Professional eaters tend to give a lot of weight to the more rarified dining destinations when debating the quality of a city’s restaurant scene: the places where the chefs have labored for Michelin stars, the kitchens that define themselves by their connections to surrounding farms and local waterways, and the establishments where you’re greeted at the door by gracious hosts who hand you a book-length wine list.
This approach has merits, but not many, not the least of which is that it favors people with more disposable income. But it also leads to the more modest immigrant restaurants that expand a city’s palate and frequently give neighborhoods their caché, being ignored. It short-changes the lesser-named chefs, the ones without press agents, who put as much thought into their restaurants as the folks who invest in mixologists and custom-made plates. It ignores the strip-mall and taqueria chefs or even, say, a bartender-turned-chef who studied and experimented and decided to try his hand at cooking, to great effect.
These are the places that, to my way of thinking, give a dining scene its character. They’re the places that don’t necessarily attract tourists but, instead, entice the locals to eat there, time and again.
Below are 10 of my current favorite places to eat in Washington. You may have never heard of any of them, but they’re as worthy of your time and attention as any restaurant operated under the name of José Andrés or Aaron Silverman.
Comedor y Pupuseria San Alejo
Salvadorans have called the Washington area home for decades, but until Comedor y Pupuseria came along, no restaurant gave full voice to the country’s multifaceted cooking. The menu ventures beyond pupusas—though the ones here are excellent, their gooey three-cheese blend often escaping the thin masa shells to turn brown and chewy on the griddle—to include dishes rarely seen in Sal-Mex restaurants, which tend to cater to a wider audience with Mexican-heavy offerings. Carlos Alvarado and Mirna Alvarado-Montero mine El Salvador’s culinary history at this modest, strip-center restaurant, which is decorated with a playful mural that honors the siblings’ original home and their adopted one. They explore a wide range of Salvadoran cooking, designed for expats but enjoyed by everyone, from mousse-like Salvadoran tamales to a sizzling platter of grilled shellfish and meats, including Salvadoran chorizo. They even serve a Sunday-only specialty called sopa de pata, a labor-intensive soup that features corn, chayote squash, and sections of cow’s feet simmered until they’re as soft and luscious as bone marrow.
El Sol Restaurante and Tequileria
Like Carlos and Mirna, Alfredo and Jessica Solis are siblings. They’re natives of Mexico City who, like countless immigrants before them, first found work in Washington, DC, kitchens. Specifically, they cut their teeth at Passion Food Hospitality, where they learned virtually everything about how to open and operate restaurants. They poured their experience into El Sol, their first brick-and-mortar project, a neighborhood taqueria that was recently expanded and renovated into an elegant two-story space, heavy on wood finishes and monochromatic walls. The owners have also expanded their menu, which is now a wealth of riches: It features street foods (like basket tacos, hand-helds snacks that are steamed until the line between tortilla and filling is practically blurred), specialties (such as red pozole, a soup that features pork and hominy, and a fish ceviche that burns bright with diced habanero). There are also personalized takes on famous dishes, such as the molcajete mixto, a volcanic eruption of meats and shrimp that’s served with—believe it or not—a bottom layer of melted cheese.
Washington is not a destination for barbecue hounds (not unless you extend the metro area’s borders all the way to Richmond, Virginia, where there’s world-class barbecue at ZZQ). But those searching for quality ‘cue in the District need look no further than this Adams Morgan shop, run by pitmaster and partner Rob Sonderman. Formerly the driving force behind DCity Smokehouse, Sonderman is a true believer in the religion of wood-smoked barbecue. He and his team, unfortunately, have been burdened with a gas-assist Southern Pride machine, which can’t generate the same smoke levels of a large offset smoker, but they’ve managed to jury-rig the unit to produce succulent meats rubbed with spice blends that frequently burn loud and hot. Order anything with bones—like wings or spare ribs—and you’ll immediately understand why the lines often run out the door.
The Game Sports Pub
To understand how deeply Filipino food has wormed its way into Washington’s mainstream dining community, all you have to do is walk into The Game Sports Pub, a subterranean spot conceived by mixologist-turned-chef Jo-Jo Valenzuela. Valenzuela has integrated the cooking of his homeland into a sports bar, arguably the one place in America where greasy pub grub has historically had no real competition for a diner’s dollar. But once you’ve taken a bite of Valenzuela’s sizzling sisig—a hissing pile of chopped pig ears and belly, enriched with chicken liver aioli—you’ll never go back to loaded nachos again. The best part is you can enjoy Valenzuela’s cooking, like the Pinoy BBQ hot and cold bowl with its umami slap of shrimp paste or the gambas al ajillo with its dual-threat of chili oil and garlic, with one of the chef’s signature cocktails, such as the Rizal, his take on Washington’s famous gin Rickey. It makes for a rare feat at a sports pub: a win-win situation.
Green Almond Pantry
Green Almond is a lunch counter that’s part Italian, part Turkish, and all heart. Its approach, and its soul, comes straight from chef and co-owner Cagla Onal-Urel, who once led hotel restaurants in her native Turkey as well as the kitchen at the well-respected Etto on 14th Street NW. Her varied experiences have influenced many of the salads, dips, breads, sandwiches, and entrées that are featured on her chalkboard menu, positioned right over a tight, eight-stool counter. The best way to sample her cooking is to order the Little Little in the Middle, a plate that collects several of the chef’s dips and salads, such as her smoky eggplant (with the surprising blast of acidity) or her hand-formed red lentil balls, crumbly vegan poppers that go down incredibly easy. You can also order the chef’s dishes for takeaway, which is the only way you can feast on her food for dinner. Green Almond closes at 7 p.m., so Onal-Urel can do something rare in chef circles: spend time with her daughter.
Everywhere you look around Mansa Kunda’s stylish dining room in Takoma Park, MD, you see the custom instruments that provide the driving, polyrhythmic soundtrack to West Africa. The stringed koras and the goblet-shaped djembe chairs, however, are merely ornamental. Owner Hatib Joof wants a tranquil space where diners can relax, wash their hands gently in a calabash bowl filled with warm water, and enjoy dishes that can trace their roots to Senegal, the Gambia, and other nations of West Africa. The kitchen tends to dial down its use of chili peppers and palm oil, allowing customers to customize their own heat with kaani, a habanero-based condiment that accompanies your order. Mansa Kunda serves up an exceptional supakanja, an okra-based soup that is the Gambian forerunner of gumbo as well as a peanut butter chu, an earthy stew that features not just tomato paste, onions, and garlic but also savory groundnuts imported from West Africa.
Mi Cuba Café
If Mi Cuba’s competition has increased in recent years—with the addition of El Sapo in Silver Spring and the Colada Shop in Washington, among other newcomers—the owners have responded by simply doubling down on their approach. In their twin-level space, packed with paintings, graffiti, and multimedia works of art, Jacqueline Castro-Lopez and Ariel Valladares specialize in the kind of comfort cooking found in paladars, family-run restaurants in Cuba that operate right in the owners’ homes. The kitchen sweats the small stuff: not just the fried chicken croquetas, with a filling as rich as rillettes, but also the sides of rice, a staple at any Cuban table. You may find yourself as captivated by the buttery jasmine rice as you are by the ropa vieja (a braised beef-and-tomato dish) or the lechon asado (a spiced roast pork dish). The restaurant’s Cubano sandwich—the classic ham-and-roast-pork combo served on grilled and crusty bread—is so good, the kitchen plants a toothpick flag onto its surface to remind you of the country where this exquisite bite was born.
The beauty of chef and owner Andrew Chiou’s casual restaurant is its simplicity. Or, I should say, its deceptive simplicity. His discreet menu is dedicated to Japanese skewers and appetizers that, at first glance, look like little more than a bowl of green beans, sliced cucumbers, or whatever other vegetable the chef decides to showcase in his minimalist dining room, with its white-washed walls and kitty knickknacks. But Chiou is an umami master: He extracts and manipulates flavor with housemade sauces, misos, and vinegars. For example, his green beans are paired with white miso and black sesame seeds, among other things, for a deeply savory small plate that fulfills its primary function: to open up your appetite for Chiou’s other morsels. Likewise, the seasoned chicken skewers, each grilled over high-heat binchōtan charcoal, benefit from a brush of fermented yakitori sauce. Leave room for Momo’s charcoal-toasted marshmallow paired with black sesame buttercream, one of Washington’s truly great desserts.
Momo Yakitori, 2214 Rhode Island Ave NE, Washington, DC 20018
Nazret Ethiopian Restaurant
Located in the back of a Falls Church, VA, shopping center that’s packed with other Ethiopian restaurants and markets, Nazret stands out for its devotion to ingredients, presentation, and hospitality. Credit Endalkachew Mekonnen, a professionally trained chef who toiled for years in Europe, before settling in the DC area with Nazret. Mekonnen doesn’t attempt to dress up Ethiopian cooking with cheffy touches. He merely relies on solid technique—and an eye for quality ingredients—to drive his dishes, whether it’s his collection of vibrant vegetarian stews and salads or a platter of tere saga, which features glistening slabs of beef, the yellow fat cap still clinging to the flesh. The latter dish, not for the faint of heart, underscores Ethiopia’s affection for raw meat, its buttery-ness offset by molten awaze sauce, a spicy condiment, and mitmita powder, an aromatic and earthy ground spice mixture typically made with cloves, chilies, cardamom, and salt.
Royal Nepal in Alexandria
The owners behind this exquisite Nepali restaurant dared to believe that their native fare could be served with the same fineries—full table service, no buffets; curated wine and cocktail lists; a farm-to-table ethos—as any Euro-centric cuisine. They were right. To dine at Royal Nepal is to luxuriate in the many pleasures of Nepali cooking, starting with a gratis basket of sel roti, sweet and chewy fried rounds of bread, paired with spicy pickles. The bread basket is an edible namaste, and it only gets better from there. True to his roots in the majority Hindu country, Chef Subash Rai avoids beef in favor of other proteins, such as yak, wild boar, and goat. He uses the meats to good effect across the menu, from the yak momos and the wild boar curry to the sensational yogurt-marinated lamb chops, which are so tender they almost melt in your mouth.