By Ezra Klein
On Monday, a reader asked me for my top picks for Restaurant Week. here’s my answer: Don’t go. But I only noticed that that was the question when I double-checked it. Originally, I thought it was to name my favorite restaurants in DC. And since I actually thought of a list, I’ll just pretend that was the question.
The following list is not an argument for the best restaurants in DC. Nor are they even the finest restaurants I know in the area (that list, for instance, would include the tasting room at Restaurant Eve). They’re just my favorites. And mindful of Ben Casnocha’s insight that lists with an overly pat total (5, 10, 15, etc) are probably either including irrelevant entries or excluding relevant ones, we’ve got 12.
12) Spice Express. I go to the one on 15th and Vermont. In the wasteland that is DC’s takeout lunch scene, Spice is one of the few places with ample vegetarian options, evident care in the food, a great concept, and the occasional total home run. I never put up my post bashing the dull meal I had at Rasika, but there were definite items on the list that compared unfavorably with lunches I’ve had at Spice Express. And Shiv, the owner, makes you feel like a regular: He’s warm, solicitous, and acts happy to see you even when the line is out the door.
11) Super H Market. This isn’t a restaurant, exactly. But it does have a lot of samples, and the spicy tofu soup they hand out near the scallions is a joy, with enough heat to leave me hiccuping as I finish shopping. But more to the point, Super H is just the happiest place on earth. The produce — both America and Asian — is fresh, bountiful, and cheap, cheap, cheap. I buy both my bok choy and my dill there. And the rest of the building is filled with every flavor I call a favorite — from roe to Chinese black vinegar to Korean red chili pepper — and more than a few that I imagine I’ll be calling a favorite a year from now. It’s also got an oddly comprehensive selection of Latin foods. I finally found epazote, for instance.
10) Great Wall Szechuan. The mala menu at Great Wall is the only Chinese I’ll order, or even happily eat, in the city. The mapo tofu, mala cucumber, mala kung pao, mala bean sprout, and mala double-cooked pork are all terrific. Plus, they deliver widely and quickly. (Previous post on Great Wall.)
9) Vace. People say the pizza here is great. I wouldn’t know. I always buy the fresh pasta. Four bucks and three minutes in boiling water later and you’ll forget that you’re in a city with a little Italian deli, as opposed to an actual Little Italy. Vace is also the home of great anchovies and olives, smoked mozzarella, burrata, the best prosciutto di Parma…
8) Taylor deli. Sounds weird, but Taylor has become my go-to brunch place. I get the Spring Garden — broccoli rabe and sharp provolone — with extra hot peppers and cheese. Add in some root beer from the yuppie soda machine.
7) Bar Pilar. Amanda and I had a corn soup there that was so good I had to order it twice. I’m not certain I’ve ever had a better soup than that one. I love the anchovies, the prawns, the olives, the Marcona almonds, and pretty much everything I’ve ever ordered here. It’s a well-known bar, but it doesn’t get sufficient credit for the absurd excellence of its food, or the quiet ambition of its menu.
6) Hong Kong Palace. Try the lamb cumin, which a nicer restaurant would charge $28 for and be made famous by. Or maybe the spicy fish and tofu. No, wait, go for the tea-smoked duck, which tastes like I always hope barbecue will taste. Actually, get the tendon. Definitely the tendon.
5) Central. I wasn’t originally a fan. The scallops were a disappointment and the tuna burger unexciting. It wasn’t till much later that I was taken there and ordered the lobster burger. Holy shit. Then there’s the beef cheeks, which come with more cheeks than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time. The salmon and lentils. The chicken. The perfect, crusty bread. The best dirty martini in town. The best desserts in town, particularly the “chocolate bar.” I also love that this place is in DC. We deserve more restaurants that try this hard, and think this much of us.
4) Jaleo and Oyamel. Speaking of restaurants that respect DC, you can’t leave out the Jose Andres joints. I group Jaleo and Oyamel in the same line because I use them in different seasons. I go to Jaleo for the cold soups, the perfect salads, and the tomato bread with Manchego cheese. It’s best in the summer and spring. Oyamel is just the opposite: Roasted Brussels sprouts, plantain fritters filled with black beans, warm salads, rice with corn truffles, fries in a mole poblano sauce, and great drinks. I’m there in fall and winter. Both are great for vegetarians.
3) 2 Amy’s. The best pizzas in town. If you see any special pies with egg or green tomato, order them. Great vegetable specials. The best charcuterie in town. Suppli a telefono, or however you spell that. Not sure I’ve ever had a bad meal here. Not sure I ever will.
2) Komi. Arguably the single best meal of my life. And I’ve had some good meals in my time, at some restaurants that are pretty well known. Komi edges them all out. Which isn’t to say it’s my favorite restaurant. It’s pricey, and it’s sterile. But it’s the most brilliantly conceived meal I’ve ever eaten, and probably the best executed. The feeling is awe more than it is love. But awe is good. I want more awe. (My review of Komi. Amanda’s less-impressed review of Komi.)
1) Palena Cafe. I could eat here every night for the next month and never get bored. Think that’s impressive? I’d probably also order the same thing most nights. Roast chicken. Might start with a burger now and then. But roast chicken now, roast chicken tomorrow, roast chicken forever. And I don’t even like chicken! But at Palena, it’s easily my favorite dish in DC. At $14 — which is about par for the cafe — it’s easily the best value in DC. And it’s easily my favorite place to go on a weeknight in DC. If I didn’t limit my meals with meat, I’d probably be there three times a week. As it is, the plurality of the meals where I do eat meat take place in those walls, over that perfect, perfect roast chicken. Awe is great, but Palena is love. (More gushing over Palena’s roast chicken.)
Obviously, the comments could be about how this list sucks. And don’t let me dissuade you from making such comments. But do the folks googling “best places to eat in DC” a favor and leave some more options in the comments. Who isn’t on this list, but should be?