Restaurants manifest the spirit of capitalist multiculturalism. Entrepreneurship, international trade and migration, and cultural exchange all come together in these communal eateries.
In the last fifteen or so years, the Washington DC area has become a leader in ethnic restaurants. We lag behind New York City and Los Angeles, but we vie with Chicago and the Bay Area for third place in the United States. In some areas, such as Ethiopian cuisine, we are number one.
This guide is intended to help individuals enjoy good food, and keep my favorite places in business. Effective consumer choice improves your eating and, in the long run, improves the quality of available restaurants.
The better ethnic restaurants tend to have many of their kind in a given geographic area. Single restaurant representations of a cuisine tend to disappoint. Competition increases quality and lowers prices. The presence of many restaurants of a kind in an area creates a pool of educated consumers, trained workers and chefs, and ingredient supplies – all manifestations of increasing returns to scale.
Many of the best ethnic restaurants on this list come from the well-represented cuisines. This region is particularly strong in Salvadorean, Peruvian, Bolivian, Afghan, Ethiopian, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, and now Chinese cuisines. And when it comes to the last few years, the rise in Chinese is the big local story.
The best ethnic restaurants are often found in suburban strip malls, where rents are lower and the degree of feasible experimentation is greater. Small and cheap ethnic restaurants are often better than large ones. Northern Virginia and Maryland are underrated; Adams-Morgan, although it has many fine places, is by no means the fount of ethnic food. West Alexandria, Bailey’s Crossroads, Wheaton, Chantilly, and Fairfax are underrated; Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria, and Bethesda are overrated.
Here are the rules I used in an article in the Washington Post to locate high quality, good value restaurants:
Rule 1: For good value, avoid high-rent areas. Head for your local strip mall instead. Restaurants in ritzy areas will be either expensive or chains that can afford the rent but serve mediocre food for the masses.
Rule 2: Look for competition. The best ethnic food is found where there are the greatest number of restaurants, which is usually a sign that there is a large immigrant population that the restaurants can draw on for labor and expertise.
Rule 3: Order strategically. In fancy restaurants, never ask, “What should I get?” Instead, ask, “What’s best?” That allows the waiter to highlight what’s special and reveals how informed the staff is. If the waiter’s answer is “everything” — an uninformed or cowardly response — head for the door. In ethnic restaurants, in contrast, asking what’s best often gets you the most watered-down dishes, designed for gringos. Look at what the ethnic diners are eating and order that.
Rule 4: Know the “restaurant cycle.” When it comes to fine dining, restaurants have a shelf life: “First they cook for the critics, and it’s wonderful. And they win awards and the word gets out,” Cowen said. “Then everyone starts to come and it becomes more mainstream. The chef is less concerned about developing a reputation and more about cooking for the masses.” That can happen, he said, in as little as nine months.
After you have chosen a restaurant, you must order.
Ordering is often a more important decision than choosing the restaurant. Keep in mind that restaurant staff can be unreliable; sometimes they will steer you towards something safe and uninteresting. (Many Chinese still express amazement that many Westerners can eat with chopsticks, for instance.)
Some rules of thumb, none of which are absolute:
1. Avoid dishes that are “ingredients-intensive.” Raw ingredients in America – vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. – are below world standards. Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw ingredients than we do, at least if you have a U.S. income to spend there, and often even if one doesn’t. Ordering the plain steak in Latin America may be a great idea, but it is usually a mistake in Northern Virginia. Opt for dishes with sauces and complex mixes of ingredients. Go for dishes that are “composition-intensive.”
2. Appetizers often are better than main courses. Meals composed of appetizers and side dishes alone can be very satisfying. Thai and Lebanese restaurants provide the classic examples of this principle.
3. Avoid desserts. Most ethnic restaurants in America, no matter how good, usually fall flat with the desserts. Especially if the restaurant is Asian.
4. Order more than you plan to eat. Keep in mind that you are ordering for variety, not for quantity. You can always take the rest home.
Actually the best advice is to do exactly what I recommend under each particular heading.
Over the last few years I see two big trends. The first is that we now have plenty of places with first-rate Chinese food. Our region used to be pathetic in this category, now it is a leading light. So if you feel you don’t really enjoy Chinese food so much, think again. Second, northern Virginia has taken a clear lead. Fifteen years ago Maryland had better ethnic food, but now we are ahead in Chinese, Indian, and most other areas as well, excepting of course the Caribbean.
Now to the restaurants. But before proceeding, don’t assume that a place is always open (although it usually is), or even that it’s still there. Typically I have restricted my entries to what I regard as the best, or most interesting, examples of that cuisine in the area.
Remember, if you don’t like these, you probably didn’t follow my advice for what to order. Or you are to blame in some other manner, I don’t know which one, there are many possibilities. The most likely are that you simply don’t have very good taste, or perhaps you are not very bright. Oh well.
Also see “Six Rules for Dining Out“
Readers are encouraged to leave comments (moderated to keep out spam) and send us reader comments and photos. Please do let us know what places you recommend, and if a place listed here has closed, changed its name, or moved. tcowen [at] gmu.edu