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One week in Washington, NOVA and seeking ethnic eats

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I will be spending close to a full week in D.C. before the end of the year, a homecoming of sorts, having worked in Washington a couple of summers while I was a student at UVA in the late 1980s. I'll be returning with my 10-year-old son, who like me, has a passion for exploring food from around the globe -- his favorite place in our hometown is Vietnamese. We'll have a car for some of our stay, so driving out to the burbs is a possibility.

Back in the 80's I used to make my way through Ethnic eats using the Washingtonian's top 100, wit ha focus on places more friendly to a student-budget. Now, my budget isn't really limited, though I would still tend to avoid places with good but not spectacular food with sky-high prices.

I've gone through current Washingtonian recommendations -- old habits die hard -- and selected some places, listed below, as a starting point in the discussion. But I'm more interested in what fellow Chowhounders have to say: Which places would be near the top of your list to try and which dishes are standouts there?

Chinese
Dim Sum A&J Restaurant Annandale
Szechuan Hong Kong Palace Falls Church
Mala Tang

Vietnamese
Minh's
Banh Cuon Saigon Falls Church
Four Sisters Falls Church
Hai Duong Falls Church
Huong Viet Falls Church
Rice Paper Vietnamese Cuisine Falls Church

Thai
Sugar Palm Thai Thai Alexandria
Rabieng Thai Falls Church
Bangkok 54 Thai Arlington

Korean
Gamasot Springfield
Gom Ba Woo Annandale
Honey Pig Annandale
Kogiya Annandale
Lighthouse Tofu Annandale

Indian
Rasika
Angeethi Herndon
Masala Art
Woodlands

Japanese
Toki Underground

Ethiopian
Ethiopic
Meaza Falls Church
Zenebech Injera

Afghani
Bamian Falls Church

Italian
Bibiana
Graffiato
2 Amys

Other
Palena Upscale American
Rasika Indian
Vidalia Southern
Estadio Spanish/Portugese

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  1. Rasika is a must- the palak chaat is a lovely dish. Very light and flavorful. It looks like you're willing to go to the suburbs, so I'd recommend Curry Mantra in Fairfax City (not the other ones, though- reviews aren't great). The lunch buffet is reasonably priced and delicious. They cook in small batches rather than the usual tired, drab buffet fare. Randomly, I think the iced tea is fantastic there. It tastes faintly of cloves, which seems a bit out of left field, but it's quite good! I vastly prefer Curry Mantra to Angeethi. I'd also recommend Jaleo if only for the patatas bravas...plus it's near the Spy Museum which your son might enjoy. Hope you have a great trip!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Hobbert

      Thanks for the very helpful recommendations -- the specific suggestions about dishes (and ice tea!) are great. The patatas Bravas looks like a good choice -- my son is addicted to smoked paprika. Thanks too for mention proximity to tourist attractions.

      This is my son's first trip to DC so we are both really excited. So many things to see, do (and taste) and having 6 or 7 days means we can do a lot without racing at a harried pace.

    2. Chinese - A&J is not Cantonese dim sum, but northern style small plates, dumplings, noodle soups, and breads. For a Hong Kong style dim sum experience, Hong Kong Pearl in Falls Church is a good bet.

      Korean - I'd cross Honey Pig off your list. It's mediocre at best. Kogiya is pretty good for the money. I like To Sok Jip for the Korean grandmother homecooking experience.

      3 Replies
      1. re: dpan

        Thanks so much. Good to know. Is A&J good on its own merits as a place for small norther-style plates?

        Thanks too for the info about Korean. I ate a lot of Korean bacj when I lived in the area but almost all of it was home-cooked (I had a Korean girlfriend at the time. What are your favorites at Kogiya and To Sok Jip?

        1. re: Tbuds

          I like A&J very much for their noodle soups (the spicy beef tendon is my favorite), and most of their small plates (thousand year old egg with tofu, chopped picked long beans with beef, pig's ear, seaweed with bean sprouts).

          To Sok Jip is known for its grilled fish (the mackerel is excellent). I love their soups. I see many Korean customer order the bossam (cold sliced pork belly with assortment of vegetables), as well as the Army stew.

        2. re: dpan

          Agreed about Honey Pig. Granted, it is a very fun place with a cool design and unique atmosphere (especially for the area) but the food is mediocre.

        3. Off of your list for Indian I think Rasika is amazing. It's higher end ethnic food but probably one of the best restaurants in the city. Both locations are good, but I prefer the West End location. There is an eggplant, potato and peanut dish that is to die for. Also the very famous and very delicious palak chat.

          For Ethiopian I like Ethiopic. But also Etete is delicious, affordable and more metro-accesible.

          Toki underground is great for ramen and also very fun since its small and divey. You also might want to check out Daikaya. I haven't tried the ramen but hear good things. I ate upstairs at the small plates/yakitori restaurant and thought it was delicious.

          For Italian with a 10 year old I would go to Graffiato. You might also enjoy Zorba's or Greek Deli (only open for lunch) for casual Greek meals.

          Also you might find some of the food trucks fun! DC Empanadas is great, as it La Ficelle and Fogol Brothers.

          Have a fun trip!

          8 Replies
          1. re: Elyssa

            That's great stuff you shared. I had heard about Rasika's palak chat but not the eggplant, potato and peanut dish, which sounds quite appealing.

            Thanks too for the Etete mention; I haven't yet planned out our day-to-day itinerary but convenience will be a factor even of we make a few special trips to places more out of the way.

            I also meant to ask about interesting food trucks so you anticpated my question. We live in a place devoid of food trucks so it's a treat to eat on your feet, weather permitting.

            Thanks too for the ramen suggestion. Nothing comparable where I am now in a smaller Canadian city but I think it would make a great winter meal.

            1. re: Tbuds

              The Farragut West metro stop is a common gathering point for food trucks. Foodtruckfiesta.com can help you track down a particular truck.

              1. re: Hobbert

                If you are in town on a Friday go to Farragut Square. All the food trucks gather there for lunch. You'll have tons to choose from,

                1. re: Elyssa

                  I was there last Thursday- tons of trucks. I had a decent banh mi from Lemongrass (or something similar in name). Is Friday a particular event? My brother works a couple blocks away and heads over for lunch once a week or so and hasn't mentioned Fridays being any different than the other days of the week. If they are, I'm scheduling a visit!

                  1. re: Hobbert

                    "Farragut Friday" used to be a larger than normal turnout for the food trucks back in the beginning of the boom - Now there are so many out there so the park is filled almost every day.

                    1. re: Hobbert

                      It's just Farragut Friday. It's the day of the week when most food trucks make an effort to be in Farragut Square. Although I worked a block away for 5 years and you can almost always find at least 5-6 food trucks there every weekday.

                      1. re: Elyssa

                        Maybe it's increased since then. I've noticed at least a dozen on the random days I've gone. Or maybe I've just been lucky. Regardless, good info for the OP.

            2. Since you are willing to go out of the city, I would head out to Golden Bankok for the Lao cooking. Don't get the buffet which looks mediocre at best but get the Lao menu. The rice salad is great and if you ask for "Lao hot" you will get it and they will try and talk you out of it before ordering.

              5 Replies
              1. re: DCRat

                i love their crispy rice salad with the sour issan sausage. they'll fix it for you. if you get the som tum, get the thai version, not the lao version, which is extremely strong flavored (& stinky). NB, your heat preferences WILL be honored.

                actually, i love their buffet, as i mix and match dishes for a great price. i mix larb with the kee mao noodles. some other dishes are also good on there. so…don't write off the buffet for a weekday lunch, when it is a very good deal…otherwise, get a la carte, for sure. there are a couple of threads on chowhoud about best dishes, etc., so check them out. (same for most of these restaurants).

                two or three doors down is hong kong palace (sichuan despite the name). cumin lamb is a standout, and the pork belly. and the dry stir fried chicken with peppers (on the chinese menu).

                ~~~~~~~
                nearby in falls church is the hong kong pearl seafood which is good cantonese dim sum.

                at eden center there in falls church, i really loved my dish at rice paper, the dish with baby clams and ground pork salad $15. the other dishes we had were not so successful, but that was sublime. --> Gỏi Hến
                [Baby Clams with Pork sauteed with special spices.herbs.peanuts on top of mixed vegetables served with Sesame Rice Crackers]

                ~~~~~~~~~~~
                here is an excerpt from a post of mine about another eden center restaurant: we "had very nice soups (i know they have bun -- and several varieties, including seafood…and i think also pho) and a very good lotus root salad at a little place called "Phung Hoang." whichever version of the soups we each ordered, each was delicious and plenty big -- packed with goodies (meat and noodles, and plentiful herbs and spices you added in). don't over-order like we did. the summer rolls were delicious, too -- with a nice sauce! (ok, i'll admit i was a hogger on those babies)."
                ~~~~~~

                thai square (columbia pike, arlington) should be on the list of thai restaurants. excellent seafood salad.
                ~~~~~~~~~

                good neapolitan style pizza is at pupatella in arlington. their burratta platter and arancini are great -- very good beers on draft, too.

                ~~~~~~
                dc: just had a good friend ( a newyorrican ;) who went with another puerto ricqueña friend who really enjoyed the new puerto rican place called "mio." http://www.miorestaurant.com/

                1. re: alkapal

                  I may have to spend a week in Falls Church. Thanks for the detailed recommendations at Golden Bangkok.

                  With a Sichuan place practically next door I may need to bribg extra luggage for the leftovers.

                  Hong Kong Pearl Seafood -- how does that rank in your view among dim sum placed in NOVA or DC?

                  The Vietnamese recommendations are great -- the places we go to where we live are pretty generic with menus that have been mostly tamed for North American tastes.

                  At Thai Square, what non-fish dished do you enjoy? I love fish but my son is just starting to get his sea legs, so to speak.

                  The Neapolitan pizza and burrata sounds great - my wife is from Campagna a few hours from Naples and minutes away from Puglia, where burrata is made fresh each morning.

                  Mio sounds good too, especially on Friday night, when they serve suckling pig. I should take my son to the Capitol during the day and Mio at night so he can experience pork-barrel politics followed by a descent into pork heaven.

                  1. re: Tbuds

                    HK pearl seafood -- i like it much better than mark's duck house. it is a much nicer setting, and i think the food quality is better. my husband says it reminds him very much of the dim sum places in hong kong. maybe mark's has better variety, but their place is grungy. other than that, i'm not familiar with the dim sum places others know much more about. some of my favorite, favorite items there at hong kong pearl are the roast pork and duck (which are better than mark's and than XO taste), and also the dau miu gow (snow pea shoot buns, steamed then pan fried -- YUM). a review: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8213... (you may have to ask for the dau miu gow especially -- it might not be on the cart or being shopped around (which is how i discovered it at first). and i love their "shrimp ball" -- fried shrimp (headless).

                    thai square non-seafood: good som tum, good pad kee mao (ask for well done for good wok char; they also will use ground chicken instead of sliced breast, if you ask); their fried crispy things are good -- whatever they are ;-). get a starter then watch what other people get, then order what strikes your fancy from what you see. i find their mango sticky rice dessert is nicely done, too.
                    ~~~~~~
                    pupatella's burratta is flown in from naples fresh, too. (photo is the burratta platter there at pupatella). the platter has prosciutto, grape tomatoes, arugula and/or basil, olive oil, and their terrific house-made bread, toasted on a grill. i think they use a version of their pizza dough to make their bread, and it is truly lovely.

                     
                    1. re: alkapal

                      photos from HK pearl: our dim sum and shrimp ball dish.

                      if you go, don't forget to ask for the chrysanthemum tea. it is beautiful and delicious.

                       
                       
                2. re: DCRat

                  Your mention of Golden Bangkok (and the concurrence of those who posted after you) had me looking up reviews and photos -- I might have to leave for our trip early just to make our way through the menu. That looks fantastic! I had Lao cooking on a trip to Los Angeles a few summers ago and would be eager to try that cuisine again.

                3. There is nothing wrong with the Washingtonian list. It has become a serious Chow-centric publication since Todd Kliman took over as Food Editor, about 2006. This was a major change in their coverage, and it no longer resembles the Washingtonian of old.

                  Still, my list would not be the same. If I limit my comments to this list, here are my top 3:

                  A&J:

                  Sua La Mian, noodles in a sour/sweet sauce, ask for the 'big' or homemade noodles.
                  Xian bing: Pan-freid dumpling with soup inside, you cant' bit into it, you just have to slurp out the soup.
                  1,000 year egg with scrambled tofu. The dark green egg looks odd, but tastes delicious.

                  Huong Viet:
                  Cha gio, lotus root salad with shrimp, grilled pork

                  Lighthouse Tofu:

                  This is a tofu specialty restaurant that makes their own tofu, served in soon dubu, tofu stew. You have your choice of other ingredients and spice level. A small menu of other items as well. One order is enough food for two people, but you could always add an order of galbi (ribs).

                  5 more for your consideration in NoVa:

                  Jeruslem, Palestinian (makluba, makhusan)

                  Amoo's, Persian. (Tahdig topped with gheymeh.)

                  Gharer Khabar, Bengali (moglai paratha, roast chicken, fish or mutton curry)

                  Lyon Hall, Alsatian (kraut garnie, soft pretzels, pickled vegetables, shortrib frankfurter)

                  Bangkok Golden, Lao Menu: grilled pork neck - ask for this, not on the regular menu, mieng muang luang (rice paste wrap), kao piak sen (chicken noodle soup), nam kao (rice ball salad).
                  This is probably your best meal of all of them.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Steve

                    Nice to know the Washingtonian is in such capable hands. Back in my day, pre-Chowhound, there just weren't many sources for info on restaurants beyond the traditional reviewers. Perhaps the fact that good information is so more readily available now places pressure in publications to get someone good or lose readership.

                    Thanks for selecting your three choices -- helps me narrow down the field - and for highlighting some favorite dishes.

                    We have some great places like A & J in the Toronto area but we live two and half hours away, so we don't get there all that often. My son loves soup dumplings.

                    Bangkok Golden seem like it will reach the top of my list. Thanks for letting me know about the grilled pork neck.

                    Thanks for the helpful details and suggested dished at Huong Viet and at Lighthouse Tofu and the interesting suggestions for NoVa. When I map out our day-to-day plans it will give me a lot of excellent options.

                    I'm almost wishing the shutdown hadn't ended -- I would have more time to eat!

                    1. re: Steve

                      Amoo's: I'm a fan of the Cornish hen (joojeh) kabob. Much better than the boneless chicken version which seems less juicy and flavorful in comparison. Also, be sure to indulge in one of the special rice preparations. I've enjoyed all three options.

                      1. re: Steve

                        Steve's list might be better than the Washingtonian's!