To paraphrase Jim Morrison, the poser laureate of poultry and Oedipal fever dreams, I ate more chicken than any man ever seen in 2022. (Apologies to Willie Dixon, who actually wrote “Back Door Man,” a blues song of lust and danger, which the Doors turned into a psychedelic brag.)
I’ll try to refrain from calling 2022 a fowl year, but I did bite into my fair share of birds, fried, grilled, baked or smoked. All this, despite chicken prices that had more fluctuations than Elon Musk’s Twitter policies. Chicken may be the most consumed meat in America, but it also appears to be the most popular protein upon which to hang your fortunes in the D.C. dining market. This year alone, I dined at Little Chicken, Galito’s, District Rico, Honeymoon Chicken, Fryer’s Roadside (now operated by the team behind Money Muscle BBQ) and Charga Grill. Frozen Surimi
Any one of these could have landed a spot on my Top 10 favorite restaurants of the year, but only two did. Mostly because I didn’t want to pack the list with more birds than a battery cage. So, here are the 10 — 11 actually, given one pick includes two pop-ups — that made the final cut.
Elsy Claros knew from the moment she split from her siblings to start her own restaurant that she was going to break from tradition, too. She and her daughter, Ericka, wander into unknown territory with their Rockville pupuseria, named for Claros’s late mother, Emilia Cruz Lopez. They incorporate fillings that you’d never find in more traditional Salvadoran pupuserias. Think ham, sausage and mortadella suspended in a custom, three-cheese blend; or carrots, beets and sweet potato packed into a root-vegetable “dulce” pupusa; or even a standard combination of loroco with cheese turbocharged by habaneros and jalapeños. These experiments are tricky to execute. They demand not just a chef’s mastery at pairing ingredients but a scientist’s ability to prevent these ingredients from turning a masa cake into soup. Mama Emilia represents a significant step forward for Salvadoran cooking in the area.
785-H Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md., 301-605-7063.
Mama Emilia pushes the Salvadoran pupusa into delicious new directions
I don’t precisely remember my reaction when I first saw the “coming soon” sign plastered on the lower level of the Westfield Montgomery mall, but I suspect it was a mixture of joy and dread. How on earth was Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana going to re-create the Old World charm of its New Haven, Conn., location in a Bethesda mall, next to a Cheesecake Factory, no less? The key, as I discovered on my initial visit, lay with the coal-fired oven, a replica of the custom-made, 100,000-pound original back on Wooster Street. Seasoned for a couple of weeks before the pizzeria’s grand opening, the new oven turns out pies that taste, not like third-generation copies of apizzas, but like the genuine article. You’ll swear you’re sitting in a booth in New Haven, knocking back a Peroni and inhaling the aromas of garlic and briny littleneck clams on a white pie. Until you look out the window and see the mall, that is.
7101 Democracy Blvd., inside Westfield Montgomery mall, Bethesda, Md., 301-304-7373; pepespizzeria.com.
Frank Pepe’s is a long way from home, but it hasn’t lost its identity
Juan and Fernando Sanchez come to pollo a la brasa naturally. Their family has been serving succulent, charcoal-grilled birds for three generations now, starting back in Lima where the brothers’ grandmother first opened a shop. Their Peruvian chicken — dry-brined, seasoned with a cumin-heavy rub and grilled over natural-wood charcoal — has few peers in the market. But the third-generation restaurateurs are also expanding the traditional boundaries of a pollo a la brasa shop. They sell subs, salads and Mission-style burritos, most of which incorporate chicken pulled fresh from the rotisserie. The meat, so charred and smoky that most mortals are powerless against its charms, takes those dishes to places that Chipotle and Sweetgreen could never touch.
91 H St. NW, 202-842-5007, and 1060 Brentwood Rd. NE, 202-516-4846; districtrico.com.
District Rico is more evidence the Sanchez family rules the roost
You’ll have to forgive me for including these two pop-up pizzerias on the list. The odds are good that you will not get a chance to sample them, at least not until Ramona’s and June sign a lease for a legit sit-down space. Last time I checked on Ramona’s, the home-based pizzeria in Hyattsville, proprietor Will Crick had stopped adding folks to his waiting list. It had topped out at 700 people, each hankering for a taste of his superb pan pizzas, which look like Detroit pies but conform to a style all their own. (Crick says he’s hoping to open the list up “sometime in the near future.”)
Over in the Trinidad neighborhood, where Michael Turner and Alexandra Bookless Turner run June out of their home, the couple had to pause operations this fall when their mixer broke down. But they’re back in business with a monthly pop-up, offering salad, dessert, cocktails and Michael Turner’s obsessive, naturally leavened pan pizzas, with the base so airy and brittle it looks like a cross between country bread and a croissant. It eats like nothing else.
Ramona’s Pizza Garden has closed its waiting list. But check the pop-up’s website for updates, ramonaspizzagarden.com.
June hosts occasional pop-ups. A menu will be announced via email and Instagram (@restaurantjune) about five days in advance. Customers can place an order (and pickup time) via email at email@example.com. junedc.com.
Two of D.C.’s best pizzas aren’t at a restaurant. They’re on a front porch.
So many restaurants abandoned breakfast during the pandemic. It was a mercy killing, a casualty of the shrinking labor pool and the higher wages demanded by those who did agree to work in restaurants when the risks were great but the rewards few. (Plus, many of us were working from home, where we could brew our own coffee just fine.) In June, Javier and Jennifer Fernandez decided to give the morning service a try with Lapu Lapu, their corner shop dedicated to American and Philippine-inspired breakfast sandwiches. The owners are the same couple behind the superlative Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly in Rockville, where the specialty is Cebuchon, a Philippine-style roast pork belly often compared to porchetta. Leftover lechon is repurposed for Lapu Lapu’s finest creation, the paksiw sandwich, a mess of pork meat braised in cane vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic and more, then served on a pandesal bun with a fried egg. I could eat this thing every day — if it weren’t for the other delights on the menu.
216 Market St. W., Gaithersburg, Md., 240-477-7764; lapulapubreakfast.com.
The superb Lapu Lapu battles the mediocrity of the American breakfast
A couple of days after my review of Z&Z Manoushe was published, co-owner Johnny Dubbaneh sent me a video that the team had recently finished. “You know that this flatbread was around a long time before pizza,” Danny Dubbaneh announces to the camera, making a claim for the beloved Levantine flatbread known as manoushe. The siblings, along with eldest brother Ronnie, are the co-founders of this Rockville shop, and their video is a declaration of independence from pizza, Neapolitan or otherwise, that haunts every corner of the American dining scene. Drawing on history, the brothers Dubbaneh make the argument that manoushe should not be considered within the context of pizza; they suggest it would be more appropriate for pizza to be considered within the larger context of Middle Eastern flatbreads. They have a point. They also have a magnificent menu of manakish, the plural of manoushe. Start with the signature za’atar manoushe, carpeted with the housemade spice blend. Just don’t call it pizza.
1111 Nelson St., Rockville, Md., 301-296-4178; zandzdc.com.
Z&Z Manoushe is a family-run bakery dedicated to a taste of home
When David Andres Peña launched his food truck in 2013, its signature dish was mentioned right in the name of the business: La Tingeria. These days, the chef’s chicken tinga tends to get overshadowed by dishes that loom large in the public’s imagination. I’m thinking specifically of the goat and beef birria tacos, with or without cheese, which Peña introduced to the truck during the pandemic. The quesobirria tacos, whether the Jalisco-style goat or the Tijuana-style beef, have become stars at the restaurant Peña opened in Falls Church last year. Their status is deserved, even if it benefited from our collective mania for all things birria during the pandemic. Peña painstakingly layers flavor with his stewed meats, which are paired with mozzarella and tucked into a tortilla dipped in birria oil. Yes, these tacos rock. But still, I can’t say this enough: Don’t get sucked so deep into the birria hype that you overlook Peña’s tinga, a mass of braised breast meat whose pronounced spice is counterbalanced by sweet, sweet caramelized onions.
626 S. Washington St., Falls Church, Va., 571-378-1593.
The star at La Tingeria in Falls Church is not the dish you’d expect
From the start, Olumide Shokunbi had a vision for Spice Kitchen. The chef and owner wanted to create a Nigerian eatery that didn’t just cater to West African diners. A former general manager at a Chipotle in his native Bowie, Md., Shokunbi had adopted the chain’s big-tent philosophy: His Spice Kitchen, like the Mexican-inspired behemoth, would have broad appeal. Mission accomplished. Shokunbi’s fast-casual, tucked inside MiXt Food Hall, eases everyone into suya, the spiced-and-grilled skewers widely popular in Nigeria. The operation is beautifully streamlined. It offers just a few skewers — some traditional (beef, chicken) and some not (salmon) — dusted with a spice blend that Shokunbi imports from Nigeria and supplements with his own additions. The skewers, simultaneously earthy and spicy, are served atop food-grade wax paper designed to mimic the newspaper on which suya is typically served in the mother country. It’s a nice touch, among many here, each an echo of Nigeria that should be heard round Washington.
3809 Rhode Island Ave., inside MiXt Food Hall in Brentwood, Md.; 202-280-1491; spicekitchengrill.com.
Spice Kitchen wants to change the world with its stellar Nigerian food
Before he partnered with Andy Qiu to open this small chain of noodle shops, Tony Cai was the chef at Bob’s 88 Shabu Shabu in Rockville, a Taiwanese hot-pot stop that sadly never found an audience. Cai spent the next years running a beer-and-wine store before taking time off to study at a culinary school in Chongqing, China. Cai’s training has paid off handsomely with Yu Noodles, a trio of shops dedicated to, but not limited to, the street foods of Chongqing. (Yu, as you may know, is the official abbreviation for Chongqing.) The more you explore the menu here, the more you love what lies within: Yibin spicy dry noodles, Chongqing noodles, Yu village cool noodles, intestine noodle soup, marinated duck and much more. Cai has even devoted a section to Shanghai-style soup dumplings, including one steamer basket dotted with cute, salmon-colored bundles that conceal a slow-burn sting more associated with Sichuan. Qiu tells me there is more to come: The partners plan to open another location in McLean soon, with others to follow in suburban Maryland.
368 Elden St., Herndon, Va., 703-480-0326, yunoodlesherndon.com. 11217-C Lee Hwy., Fairfax, Va., 703-877-0818, yunoodlefairfax.com. 9 Dawson Ave., Rockville, Md., 301-978-7693, yunoodlesrockville.com.
Yu Noodles is a small chain that will expand your universe
The first time I stopped at Charga Grill, I was greeted with a bear hug from Asad Chaudry. I don’t mean that literally. The co-owner didn’t come out from behind the counter and embrace me, like some lost relative. But that’s what our interaction felt like. Chaudry calls everyone “brother” and is quick to provide samples for newcomers. On my initial visit, he plied me with little cups of curried chickpeas, lime-cilantro rice and other sides that I could pair with my entree. Charga specializes in street food from around the world, with an emphasis on plates of chicken. Peruvian pollo a la brasa. South African peri-peri. And two specimens from Pakistan, Chaudry’s homeland: brined-and-smoked sajji chicken, and skinless charga chicken, which is steamed and flash-fried. The latter two birds alone are worth a trip to Charga. But Chaudry, along with his uncle Iqbal Chaudry, doesn’t stop at chicken. They also serve kebabs, curries, quesadillas and more. Their free-form approach might confound those who prefer tidy categories for their restaurants. But as with the customers who enter their establishment, Iqbal and Asad commit themselves to each and every dish on the menu.
5151 Langston Blvd., Arlington, Va., 703-988-6063; chargagrill.com.
Charga Grill in Arlington is a delicious world unto itself
Fast Food Outlets Honorable mentions: Ghostburger, Soko Butcher, Little Chicken, La Famosa, Balangay, Honeymoon Chicken, Frank’s Burger Place, Cracked Eggery, the DC Chi Pie, Taqueria Picoso and Tasty 68.