While the DC area is loaded with Mexican taquerias and Salvadoran pupserias, Guatemalan restaurants are a bit harder to come by. La Bamba Restaurant in Silver Spring is your spot to try Guatemalan food, which is similar to the food of its Mexican and Salvadoran neighbors but with its own unique twists. You will find Mexican food on the menu here, but that’s for the Gringos. That said, I was the only Gringo in the restaurant when I went.
Guatemala does have its own style of tacos, which are rolled up, fried and crisy, but I opted for the pepian de pollo, a chicken stew, at the waitress’s recommendation. I tend to favor red meat over chicken and don’t generally love stews but the special Guatemalan sauce that the chicken was stewed in was extra flavorful and the green hot sauce that they brought me added the perfect kick.
For dessert, I had the rellenitos, a sort of fried plantain made into the shape of an empanada and stuffed with a sweet black bean filling. While it may seem strange to the North American palate to have black beans for dessert, it’s really no different than red beans in Asian cuisine.
La Bamba certainly isn’t fancy, but this no-frills, homey spot serves inexpensive, soulful and satisfying meals.
La Bamba is located at 8241 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring, MD
No, Chez Dior is not a designer clothing store. In fact, it’s the DC area’s only Senegalese restaurant and a very tasty one at that. This friendly, welcoming and brightly-decorated Hyatsville spot offers a broad menu showcasing one of West Africa’s most complex cuisines. Start off your meal with a pain de singe juice, made from the fruit of the baobab tree. After that (provided that you like fish), I highly recommend the thieboudienne, which is the national dish of Senegal (and neighboring Mauritania). Thieboudienne is a fish and rice dish that contains delicious, seasoned rice similar to jollof rice, but red in color due to tomato sauce and seasonings. The dish is great, but not if you don’t like fish and other flavors that may be a bit exotic for the American palate. Regardless of whether you go for the Thieboudienne, the laid-back, friendly vibe of Chez Dior is sure to make for a positive dining experience.
Chez Dior is located at 5124 Baltimore Ave, Hyattsville, MD 20781.
DC is known for its Ethiopian food and for good reason: there are probably more Ethiopian restaurants in this city than there are lame, overpriced steakhouses that K Street lobbyists frequent (THANK GOD!). But this overabundance of Ethiopian restaurants poses a conundrum: which should I eat at? Zenebech and Keren (technically Eritrean) are word-of-mouth favorites and Ethiopic is the home of bougie Ethiopian food (all are excellent). But Chercher is the lone Ethiopian restaurant on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list, making it worth a try. I started my meal with tej (Ethiopian honey wine). I brew tej from time to time at home and have had the homemade tej from Habesha- both my home-brew and Habesha’s were significantly funkier and drier than the tej at Chercher, which I suspect is made sweeter to conform to the American palate. That said, it was tasty and Chercher does boast an impressive selection of Ethiopian wine and beer. For food, I ordered kitfo, an Ethiopian version of steak tartare that comes with a side of cheese and collard greens. It’s worth noting that kitfo (best eaten raw) is mixed with ghee, making for a very rich and heavy meal. It was delicious, but I felt overstuffed without even finishing it. Also of note, it’s not worth ordering the delux version that comes with qocho, a flatbread. A few pieces of bread is simply not worth an extra $3, especially when you’re given plenty of injera. Decor is cute, prices are fairly reasonable and the spot is date-friendly.
Chercher is located at 1334 9th St NW.
Maiwand Grill is just a few blocks away from Lapis, DC’s high-end Afghan restaurant, but it’s a world apart. Both places serve Afghan food, and I’m a huge fan of both. But Lapis is really a place to go when you’re looking to splurge a bit on a nice, sit-down dinner. Maiwand Grill, a Maryland transplant that is mainly a carryout spot with a handful of tables, has little to offer in the way of atmosphere but does serve excellent Afghan food at very affordable prices. The combos are an excellent deal; they run around the $10 range (depending which you order) and include rice, salad and Afghan naan, which is a bit like Indian naan but thicker and less fluffy. However, if you read the small print, you’ll see that most of the veggie sides can be substituted for the rice and/or the salad, meaning that you can have your lamb kabob with delicious sides of pumpkin and spinach if you’re not in the mood for (the perfectly cooked) fluffy pile of Afghan rice. Either way, you can’t really go wrong.
Maiwand Grill is located at 1764 Columbia Rd NW.
Aldeerah is the DMV area’s only Saudi restaurant. Saudi Arabia, of course, tends to make the news for its treatment of women rather than its food but the beautifully-decorated Aldeerah (think salt and pepper shakers of Saudi men and women dressed in traditional clothes) is all about celebrating Saudi food. I went on a rather quiet night (it was the middle of the week) and ordered the chicken kabsa, the national dish of Saudi Arabia which consists of chicken over rice. It was tasty and well-cooked though not bursting with flavor. My friend ordered the jareesh, a type of porridge, which she really liked though, not being a fan of cream of wheat cereal, I steered clear of that one. For dessert, we split the haysa, a sort of date and ghee pudding that was very sweet and rich- good in small doses. Service was friendly, if quiet and not super attentive.
Aldeera is located at 262 Cedar Ln, Vienna, VA.
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.