Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe is a great concept. It is located within the National Museum of the American Indian and features menus that are supposed to reflect the native cuisines of people from various regions of the Americas, including the North Woods, the Northwest Coast, the Great Plains, Mesoamerica and South America. I went straight to the Great Plains section for a Navajo taco, which is basically a classic ground beef taco on frybread (essentially a Navajo fried dough) instead of a tortilla. The first time I tried to go to Mitsitam Cafe, over a year before this visit, they were out of frybread entirely.
This time, I waited in a long line to find out that, happily, they did have Navajo tacos though they were out of the pinto beans that would have been a tasty complement to the ground beef. I didn’t mind too much, but the vegetarian lady ahead of me was S.O.L. As I browsed the rest of the cafeteria area, I noticed that them being out of things was a bit of a theme. In the Northwest Coast section, for example, they appeared to be out of almost everything on the menu.
Then there was the issue of authenticity. While Navajo tacos don’t date back to pre-Columbian times, they have become a touchstone of Native American culture in the US. The same cannot be said for some of the food in other sections. In the Mesomerica section, the offerings didn’t go far beyond tacos and burritos and even (shudder) burrito bowls. I know that the many elements of modern Mexican food come from indigenous cooking traditions but if I wanted tacos and burritos, I’d go to Chipotle. Why not offer molé poblano or something? The situation in the South America section was even worse. They had lomo saltado on the menu, which is essentially a Peruvian take on Lo Mein from a tradition known as Chifa. Chifa is Chinese Peruvian cuisine brought to Peru by Chinese immigrants who adapted the foods of their homeland to suit the ingredients available in Peru. Chifa is a fantastic culinary tradition and one that I absolutely love. But it’s out of place in a cafe purporting to feature the foods of indigenous peoples.
When I went to check out, the chaos that seems to define Mitsitam Cafe returned. The lines for the cash registers were long, likely because only two of the four registers were staffed despite how busy the place was. And when I went to get silverware, there was not a metal fork in sight so I went for the plastic utensils.
To sum it up, this place is a great idea but really needs to work on its execution and authenticity.
Annandale, VA boasts one of the US’s largest Korean-American communities and choosing where to eat there can be overwhelming, given the large number of choices. Luckily, I have a work colleague who is very well-acquainted with Korean food and who recommended To Sok Jip, a tiny hole in the wall spot that serves up authentic and delicious Korean food to a mostly Korean clientele. My friend recommended that I order the Budae Jjigae, or army stew, a mix of ham, sausage, baked beans, and kimchi that arose just after the Korean War as a consequence of Korea’s being flooded with army surplus food.
Alas, I was alone and Budae Jjigae is a massive amount of food (I saw it on other tables and while it looked fantastic, I can’t eat that much). So I ordered the bulgogi, the classic korean BBQ beef dish. It was on-point and it, along with the rather spare decor, reminded me of a delicious bulgogi meal I had somewhere in the countryside between Seoul and the demilitarized zone on a visit there with my father and grandfather, a Korean War veteran. While Annandale is a trek for those living in the District proper, a place like To Sok Jip offers an authentic experience that one simply cannot find in DC. And it is inexpensive and friendly, to boot.
To Sok Jip is located at 7211 Columbia Pike, Annandale, VA.
Shamshiry, a Persian restaurant located in Vienna, near Spring Hill metro, is an authentic Iranian chelokabob. A chelokabob, which literally means kabob and rice, is a restaurant that specializes in just that, kabobs and rice. A feature of Persian food is that some of the more complicated dishes are made exclusively in the home, while restaurants specialize in kabobs.
Shamshiry continues this tradition, serving large pots of tea (with sugar cubes on the side- Persians have developed this skill that requires no small amount of dexterity, in which they put a sugar cube between their teeth while sipping the tea), alongside kabobs and massive quantities of fluffy, buttery rice seasoned with saffron.
The place is large but very busy, so expect to wait for at least a little while if you go at a peak time. I ordered the kabob barg, which was very good, though you can get kabobs of similar quality at Moby Dick, minus the atmosphere of a full-service restaurant like Shamshiry. Overall, this place is worth a visit if you’re in the area, but I wouldn’t necessarily make a pilgrimage to it.
Shamshiry is located at 8607 Westwood Center Drive Vienna, Virginia.
Yemen may be the poorest country in the Middle East, but it is blessed with a rich culture, ancient history and some of the region’s best food. House of Mandi, located in the Brockwood section of Arlington, serves up fantastic Yemeni food in a beautiful space with friendly service. I ordered two dishes to share with my Afghan friend, who commented that (despite the distance between Afghanistan and Yemen) the food reminded her of her mother’s cooking. The first dish was (shocker) mandi, which consisted of beautifully tender and flavorful lamb with rice. The second was lamb bormah, a hot pot of slow-cooked lamb served with rice and bread cooked in a tandoor, much like Indian naan. Though House of Mandi is a bit of a trek for those living in DC, it is well worth it and I highly recommend it.
House of Mandi is located at 5515 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA.
Cassatt’s, a cute little cafe in Arlington, is the lone representative of Kiwi cuisine in the DC area. What is the cuisine of New Zealand, you ask? Food today in New Zealand is diverse and reflects influences from the Pacific Rim, as well as from the UK. However, the first British settlers in New Zealand ate a hearty meat-heavy diet and Cassatt’s honors this by providing a wide selection of savory and delicious New Zealand-style meat pies. My lamb pie was very tasty, and paired with a glass of New Zealand pinot noir, was a wonderfully satisfying meal for a summer Friday evening. Very friendly service rounded out a solid dining experience.
Cassatt’s is located at 4536 Lee Hwy in the Waverly Hills section of Arlington.
The Helmand, run by Qayum Karzai, the brother of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, is an institution in Baltimore’s posh Mount Vernon neighborhood, having been in business since 1989. However, the place doesn’t feel the least bit tired and remains warm, inviting and trendy. When you step in, you can feast your eyes on the beautiful Afghan decor before you feast on the delicious Afghan food. The service was very friendly and prompt and I was able to order a dish that I had never had never seen on a menu at any other Afghan restaurants (which is shocking because I eat a lot of Afghan food). I ordered the shalgham challow (slow-cooked lamb and turnips in a ginger sauce served with rice and stewed spinach). While I tend to prefer grilled meats to slow-cooked meats, it was tasty and it was refreshing to try something new. If you’re in Baltimore, The Helmand is a gem that you really should try.
The Helmand is located at 806 N Charles St, Baltimore.
As you probably already know, the Halal Guys started as a food cart in NYC and has evolved into a growing fast food chain. Halal food, which is meat slaughtered according to Islamic law, has become almost a brand of its own in the US, despite the fact that any kind of cuisine (well, except for anything involving pork) can be made with halal meat. What the Halal Guys have is what they have dubbed “American halal food,” that is, food made with halal meat that is based on NYC food cart food. It is influenced by Middle Eastern food but is about as healthy as American fast food. The Halal Guys now has two locations in DC proper, one near Dupont Circle at 1331 Connecticut Ave NW and another at 814 H Street NE. I tried the H Street location, which despite being new, had a leaky roof in the bathroom. The staff are still getting their acts together organizationally, which is also probably a function of the newness of the place. While they do offer Middle Eastern sides, such as hummus and tabbouleh, this is NOT a place to come for authentic Middle Eastern food. Instead, it’s best appreciated for what it is: greasy and filling drunk food (which is ironic because alcohol is haram, the opposite of halal). I ordered the chicken and gyro platter with their signature white and red sauces. Beware that a little of the red sauce goes a long way spice-wise. The meats were flavorful and well-cooked and the rice, which was kind of like a Persian-style rice, was particularly excellent. The pita, by contrast, was moist and flabby. Thumbs down for that. Ultimately, you’ll get a satisfying, filling meal. But remember that you’re not getting Middle Eastern food; this is its own thing. And nothing super special.
Tea time is commonplace in the UK, while in the US, it can be difficult to find it done properly, that is, with well-brewed tea, finger foods such as cucumber sandwiches and, most crucially, scones with clotted cream and jam. Clotted cream always makes me think of clogged arteries, since it’s somewhere between whipped cream and butter in consistency. But it is so worth it. Once you taste the deliciousness that is clotted cream and jam on a scone, you’ll just keep craving it. Fortunately, Lady Camellia, with it’s absolutely adorable interior and its location in an old row house on a Georgetown’s beautiful, largely residential Prospect Street, is an absolute gem that does high tea perfectly. While Lady Camellia sounds like a classic British name, its actually a clever pun on the fact that the Latin genus-species name for the tea plant is Camellia sinensis. I’m convinced that even the Queen of England herself would find nothing to turn up her nose at. There are a number of different options for what you can order with your tea, but I opted for the Full Tea, which includes tea sandwiches, scones or croissants and pastries. I got mine with (of course) scones with clotted cream and jam and macarons. This is a great place to go for a special occasion. I went because I was the token guy at a female coworker’s birthday celebration. So bust out your Jack Wills outfit and your fascinator, and head over to tea time at Lady Camellia.
Lady Camellia is located at 3261 Prospect St NW.
Do you miss ShopHouse? I know ShopHouse wasn’t the most authentic Southeast Asian food around, but I did miss being able to go for a cheap and quick Southeast Asian meal. BKK Cookshop, while it is more authentic, a bit pricier and has waiter service, does provide eaters with delicious and fairly quick Thai meals at reasonable prices and with friendly service. From the people who own the popular Beau Thai, BKK Cookshop is a great spot to grab a bite to eat, especially if you can sit on the tranquil patio out front on a nice evening. The menu is full of noodle stir fries and noodle bowls, but I opted for the spicy basil rice, a fiery fried rice dish described as the “Kitchen Special” available with chicken, beef, pork, tofu, or shrimp. I opted for beef at the waitress’s suggestion, and while the beef could have been a bit more tender, the dish was bursting with flavor and was that perfect level of spicy such that it had a serious kick to it without being so overwhelming that you had to stop eating.
BKK Cookshop is located at 1700 New Jersey Ave NW in Shaw.
Zeba Bar is not as well-known as some of DC’s other hookah spots, like Soussi, but it is a much more relaxed (and less pretentious) spot as a result. While I’ve sworn off hookah for the time being because it’s so terrible for you, I can vouch that they have a wide selection of flavors and reasonable prices. As for the food at Zeba, it’s nothing special. I believe the owners are Persian (which makes sense since zeba is the Persian word for beautiful). If so, they have missed an opportunity to include more Persian options on the menu. While they do offer a pretty tasty chicken kabob, it’s more like a salad with four chunks of meat on each corner. Otherwise the options are pretty much your regular bar food. Most importantly, Zeba Bar has been the regular site of my favorite Middle East-themed pop-up bar, The Green Zone, which boasts DC’s best cocktails.
Zeba Bar is located at 3423 14th St NW.