|A pork bao from People's Bao|
I'll start with the "open up" part by giving you my personal list of the 20 best foods in and around DC. I know lists are more popular at the end of the year, but this is not a closure, it's a beginning. End-of-the-year lists are judgmental, whereas start-of-the-year lists are optimistic, and generous.
For what concerns the "learn" part, I hope you readers will want to share your most beloved foods with me. I don't go out as often as I would want, but give me an edible target, and I'll jump on it on my next outing, whenever that might be.
But let's move on the list. I based my picks solely on personal preference and not on any high-cuisine standards. Some foods come from fancy restaurants, but there's comfort food from stands and cozy neighborhood spots, too. Every dish hits a different spot for me, whether I'm out for dinner with Mr Bee or desperate to pull some happiness out of my cranky kids on rainy weekend mornings. There is a lot of meat, I'm afraid, mostly because I'm basically a home vegetarian and a partying carnivore, but I promise I'll expand my horizons in the future. Foods are listed alphabetically, and you really shouldn't ask me to choose a favorite: They're all like my children to me.
DEAD CHEF'S BEST OF FOOD
1. BARA CHIRASHI SET @ SUSHI TARO
I've been to Sushi Taro for four amazing dinners since its transformation into a high-end restaurant, but lunch is still my very personal treat, one I try to enjoy when I can extricate myself from parental responsibilities. Chirashi—a box of rice topped with all kinds of raw fish—is my go-to choice. A bountiful explosion of quality, bathed in natural light, that makes me as happy as a little girl in a Rainbow Brite theme park.
2. BUTTERMILK BISCUIT @ REPUBLIC
I'm done with brunch. And not only because we are all kind of done with brunch, but also because brunch for me is mostly an imposition from my visiting parents who think my kids are ready for a sit-down meal at a proper restaurant. Of course, at 11am the kids are not hungry yet, so Mr Bee and I just spend the time sequestering knives and salt shakers from them, cleaning up spills on and under the table, blowing dust off tater tots that had fallen to the ground and that our kids deem still absolutely edible, and eating a medically worrisome amount of scrambled eggs (leftover and not). The only exception to this horror is brunch at Republic, because somehow the decor captivates my children enough to keep them calm, and because their fresh buttermilk biscuits are deliciously salty and flakey, and such a far cry from standard, lazy brunch fare that I can pretend—in my butter haze—that my kids are amazingly well-behaved, and that I am indeed a great mother. Scrambled eggs are soft and cheesy, too, so this brunch becomes definitely worth the effort.
3. BLACK BEAN NOODLES AND GARLIC CHICKEN WINGS @ DA RAE WON
I was introduced to this gem of a Korean-Chinese restaurant by a couple of dear gourmand friends a couple of years ago, and it's still a beloved destination for my family. The noodles are pulled to order (you can watch the chef at work as soon as your waiter communicates your order) and are served with a glistening black bean sauce that everybody of every age I know adores. The garlic chicken wings plate consists in a massive pyramid of crispy chicken wings topped with garlic and sticky sweet sauce. I'm pretty sure Mr Bee would happily live on those for the rest of his life.
4. CALZONE VERDE @ MENOMALE
Almost 6 years ago, I knew right away I was having a boy when I suddenly started ordering calzones left and right. Without that instinctive ordering choice, I would have never enjoyed this masterpiece. This is by far the best calzone I've had, served by the most authentic Neapolitan pizzeria in town. Ham, mushroom, mozzarella, and pesto make for a very delicious filling, and I'll stab you with my Pizza scissors if you try to steal the soft calzone corners from me.
5. COMET HOT WINGS @ COMET PING PONG
Forest HillsI'm not the biggest wings fan, but these deserve a standing ovation. These dark and spicy and vinegary chicken wings are fall-off-the bone delicious and served with a thin horseradish sauce that stares down with due contempt at all other wing sauces you might have encountered before. Let me just say it: Wings at Comet are so delicious, they almost taste like pork.
6. CROISSANT @ LE CAPRICE
It was mystifying to me to come to the United States and see that most croissants look like worn-out slippers. Really, though, why are they so pale, deflated, and depressing? And the flavor? Sometimes they taste like burger buns laced with margarine. Le Caprice does a pretty good job of delivering fresh croissants that are buttery and crumbly and shapely, and it's a pleasure to have one while sitting in their sun-filled room, possibly in the company of a very happy toddler whom you're initiating to the joys of French patisserie. Other pastries at Le Caprice are also good, and I'm personally partial to the Pain aux Raisins, but I'd ask if they are freshly baked before you order (if you catch my drift).
7. DUCK BAO @ PEOPLE'S BAO
This is a farmers' market stand that I originally found at Eastern Market, and what a find that was. I tried the pork bao, a pillowy soft steamed dumpling filled with a hefty portion of slow-cooked, ever-so-juicy pork. I was having one of those awful weekend mornings that parents know so well, and this beautiful bao immediately washed all my anger and depression away with its greasy esophageal caress. On a subsequent visit, I tried the duck version, and was in love.
Mt. Pleasant Farmers' Market
8. HAM SANDWICH IN ON ONION ROLL @ MGM ROAST BEEF
BrentwoodThere should be more places like this: Big delis with massive hunks of slow-roasted meats on the counter, hand-carved to order to deliver you a most satisfying sandwich. Roast beef, ham, turkey, and brisket rest gloriously on the counter, ready for your order. A neighborhood gem if you live in Brentwood, but worth a trip from elsewhere, too.
9. HANGER STEAK @ RAY'S THE STEAKS
I am still mourning the old location of Ray's the Steaks on Wilson Blvd, because it had the effortless and competent charm of modern Italian trattorias, but, as they say, whatever. Ray's does meat beautifully and affordably, and this tougher but super-flavorful cut is one of my favorites. Personally, I list the smell of charred hanger steak as one of my favorite perfumes. If you share my passion, do yourself a favor and try this one.
10. HONEY GOAT CHEESECAKE @ ROOM 11
Pastry Chef Lizzy Evelyn graced DC with this beloved cheesecake that, in my opinion, is a mile above any other cheesecake I've ever eaten here and elsewhere. Gone is the chalky heaviness of regular cheesecake (sorry, it's true), and in comes a new, sweet and tangy creaminess. It's one dessert you're allowed to close your eyes in delight with every bite, even though that makes it easier for your fellow diners to steal a spoonful.
11. HOUSE-MADE TOFU AND WILD MUSHROOM CURRY @ DOI MOI
It was hard to pick one dish from this Southeast Asian restaurant on 14th Street, because I love everything I've tried there, and believe me, I've tried a lot. I'm choosing this vegan curry because someone else ordered it but I stole half of it (at least). It was so much more flavorful than I'd thought, and a joyful reminder of how great wild mushrooms can actually taste. Doi Moi is one of those restaurants where you're already planning your next visit when you're halfway through your meal.
12. LAMB SANDWICH @ RED TOQUE CAFÈ
Staff at Red Toque might squirm a bit when you place your sandwich order because they're trying to promote their regular menu, but until they start making their sandwiches less delicious, it's going to be very hard for me to stray from this lamb marvel. This Indian/Middle Eastern restaurant serves a lamb sandwich made of chunky, juicy, and spicy meat pieces and fresh vegetables, all wrapped in a soft and buttery naan that I believe has been slathered in mayo. Yeah, mayo. It's a sandwich straight out my hungry subconscious.
13. YELLOWTAIL JAW @ IZAKAYA SEKI
U StI picked the yellowtail jaw because it's wonderful, but really, any other fish dish from this informal Japanese treasure would have done. Izakaya Seki reminds to us all that good fish is actually SWEET, and I'm forever thankful for that. I don't know why it is so hard to buy fresh fish in DC (recommendations?), and my first bite of fish at Izakaya Seki was basically a Proustian madeleine for someone like me who grew up on the Mediterranean Sea. But really, the whole menu is filled with happy surprises. Oh, and they serve one of my top-5 favorite foods: Ankimo, or monkfish liver. Just go.
14. PECAN WAFFLE @ CAPITAL CITY CHEESECAKE
Takoma ParkI stopped eating waffles because I learned they are, more often than not, just the dried-out cousins of my beloved pancakes. I'm happy I made an exception for this. The waffle is only slightly crispy on the outside but rich and creamy on the inside, and the pecans add that coffeeish kick that turns the plate into the perfect weekend breakfast. A side note: The rooms of CCC are covered in happy, inspirational quotes in curly font that are so very Takoma Park. Just FYI.
15. PERUVIAN CHICKEN @ EL POLLO RICO
ArlingtonI have the fondest memory of the rotisserie my family used to visit in my Italian hometown when I was a child. You could smell the chicken from around the block, and boy, was that intoxicating to me even then. I would stand there, properly mesmerized by the rows of chickens twirling in unison while engulfed by flames behind the counter, savoring in my mind my upcoming Sunday meal. The charchoal-broiled chicken from El Pollo Rico is a closed second to that (sorry, nothing beats childhood memories): tender, juicy, the skin crispy an heavily spiced. Don't miss out on the steak fries or the coleslaw.
16. PHO AND YOUNG COCONUT DRINK @ PHO 75
I love restaurants focused on one dish, especially if they make it great as in this Arlington spot. Barring the line outside, you're quickly served a very fragrant soup that I imagine comes from massive vats of beautiful meat broth simmering forever in the kitchen. When I'm in a good mood, I drink a young coconut and mourn my 27 years spent in Italy not knowing that coconut can be soft.
17. 14'' PIZZAS @ LA VILLA
More pizza! This is a delivery spot, though. I love this pizza joint because their dough is elastic and irresistible and the topping variety is so much better than most of their competitors. The extra-large pizzas are great, but I find that the 14'' ones have the perfect ratio of cheese to dough. My favorite toppings are portabella mushroom and ricotta, but there are some great others to choose from (caramelized onions, roasted eggplants, etc.).
14th Street Heights
18. SHRIMP FRITTERS AND BALISONG @ BAD SAINT
There's nothing I didn't like from the long list of items ordered during my dinner at Filipino restaurant sensation Bad Saint. But, when I fantasize about ordering a dinner to-go to avoid the long line (can it be done?), I'd ask for someone to throw me a Ukoy, a gigantic fried nest of sweet potatoes and leeks with shrimps trapped inside. It's food that is as beautiful as it is addictive. I'd wash it down with a Balisong, a version of a Manhattan with coconut liqueur that will make you sing. And since you're brave, order the pig tails, too. You won't regret it.
19. TUSCAN BREAKFAST @ HIGHLANDS
A sun-drenched neighborhood spot everybody loves. The food is great, but this Tuscan breakfast is amazing. It's composed of a portabella mushroom, eggs of your choice, and a cheesy little brick of yellow polenta that is to die for. And I'm Venetian, so I know polenta. The only caveat is that the polenta is much better when it's freshly made, so you might want to ask what the deal is before you order. Everything else I've been there looks great, especially the chicken and waffles, but I'm still bound to the polenta. It's a genetic call, I guess.
20. WOOD OVEN-ROASTED BONE MARROW @ BLUE DUCK TAVERN
West EndI went to BDT for the first time when MiniBee was 8 months, and that was the first time I had left the house at dark after his birth. The scintillating lights glowing through my champagne cocktail filled me with happiness, but still couldn't compete with the perfect simplicity of the bone marrow, easily one of my favorite things to eat in the world. I know you can find this elsewhere, but here the bones are chosen for the best amount of jiggly, cloudy marrow, and the salty condiment just exalts the soft butteriness of the dish. Pass the bread.
And if you want my take on pizza in DC, don't miss Dead Chef's Best Pizza in the DC Area.