A single dish can define a restaurant. Palak chaat has become synonymous with Rasika, and Little Serow wouldn’t be the same without its Mekhong whiskey pork ribs. One perfect dish can have the power to bolster a chef’s reputation, summon you to distant neighborhoods, and of course, supercharge your salivary glands. In that spirit, this year’s food issue is not a breakdown of our favorite eateries but rather a roundup of 50 must-try dishes in the D.C. area. These are dishes for which a drive to Annandale or an hour-long line are worth it. We can’t help but order them again and again…and again.

It seems hardly a day goes by without another restaurant opening, making the task of narrowing down the best bites daunting. The list represents the area’s growing culinary diversity—there’s Japanese food, Thai, Laotian, Spanish, Vietnamese, Greek, Mexican, Italian, American, Belgian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Burmese, Salvadoran, and French. Some of those food cultures haven’t always been easy to stumble upon nearby. From hotspots to hidden gems to old haunts, these picks are a mix of high-end (sea urchin toast) and low-brow (cheesy bacon tater tots), sweet (crème brûlée doughnuts) and savory (Porkstrami sandwich). But no matter what, they’ve got one thing in common: They’re all worth saving your appetite for. —Jessica Sidman

Photographs By Darrow Montgomery

Dan dan mian at A&J Restaurant
Price: $4.95
1319 Rockville Pike, Rockville; (301) 251-7878, aj-restaurant.com

There are few Sunday morning traditions I love more than a really good dim sum brunch. This cash-only eatery specializes in northern Chinese fare, which uses plenty of pork and beef but no seafood. There are lots of dishes for vegetarians, too, including the dan dan mian, or spicy sesame noodles. You get your choice of noodle, but the wider, ribbon-like variety catches and holds the sauce best. When your bowl arrives, mix together the chili-spiced sesame sauce, the peanut powder sprinkled on top, and the noodles until it’s a tawny tangle. Dive in with chopsticks or a fork (no judgments). One order is usually not enough for me, so I always get an extra to go. That way I have a little something to nosh on that evening. —Nevin Martell

Crème brûlée doughnut at Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken
Price: $2.85
1308 G St. NW; (202) 809-5565; astrodoughnuts.com

Yes, doughnuts are kind of a thing right now. But there’s one standout among the multitudes of sugary fried dough: Astro Doughnuts’ crème brûlée doughnut. The square-shaped pastry is soft and fluffy with a creamy vanilla-hinted pudding inside. The glaze on top is flame-torched, creating a crackle of burnt sugar. Unlike other desserts-turned-doughnuts (key lime pie, PB&J), this one actually tastes just like what it imitates. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a veteran restaurant pastry chef is behind the sweet treat. Jason Gehring worked in the kitchens of Poste Moderne Brasserie and Fiola before making his way to Astro. While many of Gehring’s offerings rotate daily, you can grab this flavor any day of the week. —Jessica Sidman

Hippie crack at Baked & Wired
Price: 7 ounces for $4.95 or 16 ounces for $11.95,
1052 Thomas Jefferson St. NW; (202) 333-2500; bakedandwired.com

If granola is going to have a fighting chance at competing with frosting-laden cupcakes and Nutella brownies for the hearts and wallets of Baked & Wired customers, it’s going to need a catchy name. Enter Hippie Crack. Not the nitrous oxide party drug, but rather the dried fruit-studded, honey-laced granola that’s a staple at this Georgetown bakery. It’s probably the only thing at Baked & Wired with even a veneer of healthiness, but it’s a little too addictive to actually be good for you. “We never run out of crack,” the cashier cheerfully tells me when I inquire if the granola is available. My new breakfast habit isn’t cheap, though. At nearly $12 bucks a pop for the large size, I try to make the granola last. But soon enough, I’m clanging my spoon against the side of the bowl, trying to scoop up every last bit of toasted coconut, dried cranberries, and spiky slivered almonds. Another helping of Hippie Crack can’t hurt, right? —Adele Chapin

Crispy rice salad at Bangkok Golden
Price: $8.95
6395 Seven Corners Center, Falls Church, Va.; (703) 533-9480; bangkokgolden7corners.com

Chef Seng Luangrath’s crispy rice salad is a gateway drug into the spicy, sour world of Laotian cuisine. The street food, known as nam khao, starts off as a deep fried ball of steamed jasmine rice mixed with a curry of lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and chilies. The crispy sphere is then crumbled into small pieces and combined with cilantro, mint, red onion, scallions, peanuts, grated coconut, fish sauce, lime, and ham. (A vegetarian version is also available and equally good.) A bed of romaine leaves supporting the salad can be used like a lettuce wrap. “It’s our top seller. A lot of people come for that,” says Luangrath. “We always introduce the first-timers to that.” If you can take heat, don’t miss some of Luangrath’s spicier dishes, too. —Jessica Sidman

Banh mi burger at Barmini
Price: $8
855 E St. NW; (202) 393-4451; minibarbyjoseandres.com

The little white box that serves Barmini’s miniburger is a wink to the conventional fast food containers that carry the Big Mac. But inside is something far more delightful. Minibar chef Ruben Garcia wanted to do a traditionally topped burger for the menu at José Andrés’ new cocktail lab, but when the bar opened in February, tomatoes were out of season. Instead, he thought back to a trip to Vietnam and conceptualized a new idea: the banh mi burger, topped with pickled veggies. For the patty, Garcia uses beef chuck and short ribs, which he hangs for a week in the walk-in fridge to dry out the meat and intensify the flavor. The protein is ground fresh daily with salt, pepper, and—the key ingredient—bone marrow, which makes the meat extra juicy. It’s then grilled over super-hot Japanese white charcoal to caramelize the outside of the patty and ensure a perfect medium rare inside. The burger is sandwiched in a steamed-then-fried brioche bun and topped with aioli, cilantro, basil, and slightly spicy cucumber and carrot pickles. It might not make the dollar menu, but hey, the people at Minibar next door are paying more than $225 for their meals. —Jessica Sidman

Fried chicken and waffles at Birch & Barley
Price: $15
1337 14th St. NW; (202) 567-2576; birchandbarley.com

Birch & Barley’s fried chicken and waffles have become a Sunday brunch staple in D.C. Beyond the familiar comfort food pairing of sweet and savory, chef Kyle Bailey’s subtle touches elevate the dish. The Belgian waffle has a perfectly crispy exterior and fluffy interior, and the fried chicken is juicy with a satisfying crunch from the substantial battering. But it’s the toppings that really bring the dish home: Buttered pecans add crunch and nuttiness, and the maple-chicken jus provides a sweetness that’s not saccharine or overbearing, but just enough to balance the saltiness of the chicken. —Brian Oh

Seared foie gras on carrot cake at Blue Duck Tavern
Price: $18
1201 24th St. NW; (202) 419-6755; blueducktavern.com

Foie gras on carrot cake may sound purely whimsical for whimsy’s sake. But it’s dishes like these that have won many fans for chef Sebastien Archambault, who took over the kitchen of an already beloved D.C. restaurant and made it even better. Every element of the seasonably available appetizer is so very carefully crafted: the cube of carrot cake toasted for texture; the pan deglazed with carrot-infused vinegar that later gets reintroduced to the foie; the garnish of carrot relish echoing yet complementing the main flavors. If I were on death row for murdering the last person to serve me a crappy molten-lava cake, I would want this to kick off my final meal. —Rina Rapuano

Lamb vindaloo at Bombay Club
Price: $18 for lunch, $19 for dinner
815 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 659-3727; bombayclubdc.com

There was a brief period of time, about a month or two, when the lamb vindaloo wasn’t on the menu at Bombay Club. But then the complaints came in—by phone and in person. Almost immediately, the restaurant put the dish back on the menu, says chef Nilesh Singhvi, and it has remained there for more than 20 years. The lamb is simmered in a wine vinegar for about an hour with a mix of onions, potatoes, and spices. It’s delivered to the dining room in a bowl alongside a cube of rice and some naan. While spooning the sauce over the rice, enjoy the smell: You will detect scents of cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. And even though the dining room exudes an air of elegance and sophistication, no amount of manners will prevent you from wiping the bowl clean with whatever scraps of naan are left behind. —Tim Ebner

Wings and drumsticks at BonChon Chicken
Price: $7.95 for six pieces to $28.95 for 30 pieces
Multiple locations; bonchon.com

With its impending debut in Arlington, the latest franchise of South Korean fried-chicken joint BonChon is getting an upmarket makeover. But let’s hope it never changes two things: the spicy fried chicken wings and drumsticks, and the generous beer pours. At the Fairfax, Centreville, Ellicott City, or Rockville locations, load up on all of the above, and prepare to chug the latter when the former sets your tongue aflame. But BonChon’s chicken isn’t all pyrotechnics: Its outer shell isn’t so much a layer of skin as it is a surprisingly juicy yet crisp exoskeleton. Meanwhile, the meat is thick, melty, and never dry. As for the secret sauce? Whatever’s in it, it gets credit for its preservative power. Most trips to BonChon yield leftovers, and those wings will feed you well for days. —Jonathan L. Fischer

Mediterranean mussels at Brasserie Beck
Price: $26 or $15 for a half portion
1101 K St. NW; (202) 408-1717; beckdc.com

The mussels arrive in a cast-iron skillet large enough that you’ll scramble to make room for it on the table. Then, the big reveal: The server lifts the lid, filling your nostrils with an aromatic cloud of seafood steam. The plump mollusks inside come exclusively from Penn Cove in Puget Sound. The farm harvests them to order, helping to ensure they arrive at the restaurant fresh. The mussels mingle with chunks of fennel and Spanish-style cured spiced sausage in a rich broth made with white wine, tomato paste, Spanish onion, cream, butter, parsley, and lots of garlic. You’ll want to sop it up with slices of warm baguette. Two people can easily make a full meal out of the large portion, which comes with fries and three dipping sauces. —Jessica Sidman

Michel’s chocolate bar at Central
Price: $9
1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; (202) 626-0015; centralmichelrichard.com

If nothing else, Michel Richard has mastered the art of upscaling junk food. His fried chicken is inspired by KFC, and his lobster burger reimagines the plebeian bun and patty. And then there’s Michel’s chocolate bar, a reinvention of the Kit Kat. The dessert is a delicious reminder that Richard started his culinary career as a pastry chef. The brick of chocolate balances layers of crunch with smooth dark chocolate in a pool of creamy hazelnut sauce, dotted with crispy chocolate pearls. That crunch is a recurring theme in many of Richard’s dishes, but the crackle of each bite is particularly satisfying here. Screw the Kit Kat—break me off a piece of Michel’s chocolate bar. —Jessica Sidman

Matzo ball soup at DGS Delicatessen
Price: $7
1317 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 293-4400; dgsdelicatessen.com

Yeah, yeah, we get it. Seven smackers is a lot to pay for a bowl of soup that’s basically broth with a giant cracker dumpling. But this is no ordinary matzo ball soup. Chef Barry Koslow may have used his Grandma Dot’s humble recipe as a jumping-off point, but we doubt she ever dreamed of using duck schmaltz (rather than chicken schmaltz) in her matzo balls. Indeed, the ball, surrounded by a few floating dill sprigs, is beautifully fluffy, and the rich, smooth broth is as clear and delicate as consommé. So sit down, quit your kvetching, and eat your soup. It’s good for you. —Rina Rapuano

Grilled avocado at Daikaya
Price: $6.50
705 6th St. NW; (202) 589-1600; daikaya.com

Daikaya’s avocado is a simple concept, yet wholly inventive. Half of the fruit is grilled with criss-crossed char marks, sliced, then filled with a house-made ponzu sauce. It’s served with a small dab of wasabi, nori salt, and lemon on the side. Combine it all in the natural avocado bowl and each spoonful becomes an impeccable balance of smoky avocado and the quartet of sweet, spice, salt, and citrus. The avocado’s melt-in-your-mouth tenderness makes scooping out each bite effortless. It’s a great example of chef Katsuya Fukushima’s ability to create modern, innovate food while preserving the subtlety and restraint of Japanese cuisine. —Brian Oh

Reuben sandwich at Deli City Restaurant
Price: $7.95 (cash only)
2200 Bladensburg Road NE; (202) 526-1800

At Deli City Restaurant, the only thing standing between you and a perfectly cooked corned beef sandwich is a conversation with Delores Lewis. She’s the friendly cashier at the register who’s been here for more than 37 years. Lewis has a line of customers, sometimes out the door, but she knows most by name and calls out their orders accordingly. “When I went through the death of my husband, I came here, and she made me laugh,” says one such regular, Jennifer Gibbs-Phillips, who confides that not much has changed at Deli City in the 30 years she’s been coming. For reuben sandwich lovers, that is good news, because the kitchen serves a consistent heap of corned beef, sauerkraut, and melted Swiss between rye bread with Russian dressing. The sandwich comes on a foam plate with a thick kosher pickle wedge on the side. “This is just a place to be who you are,” Lewis says. After one bite, it’s easy to understand what she means. —Tim Ebner

Salted caramel gelato at Dolcezza
Price: $5 for a small, $6.15 for a large, and $10.50 for a pint
Multiple locations, dolcezzagelato.com

Even if Dolcezza was transplanted to a gelateria-dotted cobblestone strada of Florence, its gelato could still hold its own—and then some. Founder Robb Duncan prides himself on local ingredients crafted painstakingly by hand, from the grinding of spices to squeezing of fruits. But perhaps his greatest masterpiece is the salted caramel gelato. This best-seller combines dulce de leche and sea salt in a smooth, creamy treat that balances sweet and savory. The dessert is available at Dolcezza’s four cafes in Bethesda, Georgetown, Dupont, and Fairfax, as well as several D.C. farmers markets. Stay tuned for Dolcezza’s new gelato factory coming to Union Market: The warehouse space will include a tasting room where guests can check out production, and maybe enjoy some salted caramel gelato in the process. —Jessica Sidman

Elote callejero at El Chucho Cocina Superior
Price: $4 or $2.50 during happy hour
3313 11th St. NW; (202) 290-3313

If state fairs have taught us anything, it’s that everything tastes better on a stick. But it’s not just the delivery method that distinguishes El Chucho’s elote callejero, which is modeled after corn cobs served on the streets of Mexico. Grilled till it takes on that sweet-smoky charred corn flavor, it’s then rolled in a creamy brown-butter aioli and sprinkled with cilantro, chili-lime salt, and cotija cheese. Sweet, smoky, salty, and herbal with a hint of spice, it hits all the right spots before, during, or after a night of El Chucho’s outstanding blue Hawaiians. Or Palomas. Or margaritas. Or… —Rina Rapuano

Brussels sprouts at Estadio
Price: $9
1520 14th St. NW; (202) 319-1404; estadio-dc.com

Much to the chagrin of finicky 9-year-olds, Brussels sprouts are popping up on menus all over the place. But even the pickiest of eaters could surely be converted by Estadio’s crispy version. Fried and served with caramelized onions, pine nuts, and currants, the Brussels sprouts are lightly charred and crispy on the outside, but still tender on the inside. The currants and onions provide a subtle sweetness that complements the savory saltiness of the pine nuts and sprouts. Be sure to add this dish to your table when it’s in season, but don’t be surprised if it’s the first empty plate. —Brian Oh

Txipirones at Boqueria
Price: $13
1837 M St. NW; (202) 558-9545; boquerianyc.com

The best seats at Boqueria are around the U-shaped bar where you can see cooks prepare some of the restaurant’s most popular tapas, like pan con tomate and tortilla española. But the kitchen is where you will find chefs hard at work preparing txipirones, grilled squid that’s dressed in a vinaigrette and aioli sauce. The squid comes to the restaurant “dirty,” which in this case is a good thing. Dirty means the seafood arrives fresh, not frozen, says chef Greg Basalla. After the raw squid is cleaned—removing the ink sack and peeling away the skin—it hits the grill to be seared. Fried scallions, greens, and a tomato confit are added before the sizzling mass is transferred to a dish coated in sauce. The sauce, almost hidden from sight, is the clear winner: a light marinade of romesco vinaigrette combined with an aioli dressing that includes hazelnut, bread crumbs, garlic, tomatoes, and nyora peppers. Generally, this dish is meant for two, but there’s a good chance you might try and go it alone. —Tim Ebner

Pupusas at Ercilia’s
Price: $1.75 to $3
3070 Mount Pleasant St. NW, (202) 387-0909

You really can’t go wrong with any of the pupusas at Ercilia’s, the slow-but-worth-it Salvadoran carryout on Mount Pleasant Street. The cheese and beans variation ($1.75) is well-balanced and smoky, with just enough char. The loroco pupusa ($2), made with the Central American flower, is a salty, spinachy trickster. The revueltas ($1.75) are stuffed with delightfully fatty-tasting chicharrón, almost like the pupusa equivalent of a bolognese. Splurge, if you must, on a $3 shrimp pupusa, but I’d stick with one of each of the other aforementioned varieties (or grab a simple cheese one for $1.75). Then, stroll across the street to The Raven Grill—which has no grill, nor much food beyond the bags of chips for sale at the bar. Arrive early enough and a Natty Boh will be $2—and you’ll have paid less than $8 for your feast. Invest another $.50 in the jukebox and complete that meal with some Al Green. —Jonathan L. Fischer

Chocolate salami at Etto
Price: $11
1541 14th St. NW; (202) 232-0920; ettodc.com

House-made salami is one of the main attractions at Etto, the new Italian eatery in Logan Circle from the owners of Standard and 2Amys. But the chocolate salami rivals the meat version in appearance and deliciousness. At first glance, you could easily mistake it for the real deal: The salami is wrapped in twine and covered with powdered sugar that mimics the white mold found on sausage casings. Even its dense texture might fool you. But slice through it, and you’ll find a rich chocolate (cocoa powder is the key ingredient) dotted with house-made amaretti cookies, pistachios, and hazelnuts. Etto, which translates to 100 grams in Italian, stays true to its name by serving an etto of chocolate salami. We wouldn’t be opposed to the restaurant changing its name to Chilogrammo, meaning kilogram. —Jessica Sidman

Maine lobster roll at Freddy’s Lobster & Clams
Price: $18.50 with one side, $19.95 with two sides
4867 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; (240) 743-4257; freddyslobster.com

Let’s get one thing straight: Lobster rolls are not meant to be eaten daintily with a small fork. A good lobster roll is a messy lobster roll, which is why the sandwiches at Freddy’s are sublime. Among the Bethesda seafood shack’s multiple variations, the classic warm lobster roll proves best because of its simplicity: just a heap of lobster meat drenched in melted butter and served in a toasted split-top bun. Why do these three ingredients work together so harmoniously? It’s all about temperature. Slap cold lobster meat mixed with mayonnaise on a toasted bun, as so many lobster–roll joints do, and your mouth gets confused. Add warm butter and lobster to the already-warm roll, and it’s bliss. When you do it right, there’s no need to get fancy, so put the Hellmann’s away already. —Caroline Jones

West Virginia slaw dog at Greatest American Hot Dogs
Price: $5.50
19209 Channault Way, Unit M Gaithersburg; (800) 570-4243; greatestamericanhotdogs.com

When you own a food truck called Greatest American Hot Dogs, you better deliver. Fortunately, owner David Trachtenberg takes his weenies very seriously. Researching for this nomadic eatery, he crisscrossed the country on tasting trips, read innumerable books and websites, and visited iconic hot dog shops. Eventually, he assembled a collection of nearly 70 regional recipes from Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Newark, and beyond, though the best of the bunch takes inspiration from closer to home. The West Virginia Slaw Dog is standard summer fare in the Mountain State. Trachtenberg’s take begins with a Vienna Beef dog that’s deep fried, then grilled. It’s shoehorned into a buttery toasted bun and covered with house-made, bean-free chili. Creamy coleslaw, a shake of celery salt, and a switchback of yellow mustard finish it off. It’s a messy bite that might end up on your shirt or in your lap, but it’s worth every stain. Savory, slightly salty, and rich, the Slaw Dog hits all the redneck umami receptors on your palate. Definitely one of the greatest American hot dogs. —Nevin Martell

Coca con erizos de mar at Jaleo
Price: $24
Multiple locations; jaleo.com

Sea urchin, or uni, is often best showcased atop a bed of sushi rice encased in nori. Jaleo embraces an equally simple preparation, Spanish style. The sea urchin is generously draped over two slices of warm crusty cristal bread. Soft, nearly melting slabs of butter on top add an extra layer of richness to the already decadent delicacy. It’s a very uncomplicated dish but one that uses the best ingredients and allows them to speak for themselves. Savor it slowly. —Jessica Sidman

Salmon jaw at Kaz Sushi Bistro
Price: Varies
1915 I St. NW, (202) 530‑5500, kazsushibistro.com

The first time I ordered salmon jaw at Kaz Sushi Bistro, I was at dinner with four other people, two of whom I’d just met that night. But there is, it turns out, really no polite way to eat the roasted jawbone of a fish. You can cut pieces of meat off of it, but at Kaz, the dish is so delicious that it’s tough to avoid picking the whole thing up and gnawing on it. Which I did. Who cares about being polite? Chef/owner Kaz Okochi prepares it different ways—teriyaki-glazed, miso-glazed—but the appeal of the cut is the same no matter what: The meat is incredibly fatty and rich. It’s not always on the à la carte menu, but if you see it, skip the tuna rolls and save room. —Mike Madden

Tofu soup at Lighthouse Tofu
Price: $7.99 for lunch, $9.99 for dinner
12710 Twinbrook Parkway, Rockville; (301) 881-1178 or 4121 Chatelain Road., Annandale; (703) 333-3436

This Korean restaurant specializes in tofu soup known as soondubu. The fiery cast-iron cauldron of red-orange liquid with lumps of silken tofu arrives at the table in a violent boil. Crack an egg inside and wait for the simmer to die down before digging in. There are several varieties to choose from—mushroom, oyster, beef—but I’m partial to anything with kimchi. The soup has the comfort factor of chicken noodle but with enough spice to clear out your sinuses. (You can choose your heat level from mild to “spicy spicy.”) Cool down with white rice and banchan, the small side plates of bean sprouts, pickled cucumbers, and (yes, more) kimchi that accompany the meal. —Jessica Sidman

Pork ribs at Little Serow
Price: Part of a $45 seven-course menu
1511 17th St. NW; littleserow.com

After a parade of half a dozen spicy-sour dishes from minced pork to catfish soup, you might not think you have room for one last course. But then a pile of glistening pork ribs appears. Good luck not finishing them. The fall-off-the-bone morsels of meat are glossed in a tangy–sweet, spicy Mekhong whiskey sauce and topped with shallots and dill. This dish alone is worth standing in line for 45 minutes. Chef Johnny Monis changes the menu weekly, but the ribs remain the one constant since the northern Thai restaurant opened in November 2011. It’s no secret why. —Jessica Sidman

Bottarga pizza at Pizzeria Paradiso
Price: $19 for a 12-inch, $14 for an 8-inch
Multiple locations; eatyourpizza.com

The best, yet most underrated pizza topping? Egg. And this pie from Pizzeria Paradiso gets extra credit for combining two types. Chicken eggs blanket the garlicky diced tomato sauce with runny yolks that are perfect for dipping the blistered dough crust in. Bottarga di muggine—cured gray mullet roe—is shaved on top along with a sprinkling of parmesan. Don’t let the roe scare you off, because there’s nothing fishy about this pizza. As chef and owner Ruth Gresser explains it, the salty sea flavor melts into the tomato’s acidity and balances the richness and fat of the eggs. When Gresser opened Pizzeria Paradiso more than 20 years ago, she wanted to identify the place as an Italian-inspired pizzeria, rather than an American-inspired spot, so she developed a few pies “that sort of spoke Italian.” The bottarga is fluent in it. While the pizza is one of her personal favorites, Gresser says it’s taken the longest to generate interest and doesn’t always get a lot of love. Those who eschew it don’t know what they’re missing. —Jessica Sidman

Bread Pudding at Malgudi
Price: $6
2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW; (202) 333-3120, heritageindiausa.com/malgudi.htm

Bread pudding seems so blah sometimes. Old loaves given new life. Big whoop. But the old dessert staple can surprise, especially when you find it where you least expect it. Billing it under its Hindi name, shahi tukra, Glover Park’s Malgudi offers a southern Indian take on bread pudding. Co-owner Mitul Tuli starts by frying edgeless white bread, which she stacks in five layers. Between each level, she pours some simple syrup and a thick sauce of cream, butter, sugar, and dried apricots. Because the dish is baked with the top covered, the moisture mashes everything into a supersweet, caramelized pudding. Served warm with some crumbled pistachios and varak (edible silver foil), this decadent dessert is the polar opposite of blah. —Nevin Martell

Grilled halloumi cheese at Nando’s Peri-Peri
Price: $2.25
Multiple locations, nandosperiperi.com

Nearly everything is vaguely Portuguese at this South Africa-based chain (which opened its first U.S. locations in the D.C. area starting in 2008)—from the beers (Sagres and Super Bock) to the Peri-Peri sauce on the flame-grilled chicken. Which makes their best appetizer a bit of a puzzle: Halloumi cheese is originally from Cyprus, which isn’t particularly close geographically or culturally to Portugal or South Africa. And Nando’s doesn’t even do anything special to the dish—it’s just some slices of cheese, tossed on the grill. But instead of melting, it browns and crisps on the outside, softening up just enough on the inside to be chewy. It squeaks a little when you bite it. And it tastes like butter and salt. Forget the chicken, forget Portugal, and just bring on more grilled cheese. —Mike Madden

Lacquered duck bao buns at The Source
Price: Part of dim sum brunch, $40
575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; (202) 637-6100; wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/3941

I confess that I don’t always love duck—but this is no ordinary duck. Chef Scott Drewno dips the birds in maltose-spiked rice vinegar and hangs them in the fridge for three days. After that, they’re carefully roasted at four different temperatures before being stuffed into fluffy, taco-shaped buns. The result is super-crispy skin and luscious Peking-style meat that transcends most other duck dishes. The meat is stuffed into Chinese-style bao buns served during The Source’s dim sum brunch on Saturdays. They arrive two to a plate with batons of cucumber and dollops of house-made hoisin and Gochujang aioli. Dim sum plates are priced at five for $40. The ducks aren’t so lucky, but diners sure are. —Rina Rapuano

Salted pretzel at The Pretzel Bakery
Price: $2 or three for $5
340 15th St. SE; (202) 450-6067; thepretzelbakery.com

The Pretzel Bakery’s pillowy delights might be the cheapest thrill in town. At $2 a pop (or three for $5), the salted pretzel packs all the sodium a pretzel should but with the soft chew of filet mignon (to say nothing of the mustard and dip selection, which includes a $1 caramel mustard from heaven). I’ve witnessed fussy Philadelphians inhale them with nary a comparison to their native twists, perhaps because they washed it down with a Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer that tasted like home. Located in a little-loved nook of Capitol Hill, the Pretzel Bakery has already outlasted fellow novelty-snack neighbor Crêpes on the Corner. Long may its pretzels live. —Jenny Rogers

Cheesy bacon tater tots at Quarry House Tavern
Price: $5
8401 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; (301) 587-8350; quarryhousetavern.com

Descend 13 steps into this dark, and often cramped, basement bar in Silver Spring, and you will find baskets of cheesey bacon tater tots at almost every table. In Old Line State spirit, many of these golden nuggets are covered in the reddish orange shade of Old Bay; owner Jackie Greenbaum says the seasoning is a popular add-on. While the Quarry House prides itself on making almost everything in the kitchen from scratch, the tots are one of the few exceptions, Greenbaum says. But diners don’t seem to mind. Maybe that’s because they can’t see beyond the heap of melted pepper jack and cheddar cheese in front of them. Oh, and of course, the bacon. —Tim Ebner

Lambs and clams at Rappahannock Oyster Bar
Price: $14
1309 5th St. NE; (202) 544-4702; rroysters.com

While there’s no shortage of compelling reasons to visit Union Market, Rappahannock’s lambs and clams is the dish that’s been on everyone’s lips this year. It’s worth the hype, even inspiring a dinner at New York’s James Beard House, where the bar’s chef, Dylan Fultineer, served the stew alongside dishes cooked by Volt and Range chef Bryan Voltaggio. Comfort and richness are delivered via aromatics, tomatoes, white beans, and the main event: the oyster bar’s clams draped with merguez lamb sausage from Border Springs Farm, then drizzled with aioli and served with grilled bread. “The whole dish just has such harmony to it and robust flavor,” says shepherd Craig Rogers of Border Springs, which also has a booth at the market. It’s hard to imagine a more satisfying dish. —Rina Rapuano

Palak Chaat at Rasika
Price: $10
Multiple locations; rasikarestaurant.com

A list of D.C.’s best dishes without Rasika’s palak chaat would be the alphabet with only 22 letters. That’s just how popular and iconic chef Vikram Sunderam’s Indian specialty has become on the District’s food scene. But the thing is, the dish consistently lives up to the hype. Flash-fried spinach leaves with the delicate crunch of potato chips are topped with sweet yogurt, tamarind and date chutney, diced tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. The combination is tangy, sweet, spicy, and savory—intensely flavorful with every bite. It’s one of the dishes that helps make Rasika one of the toughest reservations in town. —Jessica Sidman

Porkstrami at Red Apron Butcher
Price: $8
1309 5th St. NE; (202) 524-6807; www.redapronbutchery.com

Red Apron Butcher’s Union Market eatery brings together some of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s heavy hitters: meats from Nathan Anda, fresh baked baguettes from pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, and a beer selection curated by beer director Greg Engert. The dream team does not disappoint, especially with its most popular sandwich, the Porkstrami. A menagerie of all things piggy, the Porkstrami is composed of pastrami-style pork (brined for 14 days, smoked for eight hours, and dipped in pork jus just before serving), mustard aioli, and bacon-braised sauerkraut. With almost every ingredient a form of pork, each bite drips with meaty, salty flavor. Sour and sharp notes from the mustard and sauerkraut help round out the potent savoriness, and MacIsaac’s airy, flavorful baguette is great for soaking up and retaining the copious amounts of pork juice run-off. —Brian Oh

Smoked ricotta crostini at The Red Hen
Price: $5
1822 1st St. NW; (202) 525-3021; theredhendc.com

When you walk into The Red Hen, the first thing that hits you is the campfire smell from the wood grill in the open kitchen. The custom-made grill is fueled by 100 percent Virginia oak, and most dishes from chef Mike Friedman get the kiss or breath of the flame. That includes ricotta cheese, cold-smoked on a tray at the top of the hearth for an hour. The Connecticut-made ricotta is then slathered on two warm slices of grilled toast (from Lyon Bakery) with a layer of balsamic brown butter in between. Local honey infused with truffle oil is drizzled over top. The result is a flow of textures and flavors: crunchy, creamy, tangy, smoky, earthy, sweet. —Jessica Sidman

Rich E Rich grilled cheese at Ripple
Price: $12
3417 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 244-7995; rippledc.com

Ripple’s grilled cheese bar is an artisanal reinterpretation of the lowbrow. Rather relying on American cheese, the Cleveland Park restaurant makes use of its excellent fromage and charcuterie program to create some of the fanciest (and best) grilled cheeses you’re ever likely to have. Pick your cheeses and meats a la carte or choose one of the Ripple’s premade sandwiches like the Rich E Rich. Served on brioche with hand-sliced prosciutto, Landaff cheese, and (the real kicker) truffle butter, the Rich E Rich is exceedingly, well, rich. The Landaff is robust and tangy; the truffle butter rockets the flavor quotient into the stratosphere. With just the right amount of salt from the prosciutto and a sweet touch from the brioche, the Rich E Rich is the highest form of grilled cheese. —Brian Oh

Scallop margarita at Ris
Price: $16
2275 L St. NW; (202) 730-2500; risdc.com

Chef Ris Lacoste’s signature dish takes inspiration from the humble “cup of stuff,” a layered Tex-Mex dip she encountered in the Lone Star State. But instead of rice and beans, the scallop “margarita” layers ceviche and ancho chili-marinated orange segments. Lacoste soaks the scallops in lime juice for just under an hour, then mixes them with cilantro, scallions, julienned jalapeños, red onion, roasted poblano peppers, olive oil, and avocado. The ceviche sits in a salt-rimmed martini glass with a layer of sour cream and a layer of orange segments covered in ancho chili puree. A scoop of tequila lime granita helps keep it chilled. As the boozy ice melts, its juices add some sweetness to the zesty concoction. Use some tortilla chips to dip, just like you’re digging into a cup of stuff. —Jessica Sidman

Salted cashew, date, and white chocolate cookies at Northside Social
Price: $2
3211 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-0145, northsidesocialarlington.com

“Cookies are a perfect vessel for the unexpected,” says Northside Social head baker Bridie McCulla. Look over her offerings in the glass cases by the register, and you’ll find some surprising flavors: blue cornmeal laced with rosemary and blueberry, salt and pepper butterscotch pecan, lemon lavender, and cayenne-spiced Mexican chocolate. There are 15 different kinds—including two gluten-free options—baked several times a day, so they’re always fresh and often still warm from the oven. One of my favorites is McCulla’s take on the done-to-death macadamia white chocolate combo. Her salted cashew, date, and white chocolate cookie has a surprising depth of flavor that evolves as your chew. First you get a hit of the Maldon sea salt sprinkled on top, then there’s the sweetness of the date bits and chocolate chunks, and finally the savory nuttiness at the finish. Unexpected, and yet totally unforgettable. —Nevin Martell

Smoked vegan wings at Smoke & Barrel
Price: $9.95
Smoke & Barrel, 2471 18th St. NW; (202) 319-9353; smokeandbarreldc.com

The vegan chicken wings at Smoke & Barrel may not be real meat, but they do have bones. Adorable little wooden dowel “bones” that make them look like fried seitan lollipops. “It’s so they look like drumsticks,” says Smoke & Barrel general manager Zach Myers. In truth, the wings don’t really need anything holding them together at all, and that puts them ahead of a lot of meat substitutes out there. The seitan wings keep their shape; they’re smoked in-house; they’re both crispy and chewy; and most importantly, they’re a terrific vehicle for sauces. Opt for the vegan barbecue sauce, or the chipotle honey or buffalo blue cheese sauce. Props to Smoke & Barrel, the barbecue joint that recognizes that sometimes vegetarians and vegans want to eat drunk bar food too, and a salad isn’t going to cut it. —Adele Chapin

Pastrami sandwich at Stachowski’s Market & Deli
Price: $11.99
1425 28th St. NW; (202) 506-3125; www.stachowskis.com

Piled high with nearly a pound and a half of thick, fatty slices of peppered pastrami, Stachowski’s staple sandwich is a behemoth. It could easily carry over to a second or even third meal, and that’s a good thing. The wet-cured and smoked pastrami is bursting with meaty, smoky flavor topped off with a light touch of spicy, tangy mustard. Notable pastrami sandwiches have been popping up at other spots around D.C., but for one of the best, unembellished pastrami experiences, Stachowski’s is the place. —Brian Oh

Pop-tarts at Ted’s Bulletin
Price: $2.99
505 8th St. SE; (202) 544-8337; tedsbulletin.com

The pop-tarts at Ted’s Bulletin will not make you look back at the sugary snacks you packed in your lunchbox with fond nostalgia. They will make you look back in horror because the Kellogg’s treats are so inferior, it’s as if you were eating cardboard as a kid. Conversely, Ted’s pastries are buttery and flaky like a great pie crust. Inside are real fruit fillings—no Red No. 40 or cellulose gum. The flavors change seasonally, but recent offerings include Nutella, strawberry, blueberry, coconut, and (my favorite) brown sugar. Also keep an eye out for the peanut butter bacon pop-tart.—Jessica Sidman

Pig’s head at Standard
Price: $25
1801 14th St. NW; www.standarddc.com

On a nice evening, you’d be lucky to find standing room, much less a table, at Standard beer garden. Neighbors come for the beer, barbecue, and the sense of community, but only the lucky few score one of co-owner Tad Curtz’s whole pig’s heads. Smoked for half a day and served in its entirety, the pig’s head is the ultimate hands on, backyard barbecue experience. Digging into the head requires a bit of work (and a lot of napkins). Start with the cheeks and fatty jowls, and work your way down into the muscles. Then, depending on how adventurous you are, have a go at the snout and tongue. There’s plenty of delicious meat to go around if you’re not squeamish. It’s definitely one of the more memorable dining experiences in D.C. and, for only $25, a steal. Availability is limited, though: You can email in advance to reserve one, or ask if there are any unclaimed heads that evening. —Brian Oh

Kamatama teuchi udon at Sushi Taro
Price: $12.95
1503 17th St. NW; (202) 462-8999; sushitaro.com

When most people hear “udon,” they think soup. But this noodle dish from Sushi Taro isn’t exactly that. A cup of soy-based broth comes on the side of the main attraction: a bowl of handmade udon noodles topped with shredded nori, tempura crunchies, grated daikon, green onion, bonito flakes, and a poached egg. Pour the sauce on top and mix as you see fit. The springy noodles have just the right amount of bite and are long enough to lead to a Lady and the Tramp-type situation if you’re sharing (though you’ll be inclined not to). Best of all is that soft egg, in whose bright, creamy yolk you’ll want to twirl your noodles. Once the udon is gone, a slush of Japanese flavors remains. Go ahead: Lift up the bowl and slurp. —Jessica Sidman

Chick Chick at Woodward Takeout Food
Price: $9.75
1426 H St. NW; (202) 347-5355, woodwardtable.com

Imagine Chick-fil-A’s signature sandwich made with handcrafted ingredients and lacking the homophobic bullshit. That’s WTF’s Chick Chick. Pastry chef Beverly Bates bakes up the feathery potato rolls that serve as the foundation. Mayo and cranberry relish get spread on the bready base, which is stuffed with an herb-laced fried chicken breast, a few strips of bacon, a lettuce leaf, and a few vinegary sweet pickles. Biting into it, you get the crunch of the rashers, the crackle of the poultry’s crispy coating, and the pillowy softness of the bun. It’s everything you love about fried chicken sandwiches—plus bacon. —Nevin Martell

Kimchi ramen at Toki Underground
Price: $12
1234 H St. NE; (202) 388-3086; tokiunderground.com

Just about every bowl of Taiwanese-style ramen served at Toki Underground seems to have a restorative, almost medicinal effect—maybe because, in all likelihood, you’ve spent the last two hours nursing a beer downstairs in The Pug while waiting for your turn to step into Erik Bruner-Yang’s perennially trendy second-floor noodle shop. But nothing clears sinuses, settles stomachs, and resets chakra quite like Toki’s pungent, taste bud-confounding kimchi soup. First explode the soft egg, lowering a spoonful of it into the orange broth before slurping it up—an umami bomb for your courage. Although Bruner-Yang’s soups feel intricately assembled considering that they’re essentially big bowls of stuff, don’t worry about employing a delicate touch. From there—chopsticks poised, spoon at the ready—go ahead and attack that thing. Your whole being will thank you.

—Jonathan L. Fischer

Patty melt at Tune Inn
Price: $8.49 (includes fries)
331 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; (202) 543-2725

On paper, the Tune Inn’s patty melt does little to pique the imagination: beef, onions, American cheese, and dressing on rye. The visuals are equally unlikely to inspire because, well, it’s beef and cheese on rye. But some mysterious agent operates within the walls of the Tune—a byproduct of the taxidermy, perhaps?—that turns this patty melt into more than the sum of its parts. How to explain the alchemy that turns this modest sandwich into juicy gold? Maybe it’s the same magic that stirred within James Carville and Mary Matalin on their first date, which took place at the Tune in 1981. —Jenny Rogers

Eggplant fries at The Wonderland Ballroom
Price: $5.79 for a small, $7.79 for a large
1101 Kenyon St. NW; (202) 232-5263; thewonderlandballroom.com

Dip anything in batter and deep-fry it well enough, and it’s going to taste pretty good. Onions, potatoes, hell, even Oreos get an extra boost of flavor from the hot oil treatment. The Wonderland Ballroom proves with its eggplant fries that the aubergine is no exception. They succeed due to their simplicity: After being skinned, the eggplant is cut into stalks, battered, and fried until they’re the color of George Hamilton. Then they’re dumped into a basket and served with ranch or blue cheese dressing. The outside is crisp and salty, the inside is smooth and earthy, and since you’re eating vegetables, indulging in them is obviously good for you. Plus, all those extra vitamins and minerals will help you recover faster, should you find yourself imbibing a few too many drinks during happy hour. —Caroline Jones

Octopus Santorini at Zaytinya
Price: $14
701 9th St. NW, (202) 638-0800, zaytinya.com

Photos of the octopus Santorini at Zaytinya always take me a bit by surprise. It’s such a dramatic presentation, with charred slices of baby cephalopod laid out on a bright yellow background of pureed peas, dotted with pink onion slices and olive-green capers for more contrast. They’re surprising looking because whenever I order the dish, it’s devoured before I really get a good look at it. The octopus is grilled perfectly—crispy and smoky on the outside, sweet and chewy on the inside. The marinated onions and capers add salt and acid. The mustardy pea puree sops up the octopus juices. Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m supposed to share. Order your own. —Mike Madden

Tofu with sour mustard greens at Mandalay Restaurant & Cafe
Price: $10.99
930 Bonifant St., Silver Spring, (301) 585-0500, mandalayrestaurantcafe.com

Years after downtown Silver Spring boomed, the block where Mandalay resides is still a throwback to the town’s sleepier days. (There’s a West African restaurant named for Cameroonian soccer star Roger Miller across the street and a gun shop a few yards away.) The Chowhound and DonRockwell.com crowd has been flocking there for a while now, but if the unpretentious Burmese joint ever gets its long-planned second location up and running in Shaw, plates like Mandalay’s tofu with sour mustard greens will be on everyone’s radar. Little bites of pickled mustard greens crunch between chunks of fried tofu (it’s also available with pork belly instead), with a tart brightness that cuts through the dish’s heat. Pickling the greens replaces all their inherent bitterness with a sour, vinegar-laden flavor that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. Generous portions of cilantro help keep the spice in check, too. Sure, there are also onions and a rich, juicy sauce, but those mustard greens are the reason to visit Bonifant Street now, without waiting for the Shaw outpost. —Mike Madden