Eat This Now: DC’s 30 Essential Dishes

By Rina Rapuano  |  January 23, 2017
Credit: Farrah Skeiky

There's so much talk lately about what divides us, but here's one thing we can all agree on: It's an exciting time to dine out in the DMV. In a town once dominated by steakhouses and fussy French restaurants, we now revel in cuisines as varied as Filipino, Lao, Greek, Georgian, Taiwanese and Cambodian — not to mention unique twists on burgers, pastries and ribs. We've rounded up 30 of the city's top bites, from treasured classics to brand-spanking-new plates. Here's a list of the DC-area dishes to try right now.

  • Credit: TenPenh Tysons

    Crab rangoon dip at TenPenh Tysons
    Crab rangoon is definitely experiencing a bit of a revival, and this spin on the old-school Chinese-American favorite offers a compelling reason for the trend. A shallow crock is filled with warm, creamy crab dip that’s topped with sweet chile sauce and a sprinkle of green onion. It’s all served with a Chinese take-out container of fried wonton chips for dipping. The Nashville hot chicken bao buns here come in a close second on the addictiveness scale, but consider the crab starter your next guilty habit. Seriously — just try to stop eating it.

    7900 Westpark Dr., McLean; 703-910-3096

  • Credit: Ivy City Smokehouse/Facebook

    Smokehouse fish board at The Tavern at Ivy City Smokehouse
    What do you do when you can’t choose between the “salmon candy,” the cold-smoked salmon, the hot-smoked pepper salmon, the smoked rainbow trout or the smoked whitefish salad? You order all of them, obviously. And if you’ve never been to this Ivy City fish mecca, the platter — meant to feed two to four — should be the very first thing you order. It comes with two toasted bagels and other accoutrements like cucumbers, capers and chive cream cheese, along with that glorious smoked fish sourced from sister enterprise ProFish across the street.

    1356 Okie St. NE; 202-529-3300

  • Credit: Rina Rapuano

    Crispy suckling pig at District Distilling Co.
    Chef Justin Bittner considers this his signature dish — and rightly so. The sauce gains depth of flavor from Hatch red chiles, the beloved peppers from New Mexico that boast a serious cult following, and tastes even better when scooped up with a forkful of Carolina gold rice and kidney beans. But let’s face it, the star of this plate is the pig, and the star of this pig is its gorgeously crispy skin. For pork enthusiasts, it’s the meaty equivalent of that crackly cap on top of a crème brûlée.

    1414 U St. NW; 202-629-3787

  • Credit: Greg Powers

    Tortelloni at  Sfoglina
    This latest restaurant from Washington power-couple Fabio and Maria Trabocchi focuses on pasta, so you really can’t go wrong with whatever shape or sauce strikes your fancy. But keep in mind that the menu changes frequently, and you’ll need to approach a meal here with a certain amount of flexibility. For instance, the richly sauced beef-stuffed pasta that impressed us the first time hasn’t been on the menu since, but the squash tortelloni flavored with chestnuts, barilotto cheese and sage currently on the menu sounds equally enticing. Other standouts are the rigatoni amatriciana and the seafood mafalde.

    4455 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-450-1312

  • Credit: Farrah Skeiky

    Karaage at  Himitsu
    ​Since chef Kevin Tien grew up in Louisiana, where he got his first job as a sushi chef in his early teens, it makes total sense that both Southern and Japanese techniques mingle in his cooking. This is especially true with his buttermilk-brined fried chicken dredged like Japanese-style karaage and served with Korean gochujang glaze, house pickles and Kewpie mayo. This is the dish everyone is talking about right now, but you’ve got to be strategic if you want to try it since this place doesn’t take reservations. Try popping in after the dinner rush, around 8:30 PM on a weekday. If there’s a wait for a table, head across the street to Petworth Citizen or Hank’s Cocktail Bar for a drink or two.

    828 Upshur St. NW; no phone

  • Credit: Farrah Skeiky

    Spicy chicken ramen at Bantam King
    Housed in a former Burger King, this noodle shop from the folks behind  Daikaya is dedicated to two types of chicken ramen: the delicate, clear-broth chintan and the murky, flavor-packed paitan. And while we fell in love with both at first taste, it’s the spicy paitan ramen that we crave. Chef Katsuya Fukushima balances the spiciness (from the chile kick of togarashi) with the flavors of the broth without masking them.

    501 G St. NW; 202-733-2612

  • Credit: Brandon Weight

    Grandma’s zucchini bread at Hazel
    Like most dishes on Rob Rubba’s menu, this one’s personal. He spent summers with his grandmother, who was known for this bread, and he uses her exact recipe — going so far as to install a conventional oven in addition to a convection oven to bake it exactly the way she did. But Rubba wasn’t exactly going to use Country Crock in his restaurant, so he came up with a way to dress up this family favorite. He serves it with a jar of foie gras blended with eggs and butter and baked like a flan, then topped with chamomile gelée, bee pollen and a few marigold flowers.

    808 V St. NW; 202-847-4980

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    Oyster pan roast at Sweet Home Café
    Every dish at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture cafe tells a story, and this one honors a tavern owned by New York oysterman Thomas Downing, whose establishment reportedly doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Shucked oysters are sautéed in butter till plump, then removed; shallot, white wine, oyster liquor, cocktail sauce, cream, cayenne and Worcestershire sauce are then added to the pan. There’s plenty of adding and reducing to build layers of flavor before the oysters are returned to the elixir with slices of toasted baguette.

    1400 Constitution Ave. NW; 202-633-4751

  • Credit: Bryan Wynkoop

    Stacked at Smoked & Stacked
    While creative types can design their own sandwich here, first-timers should focus on anything with the house-brined pastrami. For breakfast, that means The New Yorker, a stack of pastrami, fried egg, Comté cheese and hot pepper jelly. At lunch, it's the aptly named Stacked — layers of meat, creamy slaw and Dijon mustard on a super-soft roll, made in house. Also highly recommended: The Messy, which is loaded with sauerkraut, Comté and Thousand Island on rye.

    1239 Ninth St. NW; 202-465-4822

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    Deep-fried tofu at Kyirisan
    ​The first thing you’ll fall for with this dish is the perfect crispness that surrounds each cube of tofu. Chef-owner Tim Ma achieves that by dipping the silken tofu in egg white and dredging it through a blend of cornstarch, white pepper and Sichuan peppercorn before frying. It’s plated with what he calls “a very specific oyster sauce” enhanced with black pepper, cilantro, garlic, tamari and sugar. This staple, which has been on the menu since day one, is garnished with pickled carrots and scallions.

    1924 8th St. NW; 202-525-2942

  • Credit: Elizabeth Parker

    Pork-litchi salad at Rose’s Luxury
    Chef-owner Aaron Silverman says his instantly famous salad of pork sausage, habanero and lychee started out as a peach and sausage dish. “But when peaches went out of season, we needed something sweet and floral,” he says, “so we thought lychees. Then it made sense to add coconut and lime.” The combo, which also includes garlic chips, peanuts, herbs and togarashi, should be given a good stir before you dig in. When blended, the lychees work perfectly to tame the heat of the habaneros, and the overall result is a magical melding of textures and flavors from more than 20 ingredients.

    717 8th St. SE; 202-608-5988

  • Credit: Scott Suchman

    Eggplant Parm at All-Purpose
    Familiar as it sounds, this Jersey-style layering of eggplant, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese is a standout. “It’s a deceivingly simple dish, kind of like the rigatoni at Red Hen,” says chef Michael Friedman. “There’s something in it that people connect to.” He roasts the eggplant with plenty of olive oil and chills it overnight before topping it with garlic-spiked California tomatoes, Parmesan, fresh mozzarella from Connecticut and fresh basil. It’s topped with a bit more olive oil and toasted breadcrumbs before hitting the oven.

    1250 9th St. NW; 202-849-6174

  • Credit: Amber Bretienberg

    Squash curry at Sally’s Middle Name
    This chill H Street favorite recently revamped its menu approach with the idea of keeping a core group of dishes on the menu for a whole season, rather than changing things day by day — and this warming dish is one we’re looking forward to revisiting many times. Butternut and kabocha squashes are seasoned and roasted, then added to a vegan green curry sauce packed with ginger, garlic, Thai chiles, peeled galangal and coconut milk. It’s served over jasmine rice that’s been roasted in canola oil, water and sugar, and garnished with fresh herbs.

    1320 H St. NE; 202-750-6529

  • Credit: Scott Suchman

    Lamb latkes at Convivial
    Yes, the fried chicken coq au vin here is amazing. But we find ourselves even more drawn to this addictive plate of circular latkes topped with celery root rémoulade and a petal of dry-cured lamb. To achieve a symmetrical shape, chef Cedric Maupillier goes through the ridiculously complex process of forcing the cooked potatoes into a sausage casing that’s later removed so it can be frozen, sliced and twice fried. “I wanted to do something that American people would be familiar with, but is still very French,” Maupillier says.

    801 O St. NW; 202-525-2870

  • Credit: Thip Khao/Facebook

    Naem khao at Thip Khao
    A meal at this celebrated Lao restaurant in Columbia Heights absolutely must start with an order of naem khao, found on the salad section of the menu. The crunchy, spicy dish is made by tossing crispy rice with coconut, lime, pork and peanuts, among other ingredients, all meant to be wrapped in cooling lettuce leaves. A version of it that's enhanced with pig ear and ginger appears on chef-owner Seng Luangrath’s “jungle menu,” which offers hotter preparations, plus ingredients that sometimes challenge Western palates (think tree-ant eggs).

    3462 14th St. NW; 202-387-5426

  • Credit: Rey Lopez

    Seafood risotto at Whaley’s
    This gorgeous seafood restaurant in Navy Yard offers many wonderful dishes, but we love this shareable seafood risotto that channels both Thailand and France, and is flavored with vadouvan (French curry spices), coconut milk and Thai basil. The stock used to cook the rice is enriched with lobster shells, shrimp heads and fish bones, and the dish is topped with shellfish and black bass, then garnished with pickled Fresno chiles.

    301 Water St. SE; 202-484-8800

  • Credit: Laura Hayes

    Kitfo at Ethiopic
    This Atlas District kitchen is currently at the head of the pack among DC's many Ethiopian options, and this beef tartare with herbed butter sauce and spices is a daring way to dive into the cuisine. (You can order it cooked if you're squeamish about raw meat.) The chopped prime beef is served with cottage cheese and greens.

    401 H St. NE; 202-675-2066

  • Credit: Rina Rapuano

    Taramasalata at  Kapnos
    If you’re not starting your meal with this creamy dip of whipped carp roe and cauliflower, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a reason it continues to be one of the best-selling items on the menu at all three Kapnos outfits — including  Kouzina in Bethesda and  Taverna in Ballston. The grilled flatbread that comes with it serves as the ideal vehicle for this perfectly balanced spread. And while we often order it as part of a trio, it always far outshines its counterparts.

    2201 14th St. NW; 202-234-5000

  • Credit: Farrah Skeiky

    Ukoy at Bad Saint
    Once you taste this addictive sweet potato and shrimp fritter, chances are you’ll be craving it until your next visit (which might be awhile, since diners now have to line up at 3:30PM for a chance at a table). One order produces two impossibly large nests of shredded sweet potato and carrot that hold head-on freshwater shrimp and cilantro. The finger food is served with a wonderful dipping sauce called sukang sili that’s made with cane vinegar, garlic and Thai chiles.

    3226 11th St. NW

  • Credit: Duke's Grocery/Facebook

    Proper burger at Duke’s Grocery
    This decadent burger — dubbed the brunchie burger on weekends — starts with two Angus beef patties and ends with a buttery brioche bun. It's also gilded with two slices of Gouda, house dills, charred red onion, Thai sweet chile sauce, arugula and garlic aïoli. That's already pretty over the top, but you can also add items such as a runny egg, pâté, smashed avocado or white truffle oil. Be warned that there are no French fries, and diners have only two choices of doneness: medium rare or well. The burger is also available at Duke’s Counter in Woodley Park, which does serve it with fries.

    1513 17th St. NW; 202-733-5623

  • Credit: Barbara L. Salisbury

    Palak chaat at Rasika
    This bowl of crispy spinach topped with sweet yogurt, tamarind and date chutney has been the signature dish of DC's favorite Indian restaurant since it opened in late 2005. One bite and it becomes crystal clear why chef Vikram Sunderam won a James Beard award — plus, you’ll wonder why everyone else isn’t frying spinach. The popular dish is also available at Rasika West End.

    633 D St. NW; 202-637-1222

  • Credit: The Source

    Whole roasted duckling at The Source
    As part of last year's menu overhaul, chef Scott Drewno added a whole roasted duckling for two to the dinner menu — an option that brings to the table sliced duck breast with steamed buns and accompaniments, including garlic hoisin, plum-lacquered huckleberries and a chile–black bean sauce. A bowl of duck bone broth bobbing with duck wontons and water spinach also arrives with your order.   

    575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-637-6100

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    Babka ice cream sandwich at On Rye
    Chocolate babka — a Jewish yeast cake filled with ribbons of chocolate — is already pretty irresistible. But when you slice it, fill it with vanilla Dolci Gelati and freeze it into an ice cream sandwich, that takes it to the next level. The frozen treat was the hot-ticket item when On Rye popped up at Nationals Park this summer, and we’re guessing it’ll be just as popular at its new permanent home in Chinatown. (Even better is the current seasonal version, featuring cinnamon babka and pumpkin gelato.)

    740 6th St. NW; 202-796-5100

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    Shrimp and grits at Oval Room
    Chef John Melfi says he has worked to perfect his shrimp and grits for much of his 19-year career, and the proof is in the pudding. His most recent version starts with cooking stone-ground grits in coconut milk, butter and heavy cream, finishing with pecorino. The heavenly grits are topped with escarole hearts, charred onions, roasted garlic, preserved lemon, chile flakes and fresh herbs, while the grilled head-on shrimp is glazed with a shellfish reduction enriched with West Coast uni.

    800 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-463-8700

  • Credit: Rappahannock Oyster Bar

    Rappahannock River oysters at Rappahannock Oyster Bar
    This is the place to sample the harvest of Rappahannock River Oyster Co., which not only supplies many local restaurants with fresh Virginia oysters, but also can be credited with bringing about a mid-Atlantic oyster revival. Start with the variety that kicked it all off for the Croxton cousins: their signature Rappahannock River oysters, raised near the mouth of the namesake river. These bivalves soak in the fresh water of the Blue Ridge Mountains before hitting the table.

    1309 5th St. NE; 202-544-4702

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    Tomato or beet burger at Beefsteak
    A vegan tomato burger from Beefsteak — José Andrés’ fast-casual ode to veggies — seems way too healthy to properly satisfy. But this tomato burger, sandwiched between a gloriously soft and rich olive oil brioche bun that's slathered with vegan mayo (made with olive oil, capers and herbs), feels indulgent without any of the meat. Pickled red onions and sprouts add to the flavor explosion. In colder months, the tomato is replaced by a giant piece of beet for an equally winning combo.

    Multiple locations

  • Credit: Le Diplomate

    Grand plateau at Le Diplomate
    It’s tough to choose a favorite dish at this ultra-popular 14th Street spot — the burger, the foie gras parfait, the pastry basket at brunch, the mussels and the beef bourguignon are all pretty amazing. But we love the baller feel of ordering the grand plateau — three tiers of oysters, littleneck clams, mussels, scallops, a 1.25-pound lobster, uni, snow crab, king crab, razor clams, whelks, peeled shrimp, head-on shrimp and dressed crab, plus traditional sauces. It’s meant to feed four to six people, but there’s also a single-tiered petit plateau that serves one to three diners.

    1601 14th St. NW; 202-332-3333

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    Butterscotch flakie at Buttercream Bakeshop
    When Tiffany MacIsaac opened her Shaw bakery this spring, the world was introduced to one of her signature pastries — something she calls “flakies.” To make them, she rolls croissant dough in sugar and bakes them in muffin tins before filling them with light-as-air mousses in seasonal flavors. She recently replaced the inaugural passion fruit filling (pictured here) with a butterscotch cream that will knock your socks off. Wash it down with a mint mocha iced coffee, which was inspired by her favorite drink at Wawa.

    1250 9th St. NW; 202-735-0102

  • Credit: Rina Rapuano

    Bamboo flounder at Peter Chang
    Spice fiends flock to these suburban Chinese spots for chef-owner Peter Chang’s famous touch with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. That magic is fully evident in this alluring starter, a pile of marinated and crispy-fried golden flounder nuggets. Warmth is delivered via chile oil, dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, which also provide a pleasant tingling on the tongue. It’s plated in a cornucopia-like bamboo vessel along with cilantro leaves, fresh bamboo shoots and dried chiles.

    2503 N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-538-6688; 20A Maryland Ave., Rockville, 301-838-9188

  • Credit: Rina Rapuano

    Khachapuri at Compass Rose
    This restaurant just off 14th Street NW might only be a couple of years old, but its khachapuri was an instant hit and feels like it’s been a part of the DC dining landscape forever. The tasty bread boat filled with a mélange of cheese, butter and egg is like a dream team for comfort food. If this traditional Georgian flatbread doesn't help you come to terms with the possibility of another polar vortex, nothing will.

    1346 T St. NW; 202-506-4765

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