Goin’ to the Mailbag — Cheap Eats in NW DC, Ethiopian in Bethesda
I was talking to my family about my next blog post and said I thought this would be a good time to go to the ol’ mailbag and answer your DC dining questions. Awkward silence. Apparently I haven’t received any letters and there is no mailbag. All those letters my wife was “setting aside” for me turned out to be Val-Pak coupons and cooking magazine renewals (no wonder I stopped getting Cook’s Illustrated).
No problem, I said, modeling resiliency for the kids, let’s go to the ol’ gmail account instead. I brought up the Rick Eats DC inbox on my phone and asked my son Daniel to read the questions aloud. After scrolling for a couple of minutes, Daniel said he was having a hard time finding non-spam. “Oh, here’s one,” he said, “one of your Virginia readers wants to know if you ever cross the Potomac.” Hmmm. Doesn’t quite seem to be in the spirit of the thing. I briefly considered responding with something like “I do cross the Potomac to fly out of Dulles and the quality of Virginia dining increased dramatically when they remodeled Concourse D.” But I didn’t want to stoop to their level even if I had a zinger, and, besides, it simply wasn’t true.
Anyway, I decided to prime the pump by coming up with my own questions and then answering them. It’s behavior that could get you escorted off the Metro but hopefully it’ll be less disturbing here.
Cheap Eats To-Go in NW DC
Question 1: Hey Rick, really enjoy the blog! Here’s my dilemma. I work downtown and live in Chevy Chase-DC. Lots of nights I don’t feel like cooking but I’m getting sick of picking up Moby Dick or Cava on the way home. What’s a good, inexpensive, alternative that will be filling and travel well? Best, Billy.
Rick Answers: Good question, Billy! You won’t believe this, but I’ve faced that dilemma myself. Here are some interesting cheap-eats places in Northwest DC that do take-out well:
Mi Cuba Cafe, 1424 Park Rd NW, Washington DC (Columbia Heights) (Open for lunch and dinner; closed Tuesdays)
Regular readers know that Mi Cuba is one of my favorite cheap-eats spots in DC, mostly on the strength of a single plate of food: the lechon asado (Cuban-style roast pork sautéed with onions) with sides of fried sweet plantains and rice & black beans. Sometimes I try to expand my repertoire with some vaca frita, picadillo or roast chicken. But while everything is good here, in the end I always wish I’d stuck with the roast pork. It’s like going to Taqueria El Mexicano and not getting the chicken mole or Rasika and not ordering palak chaat. You’ll still have a good meal but there’ll be a hole in your heart that no amount of ropa vieja can fill.
Mi Cuba does a bustling carry-out business, but unlike the other restaurants on this list, it’s primarily a sit-down restaurant with a full bar. If you have time, the roast pork always goes down better with a mojito and a smile.
Mi Cuba’s Lechon Asado, $14.95
The pork is moist with crispy bits from a turn on the flat-top as the onions cook. The beans and rice are good but standard issue (you can also get the rice and beans cooked together in a mixture called congri). But the real star — in addition to the pork — are the sweet plantains. They’re the best I’ve ever had. The plantains themselves are perfectly ripe and not overly greasy. The outsides are deeply caramelized with crisp, slightly chewy edges that taste like plantain-banana candy.
Lechon Asado at El Exquisito in Little Havana, Miami
I’ve eaten a lot of Cuban roast pork in my day. My family spends every Christmas in Key West — Cuba’s only 90 miles away! — and every year you’ll find me at El Siboney, Sandy’s, and 5 Brothers tucking into some plated/sandwiched Cuban pork. This year, we drove back to Miami and had lunch at one of the Little Havana stalwarts — El Exquisito. I ordered pretty much the same roast pork plate as Mi Cuba — pork with congri and sweet plantains, pictured above. It was good. Mi Cuba’s is better.
Sumah’s West African Restaurant & Carry-Out, 1727 7th St NW, Washington DC (Shaw) (Open for lunch and dinner; closed Mondays)
We’re blessed with a bevy of Ethiopian restaurants in the DC area but not much from countries like Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast on Africa’s West coast. You’ve probably driven by Sumah’s dozens of times and never noticed it, even with its colorful signs out front and location in the heart of Shaw. It’s about as bare-bones-bordering-on-shabby an operation as you can get. There are a handful of tables and if you sit down eventually someone will come to take your order, but take-out orders seem to outdistance dine-in patrons by about 2:1.
One of the charming thing Sumah’s does is offer first-timers a sampling of their sauces and stews before ordering — okra, egusi, peanut butter and various leafy greens.
Potato Leaves with Beef, Peanut Butter Stew with Chicken, and Egusi Soup with Goat, $16
The drill here is you pick 2-3 sauces/stews and then add beef, chicken or goat. I’d stick with the beef and chicken since the goat can be a bit tough and gristly. The unfamiliar greens — including potato leaves, krain krain (jut leaves), and cassava leaves — are delicious departures from spinach, kale and collards.
It’s also a lot of food. I was eating alone the night I ordered the plate of food pictured here. Gradually, I noticed that a lot of the other tables were occupied by couples sharing an order. Oh, I thought, that explains the waitress’s little eyebrow lift when I ordered. Suddenly I was Adam Richman on an episode of Man vs. Food — except no one was cheering me on and I didn’t have a whole crew ready to jump in if I started looking peaked. I finished the stews but left some of the six servings of white rice they came ladled on. Still, my ego couldn’t admit defeat. When the waitress came over with the check I just said next time I’d try the jollof rice — like it was the rice and not my appetite that was to blame. Damn, there’s that eyebrow lift again.
Sunrise Caribbean Restaurant, 5329 Georgia Ave, Washington DC (Brightwood Park) (Open for lunch and dinner)
Sunny-yellow walls inside and out grace this bright Trinidadian-Jamaican spot in upper Northwest. Place your order at the counter for carry-out or find a spot at one of the tables.
Jerk Chicken and Brown Stew Chicken Combo with Mac & Cheese and Callaloo, $12
Another hearty and homey plate of food, my favorites here being the brown stew chicken and the callaloo (the jerk chicken could stand a bit more heat). Sunrise does all the other classics like oxtail, curry chicken, escovitch fish, and Jamaican patties, as well as vegan entrees and salads. You’ll be happy with the familiar comfort of mac & cheese and collards but try some of the other sides like the curry potatoes and chickpeas and the callaloo.
Letena Ethiopian Restaurant, 3100 14th St NW #121, Washington DC (Columbia Heights) (Open lunch and dinner)
Literally steps away from Mi Cuba in Columbia Heights is Letena, a fast-casual Ethiopian that opened in 2016. Between them is a cheap parking garage which comes in handy if you don’t feel good about your parking karma that day. I don’t even bother circling anymore and found that the cost of parking is more than outweighed by what I’ve saved on Stresstabs.
The interior at Letena is industrial art-house chic, with concrete floors, wooden tables and tasteful Ethiopian textiles adorning the walls.
Meat Sampler, $19.50
The food is very good, including the kitfo’s sneaky heat (above left), the collards with jalapeños (top middle), and a unique salad of chopped mushrooms tossed with red onion, garlic, hot peppers and olive oil (bottom left).
Ethiopian in Bethesda
Question 2: Hey Rick, love the blog! I’m not the same person who asked the last question and would never live in Chevy Chase-DC. I used to have to travel to Silver Spring or DC for my fix of Ethiopian, but recently saw that Bethesda now has not one but two new Ethiopian spots called CherCher and Lucy. Both of them are spin-offs of established restaurants — CherCher on 9th St NW and Lucy in Silver Spring. Which of the two do you think is better? Best, William (ps, I never go by Billy).
Answer: You somehow read my mind, William. There are lots of things Bethesda needs. A good Jewish deli. A good barbecue spot. Good Vietnamese. Real Mexican. But at least there are restaurants trying to do those things, even if not very well. So imagine my excitement when both CherCher and Lucy opened this winter. My sole concern was (and is) whether Bethesda can support two Ethiopian spots. My worst-case scenario is that the economics don’t work for both to survive and they take each other down. Just thinking about it makes me want to grab some salt to toss over my shoulder.
CherCher Ethiopian Cuisine, 4921 Bethesda Ave, Bethesda MD (Open for lunch and dinner)
CherCher occupies the seemingly snake-bit location on Bethesda Ave once occupied by Nest and other short-lived restaurants.
CherCher’s modest and unassuming interior. One night I was there one employee ran the entire front of the house — seating guests, waiting on tables and tending bar. And while she was well-meaning, she wasn’t the most efficient tool in the shed. My point is go somewhere else if you’re nervous about catching a movie.
Special Kitfo and CherCher Special House Tibs
The kitfo at CherCher is beyond reproach. Beautifully chopped, fresh raw meat with enough spice to give you a low-level burn. Take a piece of injera and eat the raw beef with some of the greens and cheese. Terrific.
The tibs are good and would have been better if they’d remembered the jalapeños, which are integral to the dish. Instead of apologizing and whisking it away to cook it correctly, the manager simply reported that the chef “forgot” to add the jalapeños and brought me a small dish of sliced raw ones. Ok, thanks, but not the same thing. This guy clearly did not graduate from the Danny Meyer school of hospitality.
Special Vegan Combo
The vegan combo was very good. In particular, the three lentil dishes were not over-cooked as in many Ethiopian spots and each retained its own identity. The shriveled green beans and carrots were also delicious and, along with the salad, added a jolt of acidity to the plate. The cabbage wasn’t over-cooked and retained some welcome texture. Surprisingly, the weak link was the greens, which were fine but under-seasoned.
Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant, 4865 Cordell Ave, Bethesda MD (Open for lunch and dinner)
Lucy opened in “old” Bethesda in the spot occupied for many years by Grapeseed.
The interior and staffing of Lucy couldn’t be more different than CherCher.
This is a big restaurant, with lots of seating and two rooms in the back for private parties and Ethiopian coffee ceremonies. They also went big on the decor, some of which they inherited from Grapeseed — check out the long granite bar — but much of which they added like hiring local artists to create some striking original wall art.
The staffing reflects a similar ambition. There were about the same number of customers at both restaurants when I ate — 10-12 people at maybe 4-5 tables. But while CherCher made due with a single server to seat people, serve and tend bar, Lucy had three servers and a hostess and a bartender. Maybe they are both still settling in and haven’t settled on the right level of staffing, but it’s telling to see which side of the service equation they err on. CherCher apparently would rather have too few servers than have some with not enough to do; Lucy would prefer to have too many servers than inconvenience their customers.
Vegetable Combo with Kitfo, Chikna Tibs and Fish Gulesh
I tried to order a similar meal at Lucy for comparison purposes. You can see that the presentation is somewhat different. Rather than bring the veggie platter separate from the proteins, Lucy apportions the proteins in the middle (here in thirds because we had three diners).
Most of the dishes were a step below CherCher. The kitfo wasn’t as vibrant. The lentils and cabbage were not as well-cooked. And the green beans came with potatoes that made them a bit heavier and duller than CherCher’s. On the other hand, Lucy added a couple of dishes like a lovely cold beet salad, the tibs were every bit as good as CherCher’s (and they remembered the jalapeños!) and the greens actually improved on CherCher.
So which is better? Unfortunately it’s not clear-cut. The food is a bit better at CherCher but the service and decor go to Lucy. In the end, I’m a food guy and service is easier to fix, so I’d be more likely to return to CherCher. But again, the most important thing — um, William — is that at least one of them survives.
Well, that’s it for now, time to close up the ol’ mailbag. It’s been so much fun answering your questions. We’ll do it again soon. In the meantime, I’ve got some places to check out in Virginia. Does anyone know whether “Glebe Road” is just a generic term for “street” in Virginia? I feel like it could be the equivalent of “Peachtree” in Atlanta. I’m afraid if I may ask Siri for directions to the corner of Glebe and Glebe and she’ll blow a circuit.
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