"Cheap" isn't always the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of DC. Skyrocketing rents, ever-increasing metro fares, and the latest celebrity chef projects are more common preoccupations for District denizens. That said, like any major city, DC has plenty of meals that will please discerning bargain hunters, if you know where to look.
While the major ethnic enclaves like Annandale and Eden Center (the area's Korean and Vietnamese neighborhoods, respectively) aren't easily accessible from DC without a car, there's still a diverse set of ethnic eateries scattered within easy access from a metro stop. Jump on the red line up Rockville Pike for DC's real Chinatown (Gallery Place's offerings are a bit anemic). DC also has one of the largest Salvadorian populations in the U.S., and the pupusas to show for it. Plus, where else can you eat delicious ribs smoked in a school bus?
So, to dispel the misconception that DC lacks a rich cheap eats landscape, here are ten of our favorite dishes under $10 from in around the city.
Everyone needs a neighborhood spot for a beer and wings. A gem in an up-and-coming neighborhood, Bloomingdale's Boundary Stone boasts some of best wings in the city. The Honey Hot Wings ($8) achieve an admirable balance of the three cardinal virtues of wings—sweet, spicy, and tangy— with no one flavor overpowering any other. Crisp, tender, and juicy, these wings are the Platonic ideal of what bar wings should strive to be. They're served with a rich, creamy bleu cheese that complements and doesn't overwhelm. Best of all, go during Boundary Stone's happy hour and the wings are half off.
Bob's Shanghai 66
Bob's Shanghai 66 is the best kind of Chinese restaurant. It's located in what looks like a row of temporary shops in the middle of a construction filled parking lot behind another shopping center, but it's always packed. Credit that to a menu full of cheap, authentic "Shanghainese tapas," or to the fact that it's one of the only places in or around DC to get soup dumplings (xiao long bao; $5.99 for 6). For the uninitiated, XLB are dumplings filled with pork and rich, fatty broth that are as messy to eat as they are delicious. It would be one thing if Bob's was just the only spot to offer XLB in the area, but they do them justice, too. Nearly every table is stacked with steaming bamboo baskets of dumplings oozing with molten pork broth, and the restaurant has an open kitchen where you can see cooks individually hand-rolling each dumpling.
Donburi is a refreshingly incongruous addition to the garish bar scene that is Adams Morgan. An exercise in Japanese minimalism and precision, Donburi is little more than a line of stools and a wooden counter. The eponymous dish, Japanese for "bowl," is a simplified construction of rice and a variety of toppings. The Katsudon ($9) is a fortifying combination of a panko-coated fried pork cutlet that's finished in a pan with a gooey soft egg, caramelized onions, and an assortment of pickled vegetables. The whole thing is coated with Donburi's signature sauce, a sweet, savory concoction somewhere between dashi and soy sauce. It's a complex mix of textures and distinctly Japanese flavors that come together in each rich, umami-packed bite.
14th Street isn't typically where one would go for an affordable meal these days, but Judy has been around for decades, predating the area's recent restaurant boom. If your wallet needs a break from the trendier spots, not only does Judy serve authentic Salvadorian food, it's also dirt cheap. Pupusas are $2 each, filled with pork, cheese, beans, or loroco—and uniformly gigantic. Served freshly griddled, stuffed to the seams, and accompanied by house made curtido (a vinegary cabbage slaw), these pupusas are a quick way to a massive food coma. If you were to actually order $10 worth of them, you might need to be wheeled out of there.
If you've never had soondubu before, the sight of a boiling, blackened clay pot filled with a fiery red soup being rushed to your table might seem a bit intimidating, but this spicy tofu stew is a staple Korean comfort food. Soondubu is a stew made with spicy gochujang (Korean chili paste), silky soft tofu, and a variety of vegetables and meats or seafood. It's meant to be served at a boil—hence the clay pot, which retains heat and allows for speedy service. You can get soondubu at most Korean restaurants, but Lighthouse Tofu has some of the best. There are a few locations scattered around the DC area, but the Rockville location is walkable from the Twinbrook station. Go for lunch and slurp down a bowl of soondubu for $9.99 ($10.99 for dinner).
Mr. P's Ribs & Seafood
First things first: Mr. P's is a school bus on a street corner that serves smoked ribs. Parked on the corner of 6th Avenue and Rhode Island NW in a small lot, Mr. P's is as unassuming as you can get, and slings some of the best barbecue in town. If you're walking by while the smoker is running, the smell is probably going to draw you in. Order the pork rib "sandwich" ($8) and you'll be handed a Styrofoam contained packed with four giant ribs and a small roll in a sandwich bag. The ribs are smoky, tender, and coated in a mild ketchup-based sauce that's tangy and sweet. It's solid 'cue in a city that's sorely lacking in that regard, and once you get past the novelty of the bus, you'll come back. Just BYO extra napkins.
Columbia Heights' Pho Viet isn't outwardly all that distinct from any of the numerous other pho spots around town, but it's different where it counts. The offerings are fairly standard: a range of bowls with the requisite toppings like eye round and flank steak, and a limited selection of spring rolls and other appetizers. It's the broth that stands out—it's rich with beef and ginger, but still tastes surprisingly light and clean. Bowls run $8.25 each, and if you can't make it out to Eden Center, Pho Viet is one of the best places to get your fix.
Pupatella has long been heralded as one of the DC area's best Neapolitan pies since its humble beginnings as a food truck. One of the few VPN-certified pizzerias in town, Pupatella continues to churn out stellar pizzas out of its imported Forno Napoletano oven. While the "Margherita DOC" pie clocks in just outside our $10 limit at $12, the "Classica DOC" comes in at $9. Sacrificing only the buffalo mozzarella, the Classica comes with standard mozzarella, basil, and olive oil, built to Verace Pizza Napoletana standards. The crisp, chewy crust, creamy mozzarella, fresh sauce, and aromatic basil are consistent hallmarks of an international-caliber pie, and at Pupatella, you can get it for less than a Hamilton.
The sandwich annex to the boutique market and supper club Seasonal Pantry, SUNdeVICH is one of DC's most interesting sandwich shops. SUNdeVICH's hook is that each sandwich is inspired by the cuisine of a different country. Of the 15(ish) sandwiches on the menu, there are representatives from cities like Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, and Seoul, many of which are $10 or less. One of the standouts is the Jamaican-inspired Kingston ($10), featuring jerk chicken, pineapple salsa, spicy slaw, and garlic mayo between a crisp and bready baguette. The allspice and habanero spice rub lays down a slow, subtle burn, while the pineapple salsa provides the sweetness to balance it out. If you don't have the dough to travel around the world, you can at least taste some far-flung flavors in sandwich form at SUNdeVICH.
From chef Victor Albisu, whose pedigree includes restaurants like BLT Steak and Del Campo, Taco Bamba is a bit of an oddity. Eschewing a high profile DC location, Albisu opened Taco Bamba in shopping center in Falls Church, behind another shopping center (about a mile from the West Falls Church metro station), between a karate studio and a hair salon. The main attraction inside are two red chalkboards detailing the taco selections. Split up into traditional flavors ($3/each) and Albisu's own creations ($4/each), each taco is served on two double-stacked, lightly crisped corn tortillas. Some of the best are of the offal variety. The Tripa features braised-then-fried tripe, topped with red onion and cilantro. The taco is satisfyingly crispy and bursting with a fatty, funky flavor.
About the author: Brian Oh is a Washington, DC based international development professional and a food, photography, and travel enthusiast. In his free time, you can usually find him stuffing his face in our nation's capital. Follow him on Twitter @brianoh11