Hungry for something different? It may not be on the menu, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have it.
Some days you’re in the mood for something other than “the usual.” Fortunately, many area restaurants are happy to satisfy that craving with unadvertised dishes, drinks and specials. You just have to be in the know.
If you’re a Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare user, chances are good you’re going to get the lowdown on many such deals. Red Velvet is giving out freebies to test a new cupcake flavor? Check. Jaleo is offering bloody beet gazpacho as part of a special pre-theater menu for customers with tickets to see Macbeth at Synetic Theater? How gruesomely exclusive.
What’s the point of making certain specials available only on request? Some chefs who update their menus seasonally say it keeps their regulars happy when they can continue to order favorite dishes, even after they have been swapped out for new fare.
Others say it’s a safe way to experiment with new ideas. “Doing something off-menu is great for when you’re playing around with a new dish [or ingredient],” says David Guas, owner and executive chef of Bayou Bakery. “That way, you’re only doing it for a few diners to start with and you can perfect it.”
And of course there are restaurateurs who see secret deals as a fun way to drum up viral buzz. (Their hope, of course, being that the secret will get out.)
If you want to uncover a true taste of what’s out there, it’s all about finding, following and friending. But for starters, here are a few off-menu items and tips on how to access them. Don’t worry—you won’t have to memorize any special passwords or handshakes.
Just ask and you shall receive.
1515 N. Courthouse Rd., Arlington; 703-243-2410, Bayoubakeryva.com
Inspired by the hit novel-turned-movie The Help, chef David Guas created his own version of the film’s mouthwatering caramel cake ($32 for the 6”, $48 for the 8”, $65 for the 10”; 48 hours’ notice required). Layers of rich vanilla cake are coated with a boiled caramel sauce, which makes the sweet, buttery and slightly salty dessert taste like a praline without the pecans.
4704 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-566-1686, www.cafesazon.com
This Bolivian café on the Pike is a haven for carnivores (many dishes combine steak with little coins of sliced hot dog), but the kitchen will happily switch out the red meat for chicken or eggs upon request. Owner Adriana Torres is currently testing a chicken version of pique macho—a dish that mounds the protein of your choice on a bed of french fries, peppers and onions, topped with tomatoes and a fried egg.
2313 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-522-2140, Chezmanelle.com
The kitchen at this Tunisian outpost is willing to go all out for guests who know the native cuisine. Just call at least one day ahead, and the staff will prepare any authentic Tunisian dish you request, be it quail couscous, sweet almond balls or a side of osbane (a Tunisian dish akin to haggis—animal gut stuffed with meat and vegetables).
3100 North Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-741-7636, lyonhallarlington.com
In the mood for some serious comfort food? Ask for the Bohemian Sausage Platter, a cast-iron skillet piled high with four different house-made sausages (spicy Hungarian lamb, Lyonnais-style links, bratwurst stuffed with cheese and a frankfurter) plus spaetzle, sauerkraut, tomato salad, pickles and onion gravy. Executive chef Andy Bennett likes to keep his menu streamlined and often switches things up, but this sharing plate—a favorite among regulars that goes for $36—is still available as an audible.
Mad Fox Brewing Company
444 W. Broad St., Suite 1, Falls Church; 703-942-6840, Madfoxbrewing.com
There’s an old German proverb that says, “Beer always tastes good, but secret beer always tastes best.” OK, we made that up, but it sounds good, no? You can almost always find off-menu brewskis on tap here, including some stellar cask-conditioned ales. You just have to ask your bartender for the hookup.
507 S. 23rd St., Arlington; 703-894-2250, Cafepizzaiolo.com
Follow this bustling Crystal City pizzeria on Twitter or “like” it on Facebook to discover weeknight specials that are kept on the QT, such as impromptu beer tastings, half-price bottles of wine on Thursdays, or a free 12-inch pizza with any large pie on Tuesdays.
House of Fortune
6715 Lowell Ave., McLean; 703-821-3779
You may need to bring along a translator if you want to access the secret menu here, because it’s written in Chinese. Don’t worry, a server will usually be able to help you navigate this second set of offerings, which includes a number of items not available on the English menu, such as scallion braised beef tendon ($16) and spicy Szechuan beef noodle soup ($10.95).
3 Bar and Grill
2950 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-524-4440, Restaurantthree.com
This shrine to swine will put pork in just about anything, and Chef Brian Robinson’s obsession with “the other white meat” is taken to a whole new level during Sunday brunch. Upon request, the kitchen will drop generous chunks of house-cured bacon into the buttermilk waffles, which are then topped with fried chicken ($15).
818 N. Quincy St., Arlington; 703-650-9676, Buzzbakery.com
Looking for a secret sugary pick-me-up? Pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac’s mini oatmeal cream pies ($1 each) are available on request on a first-come, first-served basis. Enjoy them with the baker’s favorite drink, an off-menu creation she calls the Dirty Chai ($5.40), which unites espresso, soymilk and house-made chai spiced with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, nutmeg and cloves.
Multiple locations; Starbucks.com
Do you like your cuppa joe just so? You’ll find nearly 20 off-the-menu items at this ubiquitous chain, including the Black Eye (drip coffee with two shots of espresso), the London Fog (Earl Grey tea with a shot of vanilla syrup) and the Crunch Berry Frappuccino (a strawberries-and-crème frap with hazelnut syrup mixed in).
The Liberty Tavern
3195 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-465-9360, thelibertytavern.com
A 6-foot-8 customer walks into the bar one Sunday morning and says, “I need a drink my size.” No joke. That’s the day the cult-status “man-mosa” came to be. “It’s basically an obnoxious pour of champagne into a pint glass that’s spiked with vodka or triple sec and orange juice,” explains bartender Bobbi Kelly. The super-sized cocktail, which goes for $8, is now a brunch favorite.
Potbelly Sandwich Works
4250 Fairfax Drive, Arlington; 703-807-4100, Potbelly.com
You won’t find these subs on the chalkboard, but this sandwich emporium is happy to build them for you anyway. The cheeseburger starts like the meatball sandwich but switches out marinara for ketchup and adds mustard, cheese and pickles; the Fireball heats up a meatball sub with a slathering of chili ($4.50 for the original size, $5.50 for the large).
1900 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 571-312-8027, Sushirockdc.com
Savvy insiders know to order the unlisted chirashi sushi ($10), which tops a bowl of sushi rice with various pieces of fresh sashimi and tamago (a sweet Japanese egg omelet).
Have an inside tip on an off-menu dish that’s to die for? Send it to email@example.com.
Nevin Martell has written about food and culture for Washington Post Express, Eater DC and Filter. He lives in Washington, D.C. www.nevinmartell.com.