All words by Elsie Yang
The COVID-19 pandemic may have made a mockery of your international travel plans for the summer, but that doesn’t mean your taste buds can’t take a trip around the world. In an international city like Washington, D.C, where ambassadors and emissaries from countries across the globe gather (in pre-pandemic times, at least), there is no shortage of food that represents the many culinary delights from cultures the world over.
For a less time-consuming and resource-intensive tour of cuisines from international destinations, you don’t have to leave the city (or even your neighborhood). Here are some of our favorite restaurants dishing up specialties that will make you feel like you’re on vacation, even if only for the duration of your meal.
Malaysian food hasn’t gotten the same accolades as Thai, Vietnamese, or other southeast Asian cuisines, but Makan DC is here to prove that that’s a mistake. The relatively new restaurant is offering up Malaysian favorites like nasi ayam goreng, a mixed rice dish featuring fried chicken, salted duck yolk, curry leaf, and pickled chile; Penang street noodles with shrimp and Chinese sausage; and sago, a traditional tapioca-based dessert. Best of all, Makan is doing dinner to go so you can easily take out an excellent meal and transport yourself to Asia any day of the week.
If you’re even remotely interested in cheese, then Stable must be on your list of restaurants to visit, and visit immediately. Inspired by the traditional fare of Switzerland, Stable is doing everything right — mostly because its menu is dominated by cheese and bread. Fondue is prepared the traditional Swiss way, blending Schlossberger Old, Schlossberger Young, and Vacherin cheese, and then cooked with garlic and white wine. Beautiful cuts of venison are served with spaetzle, and yes, Toblerone makes it on the menu in the form of a mousse.
Sababa will give even downtown DC residents a reason to go uptown with its traditional take on classic Israeli fare. The restaurant offers a wide range of creative, homemade delicacies, including their own sodas (try the lavender-borage). Mediterranean Sea Bass is served whole and roasted in grape leaf, whereas familiar favorites like falafel are given their unique twist with the addition of honey nut squash, served with mulled apple cider tahina, sage, and onion salad.
One of the best meals I’ve had in DC was undoubtedly at Lapis, an absolute gem of a restaurant tucked away in Adams Morgan. Particularly prime during the pandemic is the restaurant’s beautiful patio area, which wraps around the establishment and is perfect for a meal with friends or a solo dinner with a book. Drawing influences from both the western and the eastern regions of the country, Lapis offers familiar Afghani favorites that their waitstaff and chefs grew up eating. You must try the bolani, a stuffed flatbread with fillings like leek and cilantro (my favorite) or pumpkin. The shrimp dumplings are to die for (with a skin that is surprisingly similar to that of Chinese dumplings), and the lamb qorma is flavor to the max.
Head to Cuba Libre for a trip to the northern Caribbean, where both the food and the ambience pays distinct homage to the island nation. The restaurant offers a fabulous early (4 to 6pm) and late (after 9pm) happy hour with classic Cuban cocktails like a mojito, caipirinha, and cuba libre, all for $6. Their empanadas are delicious pockets of fried dough, and the tostones — twice-fried plantains — are paired with a fabulous dijon-mojo. The pineapple guacamole cubano is spicy and served with plantain chips, and sure to delight the senses.
You could also check out Colada Shop with two locations — one in Shaw and one in the Southwest Waterfront — for a more fast casual version of Cuban cuisine. Don’t miss Chef Mario’s take on the famous cuban sandwich, which also comes in a vegetarian variety.
While you may not have bought a plane ticket to Burma, you could easily make the trip to Thamee, serving up authentic and delicious Burmese cuisine on H Street. It’s a lesser known style of cooking, but get familiar, and you won’t be able to get enough. Their Khauk Swe, or noodles, are not to be missed — in particular, try the Nan Gyi Thoke with Tofu, a cold noodle salad with the restaurant’s freshly made wheat noodles.
Newly reopened Doi Moi takes its cues from a brand new team, including a brand new executive chef, Wade Hoo Fatt. The sauce master offers small (and large) plates inspired by the street markets of Vietnam, and the kitchen makes many of its own sauces (including several different kinds of fish sauce that are critical to Vietnamese cuisine). Folks craving authentic Vietnamese cuisine will delight in the whole fried fish, as well as the Bún Chả or grilled pork, which comes with chilled rice noodles, fresh herbs and lettuce, as well as a beautiful sweet and sour broth served in a teapot for your own pouring pleasure.
While there’s no shortage of great fine-dining Indian food in DC, like that from Rasika or the Bombay Club, sometimes you want something a bit more homey. For that, I’m partial to family-run establishments like Indigo, or fast casual spots like Rasa. Indigo’s large array of vegetarian dishes would turn any carnivore into a plant eater, whereas Rasa’s fast casual offerings are perhaps less authentic, but customizable and accessible in a pinch.
You cannot claim to have had Thai food in DC without having experienced Little Serow. Currently open for takeout only, the restaurant has won many an accolade across its years of existence, and is still delighting the sense with its family style to-go menu (as well as a la carte items). Don’t miss the steamed pork buns or the dry catfish curry, a specialty of the southern portion of the country.
For fantastic Korean food that will expand your palette, head over to Mandu, which serves a lot more than the Korean dumplings after which the restaurant is named. The team is serving up authentic dishes, some of which are less familiar than others — while most lovers of the cuisine will have had the seafood tofu soup known as soon doobu, it is likely that fewer have tried gaji bokum, which is a delightful mix of eggplant, pork belly, and rice cakes. Also worth noting is the jorim, a spiced snapper dish made all the more flavorful with the addition of kimchi. Don’t skimp on the restaurant’s small plates either, and be prepared for a surprisingly delicious Korean donut for dessert.
There’s plenty of fabulous Mexican food in DC. From the incredible elote at El Chucho to the fantastic tacos at Espita to the cheap yet delicious Santa Rosa Taqueria, the options are endless. But one of the most perennially popular is no doubt Oyamel, which has earned itself Michelin Bib Gourmand status. While neither Chef Omar Rodriguez nor Chef Jose Andres are from Mexico (rather from Peru and Spain, respectively), they’re still bringing interesting flavors to traditional Mexican classics, like enchiladas, tamales, and yes, tacos.
You can go one of two diametrically opposed directions when it comes to Japanese food in DC. There are the enormously expensive yet undeniably elegant sushi mainstays like Sushi Taro, and then there are places like Perry’s, where you can get solid sushi without breaking the bank. For those looking for non-raw Japanese food, you could always head over to Toki Underground, which has also received Michelin accolades for its ramen and steamed buns. Though Toki Underground certainly has Taiwanese influences, the core menu is still heavily Japanese.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find Filipino fare at the Wharf, but the team at Kaliwa is dishing out delicious pan-Asian food that is most heavily inspired by the island nation. Be sure to try anything with the word “adobo” in it, and do not miss out on the lumpia. One of the chef’s newest creations (his own recipe) is a spin on a classic Filipino dish called tocino — Kaliwa’s version is a bit less fatty and a bit more refined thanks to the use of grilled pork shoulder and a quail egg.
If you’re looking for a Michelin-starred Italian experience, be sure to head over to Masseria, which draws inspiration from head chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s roots in the Puglia region. Michelin inspectors rave about the restaurant’s focaccia and spicy fish stew, and the more strongly-flavored goat ragu. Or, you could head over to Fiola, one of Fabio and Maria Trabocchi’s many restaurants in the DC area. While Fiola doesn’t boast the waterfront location of Fiola Mare or Del Mar, its prime location between the White House and Capitol has brought plenty of discerning diners over the years with its daily changing menu.
Of course, if you’re not looking to spend an arm and a leg on Italian food, you could head to the more modest Grazie Grazie, a fabulous sandwich shop on the wharf with reasonably priced sandwiches that are Italian through and through, both in their inspiration and their name. Try the Minelli, loaded with Italian meats like hot capicola, peppered ham, and prosciutto, as well as a spicy aioli, pecorino, and a healthy mess of fresh herbs and vegetables.
Supra and its sibling restaurant Tabla are standouts in the Georgian food scene, which is admittedly lacking in DC. But just because there isn’t much competition doesn’t mean that these restaurants don’t know what they’re doing. Whether you’re looking for brunch or dinner, you can experience Georgian cuisine that is complete with lots of bread and cheese (via the famous khachapuri, which should not be missed at either restaurant), and lots of Georgian wine (don’t miss out on the fantastic selection of amber vino the restaurants offer).
Definitely try the soup dumplings, and if you’re lucky enough to be there for brunch, the duck dirty rice, served with two fried eggs that provide a perfect, yolky sauce to start your day.
A long-time favorite of DC residents and tourists alike is Zaytinya, the Mediterranean outpost of Chef Jose Andres’ empire. Under the direction of Chef Michael Costa, Zaytinya is an exploration of the Greek isles through a series of evocative mezze. While the standard dips and spreads are available (and delightful, particularly the baba ghannouge), it’s the seafood mezze that really stands out. Don’t miss the octopus or, for the more daring, the Greek caviar.
DC is known for its Ethiopian cuisine, but a couple restaurants have continued to float to the top over the years. Zenebech, which has been in operation since 1993 and traces its roots to a humble injera bakery, is a can’t miss — I’m particularly fond of the fish dulet, and just about any of the vegetarian dishes. Ethiopic has a slightly larger menu, and is just as drool-worthy. Get the signature tibs, a boneless leg of lamb with Ethiopian spices and served extremely hot with injera.
Too often, Laotian cuisine is folded in with Thai, Vietnamese, or other southeast Asian cooking. But Thip Khao is here to prove that this is a style of cooking that deserves to stand alone. Possibly my favorite restaurant in DC, Thip Khao offers moderately priced, authentic home cooking that packs a powerful punch in terms of flavor (particularly for those unafraid of spice). The restaurant is currently working off an abbreviated menu as a result of the pandemic, but favorites like Tam Muk Houng (a papaya salad) and tofu and mushroom moak, steamed inside banana leaves, remain as delicious as ever.
Take a trip to South America at El Chalan, an authentic Peruvian restaurant dishing up local favorites for years. While you may not associate Peru with paella, the restaurant’s arroz con mariscos (literally, rice with seafood), may just change your mind. Of course, the restaurant’s lomo saltado is also a must-try.
For paella from Spain (or something close to it), head over to longstanding hotspot, Estadio, which recently opened up a larger streetery to accommodate pandemic times. The restaurant offers a wide range of tapas sure to please even the most finicky palette. Also worth a stop is Taberna, a Spanish restaurant whose first location was actually in Madrid. Now available in DC, Chef Carlos Gómez Segovia is dishing out beautiful, fresh gazpacho, delightful slices of Iberico ham, and yes, paella. Of course, the city’s oldest Spanish restaurant, Jaleo, is also one of its best. If you can’t decide what you want to eat, leave it to the tasting menu deities to decide for you.
It’s not every day that you come across Trinidadian food, but chef and owner Peter Prime is looking to change that at Cane. Try the doubles, a Trinidadian take on tacos that uses frybread instead of tortillas, and curried chickpeas instead of more familiar taco fillings. You won’t want to leave without trying the jerk wings.
If you’re looking to more broadly explore Caribbean cuisine, head over to Bammy’s at the Navy Yard, whose proximity to the water may just make you feel like you’re on a beach vacation already. The team offers a small but delicious menu, with fantastic curries (try the goat), jerk chicken, whole fish, and conch fritters. Definitely spend the dollar it costs for extra condiments, too.
The expansive geography of China also means a wide range of cooking techniques and flavors, which makes the broad umbrella term of “Chinese food” somewhat of a nonstarter. That said, if you’re looking for spicy mala flavors, head over to Great Wall Szechuan House; for dumplings, check out A&J with locations across the DMV; and for some of the only dim sum in the district itself, try Da Hong Pao.