A lot of you are probably wondering where the whole idea of appetizers came from. Yeah, me neither. But that didn’t stop me from spending several minutes on Wikipedia trying to unearth some tidbits.
For instance, according to Wikipedia, did you know that the custom of serving appetizers may have originated in Russia, “where small snacks of fish, caviar and meats were common after long travels”? Unless it actually started in China or Greece or Scandinavia or Lebanon. Apparently no one really knows for sure. Which doesn’t really surprise me if the question is what country came up with the idea of having a little nosh after a long road trip. Spoiler alert: they all did.
Another thing I learned from Wikipedia is that people who say they’re not really hungry so they’ll just order an appetizer for dinner have a moral obligation to explain to their table mates why they didn’t do a better job of planning what they were going to eat during the day. (Ok, I added that one.)
If there’s an appetizer that epitomizes 2016, I’d nominate Chinese steamed buns (bao), which seem to be popping up everywhere. You can see some of my favorites, below. If Cheesecake Factory doesn’t introduce a new dish in 2017 called Bao Wow!(TM) with Kung Pow!(TM) Dipping Sauce, I’ll be surprised.
So here are my top appetizers/starters in the DC area. You may notice there are no soups or traditional salads. Those are such big categories that they deserve their own separate blog posts — which I’ll get to just as soon as I’m prepared to endure another few minutes on Wikipedia.
#1 Appetizer in DC — Pork Sausage, Habanero, Peanuts and Lychee Salad, $14, Rose’s Luxury, 717 8th St SE, Washington DC
No shock to anyone who has been following this blog — a #1 ranking to this sweet, salty, porky, herby and crunchy gift of love from Rose’s.
#2 Appetizer in DC — Palak Chaat, $10, Rasika, 633 D St NW, Washington, DC
No list of best DC appetizers could be complete without the must-order of all must-orders. I’m guessing there’s someone in the kitchen at Rasika whose sole job is to crank out bowl after bowl of this flash-fried spinach topped with sweet yogurt, tamarind and date chutney. One of the truly iconic DC dishes, still killing it after all these years.
#3 Appetizer in DC Crispy Rice Salad (Naem Khao), $10, Thip Khao, 3462 14th St NW, Washington DC
Crispy rice is one of the world’s greatest culinary treasures. The Spanish love the nutty, golden socarrat at the bottom of a paella pan. The Koreans have nurungji (literally “scorched”), the rice in stone pot dishes like dolsot bibimbop that grows crisper as it sits in front of you. And Persian cooks are judged on their ability to deliver the perfectly tanned crust of rice on the bottom of a pan of tahchin.
It’s no surprise then that this Laotian salad built on a foundation of crispy coconut rice is so delicious. Add some scallions, sour pork, red onion, peanuts, cilantro and lime juice, wrap the whole thing up in lettuce leaves, and you’ve got a ten-buck symphony on your hands.
#4 Appetizer in DC — Brown Rice Bread with Cauliflower, Yogurt, Black Garlic and Benne Seeds, $12, Tail Up Goat, 1827 Adams Mill Rd NW, Washington DC
You’ll be happy with any of the rotating trio of toasts at this Adams Morgan hot spot. This particular combination is no longer on the menu but just order whatever sounds good. Or better yet, order something that sounds odd like the pickled sardines with whipped lardo and see how much you enjoy it.
#5 Appetizer in DC — Shrimp buns ($13) and Pork Buns ($12), Momofuku CCDC, 1090 I St NW, Washington DC
Buns helped launch David Chang’s career in New York and are reliable winners at Momofuku DC. The pork belly buns are the ones that started it all, and the fried shrimp cake buns with iceberg lettuce, pickled onions and spicy mayo go down just as easy.
#6 Appetizer in DC — Yum Talay (shrimp, squid and scallop tossed with hot chili and lime juice), $9.95, Ruan Thai, 11407 Amherst Ave, Wheaton, MD
A great Thai dish at a great price in my old stomping grounds up in Wheaton. It’s a delicious study in contrasts: hot/cold, sweet/sour, spicy/cooling, chewy/crispy.
#7 Appetizer in DC — Tiger shrimp, $12, Bad Saint, 3226 11th St NW, Washington DC
One of the many Filipino discoveries worth standing in those godforsaken lines for.
#8 Appetizer in DC — Raw Royal Sea Bass, Brunoise, Orange, Fish Sauce Aioli and Radish, $14, Kyirisan, 1924 8th St NW, Washington DC
Refreshing and light, the perfect way to begin wading into a meal at Kyirisan.
#9 Appetizer in DC — Deviled Eggs with Green Sauce, $4.95, 2 Amy’s, 3715 Macomb St NW, Washington DC
The deviled egg mania of the past few years seems to have almost played itself out, but thankfully good deviled eggs will always be with us. And no one in town does them better than 2 Amy’s. From the olive-oil whipped yolks to the green sauce that I literally reverse-engineered for my daughter’s bat mitzvah, these eggs bring me back to 2 Amy’s more often than the pizza.
#10 Appetizer in DC — Melitzanosalata (smoked eggplant dip with roasted peppers, walnuts and feta), Kapnos, 2201 14th St NW, Washington DC ($12), Kapnos Kouzina, 4900 Hampden Lane, Bethesda MD ($10), Kapnos Taverna, 4000 Wilson Blvd, Arlington VA ($10).
One of the things the Kapnos restaurants have in common is their selection of Greek spreads and terrific flatbread. The smoky and tangy eggplant dip (background) is my favorite but you can’t go wrong with the tyrokaftari (feta, smoked manouri cheese, grains of paradise; foreground) or the taramosalata (carp roe, caviar, cauliflower). You can get a sampling of three spreads for $24, but you’ll get more food for less money if you pick two spreads and get full orders.
#11 Appetizer in DC — Leeks Dijonnaise, $13, Convivial, 801 O St NW, Washington DC
“Leeks Dijonnaise” sounds like a simple bistro classic but shows up as a beautifully composed steamed and sliced leek salad with mini croutons, fried capers and chopped egg.
#12 Appetizer in DC — Shrimp with Lemon, Chiles and Toasted Bread Crumbs, $13, Casolare, 2505 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington DC
This dish reminds me that everything is better with toasted breadcrumbs. Here they adhere to the fresh-tasting shrimp in an almost faux-fried coating with just the right amount of lemon and heat to keep things interesting.
#13 Appetizer in DC — Steak Tartare with Tater Tots, Egg Yolk, Caramelized Onion Dip, $15, Hazel, 808 V St NW, Washington DC
Mix it all together and enjoy the beefy, creamy, eggy, crispiness. The potatoes can be a tad greasy, sort of like McDonald’s hash browns, but hold their crunch.
#14 Appetizer in DC — Frito Misto, $15, Requin, Mosaic District, 8296 Glass Alley, Fairfax VA
These shrimp, calamari, fennel and lemon are beautifully fried and seasoned.
#15 Appetizer in DC — Crab Idiyappam, with String Hopper, Cocnut Milk and Curry Leaf, $12, Bindaas, 3309 Connecticut Ave, Washington DC
Creamy, coconuty crab oozing over two rice noodle pancakes.
#16 Appetizer in DC — Housemade Ricotta with Olive Oil, Sage and Chile Flakes, $9, Alta Strada, 465 K St NW, Washington DC
Fresh cheese, toasted bread, olive oil, and a little chile heat. Simple, elemental and satisfying.
#17 Appetizer in DC — Sicilian Tuna Mousse with Salsa Verde and Baby Celery, $10, All-Purpose, 1250 9th St NW, Washington DC
The pizza at All Purpose may leave something to be desired (see my entry for Most Disappointing Pizza in DC) but there are lots of excellent dishes to compensate, including this smooth tuna mousse topped with lovely herbaceousness.
#18 Appetizer in DC — Heirloom Corn Tortilla Chips with Roja Salsa ($3) and Clasico Guacamole ($10), Espita Mezcaleria, 11250 9th St NW, Washington DC
Much of the food at Espita Mezcaleria is hit or miss, but not these chips. They are thick and substantial with tons of corn flavor.
#19 Appetizer in DC — Ceviche Mixto, $14.95, La Limena, 765 Rockville Pike, Rockville MD
Simple and traditional ceviche, not overly marinated, at this gem of a Peruvian restaurant on Rockville Pike.
#20 Appetizer in DC — Fried Chicken Steamed Buns, $15, Toki Underground, 1234 H St NE, Washington DC
These pillowy buns swaddling crispy-sweet-spicy nuggets, kewpie mayo and veggies are pretty much irresistible.