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Easy, cheap eats in DC - do they even exist?

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One oddity about DC is the total lack of inexpensive, fast casual restaurants that are open for dinner. I work long hours, and if I get home late and don't want to cook, there seem to be almost no options for an inexpensive, decent looking dinner that isn't from McDonalds or a shady Chinese hole-in-the-wall that also serves chicken wings. Being from California, I'm accustomed to a wide variety of eateries at every price point, but I feel like in DC, while there's incredible fine dining, there's almost nothing mid-range.

Here's the few places that I know. Please let me know if you have any others to add to the list:

Nando's
Chix

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  1. Naan and Beyond is open until 9:00 p.m.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Lori D

      Check out Tom Sietsema’s article in today's post cheap eats
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingou...

      1. re: agarnett100

        Great article - it has a few places I've tried and loved (Shake Shack, Fast Gourmet, The Standard, & Ren's Ramen) and way more that I'd love to try except they are too far afield for me, which is always the problem with lists like these for those without a car.

        Socaldiner: what neighborhood(s) are you willing to consider? (I share your pain, by the way.)

    2. I work at Connecticut and T and have Bistro du Coin right across the street. I can get a tartiflette or a smoked mackerel salad for a reasonable price. If I walk to 18th St, I have Locolat for savory Belgian waffles. Up from there I have Casa Oaxaca for a good mole negro. Also a Peruvian restaurant, Las Cantreras, has resonable prices. If I am willing to walk further, I can go 4 blocks to Fast Gourmet for the chivito.

      I don't know exactly what you mean by 'shady Chinese' as The Great Wall on 14th has the absolutely best ma po tofu in the area. They also show excellent wok skills on the baby bok choy. Nothing fussy about the decor, but those dishes are aces.

      1. Meh, I've lamented this problem since moving here (from CA). Haven't really found much for good, cheap eats, except for Amsterdam Falafel and The Standard. Both places you can get a good, satisfying meal for under $10. Even my favorite, La Mexicana (which is outside the city), runs us (me and gf) about $25 or so. (Easily best value in the area though, and still my favorite place) I would maybe throw in Taylor Gourmet. I might add ShopHouse, but the only time I went, I was not satisfied and disliked the bread.

        I like Fast Gourmet, but at $13 for the Chivito (not including tax), I would not call that cheap (esp. for a sandwich). Even Shake Shack is $10 for a burger and fries, which is not filling either (at In N Out you can get that for half that price).

        I am at peace with it though.

        EDIT: Radius has a good pint and slice for $5 deal for happy hour (though I never make it to HH).

        1. Not sure where you work or live:

          Is Potato Valley open for dinner? I forget, it makes a great meal and is cheap.
          Thai from a number of places: Rice, Regent, etc.
          Luna (the one with a second location in Shirlington) at Dupont has good inexpensive dinners.
          Shophouse
          Tacklebox
          Surfside
          Henry's Soul Food
          Oohs and Aahs soul food
          Levi's Port Cafe
          Taylor Gourmet
          Vace
          Cafe Deluxe (chain but very solid one with interesting options)

          Just off the top of my head I will give it more thought when I can.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ktmoomau

            Potato Valley is only open for lunch M-F, which is a real shame.

          2. No, not really. Not like LA cheap. I had lunch at Bertha's Pier 52 Seafood in Long Beach today. Two of us each had a shrimp, fish and scallop platter with fries and coleslaw and a drink for under $20. For both of us. I'm talking of-the-boat fresh fish. Good luck finding anything like that in DC nowadays. As you've probably noticed, it takes money to live here.

            1 Reply
            1. re: flavrmeistr

              flavrmeistr - I miss the LBC used to go down to San Pedro with my father to get fresh fish from the fish market

            2. Zest Bistro on 8th street SE (Barracks Row/Capitol Hill) does a very nice job at an affordable price.

              1. Some good suggestions already...I would add the Greek Spot (near Chix), Sweetgreen, Adam's Express for great Korean (Mt. Pleasant), and definitely urge you to try Taylor Gourmet (new location just opened near 14th and U), Quick Gourmet (the Cuban sandwich is a better deal than the Chivito), Pho 14 or Pho Viet up in Columbia Heights (though these are sit-down, casual), Kabob Corner Kabob House on P Street near Dupont, Shake Shack, DC Noodles (U and 14th, also sit-down, but casual), Mama Chuy for sopes (pork only, don't recommend the beef or chicken), Oohs and Aahs (U Street), Muncheez Mania in Georgetown (get the Nana's Original with zaatar and labneh)...I must point out DC has gotten a lot better on this score in the last couple of years. Lots of new burger places, that new Meatballs place in Chinatown, Shophouse, etc.

                1. You don't mention where you live, which could be part of the problem. In my experience, it's not that good cheap places don't exist, it's that they exist amongst a bunch of bad cheap places so you need to know where to go.

                  Here's a list in NW DC of good places where you can have dinner for $15 or less. Just off the top of my head here, so I may be missing some.

                  Adams Morgan:
                  Mixtec, Amsterdam Fallafel, The Diner, Tryst, Bourbon, Black Squirrel, LEnfant Cafe, Lauriel Plaza, Super Taco (old Pepitos), A&M Wine Shop

                  U Street:
                  Bar Pillar, Etete, Ben's Chilli Bowl, DC Noodles, El Centro DF, Busboys and Poets,

                  Dupont:
                  Pizza Paradiso, BGR, Bistro Du Coin, Shake Shack, Zorbas, Teaism

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: emcentar

                    Bourbon? Bar Pilar? El Centro? I would not consider those places cheap.

                    1. re: emcentar

                      This seems more like a laundry list of inexpensive places rather than a carefully cultivated list of great eats.

                      What is so special about Mixtec? There must be dozens upon dozens of places throughout the area serving similar. Do you really think the chili at Ben's Chili Bowl is any good? What is particularly good at Busboys and Poets?

                      1. re: Steve

                        Busboys has good burgers, their nachos are amazing, they have good salads, and their harira is also good.

                        1. re: Steve

                          The original poster was looking for 'mid-range' not cheap. I would consider under $15 to be mid-range, certainly. And the point of my post was that decent mid-range exists in some quantity; it was not a carefully cultivated list of great eats.

                          1. re: emcentar

                            The title of the post is "Easy, Cheap eats...". Also, I take: "there seem to be almost no options for an inexpensive, decent looking dinner that isn't from McDonalds or a shady Chinese hole-in-the-wall" to mean that he is looking for a meal that is quick and <$10.

                            Granted, he finished with a sentence that I guess confuses things: "I feel like in DC, while there's incredible fine dining, there's almost nothing mid-range.". Being a Californian, I assumed that he meant that there was nothing cheap instead of mid-range. Because in DC, "cheap" is mid-range.

                        2. re: emcentar

                          Actually, Busboys and Poets is hella expensive for what you get ($6 for a plate of hummus, for example).

                          I think we should have a meet up for depressed Chowhounders from California who know what the good life is like.

                        3. The Hamilton at 14th and F is open 24/7

                          Went there last night - solid American food, I'd sit at the bar and enjoy. The "late night menu" looks pretty awesome, too.

                          Shophouse, the "asian chipotle" is actually pretty decent, too, and it's cheap, quick, and if you want - very very spicy!

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: Jeserf

                            I would not consider Hamilton cheap

                            1. re: agarnett100

                              Just wanted to say that I feel your pain as well. Originally from Texas and some time spent in Cali and Colorado as well. I've asked the same question on this board before as I have also been frustrated on this same quest. Honsetly I still don't know why there aren't more cheap to mid-range good restaurants in DC. We just got back from a wedding in Austin and I think there are hundreds of excellent places within the city proper. Tres bizarre.

                              1. re: ChoppinBroccoli

                                You guys have got to be kidding...the greater DC area is crawling with cheap ethnic places!!! you didn't say specifically 'where' but NOVA has oodles of these places with even specific neighborhoods known for certain foods...clarendon for viet, etc. we live in springfield which is a restaurant wasteland...except for cheap, quick, ethnic mom & pops....i think there are some in the city too if you get off the touristy paths...

                                1. re: DCDOLL

                                  If I had to speculate, I think the relative paucity of mid-range/cheap eating is both a supply and demand problem.

                                  Supply: most of the DC community, even the immigrant community, isn't indigenous to the area - much of the labor supply in the area has been brought here by high wage, high education jobs. So we don't have the typical labor supply of cities associated with lots of mid-range independent restaurants. DC proper also by all appearances is a hard place to start a restaurant - rents are high, regulations are byzantine even by northeastern urban standards. Not promising for start-up independent restaurants.

                                  Demand: I would not be surprised if DC had the highest expense account/citizen dining ratio in the country. We're also one of the highest wage areas of the country. The first aspect alone might account for the ratio of high end eating to mid-range and cheap. But it's hard to not notice that the DC restaurant scene began to improve substantially when people began moving back into the city again about 10 year ago. You may complain about the number of mid-range options here, but it's still much better than it was 15 years ago. If younger (poorer) people continue to move into town instead of the outer boroughs it could be that it improves even more over the next 10 years.

                                  1. re: emcentar

                                    The commerical real estate market rents have increased in DC or held steady even with the rest of country in a recession the higher rents, insurance, and overall carrying cost are incorporated into the price of the food and drink. DC has experienced an explosion of new restaurants and eateries with some restaurateurs open up multiple locations to cash in on the disposal income in the area.

                                    1. re: agarnett100

                                      Cheap rent, cheap eats. High rents, expensive eats. Just the way it is.

                                      1. re: flavrmeistr

                                        THIS. You want cheap you need to head off the beaten path downtown, or the more ethnickey suburbs. A lot of the food trucks downtown aren't exactly what I'd call cheap.

                          2. Amsterdam Falafel on 18th St.

                            1. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to your question. I'm from California, too, and my heart pines for good, cheap food. Available on every corner, at all hours of the day.

                              I think we should have a Californian expat meet up once a month and try and find somewhere to go.

                              1. Another Californian here (grew up in SoCal, lived in the Bay Area for years). I have found no true cheap eats in DC that I could recommend. Northern VA has a bunch, but you need a car.

                                Depressing.

                                18 Replies
                                1. re: tarnation

                                  I will say I have been impressed with the vegetarian pho and Pho Viet on Park. Not bad at all.

                                  1. re: tarnation

                                    that probably was the hardest thing to get used to when I relocated from SF to DC. weather, bugs, traffic, politics - ehhh no big deal. good mid-range (if not cheap) food options, now that was difficult.

                                    1. re: tarnation

                                      If you're from LA, you can't possibly be complaining about things only reachable by car...

                                      1. re: DanielK

                                        c'mon, while in LA a car is practically required (I have known some to get by w/o - how? beats me) that doesn't mean the car came along in the move, the idea of being largely car-free is one of the attractive things about DC (I know all stuff for another time and place) but it's a valid part of the criteria.

                                        1. re: hill food

                                          No, it was the comparison to SoCal that I was calling out. I agree that in a city like DC, Metro-accessibility is a valid criteria.

                                          1. re: DanielK

                                            fair enough, but whether NoCal or SoCal, the sheer abundance of decent and cheap is overwhelming. yeah one can shoot the moon and go all astronomical easily, but it's just as easy to find great choices for under $10 - 15 just down the street (and sometimes even walk)

                                        2. re: DanielK

                                          I agree, and being from LA I wouldn't mind driving for some great (cheap) ethnic eats. I am open to suggestions for great (cheap) ethnic outside the district. The only one that I've really found is La Mexicana, which satisfies my taqueria fix a few times a month.

                                          1. re: mdpilam

                                            Kohinoor Dhaba is my new fave near Crystal City. $8.95 all you can eat. Zero atmosphere; it's like eating in your Indian grandma's house. I prefer it to Kabob Palace up the street and that place is cheap and tasty as well. The place is always full of cab drivers on their way/coming back from National Airport.

                                            http://kohinoordhaba.com/

                                            http://www.kabobpalaceusa.com/

                                            1. re: monkeyrotica

                                              I will second Kohinoor as being tasty and good value. The guys that were working there were very cool and just asking about something as simple as achar got me major street cred, which is kind of sad. But they took good care of me and the food was slightly spicy, not blandified. The naan was hit or miss with the first two being really good and the 3rd and 4th being a bit dry. Well worth the money and it is fun to support a small business, and I think I will go back and work my way through some more good chow.
                                              Been hitting Minerva Express on Lee near Glebe, pretty good stuff there too.

                                              1. re: monkeyrotica

                                                Went out to Kohinoor Dhaba this afternoon and had their buffet (I was starving!). Definitely a hole in the wall, but my kind of place (except I hate eating off styrofoam plates and using plastic utensils). The buffet had a solid selection with the mainstays: palak paneer, chicken tikka masala, bhangan bharta and dal. The bhangan bharta was solid, and the chicken tikka masala was real good. The palak paneer was just ok - too dense and a bit bland. Tried one bite of the chicken curry (just ok) and aloo mattar (ok), and went back to the above dishes, especially the bhangan bharta and CTM. There was a chicken kabob (with ground chicken) that was decent, but I was more interested in the above dishes. Naan was brought out right away and was fresh and tasty. Saved a bit of room to try the halwa, which was pretty tasty too.

                                                For just under $10, I came away stuffed (!) and my Indian craving satiated. Would be very happy to have this place in my neighborhood. Would have liked to see some appetizers in the selection and also chai available, and regular plates and utensils, but all in all, a great value. Would probably order from the menu if I went back with someone - he assured me they could make dishes spicy (still skeptical though).

                                                PS - What's the deal with Kabob Palace? I walked by 2, which were right next to each other. Are they the same, just expanded, or is one the better one? (A Pakistani cabbie recommended it a while back)

                                                1. re: mdpilam

                                                  One is for hookah, the other not. Everything made from the same kitchen, though service is a lot slower at the sit down than what you get at the tiny counter service place. My last meal at that place was my 'worst meal ever' in DC. Truly disgusting.

                                                  1. re: mdpilam

                                                    I read Steve's review of his experience, but my experience has been actually okay. I wouldn't say that Kabob Palace is the best Kabob house around, but I've actually found the food to be perfectly acceptable. I would recommend the counter service side (unless you were wanting to smoke Hookah). I think their kabobs, chick peas, and sides are generally good. Also, it will be enough food for 2-3 meals, so plan to take it home with you or have two people share 1 order.

                                                    My personal favorite kabob house is Ravi Kabob, which is off of Glebe Rd in Arlington. If you don't have a car and/or don't live in the area, it isn't that convenient, but the food is definitely better.

                                                  2. re: monkeyrotica

                                                    I, for one, really like Kabob Palace (with the caveat that I only ever have the kabobs, mostly chicken or lamb, and the accompanying rice and spinach or chickpeas). And I agree that the counter service is better than the family restaurant a couple of doors down (despite having the same owners)

                                                    I've been to Ravi Kabob once, and it was also good, but in my opinion no better, and much less convenient for me. Kohinoor Dhaba I've also been to once or twice (all they seemed to have was the buffet), and it was fine, but doesn't really ever motivate me to go back again (despite being even closer than Kabob Palace).

                                              2. re: tarnation

                                                But doesn't anyone moving from a long growing season/ more dense agricultural area to the Mid-East automatically know that this is going to be the case? DC is always published as one of the top ten most expensive cities, we don't have the same growing season by any stretch of the imagination, it snows and frosts here quite late on occasion, even with global warming, and very large amounts of fresh, local produce aren't 30-60 minutes away. I mean if you drive from San Francisco to Carmel, or out from LA you quickly reach absolutely HUGE agricultural areas that use very cheap labor. Here the majority of our produce is shipped in. What is grown here is produced with much higher labor costs at much smaller quantities. Therefore there is absolutely no way it will be cheaper or anywhere close in price, unless the ingredients are not as good of quality.

                                                Additionally food costs have sky rocketed in general across the country/world the past years so even that same food is likely more expensive now then it was, and is likely to keep getting more expensive. Etc, etc. I am not sure it is fair to have the same expectations in terms of food prices.

                                                1. re: ktmoomau

                                                  I would argue that the high cost of food (and lack of cheap/ethnic eats) is more due to high rent/real estate + the fact they can charge it and people will pay it. Actually, I think it is more so the latter. NY and LA (and SF) are the next highest rent/real estate markets (IIRC), but in those cities you can find cheap, ethnic eats. Ethnic food here costs about twice as much as it does in those cities (I have less experience with NY, but know that it is abundant with cheap(er)/ethnic eats, which would refute the weather/growing season claim). Heck, even MN (Twin Cities) - which has an even shorter growing season - has a decent amount of cheap/ethnic food.

                                                  1. re: mdpilam

                                                    Population and stronger competition might also play a factor.

                                                    1. re: mdpilam

                                                      I have never lived in New York, but I don't know that I would automatically say there is an abundance of cheap/ethnic eats, especially in Manhattan. Counting the burbs, means then including NOVA and MOCO as our burbs which actually do have a good amount cheap/ethnic eats for our population. They also have such a high population there certainly is more competition, and actually I think they have better access to retail space then we do in DC, which really doesn't have a lot of competition or surplus in terms of commercial real estate in the city itself, or in some of the burbs, for example Arlington.

                                                      Yes high rent is a factor, and hell yes, so is the fact that we are the riches counties in the nation and by and large have a more stable job market of mostly professionals and therefore can eat out at nicer restaurants over cheap places. Demand certainly plays a factor.

                                                      Twin cities are very close to the mid-west and easily accessible train-wise in terms of food staples and shipping, it's not just growing season, but access to large agricultural areas, and also have much lower rent and cost of living. There are lots of factors to consider, but they all point to the fact that it is an expectation I wouldn't have moving to DC. Although there are lots of other benefits to living in this area.

                                                      1. re: ktmoomau

                                                        I have to say that I'm always defending NYC against the charge that it's an insanely expensive place to live (life in DC for many people can be even more expensive, because there are fewer subsidized city programs) but 'lots of cheap ethnic eats'? It's a big town, so I'm sure they exist, but if you dropped my blindfolded into Portland, OR or NYC, I know which one I'm going to find good cheap eats the fastest (and it's not NYC). That's just my experience, but I was pretty broke when I lived there, so I learned to cook.

                                                2. Some good ideas in the comments of this blog post:
                                                  http://www.princeofpetworth.com/2012/...

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: hamster

                                                    Went to Astor Mediterranean today after seeing it in the comments of that post, and was pleasantly surprised. Had a delicious gyro for $6.50 (+tax). The meat was sliced thicker than what I'm used to in a gyro (and didn't look that great on the spit), but it was juicy and flavorful. A bit messy, but good. I've only been to the Greek Deli once, but I liked this gyro better.

                                                    1. re: mdpilam

                                                      The Astor branch Arlington has overall very good food. Hard to go wrong there. Form rotisserie chicken to sandwiches and the Egyptian pizza.

                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                        Steve, is the crust of the pizza done in that "Greek" style (how I know it anyway). Thin, not overly crunchy, a little extra flour on the bottom?

                                                  2. a little late to this party, but....traveling with the family (three adventurous eaters) to d/c for a few nites....new to your town, and not familiar with where the tourist spots museums, zoo, monuments) etc are in comparison to these recommendations....

                                                    also we are hotel'ing in Alexandria (so rec's there would help too)

                                                    so if could, i would be honored if the locals could fill in the blanks...

                                                    if you visit _____, I recommend______, a _____min walk away......

                                                    ???
                                                    cheap to "mid range" , even pricey as long as casual dress is ok and as long as its chow'ish!....!!!

                                                    thanks in advance!

                                                    4 Replies
                                                    1. re: fenway68

                                                      Nothing too easy or cheap while touring the museums. If you go to Capitol Hill, then Good Stuff Eatery has a phenom toasted marshmallow milkshake. The homemade sour cherry soda next door at We the Pizza is also a rare treat.

                                                      If you go to the National Cathedral, 2 Amys has excellent margherita pizza with buffalo mozz and exceptional Italian small plates.

                                                      For dinner, if you have a car, all sorts of possibilities open up for the intrepid Chowhound.

                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                        Have car..also hotel in Alexandria close to metro...willing to ride....thinking tho, maybe eating before returning to hotel....

                                                        Casual but good/eclectic/adventurous....dinner options

                                                        1. re: fenway68

                                                          If you're into cheap SoCal Mexican, La Mexicana Bakery & Tacqueria off Route 1 has outstanding tacos, tortas, sopes. Their Torta Ahogada on fresh bread is probably one of the best sandwiches in the area. It's pretty much the definition of casual: just a bunch of card tables and the nicest owner you'll ever meet.

                                                          Society Fair and Virtue Feed & Grain are owned by the Armstrongs of Restaurant Eve fame. The former a casual gourmet market with high-quality sandwiches, the latter a more upscale English/Irish gastropubbish. The crubeens at the latter are unusual but excellent. Both very casual. There's also The Majestic in Old Town; casual dining, midrange prices, excellent cocktails and comfort food.

                                                        2. re: Steve

                                                          I find it interesting that you'd mention a burger and a pizza place yet not mention the pizza and the burgers. I'd say both are the least interesting things on the menus.