The following spots offer different cuisines but share two other neighborly attributes: good value and vibes. I know of no one who couldn’t use helpings of both these days.
Returning to Spice Xing after too long between meals at the Rockville retreat is a study in consistency. My attendant, manager Sayan Bhattacharyya, is no mere food carrier, but an emissary for both the restaurant and his homeland of India. It doesn’t hurt that the Kolkata native also makes a tamarind margarita spiked with roasted cloves, cumin and peppercorns that’s too easy to polish off.
The cooking is as I remember it, too. A diner can pretty much point anywhere on the menu, abbreviated thanks to the coronavirus, and hit the jackpot. Lamb kebab is soft bites of ground meat that detonate with jalapeño. Chicken Nilgiri is cloaked in coconut milk that acquires its shade and zest from a paste made with curry leaves, cilantro and more. The list retains lots of vegetarian dishes, including my favorite toss of cauliflower and bell peppers freckled with wild onion seeds, and miniature uttapam whose charred vegetable toppings turn the lentil-rice cakes into edible mosaics. Same as before, the breads are too hot to immediately tear into and luscious once we do. And I love that entrees come with plates dressed with steamed rice and a crisp salad of julienne vegetables, glistening with oil and tangy with lemon.
While the dining room is (partially) open, we opt to sup outside, on the sidewalk patio, where the street has been blocked off to let Spice Xing and its competitors accommodate customers who don’t feel comfortable eating inside restaurants. It’s one of those 90-degree days, but a canopy of trees and a light breeze reveal Mother Nature to be an adept air conditioner.
Spice Xing excels at accommodation. “If we can do it, we will do it,” says owner Sudhir Seth. “We rarely say no to anything.” When the manager finds out I’m a fire eater, he suggests I order the lamb vindaloo. The dish isn’t on the menu, he tells me, but the kitchen, under the day-to-day watch of chef Hari Ram, has the ingredients and is happy to prepare it. Red chiles soaked in vinegar, and absorbed by cubes of meat and potato, sting just like they did … gosh, has it been a decade? Shame on me.
100-B Gibbs St., Rockville, Md. 301-610-0303. spicecrossing.com. Open for lunch takeout and dining 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Monday and for dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Delivery via DoorDash, Foodie Cab, Grubhub and Uber Eats. Curbside pickup available at Gibbs Street and East Middle Lane. Accessibility: Front entrance has two sets of doors; call the restaurant at arrival time to enter through one of two side doors. Entrees $14 to $19.
Then again, plenty of chowhounds know Bar Charley for its very good drinks and a value-oriented menu by chef Adam Harvey. His summertime selections are less meaty than in Before Times, when a vast range of cuts were featured. In the middle of the pandemic, the wholesale cost of some steaks shot from $13 a pound to $23, says Harvey. Prices have since dropped, but not so much that the chef offers much more than a trio of steaks, including lean but flavorful culotte, cut from top sirloin. The weather has shaped his menu, too. “No one wants to eat a 22-ounce rib-eye at 95 degrees outside.”
Outside is where the action is, by the way. Bar Charley’s interior, save for a semi-enclosed patio, remains dark. Greenbaum and business partner Gordon Banks initially figured they would spread tables across the front sidewalk, near which the host stand dispenses drinks to go. Their landlord agreed to let them grow out back, in a vacant lot behind the restaurant. The result is an attractive, safe-feeling venue that finds well-spaced, umbrella-shaded picnic tables, potted flowers and strings of lights above a carpet of gravel. The wall from the neighboring residence crawls with ivy: nature’s wallpaper. On the table is a printed reminder. “Please wear your mask when you: interact with staff (or) are not seated.” Your server might keep her distance, but her voice conveys “we’re so glad to see you.”
Harvey has a serious refresher in a watermelon salad that gathers arugula, heirloom tomatoes and jalapeño-infused mascarpone (you know, for swiping with the bounty). His rich, chive-sprinkled lobster roll, flanked with double-cooked french fries in a miniature wire basket, feels like a day at the beach, and a passing tray of spirited “sno-cones” ($6.95 during happy hour!) reveals Bar Charley’s sense of humor. Jerk-spiced pork is sliced, dressed with diced mango and delivered with a little skillet of turtle beans. “I like my beans a little al dente,” says the chef. This diner digs their seasoning: bacon, thyme, red vinegar and a finishing touch of butter to give the beans sheen.
Greenbaum, Banks and Harvey sound like a law firm; in reality, they’re three people who just want us to forget the pandemic while we’re in their company.
1825 18th St. NW. 202-627-2183. barcharley.com. Open for takeout, delivery and outdoor dining for dinner 5 to 9 p.m. daily and for brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Delivery via Uber Eats. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can be led from the entrance through an alley to the back patio, but restrooms aren’t available. Dinner entrees $18 to $31.
The owners’ big hope for little Chop Shop Taco when it opened last year in Alexandria was a convivial place for customers to eat the signature dish “and rub shoulders with strangers,” says chef Ed McIntosh, an alumnus of Matchbox and Great American Restaurants and one of three principals. They count themselves grateful to have had time to build an audience for their brand, housed in a former auto repair shop. Since March, says the chef, “we’re sending out smiles in our food.”
He’s got that right. Bite into the mushroom taco and taste the magic created by shiitakes, king oyster and other mushrooms seasoned with house-toasted cumin, cinnamon and coriander. Swipe the bowl of lush guacamole and admire the way it distances itself from the pack with chipotle oil and zesty togarashi in its seasoning. Even beans and rice are elevated from the usual by a paste of cilantro stirred into the oiled grains. Refreshment comes by way of a chopped salad — ribbons of cabbage tossed with chickpeas, corn, cilantro and lime dressing — and a zesty shrimp cocktail served with big, fresh-made chips. The pandemic interrupted the supply of heirloom masa from Mexico, but not the exit of good tortillas from the kitchen. The replacement wraps, from El Milagro in Chicago, also enhance the best-selling chicken taco, which features chicken sliced from a vertical spit. (You can get cocktails to go, although the potent mezcal margarita has twice been sweet as nectar.)
Even from the sidewalk, Chop Shop Taco elicits a grin. A hot pink paint job will do that. McIntosh says the vivid color borrows from Tulum and other Mexican getaways and helps this fixture of the Parker-Gray area stand out. As if the double-parked cars out front aren’t promotion enough.
1008 Madison St., Alexandria, Va. 571-970-6438. chopshoptaco.com. Open for takeout and delivery 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. A limited version of the menu is available for delivery by DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats. Accessibility: No inside dining; contactless takeout orders are placed on a table just inside the door. Tacos and small plates $4 to $13.
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