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.
DC hasn’t traditionally been known for Mexican food but the Mexican food scene here is actually surprisingly good, with a bunch of good taquerias and well as spots for other types of authentic fare, such as Oyamel and La Puerta Verde. While Taco-ma Yucatán Chicken does serve tacos (hence the punny name) it specializes in rotisserie chicken, often referred to as Peruvian chicken but called Yucatán chicken here and is seasoned with spices typical of the Yucatán. With cute decor, friendly staff, reasonable prices, and tasty rotisserie chicken, this is a solid spot for a casual and quick meal.
Taco-ma Yucatán Chicken is located at 353 Cedar St NW.
People looking for a fancy take on Indian food flock to Rasika, but those looking for the best authentic Indian food in DC know to go to Indigo. This friendly and funky place is best visited when the weather is warm enough to sit outside on its expansive patio, though there are a handful of tables inside as well. While inside, you can enjoy the Bollywood dance videos playing on the TV and scrawl a message in sharpie on the walls. You order inside, take a number and then wait. The food does sometimes take a while (20+ minutes) to come out, but that’s because it’s made fresh. Trust me, it’s well worth it. The spicy masala chicken is especially good, but you really can’t go wrong with anything here. The food is definitely heavy on the ghee (clarified butter) but that’s just part of what makes it so tasty. And please do pair your food with a Kingfisher, either from the fridge inside, or from the bar outside that’s open when the weather’s warm. Friendly service rounds out what is all-around a gem of a place.
Indigo is located at 243 K Street NE.
Reren Lamen’s name is not some kind of racist joke about confusing Ls and Rs. Lamen, if you did not know (I didn’t) is the Chinese equivalent of ramen and is Reren’s specialty. Reren holds the distinction of being one of the few Chinese restaurants left in DC’s Chinatown, a shell of its former self, that is both good and authentic. While lamen is the main attraction, Reren offers a wide selection of food and drink options, including bubble tea, baijiu and pork xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings). Since xiao long bao are one of my favorite foods and are hard to find in DC, I had to try them. They were flavorful, though a bit too small and contained too little soup to be truly great xiao long bao. They’ll work to satisfy a craving, but it’s still work trekking out to Rockville for places that specialize in them. As for the lamen, I ordered the signature lamen with pork belly and a tea egg. While I certainly enjoyed it, it had less of that strong umami flavor than Japanese ramen at the likes of Sakuramen or Bantam King and the pork belly was not as tender as pork belly at other spots, like Purple Patch. Nonetheless, it was overall an enjoyable meal and Reren Lamen remains a bright spot in DC’s otherwise fairly bleak Chinese food scene.
Reren Lamen is located at 817 7th St NW.
Dock FC is a sports bar dedicated to soccer fans; its massive screens are perfect for those looking to watch the latest matchup between Chelsea and Liverpool and the industrial mod space, inside Ivy City’s Hecht Warehouse building, lends the place a cool, sleek vibe. However, you don’t have to be a soccer (or shall I say, football) fan to enjoy a trip to Dock FC, because they also serve Mexican food from their sister restaurant next door (which is adjoined to Dock FC by a hallway), La Puerta Verde. Both spots are owned by restauranteur Ari Gejdenson. I ordered guacamole, which was excellent, though the chips themselves seemed like they were straight out of a bag and would have been much better had they been homemade. The tacos were tasty as well; I ordered al pastor, lengua, and fried cod. While they weren’t exceptional or better than say, Tacos El Chilango or Taqueria Habanero, they were solid. Service was friendly, if haphazard (for instance, the food runner forgot napkins so I had to wriggle my way to the bar to ask for them).
Dock FC is located at 1400 Okie St NE.
Middle Eastern food is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., but while hummus and falafel are now well-known, another Middle Eastern classic, mana’eesh, is less so. Mana’eesh (singular: manousheh- yes, Arabic plurals are very confusing) are pizza-like dough with a variety of toppings, including labneh, za’atar, olive oil, and, in some cases, meat. Zayt & Za’atar (or Z&Z) for short, is a delicious farmer’s market stand at the Foggy Bottom and H Street Northeast farmer’s markets that serves authentic, healthy mana’eesh. I went for the “Lebanese Bride,” which is a very traditional manousheh topped with labneh, za’atar, tomatoes, mint and olive oil. It took me back to my time eating mana’eesh in Jordan. The dough is baked fresh and is fluffy and perfect. Friendly staff round out a great experience.
Zayt & Za’atar is open from 3 PM to 7 PM on Wednesdays at the Foggy Bottom Farmer’s Market next to Foggy Bottom Metro Station and from 9 am to 12:30 pm on Saturdays at the H Street Farmer’s Market at 800 13th Street NE.