Over the course of three-or-so months, the magazine’s team of four food writers visited roughly 200 restaurants in the region — ranging from Korean to Mexican to Yemeni — all to uncover the best places to dine on a budget of $25, which as Washingtonian executive food editor and restaurant critic Ann Limpert points out is “kind of a tall order these days.”
Some restaurants that made the final list of 98 are new to the food scene; others have been around for decades. Not sure where to start? Limpert breaks down the highlights.
Good Mexican and barbecue? Yes, it’s here
Washingtonian organizes its top picks by cuisine, and this year, readers can find two categories that were previously a bit tougher to fill out: Mexican and barbecue.
“Mexican is not a cuisine that the D.C. area has generally been known for, but it has really come a long way in the last few years,” Limpert said.
Topping the magazine’s best picks are El Sol and Mezcalero, which are two District-based spots, run by a brother-and-sister team from Mexico City.
“They’re doing the best tacos in the area, wonderful, huge torta sandwiches and really good margaritas too,” Limpert said.
The former farmers-market stand Chaia, now a brick-and-mortar shop in Georgetown, landed on the list of best Mexican joints, as did Victor Albisu’s Falls Church, Virginia, taqueria, Taco Bamba.
Barbecue fans no longer have to plan out weekend road trips in search of the best smoked meat. All that’s required to achieve brisket nirvana is a Metro ride.
“Barbecue is another one that used to require a half of a tank of gas and a couple hours of your day … but now, of the top five that we chose, three of them are in D.C., one is in Clarendon [Virginia] and one is in Frederick [Maryland],” Limpert said.
One of her favorites on this year’s list is Sloppy Mama’s, located at Union Market, which was started by a former teacher who changed careers after a successful pig roast.
“It’s not quite traditional, but one of my favorite things there is his fried chicken sandwich, which is smoked and then fried and served with house-made pickles and honey. It’s one of the best things I ate in this whole roundup,” Limpert said.
Thumbing through the Cheap Eats issue, readers will notice that some areas are overflowing with delicious dining options. For example, if you’re in the mood for Korean, Limpert says a trip to Annandale, Virginia, is a must. There, you’ll find a number of Korean barbecue houses, including Honey Pig and Kogiya.
Craving Thai food? Head to Wheaton, Maryland. Dying for dumplings? Rockville, Maryland, is a surefire spot for Chinese.
Eden Center in Falls Church has traditionally served as an outpost for the region’s best Vietnamese cuisine, but Limpert says recently, the strip mall has attracted some non-Vietnamese dining halls, including GOM Tang E (Korean) and Kao Sarn Thai — two restaurants on Washingtonian’s Cheap Eats list.
“If you really want to make a day of it and have a varied experience, head to Falls Church,” said Limpert, who adds that adventurous diners can choose from great Vietnamese, Mexican, Thai and Japanese restaurants.
Cuisines coming up
In all of their gastronomic research, Limpert and her colleagues noticed two cuisines on the rise in the D.C. area: Uyghur and Yemeni.
Limpert describes Uyghur as a blend of Chinese and Middle Eastern, combining ingredients such as hand-pulled noodles and lamb.
“One dish that they’re known for is ‘big plate chicken,’ which is chicken and potatoes that are seared and then added to this really rich, numbingly spicy brew of leeks, peppers and red chilies,” she said.
In the last couple of years, Limpert has also seen a handful of Yemeni restaurants open in the area.
She added, “Those are great for big, elaborate rice dishes and warming stews.”
Pro tips for dining at Cheap Eats restaurants
Ready to give some of these restaurants — and cuisines — a try? Limpert offers a few tips to make your Cheap Eats experience a great one.
Bring lots of people: “A lot of these restaurants serve things family style, which means really big plates, and if you make the mistake that I did sometimes, you’ll bring one other person and then — I call it the second table of shame — they’ll bring over another table just to accommodate all of the stuff you ordered and look at you very scoldingly,” Limpert said.
Communicate with your server: Especially if you’re trying a cuisine for the first time, make sure you talk to your server — and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
“What I usually ask them is not ‘what’s popular’ or ‘what’s good.’ I usually ask, ‘You’re here, what are you going to get?’”
Keep the issue in your car: Forget the coffee table. One of the best places to keep Washingtonian’s Cheap Eats issue is in your car. That way, if you catch yourself out in Springfield for an auto tuneup or in Rockville for a doctor’s appointment, you’ll be able to find some delicious and relatively inexpensive food nearby.