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Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the world was our oyster. It was possible to move from place to place and cross oceans to soak in the sights, smells, and sounds of other cultures. But stopping the spread of the virus necessitates shrinking our circle. During the past five months, we’ve stayed closer to home and turned to our immediate neighborhoods with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation. We’ve explored the bars and restaurants down the block, eager to see them survive.
City Paper staff and contributors shared the restaurants and bars that have been there for them throughout the pandemic, the places we support weekly. And thanks to the D.C. region’s multicultural population and immigrant owners, there’s still a way to taste the world from home. —Laura Hayes
The Shell Shack Seafood
3809 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood; (240) 772-1185; theshellshackseafood.com
The Shell Shack Seafood opened in April, in the midst of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Located inside the Black and woman-owned Savor Food Hall in Brentwood, the Shell Shack quickly became my favorite takeout spot. As Nicole Watson, the restaurant’s director of operations, says, “pandemic or not, people want good food.”
Good food is exactly what they serve. Chef and owner Winthorpe “Skee” Spencecreates Caribbean-infused seafood dishes that stand out for their creativity and execution. The portions are generous, the food is packed to travel, and the staff is friendly. Chef Spence was born in Jamaica and grew up in Queens, New York. His professional experience ranges from fine dining to food trucks, and he’s also served as the private chef for BET’s Sheila Johnson and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
First-timers must try the plantain fried rice. It’s hearty and rich, with perfectly caramelized plantains and the slightest hint of heat. In addition to being my favorite side, it makes a great meal on its own and reheats well the next day. Try adding a fried egg to make your leftovers more decadent. The lobster sliders and crab and corn fritters both make great appetizers to round out a seafood-centric meal. Pickup and delivery are available through DoorDash and Grubhub. —Anela Malik
2314 4th St. NE; (202) 795-9940; facebook.com/HuacatayPolloALaBrasa
We started ordering from Huacatay when the stay-at-home order began. Pollo a la brasa (Peruvian-style roasted chicken) is my perfect mid-week treat. This virtual trip to Peru is not only delicious, but the family special feeds our family of three for a few days. It includes two charbroiled chickens, four large sides, two large sauces, and four Inca Kolas, and costs $41.50.
The sides are as much of a draw as the chicken. We usually choose arroz chaufa (Peruvian-style Chinese fried rice), fried yucca, sweet fried yellow plantains, and french fries for the little one. If you’re not interested in fried food, lighter options like green beans, quinoa salad, and stewed black beans are available. The sides come in generous portions that you can save for lunch the next day.
The rotisserie chicken is versatile. We’ve made sandwiches, salads, and even more fried rice with the leftovers. The restaurant would only share that garlic and onion are key ingredients in the seasoning—the rest is a proprietary secret. Save the extra Huacatay sauce and serve it with roasted potatoes and vegetables. It’s the takeout order that keeps on giving!
Huacatay, owned by Byron Maldonado and Edgar Diaz, is open for pickup (calling directly to place orders helps them avoid fees) and delivery. —Jessica van Dop DeJesus
Comedor y Pupuseria San Alejo
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1819 East-West Highway, Hyattsville; (240) 714-3342; sanalejomd.com
I can’t go a week without gorging at this strip-mall Salvadoran restaurant that’s managed to stay open throughout the pandemic, save for a two-week closure. Siblings Carlos Alvarado and Mirna Alvarado-Montero run the business, which is named after the small town in El Salvador where they grew up.
Alvarado, who spent a decade with José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, tells me my regular order—carne deshilada—is a very traditional dish in San Alejo. He says it’s only eaten for dinner, despite the fact that it contains eggs mixed in with shredded beef, onions, and peppers. The savory mixture is served with sides and thick corn tortillas.
The restaurant also makes first-rate pupusas. Just enough salty cheese squirts out of the masa pocket and gets crispy. My favorite is the one filled with loroco flowers. “There is only one secret—passion,” Alvarado says. “You have to get a good product first, and then you have to like and love what you are doing.” Making the filling for the bean-filled pupusa is a five-hour process.
San Alejo also explores other cuisines. “When we decided to open, we decided to be a little open-minded,” Alvarado says. One of their most popular dishes is a Honduran baleada featuring a housemade flour tortilla stuffed with refried beans, egg, avocado, and an aged cheese that lends some funk. Adding steak turns the starter into a filling $7.50 meal. San Alejo is currently open for dine-in, pickup, and delivery on Grubhub. —Laura Hayes
409 15th St. NE; (202) 921-9456; mannadosirak.com
In pre-pandemic days, if I wanted to chow down on traditional Korean fare, it typically meant a drive to Annandale, where the eateries stay open into the early hours of the morning. While I certainly miss mainstays like Tosokchon and To Sok Jip in these socially distanced days, I was pleasantly surprised to find a new Korean takeout spot tucked next to a liquor shop on Capitol Hill.
Manna Dosirak is a mom-and-pop restaurant owned by Pil Cho. He previously ran a burger joint calledK Burgerat the same address before revamping the menu in February. Now, the business reflects his Korean roots. “It’s traditional Korean—the food we love,” Cho says.
I’ve quickly fallen in love with Manna, too. It’s reliable, quick, and affordable. Most bibimbap bowls cost $10. Sides, which range from $3.50 to $5, include dumplings, crispy prawns, and japchae—cold stir-fried glass noodles with peppers, onions, and mushrooms. And don’t skip dessert. Hotteok, a golden fried rice pancake stuffed with brown sugar syrup, is a satisfying finish.
Another way to order is by selecting the restaurant’s namesake, a dosirak. It’s a packaged meal often with different compartments for rice, sides, and a main dish. At Manna, those main dishes span from a pork cutlet with cabbage to spicy tofu. Order Manna for pickup by calling or going online. They’re on most delivery apps. —Tim Ebner
Silver Spring Wings
2341 Distribution Circle, Silver Spring; (202) 876-8000; silverspringwings.com
Much of my dining out activity prior to the COVID-19 pandemic involved trendy restaurants. Being homebound during the pandemic due to a respiratory condition, and a special delivery of wings, forced me to stop and remember the joys of comfort food. The wings come from a caterer who pivoted during the pandemic.
Evan Walton, who owns and operatesRecess Catering and Events, had a steady stream of business cooking for corporate parties and social events. He even opened a second kitchen in Silver Spring to handle the demand. But when the pandemic hit in March, business came to a halt.
Harnessing his entrepreneurial spirit, Walton found a way to safely transform his business into a temporary restaurant that keeps things simple and gives people what we love: wings, chicken tenders, seasoned potato wedges, and coleslaw. You can taste the love that goes into Walton’s food.
Classic coatings for his boneless wings, like honey barbecue and Buffalo, are my go-to flavors, but some of his saucier creations—like parmesan peppercorn and sweet chili Thai—are addictive, too. I’m not normally a fan of seasoned, sauceless wings, but Walton’s Cajun spice wings have me reconsidering my prior stance.
Last time we got Silver Spring Wings, my husband and I feasted on leftovers for two days with unwavering enthusiasm. We’ve since recommended these wings to everyone we know. Next time you’re worrying about what to cook, pay Walton a visit in Silver Spring. He also does limited deliveries in the area. Don’t skip the coleslaw. —Sabrina Medora
Pitmasters Back Alley BBQ
4818 Yuma St. NW; (202) 350-9791; pitmastersbackalleybbq.com
Needing to sink my teeth into a tender and flavorful beef brisket at the start of the pandemic led me down a narrow path near 95-year-old Wagshal’s Delicatessen in Spring Valley. That’s where you’ll find the intentionally unassuming Pitmasters Back Alley BBQ. A sign adorned with a pig and the D.C. flag announces the takeout restaurant’s existence. Twenty weeks into the public health emergency, their beef brisket provides the simplest pleasure at a challenging time.
My go-to order is the Austin brisket sandwich. Manager Warren Alonge says the brisket gets trimmed inside Wagshal’s before it’s injected with its juices. Then it gets a beef rub, marinates, and enters the smoker for about eight hours.
The sandwich comes with crispy fried onions and barbecue sauce on the side, but I haven’t needed to try them because the brisket on bread is a worthy enough meal on its own. The glistening pink meat is caramelized in all the right places. Make the trip, because good Austin brisket stands alone. Salt, pepper, char, smoke. The rest is magic.
If you’re not feeling like something between a bun, Pitmasters sells a la carte meat ranging from St. Louis cut pork ribs and half smokes to Carolina chopped pork and smoked chicken wings. Sides include cheesy grits, fried okra, cheddar biscuits, and baked beans. Orders can be placed online for pickup and delivery is available through delivery apps. —Marcus K. Dowling
Heat Da Spot
3213 Georgia Ave. NW; (202) 836-4719; heatdaspotcafe.com
Once you spot the lowercase red “H” made from red crates outside the building, you’ll know you made it to the right place in Park View. Heat Da Spot, known for the friendliness of its staff, opened in 2015. It’s one of my favorite breakfast spots, serving Ethiopian and American food that is consistently delicious and coffee that is reliably strong.
Their Ethiopian breakfast, featuring spongy injera, ful (mashed beans), eggs, onions, peppers, and tomatoes, is one of their most popular dishes, but my usual order is a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on an everything bagel with an iced coffee. Be sure to douse whatever you eat with their jalapeño and garlic “secret sauce.”
The hospitality at the family-owned restaurant, even during a pandemic, is exceptional. The staff regularly treats customers like friends. Adding to the charm is eccentric decor like souvenir mugs, colorful clipboard menus that display far more dishes than are listed online, comfy seating arrangements of regal cushioned chairs mixed with sofas, and amusing signs that instruct patrons not to rush the chef, because each dish is made with love.
Many times when calling in an order, I’ve been greeted by, “Hey Sweetie, what can I get for you?” Heat Da Spot has been open throughout the pandemic. They currently welcome customers for outside dining in addition to pickup and delivery through Uber Eats and Grubhub. —Julia Terbrock
3720 14th St. NW; (202) 723-0502; facebook.com/lymanstaverndc
A handful of weeks after D.C.’s stay-at-home order began, I came across a tweet. “I would pay one million dollars for the cheapest beer at the shittiest dive bar in America,” it said. From my apartment in Mount Pleasant, I stared longingly at the Raven Grill.
I thought often of my favorite things at my regular haunts: the spiced Old Fashioneds and trivia nights at Jackie Lee’s, under the metallic tinsel where my friends threw their wedding party; the sloppy pineapple burgers and punk shows at Slash Run; the fried chicken at Service Bar.
Most of all, I missed Lyman’s Tavern, owned by Jess Kleinmann and Kevin Perone. I missed dropping into a patio seat after a long workday and nursing a sweaty highball, losing horribly at pinball, and having a place to bring first dates and friends I hadn’t seen in a while.
When Lyman’s finally reopened for takeout in May, I rejoiced. Once a week or more––usually more––I’d walk up 14th Street NW to its outdoor area to pick up a freshly squeezed orange crush and an order of vegetarian sliders. Impossible meat, ketchup, pickles, American cheese, chips: the stuff of childhood, the stuff of normalcy. I’d house those sliders like they were the last taste of bar food I’d ever get. I hope I was just being dramatic.
Call ahead for takeout or just order at its outdoor bar. Patio seating, with great dog watching, is now available. —Morgan Baskin