District’s changing palate better than Baan Thai. Chef Jeeraporn Poksupthong (or P’Boom for short) used to lead the kitchen at Thai Tanic, a sister restaurant that still thinks American diners would rather down Drano than fish sauce. P’Booom knows better: Her dishes don’t pander or condescend. They’re clear-channel broadcasts straight from Thailand’s four major culinary regions, and Washingtonians have received the messages with open minds. And mouths. Baan Thai, 1326 14th St. NW. 202-588-5889. baanthaidc.com.
Frank Linn, the man responsible for the shudder-worthy name of this pizzeria, is far better at making pies. He’s not slavishly reproducing Neapolitan pizzas for the trend-conscious diner. Rather, he’s creating highly personalized pizzas, the dough well-developed, the crusts well-charred and the tomatoes cooked down, not freshly crushed. Speaking of shudder-worthy, you could say Frank does it his way. Frankly . . . Pizza!, 10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, Md. 301-832-1065. franklypizza.com.
In so many restaurants, rice is an afterthought. At Mi Cuba, it’s a show all its own, especially the congri rice, which is stained the color of cloves after the grains absorb the fragrant water of par-cooked black beans. If Havana natives Jacqueline Castro-Lopez and Ariel Valladares treat their rice with such care, you can imagine how they dote over the rest of the menu. But don’t imagine it. Go experience it firsthand. The place takes the frugal cooking of Cuba to brilliant new heights. Mi Cuba Cafe, 1424 Park Rd. NW; 202-813-3489. micubacafe.com.