Our 25 Favorite Ethnic Restaurants

Get a taste of the world, no passport required

If your ethnic restaurant repertoire consists of burritos and lo mein, it’s time to ramp things up. If you’re already an adventurous eater, maybe you’d like a new spot to explore.

Either way, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve tasted our way through pupusas, pakoras, presunto and more to come up with our 25 favorite ethnic restaurants.

The Washington, D.C., region has long been a magnet for immigrant populations, and Montgomery County is no exception. Wedged among the local pizza parlors and American eateries is a world of restaurants owned and staffed by immigrants and their sons and daughters who know a thing or two about their native cuisine. Almost a third of the county’s residents are foreign born, according to the 2011 U.S. Census. And students in the public school system hail from nearly 165 countries and speak 184 different languages.

Although the county doesn’t collect data on ethnic eateries, there are a few obvious enclaves: the plethora of Ethiopian restaurants in Silver Spring; the Chinese eateries that have made Rockville into the region’s new Chinatown; a small Salvadoran strip on Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring; and Rockville’s Ritchie Center, which is a virtual United Nations of restaurants and markets.

For our list, we stuck to restaurants in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg, Rockville and Silver Spring, and we skipped the more commonplace cuisines (no Italian, French or Mexican, for example).

Note that “favorite” doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” We really like the food at each of these restaurants, but sometimes it’s the atmosphere, the authenticity of the menu or the history of the place that captivates us and sets it apart.

Faryab | Afghan

This restaurant has been a Bethesda staple ever since David Hashem—whose grandfather hailed from Faryab province in northern Afghanistan—opened the place in 1997. Unlike the country these days, the restaurant telegraphs peacefulness, from the unfussy décor to the quiet acoustics to the comforting combinations of lamb, eggplant, yogurt, spinach, pumpkin, rice and other ingredients that comprise Afghan cuisine. This has long been on our list of dependable go-to spots for weekday meals, as well as for special occasions.

Favorites: Mainstays include aushak, the Afghan version of lasagna, with its soft, flat layer of scallion-filled dumplings topped with meat sauce, yogurt and a refreshing sprinkling of mint. Then there’s quabili pallow, tender slices of braised, boneless leg of lamb served with spiced brown basmati rice, raisins and carrot strips. For a “wow” dessert, order the goush-e-feel (“elephant’s ear”), a Frisbee-size circle of light, crisp fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and cardamom.

4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-951-3484, www.farandawaycycling.com/Faryab/index.html

Burma Road | Burmese

In Asia, the Burma Road links Myanmar (formerly Burma) to southwest China. Here, it’s on Frederick Avenue. Owned by a small group of Burmese partners, the restaurant is spacious and a bit dated, with mint-green walls adding a bright touch. So what is Burmese cuisine? A hybrid, it blends spices, ingredients, dishes and techniques from nearby India (curries, samosas, roti), China (tofu, stir-frying) and Thailand (salads such as papaya and squid), while having its own signature items (see below).

Favorites: The restaurant’s traditional and much ballyhooed pickled tea leaf salad lives up to its reputation. The combination of shredded cabbage, pickled tea leaves, sesame seeds, fried garlic and roasted peanuts adds up to a must-have crunchy-spicy-sour experience. Braised in a homey sauce, the Spicy Pork with Pickled Mango sports big, tender chunks of pork shoulder; it’s like a jazzed-up version of pot roast. And nan gyi thoke, a noodle dish with onions, bean sprouts, cilantro, chicken and chili sauce, beats pad Thai hands-down. The lunch special—which includes a choice of soup, egg or spring roll; main course; rice; vegetable; tea; and fortune cookie—is a remarkable bargain at under $8.

617 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg, 301-963-1429, www.burmaroad.biz

A &J Restaurant | Chinese

Since 1996, the Chang and Tang families have operated this delightful little dim sum parlor, focusing on the small plates of northern China. That means dishes largely made with wheat—noodles, noodle soups, dumplings and pancakes—rather than the rice and seafood-centric Cantonese cuisine of the south. The families also own an A&J Restaurant in Annandale, plus five in California, all serving the same menu. This is one of the only exclusively dim sum restaurants around; we wish there were more.

Favorites: This place is worth a trip if only for the pan-fried pork dumplings—the best we’ve had. Bigger than other pot stickers and not overly greasy, they burst with flavor. The spicy beef noodle soup features an intense, beefy broth, tender beef morsels and a tangle of noodles. Both the smoked chicken and cucumber salad in hot garlic sauce are solid choices, but there are lots of other tempting small-plate contenders.

1319-C Rockville Pike (in the Woodmont Station shopping center), Rockville, 301-251-7878 

Sichuan Jin River | Chinese

This no-frills eatery offers a superior slice of Sichuan cuisine and a real adventure in eating. Owned by members of the Pei family, who come from Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, the restaurant attracts a largely Asian crowd (always a good sign). Take the plunge with the four-page menu of authentic Chinese dishes, not the two-pager of Chinese-American staples. Even if you don’t fancy Seasoned Chicken Feet and Pig Ear, there are endless less adventurous options.

Favorites: The lunch special—which comes with three dishes, plus soup—is a fabulous deal for $22 that can easily feed two or even three. Good bets include flounder with Chinese greens, a fresh, healthy-tasting pair; pork with lotus root, a textural mix of sliced pork, crunchy lotus root, Chinese mushrooms and red and green peppers; and General Guan’s Chicken, an unusual, Mexican-influenced combo of sliced chicken with cumin sauce, cilantro and leeks.    

410 Hungerford Drive, Rockville, 240-403-7351, www.scjinriver.com

Cubano’s | Cuban

Feeling down? Head to Cubano’s, where the atmosphere and the legendary mojitos will perk you up fast. Paintings of Cuban landscapes hang on bright yellow, red and green walls, and by the time the menu arrives—with a cover that features a maracas-shaking dancer—you’ll feel as if you’re relaxing in Havana. Owned by Cuban-born Adolfo Mendez, a former pharmacist, and his Venezuelan-born wife, Rocio Anzola-Mendez, the menu features the home-cooked fare of Mendez’s childhood. Many of the recipes, in fact, are his mother’s and grandmother’s.     

Favorites: We’re not sure whether Abuela (that’s Grandma, to you) made mojitos, but the restaurant’s version sure packs a powerful rum punch. Order one with the appetizer sampler: You’ll want to hog the crunchy croquettes filled with a creamy, smoked ham concoction, not to mention the mini-mountain of tender roast pork. Make the main course picadillo a lo nene, a Cuban version of a sloppy Joe, made with ground beef, olives, capers, diced potatoes, onions and green peppers. Or go with the ropa vieja, the classic beef dish made with shredded beef and pepper strips that resemble “old clothes,” its translation.

1201 Fidler Lane, Silver Spring, 301-563-4020, www.cubanosrestaurant.com


LacoMelza Ethiopian Café | Ethiopian

With nearly a dozen Ethiopian restaurants in Silver Spring, we’d be up to our elbows in injera (the cuisine’s signature spongy flatbread) to find the best. But this relative newcomer, named for the northern Ethiopian town where owners Alem Kidane and Etsegenet Lemma grew up, is an endearing spot with personable service. In addition to lunch and dinner, it serves an interesting brunch, with items not commonly found on other Ethiopian restaurant menus. The setting is nice, too—bold and modern, with bright red walls, colorful posters and tapestry-like scarves under the glass tabletops.

Favorites: For brunch, try the tabor, an intriguing dish with spicy strips of beef, cracked wheat and eggs. It rivals coffee for a morning jolt (not to worry, you can tame the heat with a cup of fragrant Ethiopian spiced tea). Also good: rolled doro tibs, chargrilled chicken chunks with tomatoes, onions and house dressing served in pita; the vegetable sampler; and the traditional doro wot, a chicken leg cooked in a zesty sauce with onions and spiced butter, served with a hard-boiled egg. 

7912 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-326-2435, www.lacomelza.com 

Sheba | Ethiopian

Walking through Silver Spring, you might think you were in Addis Ababa at times. By contrast, there hasn’t been a sambusa in sight in Rockville. At least not until last October, when Tsiona Bellete, who grew up in Italian-influenced Addis Ababa, decided to transform her short-lived Pasta Pronto restaurant into Sheba. For our part, we’re glad she did. Named after Bellete’s heroine, the Queen of Sheba, the restaurant serves traditional dishes with some twists, and the menu changes every few months. With pleasant décor and dependable cooking, Sheba is a welcome and much-needed addition to the neighborhood.

Favorites: As at other Ethiopian restaurants, vegans and vegetarians will have lots of options here, with plenty of greens (collards and cabbage), chickpeas, lentils and yellow split peas. But carnivores might start with a beef sambusa, a crackly pastry triangle stuffed with ground beef spiked with just the right amount of cayenne heat. Then there’s Sheba’s version of minchet abesh alicha. Usually made with ground beef, it’s also available with ground chicken simmered in a flavorful onion sauce and seasoned with turmeric, garlic, ginger, black pepper and other spices.

5071 Nicholson Lane, Rockville, 301-881-8882, www.shebarockville.com

Cava Mezze | Greek

When it opened in 2006, Cava Mezze introduced the area to a talented young trio of locally raised Greek-Americans. Now, their mini-empire includes two other Cava Mezze restaurants, five Cava Mezze Grills and Sugo Cicchetti in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. The first location, with its narrow, brick-walled dining room still buzzes with crowds, even mid-week—and no wonder. Dimitri Moshovitis, the culinary brains of the bunch, has devised a modern, creative collection of Greek-inspired small plates that consistently hit a home run.

Favorites: Tough to choose; they’re all good. Among the highlights from our last visit, though: grilled haloumi sliders, a combination of smoky, charred cheese and chopped fresh tomatoes on soft brioche rolls; opa opa shrimp in a creamy Ouzo-charged sauce; and lamb kampama, tender, no-knife-needed morsels of braised lamb shoulder mixed with orzo.   

9713 Traville Gateway Drive, Rockville, 301-309-9090, www.cavamezze.com

Mykonos Grill |Greek

Mykonos Grill may be traditional with its blue-and-white décor, but it’s prettier than its Greek brethren, offering a respite from Rockville Pike if only for an hour or two. Longtime restaurateur and Sparta-born Peter Pagonis opened the place in 1998, naming it after his wife, Despina’s, favorite Greek island. We like that it’s a gathering spot for the local Greek community, which uses the private room for luncheons, christenings and other special occasions. They trust the quality, hominess and authenticity of the food, as do we.

Favorites: Opt for the cold appetizer plate, with its seven samples, the best of which are imam baildi (fresh eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions, raisins and pine nuts) and fasolia (northern beans with olive oil, lemon and chopped onions). The avgolemono soup tastes like it came straight from a Greek grandma’s kitchen, as do the dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice and mint and topped with an egg lemon sauce). Phyllo fans should make a beeline for the spanakopita and the triangular-shaped cheese pies known as tyropitakia, as these are especially well-done versions.

121 Congressional Lane, Rockville, 301-770-5999, www.mykonosgrill.com

The Big Greek Café | Greek

With fresh, top-notch food at bargain prices, The Big Greek Café demonstrates how modest ethnic eateries can sometimes outdo the cooking at pricier, more pretentious alternatives. The owners, twins Nick and Simos Marmaras, come from a restaurant family—their father, Bill, has been running the Golden Flame in Silver Spring since 1972. The brothers opened the café in 2009, a tribute to their late mother’s cooking, and they’ve done her proud.

Favorites:  The “feisty feta,” a pretty orange whip of feta cheese, red chilies and herbs, is a good bet. So is the tzaziki, the yogurt dip enlivened with bits of cucumber, garlic and dill, served with fabulous, butter-brushed and grilled pita triangles. Pork and chicken souvlaki, the grilled marinated meat nestled in pita or served on a skewer, define moist and flavorful. And the “Big Greek” french fries—topped with crumbled feta, oregano and herbs and a drizzle of tzaziki—sound like they might be a bit much, but the combination of crispy potatoes, tangy feta, creamy yogurt and assertive spices really works.

8223 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-587-4733; 4007 Norbeck Road, Rockville, 301-929-9760; www.biggreekcafe.com


Himalayan Heritage | Indian/Nepalese

This little gem opened in November, the sister of an Adams Morgan restaurant with the same name. Three Nepalese partners own both places (with a fourth partner at the D.C. location), and there’s a lot to like about the new outpost, not the least of which are its native décor, culinary authenticity and long, intriguing menu. The place features Nepalese specialties, Indian takes on Chinese chow mein, and dishes of the Newari people of the Kathmandu Valley, who have their own distinct cuisine. The food here is fairly fiery, but with layers of flavor.

Favorites: Fried cauliflower with sweet-and-spicy sauce is a simple, no-fail starter. Those who like more involved appetizers can opt for the samay baji; a Newari dish, it contains fried catfish, roast chicken, soybeans, ginger strips, boiled-then-fried egg and soaked, uncooked rice, with each item having a different meaning (i.e., health, longevity, etc.). Also be sure to try one of the varieties of momos (Nepalese dumplings); the vegetable-filled ones are particularly good. Since the entrée sauces are so sensational, the puffy naan will get a workout as a scooper. We’d recommend the Nepali-style shrimp curry or the aloo tama bodi, a vegetarian dish with potatoes, pickled bamboo shoots, black-eyed peas and spices. And save room for gajar ko haluwa, the dessert made with grated carrot, sugar, ghee and milk. It’s sweet, creamy and made with a vegetable, all at the same time.

4925 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, 301-654-1858, www.himalayanheritagedc.com

Passage to India | Indian

New Delhi-born owner Sudhir Seth is not only a great chef (he has cooked for such luminaries as Queen Elizabeth and former president Bill Clinton), but a bit of a culinary historian. As such, he has turned the menu into a teaching moment, dividing it into the four regions of India to distinguish the different dishes and flavors of each area. As the website of this elegant, longtime eatery notes, India is a country of more than 1.2 billion people, more than a dozen languages and 800 recognized dialects, and its cuisine reflects its diverse history, religion, climate and geography. This is the place to experience the subtleties and complexities of it all.

Favorites: Start with giant, smoky tandoori sea scallops, or the warm crab masala, with its chunks of lump meat sautéed with onions and herbs. So many interesting choices follow, but two top contenders include the East Indian doi macch, consisting of fish (grouper, the night we had it) cooked in onion-yogurt sauce flavored with cloves; and the West Indian saliboti jardaloo, a Parsi-style lamb stew with apricots and very thin, crispy potatoes that look like straw. Order a side of onion-stuffed kulcha (leavened flatbread), and finish with jam-e-gul (milk dumplings in rose-flavored syrup).   

4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-656-3373, www.passagetoindia.info

Raku | Japanese

Raku, meaning “happy” in Japanese, has long been a Bethesda Magazine reader favorite, and a meal here makes us smile, too. The bento box-size place, which consistently turns out high-caliber food, is perennially packed, thanks to chef and co-owner Masaru Homma’s long and interesting menu of sushi, noodle soups, Asian fusion dishes and sake.    

Favorites: The sushi here is better than average, but we prefer the red coconut curry and the noodle soups, with multilayered broths swimming with goodies (the dashi broth with udon noodles, vegetables and shrimp tempura is one standout). Also worth repeating: wok-charred sea bass with ginger-tomato sauce, king oyster mushrooms and broccolini; and the pan-roasted chicken breast with lemon basil sauce, grilled asparagus and sautéed egg noodles pad Thai-style.

7240 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-718-8680, www.rakuasiandining.com

Sushiko | Japanese

Sushi is as ubiquitous these days as rotisserie chicken, with plenty of mediocre options. Sushiko’s sushi, however, rises to a whole other level: It’s like the difference between a Big Mac and a kobe beef burger. Long a darling of serious sushi eaters, the restaurant slices its super-fresh, top-quality fish to order. This serene Friendship Heights location opened in 2008 and is the offspring of Washington’s oldest sushi bar, the Sushiko in Glover Park, which opened 36 years ago. Tokyo-born Daisuke Utagawa is the owner and creative director behind both.

Favorites: All sushi lovers have their favorites, but neophytes might go for the combination platters or opt for the restaurant’s signature flounder carpaccio, salmon ceviche, tuna tartare or the sweet and spicy roll. And, there are plenty of excellent cooked options, too, including delicate lobster-asparagus soup, spicy broiled mussels and rock shrimp tempura.

5455 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, 301-961-1644, www.sushikorestaurants.com

Moa | Korean

Blink and you might miss this storefront eatery tucked among auto parts and flooring shops on Wilkins Avenue in Rockville—and you definitely wouldn’t want to do that. With gracious owner Elisa Choi as your guide, this is a great place to “get together” (the meaning of “moa”) and explore Korean cuisine. The minimalist decor includes a colorful array of Post-It notes with handwritten messages from happy diners.

Favorites: The seafood pancake appetizer—a plate-size crispy frittata chock full of squid, clams, shrimp and scallions—could be a satisfying meal by itself. But save room for galbi dolsot bibimbap, a black hot pot filled with rice, strips of short rib, grated carrots, soybean sprouts and cucumber. In keeping with tradition, the meal comes with banchan, or side dishes, which here include lettuce, kimchi, radishes, pickles and bellflower root.

12300 Wilkins Ave., Rockville, 301-881-8880, moakoreanrestaurant.weebly.com      


La Brasa Latin Cuisine | Latin American

From the outside, La Brasa looks like a quintessential hole-in-the-wall, but the interior is cheerier and bustling with regulars at lunchtime. The food, a selection of popular dishes from Mexico, Cuba, Peru and other Latin American countries, is the real deal, courtesy of Salvadoran-born owners Emilio and Lucy Campos and a competent kitchen staff. With freshly prepared dishes at prices that belie their quality, this is one of those family-owned eateries that’s a real find. And its location—on an odd stretch of Parklawn Drive, in the shadow of the Food and Drug Administration and industrial shops—makes it even more so.  

Favorites: There are dishes for the adventurous (beef tongue with red wine sauce comes to mind). But we like to stick with the standards, like gambas al ajillo. The big, perfectly cooked shrimp rest in an olive-oil-and-garlic sauce that’s so flavorful the toasted dipping bread won’t last long. Carne asada, thinly sliced skirt steak, is nicely seasoned before its turn on the grill. And the house-made tres leche cake, a generous rectangle of spongy cake soaked in three types of milk, oozes sweet comfort.

12401 Parklawn Drive, Rockville, 301-468-8850, www.labrasarockville.com

La Casita Pupuseria & Market |  Latin American

Doscientos treinta y ocho! If you’re holding number 238, that means your order is ready for pickup at the counter. But not to worry: If you’re a gringo, the kitchen staff likely will repeat the number in English. It all bodes well for a meal at La Casita Pupuseria, a family-run operation that has been turning out freshly prepared Salvadoran dishes for a decade. Owners Mariano and Leonor Arbaiza hail from El Salvador; son Jaime, who was born in Washington, D.C., is the general manager. In addition to stocking grocery items such as plantains, mangoes and dried corvina around the perimeter of the bare-bones seating area, the restaurant also serves breakfast (think egg dishes with fried red beans and handmade tortillas).

Favorites: The homemade pupusas—thick, grainy corn tortillas with a variety of fillings—are bigger and bulkier than in El Salvador, Jaime Arbaiza says, but that just means there’s more to love here. Check out the ground fried pork and cheese (revueltas) or the cheese and loroco (green flower buds that taste like a cross between squash and green pepper). The abundant fillings sometimes seep out the sides while they’re cooking, creating delectable little lattices of crisped cheese. The pan de pollo—the Salvadoran sandwich made with shredded, braised chicken, curtido (cabbage salad), tomatoes, beets, radishes, cucumbers and sliced hard-boiled egg on French bread—is a wonderful whopper that almost needs to be eaten with a fork.      

8214 Piney Branch Road, Silver Spring, 301-588-6656, www.lacasitapapusas.com

Bistro LaZeez | Middle Eastern

For years, local Arabic language tutor Reda Asaad got rave reviews from students for his legendary end-of-the-school-year grilled chicken parties. In 2010, the Chevy Chase resident turned his culinary hobby into a commercial venture. “Lazeez” means “delicious” in Arabic, and the name is apt. While the menu is pretty simple—various combinations of chicken, beef and lamb kabobs comprise the bulk of the under-$20 offerings—it’s an amazing deal, considering the atmosphere (cozy, yet elegant) and the quantity and quality of the food. Even the side dishes are thoughtfully prepared.

Favorites: For appetizers, we like the smooth, creamy hummus, the cilantro-spiked falafel or the brightly seasoned fava bean sauté. Asaad’s signature grilled chicken, marinated in his secret sauce, earns top grades here. And the pita bread (sprinkled with that sauce before a quick flip on the grill) is likewise A-plus. To finish: warm, flaky phyllo pastry rolls stuffed with crushed cashews, or the refreshing vanilla ice cream mixed with chopped pistachios and a touch of orange blossom water.

8009 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-8222, www.bistrolazeez.com

La Limeña | Peruvian

La Limeña, wedged into the far corner of the Ritchie Center, has been a popular destination since 2007, when owner Emma Perez started serving Peruvian specialties from her homeland. The place has since been spiffed up a bit with granite tabletops and china plates, but it’s still a no-frills setting for eating sophisticated food. The menu also features a few Cuban dishes.

Favorites: If you haven’t already sampled anticuchos (traditionally made with beef heart), this is the place to do it. Thinly sliced, marinated for 24 hours, skewered and seared on the grill, the organ meat has a smooth, even texture similar to calf’s liver, a nice contrast to its slightly charred exterior. The tender meat falls off the bone in the generous beef shank entrée, making it all the easier to sop up the rich sauce. For endings, you can’t go wrong with any of the homemade pastries. We’d also suggest you try the chicha morada, a fragrant, not-too-sweet Peruvian drink made with purple corn, pineapple, apple, cinnamon, sugar and lime.

765 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-424-8066  

Yekta | Middle Eastern

In Farsi, “yekta” means “one of a kind”—which perfectly describes this Persian eatery in a Rockville Pike strip shopping mall. It features stained-glass windows, intricate wall murals and a huge, blue Iranian chandelier hanging from a painted dome ceiling. Hands down, it’s the area’s most beautiful place to cut into a kabob. Sisters Sahel Dadras and Sougol Mollaan took over the reins from their father, Yadi Dadras, who originally opened Yekta in 1979 as a small grocery store. He died in 2011, not long after overseeing the second renovation and expansion of the restaurant and market.

Favorites: Ghormeh sabzi, chunks of tender beef and kidney beans in a parsley-and-herb sauce with a hint of tangy dried lime, tops our list. So does the Cornish hen kabob, juicy, marinated chunks of poultry. And after you eat, don’t miss the well-stocked market next door, with its bins of pistachios and aisles of dried fruit, Persian pastries, fresh produce and more.

1488 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-984-0005, yekta.com


Sardi's Pollo a La Brasa | Peruvian

This may look like another Peruvian chicken place, but there’s much more to explore here. Cousins Phillip E. and Phillip G. Sardelis started out as caterers and now own five local Sardi’s restaurants. The Gaitherburg location opened in 2010, and it’s a big, family-friendly spot with an enthusiastic crowd and a full roster of Peruvian and Latin specialties. Eat in or carry out, you won’t be disappointed.   

Favorites: Don’t miss the amazing Peruvian-style ceviche de pescado, its paper-thin slices of tilapia marinated in lime juice and cilantro. Cutting the acidity of the dish are super-sweet potato wedges, giant kernels of yellow Peruvian corn, small kernels of dried salted corn and rocoto pepper sauce. Share the “ultimate mixed grill,” a huge sampler that includes chicken, shrimp, chorizo and carne asada (skirt steak), all grilled to a smoky, earthy char.

430 N. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg, 301-977-3222, www.sardischicken.com

Tavira | Portuguese

The authentic Portuguese menu and spot-on seafood dishes overseen by longtime chef-owner Duarte Rebolo would be enough to highly recommend Tavira. But it also wins the award for the county’s sunniest subterranean restaurant. With its wall mural, pottery and pretty flower arrangements, this basement office building eatery is a mini-retreat to the city on Portugal’s southern coast for which it’s named. If it weren’t for the Connecticut Avenue traffic, you’d think you were there.      

Favorites: Try any of the several bacalhau entrées, the centuries-old dish made with dried, salted cod that’s rehydrated before being cooked and served with vegetables and other accompaniments. For starters, go fish with the fresh clams or grilled squid (when the latter is offered as a special), and absolutely end the meal with leite frita, fried custard with a hint of citrus and cinnamon that’s even better than a cream-filled doughnut.   

8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, 301-652-8684, www.tavirarestaurant.com

Jaleo | Spanish

Despite its 12 years in Bethesda, celebrity chef-owner José Andrés’ Jaleo has retained its early buzz, most likely because the kitchen still delivers some of the best and most consistent small plates in town. A cozy, urban space provides the setting for sampling any of the more than 70 tapas, many of which come with a modern twist. There are about a half dozen varieties of paella, too.

Favorites: The list is long: toasted rustic bread with tomato and Serrano ham; mini burgers; roasted red peppers, eggplant and sweet onions with sherry dressing; seared piquillo peppers filled with goat cheese; grilled hanger steak with mustard sauce and Valdeón blue cheese; homemade chorizo with olive oil potato purée and cider sauce; seared scallops with butternut squash purée and oranges; jumbo lump crabmeat with cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower and a brandy sauce; fried salt cod with honey aioli. Also divine: the sangria, flan and rice pudding.

7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-913-0003, www.jaleo.com

Kao Thai | Thai

When it first opened in 2010, Kao Thai made a big splash for such a tiny space. Earlier this year, the extended Thai family that owns the restaurant expanded the space, taking over the shop next door, which allows co-owner and head chef Mayura Buddhahun to serve her drunken noodles and Bangkok Seafood Delight to more than double the audience. There aren’t many good Thai restaurants in our area. This one offers brighter, fresher food than most.

Favorites: Start with vegetable and tofu soup, a comforting broth with baby corn, mushrooms, cabbage, scallions and cubes of soft tofu. Then progress to Siam Salmon, its crispy exterior draped with fresh Thai basil leaves and a spicy basil sauce. For dessert, don’t miss the Roti Sai Kai, a not-too-sweet Thai street food made with a rolled crêpe of roti bread and egg, and garnished with condensed milk.  

8650 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, 301-495-1234, www.kaothairestaurant.com

Taste of Saigon | Vietnamese

Diners looking for a more upscale atmosphere and varied menu than can be found in the area’s pho parlors might do well to check out Taste of Saigon, a French-inspired Vietnamese restaurant that’s pleasant, pretty and surprisingly good. Modern and sleek, decorated in tasteful shades of orange, yellow and green, the restaurant is owned by the Tu family, which fled South Vietnam in 1975.

Favorites: The shrimp-and-lotus salad should be as popular as a Caesar, with its fresh, just-spicy-enough combination of shrimp, lotus root, carrot coins, red onion, basil, cilantro, slivers of fried garlic and dressing. Also worth trying: the miraculously thin, crisp Saigon Crêpe, bulging with shrimp, chicken, bean sprouts and onions.

20-A Maryland Ave. (in Rockville Town Square), Rockville, 301-424-7222, www.tasteofsaigon.com


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.

The Standouts

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.


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