Cynicism is a state of being in Washington. It infects the way we think about almost everyone and everything. Politicians. Institutions. Culture. Even dining. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m so over small plates,” as if the format inherently diminishes the pleasures of a well-prepared meal?
Maybe you’ve said such a thing yourself?
The antidote to cynicism is tucked away in strip malls, hiding along industrial highways, sprinkled throughout suburban neighborhoods — anywhere immigrants cook food from their home countries, untainted by the calculations and manipulations of many big-city restaurants. To relax into a place largely populated by, say, Ethiopians, is to watch an expat community gather together for a taste of home. It’s comfort in a foreign land, where the political climate seems to grow colder by the day.
Is it any surprise that immigrants gather around the table? Food is the common language for all, regardless of how foreign any one dish may be. Food knows no borders or race: It provides the same stress relief, joy, nourishment and connection in Pakistan as it does in Potomac, Md. You want to discover your connection to the people of the world? Eat at their restaurants and watch them savor dinner.
Just don’t forget to order your own, too.
Collectively, this region is blessed with a bountiful table. Individually, some neighborhoods are more blessed than others. Blue-collar Beltsville is a cut above, but these eight other destinations are also ripe with possibility for cheap eaters, food hunters or those who just want to remember how great America is. Right now. With all its beautiful hues and flavors.
The epicenter of Vietnamese life in Northern Virginia, this sprawling shopping center has recently added — or promises to add — flavors from outside Vietnam. Little Sheep, part of an international Mongolian hot-pot chain, expects to open in June or July, but the center is already home to a second outlet of the decidedly smaller Gom Tang E, a family-run operation that specializes in Korean bone-broth soup. The newcomers don’t seem to pose a threat to Vietnamese culture here. The Eden Center may have lost its most prominent tenant — the Lai family, which founded Four Sisters and Song Que deli at the center before seeking its fortunes elsewhere — but the mall continues to push forward with satisfying new spots such as Eden Kitchen, Banh Ta Deli and the Vietnamese sweets shop, Bambu. Eden remains your one-stop shopping center for all things Vietnamese.
Dish not to miss: The Korean bone-broth soup at Gom Tang E in the Saigon West building. Every bit the equal of Vietnamese pho, seolleongtang is a milky soup derived from boiling ox bones for hours. Silken, rich and comforting, bone-broth soup requires some tabletop seasoning (coarsely ground black pepper and sea salt are available) to realize its full potential.
The newbie: Not even a year old, Banh Ta Deli has already made a name for itself with its small line of Vietnamese sandwiches, rolls so carefully constructed they border on a kind of beauty. At least that’s the word that popped to mind when I chowed down on them.
Where: Eden Center, 6751 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church. edencenter.com.
H Street NE
Not long ago, before someone got the bright idea of calling it the Atlas District, H Street NE offered little more than fried whiting and a tallboy for dinner. You can still grab a Styrofoam clamshell full of golden fish fillets — a true taste of D.C. — at Horace and Dickie’s, but you also can find many other flavors on this trend-conscious corridor. Casual Mexican joints have firmly taken root: Sol Mexican Grill, Impala Cantina, Chupacabra (which reopens March 17) and the new Fresca Taqueria y Rosticeria each has its strengths (and weaknesses). Yet pub crawlers do not live by tacos alone, so the strip also peddles ramen (Toki Underground), East African stews (Ethiopic), hoagies (Taylor Gourmet, the original), panang curry (Imm on H), bizarre mashups (the half-smoke-and-shrimp-sausage corn dog at Ten 01) and other bites. Now with a working streetcar line, H Street is like the Epcot of cheap eats.
Dish not to miss: Oyster po’ boy at Po Boy Jim. I haven’t tasted a po’ boy this good since I lived in east Texas. The bivalves are fried crisp, not greasy, and tucked into a roll so soft you’re tempted to use it as a neck pillow. Garnished with lettuce, tomatoes and squiggles of house-made remoulade, the sandwich is a profile in contrasts: sea and land, cool and spicy, crunchy and downy.
Tortilla town: Both Fresca and Impala make their tortillas in-house from masa flour. One bite of the tacos from either location, and you can taste the difference, particularly at Fresca, where the kitchen prepares steamed tacos, which almost melt in your mouth.
Where: H Street from approximately Third to 14th streets NE.
Few communities have residents as gung ho about their dining scene as the people who call Laurel home. They sent countless emails to boast about the bargain eats available in the place once known as Laurel Factory, a functional and particularly graceless name for this former mill town. The restaurants reflect the growing diversity of the community: There is first-wave immigrant fare, like the superb red-sauce offerings at Pasta Plus, as well as pho, pupusas, curries and other dishes that cater to those who would arrive later in Laurel. The small town also has a rather competitive barbecue market, with no fewer than three joints dedicated to smoked meats, including RG’s BBQ Cafe, run by the classically trained Robert Gadsby.
Dish not to miss: Egg curry with Ceylon paratha at Curry Leaf. The chefs have smuggled some Sri Lankan dishes onto their mostly South Indian menu, including this masterpiece. It features a browned round of buttery flatbread, crispy and luxurious, which complements and counters the cardamom-and-coconut-milk curry.
The institution: Pasta Plus has an Old World charm that only an insufferable hipster with an Amish beard and a bucket hat could resist. And by Old World, I don’t just mean the homey trattoria ambiance, but also its dedication to handmade pastas, bread and sauces. Plan ahead. The place is packed on weekends.
Where: Laurel, centered around the intersection of Route 1 and Route 198.
More a self-contained city than an Asian market, Lotte Plaza can take care of virtually any need you have. Looking for a wok, an eye exam, a massage or spiky-haired rambutan fruit from Southeast Asia? You’re covered. But the center offers plenty of prepared foods, too, some hidden away among the stands of perfumed fruits and vegetables. Visit on the weekend, and you’ll find even more: Lotte bulks up its deli section with a wide selection of house-made snacks, both sweet and savory. The deli even sets up a kimchi station for customers to stock up on the potent Korean staple. Independent cafes and bakeries line the perimeter of the market, hawking pupusas, Chinese barbecue pork, sushi, Japanese donburi, Vietnamese pho, Korean rice-cake soup and much more. You may spend as much time stalking your lunch as eating it.
Dish not to miss: The street food at Punjabi by Nature in the plaza’s food court. The showstopper is the choley bhature, left, these elastic, deep-fried loaves that puff up into bread balloons, which you can then rip apart and dip into a stew of spicy chickpeas.
The other Le Pain: The expansive Le Pain Bakery — not to be confused with the bread behemoth, Le Pain Quotidien — is a French-accented Asian confectionery that sells, among other tasty morsels, a thin baguette-like torpedo dubbed the “mango cream stick.” I call it a mango Twinkie, and I’m helpless around it.
Where: Lotte Plaza, 13955 Metrotech Dr., Chantilly. lotteplaza.com.
One of countless strip malls that litter Rockville Pike (suggested motto: “We’re Faceless and We Love It!”), the Ritchie Center saves all its character for the tenants that occupy the doggedly dull storefronts. Over the course of a week, you can wander the globe: Mexican regional cuisine one day (order the poc chuc, a Yucatan pork dish, at El Mariachi) and Vietnamese soups and sandwiches the next (Pho 95 and Mr. Banh Mi). Your tour will continue through Peru and Cuba (La Limena), Taiwan (Jumbo Jumbo Bubble Express), India (Om Fine Indian Cuisine, a misnomer in my experience) and Japan/China/South Asia (the ambitious and mostly delicious Super Bowl Noodle House). There’s also a bakery, Yasaman, that finds inspiration in the wide world of sweets, from France to Asia. Even molecular gastronomy pops its egghead into the Ritchie Center: Mr. Banh Mi sells bubble drinks with little black balls that explode on contact with your teeth, just like the liquid olives made famous at El Bulli.
Dish not to miss: The causa sampler at La Limena. A nod to Peru’s colorful potato culture, the sampler features four tiny towers formed with whipped spuds spiked with rocoto or aji peppers, then topped with sweet crab meat, a curl of shrimp or some other contrasting flavor. They’re visually stunning, but their beauty masks a fiery temperament.
The sweet finish: Grab a few jalebis at Yasaman bakery. Sweet and sticky on their own, these fried, pretzel-shaped cookies are custom-made for dunking in warm milk.
Where: Ritchie Center, 765-785 Rockville Pike, Rockville.
Downtown Silver Spring
Ethiopians and their fragrant, sometimes fiery finger food dominate this commercial district just north of Washington. By my unofficial count, there are at least 13 restaurants, cafes, grocery stores and coffee shops dedicated to the East African fare. For those forever complaining about a lack of late-night eats, downtown Silver Spring is your place. Ethiopians have no qualms about digging into a platter of stews, some spiced with an incendiary berbere spice mix, at 10:30 p.m. Or later. These places don’t rest, either. After a late service, they’ll turn around and open for breakfast, Ethiopian-style, with morning dishes spiked with jalapenos and/or berbere, which will jolt you awake faster than a strong cup of black coffee from Yirgacheffe.
Dish not to miss: Raw, uncut rib-eye at Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant. Called kurt or tere sega, these slabs of beef come with a rare tool at Ethiopian restaurants: a knife, used to cut the rib-eye into manageable bites. You then wrap the pieces in injera and dunk them into various flamethrowing condiments, which play off the primal coolness of the beef. It’s an Ethiopian dish like no other.
Beyond Ethiopian coffee: Anyone can order a cup of Harrar coffee and enjoy a taste of Ethiopia in the morning. But at Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe, the kitchen offers more than a half-dozen dishes for breakfast, including chechebsa, a simple bread pancake broken into pieces and mixed with butter and berbere. Drizzle the dish with honey, and you have a sweet-and-spicy wake me up.
Where: Downtown Silver Spring, centered on the intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue.
This Maryland neighborhood has long served as an incubator for small, family-run restaurants. The community has nurtured some of the most beloved eateries in the area: El Pollo Rico, Nava Thai, Ren’s Ramen, Max’s Kosher Cafe, Hollywood East Cafe, Ruan Thai and others. The scene seems to replicate itself, too, generating new experiences just as compelling as the vintage ones. Newcomers such as El Catrachito, a rare outpost of Honduran cooking, and Thai Taste by Kob have settled comfortably into Wheaton, where owners all appear to subscribe to an ethos of traditional ingredients and flavors. Do they also sometimes chase trends? Yes, like when Nava Thai once expanded into sushi, a decision the owners mercifully reversed years ago.
Dish not to miss: Crispy Maryland chicken egg-noodle soup at Mi La Cay. Not to be confused with Maryland fried chicken, this bone-in bird — chopped and unseasoned — is served on a separate plate; you dunk the crispy sections into a broth that tastes like chicken to the power of 10. A second dip in a ginger-laced condiment, and this bird soars.
The early adopter: Ren's Ramen. Before Toki, before Daikaya, before Oki Bowl DC, before Momofuku CCDC, before just about every ramen trend-monger, there was Ren’s. It’s still one of the best suppliers of pork-based noodle soups, left.
Where: Wheaton, centered on the intersection of University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue.
Van Dorn Station
The strip mall feels like it’s straddling two worlds: one set in the past, where diners still cling to their sanitized (Americanized?) versions of foreign cuisine, and the other set in the present, where diners crave the authentic flavors of Thailand, Vietnam, Italy, wherever. No restaurant better exemplifies this dichotomy than Thai Lemon Grass, which won’t even hand you its Classic Thai Menu unless you ask for it (or, presumably, look like you might ask for it). But that secret menu is where all the good stuff hides, including the Thai hot pot, which radiates fish sauce and heat. Other pleasures are easier to find at Van Dorn Station, such as the skewered meats at Kabul Kabob House or the creamy chickpea stew at Azewa Market. You can probably skip El Paraiso II, which is a standard-issue Salvadoran joint dressed up in Tex-Mex garb. But who knows: Maybe Paraiso has a secret menu, too.
Dish not to miss: Country-style beef curry at Thai Lemon Grass. Found on the secret menu, the curry can be adjusted to your heat preference. Should you order it Thai spicy, be prepared to spend five minutes between bites, which will give your palate enough time to recover from its second-degree burns.
Meat me at Kabul: Pick a skewer — any skewer — at Kabul Kabob House, and you’ll understand why some chefs frequent this Afghan restaurant during their off-hours. The kubideh is worth a special mention: The ground sirloin is mixed with grated onions, cilantro and seasonings before luxuriating on the grill until charred and juicy. Sometimes, I think I could live off the Afghan rice and kubideh here for the rest of my life.
Where: Van Dorn Station, 508 S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria.
This Prince George’s County suburb has the perfect ecosystem for cheap eats: The rents are low, the population is diverse and landlords are open to restaurateurs without a track record. Along a 1 1/2-mile stretch of Baltimore Avenue, you’ll find an international buffet of bargain bites, some from newcomers to the business (the terrific Yia Yia’s Kitchen) and some from veteran players (Sardi’s, the inconsistent Peruvian chicken outlet). Sure, the major fast-food goliaths still stomp around Beltsville, but they’re easily crushed by a loose, international coalition of Davids: Manila Mart (try its addictive pancit palabok) El Quetzal (a sunny corner spot peddling garnachas and other Guatemalan dishes), Da Rae Won (where the chef makes noodles daily for soups and other Korean specialties) and Swahili Village (a rare taste of Kenyan cooking). Parking is easy, and the people. . . well, they’ll make you feel like visiting royalty in this working-class suburb.
Dish not to miss: jajangmyeon at Da Rae Won. Prepared fresh for every order, the noodles for this Korean comfort food are lush, not toothsome, as if they’d melt on your tongue if you let them. Mixed with a black bean sauce, the noodles adopt an earthy persona, a flavor common to Korean cooking, but are balanced with the sweetness of slightly caramelized onions. It’s a dish that looks simple, but takes a lifetime to perfect.
Comfort food, American-style: Buffalo chicken tenders at Remington’s. Sliced, breaded and fried to order, the boneless strips have a crunchy coating that conceals a moist interior, which actually tastes like chicken, not some freezer-burned meat stick. With a craft beer in hand, a ball game on TV and a good friend by your side, the tenders are bar food supreme.