2020 was the year that I loved restaurants — and the people who run them — more than ever. They displayed in public the kind of creativity, flexibility and crisis management that usually goes on behind closed kitchen doors. Countless employees have done what no one should be forced to do: risk their lives so we could eat, so they could eat, too. The social safety net proved thin and flimsy — or worse: nonexistent — for many restaurant workers in 2020.
Restaurants also opened during the pandemic, sometimes because they could no longer afford to wait. Many more closed, their deaths painfully premature. Others went into hibernation, hoping to hunker down until a vaccine changes people’s attitudes about dining out. My nine favorite restaurants (and one pop-up) somehow found a way to remain true to their craft during what will surely be the most trying year in their existence.
The menu at Bansari is expansive. It incorporates Indochinese, Punjabi, Kashmiri and Rajasthani specialties, but my favorite plates may be the egg-based ones created by chef and co-owner Deepak Sarin. He has developed a line of eggy preparations that mimic the famous half-fries, masalas and curries found at roadside dhabas in the Indian state of Gujarat. Sarin has a deft hand with other regional dishes, too, whether Rajasthani laal maas (a baby-goat preparation that features as many dried Kashmiri and Guntur chiles as you can stand) or mirchi ka salan (a Hyderabadi green chile dish smothered in an electric peanut curry). I’m also a fan of Sarin’s DIY pani puri, in which the housemade water is infused with green mango to add a little tropical punch.
Crown Restaurant and Bakery
The Washington area is blessed with a wealth of Caribbean carryouts and restaurants, many of them scattered along Georgia Avenue NW, which once was a hub for expats from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands. Natives of Trinidad and Tobago, Trevor and Jennifer Selman are the owners of Crown. They’re also the reigning royalty of the Caribbean food scene in the District. Their shop has a split personality: In the front, you’ll find all sorts of pastries and breads: currant rolls, butter bread, coconut drops, cassava pone, coconut-and-pineapple tarts and much more. In the back, there’s a steam counter where you can order jerk chicken, curried goat, oxtail stew and other savory dishes. But if you want a true taste of the Caribbean, stop by Crown on the weekend, when the Selmans serve up doubles, bake and shark and aloo pies, as good as you’ll find anywhere.
Birria has made its way from the home kitchens of Jalisco to the streets and storefronts of Los Angeles and Washington, where taquerias have devised clever ways to incorporate this fragrant consommé into their menus, whether through cheesesteaks, tamales or tacos. Rudy Zamora-Herrera is the chef and owner of El Papi, and he’s no newcomer to birria. He calls himself the “great birria master.” It’s painted right there on the wall at El Papi in Camp Springs, Md. One taste of his soup, and you’ll know he’s right. His version starts with brisket steamed over many hours, then submerged in a broth stained red with annatto seeds and infused with more than a dozen spices and aromatics, making for a stew that has a bottomless depth of flavor. Double your pleasure by ordering the quesabirria tacos and dipping them in the consommé. But don’t overlook the other tacos, either. Zamora-Herrera is just as particular about those.
El Papi Street Tacos, 5904 Allentown Way, Camp Springs, Md., 240-838-3830.
Like so many people who move to Washington and can’t find their favorite foods, Ana-Maria Jaramillo decided to make her own. She even took it a step further: She and her fiance and business partner, Gus May, launched La Tejana, a pop-up taqueria that specializes in Rio Grande Valley breakfast tacos. Jaramillo is a Texas native who has had a lifelong love affair with breakfast tacos, the kind found in countless homes and taquerias along the Texas-Mexico border. Under Jaramillo’s guidance, May handles much of the cooking, including the housemade flour tortillas, which are the key ingredient, just as quality bread is the key to any great sandwich. These tortillas are handmade with leaf lard, producing rounds that are flaky, rich and toothsome, perfect for whatever filling you desire. As for me? I love the el frijolito, a refried bean-and cheese combo, which reminds you that some of life’s finest pleasures are also the simplest.
La Tejana sells breakfast tacos at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Serenata inside La Cosecha, 1280 4th St. NE., as well as at 10:30 a.m. Sundays at Grand Duchess, 2337 18th St. NW.
Eric Yoo, the chef and owner of Menya Hosaki, serves ramen — and only ramen. His menu reflects his dedication to the art and craft of the Japanese noodle soup. A native of South Korea, Yoo comes by his love of noodles naturally, via kalguksu, jajangmyeon and other bowls of his youth. He studied ramen-making with Keizo Shimamoto, the chef behind the late Ramen Shack in Queens, and like his mentor, Yoo prepares everything in house, down to the last noodle you slurp. His ramen is designed to be enjoyed in person, so that you can see for yourself the architectural precision of each bowl. But even with takeaway, you can get a sense of his craft. You sense that, even during a pandemic when so much has been lost, Yoo still wants to hand you something exquisite, as if to remind you that nothing can squash the human pursuit of perfection.
Abigail and Anthony Opare and their sons — the family behind Ghana Cafe in Northwest Washington — originally moved their operations to Anacostia because of the community’s affordable rents. But in the process of relocating, the family streamlined their business into a carryout, which has quickly become a fixture in the historic neighborhood. The shop, led by chef Peter Opare, still specializes in Ghanaian red red, jollof rice and other West African plates that made Ghana Cafe such a magnet, but the carryout also sells a line of sandwiches served on housemade Chinese milk buns. There is not a miss on the menu. I am particularly enamored of Opare’s fry skills, best sampled with his chicken sandwich and the fried whiting, the latter a nod to a fish that has long played an important role in Washington and beyond.
Tosokchon means “native villages” in English, and as the name suggests, the Annandale restaurant sticks close to home. Its menu, written in Korean and English, caters to a crowd well versed in the art of whole-animal cooking: soup concealing blood sausage so light and delicious it doesn’t even register as offal; galbi tang stew with glass noodles and large, bone-in pieces of succulent short rib; jokbal, a pig trotter dish in which you wrap small ovals of hock meat and skin around raw garlic (or a jalapeño slice, or both), dunk the bite into gochujang sauce and sit back as the flavors explode in your mouth. One of the house specialties is soondubu jjigae, a spicy stew in which lobes of soft tofu quake in an umami-packed broth with your choice of protein. When eaten over rice, soondubu jjigae assumes a gentler persona, allowing you to luxuriate in the custardlike qualities of the tofu.
2Fifty Texas BBQ has to be the greatest success story of the pandemic. After selling sandwiches and vacuum-sealed meats at farmers markets, the husband-and-wife team of Debby Portillo and Fernando Gonzalez brought their show indoors and opened a smokehouse in the former Dumm’s Corner Market in Riverdale Park. Pitmaster Gonzalez is a student of Central Texas barbecue, and he’s a quick study. Gonzalez and Portillo are natives of El Salvador, where there’s no real tradition of cooking meats in offset smokers. But Portillo’s family has a long history of running restaurants and pupuserias in the home country, which helps explain 2Fifty’s utter professionalism from its first day in business. The meats pulled from Gonzalez’s 500-gallon, indirect-flow smoker are the best in the area, period. The demand for his barbecue, in fact, has been so great the owners recently purchased a custom-made 1,000-gallon smoker, which they expect to debut in 2021. This is the feel-good story we needed.
Spelunker’s Burgers and Frozen Custard
This spring, when the pandemic first started to wreak havoc, Steve and April Antonelli realized they had a secret weapon to keep their family business afloat: a drive-through window where they could continue to sell their juicy griddle burgers built with a blend of chuck and brisket, ground in-house daily. That simple window prevented a tidal wave of red ink: Sales were down about 20 percent, Steve Antonelli told me in April; without the drive-through, it would have been closer to 80 percent. The co-founder might have been exaggerating a tad because, as best as I can tell, Spelunker’s is beloved throughout the region. The reasons are obvious: those amazing burgers, for starters, but also the housemade custards, the fresh-cut fries and the Vienna all-beef dogs tucked into New England-style rolls and topped with a chili whose heat is offset with the sweetest hint of pureed carrots. When you need to get away for the day, head straight to Front Royal.
When I originally reviewed Wooboi in March, chef and owner Minwoo Choi had just a single location in Herndon. Since then, he has opened a second in Alexandria, with a similarly streamlined menu focused mostly on variations of heat and sandwich toppings. Choi’s hot chicken borrows elements from both East Asia and the American South. He has developed a custom brine that incorporates, among other ingredients, buttermilk and shio koji, the latter a fermented rice product that tenderizes his free-range, antibiotic-free chicken while bringing out its natural umami. Choi’s overnight brine is the reason his breast-meat sandwiches are so irresistible, chicken to the power of chicken. His six spice levels, though exactingly prepared, are mostly stunts to attract the kind of knuckleheads who think ingesting Bhut jolokia and Carolina Reapers — two of the hottest peppers on Earth — is somehow a sign of manhood.
139 Spring St., Suite 1, Herndon, Va., 703-435-3703; 531 Montgomery St., Alexandria, Va. wooboichicken.com.