As you cruise north on Rockville Pike, the Ritchie Center sits on your left — not that you’re likely to spot the place on first pass. An International House of Pancakes blocks the view of the Rockville strip mall, which is kind of rich. In terms of food, IHOP is the least international restaurant in and around the Ritchie Center.
Just one glance at the marquee and you’ll get a flavor of the cuisines here: El Mariachi, Super Bowl Noodle House, Mr. Banh Mi, Om Fine Indian Cuisine, Pho 95, La Limena, Old Kimura Sushi, Yasaman Bakery, Annie’s Massage Spa.
Wait. I know nothing about Annie’s Massage Spa! Well, maybe a little, such as: Don’t let the masseuse walk on your back after you’ve stuffed yourself silly at one of the restaurants mentioned above. You’ll feel like a ripe grape under Mario Batali’s feet.
I’ve prowled the utilitarian, tan-and-green storefronts of the Ritchie Center numerous times and have even offered my thoughts on one of its occupants, the Super Bowl Noodle House, with its strange, umami-rich collision of Asian cuisines. But as I continue my search for the best cheap-eats destinations, several readers reminded me that this collection of cosmopolitan eateries — one of countless strip centers along Rockville Pike — would make an ideal candidate for the $20 Diner’s first neighborhood guide, due out early next year.
Amy Peck Abraham, a former senior policy analyst for the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, has also roamed the sidewalks at Ritchie Center. She has developed a thing for the Medjool dates at Yasaman Bakery; her affection for them is so all-consuming that when I suggest we meet at La Limena at 7:30 p.m., Amy counters with an alternative proposal: to rendezvous earlier so we can indulge in the dried dates before Yasaman closes at 7. Regrettably, I inform her, my schedule is locked down tight. She doesn’t blink. Amy says she plans to buy dates anyway. “I’ll let you have one!” she e-mails.
I like her already.
When I arrive at La Limena — late, as always — Amy is date-less, but she’s ordered a pitcher of sangria, a brandy-and-pisco-spiked elixir that’s stronger and sweeter than your typical fruit-bobbing glass of red wine. As soon as I sit down, Amy makes her confession: She orders the same thing here every time, a behavior that runs counter to her usual dining habits. Years ago, she turned her attention to food, and not just to the frilly thrills of white-tablecloth dining rooms. She has studied at L’Academie de Cuisine, raised funds for a St. Louis-area food bank and even written professionally about food. She’s fully aware of the drill when dining out: Eat widely, eat plenty.
Except Amy is powerless in the face of La Limena’s chupe de camarones, a creamy Peruvian soup with beautifully deveined shrimp, choclo corn, rice, white cheese and a soft-cooked egg. The only time she didn’t order the soup, she regretted it. So, of course, we order it. The soup forms part of our feast that runs the gamut of Peruvian cooking: seviche mixto; a sampler of causas, these colorful potato cakes; a chicharron plate; tacu tacu a la Limena, a thinly pounded steak topped with a fried egg; aji de gallina, a traditional chicken dish prepared with a yellow-pepper sauce thickened with bread and nuts; and a couple of desserts, including an ice cream built from lucuma, a Peruvian fruit that tastes of custard, caramel and cool Andean valleys.
As others have been saying for years, La Limena produces some of the finest Peruvian fare around. Owner Emma Perez offers a handful of Cuban dishes, too, which are identified on the menu with tiny Cuban flags. The plates are tributes to two late Cuban friends whom Perez befriended when she moved to the United States more than 20 years ago. “For them, I prepared this food,” Perez tells me.
I may be the first to start weeping at abused-kitty commercials, but I can still stare dead-eyed at the Cuban dishes at La Limena, no matter how sweet the back story. The reason to darken the doorway here, or to stand in line on weekends, is for the Peruvian plates, full stop. La Limena’s causas, or whipped-potato towers spiked with rocoto or aji peppers, are perfect vehicles for sweet crab meat or a pristine curl of shrimp. The tiger’s milk for the seviche comes studded with tiny dices of rocoto pepper, adding a small flame to the flash-marinated fish. The aji de gallina can seem tame by comparison, until you allow the dish’s quiet pleasures to find their voice among the more garish flavors at the table. Yet, in the end, I must agree with Amy: That shrimp soup is killer.
La Limena is, without question, the strutting rooster of the Ritchie Center. Its next-door neighbor, El Mariachi, dabbles with Tex-Mex (and I do mean dabble). But the place also prepares a sublime poc chuc, a Yucatan dish of pounded pork marinated in sour orange and grilled hard, its tartness balanced with char the color of West Texas crude. Mr. Banh Mi understands the importance of varying textures and temperatures in its Vietnamese sandwiches; I just wish it better understood the importance of fresh rolls. Om Fine Indian Cuisine serves up a serious disconnect between its name and the mostly lifeless food I ordered here.
Like Amy, I have also developed an affinity for Yasaman, the family-owned bakery with a wide-ranging selection of sweets, from French eclairs to Greek baklava. Lately, I’ve been fixated on jalebis, these fried, pretzel-shaped cookies often associated with festivals and holidays in South Asia. I’ve read that some folks like to dunk their sticky-sweet jalebis in warm milk, the Indian version of milk and cookies. Next time I order jalebis, I plan to do just that, but somehow I think I should try those Medjool dates first.
765-785 Rockville Pike, Rockville.
Hours: Vary by restaurant.
Nearest Metro: Rockville, with a 0.6-mile walk to the center.
Prices: Vary by restaurant.