You walk down a flight of stairs into a small restaurant that you’d never been. You’re a little nervous and skeptical. But by the time you’ve finished eating, you’ve become an evangelist of this otherwise unknown restaurant with the best…whatever.
I love fine dining as much as the next guy. But I will always prefer small, authentic establishments, food trucks, cart vendors and hole-in-walls, especially if it’s a place I’ve never tried.
The DC food scene, in the last several years, have really begun to embrace the multitude of cultures that the area offers. We have the highest populations of Ethiopians, Vietnamese and Peruvians outside of their countries, as well as a high concentration of other nationalities, and it shows. Not to mention, of course, the deep roots of African-American culture that we already had.
Ask 10 people where you should get soul food, and most of them will say Oohh’s and Aahh’s. If you want the best tacos and tortas, Taqueria Distrito Federal will dominate the conversation. The best Thai food can be found at Thai X-ing and it is served in a rowhouse on Florida Avenue, and there’s a week-long wait list for reservations.
What do these places have in common? They all started as and still are holes in walls, but now they’re all serious epicurean juggernauts in the DC food scene. Here are five of my favorites that deserve the same hushed exaltation.
1. El Charrito Caminante
Lyon Park, Arlington
When I discovered El Charrito, I wept in joy. Their tacos with lenguas are absolutely amazing. Beyond comprehension. Started as a food cart years ago, it is a now a countertop dining joint tucked between a 7-11 and a Z-Pizza in one of the lesser frequented neighborhoods of Arlington. Don’t worry, it’s Metro-accessible (about ¾ of a mile from Clarendon), so I make a pilgrimage to this place every chance I get.
2. Fast Gourmet
U Street Corridor
How do I put this gently? This place is literally in a gas station. And it has the best steak sandwich I’ve had in the city. No, wait, it’s got the best Cuban sandwich I’ve had in the city. Actually, the fish sandwich is pretty damn good, too. What the hell, just go. You won’t regret it. It’s open late, too, so you should seriously consider going to this place after partying in U Street, instead of standing in line at a jumbo slice.
3. Adam Express
Adam Express is pretty much the only place in DC where you can get good Korean food made by actual Koreans. The menu is fairly small, but it has all the usual suspects, bulgogi, kimchi, and bibim bap. Don’t expect table-side soju service. Just get your food and start eating.
4. Full Kee
Full Kee has been a part of our Chinatown for decades. But even today, most non-Asian people don’t know about nor would even think to walk into the place. They were doing delicious Cantonese style noodles long before the DC Asian noodle revolution. It’s a cash-only restaurant that get packed every Saturday night. Their noodle menu is simple. The full dinner menu goes beyond the bastardized Chinese dishes that we’ve all grown so accustomed to.
5. El Rinconcito II
Most people, including me, still have trouble distinguishing between Mexican, Salvadorean and/or Peruvian sometimes. All you need to know for now is El Rinconcito II in CoHi is Salvadorean and that they have really friggin’ good food. I love their chicharrones fritos. Grab a couple of friends and have a couple of beers while you eat.
Next time you’re trying to figure out where to eat, I highly recommend all of these places. If you were already a fan of any of these places, I’d like to apologize for outing them, but the word had to spread. And, of course, there are many other holes in walls that I didn’t mention and/or still have yet to try. Tell us your favorites in the comments below. Cheers and happy dining.
- Eric Wang