Eat Like A Native
Culinary enlightenment awaits at the many ethnic outposts in our midst.
You’ve overdosed on pad Thai, California rolls and kung pao chicken. You’ve eaten your body weight in food-truck burritos. Want to introduce your taste buds to something new and different? How about a lesser-known cuisine, such as Lao or Afghan? Or perhaps one of the mysterious dishes featured only on the non-English menu at that hole-in-the-wall you pass every so often.
In an area where nearly one quarter of residents were born outside the U.S. and public school kids speak 94 languages (per county statistics), authentic ethnic cuisine isn’t hard to find. We sent two of our top food writers on a mission to taste-test the dishes that Americans typically don’t order (but should). Here’s what they recommend.
7810-C Lee Highway, Falls Church; 703-289-0013
Chef-owner Pyu Pyu Win and her daughters have made their unassuming restaurant a destination for authentic Burmese dishes since they opened in 1999. The Rangoon natives prepare outstanding composed salads of shredded fruits and vegetables, as well as complicated curried stews with liberal additions of lemongrass, cilantro and tamarind.
Their recipes combine the unique culinary traditions of their homeland, while also drawing influences from Thai, Lao, Indian and Chinese cuisine.
Daughter Lin Lin Aung runs the dining room and answers patrons’ questions about what goes best with what. Her sister, Than Dar Aung, cooks with their mother in the sous-chef position. “I’m still teaching her. But she is really good,” says Pyu Pyu Win. “She knows the Burmese way.”
Begin with the salad of pickled green tea leaf, a bittersweet textural toss of shaved cabbage, tomato, toasted garlic, peanuts, broad beans, sesame seeds and yellow peas, dressed in a pesto-like tea leaf emulsion. You’ll find more fresh crunch in the slightly sour shredded green mango salad, which combines the tart fruit with cabbage, onion, crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro in a citrusy fish sauce. Look under “House Specialties” on the menu for pazum-khwe gyaw, a delicately flavored starter of shrimp and lightly battered, quick-fried bean sprouts. And, for a standout entrée, spoon the slow-cooked rich goat curry, with meat falling off the bone, over steamed white rice. Perfect.
Burmese typically start the day with their national dish, a steaming bowl of mohingar (pronounced MOW-heen-ga)—an earthy, thick fish soup with rice noodles, scented with lemongrass. At Myanmar, the soup is available for both lunch and dinner, with toppings that include cilantro, fried battered squash, sliced hard-cooked egg, lime wedges, chili peppers and bean sprouts. Back home, mohingar is made with the mild and sweet-tasting northern snakehead (the invasive species now common in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but available in limited supply to local restaurants). In its place, the kitchen here uses mrigal, a variety of carp imported from Bangladesh that is similar in flavor.
Regular customers of Burmese descent know that the family has a retail store for essential ingredients in an adjoining storefront. The shop is accessible from the restaurant at the rear of the second dining room. Closed Mondays.
Eyo Restaurant and Sports Bar
3821-B South George Mason Drive, Falls Church; 703-933-3084
Always wash your hands before dinner—especially when you’re going to use them instead of a knife and fork. At Eyo, most dishes are served on a bed of slightly sour, spongy Ethiopian injera bread (choose between one made in-house, or an even-tangier option that is flown in daily from Addis Ababa), and the bread serves as your utensils. Rip off a strip, pinch it between your fingers and use it to grab a bit of meat with a dab of lentils. And be sure to let the pocked surface of the flatbread soak up some sauce. It’s hard not to derive a primal pleasure from eating this way, which could be why so many patrons here are smiling as they dig in to their dinners.
Owner Bizuwork Tafesse and his wife, Hiwot Fesseha (who developed the recipes and does some of the cooking), have been offering up generously portioned Ethiopian fare since 2007. As a general rule, Fesseha advises neophytes to start out with the vegetarian combo—a circle of injera bread, topped with mounds of yellow lentils, a citrus-infused cubed tomato salad, stewed cabbage and more. The best bite on the plate is the red lentils amped up with berbere, a traditional spice mix containing chilies, cloves, coriander and other seasonings, which Fesseha hand-imports from her homeland whenever she visits.
Carnivores should move directly on to the tibs, which are slow-cooked beef cubes served in several different stews that vary in spiciness. The awaze tibs dish, served in a rich tomato-based sauce with garlic, jalapeno and berbere, was my favorite. The doro wat—chicken served in a spicy red pepper sauce with a hard-boiled egg—is equally worthy of attention. To beat back the heat, order a St. George beer, a golden lager that’s been brewed in Ethiopia for nearly a century.
Tucked into the Build America plaza in Bailey’s Crossroads, the eatery is outfitted with eight flatscreen televisions, which are usually showing soccer (pardon me, football) games from around the world. During the FIFA World Cup, the sports bar overflows with fans. “It gets a little crazy,” says Fesseha. “People are really into it.”
Sounds like a good excuse to order another round of St. Georges for the table.
6395 Seven Corners Center, Falls Church; 703-533-9480, bangkokgolden7corners.com
Never mind the name over the door. Thai food is not our reason for sending you running to this vibrant and welcoming restaurant, tucked into a far corner of Seven Corners Center. In early 2010, Chef Seng Luangrath took over the management and kitchen, gradually introducing more and more dishes from her native Laos. Now, half of her customers ask for the separate Lao menu.
“I want people to love my native food as I do,” says Luangrath, who has no fear of herbs, spices and chili pepper. “For you, the flavors are exciting.” Bite-for-bite, Lao flavors are generally less sweet and more bitter than Thai cuisine. Upon request, chili heat levels can be adjusted from incendiary to mild.
As in the cooking of northeastern Thailand, grilled meats and seafood dominate the Lao table, with lots of fresh vegetables minced, chopped and tossed together. No meal is complete without a basket of short-grained sticky rice, best gathered into a ball with the fingers.
I recommend the delicate and greaseless fried shrimp cakes, which are infused with the floral-citrus flavor of minced kaffir lime leaves. Wonderfully crunchy lettuce wraps can be made with the crispy rice salad of spicy grains combined with shredded coconut, onion and ham, then dressed with fresh lime juice.
The healthy-tasting green mango salad is a mix of the julienned fruit with tender steamed shrimp, cherry tomatoes and strips of carrot in a spicy lime dressing, topped with peanuts. Don’t overlook the plump quail, marinated in lemongrass, ginger and black pepper—the best little bird you will ever have.
For an entrée, you can’t go wrong with any of the eight stir-fried larb salads, which combine minced or ground meat, fish or tofu with a flavor explosion of cilantro stems, mint, shallots, kaffir lime leaves and other bold ingredients. Can’t make up your mind on which larb? Get the succulent duck.
In the small but pretty, saffron-hued dining room, the walls are covered with native musical instruments and paintings of the Lao culture and countryside. Service is excellent. Currently, this is a hot spot for the area’s large Thai community. That said, make a reservation.
2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-2828, minhdcrestaurant.com
Once known as “Little Saigon,” Clarendon for years was the go-to spot for wallet-friendly, family-owned Vietnamese restaurants, each noted for its particular décor (or lack thereof) and authentic kitchen specialties. Most moved elsewhere as the neighborhood mushroomed in growth, but Minh’s, which opened in 2001, has withstood the test of time. Today, it continues to deliver the flavors of northern and southern Vietnam in an appealing dining room, marked by white tablecloths and soft diffused lighting from silk-shaded fixtures. The spacious restaurant is great for groups or large families. In fine weather it also offers a 30-seat patio for al fresco meals.
The parents of chef and co-owner Anh Nguyen hail from Hanoi, as does his wife, Chi, although the menu includes Viet dishes from all across the country. “All the recipes here, they are secrets from my mother-in-law that I control and keep,” says Chi, who also manages the front of the house.
The couple is rightfully proud of their top-selling entrée—grilled pork with vermicelli—which Anh prepares in two regional styles. Each comes to the table with a mountain of leafy ingredients for handheld wraps, such as soft red lettuce, cilantro, mint and pungent shiso (an herb also in the mint family).
Both versions are distinctive. Minh’s northern style features sliced pork shoulder, marinated for 24 hours in a salty mix of fish sauce, black pepper and shrimp paste. After it’s grilled, the skillfully charred meat is cut into small pieces and placed atop rice noodles, then mixed with sweetened fish sauce. The southern rendition is sweeter and lighter, featuring noodles topped with leaner pork loin that is marinated in fish sauce and lemongrass, then grilled. Both are worth trying.
Start with the appetizer sampler, which includes a crispy spring roll; a fresh summer roll wrap of shrimp, pork and tofu; and deep-fried shrimp with julienned yam. And say yes when the server suggests the moist and sweet caramelized catfish cooked in a clay pot.
Like it hot? Select the red pepper-infused and spicy lemongrass chicken.
Mark’s Duck House
6184-A Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-532-2125, www.marksduckhouse.com
This Hong Kong-style restaurant divides its 14 chefs into three teams—barbecue, dim sum and Chinese food. Collectively, they execute more than 100 dishes (helpfully described in Chinese, Vietnamese and English on the menu), not including specials. First-timers might feel overwhelmed and intimidated by the options, but don’t worry.
Begin by sampling a few plates from the dim sum carts that are wheeled through the dining room all weekend long and until 3 p.m. on weekdays (the items are still available à la carte from the menu after that). Dumplings stuffed with shrimp, scallops and seafood are all popular, and with good reason. If you’re there on Saturday or Sunday, order some of the specialty dumplings, including those with lobster, abalone and snow pea leaves. No matter when you go, a plate of the crispy fried shrimp with chili garlic sauce is a must.
Looking for a showstopper? The restaurant’s namesake dish, Peking duck, with its lacquered, crackling skin and succulent meat, is worthy of a standing ovation. (Although, warning to the squeamish: The bird is served whole with the head on.) Owner John Jiang hand-selects every duck, ensuring that each is between six and seven pounds. “That’s the perfect duck,” he says. “When you roast it, it’s not fatty and the meat isn’t tough.”
During busy times, such as Chinese New Year and other holidays, the restaurant sells more than 500 ducks per week.
Adventurous diners should be sure to mosey to the back of the dining room for a look in the burbling aquariums—filled with lobster, sea bass, crabs, frogs and conch—where you can pick out your meal. “We take it out of the tank and show it to you first,” says Jiang, “before we send it back to the kitchen to be prepared.”
Vegetarians have options, too. My favorite was also the simplest—sweet little baby bok choy sautéed soft with fresh garlic.
The dessert selection is limited (dessert isn’t a big deal in China) but a trio of the not-too-sweet egg custard tarts is a nice way to end a meal.
3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-685-7040, www.thaisquarerestaurant.com
The confident owners of this Columbia Pike eatery make no apologies for robust seasoning and a long menu that includes dishes rarely found at other area Thai restaurants. Take, for example, No. 9—yum pla dook foo—fresh steamed, shredded and mashed catfish, deep-fried into feather-light puffs. Each bite is fishy, yet fabulous, dipped in a sweet/tart sauce of lime juice, chili pepper and sugar.
“We cook the way Thais like to eat. We say, let the American customer adjust to our food,” says Soon Rojural, co-owner and manager. His wife, Mataporn, has led the kitchen team since the couple opened for business in 1996. Service is friendly and the intimate surroundings spare.
Ask about their signature dish and they will point you toward No. 61, a heaping plate of deep-fried and sugar-glazed tender squid, topped with crisp, fried basil. “We created it and now others copy it,” Rojural says.
Thailand is famous for its street food, and No. 20, sun-dried beef, is just the kind of snack you might find being plucked from a steaming kettle on a Bangkok side street. The strips of chewy (in a good way) steak are marinated in soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar; then into the deep fryer they go.
The home-country crowd chooses dishes from both the standard menu and a separate card written in Thai (which includes dishes not found on the English version). That’s where you’ll find guay jab—a heavenly five-spice soup of sweet pork broth, roasted skin-on pork chunks, pork intestine, wide noodles and hard-cooked egg. Doctor it to your personal taste with a dash or a liberal spoonful of red chili powder or green chili vinegar, or both.
For dessert, sticky rice with ripe mango is standard fare. Instead, have bua loy—a bowl of pumpkin and nutty pandan-leaf-flavored taro and gelatinous rice flour-based balls, mixed with mild lotus seeds and suspended in a warm coconut cream. Translated as “floating lotus,” it’s a simple, sweet treat that you won’t find on every Thai menu in town.
924 West Broad St., Falls Church; 703-536-4566, www.panjshirrestaurant.com
Move over, Häagen-Dazs and pickles. Expecting moms who frequent this Afghan emporium tend to gravitate toward kadu chalow, a dish of sautéed and caramelized (nearly candied) pumpkin smothered in tangy yogurt and tomato sauce. “Pregnant ladies crave it,” says owner Esmat Niazy. “It calls their name.”
This vegetarian entrée is representative of Afghan cuisine, which often combines savory and sweet elements. Consider the quabili palow, the Central Asian country’s national dish, which pairs saffron rice dotted with rehydrated raisins and carrot slivers with a hearty lamb stew. The tender meat is stewed for two hours with garlic, onions and Kashmiri masala spices. “Think of it as Indian food,” says Niazy, “but without the heat and the curry.”
A cross-cultural favorite here would be the kebabs, which come with a side of saffron rice and several pieces of naan bread (ciabatta-like in consistency, it’s nothing like the Indian bread with the same name). The combination plate, featuring a skewer of chicken, lamb and beef interspersed with edge-charred onion, makes a nice sampler.
If you’re just interested in a few small bites, the aushak are a good bet. The steamed scallion dumplings—which resemble ravioli—are covered with seasoned yogurt and a beef sauce (which can be omitted upon request). Similar flavors are at play in the aush noodle soup, which gets an aromatic zip from a sprinkling of dried mint.
For a little something sweet, there are only a few desserts available. The best is the cardamom-spiced firnee custard, dusted with crushed pistachios and almond slivers.
The décor in this narrow restaurant has changed little since Niazy’s parents opened the place in 1985. One still finds a mix of booths and tables, and a small, well-stocked bar at the back. Afghani curtains hang in the front windows, while a pair of decorative heirloom muskets, inlaid with pearl (which have been in the Niazy family for years) are slung over the back doorway.
Humble as it may appear, the establishment has a dedicated local following, and has even won acclaim back in Afghanistan. When Hamid Karzai journeyed to the States following his 2004 election as president, Panjshir was selected to cater a party commemorating that visit, which means that you get to dine like a world leader when you enjoy a meal here.
6715 Lowell Ave., McLean; 703-847-1771, Tachibana.us
Bypass the long, curved sushi counter to the side of Tachibana’s dining room and seek out a stool at the smaller sushi bar at the back. There, you can rub elbows with fellow diners, choose from the raw fish on display, and watch chef-owner Eiji Yahashi as he deftly filets slabs of sashimi and crafts sushi rolls that seem almost too pretty to eat.
Yahashi works at a steady, determined pace, ever striving to perfect his art. “Everything can always be of higher and higher quality,” he says. “I’m still learning.”
In his three decades at Tachibana, the master sushi chef says he has seen the American palette evolve to embrace lesser-known Japanese delicacies. “It used to be very rare that we sold any uni [sea urchin],” he says. “Now we sell 20 a week.”
At the same time, Yahashi wishes more patrons had a deeper regard for the simplicity that is sushi. “Americans use too much wasabi,” he says. “And they soak their sushi in soy sauce. Taste it plain. Every fish has its own flavor.”
The colorful chirashi assortment is a good course for beginners. It features a rainbow of tuna, shrimp, mackerel, and golden spheres of roe, served on mounds of slightly vinegary sticky rice.
For those who prefer to order à la carte, the menu includes nearly 30 kinds of nigiri—raw fish draped over hand-formed rectangles of sticky rice—and more than 30 different maki rolls. The spicy scallop roll (rendered crunchy with a light integration of tempura crumbs) is a favorite with regulars. So is the Washington roll packed with eel, cucumber, minty shiso leaves and scallion rounds.
For a more interactive meal, you can’t go wrong with the shabu shabu, which pairs thin slices of beef ribboned with flavorful lines of fat, with fresh vegetables such as shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots and Napa cabbage. All are brought to the table with a small stove and a ringed pot of kelp soup. Diners dunk their ingredients in the boiling soup and cook them to the desired level of doneness.
The kid’s menu here is french-fry-free, giving foodie parents a chance to gracefully introduce their little ones to the joys and subtle nuances of the centuries-old sushi tradition.
300 West Broad St., Falls Church; 703-533-0076, lacaraquena.com
Cozy and charming best describe the eight-table La Caraqueña (“Woman of Caracas”), a tiny temple of Latin American cooking that is managed under the watchful eye of owner-chef Raul Claros. A son of restaurant owners, Claros embraced cooking early on at his parent’s cafés—first in Venezuela and later, Bolivia—mastering recipes that were handed down. “I’m offering super-authentic dishes that transport you to Caracas,” says Claros, who opened his Falls Church eatery in the summer of 2007. “My style is wide with bold flavors.”
Six days a week, lively salsa music sets a good Latin vibe (the intimate spot received a shout-out from the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives). Most folks come for the meat-stuffed, muffin-sized arepas (Latin American-style corn cakes), which can be ordered grilled or fried. We suggest the peluda, stuffed with tender stringy pulled beef and cheese, or J.P.’s Favorite, which blends paper-thin slices of steak with sautéed onion, tomato and cilantro. Both are brightened with plenty of cumin.
For a traditional, homey entrée, select the pabellón completo, which combines pulled beef, black beans, white rice, sweet plantains, fresh avocado and a crown of sunny-side up egg.
For starters, the corn salad is a generous mound of fresh kernels mixed with diced celery and micro-cilantro, dressed with lime juice. It comes with a side of jalapeño salsa, allowing you to control the heat. And don’t leave without trying the fried yucca, which comes to the table golden, crisp and ready for a dunk in a mayo/mustard aioli.
Ask the server if the Bolivian savory pastry—salteñas—are available. This kitchen turns out a stellar version, with the sweet tender crust stuffed with chicken, beef and vegetables. But unfortunately the chef makes only a few each day, pleading that they are “too time-consuming.” End with the surprisingly light cuatro leches (four-milk) cake.
Additional patio seating is available in fair weather. Reservations are recommended. Closed Tuesdays.
More Dishes to Try
Lebanese Taverna, 5900 Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-241-8681; 1101 South Joyce St., Arlington, 703-415-8681; 1840 International Drive, McLean, 703-847-5244; www.lebanesetaverna.com
- Kibbeh Nayeh lamb tartare with bulgur and onions
- Bizzrih whole fried smeltfish served with tahini sauce and lemon
- Fatteh yogurt, chickpeas, pine nuts, garlic and pomegranate with fried pita chips (may be ordered with chicken, lamb or eggplant)
- Knafe Bel Jibne semolina-crusted warm, sweet cheese tart (Lebanese eat this for breakfast or dessert)
Han Sung Oak, 6341 Columbia Pike, Falls Church, 703-642-0808
- Haw Mool Pa Jun seafood pancake with scallions, shrimp, oyster and squid
- BulGogi marinated beef (barbecued at your table) served with rice and an assortment of pickled sides
- Dolsot BibimBap marinated grilled beef and vegetables, topped with a fried egg and spicy bean paste
- Mae Woon Tang hot and spicy fish stew in a stoneware pot
Saran Indian Cuisine, 5157 Lee Highway, Arlington, 703-533-3600, www.sarancuisine.com
- Chana Masala chickpeas with herbs, onions, tomatoes and spices
- Paneer Makhani cubes of homemade cottage cheese in a tomato cream sauce
- Baigan ka Bartha clay-oven roasted eggplant with onions, tomatoes and spices
- Tadka Dal simmered yellow lentils sautéed with tomatoes, ginger, cumin, onion, garlic and spices
Taste of Morocco, 3211 Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-527-7468
- Chicken bastilla savory chicken and spices in a phyllo crust, topped with cinnamon sugar
- Chicken with preserved lemon and olives
- Lamb shank with raisins and almonds
- Couscous with lamb shanks and stewed vegetables