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.
In the US, hummus is often thought of as a mere dip, something to put out at a party in addition to guacamole or salsa. But in the Levant, hummus can truly anchor a meal. Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, Lebanese, etc. will fiercely argue about the best place to grab a meal of hummus. People make pilgrimages to spots like Abu Hassan in Jaffa, Hashem in Amman, Lina in Jerusalem and Hummus Said in Acre, just to eat a meal of hummus. And why not? Hummus is delicious, healthy and filling.
Little Sesame, tucked under the popular DGS Delicatessan, has finally brought this style of eating to DC. This laid-back, friendly spot serves up hummus with inventive toppings and fantastically fluffy pita, without doing anything that would piss off a purist myself. For instance, they don’t mess around with stupid stuff like chocolate dessert hummus. Instead, toppings like za’atar, sumac and chicken shawarma are firmly rooted in the Middle East. Oddly, they don’t have Middle Eastern drink options like mint lemonade or Vimto but ginger beer pairs surprisingly well with hummus. I had the #5: roasted onions, charred ramp vinaigrette, sumac and sorrel, which was absolutely delicious despite the fact that the vinaigrette made the hummus a little thinner than I would’ve liked. Do note that they are only open on weekdays for lunch, but it’s worth a trip even if your office isn’t super close by.
Little Sesame is located at 1306 18th St NW.
Pansaari is a really cool concept: an underground Indian restaurant with an open kitchen,
South Indian Coffee
low tables with floor seating and spices for sale. You walk down a flight of external stairs to the basement of a drab building on 17th street near Dupont Circle and you’re immediately transported into a beautiful, expansive, South Asian-inspired space. I went for brunch on a Sunday. Pansaari’s brunch offerings eschew American brunch options in favor of a purely Indian menu, offering dosas, kati rolls, parathas, and chaat plus drinks such as chai and South Indian coffee, as well as desserts. I ordered a Mysore masala dosa, as well as a South Indian coffee.
Interestingly, you place your order when you enter, bring your receipt to the open kitchen and then take a seat. Everything was going smoothly but for the fact that the people working the open kitchen, who were also serving as food runners, couldn’t keep straight who had ordered what. This confusion could have been resolved by simply having numbers on the tables, as most places that use this format do. Instead, we waited for a long time for our food, which was a frustrating aspect of a brunch that otherwise had a lot of potential.
When the food finally arrived, it was delicious, but those with sensitive palates might want to ask them to lay off on the spicy heat (I like spice but one of my friends found her cheese paratha overpowering). I really liked my South Indian coffee, which reminded me of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. This place is a unique and really cool spot with lots of potential. It would earn 5 stars but for the service issues, which should be easy for them to fix.
Pansaari is located at 603 17th St NW.
Panas, an empanadas shop near Dupont Circle, is an excellent spot to get your empanada fix. It is bright, cheery, friendly, cheap and offers a wide variety of delicious empanadas, including many options for vegetarians. The empanadas on offer range from the carnivore lover’s chipotle steak to the “popeye” (sautéed spinach and onions, golden raisins, cream and goat cheese). The empanadas are smaller and lighter than the ones at Julia’s Empanadas and at $2.50 each, are best ordered a few at a time. Stop in for a fast, cheap, and tasty meal or snack!
Panas is located at 2029 P St NW.
Henry’s Soul Cafe is a soul food restaurant that has been around since 1968, though it recently moved to a bright, shiny new location at 1704 U St NW. Henry’s Soul Cafe is best known for their sweet potato pies (I tried a free sample and it was really excellent) but they also have a wide variety of classic soul food options like fried chicken, chitterlings, pig’s feet, collard greens, fried okra and much more. And, like any good soul food spot, the lady taking your order will probably address you as baby or honey, which always makes me feel good. I ordered a fried chicken dinner with fried okra and mac n’ cheese. The chicken was juicy and fried well, though the batter was a little under-seasoned for my taste. I’m sure if I had put a little of their mumbo sauce on there I wouldn’t have noticed. The fried okra and mac n’ cheese were both totally on point. My only other critique is that the stools were a bit too short for the small dine-in counter, making dining in a little tricky. Overall, though, this is a solid spot for soul food!
Mari Vanna may sound strangely like Marijuana, but it’s the DC branch of a well-known Russian restaurant with locations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (as well as NY, LA, and London). It is an absolutely beautifully decorated place that will transport you straight to Russia, with delicious and authentic Russian food to boot. We started with pirozhki (delicious meat-filled fried buns) and pelmeni (Russian dumplings). The drinks menu is extensive and features a wide range of infused vokdas- I stayed away from the fruity ones and ordered cucumber and dill, which was refreshing. I also tried my dad’s horseradish vodka which had a great kick to it. For my main, I ordered the perfectly tender golden duck with a delightfully tangy sour cherry sauce and cabbage on the side. My dessert, sour cherry dumplings, was certainly interesting. I can’t say it was decadent enough for my taste for a dessert, but I appreciated its unique Russianness. A small glass of Armenian Ararat brandy, on the other hand, made for the perfect digestif. I highly recommend Mari Vanna for its beautiful and cozy ambiance and authentic Russian food.
Mari Vanna is located at 1141 Connecticut Avenue NW.
Sauf Haus is a German-themed bar and beer garden located at 1216 18th Street NW that is known for its oversized German beers and massive pretzels. This makes a great spot for an after-work happy hour where you can listen to their kitschy music playlist while enjoying a liter jug of hefeweizen. You can also munch on their massive pretzels. My friends preferred to order two one-pound pretzels, which were huge as it is, but they also offer two-pound pretzels. If this place weren’t so German, I’d almost call it the Texas of bars- everything is big.
Moby Dick House of Kabob is a casual Persian restaurant with numerous locations throughout the DMV area. The two DC locations are at 1300 Connecticut Ave. N.W. near Dupont Circle and 1070 31st Street N.W. in Georgetown, which are the only ones that I have been to so far. Moby Dick has a special place in my heart because it is one of the first places I ever ate in DC when I was on a pre-orientation for a trip to Tajikistan to study Persian. As a student of Persian and a big fan of Persian food, I can vouch that Moby Dick (despite its bizarre name) is one of the best places to get a reliably good Persian-style kabob in the area. Persian kabobs, when done right are hearty, juicy and served with delicious, buttery long grain rice that you will want to devour on its own (with some yogurt sauce on top). I typically order a lamb kabob (kabob-eh barreh) which is reliably satisfying. I have also had their koobideh kabob, which is similar to a seekh kabob in South Asian restaurants. It is good too and is a classic Persian dish but I don’t like it as much as the chunks of lamb. Their baklava is a bit pricey, but baklava tends to be and it’s very tasty. There are a few drawbacks to Moby Dick; first, it lacks an everyday offering of some of the more diverse, non-kabob dishes of Persian cuisine, like ghormeh sabzi or zereshk polo. Instead, it offers a daily lunch special that cycles through some of the other Persian classics. In addition, the wait can be a bit long and the service, while not rude, could be a bit warmer and friendlier. That aside, for your kabob fix, Moby Dick is hard to beat.
The Chickery is a fried chicken fast casual restaurant located at 1300 Connecticut Ave NW near Dupont Circle. This place is to KFC what Chipotle is to Taco Bell; it offers a sleeker take on fried chicken without getting too fancy. In terms of boneless options, they offer both chicken fingers and “chicken feathers,” which are different styles. I ordered the Chickery Box, which provides a somewhat balanced meal, allowing you to eat fried chicken without feeling overly guilty. It comes with a small salad and a side. Sides are generally Soul Food-style options, like corn bread and mac n cheese. I ordered collard greens to feel (slightly) healthy. Everything was tasty and the service was friendly. According to their website, The Chickery is looking to franchise. I wouldn’t be surprised if they succeed.
Beefsteak, somewhat confusingly, is a mainly vegetarian restaurant showcasing vegetables (like the beefsteak tomato, which explains the name). It has two locations: 800 22nd St NW in Foggy Bottom and 1528 Connecticut Ave NW near Dupont Circle. I had really hoped that Jose Andres, the celebrity chef behind Beefsteak (and a whole host of other places in DC, like the amazing China Chilcano) could make me like vegetables. The food itself is actually fairly tasty (though I didn’t like the “Frida Kale” when I had it), but it simply isn’t filling. You can add “something meaty” to your dish, such as a poached egg, chicken sausage or mozzarella, but even with that a meal from Beefsteak just isn’t filling enough for me. Most of its bowls are around the $7.50 to $8.50 range, but adding any of the protein options adds a couple of dollars. In the end, you get a meal for over $10 that still leaves you hungry. I’d honestly rather go to Chipotle, but Beefsteak still gets three stars for its innovative concept and fresh, healthy choices that appeal to those with healthier eating habits (and smaller stomachs) than mine. Their homemade juice drinks are tasty too.