Best restaurants in D.C.: Tom Sietsema’s 8 favorite places to eat right now

Will Kreznick

A&J Restaurant The flavors of Northeast China are on parade at these same-named dim sum outposts in Rockville and Annandale, where, despite the pandemic, customers are treated to an improbable selection of nearly 70 dishes. The tip of the iceberg finds chicken smoked over tea leaves, cigar-length pork pot stickers, […]

A&J Restaurant

The flavors of Northeast China are on parade at these same-named dim sum outposts in Rockville and Annandale, where, despite the pandemic, customers are treated to an improbable selection of nearly 70 dishes. The tip of the iceberg finds chicken smoked over tea leaves, cigar-length pork pot stickers, crisp cabbage ignited with Sichuan peppercorns, and nugget-size steamed spareribs, coated in soft rice crumbs seasoned with five-spice powder.

A&J has its roots in Taiwan, where co-owner Elaine Tang’s uncle launched the brand, known there as Half Acre Garden, some 40 years ago. In 1986, Tang’s brother introduced A&J to Los Angeles; Tang and her husband, Jay, followed up with dining rooms in Rockville and Annandale in 1996 and 2000, respectively.

Reliability is a hallmark of the Washington-area restaurants, where the shredded pork and mustard green soup is as delicious and restorative as I remember it back when Facebook was in its infancy, and the shaved dry bean curd, pungent with cilantro and crunchy with peanuts, remains a prized snack. Soups, including a subtle beef broth, come with a choice of thin or wide noodles; the latter, made with the wheat common in northern China, are rolled out in-house.

Even though the small dining rooms are offering only takeout for now, the servers handing over bags of food manage to personalize the experience. “Hot sauce? Chopsticks?” a server at the Rockville branch asked me at the door. Mindful of the recent Chinese holiday, she added, “Happy New Year!”

A&J offers its menus in Chinese and English. Fear not, say the Tangs. The lists are the same, except for the fuller descriptions on the English version. Equally enticing are the prices: Only one of A&J’s many dishes costs more than $10.

1319 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301-251-7878. 4316 Markham St., Annandale. 703-813-8181. aandjrestaurant.com. Open for takeout/delivery only. Delivery in Maryland via Chowbus and Uber Eats; delivery in Virginia via Hungry Panda and Uber Eats. Small plates $1.40 to $10.05.

Aracosia

One of the best antidotes to Arctic temperatures is lentil soup from one of the best Afghan restaurants in the area (the other standard bearers being Aracosia’s siblings in Springfield and Washington).

The strapping bowl from the dashing McLean retreat brims not just with the expected beans but with minced beef, dried dill and streaks of yogurt. Two of us shared the lot as an appetizer for $10 and stopped only because the soup had competition (spinach-stuffed fried turnovers: lovely) and we needed room to accommodate our main courses, including a truly special special of lamb and okra in a tomato stew kicky with garam masala. 

Outside, on a semi-enclosed walkway strung with lights, warmed with heaters and as tasteful as indoors, is a great place to feast on minty leek-and-scallion dumplings and chicken combined with fistfuls of greens and punched up with cilantro.

Expect a serious wine list, an herb-packed hamburger, pistachio cake for dessert and cosseting service. Depending on what you order, a meal might start with a gratis taste of that lentil soup or finish with a free cup of tea, something that “exudes Afghan hospitality,” says owner Omar Masroor. Aracosia feels like the family business it is.

1381 Beverly Rd., McLean, Va. 703-269-3820. aracosiamclean.com. Open for takeout/delivery/indoor and patio dining. Delivery via Caviar, DoorDash, Grubhub and UberEats. Entrees, $14.50 to $42.

Bistrot Lepic

“People come for the taste,” the chef at this long-running French bistro in upper Georgetown likes to say. Massala Jean-Baptiste explains that consistency is what his customers seem to appreciate most.

It’s been too long between visits for this fan, but I taste his point. Bistrot Lepic’s glistening salmon tartare still excites with capers, lemon, shallots and fresh dill, and the veal cheeks, sauced with a reduction of veal stock and red wine, are soft as ever, shored up with shell-shaped pasta draped with a Parmesan cream sauce lightened with basil. The restaurant still offers a bread basket, a rare sight during the pandemic. A bit of baguette makes a nice mop for the kitchen’s sauces.

A native of Gabon in central Africa, Jean-Baptiste has worked for an impressive array of chefs, most recently Bruno Fortin, his predecessor here, and earlier, the esteemed Gerard Pangaud and Bernard Grenier of Gerard’s Place in the District and La Miche in Bethesda, respectively. Jean-Baptiste has been at Lepic since 2002 — plenty of time to master the nuances of the extensive menu, including chicken marinated overnight in a housemade curry paste, carpeted with tomatoes and displayed alongside fragrant basmati rice tossed with almonds and currants.

I miss the yellow glow of the main dining room, but outside beneath a tent, or at a cafe table hugging the facade, will have to do for now. As I was wrapping up my last meal, which concluded with a soft cloud of meringue above a pool of custard sauce — ask for floating island — Jean-Baptiste appeared at the door. The chef smiled at the sight of happy diners, and I thanked him as best I could right now, with two gloved thumbs up.

1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-0111. bistrotlepic.com. Open for takeout/delivery/indoor and outdoor dining. Delivery via DoorDash and UberEats. Entrees, $27 to $42.

Henry’s Soul Cafe

What started as a glorified 7-Eleven in 1968 quickly morphed into a source for soul food as founder Henry Smith added a grill, fryer, chicken dinners and sweet potato pie to his storefront business on U Street NW. These days, customers can still count on Smith’s high standards in every order of carryout.

“My father was a perfectionist,” says Jermaine Smith, who co-owns the operation with his sister, Henrietta Smith-Davis. For proof, taste the cafe’s fresh local chicken sprinkled with herbs and slow-baked to succulence, or catfish dusted with cornmeal and flour and fried to a beautiful shade of gold. Portioned as if leftovers were expected, the entrees come with a choice of two sides, all of which would look at home at a church social. Say “amen” to the velvety collard greens, mashed potatoes flecked with red bits of peel and creamy mac and cheese.

There’s a reason Henry’s, which also has a catering arm, sells about 100,000 sweet potato pies a year. The smooth filling revels in nutmeg, ginger, vanilla and orange, albeit in amounts that let the sweet potato shine. Before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for some customers to show up with their own containers. “I don’t care,” says Smith-Davis, laughing at the memories of people trying to pass off her food as home cooking. “As long as they keep getting it from me!”

1704 U St. NW. 202-265-3336. henryssoulcafe.com. Open for takeout/delivery only. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub and UberEats. Sandwiches and main courses $5.15 to $13.99.

Makan

There’s not a dish I would wait to repeat at this uncommon example of Malaysian cooking in Columbia Heights. Pineapple curry tastes like a race between sweet and heat that ends in a delicious tie. Chunks of braised pork in a dark gold gravy, ignited with fresh ginger and silky with French butter, translates to one of the best vindaloos anywhere. The difference between Makan’s shredded green mango salad and the fiery competition is the use of calamansi, the Asian citrus with the sweet skin and sour center. What look like shrimp and fava beans dappled with a racy red sambal turns out to be seafood paired with bright green, slightly nutty petai, native to Southeast Asia.

Chef-owner James Wozniuk trimmed his menu during the pandemic, but he left lots to appreciate, including a bowl of wheat noodles carpeted with crumbled pork and chiles, fleshy wood ear mushrooms, chewy dried anchovies and a soft egg, destined to be poked with a chopstick to bind the elements in liquid gold. Be sure to splurge on his coconut rice flavored with pandan leaf, its fragrance reminiscent of vanilla, and something from the bar, perhaps Barbara Southeast, a dance among gin, sherry, tamarind and salted honey.

Four months ago, Wozniuk added Malaysian pantry staples — fermented mustard greens, sweet chile sauce — to the roster. More recently, he added another sous chef to the open kitchen. The owner says, “I want to take Makan to the next level.” This diner can’t wait to see how he tops himself.

3400 11th St. NW. 202-730-2295. makanrestaurantdc.com. Open for takeout/delivery/inside and outside dining. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub and UberEats. Entrees, $13 to $22.

Pennyroyal Station

It took three years for the restaurant to open in Prince George’s County. Blame the delay on a gut job, permits and the stops and starts caused by the pandemic. Whatever. Pennyroyal Station is serving some mighty fine cooking in a roost that’s so inviting, you ought to fetch your food in person just to see it.

The menu, from former Bar Pilar chef Jesse Miller, might read familiar, but everything tastes better than the same old. Squash soup gets a charge from lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and a topper of Calabrian chiles. And lasagna is outfitted for the season with sliced squash in the role of pasta and presented with a cream sauce shot through with rosemary and ginger. “Sammies” enjoy a category of their own; the star showcases buttermilk fried chicken, snappy sliced pickles and “ramp ranch” dressing inside a soft toasted bun. Vintage china underscores Miller’s nostalgic, Southern-accented cooking, which includes family meals. Think brisket with biscuits and collards. (Oh my!)

You can’t miss the building, dressed on the outside with a flowery mural and inside with a handsome retro bar. Bonus: Recently expanded hours mean everything is offered throughout the day.

3310 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainer, Md. 240-770-8579. pennyroyalstation.com. Open for takeout/delivery/indoor and outdoor dining. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Toast and UberEats. Sandwiches and dinner entrees, $13 to $24.

Ris Lacoste says she sells lots of different things from her West End restaurant partly because “people are home” more now. Hence the quarts of soups, the daily-changing $15 lunches, breads including scones laced with bacon and blue cheese, even peanut brittle to fill candy jars (home office edition). Her not-so-hidden agenda? “Keep staff busy,” says the muse behind the brand, mindful of the 15 or so people on her payroll.

The veteran chef sets a good example, hand-delivering as many as 20 orders on Fridays. “I love it,” says Lacoste, who relishes the chance to hand off her food — meatloaf, shrimp gumbo, Indian-accented chicken — to customers, some of whom order from her every day Ris is open. “There’s a trust factor.” Extra touches abound. For Mardi Gras, takeout recipients got pralines and colorful beads in their bags. Patrons seem to appreciate the attention (and sometimes, like the guy who greeted her at his door with a rose, even return it).

Served in portions designed to become another meal, Ris’s draws include a towering quiche, streaked green with kale and encased in a fine, buttery crust; herby eggplant “meatballs” arranged on housemade pasta with pesto ricotta; and lemony chicken Milanese that any Italian restaurant would be proud to claim. A category called Take Me With You finds frozen beef Wellington (newly trendy, you should know).

Like many of her peers, Lacoste tests the entrees to see how well they travel from restaurant to home. Spoiler alert: My containers have been all but licked clean. Honest truth: I’d order from Ris on a regular basis if, well, I didn’t have to be mindful of being fair to everyone else.

2275 L St. NW. 202-730-2500. risdc.com. Open for takeout/delivery/indoor and outdoor dining. Delivery via the restaurant only. Dinner entrees, $23 to $42 (for steak dinner).

Thacher & Rye

Bryan Voltaggio doesn’t blame the closing of his high-end Volt restaurant in Frederick on the pandemic alone. After a dozen years in business, the former “Top Chef” contestant says “it was time for a rebrand and a refresh.”

Planning for Volt’s successor, he aimed to get into the minds of diners, ditching a tasting menu for an a la carte list — epic meals being out of fashion now — and creating dishes that were more familiar than fussy. His thinking produced Thacher & Rye, which combines the name of his son with Maryland’s history of making spirits. The dining room has moved to the property’s courtyard, a tented and heated environment where egg timers help servers track the length of disinfecting procedures between seatings.

There are no finer fish sticks around than the drumstick-size fried puffer fish, seasoned with barbecue spices and dappled with a sambal fired up with fish peppers. Love the crunch. Love the fencing match between sweet and tang. Every pasta I’ve tried has something to recommend it; cold weather has me reaching for the surprisingly elegant and many-layered lasagna tiered with smoked brisket Bolognese and ricotta fondue. My companions’ eyes widen at the sight of plates of fries and bread going to neighboring tables. Hint noted. The golden, thrice-fried french fries are meant to evoke the boardwalk, and the spent-grain bread comes with a spread of smoked trout as well as whipped butter. Life is short; ask for both. Cheesecake takes the prize for novelty; curry powder lends a pleasant savory note to the almond streusel.

228 N. Market St, Frederick, Md. 240-332-3186. thacherandrye.com. Open for takeout/delivery/indoor and outdoor dining. Delivery, including meal kits, via Tock. Entrees, $19 (for a hamburger) to $46.

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