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Oct 6, 2009 12:30 PM

Traveling to DC, in need of food tips.

I live in Southern California and will be traveling to Washington DC for a week beginning 10/10. We will be staying near Wardman Park and be using Metro/Bus as transport.

Would you please post your must hit food spots?

I tend to gravitate to casual dining more than fine dining. Take out, food on the go tips are great too.

I don't care for fish, or national chain restaurants.

I'm not up to speed on DC specialties, so if there is a food native to this region, I'd be all over it.

Burgers, fries, pizza, Italian, Ethiopian, Greek, Middle Eastern, BBQ, fried chicken, Soul food, Vietnamese, Japanese, if I forgot to mention something, it's all up for grabs.

I would also love advice on the top flight Ice Cream and Donut destinations, if there is something special to be had.


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  1. For burgers- Ray's Hellburger
    Pizza- I like Red Rocks or 2 Amys (although there are some complaints about under done pizzas from 2Amy's) I also like MAtchbox which has mini burgers that are great and good pizza.
    Greek- Cava and Zorba's are casual, cheap and good. Zaytinya and Mourayo are a bit more upscale.
    Middle Eastern- Mama Asheya's
    Ethiopian- Dukem, Etete
    BBQ- Nope
    Fried Chicken- The Fried Chicken at Central is my favorite it is one of our better restaurants, but not incredibly expensive for Fried Chicken
    Soul Food- Oohs and Aahs (mostly carry out a few tables upstairs), Creme, Levy's Port Cafe
    Vietnamese- Minh's and Nam Viet are the most metro friendly, although Present and Four Sisters are the best.
    Japanese- for inexpensive and good probably Raku in Bethesda.

    And awesome gelato can be had at Dolcezza and Pitigano.

    Doughnuts- I dunno, but very good cupcakes at Georgetown Cupcake.

    7 Replies
    1. re: ktmoomau

      Wow, awesome. Thanks!

      Any feelings on Ben's? Worth a trip?

      1. re: cem3340

        Ben's serves chili half smokes and chili dogs. Nothing you can't get at a number of food carts downtown.

        Ben's has a lot of history and ambiance going for it, though. It's a nice place. But for a Chowhound, it is located in a neighborhood which contains my favorite soul food destination anywhere, Oohhs and Aahhs (right across the street from the Cardozo/U St. Metro). So I happen to think it is practically. criminal to go to Ben's if you are traveling from afar instead of Oohhs and Aahhs.

        The top two items to get at Oohhs and Aahhs are grilled shrimp and lemon pepper wings. Also outrageous meatloaf. Sides are greens and rice with gravy.

        Also in the neighborhood are DC's two best Ethiopian restaurants, Etete and Queen Makeda, across the street from each other on 9th St., NW, so this makes Ben's a distant fourth (at best) in the neighborhood. But feel free after you eat much better food to poke your head in at Ben's to see the place.

        DC does not have donut shops like LA.

        My next suggestion is to get the carne deshilada (with egg!) at El Rinconcito. There is a location around 11th and M Sts. as well as the 1300 block of Park Rd., NW, about a block from the Columbia Heights Metro. Also very good tamales there. Alot of construction near the Columbia Heights location, so it is difficult to find, but it's still there and worth it.
        Open midweek lunch only, go to Breadline near the White House. The best sandwich is the bbq, served only on Fridays. Exceptional. I ask for it on a ciabbata. Any other day, get the Italian sausage sandwich or the felafel or the egg salad. Amazing place.

        1. re: Steve

          The chili half smoke at Bens is NOT like the grey, dirty water dogs you find at the downtown food carts. It's a natural casing, dense ground sausage; the food carts are more like boiled bologna. If you want the real deal DC halfsmoke, you either go to Ben's or Weenie Beanie or Eastern Market.

          1. re: monkeyrotica

            The food cart in the 2100 block of H St. and Ben's are indistinguishable. If it's a better product at Ben's, then it's hard to tell the difference with that thin chili poured all over it.

            1. re: Steve

              Does that cart grill their halfsmokes? All the Mall and K Street vendors I've tried boil their halfsmokes, which are almost always the Gwaltney brand soggy dogs. Ben's uses Mangers' from Baltimore.

              Anyway, point taken about Ben's chili. Straight from a can and not anything to write home about. Indeed, you could make the case that it's not worth the $8 for a halfsmoke to begin with. But it is casual and on-the-go and pretty much a must-try at least once when you're in DC, which meets all the OP's criteria. DC has few indigenous cuilinary relics. Halfsmokes are one of them.

              1. re: monkeyrotica

                Yes, that cart grills the half smokes. The 'Cart Lady' has been written up in the Post, she has been there forever, and she still can't speak a word of English.

                I do enjoy going to Ben's, I really do. It has even been a Father's Day dinner for me. But to eat great food, I still prefer the alternatives in the neighborhood. I think most chili lovers would be completely shocked (and maybe even a bit disgusted) at the product Ben's Chili Bowl puts out.

        2. re: cem3340

          It might be worth it after a late night in the area, but not to waste all your calories...

      2. Hey... I'm from So Cal and I was in the area roughly around the same time. Where did you end up eating? I posted my food adventures in DC.

        1. For really great gourmet donuts, go to Tabard Inn for brunch. They have amazing ones.

          1. Back, and happy to be warm and dry :-)

            I want to thank the Chowhounds in DC for all of their great suggestions. Ktmoomau and Steve deserve some big wet kisses. Thanks!

            What was consumed and subsequent impressions:

            Mama Asheya's: This was recommended by our driver, as well as KT. We had the Kabob sampler, side of Hummus, and a Lamb Stew dish. The hummus was great, the kabob sampler I ate had some very tasty chicken, however the beef selections were tough, chewy and lacked flavor. The lamb stew also seemed a bit bland, but was not inedible. As with seemingly all Middle Eastern restaurants I have been to, the rice is killer. Worth Trying.

            Red Rock: Pizza. I have to admit, I was warned by numerous hounders that DC is not the pizza spot. We had a cheese calzone and a pepperoni and roasted garlic pizza. The beer on tap was good, the atmosphere was nice, but the food product, I felt was lacking. The calzone was too doughy, and the pizza was a bit greasy and boring. Roasted garlic, however, was a nice touch. Skip.

            Zorba's: Greek. We actually stopped here on our last night. We consumed the calamari and (tell me if you're detecting a pattern) the sampler platter. All of the ingredients were fresh, the place was busy, even on a cold and rainy night. I would definitely recommend the chicken souflaki. It was flavorful, moist and delicious. The calamari was as good as calamari can be ;-), and the rest of the meal was good, but forgettable. Good Food.

            Ray's Hell Burger. Burgers. This place was so unbelievable we went twice. The first trip we had burgers, au poivre, recommended, with bacon, grilled onions and cave aged cheddar. Burger, recommended, with grilled onions, brie cheese. Mac and cheese. There's really nothing else to say. This place left me speechless both times (second time we had a Mack, and recommended burger with mushrooms and bacon). Perfect in every way. Amazingly Delicious.

            Dolcezza: Gelato. Dessert. This place has some great flavors, however I wish they would keep their freezer unit a little cooler, as the product did not come out silky and smooth as I tend to prefer my gelato. No matter, hang out on the benches, let the product melt a bit and it was very tasty. Good Food.

            Eastern Market & Nameless street vendor: Half Smoke. I believe Steve recommended hitting the Eastern Market for some dogs, and that turned out to be a stupendous suggestion. One of the butchers there offered many assorted half smoke and regular dogs giving a healthy dose of options. Obviously not from around there, this is what I would expect to be the way Half Smokes are supposed to be. We sampled the Half Smoke with casing, the Half Smoke with no casing, and the Half Smoke via Kielbasa. The flavor of the Half Smoke with no casing was the model I enjoyed the most, but I liked the snap of the casing. All things being equal, I was quite pleased. The Half Smoke on the street (somewhere near BAG) was not inedible, but pricey and ultimately uninteresting. Good Food.

            Ooh's and Aah's: Soul Food. We loved this place. The people were amazing, the food was good, and I love this type of atmosphere. Needless to say, probably not the place for a first date, but great for a quick bite or socializing with your mates. As awesome as the place was, I should have checked the Hound Reports a little closer, as I would suspect we did not order the best of the best this place has to offer. We had Meat loaf, collard greens, mac and cheese, and the fried chicken breast. For meatloaf that is hanging out all day waiting to find a home, it was quite good. I got the gravy on the side (as I am a total gravy wimp), and I really enjoyed it. Lots of rosemary, and big flavor. Good stuff. The mac and cheese would be what I would consider baseline mac and cheese. All mac and cheese should be AT LEAST this good. Noodles were intact and the cheese wasn't clumpy and gross. The bummer on this particular trip was the fried chicken breast. The person cooking it got a little distracted by the TV and let that bird cook WAY TOO LONG. Meh. Bygones. We had a great time, and loved our meal. That goes a long way. Delicious.

            Baltimore. Chaps Pit Beef. What we had was a Pit Beef sandwich, a Guys special (basically everything in a bun), and mac and cheese. This was not a hound find; I believe it was a Food Network selection. As with seemingly all of my Food Network finds, the meal is completely lacking. The personalities in the location are awesome. Super friendly people, counter service, bench seating; the only thing missing was sawdust and peanuts. The food just kind of missed the boat. The sandwiches were cold and bland and the mac and cheese, however good, was just overshadowed by the sub par rest of the meal. Not on the way from anywhere to anywhere, so would probably miss it upon future trips. Skip.

            Central. American. Holy Lord, this place is delicious. We consumed too much. I mean we had: Fried chicken (TY KT), French Onion Soup, Mac and Cheese (again), Appley some kind of dessert, and the chocolate bar. The service was French is about the worst thing I have to say about the place. We had nowhere to go, so I didn't care, but the food was unreal good. We sat near the open kitchen, and everything that came off of the line looked enjoyable. This was a huge surprise, and we loved this place. Amazingly Delicious.

            Ben's Chili Bowl: Walked by. Read several reviews, none of which were terribly glowing. Kept walkin'. Maybe next time, sorry Cos.

            Thanks again, DC Hounds. You helped make our trip awesomely awesome.


            13 Replies
            1. re: cem3340

              Wow, I'm impresssed with your report. You really hit some key places that most folks don't get to. I didn't mention Eastern Market, but it is a place I go to buy half-smokes to cook at home. They also have good crabcakes and bluebuck pancakes worth waiting on line for at their lunch counter.

              I am sorry you missed Pioneer Pit Beef in Baltimore (not open on Sundays though). It is literally a shack underneath the highway just west of Baltimore. The kind of place you think only exists in legend. Food Network recs are not purely for the food, in fact it seems secondary.

              Sounds like you really hit home runs with Ray's Hellburger and Central, which I think almost everyone on Chowhound agrees are special places.

              1. re: Steve

                Thanks man. I couldn't have done it without you ;-).

                The Eastern Market was a tip from another blog post, that I thought was yours....

                Either way, Eastern Market is rad, and I would have never gone there without someone's suggestion.

                Pioneer's going in the phone. Hopefully we'll be back in DC soon. We had an amazing time.

                1. re: cem3340

                  I had a client nearish Pioneer. First time I saw it a coworker who was driving got lost and I spotted it. Couldn't entice them to pull over, so I went there solo next trip to meet the client. That project ended and I haven't been in over a year. :(

              2. re: cem3340

                TOTALLY forgot:

                Breadline; Duh, Samiches. Consumed Lamb Sausage, Ham and Cheese, French Fries. we got there just before closing, but food was still great. Excellent quality cold cuts, sausage was spicy and delicious, not greasy, and french fries (only ones we had in DC, for shame), were plentiful and tasty. Took a brownie for the road. Killer. Delicious

                Open City: American. We had a Cheeseburger w/ beer (great Monday Night special) and a cheese calzone. Food was fine, it was super close to our hotel so made a nice improvised food find. Later in our trip we got some baked goods (seemingly lacking in DC). We sampled their brownie, cheesecake, chocolate roulade and carrot cake at various points during the week. The brownie and carrot cake were definitely good, the others (when we had them) were old and/or uninteresting. Good Eats.

                1. re: cem3340

                  I've only had the pizzas at Red Rock but they were really good. Definitely top 5 in DC (in my opinion). Even compared to pizzas in NYC, I think they're good. Maybe living in DC for 12 years has dulled my good pizza memory.

                  1. re: Ericandblueboy

                    Pizza's tricky. Probably the toughest single food to quantify. Way too many styles to choose from, not to mention toppings....

                    I try to put my personal bias aside, when it comes to pizza, but it's tough cuz Thick Crust Chicago style pizza with Pepperoni and garlic is really the only pizza that should exist ;-)

                    Seriously, I was glad to try Red Rock, and appreciate what they do and their quality; it's just not my preference.

                    1. re: cem3340

                      I try to put my personal bias aside, when it comes to pizza, but it's tough cuz Thick Crust Chicago style pizza with Pepperoni and garlic is really the only pizza that should exist ;-)
                      LOL, you can't get that in DC. Some people despise Chicago style but I like them....they're so different you might as well put them in a diff. category.

                    2. re: Ericandblueboy

                      Have you tried Pulcinella's in McLean for pizza? I've been told it was excellent and that they make their own dough in house. I'm still searching for that great pizza.

                      1. re: chowser

                        Personally I don't think Pulcinella's is very good, which is why I hardly ever see it mentioned on CH. In the McLean/Tysons/Vienna/Falls Church area, we go to Church St. for pizza. Other notables - Pie-Tanza, Flip, Bertucci's.

                        1. re: Ericandblueboy

                          I searched before and wondered why there wasn't much about Pulcinella's, either good or bad. I recently met the ex-owner who told me their dough is made in house. I tried Church St, based on your recommendation, and liked it. I didn't like Pie-tanza but only tried it once. Neither are convenient for me. I'm sticking with making my own for now.

                          1. re: chowser

                            Pulcinella is nothing special, probably below average for MOR Italian-American that also seves pizza. I don't think making the your own dough is all that exceptional.... but I could be wrong about that. I certainly wouldn't say their crust is better than any number of places.

                            Italian Cafe in Falls Church is much better then Pulcinella for the same style.

                            1. re: Steve

                              Thanks. I've also heard good things about the Italian Store, too, so should head there also. For the commute, though, I would rather just make my own.

                    3. re: cem3340

                      Excellent thoroughly written reviews--you managed to hit a lot of places in a short time, including many places on my list of restaurants to try so it's helpful there, too.