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Credit: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

Where would D.C.’s dining scene be without the immigrant-owned restaurants that help Washingtonians taste the world? From chewy Uighur noodles and crispy Indian dosas to Swiss fondue and torn paratha roti known in Trinidad as buss up shut, the region is an embarrassment of riches.

This year’s Food Issue is a snapshot of immigrant-owned eateries in the D.C. region that span from food trucks to upscale dining. Some of the cooks and restaurateurs who took a chance coming to the U.S. brought backgrounds working in kitchens; others found their way into restaurants out of necessity, discovering the hospitality industry as a land of opportunity.

While City Paper enthusiastically recommends diners try each of these eateries, the Food Issue isn’t a greatest hits list, nor is it representative of every tempting cuisine available locally. Read on to find a cross section of transportive places that have both the ability to whisk our taste buds to far-off lands and remind us that the joy of gathering over a shared meal is one experience we all have in common. —Laura Hayes

Peruvian Brothers

Giuseppe and Mario Lanzone

Food truck; (703)-625-6473; peruvianbrothers.com

Sandwich slinging siblings Mario and Giuseppe Lanzone have literal threads tethering them to their home country of Peru. The bottles of hot sauce they sell come topped with chullos small enough for Barbie to wear. The wool hats double as the Peruvian Brothers’ logo. “Each hat is handwoven by women artisans in the mountains of Peru,” Giuseppe says. “Instead of selling two or three a day, we buy 1,000 at a time.” 

The Lanzone family came to the U.S. in 1997 from La Punta, following an aunt who lived in the D.C. area. “It was a rough patch in Peru with terrorism, the economy plunging, and the government was super corrupt,” Giuseppe explains. He was a freshman in high school and Mario was tackling eighth grade. Giuseppe said he learned English quickly because his best friend was from Iran, so they could only communicate in their shared second language. Giuseppe went on to compete for Team USA in rowing in the Beijing (2008) and London (2012) Olympics.

The year after the London games, the first Peruvian Brothers food truck hit the road. Now they’re up to three trucks, a catering business, and, soon, their first brick-and-mortar restaurant inside forthcoming Latin market La Cosecha. Their speciality is sandwiches, from choripán to braised beef asado.

If you can only try one, spring for the pan con chicharrón with pleasingly salty pork loin, grilled sweet potato, and criolla sauce on a French roll the Peruvian Brothers convinced a local bakery to make following a family recipe. Potatoes are Peru’s forte, and this lunch treat proves spuds belong on sandwiches. “There are 4,000 different kinds of potatoes,” Giuseppe says. “Yellow, purple, orange, big, large, curvy, fat.”

Bolster a meal with a beef empanada. “We bake our empanadas and sprinkle them with powdered sugar on top,” Giuseppe says. “Take a bite and then squeeze the lime inside.” —Laura Hayes

Dolan Uyghur

3518 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 686-3941; dolanuyghur.com

The Uighurs, a majority-Muslim Turkic group from northwest China, are one of the smallest immigrant communities in America, and their food—a unique blend of flavors from China, Afghanistan, India, Russia, Turkey, and other countries—is hard to come by. But Hamid Karim is trying to change that with his dream of opening a Uighur restaurant in all 50 states. 

For now, he has Dolan Uyghur in Cleveland Park, an unassuming two-story restaurant serving hearty portions of Uighur fare from chewy handmade noodles and juicy meats to kebabs and sauce-coated veggies. Karim says his menu is exactly what Uighur families eat: “This is the food my mom makes at home.”

Hamid Karim

Karim’s home region is officially called Xinjiang, and it’s where the majority of Uighurs reside. But he and most diaspora Uighurs call their home East Turkestan in support of the movement to establish independence from China, whose government is persecuting Uighurs through massive surveillance campaigns, frequent arrests without trial, and placements in “re-education camps.” These circumstances forced Karim, his wife, and their two kids to flee their home last year and seek asylum in the U.S., he explains.

When they arrived in D.C. in May 2018, Karim discovered Dolan Uyghur just as its previous owners were looking to sell. He took over in September. Since then, Karim has made it a priority to educate guests not only on Uighur food and culture, but also on the current political situation. “I want to let every American know about Uighur people’s history and problems we have today,” he says. 

Although many guests walk into Dolan Uyghur with little knowledge about Uighurs, Karim says that after indulging in a plate of hot chicken stew (bite-size pieces of chicken and potatoes marinated in a spicy vegetable sauce with flat noodles) or tasting laghman noodles (chewy hand-pulled noodles smothered in beef and vegetables) they leave eager to learn more. —Ella Feldman

Gisele’s Creole Cuisine

2407 Price Ave., Wheaton, Md.; (301) 933-1340; giselescreolecuisine.com

When Jose Dugué moved to Maryland in 2007, he didn’t see any restaurants with food from his homeland. Dugué’s mother, Gisele, is a school-trained chef from Haiti and he dreamed of opening a restaurant that would attract people the way his mother’s distinctively seasoned cooking did back in Port-au-Prince.

But Dugué, now a Maryland state trooper, didn’t realize that dream until 10 years later when he and his wife, Tamara, pooled their finances to purchase a former Italian and Salvadoran restaurant in Wheaton in 2017. They renamed it Gisele’s Creole Cuisine and hired Haitian-born Chef Ludyne Desir. The restaurant serves oxtail and other Haitian Creole dishes that draw from African, French, Spanish, and British cultures. Dugué’s mother provided some recipes and a large photo of her hangs on one wall. 

Dugué recommends the whole red snapper, even though it isn’t always available, along with the goat imported from Australia. Both main dishes are available stewed in sauce or fried. The stewed version of goat is tender and, like the red snapper, comes with a small serving of spicy pickled cabbage known as pikliz (or piklis), plus rice, salad, and fried plantains. Dugué notes that the pumpkin soup called joumou, available on Sundays only, is something that enslaved Haitians once made for their masters but weren’t allowed to eat themselves. Today it serves as a symbol of revolution, freedom, and independence. —Steve Kiviat

DC Dosa

Union Market; 1309 5th St. NE; (202) 804-5556; dcdosa.com

With her dosa stall, Bombay native Priya Ammu wants to bring Washingtonians a taste of what South Indians serve in their homes. She discovered a variety of rice and lentil-based crepes after marrying into a South Indian family. And then, like many others, found inspiration in America’s original build-a-bowl company. 

“When Chipotle first opened, I was just stunned,” she says. “Everyone gives them a bad rap. But on a good day, it’s really good. On a bad day it’s terrible. I noticed what they were doing with tortillas and thought, ‘Why can’t we do this with dosa?’” 

The thought simmered on Ammu’s back burner until she was itching for an encore career after quitting a catering job to raise three daughters and, eventually, getting a divorce. She started small, selling chutneys at farmers markets. Then she entered a StartUp Kitchen contest in 2012 and won, giving her the confidence to approach Whole Foods and set up a station at the Foggy Bottom location in 2013. 

Fast forward and you’ll now find Ammu in Union Market selling dosas and uttapams. An uttapam is a thicker, spongier pancake made from fermented rice and white lentils that’s reminiscent of Ethiopian injera in terms of tang and texture. Try one, or Ammu’s favorite, the mung lentil dosa made from lentils that are soaked with their skins intact, making it more nutritious. 

Customers must select a filling for each dosa or uttapam order. There’s the traditional curry potatoes and two more experimental options: eggplant and sweet potatoes with tamarind, and a medley of roasted vegetables brightened by ginger and onion. 

“Overbearing Indians come in saying, ‘That’s not a dosa filling,’ and I’m like, ‘We have the potatoes!’” Ammu explains. “Then they’ll go off and write something nasty. I get really angry and then my daughters have to calm me down.” The eggplant filling would more commonly be served with rice. “Food is extremely powerful and it draws out the best and worst in people… The best is when people say, ‘This reminds me of what I had growing up.’ It connects you back to where you were.” —Laura Hayes

Moby Dick House of Kabob

Multiple locations; (202) 544-1500; mobyskabob.com

Moby Dick has become so ingrained in D.C. culture over 30 years, going back always feels like a taste of home. There was a time, though, when its Iranian founder wasn’t grilling kabobs and putting out buttery rice. The first Moby Dick, located in Bethesda, was originally an American diner. It later evolved to serve Persian food after Mike Daryoush built a pita bread oven. 

For Daryoush, originally from Shiraz in Iran, launching the business included late nights and emergency loans from friends to meet rent. He was “sleeping in the restaurant a few hours—just to get shut eye,” says Alex Momeni, chief development officer for the restaurant.

Daryoush died on May 9 at age 66, leaving behind an ever-growing empire that now has 24 outposts from Springfield, Virginia, to Baltimore, and two in the District (Dupont Circle and Georgetown). 

Grilled chicken and ground beef kabobs are diners’ favorites, Momeni says, along with the garlicky hummus. Pita bread in hand, also try their kashk bademjan—a creamy mix of eggplant topped with caramelized onions. 

In a city witnessing a dizzying torrent of new fast casual restaurants, Moby Dick remains a no-frills refuge, where not much has changed, and for good reason. Kabobs and rice—with a dab of butter for good measure—still come alongside a familiar cup of yogurt and a tasty broiled tomato. 

Momeni says the restaurant is considering all options for expansion, including the potential for making consumer packaged items. He says that Daryoush started the restaurant to tell a story about his homeland. “That story wasn’t told yet in the [U.S.],” he says. “Even today, the sky’s the limit for Persian cuisine.” —Cuneyt Dil

Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

5268-H, Nicholson Lane, Rockville, Md.; (240) 669-4383; kuyajas.com

There’s something to be said for focusing on one thing and perfecting it. That’s what Javier Fernandez did with lechon, a specialty of his home island of Cebu in the Philippines. He roasts pork belly wrapped around lemongrass, green onions, garlic, and pineapple low and slow until the skin is a smooth mahogany brown. The glassy exterior crackles when you bite into it, revealing belly fat that melts away and tender meat.

The taste suggests Fernandez spent a lifetime becoming an expert. Not so. Fernandez moved to the U.S. in 1991 at age 7. He eventually landed in the D.C. area, enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine, and embarked on a culinary career that included stints at Michel Richard’s Michel, La Chaumiere, and MET Bethesda. He always cooked the foods of other cultures, never his own. But around 2013, he became interested in his culinary roots.

He spent a year obsessing over his lechon recipe, determining the perfect timing and temperature. Then he began posting pictures on Instagram, which lead to catering gigs and weekend pop-ups at his sister’s Rockville wholesale bakery, Gwenie’s Pastries. Feeling confident, Fernandez opened Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly last spring.

No visit is complete without the namesake dish, which goes best with garlic rice and atsara, a sweet and tangy pickled ginger and papaya salad. More adventurous diners should also sample the sisig, a tip-to-tail stir fry with head cheese, ears, snout, and chicharrones.

Through October, Washingtonians can also try Fernandez’s food in Navy Yard, where he’ll have a stall at Smorgasburg selling chicken inasal on Saturdays. The Filipino dish analogous to Jamaican jerk chicken is made by marinating legs and thighs in coconut vinegar, lemongrass, and garlic, and then smoking them. —Nevin Martell

Mikko

1636 R St. NW; (202) 525-3919; chefmikko.com

Born in 1969 in the Finnish municipality of Pyhtää, Mikko Kosonen credits his mother with encouraging his interest in cooking, starting with baked goods such as the cardamom buns and rye bread that he still makes fresh each day at his Dupont Circle café. After a childhood summer working at a restaurant owned by his family, Mikko knew he wanted a career in the industry. But military service took him overseas, and he worked as a cook for the Finnish army in the Middle East. 

Following his service, Kosonen found employment at restaurants throughout Europe before kicking off his career as a chef for diplomats. In 1996 he moved to D.C. to cook for the Swedish ambassador, and one year later became the Finnish ambassador’s chef. Three subsequent ambassadors retained him until Kosonen sought to open his own business. He started with a catering company in 2013, but eventually wanted his own café.

When Mikko opened in May 2018, the chef was eager to show diners that there’s more to Nordic food than just herring, with many unique dishes to discover. “I hope they see we have very tasty food in our home country,” he says, describing the food as clean and healthy. “People try things like our gravlax [cured raw salmon] for the first time, and say they would never have tried it anywhere else but they come back for it.”

The featured items on Mikko’s menu rotate, so oggle the chalkboard displaying daily specials. Kosonen recommends two dishes for customers looking to break into Nordic food. The first is matjes herring—pickled herring served with potatoes or rye bread, or sometimes cut into small cubes and served with sour cream and onion. The second is a hot dog topped with shrimp skagen. “In Sweden there’s a sausage place on every corner,” he says. “It’s the same thing in Finland. It’s typical night food. Adding the shrimp salad makes it a poor man’s surf and turf.” —Anthony Lacey

Thanh Son Tofu

Eden Center, 6793 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church, Va.; (703) 534-1202

Eden Center has been a cultural hub for the region’s Vietnamese-American community since 1984, but the clientele is as diverse as the shopping center’s offerings. “The only difference? Foreigners don’t order the dessert,” observes Thanh Son Tofu owner Hanh Trinh. She’s referring to non-Vietnamese people. Similar to D.C.’s embassies, once you’re at Eden Center, it feels like you’re on foreign soil.

While her non-Vietnamese customers may not be tempted by three-bean pudding, Trinh feels the restaurant has something for everyone. “We’re known for our tofu, desserts, and smoothies,” she says. “The Vietnamese people, they love the sticky rice. But the foreign people, they should try the fried tofu and the eggrolls, or tofu pudding,” she says. “I want people to know that Vietnamese food is healthy.”

Trinh and her family moved to the States from southeast Vietnam in 1991 and opened Thanh Son Tofu in Eden Center in 2004. “Relatives let us borrow the money to start the business,” she explains. “We didn’t have credit yet, when we came to the U.S. It took a few years. Banks didn’t know who we are. We knew if we lose, we lose everything. But we thought maybe we’d survive.” 

Will Thanh Son Tofu be around for another generation? “We’re doing very well right now, but the lease is up in five years, the rent is expensive, and my mom and dad are getting old,” she says, considering the future. —Elizabeth Tuten

Lapis

Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

1847 Columbia Road NW; (202) 299-9630; lapisdc.com

If you arrive at an Afghan household for dinner and qabuli palow is on the table, you know you’re important. Mastering the dish, a rice pilaf cooked with carrots, raisins, and lamb, takes time and effort. The same goes for aushak and mantoo dumplings—the former leek-filled, the latter containing spiced ground beef—which are meticulously crafted by hand. That’s why Shamim Popal made sure to include these dishes on the menu at Lapis, the modern Afghan bistro she owns with her family. “When a guest walks in here, it’s like our house, and we want to take care of you,” she says.

When Lapis opened in 2015, Shamim and her husband Zubair were already seasoned restaurateurs. They arrived in the D.C. area with their three children in 1987 after being forced to flee their war-torn home in Afghanistan. “We came with nothing,” Zubair says. “But we never thought things would not happen.” And things did happen. In 2003, the Popals opened Parisian eatery Cafe Bonaparte in Georgetown. Next came two more French restaurants: Napoleon Bistro & Lounge (which Lapis replaced) and Malmaison in Georgetown, which recently became The Berliner.

French food came easily to the Popals, who have family in Europe, and unlike Afghan cuisine, it was something locals recognized. But in the Popal household, Shamim cooked almost exclusively Afghan dishes, and her family eventually convinced her to take her home cooking public. Drawing on family recipes and adding her own flair, Shamim wrote the menu in a month, and filled it with a range of hearty, fragrant dishes. —Ella Feldman

Tsehay Ethiopian

3630 Georgia Ave. NW; (202) 808-8952

Selam Gossa insists on importing spices from Ethiopia for her first restaurant in America, Tsehay Ethiopian. She has a special way of obtaining them. “I have a good relationship with people who work for Ethiopian Airlines and the flight comes every day,” she says. “So it’s easy to get it when I need it. I have some coming Friday from two people.”

She was just as meticulous about selecting the right injera—the spongy flatbread diners use to scoop up their food. Gossa didn’t want the bread to sit too heavy in the stomach, and she went with Alem Injera made from 100 percent teff in Alexandria. When Gossa is not in the kitchen, her sister, Sara Gossa, is. There’s extra pressure to create memorable meals for diners because the restaurant, which opened in May, is named after the Gossa sisters’ late mother, Tsehay, who was one of 14 children and ran her own café in Addis Ababa. 

“My mom always had a guest in our house,” Selam explains. “We were four kids, but she usually had eight pepole. She brought in kids whose moms weren’t able to feed them. Sick people, homeless. We’d come home from school to find someone in our beds … She lived all her life for others.”

Tsehay died in 2014, two years after Selam moved to the U.S. for a job at The Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. “I’m upset that I wasn’t able to bury her,” she says. “But I’m very happy to have her name on the restaurant.” 

The berbere-flavored red lamb stew is her mother’s recipe and features slowly cooked meat to ensure tenderness. Selam recommends the stew, as well as the vegetarian sampler platter featuring a rainbow of generous pinches of red lentils, yellow split peas, cabbage with potatoes and carrots, collard greens, sauteed beets, and salad. 

Selam’s next step is introducing breakfast at Tsehay, which she plans to do next month. She’ll use recipes from her mother’s café, where the morning meal was especially popular. —Laura Hayes

Sunrise Caribbean

Multiple locations; (202) 291-2949; iamsunrise.com

When she moved to the U.S. in 2003, Alisa Plaza, owner of Sunrise Caribbean, told herself that she would not cook for a living. “I did that in Trinidad and you don’t have a life when you cook—day and night—a restaurant, it’s no joke.” But she and her husband, Selwyn Mungo, needed to make ends meet and send four children to school, so she returned to the kitchen.  

Plaza started small, selling roti by the dozen, and today she runs two locations of Sunrise on Georgia Avenue NW. The most recent one opened in April. Plaza also offers catering, teaches cooking classes, and, most weekends in May through September, travels to cook at festivals around the Mid-Atlantic. 

People tend to think that if they’ve had Jamaican food, they’ve had all Caribbean food, according to Plaza, who insists Trini food is different. Sunrise has the classics, including buss up shut (torn pieces of flaky flatbread used for dipping into various curries), and doubles (two fried bara, or mini flatbreads, filled with curried chickpeas). “People build houses in Trinidad just on doubles,” Plaza says, explaining how ubiquitous vendors of the snack-sized street food are in Trinidad and Tobago. At Sunrise, they’re offered Fridays through Sundays.

Try any of the plentiful vegan dishes, but especially the mac and cheese, made with house-made soy- or almond-based “cheese” flavored with nutritional yeast and spices. Specials are offered on Saturdays, including the cornmeal-based coo coo, made with coconut milk, okra, and carrots. It’s served with fish and callaloo (stewed greens and pumpkin with spices). If anything is sold out, ask for another recommendation, and always pair a meal with house-made sorrel, a spiced hibiscus drink. —Kara Elder

Thamee

1320 H St. NE; (202) 750-6529, thamee.com

On any given night at Thamee, the District’s new Burmese restaurant, there will be a chef, manager, bartender, or server with an immigrant story to tell. Seven out of 11 kitchen employees are immigrants, including two resettled refugees from Afghanistan. Nine of 13 dining room staff are immigrants or first-generation Americans. “We want to be welcoming to everyone—that’s always been our intention,” says co-owner Simone Jacobson. 

The kitchen at Thamee, which in Burmese means daughter, is helmed by Jacobson’s mother Jocelyn Law-Yone. Many of the dishes on the menu were inspired by Law-Yone’s early childhood in Rangoon, Burma, (today Yangon, Myanmar). Thamee’s third proprietor, Eric Wang, is also an immigrant. He hails from Taiwan by way of Japan.

“My hospitality is not trained or learned, it comes from the heart,” Law-Yone says. “I think we all came to this [restaurant] with a lot of strong food memories, and only love can create and inspire that.”

Jocelyn Law-Yone

Thamee’s menu spans a range of Burmese noodles, salads, and curries, including meeshay—a pork udon noodle dish that’s mixed table-side with cilantro, fresh-picked cherry tomatoes, mustard greens, and fermented tofu. It’s a customer favorite, and a dish that bursts with rich and bold flavors.

But if there’s one plate in high demand right now, it’s the catfish “hash brown” on the weekend brunch menu. It resembles a McDonald’s hash brown but instead of being greasy and salty, it’s filled with fresh, flaky fish, grilled to golden-brown inside a banana leaf and served with heirloom tomato salad and fried eggs.

“In Burma, breakfast, or brunch, or whatever your first meal of the day is, is the most important,” she explains. “So, if you really think about it, our brunch should be our standout service because we’re serving the most traditional and omnipresent food from there.” —Tim Ebner

Taco City DC

1102 8th St. SE; (202) 629-4012; tacocitydc.com

Peer into many a kitchen in D.C., and you’ll see Salvadorans rolling sushi, stirring Thai curries, finely chopping steak tartare, and in the case of Taco City DC, cooking street tacos. That’s because D.C.’s largest immigrant population comes from El Salvador. 

Chef Francisco Ferrufino came to D.C. from San Miguel in 2007 when he was 17 years old. “I came on a Wednesday, and on Thursday I was already washing dishes,” he says. “That’s the way I started.”

Now Ferrufino, who previously worked as the executive chef of Meridian Pint, co-owns Taco City with fellow Salvadoran Juan Jimenez. The pair met when Jimenez, who came to D.C. from La Unión in 1984, was bartending at Oyamel. Ferrufino would visit for late night margaritas. They shared a dream of serving Mexican tacos and small plates. “We’re not from Mexico, but we love the culture,” Jimenez says, noting they had “recipe helpers” from Mexico City and Puebla. 

No meal is complete without an order of esquites. “It’s sauteed street corn just like in Mexico City, where food trucks sell esquites in little bowls with a spoon,” he says. Think of it like elote, but off the cob. Taco City tops the kernels with pequin and guajillo peppers, queso fresco, mayo, lime, and crema. 

Of the 12 available tacos, don’t skip the carnitas. Ferrufino takes care that the pork isn’t too fatty and cuts the richness with house-made salsa verde. Pork rinds sit atop the taco for some crunch. The restaurant makes its own corn tortillas. 

Jimenez is a veteran of ThinkFoodGroup, a restaurant company that’s now synonymous with one of the District’s most heralded immigrants, José Andrés. After working for the restaurant group, and later for Richard Sandoval, Jimenez said, “Let me bring D.C. one of my own.” —Laura Hayes 

Stable

1324 H St. NE; (202) 733-4604; stabledc.com

Though Stable on H Street NE only serves classic Swiss food, the restaurant’s backstory is decidedly international. General Manager Silvan Kraemer and Chef David Fritsche grew up in Switzerland, but their friendship began when they were working in restaurants in Dubai in the early 2000s. After stints working in Ireland and New York, they landed in D.C. Years of working for others found the pair looking to set up a place of their own, and though they initially toyed with the idea of modern American cuisine, they decided on Swiss. 

Most Americans’ ideas of Swiss cuisine begin and end at fondue, but there’s a lot more to it. As Fritsche explains, “Swiss food is the crossroads between our neighboring countries.” He points to Italy, France, Germany, and Austria. That said, Stable’s fondue is a must-try, especially in the winter. For brunch, a favorite Swiss breakfast offering is berner rösti, a fritter-like, grated potato dish topped with bacon, gruyere, and a fried egg. 

If Swiss food only seems appropriate to eat in the Alpine-esque dead of winter, think again. Stable changes the menu seasonally, and for summer they have choices like a whole branzino baked in a salt crust, and “schnapsicals,” or frozen sticks of pureed fruit dunked in a glass of wine and schnaps, which showcase the restaurant’s healthy selection of the boozy Swiss distilled beverage. —Stephanie Rudig

Mama’s Pizza Kitchen

2028 Martin Luther King Jr Ave. SE; (202) 678-6262; mamaspizzatogo.com

Musa Ulusan and Fatima Nayir were no strangers to the restaurant industry when the husband-and-wife team opened the doors of Mama’s Pizza Kitchen eight years ago. 

Before enlisting their daughter to paint “cooked with love” on the wall and opening the family restaurant in Anacostia, Ulusan owned a string of restaurant ventures from diners to pizza shops in cities spanning from New Orleans to Baltimore. But the couple moved to D.C. to put their three children through school and found careers making pizza, sandwiches, pasta, barbecue, and wings.

The pizza joint, known simply as “Mama’s” to its regulars, may not serve the Medditerranean dishes the couple grew up eating in Ankara, Turkey, but Ulusan says staple Turkish ingredients are top of mind when the couple looks to add to the shop’s ever-expanding menu. 

A true testament to the restaurant’s place at the center of the community came in 2015 when the business faced five robberies in just one year. Ulusan said the break-ins were a major challenge, but neighbors rallied around them by raising money for security equipment, and soon Mama’s Pizza Kitchen was recognizable around the District as word of the fundraiser spread. 

As their business grows Ulusan said he wants to ensure he only serves top notch food to repay the shop’s loyal customer base. —Liz Provencher

Ambar

523 8th St. SE; (202) 813-3039; ambarrestaurant.com

When Serbian native Ivan Iricanin decided to open Ambar in 2012 on Capitol Hill, he was understandably nervous. Serbian food was not exactly mainstream in D.C. and friends warned the cuisine was too obscure to become popular. But Iricanin persevered. He was determined to open a restaurant that showcased the food and culture of the Balkans, which he felt were known “for war and poverty, not the warmth of the people, or the wonderful cuisine.” He came up with a Serbian small plates concept, and two years into operating he added an unlimited option where diners could sample as many dishes as desired. Ambar’s popularity skyrocketed after the change. 

The menu folds in classic Serbian ingredients: kajmak (a dairy product similar to clotted cream), baked beans, stuffed cabbage, roasted beets, and wild mushrooms. The ajvar is a must-order because the smoky, sweet Serbian spread made from red bell pepper, eggplant, and garlic is served at most meals. The other quintessentially Serbian dish at Ambar is the cheese pie. Serbia is known for fresh cheeses and flaky pastries, and the cheese pie combines both. The cheese comes enrobed in crunchy phyllo dough and is plated on a bed of mint-infused yogurt. —Priya Konings

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