This is the Going Out Guide's third year naming the city's 40 essential eats with help from readers, who pointed us to tacos at a Howard County gas station, the burger at the city's busiest French restaurant and everything from pupusas to Pakistani food at strip malls from Silver Spring to Fairfax. The list changes dramatically each year, but our love of fried food, it turns out, is unwavering. The ins and outs of the project:
How does a dish end up on the list?
We spend more than a month soliciting nominations from readers on Twitter, Facebook, the Going Out Guide Blog and the print edition's Weekend section. Editors and reporters then whittle down the list in an informal vote. Because newspapering isn't a democracy, it doesn't matter how many effusive or pleading e-mails we receive for a dish: If it's crazy good, one nod will suffice; if we've never heard of the place, then we try it.
What makes a dish "essential"?
Initially, our idea was to identify the singular dish you had to order at an eatery, the dish that's so deeply a part of the restaurant's reputation that it would be a mistake not to consume it. Classic examples: the chivito at Fast Gourmet (which made the inaugural list); a Pop-Tart at Ted's Bulletin (2013); the fried chicken at Central (2012) and Estadio's classic Gintonic cocktail (2013).
We can divine all kinds of things from the nominations we receive. Bacon was ubiquitous last year, but this year we experienced a flood of vegetables and sweets -- proof, perhaps, of a shift in the way we're eating. I've also noticed that readers seem to name dishes that feature a mashup of flavors and textures. Astro's creme brulee doughnut, for example, checks off the sweet, salty, crunchy and creamy boxes.
Why are there 40?
Call it a happy accident. The first year, when we tried to collect the area's iconic eats, we found there were more than 30, but not quite 50. Since then, we've found 40 to be a nice number for us to hit several kinds of cuisine. Any more than 40 and it feels like padding.
How could you have left off the palak chaat at Rasika?
Some dishes, like Rasika's light-as-air spinach appetizer and Amsterdam Falafelshop's sandwiches, are so beloved that they receive nominations year after year. (Believe it or not, we've never received a nod for a Ben's half-smoke.) We included both in our first 40 Eats list in 2012, but to keep the list from growing stale, we select no dish more than once. Instead, we look for the most buzzy offering, such as the burrata and kale salad at Mintwood Place (2013) and this year's pork and litchi salad at Rose's Luxury.
You must be a corpulent truffle-head. Eating this way will ensure your rapid demise.
No, not really. And yes, probably.
Do you eat everything on the list?
To write with authority, I sample as much as I can, but I have one not-so-insignificant restriction: I'm a lifelong vegetarian. So we work around it. The Going Out Guide's omnivorous staff helps weigh in on the nominations, and once we've narrowed down the list, I turn to readers and chefs to help explain the dishes I can't try.
Then how can you say they're essential?
This has been a reader-driven project from the start, making my preferences practically moot. Every year brings a dish or two that I secretly would love to excise from the list, but far more often, readers direct us to the most addictive pupusas, salads with a cult following and all manner of delicious foods. And they've never nominated a green juice, so I'm inclined to trust them.