50 Things You Need to Eat in DC Before You Die
Mortality is no one’s favorite topic, so let’s just call this exercise what it is: the ultimate DC bucket list of must-try foods. They’re delicious, iconic, and most of all, memorable. So make sure you try them before you punch out of life, or more realistically, until you get tired of everyone arguing politics all the time.
Sorry Ben’s, the half smoke at Meats & Foods is the best in the city. The sausages are made daily in-house, are cooked to order, and come with a slightly startling amount of heat. Stick to the traditional toppings of chili, mustard, and onions diced so thin, a ninja mouse must have chopped them.
Let’s be honest: eggs, butter, and cheese are the stuff dreams are made of. Kudos to the little country of Georgia for figuring out how to combine these ingredients oh so well in a big bread hot tub. Even bigger kudos to Compass Rose for perfecting the dish, so we don’t have to shell out a ticket to Tbilisi to try it.
No need to overcomplicate things at this Neapolitan pizzeria. Tomato, mozzarella di bufala, and cherry tomatoes do the trick. You probably care more about the taste than this footnote, but take note that 2 Amy’s pizza has D.O.C. status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), meaning the Italian government has given it the nod that it's properly adhering to tradition.
The Ethiopian take on beef tartare is irresistible, especially at Ethiopic now that Zenebech closed. Grab some sour, squishy injera bread and use it as a vehicle to get raw, seasoned beef to your mouth along with little scoops of greens and cottage cheese. If you’re squeamish about beef that hasn’t seen heat, there’s a fully cooked version too.
Congratulate yourself in the morning after settling on a five-ball falafel sandwich as your after-hours food last night. Even though Amsterdam Falafel shines brightest late night, its fried-to-perfection falafel and zippy toppings are good even when the sun's out.
Pork and lychee salad
This dish really put Rose’s Luxury on the map. A map that everyone seemingly has, because the lines are as long as ever to try Aaron Silverman’s food. Maybe if you divulge your impending death situation, some nice Midwesterner will let you cut in. Aaron’s magic bowl contains pork sausage, plump lychees, creamy coconut, habanero peppers, and herbs.
This bowl unites Japan and Korea -- not an easy feat these days. You’ll want to drink up the kimchi-infused broth that serves as a pool for pulled pork, greens, a soft egg, pickled ginger, sheets of cabbage kimchi, and whatever else you want to add on (Chicken oysters! Pork cheeks! Chicken butt!).
You like ribs. You like whiskey. Why? Because you’re an American. Now expand your horizons to try them together: Little Serow’s signature dish calls for pork ribs that have soaked in Mekhong spirit. The addition of smoke, a little sweetness, and fresh dill makes it a fitting grand finale to a Northern Thai feast.
More specifically, you’re getting a fully loaded “G” Man from this DC institution and you’re getting it on a hard roll. That roll will contain ham, salami, mortadella, pepperoni, fontina, provolone, oregano, and if you ask for it, hot peppers. The funk of the fontina is what will bring you back for this sando again and again.
Super Grilled Cheese
This after-school snack-turned bar food is a crowd pleaser because of the buttery crunch of the bread and melty American cheese that tastes very far from organic. Get the original, the Super (with tomato, bacon, and onion), or ask for your grilled cheese “Freddy Style” and see what happens.
If this sausage were a hotel, it would be a five-star chateau in the Champagne region of France. For real, that’s where boudin blanc comes from, and it’s traditionally eaten during Christmas. Marcel’s currently serves its delectable version with celery root puree, Chanterelle mushrooms, foie gras poultry jus, and summer truffle.
The gas station that’s okay to eat in continues to churn out top-of-the line chivito sandwiches. A soft roll plays host to pork tenderloin, mozzarella, Black Forest ham, bacon, green olives, hard-boiled eggs, escabeche, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo. They even urge you to order it with a fried egg on top. This seems like a particularly good idea on weekends when it stays open until 5am.
Maketto continues to rack up the accolades, due in large part to Erik Bruner-Yang’s Taiwanese fried chicken and bread, which has proven to be an instant classic. It’s everything it should be: sweet, sticky, spicy, and crunchy. There’s even buttery bread to use to soak up sauce so good you’ll develop romantic feelings for it.
Homemade peanut butter bacon pop-tart
If you’re going to eat a retro treat, don’t settle for strawberry -- after all, those are the Pop-Tarts said to be the most flammable. Get the Peanut Butter Bacon Ted Tart instead and channel your inner Elvis.
Duffy’s has been a staple of “best wings in DC” lists for years. Surprisingly, they aren't your typical Frank’s-and-butter wing: Instead, Duffy’s ladles their sauce, a secret house blend, over the top of the crispy chicken. As you mow your way through the plate, the wings on the bottom get rolled about, soaking up the saucy goodness that gradually drips downward. Crunchy, creamy, delicious.
Granville Moore’s has deservedly won Washington City Paper’s “Best Mussels in DC” for nine years running. Whether you decide on the classic Mariniere combo of white wine, garlic, and herbs, or a seasonal version like the Coconut Curry with lemongrass, ginger, tomatillo, pineapple, and poblano peppers, you’re guaranteed to get a heaping bowl of plump bivalves with none of the gross grit you often find in substandard shellfish.
Sometimes after a night on the town, you just want a slice of pizza as big as your arm. No one’s saying this is one of the city’s best slices -- it isn’t -- but it is is a DC classic, the perfect vehicle to soak up the night’s regrets.
José Andrés is a king in the DC food scene, and among his many restaurants, Oyamel remains one of the most consistent. From innovative tacos and table-side guacamole to margaritas with “salt air” foam, Andres takes classic Mexican cuisine and adds his own unique twist. A can’t-miss is his take on ceviche, the classic coastal Mexican dish of raw fish lightly marinated and cured in citrus, and combined with chili peppers and fresh vegetables. Fresh, tart, and spicy, Andres’ ceviche is the perfect snack.
Rappahannock River Oysters is a local endeavor, started two generations ago by the Croxton family. The current owners, Ryan and Travis, renewed their grandfather’s riverbottom lease out of sentimental value, not planning on being more than just hobbyists. What started as a pastime became an obsession with cultivating the perfect oysters. Visit Rappahannock’s Union Market location and go nuts on their three different types of oysters: the original Rappahannock, the sweetest; the Stingray, a perfect balance of sweet and salty; or the Old Salt, the saltiest of the three, and a perfect match to a chilled glass of white wine.
Lox’d and Loaded Bagel
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better hangover cure than a classic Bloody Mary. Pair that with a nice bagel for some carbs, and you’re well on your way to healing. Mixologist Gina Chersevani takes her version to the extreme, combining the two into one supercure: the Bloody at Union Market’s Buffalo & Bergen is garnished with a full-sized, freshly baked New York-style bagel that’s packed with cream cheese, lox, and capers.
A lot of people hear “sushi” and automatically think rolls. While Sushi Capitol certainly offers California and spider rolls, the real focus is on the restaurant’s incredibly affordable omakase meal. With this order, you’re letting Chef Minoru Ogawa decide the pacing and tone of your time at Sushi Capitol, and signing up for an onslaught of the freshest nigiri and sashimi, all for just $50. Supplement your tasting with some of the restaurant’s unique daily specialties, which often include such rarities as o-toro (fatty tuna belly) or live Maine or San Diego uni (sea urchin).
Eater DC’s 2016 Restaurant of the Year was destined to be a success: the owners, Jon Sybert, Jill Tyler, and Bill Jensen, are all alums of Little Serow and Komi, and let’s just say they know a thing or two about delicious food and impeccable service. While the innovatively topped breads get most of the love, the restaurant’s signature lamb ribs have already reached iconic status in DC. A heaping pile of roasted and grilled, Middle Eastern-spiced lamb ribs is plated with sumac-yogurt onions, fava beans, a hazelnut dukkah, and a showering of fresh dill, mint, cilantro, and parsley.
Ghibellina is an outstanding gastropub that also happens to serve some of DC’s best pizza. It combines two stand-out techniques: an atypical mix of flours, and a longer, lower-temperature cooking time. These factors prevent this from being boxed in as a "true Neapolitan" pizza; instead, it’s the restaurant’s own take on the style. A little crispier on the bottom, with a little less char, these pizzas are given time to develop that deep, yeasty flavor in the crust. Still not convinced? During the daily happy hour, it’s only $8.50, so you have very little to lose.
This is my desert island, death row, one food for the rest of my life meal: mapo doufu. Legend has it that the dish, translated as “Pockmarked Mother's Bean Curd” (“ma” means a person with pockmarks, and “po” means old woman), was invented in Chengdu, China during the Qing Dynasty by an old woman with a face scarred from smallpox. Regardless of provenance, this dish is perfect: Jiggly soft tofu is combined with a touch of ground pork, chili broad bean paste, fermented black beans, chili oil, garlic, green onions, and the all-important Szechuan peppercorn, ingestion of which leads to a numbing, buzzing, tingling of the lips and palate (a sensation known in Chinese as “mala”). And you don’t even have to leave DC to have the region’s best version -- you just have to head to a Day’s Inn in deep Northeast DC.
Himitsu, a relative newcomer to DC’s dining scene, has rapidly established itself as the go-to spot for innovative cocktails and modern Japanese-inspired cuisine. The restaurant’s pedigree is impressive: Chef Kevin Tien spent years working at sushi bars and fine-dining restaurants across the US, including a recent stint at Pineapple & Pearls, and Beverage Director Carlie Steiner is an alum of Minibar and her own Stir Bartending Co. One of the must-order items at Himitsu (and in DC, really) is Chef Tien’s take on karaage: a massive, buttermilk-brined chicken thigh that’s deep-fried, brushed with a Korean gochujang chili glaze, and served with sweet pickles and kewpie mayo. Crunchy, spicy, and impossibly juicy, this is the fried chicken of your dreams.
The man, the myth, the legend: Peter Chang. When diners follow a chef based on the merest hints of his travels across the US you know he’s got at least some bucket list dishes on hand. Chef Chang set up shop in both Arlington and Rockville, and thankfully both locations serve his signature dry-fried eggplant. It starts with non-breaded eggplant, fried until crispy on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside, then gets tossed with cilantro, chiles, and Szechuan peppercorns. The combination hits crunchy, creamy, spicy, and fresh notes.
Classic Italian sub
A. Litteri is old-school, a gorgeous Italian market, packed to the brim with every manner of pasta, vinegar and oil, and sauces tucked in the back is one of DC’s best delis. Skip the hemming and hawing over the various cold cuts on display -- you’re here for one thing and one thing only, the Classic Italian Sub with capicola, genoa salami, mortadella, prosciutto, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, hot peppers, and Italian dressing. A 6in half soft roll is the perfect vehicle, but no one’s giving you the side eye if you go all out and get a footlong. These sandwiches are worth savoring for more than one meal.
Under the Sea
You can’t have a DC bucket list that doesn’t include Fiola Mare. It’s one of, if not the, most beautiful dining rooms in the city, overlooking the Potomac on Georgetown’s riverfront. It’s DC’s premier restaurant for pristine seafood, simply prepared, and you’re bound to run into a celebrity dining there. When you can’t decide among the many options, your best bet is to just combine it all with the restaurant’s signature “Under the Sea,” a bowl of dashi broth containing langoustines, wild turbot, Icelandic cod, scallops, prawns, and foie gras. Over the top? Probably. One of DC’s most delicious dishes? Absolutely.
The mezze rigatoni with a fennel sausage ragu from Red Hen is everything you want in an Italian dish: a hearty, tomato-based sauce; actual al dente pasta; and crumbles of sausage, aggressively spiced with fennel and sage. Pasta-wise, one would be hard-pressed to find a better plate in the city.
Josh Phillips never set out to open DC’s best modern Mexican restaurant -- he just really loved mezcal. But as he fell deeper and deeper into the agave rabbit hole, eventually becoming a Master Mezcalier, he realized the niche that could be filled by introducing DC diners to both the boundless variety of mezcals out there and the underrepresented cuisine of Oaxaca and Southern Mexico. Since opening, Espita has crushed it, with diners out the door looking to learn more about mezcal and the deep, dark moles for which Oaxaca is justifiably famous.
Ful, a dish made of chickpeas, cumin, and vegetable oil, is supposed to be a breakfast food but when something this savory and filling starts at just $5, you eat it at any and all times of the day. Keren’s ful, garnished with parsley, garlic, diced red onions, jalapeños, and a dollop of yogurt, easily makes for two meals. Add two hard-boiled eggs and you’re still under $6. Or, take a page out of our book and toss on a bunch of sardines -- still under $6. A small French bread loaf comes standard, but you can swap it out for injera.
It’d be tough to find something more DC than heading down to the Maine Avenue Fish Market, picking up a dozen Maryland blue crabs, having them steamed while you wait, then taking your paper bag and mallet to feast on them while looking out over the Washington Channel at East Potomac Park. Most people swear by Captain White’s Seafood, but I’m ride or die for Jessie’s. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
A long-standing neighborhood staple, Horace & Dickie’s is an H Street original, serving some of the city’s best soul food. The take-out-only joint offers delicious fried chicken and other seafood, but you haven’t fully embraced DC until you’ve gotten a container of the restaurant’s signature fried fish. It’s one of the most authentic eating experiences in DC, but fair warning: One order can feed a small family, so come prepared.
The Big Board is H Street’s Cheers -- there’s sports talk, cheap beers, a barful of regulars, and everybody knows your name. But the real play when ordering isn’t to go with one of their all-star burgers -- it’s ponying up to the Jalisco Frito, a sandwich combining breaded, buttermilk-brined chicken breast, a sweet and spicy habanero barbecue sauce, pepper jack cheese, two strips of thick-cut bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Also worth mentioning: The thing’s the size of a hubcap. You know you’re getting your money’s worth when you’ve taken six bites and have yet to get to the bun.
Old Ebbitt Grill is an institution, allegedly the oldest restaurant in DC. Since opening in 1856, it’s played host to Presidents, Washington bigwigs, and flocks of tourists, each of whom are dying to get inside and sample some of the District’s best raw seafood. Locals know the best time to stop in is for the restaurant’s late-night happy hour where, after 11pm, all the oysters are only $1.
Pollo a la brasa
With its sizable Peruvian population, DC is saturated with their take on rotisserie chicken (aka, pollo a la brasa). The best of the best is El Pollo Rico: seasoned with a marinade of garlic, cumin, paprika, black pepper, and other spices, the chicken is spit-roasted over a live fire, imparting the meat with a juicy smokiness that’s tough to beat. At just $8.25, the half chicken served with the restaurant’s house-made sauces is one of the best quality-to-price ratios you’ll find.
The Daikaya team -- Daisuke Utagawa, Chef Katsuya Fukushima, and Yama Jewayni -- have built a ramen empire here with Bantam King, Haikan, and the original, Daikaya. The latter is still the best, offering Sapporo-style ramen that is distinguished by its Chintan stock, a clear soup base that requires over 16 hours of preparation to achieve its delicate and complex depth. Daikaya is also one of the only ramen-yas in DC not to use the ubiquitous Sun noodles, as they’re now one of only two ramen shops in the US that use the Nishiyama.
Duck noodle soup
Located on a grungy corner of Chinatown, the large plate glass window in the front of Chinatown Express tells you all you need to know about what you’re getting: freshly made, hand-pulled noodles. The no-frills hole in the wall plops them into a savory duck broth and tops them with wilted bok choy, sliced scallions, and crisp-skinned roast duck.
If you have the winter-weather blues, nothing quite beats a big bowl of pho to warm you up. Pho Viet is the District’s best, with a clear, almost consommé-like beef stock bulked up with ginger, onion, and long-simmered spices. The “Beef Special” bowl is enormous, combining eye round, well-done brisket, flank, soft tendon, and meatballs. Customize your bowl with accompanying bean sprouts, jalapeños, Asian basil, a few squirts of lime, and a shot of hoisin or Sriracha. The choice is all yours.
Xiao long bao
The go-to spot for dumplings, Bob’s Shanghai 66 is the best in the area at crafting xiao long bao, Chinese soup dumplings made with a cube of gelatinous pork stock that liquefies when they’re cooked, enveloping the ground pork and shrimp filling in a tasty broth. Pick one up with your spoon, bite a tiny hole in the side, and slurp the deeply flavored broth that comes pouring out before downing the dumpling itself. Patience is a virtue here -- letting the dumplings cool a bit before eating is key, lest you scald the holy hell out of your mouth.
Marjorie Meek-Bradley won acclaim for, in order, being a kick-ass chef, dominating last season’s Top Chef competition, and crafting innovative new American cuisine at Cleveland Park’s Ripple and Adams Morgan’s Roofer’s Union. Now, she’s serving up some of the city’s best classic New York deli sandwiches at Smoked & Stacked. Take, for example, the Stacked: a milk-bread bun, dijon, and house-made slaw combine to form the perfect vehicle for showcasing Meek-Bradley’s meltingly tender smoked pastrami.
Sally’s Middle Name has long been one of DC’s most vocal proponents of the local and sustainable food movement, going so far as to change their menu daily based on what’s fresh at local farmers markets. Thankfully, the crew at SMN listened to customers who indicated that they’d like at least a bit of consistency from night to night, which means that you can now always get their dynamite roasted squash dish bathed in green curry with coconut milk, jasmine rice, kaffir lime, thai basil, and cilantro.
Crispy rice salad
You used to have to drive to Bangkok Golden in Virginia to try Chef Seng’s nam khao, but with the opening of Thip Khao, you can get the Laotian dish in Columbia Heights. If the pig ears option from the “Jungle Menu” isn’t your style, go with the regular ol’ sour pork that forms the base of a flavor-blasted salad with crispy coconut rice, lime, scallions, peanuts, and cilantro, all served with lettuce wraps for scooping.
Filipino food firmly established itself as the new “it” cuisine in 2016, and we’re lucky enough to have the best Filipino restaurant (and the second best new restaurant) in the US in Bad Saint. When dining, you can’t miss the ukoy -- a bright orange web of tangled sweet potato, freshwater shrimp, and cilantro.
There’s no way a DC bucket list can omit the Proper Burger at Duke’s Grocery. It’s a monster double decker, piled high with two griddled patties (kept thin to maximize the char) and topped with smoky Gouda, red onions, a Thai sweet chili sauce, dill pickles, arugula, and a garlic aioli. A thin, buttery bun balances out the ingredients, and stays durable enough throughout, without disintegrating into a sodden mess. The real question you’ll face: Should you add the chicken liver pate or a fried egg? In for a penny, in for a pound, you know?
Remember when mom used you beg you not to eat the whole bag of Bugles in one sitting? Too bad that’s IMPOSSIBLE. The palak chaat at Rasika is no different -- especially because you get that same crispy fried crunch. But, instead of crappy corn whatever, you’re munching on lightly fried spinach leaves drizzled with sweet yogurt, tamarind, and date chutney. Expect to order it as an appetizer, a side to accompany your entrée, and again for dessert. Don’t worry, your waiter has seen it all.
Le Diplomate is one of the most consistent restaurants in DC, offering up French classics in a gorgeous setting. If you’re going all-out indulgent, send in an order for the petit plateau. The soaring tower of seafood includes lobster, king and snow crab, steamed shrimp, clams, mussels, East and West Coast oysters, whelks, and a divine crab salad.
Thai X-ing is a true gem, pairing outstanding Thai food with a quirky atmosphere. The new location by the 9:30 Club is good, but the original, in an old rowhouse on Florida Ave, is BYOB. Pair that with one of the city’s most fun (and cheapest, at $30!) all-vegetarian tasting menus, composed solely of what’s best depending on the season and market availability. Most of the dishes are both vegan and gluten-free, and the Sunday night vegetarian menu always includes chef/owner Taw Vigsittaboot‘s famous pumpkin curry.
Let’s get one thing straight: Cantina Marina’s nachos are good, but the real pull here is the awesome view. The open air, dockside restaurant is best known for its margarita selection, but there’s not much that can beat gazing out at sailboats on the Washington Channel while pounding down an enormous platter of chips, chili, shrimp, steak, Andouille sausage, queso, pico de gallo, crema, avocado, and jalapeños.
Nok Noi at Alfie’sPetworth
To be honest, Chef Alex McCoy has three separate dishes that should be on your DC bucket list. Choosing one was tough, but we’re going with his version of khao soi, a mix of boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a thin, curry-like sauce containing coconut milk. Top that off with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, and you’ve got yourself an authentic taste of Northern Thailand from a chef who intimately knows the cuisine.
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