Tim Carman, the $20 Diner, travels throughout the area to find cheap eats and hidden gems that might get lost in the influx of new restaurants. Here are some of the best places he's reviewed in D.C. in recent months, including a revitalized Ethiopian standby and a burgeoning taco empire.
(Reviews are excerpted below; restaurant names link to the full review.)
Once you set foot in Lucky Buns, you'll be sucked into its greasy vortex, which swallows all willpower just as surely as a black hole traps light. There's not a dud among the burgers, save perhaps for the lentil-and-mushroom patty, which compresses into a squishy paste after a few bites. The Bogan Bun, a homage to Tom Reaney and his legendary Stokey Bears burger joint in London, features a bacon jam jacked up with [chef Alex] McCoy's own shellfish-free XO sauce. In terms of sheer umami, ketchup ain't got a thing on this XO sauce. I'm also drawn to the Alfie's Bun, an Australian-inspired pileup of pineapple, pickled beet and sunny-side-up egg. It's a sloppy mess, but one I fully endorse. 2000 18th St. NW.
The best way to experience the elastic nature of this local chain-let's taquerias is through its Tacos Nuestros menus, where chef Victor Albisu and fellow company chef Tom Hall acknowledge few boundaries. They borrow from cultures near and far, from Washington burger joints to Middle Eastern bazaars, to create a whole new world of tacos. There is some fine noshing on these free-for-all menus, despite the fact that many tacos come wrapped in pre-made tortillas, flavorful enough but frequently firm and woody. Each of the four locations has its own fish taco, which is four times more than most area taco chains have. The Chinatown spot comes on strong with the Sid Vicious, a generous length of fried cod paired with malt vinegar and chile-heavy salsa macha. It’s an Anglo-Latino hybrid that has the kind of umami funk that you’d expect in a Southeast Asian dish. Various locations, including 777 I St. NW.
No matter how many times you look under a wing, or investigate the backside of your breast meat, you won’t find them at Chicken + Whiskey: The juicy clumps of herbs and spice that hide in the small joints of birds at most pollo a la brasa outlets are nowhere to be found here. The only blemishes on these specimens are the browned and bronzed sections of skin produced in the kitchen’s charcoal ovens. Your first instinct is to think that Enrique Limardo, the magnificent chef behind Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore, has gone minimalist with Peruvian chicken. Your first bite won’t immediately change your mind: The breast meat is juicy beyond all expectation, but not flaccid-juicy, the way overbrined chicken can be. There are suggestions of cumin and garlic, practically dreamlike in their fleetingness and formlessness. The bird is fundamentally savory, as if it were engineered that way, like MSG in poultry form. 1738 14th St. NW.
Vegetables play a featured role here, as they do at Indigo. The baingan bhartha is not as smoky as advertised, but it’s silky and sweet, with a subtle tickle of spice. The shahi paneer features firm cubes of fresh cheese in a tomato curry sweet enough to remind you of roasted pumpkin. I say that with respect. The kadi pakora finds large vegetable dumplings submerged in a yellow, yogurt-based curry that provides no clue as to the serious pepper kick that lies within. The palak paneer is a dense mix of spinach and fresh cheese, perfumed with spice but not overpowering. 3301 12th St. NE.
Trailblazers invite detractors. Etete was not spared when the Ninth Street institution decided to hire a chef with fine-dining credentials to reimagine Ethiopian cuisine for the young-and-hungry set that has gentrified the neighborhood. At least one critic told me he no longer considers Etete a proper Ethiopian restaurant. It’s true that chef Christopher Roberson borrows inspiration from other cultures — Japan for the soy-glazed derek tibs, Mexico for the berbere chicken tacos wrapped in injera — but the results have shown that Ethiopian cuisine is more open to foreign influence than previously suspected. I’m a devoted fan. 1942 Ninth St. NW.
This post was compiled by Hau Chu. It has been updated.