25 Iconic NoVA Dishes

By Warren Rojas / Photography by Jonathan Timmes

 

Inn at Little Washington
Tin of Sin
309 Middle St., Washington; 540-675-3800; www.theinnatlittlewashington.com
Average entree: over $31 ($$$$). Open for dinner daily.

Tin of Sin
Tin of Sin

Who would dare attempt to improve upon caviar? Visionary chef and Inn at Little Washington founder Patrick O’Connell, that’s who.

O’Connell spoils guests rotten with his aptly named Tin of Sin, a definitive taste of the good life featuring American Ossetra caviar—brilliant bubbles of farm-raised sturgeon roe, each glistening ovum at the full height of its nutty-briny powers—and sweet, delicious peekytoe crab (preparations vary from a scrumptious salad to lusty rillette), with cucumber aspic playing the part of dividing line.

The masterful creation arrives tableside in a striking royal blue tin, the top tiled slightly to the side so that the bed of shimmering roe is fully exposed—“They are enchanted,” O’Connell says of the dramatic reveal—and is typically accompanied by toasted brioche.

According to O’Connell, in the pre-ToS days, the only people who requested caviar were overnight guests and holiday revelers.

No mas.

“The Tin of Sin seems to be universally popular even with guests who may normally shy away from caviar,” he suggests, adding, “Everyone seems to like a bit of sin in their lives.”

Even O’Connell is not immune from the tin’s charms.

“I especially enjoy one with good champagne when there’s something to celebrate. And when is there not?” O’Connell muses.

 

Da Domenico
Marinated Veal Chop
1992 Chain Bridge Road, McLean; 703-790-9000
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.

One evening, while considering the faux Roman piazza at Da Domenico—terribly dated, I know, but I’m a sucker for the slate floors, decorative columns and roll call of defunct crooners warbling along on the house PA—I was jarred back to reality by a bombastic neighbor’s tale of epicurean bravado.

The crux of his story: On a previous visit, he and another buddy mauled a veal chop each. Then they ordered a third to share.

His cardiologist must love him.

Most regular humans are perfectly sated by a single serving of the fabled chop, a 16-ounce slab of baby beef that’s steeped for hours in a house marinade combining lemon juice, paprika, white wine and aromatic herbs.

The resulting meal is nothing short of magnificent, yielding entrancingly tender meat flush with the divinely buttery dividends paid by the expertly coaxed dissolution of its marbling.

And try as our friend might to sap the restaurant’s supply, veteran server Betty Lambert (she’s been ferrying still-sizzling chops to customer’s tables for 25-plus years) asserts that there’s plenty more where that came from.

“The veal chop is our signature dish. They always have it,” Lambert stresses.

 

Restaurant Eve
Birthday Cake
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450; www.restauranteve.com
Average entree: over $31 ($$$$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.

Restaurant Eve: Birthday Cake
Birthday cake

“How was the birthday cake? It looked sooooo YUMMY … ” the spellbound stranger coos, her eyes locked on the crumby vestiges of my hot pink conversation starter.

Those who’ve not yet indulged in chef/restaurateur Cathal Armstrong’s personalized dessert party—Restaurant Eve devotees devour around 250 per week—are genuinely missing out. The two-layer cake is as simple as it is ravishingly sweet, drawing legions of fans courtesy of its basic (eggs, sugar, flour, butter and heavy cream figure prominently) but generously applied ingredients. The yellow cake is dense but moist, while the sprinkles-studded buttercream icing is dreamily rich and festive.

 

Willow
3-Rib Pork Rack
4301 Fairfax Drive, Ballston; 703-465-8800; www.willowva.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.

Willow: 3-Rib Pork Rack
3-Rib Pork Rack

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s patented, but the meat companies either call it Tracy’s or O’Grady’s cut,” chef/restaurateur Tracy O’Grady says of the custom, 3-rib pork rack expressly designed for Willow.

O’Grady’s contribution to the culinary lexicon is carved from the bone-in pork loin: bones 13-15, to be exact. Though she readily admits that the raw material is widely viewed as “a throw-away cut,” O’Grady transforms the image-challenged chops into center-of-the-plate gold by laboriously frenching the aforementioned bones, recasting the trimmings as house-made sausage, wrapping it in caul fat and basting everything in ham hock jus.

The resulting swine is absolutely delectable, its rosy flesh preserved through judicious firing (never past medium), while the overlaid sausage infuses the meat with deep-seated juiciness and mouthwatering spice.

 

Trummer’s on Main
Vanilla pork belly
7134 Main St., Clifton; 703-266-1623; www.trummersonmain.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday.

Bacon has long played brunch’s trusty, if overused, sidekick.

Trummer’s toque Clayton Miller believes pigs deserve better.
When first we encountered his vanilla paste-infused pork belly, it danced amid syrupy plums, creamed spinach and roasted chestnuts. Miller has since refined the saturated swine for weekend diners.

Miller ratcheted down the entire cooking process—“We let the belly rest/hang out in [the] bourbon-caramel bath … allowing the belly to drink it up,” he explains—and has also experimented with complementary sweetening agents, including dulce de leche and apple jam.

The current iteration summons well-marbled Duroc pork, seared to a crisp along the edges while the meltingly tender core weeps boozy vanilla. Savory white bean puree drizzled with maple syrup and a scrumptious buttermilk pancake complete the mid-day masterpiece.

 

Ray’s the Steaks
Cowboy Cut Ribeye
2300 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-7297
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for dinner daily.

If you are a consummate steak lover, you probably already have Ray’s on speed dial. Here’s another reason to reserve right now: Ray’s founder Michael Landrum is on a mission. His objective: to overwhelm cowboy cut aficionados.

The signature protein—the marvelously marbled meat carves likes butter and tastes absolutely ethereal—remains a 30- to 32-ounce monster but is now presented in three distinct formats: the “classic” (vacuum aged for 45 days—standard protocol for Ray’s entire beef catalog); “dry aged” (broken down in Ray’s custom-designed aging box); or the “long bone” (custom butchered so the entire rib bone juts out from the primordial feast).

 

The Majestic
Chesapeake Bay Seafood Stew
911 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-9117; www.majesticcafe.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

The Majestic: Chesapeake Bay Seafood Stew
Chesapeake Bay Seafood Stew

The Rhode Islands and New Englands of the world can keep their chunky chowders.

NoVA’s got its own seafood thing going on, thanks to Majestic toque Shannon Overmiller.

Rather than stoke regional rivalries, her Chesapeake Bay stew opts for all-inclusiveness, plunging chewy clams, robust mussels, plump shrimp, buttery scallops, tender red snapper and luscious crab meat into a sea of saffron- and Old Bay-spiked stock. The seafood medley comingles with ambrosial garden fare, including: pearl onions, celery, dampened potatoes, tomatoes (dripping with vitality) and basil. The completed stew borders on elegant (forget oyster crackers; enjoy the spiced crostinis) and speaks to the richness/depth/variety of Mid-Atlantic seafood.

Still, if you absolutely, positively must give our neighbors to the north their due, chase Overmiller’s stew with Atlantic Brewing Company’s cool and refreshing Bar Harbor Blueberry Ale.

 

Five Guys
Bacon Cheeseburger
Multiple NoVA locations; www.fiveguys.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Five Guys’ bacon cheeseburger “all the way” is the American dream on a bun—a tower of dazzle comprised of overlapping beef patties smothered in a Jenga-esque pyramid of toothsome amenities including: spunky pickle chips, mouthwatering bacon strips, molten American cheese, juicy tomato slices and grilled onions.

Think what you will about their stampede across the nation (and into Canada) but they’re still the franchise that taught this hired mouth (pre-professional eating, of course) that waiting for a from-scratch burger trumps the immediate gratification of any heat lamp-maintained munchie, and that gratis grilled mushrooms are an inalienable right, not a perk reserved for the burgerati.

 

Pho 75
Pho Bowl
1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-7355
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Could the Pho 75 founders possibly have known that they were starting a culinary revolution when they began doling out bowlfuls of Vietnamese comfort food some 30-odd years ago?

Probably not.

But their quest to taste home has become so second-nature to us all, that even on a sweltering summer day there were still over a dozen people slurping up steaming-hot soup at the communal tables; there were only two folks in line at the snow cone stand across the way.

Each batch of restorative brew is pre-loaded with all the pho essentials (scallions, mint, rice noodles). Customization begins with exotic proteins—fatty brisket partially melts into the fragrant broth, special Vietnamese “meatballs” yield bites of spice-laced Asian pate—and concludes with gratis garnishes (crisp bean sprouts, sliced hot peppers, torn basil, quartered limes, Sriracha hot sauce).

 

Sea Pearl
Pacu Fish Ribs
8191 Strawberry Lane, Suite 2, Falls Church; 703-372-5161; www.seapearlrestaurant.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily, late-night dining, Thursday through Saturday, brunch Sunday.

Sea Pearl: Pacu Fish Ribs
Pacu Fish Ribs

NoVA may have not yet achieved the barbecue bona fides of renowned grilling capitals like Kansas City or Austin.

But we can, thanks to Sea Pearl chef and owner Sly Liao, lay claim to a fabulously unique form of eatertainment: fish “ribs.”

Liao first rolled out his novel seafood creation in summer 2009, and has, thankfully, continued to do so every time the mercury begins to rise. He preps each incredibly meaty pacu filet with a proprietary spice rub, then mops each slab of hearty seafood in a house-made barbecue sauce—led by tamarind, molasses and more secret spice mix—while they sizzle on the grill. Finger-long spines help the Amazonian fish keep its rack-like shape, while glaze caramelizes into that same type of finger-licking-good stickiness devout barbecue enthusiasts covet.

 

Foti’s
Fried Egg Sandwich
219 E. Davis St., Culpeper; 540-829-8400; www.fotisrestaurant.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch, dinner Wednesday through Sunday.

Foti’s: Fried Egg Sandwich
Fried Egg Sandwich

“Growing up in a family that had a restaurant, we were taught three dishes that we could make for ourselves when we got home from school. The fried egg sandwich was one of them,” Foti’s chef/founder Frank Maragos shares of the lifelong relationship he’s had with the since countrified creation.

The current iteration is the breakfast you wish you could wake up to every morning, beginning with the golden yolk of a pierced, farm-fresh egg which cascades down upon ribbons of fiercely salty Calhoun ham and slivers of nutty Parmesan cheese, eventually soaking its way through to the garlic-rubbed, toasted ciabatta.

 

Hunter’s Head Tavern
Gloucestershire Pork Loin
9048 John Mosby Highway, Upperville; 540-592-9020; www.huntersheadtavern.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, dinner daily; Sunday brunch.

Hunter’s Head Tavern: Gloucestershire Pork Loin
Gloucestershire Pork Loin

Who knew saving a species, and by extension the global food web, could be so ridiculously satisfying? Ayrshire Farm founder Sandy Lerner, apparently.

The food activist’s burgeoning agricultural hub/restaurant/retail operation remains a closed circuit for her culinary conservationism, a campaign that revolves around the preservation of struggling heritage breeds.

The Gloucestershire Old Spot pig is just one of her pet projects—but one we all benefit from.

“I try not to mess with this animal too much because they are heritage breed and taste like no other pork you have ever tasted,” Ayrshire Farm chef Rob Townsend says of his liberal treatment of the famously fatty hog.

We devoured whole loins blackened beneath a potent cumin-coffee rub, savory specimens counterbalanced by tart blackberry glaze and others nestled in the dulcet embrace of slow-cooked rhubarb.

 

El Pollo Rico
Peruvian Chicken
931 N. Kenmore St., Arlington; 703-552-3220; www.welovethischicken.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

El Pollo Rico: Peruvian chicken
Peruvian chicken

A go-to for rotisserie chicken since exploding onto the Arlington scene in 1988, El Pollo Rico opened the door for bird-slinging imitators everywhere to seduce us all with their coal-fired creations.

On any given day the cavernous main dining room at the original EPR (they’ve since expanded to Woodbridge as well) could easily be mistaken for the United Nations cafeteria, as a rainbow coalition of hunger—we’re talking whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians and everyone from teenagers to retirees—convenes under the same roof in search of spice-rubbed relief.

The finished poultry product features a maddeningly tender flesh infused with a proprietary blend of garlic, cumin, black pepper (and other closely guarded spices) and moist, delicious rendered coppery by the crackling, raging embers.

Even when the lines get impossibly long, everyone shuffles along patiently—because they know the wait will be totally worth it.

 

Abay Market
Tere Sega
3811-A S. George Mason Drive, Falls Church; 703-998-5322
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Tere sega—the bigger, badder brother of tartare; perhaps a very distant cousin to sushi—is still not listed on the core Abay Market menu. But all one has to do is ask, and the Ethiopian delicacy readily appears.

Owner Yonas Alemayehu has apparently shelved the carve-your-own format (staff evidently now pre-slice the beef into easy-to-handle cubes), but all of the other hallmarks of the often gasp-inducing banquet remain.

To the uninitiated, the reddish-purple hunks of raw beef, no doubt, look like a nightmarish bar bet-made flesh. In reality, the plain meat is pretty dull; the cold, slightly giggly cubes come off like sanguine chewing gum. Once dipped into the corresponding awaze sauce—a house-made stinger forged from berbere spice and mustard oil—the meal becomes absolutely magical.

 

Carlyle
Flourless Chocolate Waffle
4000 Campbell Ave., Arlington; 703-931-0777; www.greatamericanrestaurants.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, late-night dining Tuesday through Saturday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Carlyle: Flourless chocolate waffle
Flourless chocolate waffle

According to Great American Restaurants CEO Randy Norton, executive chef Bill Jackson’s blind faith nearly cost the NoVA chainlet control of its signature dessert—the top-selling (to the tune of around 100,000 per year) flourless chocolate waffle—shortly after its introduction at Carlyle.

“An Atlanta chef friend of Bill’s asked for the recipe and Bill gave it to him whereupon the Atlanta chef entered it into a nationwide dessert contest and won $5,000,” Norton relates.

Meanwhile, that original recipe—featuring macadamia nuts and dried cranberries—is only served at Carlyle; customers at other GAR outposts evidently prefer “clean” waffles. We fancy the former, as the mixed-in macadamia bits add a festive crunch to the marriage of puffy, chocolate-laden waffles and slow-melting scoop of cocoa-dusted vanilla bean ice cream.

 

Generous George’s
Spaghetti & Meatball Pie
2321-C Dulles Station Blvd., Herndon; 703-793-3338; www.generousgeorge.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Generous George’s: Spaghetti & Meatball Pie
Spaghetti & Meatball Pie

Back before anyone would ever dream of Korean tacos or foie gras bahn mi, George Mansy was already cranking out his positive pasta pies.

Conquering a pasta-laden pizza became a rite of passage for all those who frequented the original Generous George’s in Alexandria.

Michael Mansy, George’s brother, says his sibling got the ball rolling on the “dine-o-mite” creations with the spaghetti and meatball pie. George would eventually spin out around a dozen custom pasta-pizza hybrids, including shrimp marinara (George’s favorite) and the seafood Georgie (Michael’s favorite).

The spaghetti classico is serious business, delivering an epic portion of noodles layered with robust tomato ragout (populated by bold bits of green pepper, meaty mushrooms and zesty meatballs) parked atop the oil- and herb-brushed crust.

 

The Pit Stop
Loudoun County-Style Ribs
Gilbert’s Corner (at the intersection of Routes 15 and 50); 703-944-3611; www.facebook.com/pages/Leesburg-VA/THE-PIT-STOP
Average entree: under 12 ($). Open for lunch Saturday and Sunday.

The Pit Stop: Loudoun County-Style Ribs
Loudoun County-Style Ribs

“Want me to wrap that up?” The Pit Stop aide asks the lady ahead of me in line one weekend morning.

“Oh, no. I’m going to eat that here. And I’ll probably wind up wearing most of it home,” the hungry patron rationalizes, snatching up her pork barbecue and virtually inhaling it during the brief stroll back to her car.

Making such short work of Ronald Thomas’ “Loudoun County-style” ribs, chicken and shredded pork seems almost offensive. But, then again, we understand the enthusiasm.

Thomas’ pork ribs are fork-tender, the unctuous meat mottled with meticulously rubbed-in spices and perfumed by hours and hours of carefully controlled smoke.

Adding mild barbecue sauce invites tomato, vinegar and brown sugar to the party, while multiple hot peppers imbue the spicy sauce with real staying power.

 

Lebanese Taverna
Shawarma
Multiple NoVa locations; www.lebanesetaverna.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.

Though they spent their first year as restaurateurs (1979) plying Arlingtonians with generic pizza and subs, the Abi-Najm clan soon realized the error of their ways and elected to serve that which they knew best: authentic Lebanese cooking.

We would argue that’s when NoVA’s ongoing love affair with shawarma officially took root.

Lebanese Taverna offers up two tempting shawarma options: marinated chicken (their top seller—“by a lot!” asserts LT scion Grace Shea) and the brawny beef-lamb combo. It all makes for delicious eating, no matter how you attack it—and options abound (devour just the featured proteins; envelop the meat in warm basmati rice; shovel the meat and tangy onion-tomato salad into the airy house-made pitas, then swirl the bulging pocket in minty yogurt sauce, etc.).

 

Flavors
Home-Style Fried Chicken
3420 Carlyn Hill Drive, Falls Church; 703-379-4411; www.flavorssoulfood.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday.

Whether great minds actually think alike is debatable.

But when it comes to grumbling bellies desperately in need of home-style fried chicken, the consensus opinion clearly favors Falls Church’s Flavors.

Case in point: During our latest trip to the Helton clan’s unassuming soul food shack, approximately 90 percent of the guests present—including: myself, a comely co-ed with a somewhat skeptical guardian in tow and a pair of roving gourmands (D.C. tags)—were there expressly for the deep-fried bird. And the lone holdout was a total outlier (sweaty gent who sought refuge from the beating sun at the bottom of a frosty beer).

Each made-to-order (average wait time is about 25 minutes) platter delivers masterfully seasoned fowl bolstered by a resonant crunch and ultra- juicy meat.

 

Earl’s Sandwiches
Pork and Fries
2605 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-248-0150; www.earlsinarlington.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

If necessity be the mother of invention, let’s go ahead and crown Stephen Dugan the father of sly substitutions.

The Earl’s Sandwiches proprietor is rumored to have fallen for the potato-packed constructs he encountered in Pennsylvania, and quickly set about to fashioning his own starch-protein power play when he returned home.

His Pork and Fries is a fitting tribute, layering shaved, slow-roasted pork (coated in a thin layer of cracked black pepper) atop toasted ciabatta bread. Dugan seals the deal with a cadre of perfectly in-tune accompaniments, including: feisty chipotle mayo, piquant white onions, tangy pickle chips, roasted sweet peppers and, of course, hand-cut fries—their glistening skins projecting straight-from-the-fryer warmth, while the sparingly used salt allows all the other flavors to develop.

 

Banh Mi D.C. Sandwich
The Combination
3103-C Graham Road, Falls Church; 703-205-9300
Average entree price: under $12 ($). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

I realize I’m going to catch hell from all the Eden Center addicts for shunning their favorite sandwich stands.

But I have to tell you, Bahn Mi D.C. simply blows the competition away.

What most impresses me about Bahn Mi D.C. is the sheer breadth of their sandwich program. Where others hunker down with just a handful of native concoctions, Bahn Mi D.C. fields two dozen, exotically stuffed baguettes—the second most impressive thing would have to be the plush bread, all baked in-house—bearing everything from dill fish to vegetarian bologna.

The Combination looses a flavor parade that marches across the palate with salty ham, savory pate, lean pork, blazing hot peppers and the exemplary house slaw (pickled carrots and radish, fresh cucumber, peppery cilantro).

 

GoolDaeGee
Spicy Pork Belly
Multiple NoVA locations; www.eathoneypig.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open 24 hours.

Though our area has been flush with Korean eateries for ages—Annandale has been a stronghold for decades, but Centreville is furiously racing to catch up—perhaps no other import has proved as magnetic as GoolDaeGee.

Ask a native South Korean what they like best, and they’re likely to praise the authentic feel (Spartan barbecue operations are evidently all the rage in Seoul). Quiz a Westerner about the attraction and they’ll probably cite: 1) the amazingly economical prices ($13 orders feed at least two people); and 2) the pampering by the army of attendants.

Spicy Pork Belly summons Flintstone-sized slabs of pepper paste-rubbed bacon that are magnificent on their own but become fully realized when partnered with zesty kimchi and pickled banchan.

 

Amphora
Chunky Chocolate Mousse Cake
377 Maple Ave. W, Vienna; 703-938-7877; www.amphoragroup.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open 24 hours.

Night owls have long enjoyed their choice of perches for sloppy but satisfying breakfast platters and jaw-straining, overstuffed subs. But when it comes to after-hours sweets runs, one name remains on everyone’s lips: Amphora.

Customers typically waltz into the original Amphora in Vienna and head straight for the refrigerated cake display—a trend that tends to spike once the sun sets.

“Within our restaurants, the peak time for pastry sales is dinner and late night,” Amphora marketing director Kerrin Delaney confirms.

Chocolate-craving carousers need look no further than the Chunky Chocolate Mousse Cake, an award-winning, zebra-striped, wall-to-wall chocolate creation featuring alternating bands of white and milk chocolate mousse bolstered by peanut butter chips, a fudgy brownie base and intoxicatingly rich ganache icing.

It’s one helluva nightcap.

 

Mario’s Pizza House
Lefty’s Special
3322 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-0222
Average entree price: under $12 ($). Open 24 hours.

Mario’s Pizza House: Lefty’s Special
Lefty’s Special

“The pizza line is here. The sub line is there. You can get as creative as you want,” Joe Williams, Mario’s de facto ringleader, barks out as another gang of beer-goggled revelers stumbles into the landmark eatery.

The inexhaustible grill man is Lefty Lindsey—he’s tried retiring a few times; it obviously didn’t take—a workhorse who greets most regulars (they are legion) by name but wastes no time when it comes to the art of sandwich making (never jots anything down; just shoots you a knowing nod and a wink).

His eponymous “special” piles juicy steak and gooey provolone into a cottony roll outfitted with mustard, mayo, sweet pickles and slaw—all assembled at the hands of the man who lent this feast his name.

 

Vienna Inn
Chili Dog
120 E. Maple Ave., Vienna; 703-938-9548; www.viennainn.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, late-night dining Monday through Saturday.

If you grew up here, or even spent any significant amount of time in the area, confidence is high you’ve spent some time in the well-worn booths at the historic Vienna Inn.

The ramshackle restaurant remains a meeting place for, well, everyone. Particularly those who will never outgrow Vienna Inn’s defining comestible: the chili dog.

The all-American snack includes a beer-boiled turkey frank smothered in yellow mustard, zesty onions and meaty, beef chili—they do make a decent vegetarian version, but staff WILL laugh at you if you request it—while the option to drown everything in molten cheese sauce is always on the table.

“I once saw someone eat 11 chili dogs,” one waitress shares. “It didn’t turn out very pretty.”

Another local legend is born.

 

(August 2011)

 

 

X