Best Bargain Dining 2007

50 great bargain dishes—all under $15 and all consistently satisfying—many of which feature exotic ingredients, picture-perfect presentations and tantalizing flavors.

 

By Warren Rojas / Photography by Anastasia Chernyavsky

Dining Tip #42: A good meal need not require a Cayman Islands wire transfer.

Sure, it’s occasionally fun to splurge for a multicourse extravaganza or to snag  a private audience with the latest “it” chef. But, like most people, our everyday dining habits tend to steer us toward familiar sit-down spots that dazzle us for not too much dinero.

In the pages that follow you’ll find 50 great bargain dishes—all under $15 and all consistently satisfying—many of which feature exotic ingredients, picture-perfect presentations and tantalizing flavors.

So break out the double sawbucks. Because you’ve got some serious eating to do.

 

Tara Thai
Multiple NoVa locations
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

goong phu-ket (Tara Thai)

Celebrate the best from above and below with a portion of goong phu-ket—an air-sea marriage of jumbo shrimp, shredded jumbo lump crab, crumbled chicken and mixed peppers, all soaked through in a tangy, Thai barbecue sauce.

Sette Bello
Clarendon; 703-351-1004; www.settebellorestaurant.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

For a dinner so sweet, dessert becomes unnecessary, sample the mezzelune—a bowlful of bulbous, half-moon ravioli filled with creamy pumpkin and amaretti (almond-paste cookies), all swimming in a perfumed cream sauce punctuated by minty-fresh sage.

Okra’s Louisiana Bistro
Manassas; 703-330-2729; www.okras.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

The superbly spicy red beans and rice—bearing cubes of fiery andouille sausage mixed with rice, beans, scallions and a searing Cajun sauce, all crowned with a bonus grilled sausage link—should sate any ragin’ Cajuns until their next trip home.

Anita’s
Multiple NoVa locations; www.anitascorp.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

For a New Mexican-style pick-me-up, rustle up a plate of carne adovada ($9.95)—red chile-soaked pork medallions flanked by gooey refried beans covered in melted cheese, Spanish rice and four flour tortillas.

Duangrat’s
Falls Church; 703-820-5775; www.duangrats.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

A work of edible art, the golden quail platter summons a trio of delicately seasoned game birds (dusted with white pepper) formed into a pyramid of crackling skin and perfumed meat, all surrounded by a ring of sweet soy jelly.

Sakura Japanese Steakhouse
Multiple NoVa locations; www.sakurasteakhouse.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

A raw fish buffet for one, the tuna five ways platter ($12.95) serves up the sushi staple in various fashions—including traditional raw, grilled, fatty, spicy and the prized albacore—that are alternately chewy, smoky, briny, zesty and silky.

Espresso Cafe and Restaurant
Manassas; 703-361-8244; www.portuguesegrill.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

This neighborhood charmer remains a well-guarded secret among the Portuguese. So don’t tell them we breathed a word about the amazing bacalhau a braz ($13.75)—grilled codfish folded into scrambled eggs decorated with caramelized onions, black olives and tomato wedges—lest they lock us out.

Dolce Vita
Fairfax; 703-385-1530; www.dolcevitafairfax.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.

Cristoforo colombo pie (Dolce Vita)

If all pizza tastes the same to you, broaden your horizons with the trailblazing Cristoforo Colombo pie—a symphony of lean turkey, razor-thin potato slices and blue-green bubbles of melted Gorgonzola (the fragrant cheese is absolutely breathtaking).

Charlie Chiang’s
Multiple NoVa locations; www.charliechiangs.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Though Americanized Chinese often lacks oomph, the crispy hot beef ($12.95) delivers zesty strands of shredded beef, brushed with a tangy sweet-and-sour sauce and bolstered by minced chili pods, julienned peppers and onions.

Extra Virgin
Shirlington; 703-998-8474; www.extravirginva.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch.

A popular destination for traditional Italian with modern flourishes, the kitchen scores again with its orecchiette “cima di mola”—buttressing the tiny, ear-shaped noodles with sultry broccoli rabe, ground Italian sausage and shaved strings of creamy ricotta.

Hama Sushi
Herndon; 703-713-0088; www.hama-sushi.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

When another order of regular sushi just won’t do, consider the always rousing spicy tuna don ($14)—a hot-cold combination platter featuring a zesty mound of tuna tartare, drifts of steamed sushi rice, a nest of chilled noodles and tangy seaweed salad.

Villa Bella
Burke; 703-239-3580
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

For those constantly torn between ordering sandwiches or pizza, behold the schiacciata salsiccia ($10.99)—a double-decker pie stuffed with ground sausage, tangy marinara, molten mozzarella, diced peppers and onions, and double the crust for easy handling.

Gamasot
Springfield; 703-256-0780; www.gamasotrestaurant.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

The warming young yang sul leung tang reveals a milky-white, bone marrow broth stocked with alternately lean and fatty slices of beef, spring onions, mushrooms, noodles and dates, along with a buffet of traditional Korean side dishes (banchan) including blood sausage and assorted pickled vegetables.

Foxfire Grill
Alexandria; 703-914-9280; www.foxfire-grill.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

“Not your usual” mac-n-cheese (Foxfire Grill)

This neighborhood gem is home to the aptly titled “not your usual” mac-n-cheese—a lip-smacking serving of tri-color rotini coated in a signature Asiago-white cheddar-fontina-Parmesan cheese blend, which is then augmented with pulverized “bacon crumbs,” plus whole pieces of smoky bacon. A side salad offers some much-needed roughage.

Celebrity Delly
Falls Church; 703-573-9002; www.thecelebritydely.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday; breakfast and lunch Sunday.

Indecisive salad lovers, rejoice! The Linden ($10.99) summons healthy scoops of fresh tuna (delicious), minced chicken (filling) and homemade pasta salad (sprinkled with grated cheese and chopped vegetables), accompanied by a mound of understated coleslaw (more cabbage than mayonnaise) and four, thick-as-can-be toast slices.

Hard Times Cafe
Multiple NoVa locations; www.hardtimes.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

Chili lovers prone to crumbling crackers into their brew will appreciate the salty snap of the Frito chili pie ($7.89), heaping your choice of chili (color mine Terlingua red), diced tomatoes, shredded cheddar and a dapper dab of cool sour cream atop a nest of the familiar baked corn curls.

Rosemary’s Thyme Bistro
Clifton; 703-502-1084; www.rosemarysthyme.com
Open for lunch and dinner daily; brunch on weekends.

For folded flatbread with a kick, tear into the sujuk and cheese pide—a baked marvel layered with a mozzarella-provolone-feta blend and zesty Turkish sausage.

Lighthouse Tofu and BBQ
Annandale; 703-333-3436
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Lighthouse Tofu and BBQ

Basic mushroom tofu soup submerges tender mushrooms, bean sprouts and soft-boiled tofu nuggets in an ocean of secret spices (fills the belly with a welcoming heat). Served with all the traditional banchan.

Aburi Gardens
Woodbridge; 703-490-1100
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

A Ghanaian staple, waakye and shitto offers rice mixed with black-eyed peas, herb-infused goat (amongst other choices) and a stinging ground seafood paste. A hail of cassava crumbs adds crunch.

Hong Kong Palace
Falls Church; 703-532-0940
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Although Szechuan gems like cold jellyfish and fried bullfrog abound, the sinus-clearing flounder and bean curd stew—stocked with silky bean curd blocks and minced peppers—keeps calling us back.

Silk Road
Leesburg; 571-333-4930/4931
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$).Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Flavor complements form in the eye-catching karahi lunch plate, interweaving char-grilled lamb with fried eggs and a bounty of sauteed onions, tomatoes, red/green/yellow peppers and jalapenos.

Jaipur
Fairfax; 703-766-1111; www.jaipurcuisine.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Jaipur

Though curry is always nice, cinnamon gets the nod in the murg-e-maharaja, pairing dry-rubbed chicken with a medley of gorgeous peppers, all swimming in a spicy-sweet sauce.

Fire Works Pizza
Leesburg; 703-779-8400; www.fireworkspizza.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$).Open for lunch and dinner daily.

This budding pizzeria breathes new life into old world flavors with its Barcelona pie, a 10-inch stunner topped with coins of thinly sliced chorizo, chewy mahon cheese, a lively diced olive spread and a bouquet of tomatoes and peppers.

Coyote Grille & Cantina
Fairfax; 703-591-0006; www.coyotegrille.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch.

Surf and turf heads south of the border in a terrific steak and shrimp tostada—a flavorful medley of marinated steak, zesty shrimp, seasoned rice, tomatoes, black beans and onions, smothered beneath a cheese-covered tortilla, with plenty of guacamole and sour cream to boot.

Il Radicchio
Clarendon; 703-276-2627
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.

A true pasta lover’s paradise, the stage is always set with all-you-can-eat spaghetti ($6.50). For an encore-worthy performance, bask in the glory of the ragu di agnello ($4.50 per 8-ounce serving)—a sumptuous blend of lamb, rosemary, pancetta and white wine.

Cafe Asia
Rosslyn; 703-741-0870; www.cafeasia.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

Halt hunger with a stop light roll ($5.50)—spicy green and red roe split by a bright yellow quail egg (chilled yolk provides an unexpected jolt)—and a vegetable-laden portion (brimming with bean sprouts, broccoli and baby corn) of Singapore-style fried rice ($8).

Fish Market
Old Town Alexandria; 703-836-5676; www.fishmarketoldtown.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

Crested treasure chest (Fish Market)

The mysterious crested treasure chest reveals a triple threat of homemade shrimp salad (chock-full of jumbo shrimp and chopped celery) shoveled into a hollowed out cantaloupe—or pineapple, but the crisp melon is better—and surrounded by carefully arranged cantaloupe spears protruding from a bed of mixed greens.

Taqueria Poblano
Multiple NoVa locations; www.taqueriapoblano.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Check locations for times.

For a killer build-your-own seafood combo, pair a Baja fish taco ($3.95)—beer-battered mahi mahi surrounded by pico de gallo and a savory slaw—with a spicetacular shrimp taco ($4.95)—filled with zesty grilled shrimp, shredded cheese, red onions and a squiggle of homemade avocado dressing.

Union Street
Old Town Alexandria; 703-548-1785; www.usphalexandria.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

A steaming bowl of East Coast chowda ($13.95) is no mere soup-and-sandwich sideshow attraction. The potent stew is brimming with so many oysters, bay scallops, chunks of select fish (typically cod), potatoes, red onions, celery and corn, staff members insist, “it’s a meal.” Amen to that.

Zaaza
Sterling; 703-404-5950
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for dinner and late-night dining daily.

Although primarily an exurban nightclub, Zaaza manages to put together an array of surprisingly tasty crepes. The lemongrass shrimp variety ($8.50) summons a not-at-all-insignificant amount of savory shrimp, onions and mushrooms folded into a sweet flour crepe drizzled with a tangy Thai-style lemongrass sauce.

Eat Bar
Ballston; 703-778-9951; www.tallularestaurant.com/barandlounge.htm
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

The gourmet hot dog plate produces a meaty maverick that puts standard ballpark snacks to shame. Succulent frank is a good two inches around with slightly blistered skin, and is accompanied by homemade ketchup and mustard (scorching) and twice-cooked fries (fantastic).

Shamshiry
Vienna; 703-448-8883; www.shamshiry.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

The chelo kabob kubideh with egg ($8.74) is a multisensory affair bolstered by juicy strips of char-grilled ground beef, a brassy shingle of burnt rice (provides a pleasing crunch) and the searing bliss of a homemade green chili sauce.

Paolo’s Ristorante
Reston; 703-318-8920; www.paolosristorante.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

If your diet could use more fiber but you can’t bear to cede any protein, the espresso-rubbed steak salad ($14.95) tosses grilled-to-order flank steak with crumbled goat cheese, mixed greens, crispy carrot curls, green beans and crunchy new potatoes.

La Granja de Oro
Falls Church; 703-534-5511; www.granjadeoro.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

A favorite of South American stir-fry fans, lomo saltado ($14.95) mixes sliced tenderloin, ripe tomatoes, fried potatoes and red onions into a savory mass flanked by white rice. Sprinkle on the house green chili sauce (divine) for an added boost.

Clyde’s
Multiple NoVa locations; www.clydes.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily; Sunday brunch.

A go-to item prepared in various iterations (sometimes as a flaky napoleon, others as a wood-fired pizza), wild mushrooms work best here when intermingled with gnocchi ($14.95)—arranging a forest of seasonal funghi, asparagus and spinach amidst tender potato dumplings.

Rangoli
South Riding; 703-957-4900; www.rangolirestaurant.us
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

The signature entrees and traditional Tandoori dishes are impressive. But we can’t get enough of beans foogath ($9.95)—a lunch buffet star interweaving steamed green beans, firm yellow lentils, piquant chili pods and shredded coconut.

Red Rocks Cafe & Tequila Bar
Centreville; 703-815-6900
Open for lunch, dinner and late night dining daily; Sunday brunch.

East meets zest in the Southwestern-style pasta picante ($12.99), a mouthwatering medley of al dente noodles tossed with savory chorizo slices, grilled chicken, and a corn–cilantro-onion blend, all covered in a zesty homemade cream sauce.

RT’s restaurant
Del Ray; 703-684-6010; www.rtsrestaurant.net
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.

Those in search of a mid-day Mardi Gras can revel in a lunch of oysters Nezpique, combining deep-fried oysters, nuggets of pulled crab and matchsticks of smoked ham, all submerged in a fiery Cajun roux. C’est si bon!

Backyard Grill & Bar
Chantilly; 703-802-6400
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch.

This whole Maine lobster deal ($10)—good only at the inside bar, from 4 p.m. till they run out on Tuesdays—summons a steamed, 1+ pound beauty with pre-split tail (for easy picking) and the legs and claws intact.

Dumfries Cafe
Dumfries; 703-441-1465
Average entree: under $12 ($).Open for breakfast and lunch daily.

If it’s Monday, get thee to Dumfries for a Salisbury steak special ($6.45) sporting an onion-laden, ground beef patty doused in home-style gravy, served with a pair of toasted dinner rolls and steamed vegetables on the side.

Euro Bistro
Herndon; 703-481-8158; www.euro-bistro.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch, weekdays, dinner, Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.

A semi-regular special at this Austro-Hungarian stronghold, the lunch portion of zegedine goulash ($9.95) summons tender pork stewed in a lush paprika sauce inundated with homemade sauerkraut, and a side of spaetzle (just itching to join all the action).

Blue Ocean
Fairfax; 703-425-7555
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Although fresh sushi is always on the menu here, the cut-rate chirashi sampler ($10.95)—revealing a rainbow of delicacies ranging from raw octopus to fried egg, all nestled atop a bed of sushi rice—is an absolute steal during lunch.

Giuseppe’s Ristorante Italiano
Haymarket; 703-753-1004
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Savor the homemade arancini ($7.95)—mountainous, fried starch bombs filled with seasoned ground beef, soupy rice, peas and diced prosciutto, all draped in streams of marinara and Alfredo.

Chutzpah
Multiple NoVa locations; www.chutzpahdeli.com
Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday; breakfast and lunch Sunday.

Pair an authentic chocolate egg cream ($2.25)—bearing a chocolate syrup base, frothy milk up top and a sea of chocolate-infused seltzer in between—with a hunk of cinnamon-crusted, chocolate babka ($3.25).

Del Merei Grille
Alexandria; 703-739-4335; www.delmereigrille.com
Average entree: $21 to $30 ($$$). Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily.

Sample a bit of everything on “The Plate” ($14)—including “frickles” (paper-thin, batter-fried pickle slices), homemade deviled eggs (mustardy mousse is sprinkled with paprika and studded with bacon) and beer-battered mozzarella.

 

(June/July 2007)

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