Washington DC is likely somewhere you visited on a school trip, or during a summer when your parents thought it was important to teach you a civics lesson. You visited the Washington Monument and took your requisite photo in front of the Capitol Building. If the thought of visiting Washington DC generates the same yawn your Social Studies class did, then it might be time to refresh that view. There is, and always has been, a distinct culture in DC beyond the history, the towering monuments, and all the political drama.
Washington DC has been experiencing a kind of modern renaissance, from its burgeoning food scene to the uber-trendy exhibits at its plethora of acclaimed museums. The district and its suburbs rank 6th on the diversity scale of US metro areas. It’s also home to more than 200 foreign embassies, missions, and international organizations. So what better place to explore global cuisine without the hassle of an international flight? Here are five places to eat in the nation’s capital that will make you feel like you just got off a plane, minus the swelling, dry skin and jet lag.
You can’t talk about the tectonic shift in the DC food scene without mentioning José Andrés. Andrés is a Spanish-born, naturalized American citizen and James Beard award-winning chef, restaurateur, author, humanitarian, and immigrant rights advocate. He’s also the man behind the DC institution, Jaleo. Jaleo has served creative, accessible Spanish cuisine in a hip but casual setting for more than 25 years. Andrés is credited with starting the small plate craze in the united states, and Jaleo is shining example of this movement. You’ll find all the essential Spanish tapas at Jaleo, though with an innovative twist. The Paella features angel-hair pasta instead of rice, and the Patatas Bravas is served with a refreshing lemon aioli.
Keren Restaurant & Coffee Shop
Washington DC has a large number of Ethiopian restaurants, but why not give Eritrean food a try? The cuisine of the nation of Eritrea, located in the Horn of Africa and neighbored by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti has decidedly African flavors, with a subtle bit of Italian cooking technique thrown into the mix. There are many similarities to Ethiopian food but with variations in the ingredients and preparation used. At Keren Restaurant & Coffee Shop, you’ll find hearty stews like Ful, and robust, fragrant meat or fish curries. Dishes are accompanied by various breads such as injera, which resembles a crepe but with a fluffier, more porous texture. The meal is best enjoyed with one’s hands rather than with the use of utensils (though fear not, those are provided as well). So, grab a roll or tear off a piece of velvety injera and sop up some culture.
Compass Rose Bar + Kitchen
Global Street Food
The Compass Rose Bar + Kitchen adopted a line from a J.R.R. Tolkien poem in the The Lord of the Rings as its tagline: “Not all who wander are lost.” It’s apt given the restaurant’s focus on eclectic global street food. Peruse the menu and you’ll see dishes representing cuisines from across the globe as disparate as Malaysian Sambal Udang to Georgian Khachapuri. The owner, Rose Previte, visited more than 30 countries in 3 years while her husband was stationed in Russia. She returned to Washington DC with a passion for diverse cultures and incorporates different elements into her restaurants. The concept here is shared plates, so sit down with friends and explore the tastes of the world together.
Pro Tip: The back patio of Compass Rose Bar + Kitchen is a covered, North African-style bedouin tent. The tent can be reserved for parties of 6-8 and has a fixed-price, family-style tasting menu of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
Taco Bamba Taqueria
What do you get when a French-culinary educated chef with Cuban and Peruvian roots opens a restaurant with his take on Mexican street food? Taco Bamba Taqueria, of course. You’ll find an incredible array of the greatest hits here, from tacos to tortas, but what makes Taco Bamba Taqueria a winner are details, like the spicy sauces and perfectly pickled vegetables. We also have a slight obsession with nachos (we regularly make them at home for movie night!), so we were thrilled to give something like The Dark Knight a try. The nachos come with shrimp, crab, calamari, chiles and avocado and are smothered in a silky black, aromatic squid ink sauce. It was the riskiest thing we ordered, but it paid off in spades. And the fried egg on top of the nachos? We’re stealing that idea for our next movie night.
One look at the menu at Sababa, and we knew we had to make a reservation. We professed our love for Israeli cuisine long ago, but it wasn’t until we visited Zahav in Philadelphia that we began to understand its breadth and versatility. Similarly, the general concept at Sababa is a celebration of the many cultural influences on modern day Israeli cuisine. The chef, Ryan Moore, cut his teeth working at such excellent establishments as Zola and later Minibar by José Andrés. Sababa offers a variety of small and large plates meant to allow guests to sample a broad swath of the Jewish diaspora. Picking and choosing across the menu will undoubtedly give any tired tastebuds an enjoyably good, long stretch.
“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
As it turns out, there is a Social Studies lesson that comes with a visit to Washington DC. But it’s not yawn-inducing, nor, for that matter, what you might think. The lesson is that, like other great cities in our nation, Washington DC is becoming more and more diverse. It’s a city where different cultures collide. The outcome, as it has happened for generations of Americans, from native-born to naturalized, is that slowly the strange becomes the familiar, and the familiar becomes the beloved.
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