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Jul 26, 2011 05:15 PM

DC Trip Report - the attempt to eat cheaply that only 1/2 worked!

Thank you to all who provided tips to guide us on our trip. This is my report. First, I want to preface by saying how lucky we were (not!) to be in Wash DC and NYC for the hottest weather on record. We were very torn between going sightseeing and just cooling in the hotel, but ultimately we managed a combination that we could live with. However, the heat certainly dampened our appetites, and made us less interested in food and eating as a baseline. Nevertheless, there were highlights and lowlights.

Here is the DC portion of our trip.

We set out to eat cheaply and ethnically, so it was almost humorous that on our first trip out, my husband brought the google map I’d created with pinpoints, but not the directory to it containing names and addresses of the restaurants. So we looked at the 4 dots closest to where we were standing and melting at that moment, and attempted to figure out (map resolution wasn’t great), what any of my pinpoints might have been. We ended up at Zaytinya. This was a delicious meal and by ordering lightly, we kept the prices down. The fatoush salad was very welcome in the heat, and the crispy eggplant and meatballs in tomato sauce were good. But the standout was the marinated grilled octopus over yellow pea puree. Absolutely delicious, tender, flavorful. We also really enjoyed the granny smith apple sorbet that was a component of one of the desserts.

Dinner that night was Peruvian chicken at El Pollo Rico in Arlington. Really, I didn’t think it was all that. It was fine, and cheap. But I’ve had much better chicken. The chicken and the garlic sauce and the pita/pickled turnips etc. at Zankou chicken in LA blows this place away.

Next day’s lunch was at Etete – a place I had been looking forward to since my trip to DC 2 years ago when Etete was closed and I ended up at Shashamane. It was worth the wait. The food – the veg platter and yetibs fitfit (spicy beef) that the waitress tried to dissuade us from ordering on account of spice – it was all delicious. We stuffed ourselves for not very much money. The injera was great, the meat was great, I have a weakness for the cabbage and potatoes and those were great. Even the lettuce and tomato salad which looked unassuming was seasoned with some Ethiopian spice which gave it some intrigue.

Dinner was meant to be happy hour at Jaleo. It was going to be our splurge because it was our anniversary. But it started on a sour note because we got there at 6:20 and cooled our heels at the bar waiting for a spot that never opened up so that we could partake of happy hour (ending at 7). Maybe I should have known better, but it was a Tuesday, and I didn’t realize how popular the place was. Once we were seated at a table, things started to look up. The pan con tomate was delicious, but I need to set the record straight for other tourists. There’s no magic here. It is a slice of toasted white bread, fairly ordinary, with some high quality tomatoes mashed into a paste and spread thinly on top. Anyone can make this at home, and for $5 per slice of bread, they must have quite the profit margin on this one. We also had the apple/fennel/manchego salad (very refreshing) that I’ve since made at home. Also the very interesting cold garlic/almond soup with grapes, crabmeat, and vinegar. One of the best dishes we had was the duck confit rice, which was very rich, ducky, and mushroomy. The shrimp in garlic I felt were pretty average. Nothing special. We topped the whole thing off with a couple of pretty light sangrias and called it a night.

On our last day, we had lunch at the Tortilla café after walking through the Eastern Market. Lunch was good, if not terribly inspired. We tried pupusa, plantains, tamale, fish tacos, and yucca. I am a sucker for plantains and loved those. The Horchata was also spot on. The rest was good quality but didn’t seem particularly bright or lively compared to other mom and pop Mexican places I’ve been to. I wished they had a salsa bar and that wasn’t present either. The whole joint seemed a little too clean and corporate for the food to really wow us. We also didn’t know it had been filmed on FTV, but Guy Fieri’s face was bigger than life all over the place. We tried to face the other direction J.

However, I would not send anyone to Eastern Market even for shopping, much less for a touristy, sightseeing experience. I was sorely disappointed. I was looking for a Ferry building (SF) or Pike Place (Sea) experience. These markets are different from each other – one is grungy but large with lots of variety and people watching (and lots of good cheap eats). The other is smaller but upscale with fancy “cheap” eats that are more expensive. Eastern Market was grungy and small. There were no eats really, and the atmosphere was dingy and unappealing. I was sad to have spent any of our very limited time there, but we made up for it with a walk to the nearby Library of Congress (and found what we were looking for at Chelsea Market in NY).

Anyway, given that we had more hits than misses, I am grateful again to the board for your advice, and I look forward to our next trip so that we may try the other 50 places that were on our list.

1942 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001

701 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001

Pollo Rico
7643 New Hampshire Ave, Takoma Park, MD 20912

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  1. Thanks for the post! The details definitely helped me in my decision. I'm heading to DC tomorrow, so I think I'll try Etete!

    1942 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001

    1. Thanks for your extensive report. It's great to have the feedback.

      Rotisserie chicken can be wonderful fresh off the spit - if it's not it can still be delicious but also ordinary in a way and not something I'd seek out if I made a special trip to Arlington which has quite a few great cheap options.

      Eastern Market is lively on a weekend when they have a flea market set up. After that, for me, it is a place to get 'half smokes' (the local sausage) to cook at home. It is not a Chowhound destination.

      I adore Jaleo, but mostly for the extensive list of vegetables they cook so simply yet so well.

      Tortilla Cafe is not as good as dozens of places in the 'burbs. But i guess it's ok for folks stuck in DC.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Steve

        I don't think a tourist can ever really enjoy the culinary landscape like a local can. You have many days over an extended period, the benefit of other people's experiences, an opportunity to eat somewhere just because and not because you are in the neighborhood already, etc. We were in DC for 2 1/2 days, including overnight visits with 2 dear friends that took time away from chowing and the worst type of climate for us PNW dwellers. I consider myself fortunate that we had the good experiences we did. DC is a good eating city and I hope to have many opportunities in the future to keep exploring.

      2. in fairness we did sort of try to say after Pike Place and the Ferry Bldg. the Eastern Market might disappoint (and also in fairness you really have to hunt and seek and ask to find everything)

        and sorry to get a little nit-picky about Tortilla Cafe (yeah that room has zero personality) but I gotta pick at "compared to other mom and pop Mexican places I’ve been to"

        ummm it's more Salvadoran than Mexican and perhaps hence lack of desired salsa bar.

        I moved there after 10 years in SF and can COMPLETELY sympathize with the weather shock (god I thought I'd moved to Venus) glad you figured out the strategy for dodging the worst.

        1 Reply
        1. re: hill food

          You are totally right that you did say it might disappoint. I just didn't realize how much of a let down it would be. It was the middle of the week, and perhaps the crowds on the weekend might make it seem more lively, but I doubt they could transform the experience into something actually pleasurable.

          I didn't realize that Tortilla Cafe was Salvadoran. There wasn't anything on the menu (perhaps I didn't look carefully) that wouldn't have also appeared on a Mexican menu. And the food was fine, I don't really have too many complaints. Just sort of heavy on the carbs without much to brighten it up.

        2. I take it you went to Eastern Market on a weekday?

          1 Reply
          1. re: jenniferpdc

            If you are ever in DC on a weekend go back, Eastern Market is a great experience. They just don't have any of the outside vendors during the week - I could see it being quite boring, it's really only for locals. On the weekends the street is closed and the entire block is full of farmers and vendors as well as in the parking lot across the street. Market Lunch and Monmarte are quite tasty, but unfortunately the Hill is not a real culinary experience.

            I almost forgot, almost all of our Mexican restaurants in DC are Salvadorean. My husband calls it Mexidorean.

            Market Lunch
            225 7th St SE Ste 12, Washington, DC 20003

          2. Was this your first time having pan con tomate? Yes, it's a very simple dish of toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and tomato, and olive oil. A lot of restaurants in the USA screw it up though. In my experience traveling in Spain, sometimes the simplest dishes are the best ones.

            For Google Maps, if you have an iPhone, just go to, sign in, and your maps will be there, just a little slow.