If your ethnic restaurant repertoire consists of burritos and lo mein, it’s time to ramp things up. If you’re already an adventurous eater, maybe you’d like a new spot to explore.
Either way, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve tasted our way through pupusas, pakoras, presunto and more to come up with our 25 favorite ethnic restaurants.
The Washington, D.C., region has long been a magnet for immigrant populations, and Montgomery County is no exception. Wedged among the local pizza parlors and American eateries is a world of restaurants owned and staffed by immigrants and their sons and daughters who know a thing or two about their native cuisine. Almost a third of the county’s residents are foreign born, according to the 2011 U.S. Census. And students in the public school system hail from nearly 165 countries and speak 184 different languages.
Although the county doesn’t collect data on ethnic eateries, there are a few obvious enclaves: the plethora of Ethiopian restaurants in Silver Spring; the Chinese eateries that have made Rockville into the region’s new Chinatown; a small Salvadoran strip on Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring; and Rockville’s Ritchie Center, which is a virtual United Nations of restaurants and markets.
For our list, we stuck to restaurants in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg, Rockville and Silver Spring, and we skipped the more commonplace cuisines (no Italian, French or Mexican, for example).
Note that “favorite” doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” We really like the food at each of these restaurants, but sometimes it’s the atmosphere, the authenticity of the menu or the history of the place that captivates us and sets it apart.
Faryab | Afghan
This restaurant has been a Bethesda staple ever since David Hashem—whose grandfather hailed from Faryab province in northern Afghanistan—opened the place in 1997. Unlike the country these days, the restaurant telegraphs peacefulness, from the unfussy décor to the quiet acoustics to the comforting combinations of lamb, eggplant, yogurt, spinach, pumpkin, rice and other ingredients that comprise Afghan cuisine. This has long been on our list of dependable go-to spots for weekday meals, as well as for special occasions.
Favorites: Mainstays include aushak, the Afghan version of lasagna, with its soft, flat layer of scallion-filled dumplings topped with meat sauce, yogurt and a refreshing sprinkling of mint. Then there’s quabili pallow, tender slices of braised, boneless leg of lamb served with spiced brown basmati rice, raisins and carrot strips. For a “wow” dessert, order the goush-e-feel (“elephant’s ear”), a Frisbee-size circle of light, crisp fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and cardamom.
4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-951-3484, www.farandawaycycling.com/Faryab/index.html
Burma Road | Burmese
In Asia, the Burma Road links Myanmar (formerly Burma) to southwest China. Here, it’s on Frederick Avenue. Owned by a small group of Burmese partners, the restaurant is spacious and a bit dated, with mint-green walls adding a bright touch. So what is Burmese cuisine? A hybrid, it blends spices, ingredients, dishes and techniques from nearby India (curries, samosas, roti), China (tofu, stir-frying) and Thailand (salads such as papaya and squid), while having its own signature items (see below).
Favorites: The restaurant’s traditional and much ballyhooed pickled tea leaf salad lives up to its reputation. The combination of shredded cabbage, pickled tea leaves, sesame seeds, fried garlic and roasted peanuts adds up to a must-have crunchy-spicy-sour experience. Braised in a homey sauce, the Spicy Pork with Pickled Mango sports big, tender chunks of pork shoulder; it’s like a jazzed-up version of pot roast. And nan gyi thoke, a noodle dish with onions, bean sprouts, cilantro, chicken and chili sauce, beats pad Thai hands-down. The lunch special—which includes a choice of soup, egg or spring roll; main course; rice; vegetable; tea; and fortune cookie—is a remarkable bargain at under $8.
617 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg, 301-963-1429, www.burmaroad.biz
A &J Restaurant | Chinese
Since 1996, the Chang and Tang families have operated this delightful little dim sum parlor, focusing on the small plates of northern China. That means dishes largely made with wheat—noodles, noodle soups, dumplings and pancakes—rather than the rice and seafood-centric Cantonese cuisine of the south. The families also own an A&J Restaurant in Annandale, plus five in California, all serving the same menu. This is one of the only exclusively dim sum restaurants around; we wish there were more.
Favorites: This place is worth a trip if only for the pan-fried pork dumplings—the best we’ve had. Bigger than other pot stickers and not overly greasy, they burst with flavor. The spicy beef noodle soup features an intense, beefy broth, tender beef morsels and a tangle of noodles. Both the smoked chicken and cucumber salad in hot garlic sauce are solid choices, but there are lots of other tempting small-plate contenders.
1319-C Rockville Pike (in the Woodmont Station shopping center), Rockville, 301-251-7878
Sichuan Jin River | Chinese
This no-frills eatery offers a superior slice of Sichuan cuisine and a real adventure in eating. Owned by members of the Pei family, who come from Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, the restaurant attracts a largely Asian crowd (always a good sign). Take the plunge with the four-page menu of authentic Chinese dishes, not the two-pager of Chinese-American staples. Even if you don’t fancy Seasoned Chicken Feet and Pig Ear, there are endless less adventurous options.
Favorites: The lunch special—which comes with three dishes, plus soup—is a fabulous deal for $22 that can easily feed two or even three. Good bets include flounder with Chinese greens, a fresh, healthy-tasting pair; pork with lotus root, a textural mix of sliced pork, crunchy lotus root, Chinese mushrooms and red and green peppers; and General Guan’s Chicken, an unusual, Mexican-influenced combo of sliced chicken with cumin sauce, cilantro and leeks.
410 Hungerford Drive, Rockville, 240-403-7351, www.scjinriver.com
Cubano’s | Cuban
Feeling down? Head to Cubano’s, where the atmosphere and the legendary mojitos will perk you up fast. Paintings of Cuban landscapes hang on bright yellow, red and green walls, and by the time the menu arrives—with a cover that features a maracas-shaking dancer—you’ll feel as if you’re relaxing in Havana. Owned by Cuban-born Adolfo Mendez, a former pharmacist, and his Venezuelan-born wife, Rocio Anzola-Mendez, the menu features the home-cooked fare of Mendez’s childhood. Many of the recipes, in fact, are his mother’s and grandmother’s.
Favorites: We’re not sure whether Abuela (that’s Grandma, to you) made mojitos, but the restaurant’s version sure packs a powerful rum punch. Order one with the appetizer sampler: You’ll want to hog the crunchy croquettes filled with a creamy, smoked ham concoction, not to mention the mini-mountain of tender roast pork. Make the main course picadillo a lo nene, a Cuban version of a sloppy Joe, made with ground beef, olives, capers, diced potatoes, onions and green peppers. Or go with the ropa vieja, the classic beef dish made with shredded beef and pepper strips that resemble “old clothes,” its translation.
1201 Fidler Lane, Silver Spring, 301-563-4020, www.cubanosrestaurant.com