An Ethnic Primer
Here are some tips for timid tasters and those sampling unfamiliar cuisines:
- Order a combination appetizer or sampler platter, if it’s available. That way you’ll get to taste several things so you’ll know what to order (or not) the next time.
- Many ethnic eateries have long menus—so anticipate having to make a couple of visits (or more) to scout out the best dishes.
- Particularly when it comes to Thai, Indian and Ethiopian cuisines, the spiciness level varies between establishments and even at the same establishment from day to day. It pays to ask about the spice level, as most places tend to tone things down for American tastes. Heat level is a tricky thing, however; one person’s blistering can be another person’s bland.
- Waitstaff often suggest items they think Americans will like. A menu’s “signature” dish may also fall into the category of a mass-market crowd pleaser, so keep that in mind. But be persistent if you’d like to try more adventurous items. Also ask if there are off-menu dishes or a separate menu just for nationals.
- Go for lunch; some restaurants have incredible specials that include soup, entrée, vegetables, rice, etc., allowing you to sample an eatery without plunking down a lot of money.
- Non-European ethnic restaurants generally aren’t known for their wine lists and desserts, but they are often good places to eat your vegetables, and a boon to vegetarians.
- Dine with someone whose nationality matches the restaurant, if you can; you’ll likely get lots of insider tips.
Here are highlights from our sampling of the area’s ethnic eateries.
Best cross-cultural menu item: Peanut butter and jelly rolled in injera at LacoMelza Ethiopian Café. (A unique pairing of the American kids’ classic with the spongy Ethiopian flatbread.)
Most adventurous menu: Sichuan Jin River. (Think Shredded Pig Ear in Hot Sauce, Spicy Braised Intestines in Hot Pot, Duck Blood Curd in Sichuan Sauce.)
Spiciest dish: Tabor. (Spicy strips of beef jerky mixed with bits of injera, spiced butter and spicy berbere sauce, served with steamed cracked wheat and eggs at LacoMelza Ethiopian Cafe, and it was for breakfast, too.)
Best drink for a buzz: Mojito at Cubano’s. (One was enough, at least when we had it; two and it would have been time to cha-cha.)
Best décor: Yekta. (The only restaurant in a strip shopping center on Rockville Pike with a painted dome ceiling, intricate murals and Iranian chandeliers.)
Dessert with the best name: Goush-e-feel at Faryab. (It means “elephant’s ear,” and it’s a dinner plate-size pastry of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and cardamom.)
Best meal deals: Lunch specials at Burma Road (soup, spring roll or egg roll; entrée; rice; vegetable; tea and fortune cookie, all for under $8), Sichuan Jin River (three dishes with rice and soup, $22) and Kao Thai (soup, spring roll or crab roll; entrée; rice; and vegetable, for $9.95 and under).
Dessert most like a cocktail: Gin-and-tonic sorbet at Jaleo. (Only avid gin-and-tonic drinkers should order this one; it’s a dead ringer for the cocktail.)
Best server: Elisa Choi, owner of Moa. (She spent a lot of time answering questions about her Korean menu.)
Dish that most looks like what it is: Beef tongue in red wine sauce at La Brasa. (The slices fanned out on the plate look like they’re saying, “Aah.”)
Menu item most likely to make you smarter: Maghz at Yekta. (That would be poached, seasoned calf brain.)
Best alcoholic beverage selection: Raku. (Amazing choice of sakes, plus more and better wine and beer options than at most ethnic eateries.)
Best flan: Jaleo. (It’s smooth as silk.)
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.