Beyond the Beltway: Tucked away Asian food adventures
D.C. might be known for its monuments, cherry blossoms and museums for days, but if you branch beyond the big tourist spots, some lesser-known locales will reward your tastebuds.
The Nation’s Capital is fast becoming a foodie destination, brushing off criticism from more illustrious culinary giants like San Francisco and New York. But while downtown is chasing trends of steakhouses, boutique burger shops and cupcakeries, some long-standing authentic Asian food mainstays have been quietly awesome for years. These are some of my favorite haunts beyond the Beltway.
Tachibana - McLean, VA
A homestyle Japanese restaurant, this place has been a favorite of mine for a long time. Hidden away in a sleepy Virginia suburb about 20 minutes from downtown, the atmosphere inside this cherished neighborhood gem is casual and family-friendly. Guests are also asked to silence electronics, which I find rather refreshing.
Owned and operated by Master Sushi Chef Eiji Yahashi, Tachibana has been raking in rave reviews from the community since 1982 with its wide variety of regional staples from across Japan. Some of the items that turned me into a repeat customer include Unaju (a Tokyo favorite consisting of grilled eel over rice); a variety of comforting hotpots; a modern twist on classic Jidori Chicken; and a rotating selection of fresh sashimi. Don’t forget to survey the board by the hostess stand, either—the daily deals and seasonal specials are definitely worth consideration.
If you find yourself completely torn or just plain overwhelmed by the assortment of options, the bento boxes offer a fantastic cross section of the menu and could even be shared, depending on how hungry you are. Bottom line: I've never had a bad meal here. You could close your eyes, stab at the menu with your finger and not be disappointed with the result.
Be sure to try: Sashimi special. If you don’t like raw fish, opt for the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet). But seriously, everything on the menu is amazing.
A&Js - Annandale, VA, or Rockville, MD
Some might be familiar with Cantonese dim sum, with its steam carts of dumplings and other doughy delights. However, I find this bite-sized cuisine–often heavy on the meat side or containing veggies cooked with pork—difficult for my vegetarian friends to navigate. Specializing in small-plate, Taiwanese-style food and soup noodles, I’ve always appreciated A&J’s for their meatless offerings that include vegetarian buns and dumplings, which is not the easiest thing to find when it comes to dim sum. A&J’s spicy garlic cucumber is also a refreshing staple, while their pickled cabbage is almost like my grandmothers, short of doing it myself.
It’s not just the vegetarian offerings that will have you eating outside the box. When most people think of Asian starches, they think exclusively in rice and noodles—but I can't sit down here without ordering a savory scallion pancake or crisp-yet-tender thousand layer pancake. If you visit on the weekend, sinking your teeth into a freshly made youtiao, a savory fried dough stick that’s essentially a Chinese doughnut, is a must. Traditionally, this is dipped into a rice porridge, but the youtiao is a delicious vessel for soaking up excess soup broth.
As for the atmosphere, the seating is very...intimate, shall we say? To put it in perspective, I’ve often ended up giving advice to the next table over as to what they should order. And it only gets cozier on the weekends, when multiple large parties get seated together at the restaurant's few large tables (not that this is a downside—you basically gain some impromptu lunch pals). Be sure to bring cash, as neither location accepts credit cards.
Be sure to try: Smoked chicken, cucumber salad in hot garlic sauce, pan fried pork dumplings and the thousand layer pancake.
Uncle Liu's Hotpot - Falls Church, VA
For my family, the holidays aren't complete without hotpot. Think of it as a Chinese fondue, but with soup instead of cheese. It's a fantastic communal cooking/eating experience where each person picks out their favorite ingredients (thinly sliced meats, seafood, veggies, dumplings, wontons, eggs, etc.) and lowers them into the hot broth using a basket-like spoon made of wire. From there, you can choose your own level of done-ness, but don’t leave your goods unattended for too long: Unintentional (or intentional) theft of choice meats are known to happen.
At Uncle Liu’s, both the food and ambiance share a decidedly “mainland China” aesthetic. There are handwritten signs in Mandarin, proclaiming the day’s specials. The floor is a little dingy, the decorations a bit gaudy and faded. It’s all a part of the experience, which delivers in the area that really matters—taste.
With hotpots, of course, good flavor starts with good broth. Choose from chicken broth in varying degrees of spicy ranging from mild and harmless to utterly mouth numbing, or mushroom broth for the strict vegetarians (it's probably best to get a consensus from the group first). Uncle Liu can do individual pots by request, but in my humble opinion, unless you're all dipping into the same pot, you're doing it wrong. After that, it's just a matter of experimenting, tasting and choosing what to cook next based on what looks good. You're here for an adventure, after all!
Be sure to try: Scallion pancake appetizer, lamb, fish, mushroom, cabbage and lotus root for the hotpot.
With its bustling embassies and constant influx of foreign visitors, Washington, D.C. has always been an international city. But its reputation for international food within city limits has some catching up to do. And while I like stamps in my passport as much as any avid traveler, there’s a wide world of food tucked away in unexpected pockets outside downtown. Added bonus? You don’t have to go through customs to discover it.