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The pandemic revealed just how connected we are as citizens of the world. Few corners of the earth escaped the deadly COVID-19 virus and nations worked in tandem to contain it. In many ways, it proved that we’re more similar than we are different. This got us thinking about how much we share when it comes to food.
“If you put a human in a room with some kind of substance and flour and water, eventually that human will exit with a dumpling, a ravioli, a samosa, an empanada, or a pierogi,” says Zofia’s Kitchen chef and co-owner Ed Hardy. He specializes in clever flavors of pierogi and believes you can travel anywhere and find filled dough. “Any culture that’s trying to claim that it’s theirs can’t really do that because it was bound to happen anyway. It was inevitable. Humans love dough-covered items. It’s a primal urge.”
Thinking about people from all over indulging in bowls of dumplings or plates of pastelillos is comforting and unifying at a time when we need more togetherness. Adding to the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with eating filled dough snacks is the fact that most of these treasures are made by hand, often with a little love baked in. Thanks to the D.C. region’s extensive culinary offerings from across the globe, you can try myriad filled dough dishes. We only wish we had room for more, both in our bellies and in this issue. While the items featured aren’t the only exemplary offerings in their categories, this collection shows the breadth of options in the region. —Laura Hayes
Crab Rangoon at Lucky Danger
455 I St. NW, luckydanger.co
Restaurateur Tim Ma had a specific goal when he was conceiving of Lucky Danger, which he runs with co-chef Andrew Chiou. “When we were putting together the menu, we wanted American Chinese classics,” he says. “We want you to be able to order Lucky Danger without looking at the menu. You know, every Chinese restaurant will have certain things.”
One of them is crab rangoon. “If you think about kung pao or even fried rice, they have origins in China, but crab rangoon has no origin in China,” Ma says. “Dairy doesn’t exist in the diet there. That is for sure something that came about in Chinese restaurants here in America.”
Chinese restaurants have become such a treasured part of American culinary culture that it’s hard to fathom that their numbers boomed 100 years ago because of xenophobic immigration laws. At the beginning of the 20th century, anti-Asian sentiment was so strong that the U.S. enacted policies that barred Chinese workers from immigrating or becoming U.S. citizens unless they held a merchant visa. A court ruled in 1915 that restaurant owners qualified for such visas. Chinese restaurants proliferated as a result and restaurateurs adapted menu items for Western taste buds. Since anti-Asian hate is still a serious problem, Ma cofounded Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate earlier this year.
Lucky Danger’s crab rangoon stands out because the chefs use a spring roll wrapper instead of a wonton or egg roll wrapper that typically gets formed into a four-point fold. “We do it like a beggar’s purse,” Ma says. The result is a crispy crown. When Ma and Chiou first started selling crab rangoon, they took a cheffy approach by using real crab and crab roe instead of more traditional imitation crab meat. “But we started getting emails,” Ma says. Customers couldn’t figure out why they “tasted funny” or “smelled weird.”
“What you’re actually tasting is … crab!” Ma says. “We finally compromised though and returned it back to the original.” The filling is made from cream cheese, imitation crab, and aromatics such as garlic, ginger, and scallion. Five come in an order ($10) from the takeout-only restaurant in Mount Vernon Triangle. Orders can be placed online. —Laura Hayes
Mama Alice’s Lumpia at Purple Patch
3155 Mount Pleasant St. NW, (202) 299-0022, purplepatchdc.com
For the first six months after Purple Patch opened in 2015, owner Patrice Cleary’s mother made the restaurant’s signature dish—lumpia. But “Mama Alice,” as she’s known, wasn’t in D.C. She was overnighting the Filipino staple to the District from Texas on dry ice. “We went from going through a few hundred a week to a few thousand,” Cleary says. Shipping no longer made sense. Now they make them on site using Alice’s recipe that calls for precise portions of beef, pork, carrots, and scallions bound with egg inside a paper-thin wrapper. Use too much meat, Cleary cautions, and the wrapper will burn before the meat cooks through.
“Growing up, everybody used to love my mom’s lumpia,” Cleary says. Her secret ingredient? Jimmy Dean pork sausage roll. “We do something similar to that now,” Cleary says. “We use ground pork and have our own seasoning to achieve that same flavor.”
Cleary says Filipinos consume lumpia throughout the day as a “merienda” or snack, as well as with meals. She sells orders of five ($8) paired with spicy vinegar and banana ketchup dipping sauces at brunch and dinner. Cleary brings in the banana ketchup from the Philippines and doctors it with a few spices. Tables can tack on single lumpia to an order for $1.60. Some people don’t stop at five. “We get orders of 1,000 pieces of lumpia for catered events,” Cleary says. “They’re the best thing to bring to a party.” —Laura Hayes
Cherry Vareniki at Mari Vanna
1141 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 783-7777, taplink.cc/marivannadc
You can have dumplings for dessert at Mari Vanna. The downtown Russian charmer serves a mound of handmade cherry vareniki ($18) with a side of sour cream that’s large enough for two or three people to share. “We buy really expensive cherries,” says partner Boris Artemyev. “In this case, the more expensive, the more taste.” Each delicate dumpling contains two or three coarsely chopped cherries that burst in your mouth.
“Vareniki is very popular in Russia and Ukraine,” Artemyev says. He would know—he was born in Ukraine, but grew up in Russia. Many consider vareniki one of the national dishes of Ukraine, but there’s some debate about that. Artemyev doesn’t want to tackle the issue. He stays out of politics. When asked, executive chef Galina Bovtun offers a diplomatic response. Vareniki, she says, “came from grandmothers.”
Bovtun says her vareniki dough is a simple mix of flour and water, but it takes some practice to nail the consistency so the dumplings don’t disintegrate when boiled. “You need to feel it,” she says. She also squeezes juice from the cherry chunks before filling the dough for the same preventative reason. Cherries are preferable over other berries because they hold their shape, according to Bovtun, who sprinkles the finished product with just the right amount of powdered sugar to counterbalance any tartness. —Laura Hayes
Spicy Potato Boreka at Yellow
1346 4th St. SE, (202) 921-9592, yellowthecafe.com
Chef Michael Rafidi grew up eating spinach pies. That’s why the chef and owner of Albi wanted to put a savory vegetable pastry on the menu at Yellow, his daytime bakery next door. Like its sister restaurant, Yellow is dedicated to exploring the flavors of the Levant, the region spanning Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and beyond.
One Levantine street food staple is a boreka, a savory pastry whose resemblance to an empanada belies its roots in the Sephardic Jewish communities of modern day Spain and Portugal. Typically, the pastry is made from phyllo or puff pastry dough and includes a variety of fillings ranging from potatoes and eggplant to ground meat and cheese.
Earlier this year, Rick Goldberg, Yellow’s head baker, started working on a boreka. After three weeks of research and recipe testing, a spicy potato boreka ($10) appeared on the menu, with the heat coming from harissa. Goldberg also folds in feta cheese.
“It’s a very buttery, flaky pastry,” Rafidi says. “People love it.” While he wasn’t as familiar with borekas as other pastries, he’s now a convert thanks to Goldberg. Rafidi also says he hopes to keep expanding people’s familiarity with pastries from the Levant: “That’s always been the goal—to offer something completely different.” —Sarah Cooke
Jhol MoMo at Moh Moh Licious
7414 Georgia Ave. NW, (202) 817-3031, mohmohlicious.wordpress.com
Shepherd Park hole-in-the-wall Moh Moh Licious has one obvious pun in its name and one that takes some digging. “When we respect someone and give something to them, we say ’licious,’” says Nepal-born chef and owner Sujil Dangol. Between six different kinds of hand rolled Nepali-style dumplings and four housemade sauces, the street food spot has the goods for any dumpling lover.
But one dish is not like the others in the District—jhol momo, or momo served in a steaming tomato and onion based stew. Each order ($16.99) comes with 10 dumplings filled with a choice of lamb or goat. The stew calls for specific Nepali spices that Dangol goes home to collect every year. Timur, which yields a mouth-numbing effect similar to Szechuan peppercorns, combines with house dried chili peppers for a complex taste.
According to Dangol, the only outstanding differences between Moh Moh Licious’ jhol and what you might find in Kathmandu is that he’s adjusted the spice level and doesn’t use buffalo meat, the most common momo filling in Nepal. For those who don’t do spicy, any of the standard momos with housemade tamarind sauce are good options. The sauce is made from scratch using whole tamarind and brings a welcome sweetness. An order of the housemade tamarind lemonade with the jhol momo also tames the flames. —Michael Loria
Bánh bot loc at Banh Cuon Saigon
6795 Wilson Blvd. #54, Falls Church, (703) 534-4482, edencenter.com/stores/banh-cuon-saigon
Many of the Vietnamese menus in Eden Center are encyclopedias of dishes that require several page turns. Few of them boast one of my favorite appetizers—sticky tapioca dumplings filled with savory roast pork and crunchy dried shrimp known as bánh bot loc. Banh Cuon Saigon, tucked in the back of a shopping tunnel, does. The restaurant has been woman-owned since it opened in 1996.
Suong Nguyen says they fill the dumplings, wrap them in tapioca flour, and steam them inside banana leaves for about 15 minutes. They’re served with a scattering of fried shallots, scallions, and fish sauce. But Nguyen says it’s not just any fish sauce—they pair extra potent fish sauce brightened by fresh lemon with the bánh bot loc. If you can’t sit for a meal, Huong Binh Bakery a few yards away also has bánh bot loc packaged in takeout containers. They’re no substitute for eating them hot and fresh.
Richard Tai Nguyen, the co-owner of Nam-Viet Restaurant in Arlington, says the reason you don’t see bánh bot loc at more Vietnamese restaurants is because they’re labor intensive. He doesn’t serve them and was surprised anyone was making them coming out of the pandemic. The dumplings are translucent so you get a little preview of what’s inside and the chewy texture is what keeps me coming back. —Laura Hayes
Pork N’ Chives Shuijiao at Dumplings and Beyond
2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 338-3815, dumplingsbeyond.com
Dumplings are close to my heart. They remind me of weekend nights growing up when my parents and I would make boiled dumplings (shuijiao) from scratch. My dad rolled out the dough to make the wrappers and my mother and I placed the filling—usually pork with chive—in the wrapper before sealing the edges. While shuijiao are often enjoyed with family during Chinese New Year, especially in northern China, they are as much an everyday food as a special occasion treat.
When I miss home, I almost always order from Dumplings and Beyond in Glover Park. Their boiled pork and chive dumplings ($11.55 for 10) and treasure delight dumplings ($12.50 for 10)—the latter of which contains pork, shrimp, chive, and napa cabbage—are as comforting as they are filling. Co-owner Vivienne Wang explains that “dumplings represent the core of Chinese food.” The restaurant has curated its own selection to appeal to different tastes, whether that’s veggie or beef and onion dumplings, with wrappers that are on the thicker side.
Shuijiao require skill and time to make, but “basically contain everything you need,” according to Wang. A carb, plus a protein, and “you can just order one dish and be done with lunch.” Spots such as Laoban Dumplings in Union Market are also experimenting with different shuijiao flavors such as shrimp, pastrami, and spring onion in a recent collaboration with bagel shop Call Your Mother. The creative offerings from Dumplings and Beyond and Laoban Dumplings reflect not only the durability of shuijiao but also their constant evolution through place and time. —Katherine Zhao
Crab Pastelillos at La Famosa
1300 4th St. SE, (202) 921-9882, eatlafamosa.com
Empanadas, pastelillos, empanadillas—the addictive filled dough turnovers found throughout Latin America and the Caribbean—go by several names. Even on an island as small as Puerto Rico, the term can vary from town to town. Empanadas are thought to have originated in Galicia, Spain, and have evolved throughout the New World. The methods and fillings vary from country to country. Chile and Argentina enjoy baked empanadas. Other places, such as Puerto Rico and Cuba, prefer them fried. For many locals who grew up in Latin America, biting into a crunchy, stuffed pastry takes them back home.
Chef Joancarlo Parkhurst, who owns La Famosa in Navy Yard, calls them pastelillos. He’s currently serving a crab variety ($10). “This pastelillo is special to me because it brings back memories of Puerto Rico,” he says. “Biting into a crab pastelillo takes me back to Gripiñas, a place our family used to go on holidays.” For the filling, he uses crab prepared in a tomato based criollo sauce seasoned with sofrito and sazón. The latter is a spice mix that’s omnipresent in Puerto Rican cuisine.
“We try to use Maryland crab when possible to bring that connection between Puerto Rico and the region,” Parkhurst says. The contrast between the crispy fried dough, filled with savory lump crab with hints of garlic, annatto, and onion will send you on a virtual trip to the Caribbean. Those who aren’t into crab can try two other flavors—beef picadillo ($7) and vegetarian picadillo ($8). —Jessica van Dop DeJesus
Mantoo Shrimp at Lapis
1847 Columbia Road NW, (202) 299-9630, lapisdc.com
Saffron is a magical ingredient. A small pinch of dried orange threads imparts an entire dish with floral and earthy tones, at least in theory. Too often, this pricy spice jacks up the cost of a menu item while its flavor disappears into the background. But rest assured, dear devourer of dumplings, saffron is the shining star of the mantoo shrimp served at Adams Morgan Afghan bistro Lapis.
A note under the dumplings section of the menu reads “yes, they exist.” While some diners may not associate dumplings with Afghan food culture, they’ve long been a part of that country’s cuisine. Shamim Popal, the executive chef at Lapis, says while the “definite origins of the dumplings remain uncertain,” they made their way to Afghanistan by way of the Silk Road.
The dough for these particular dumplings is made with flour and water, and kneaded until it becomes smooth. Popal says that they are usually filled with lamb or beef, but there’s room for chefs to be creative. Count Popal as one such innovative chef. The steamed shrimp in Lapis’ dumplings are a textural delight beneath a chewy wrapper. But the showstopper is the saffron cream sauce, which the chef applies liberally. They come in orders of four ($12) or six ($18). Learn from my mistake and order six. —Will Warren
Spicy Beef Salteña at Saya Salteña
1819 7th St. NW, (202) 803-7943, sayasaltena.com
When María Helena launched her Bolivian salteña business last year, she knew she’d have to educate customers so they wouldn’t stain their best shirt when biting into the snack that resembles an empanada. Hold a salteña upright and rip off a corner. From there you slurp the broth before finishing the tender pastry and savory filling. “It’s a soup dumpling,” she tells customers. “They understand how carefully you have to eat it or you’ll get the juice all over.”
Try the spicy beef flavor ($5) filled with ground beef, potatoes, peas, Kalamata olives, and hard-boiled egg. Some salteña makers add raisins, but not Helena. The pop of flavor comes from a blend of Andean spices, including aji amarillo. “You first taste the sweet and then after a couple bites you get the heat,” she says of the pepper. “I think it has to do with how it’s grown in the altitude so it has an aftertaste of heat.”
Helena moved from La Paz, Bolivia, to D.C. to study engineering at George Washington University and eventually entered the catering industry. Saya Salteña, which started out of Mess Hall, was a pandemic pivot that took off. To take her business to the next level, Helena moved into a Shaw virtual food hall in December 2020. Customers can order salteñas for pickup and delivery. “I’m able to display my salteñas now,” she says. “People know what it is.”
Do yourself a favor and order a sweet salteña for dessert. The one filled with honey, sliced apples, and passion fruit puree ($3.75) is inspired by Betty Crocker’s apple pie recipe. It was one of the first treats Helena tried making when she moved to the U.S. —Laura Hayes
Pumpkin Empanada at Rice
1608 14th St. NW, (202) 234-2400, ricerestaurant.com
Sak Pollert put his Thai restaurant’s pumpkin empanada ($7) on a fall seasonal menu about 15 years ago. When customers kept asking for it, he made it a permanent fixture. The kitchen uses firm and flavorful kabocha squash. “The original empanada in Thailand is cooked with chicken, curry powder, and potato,” Pollert says. “I adapted the recipe, replacing the chicken with pumpkin and keeping the remaining ingredients.”
In Pollert’s homeland, it’s called a curry puff, but he thought diners would be more familiar with the term empanada. One of his former cooks developed the recipe for the slightly sweet, flakey dough that encases the filling. She used to make the pastry at the restaurant and Pollert contracted her to continue making it off-site after she left. Rice serves the empanada with a dipping sauce made from rice vinegar, sugar, and salt because it needs a hit of acid. —Laura Hayes
Pork and Beef Khinkali at Tabla
3227 Georgia Ave. NW, (202) 291-3227, tabladc.com
When Jonathan and Laura Nelms moved back to D.C. after living in Moscow from 2010 to 2012, they say they couldn’t believe there wasn’t a single Georgian restaurant here. “There just ought to be a Georgian restaurant in a city like Washington, D.C.,” Jonathan says. The pair says Georgian food was a staple in Russia, much like how Mexican and Italian dishes are plentiful throughout the U.S. While neither of them was an expert on Georgian cuisine before they opened their first restaurant, Supra in Shaw, Jonathan spent a week in the Caucasus with internationally renowned chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, which set the couple on their journey.
At Tabla, the couple’s newer, more casual restaurant in Park View, khinkali are a focus. The wall and menu are even adorned with depictions of the D.C. flag on which three boiled dumplings replace the iconic stars. You can order three varieties in sets of three ($8) or six ($15). “Sometimes we’ll get Georgians who come in and they’ll be ordering like 18 or 24,” Laura says. “If you’re Georgian and you like these dumplings, you normally eat a lot.”
The intricately folded dumplings wrapped in thin, chewy dough arrive at the table sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper and herbs. The traditional pork and beef mixture, as well as the lamb seasoned with tarragon, come with a light, flavorful broth inside. Both meat mixtures take on an almost greenish hue due to the fresh herbs in the ground mixture.
Whatever you do, don’t cut a khinkali in half or take a huge bite or the liquid will wind up in your lap. Instead, employ the eating process for xiao long bao by making a small hole in the dough, sipping out the soup, and then chowing down. —Emma Sarappo
Pastrami and Swiss Pierogi at Zofia’s Kitchen
4238 Wilson Blvd. #145, Ballston, (703) 550-6220, zofiaskitchen.com
Zofia’s Kitchen specializes in pierogi, but diners should come to the table with an open mind. Chef Ed Hardy strays from sauerkraut and potatoes and fills his dough bundles with quirky abandon. One mimics a crab rangoon, another stars gravlax, cream cheese, and everything seasoning. Hardy was inspired to “bring comfort food to a populace that needed comforting” during the pandemic and began researching one of Eastern Europe’s greatest contributions to the food world. The most surprising thing he found in his research was “the sour cream fight.” Some dough recipes call for it, others don’t.
Zofia’s Kitchen fully launched in December 2020 inside the Ballston Quarter food hall. “Zofia is a made-up paternal grandmother,” Hardy says. “Your Polish grandmother you didn’t know you wanted or needed.”
If you have to pick one flavor to try first, make it pastrami and Swiss cheese ($12.99) matched with a creamy mustard sauce. Hardy cures and smokes the brisket in house. All pierogi come eight to an order. You select whether you want them sautéed, steamed, or fried to a golden crisp. Sautéed is the answer for the pastrami variety.
You may find the look of them a bit surprising. Because Zofia’s Kitchen cranks out as many as 800 pierogi per day, Hardy can’t roll out the sour cream-free dough by hand. In order for it to cooperate with the pastry extruder, the chef says he had to switch to a thinner, tighter dumpling dough. As Hardy looks to expand Zofia’s Kitchen in the region, he says he’s hoping to acquire 3-D printed equipment that churns out more traditional looking pierogi “without the frilly edges.” —Laura Hayes
Yache Wang Mandu at Anju
1805 18th St. NW, (202) 845-8935, anjurestaurant.com
Food historians are torn about the origins of Korean mandu. Some believe the dumplings, derived from manti, came to the country through travelers and tradesmen on the Silk Road. Others believe Yuan Mongols brought them in the 14th century. Then there’s the theory that they’re a Korean original. Either way, mandu became a beloved dish in the royal court during the Goryeo dynasty, which lasted from 918 to 1392. Ultimately, the plebes got a taste and the regal favorite became a popular street food snack.
One famous iteration is kimchi wang mandu, king-size dumplings stuffed with japchae noodles, beef, and kimchi. Anju executive chef Angel Barreto wanted to do “something a little different, but still in the Korean wheelhouse.” His plant-based version is packed with Impossible meat marinated in garlic, ginger, and soy. This hearty core is enveloped in wang mandu wrappers special ordered from H Mart. “It’s a good option for someone who wants something vegetarian, substantial, and sustainable,” Barreto says.
Barreto serves the mandu in orders of three ($12) and crowns the hefty appetizer with pickled long chilies and chili crunch powered by gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes). There’s a sweet soy sauce on the side for dunking the palm-size crowd favorites. On a busy night, the restaurant sells 250 of them. —Nevin Martell
Ma La Wontons at Great Wall Szechuan House
1527 14th St. NW, (202) 797-8888, greatwallszechuan.com
It’s hard to pass up a chance to try chili wontons. Hailing from the Sichuan province in China, there are several variations of this traditional breakfast and street food. Hong you chao shou are wontons wrapped like a person with “folded arms” served in a chili oil sauce. (Some say chao shou better translates to “home-folded.”) Then there’s zhong shui jiao, named after the street vendor who created the dish, in which boiled dumplings are steeped in sweetened soy sauce and chili oil and topped with garlic. There’s also suanla chao shou, or hot-and-sour “folded arm” wontons bathed in a spicy vinegar sauce.
The ma la version at Great Wall Szechuan House in Logan Circle is a perennial favorite, consisting of chicken-filled wontons in a chili oil sauce with hot and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Chef and owner Yuan Chen says he uses chicken to please local palates instead of the more common pork filling in China. “Everybody likes chicken,” he says. Each order ($9.45) comes with six pieces.
Chen makes the sauce in house, with a spiciness level that can be customized to each diner’s preference. “We have a customer who started at 20 percent spicy but now, whenever he travels to D.C., he calls from the airport and always asks for 100 percent spicy,” says May Kuang, Chen’s wife. When eating ma la wontons, May cautions against drinking cold water because doing so only heightens the hot and numbing sensation. “Try hot tea instead.” Chen can also make suanla chao shou, previously not on the menu, for those who are interested. —Katherine Zhao
The interview with Chen and Kuang was conducted in Mandarin, and translated into English.
Sheng Jian Bao at Shanghai Taste
1121 Nelson St., Rockville, (301) 279-0806, shanghaitaste1121.wixsite.com/website
Less ubiquitous than their more popular steamed cousin xiao long bao, sheng jian bao—pan fried soup dumplings—are just as deserving of hype. Shanghai Taste is one of the few restaurants in the D.C. area serving this iteration of the dumpling alongside an epic menu of other Shanghainese dishes. Emily Zhu, the owner’s daughter, manages the Rockville restaurant that opened in 2012. She says their goal is to make their “Shanghai friends feel that they are back at home.” On a May morning, repeat customers cycle through, picking up regular brunch orders and exchanging greetings with Zhu.
Although sheng jian bao has gained some traction through word of mouth, it’s still a lesser known dish. Made with a thicker wrapper than xiao long bao and pan fried instead of steamed, sheng jian bao are chewier and meatier and can be trickier to manage due to the heartier skin holding the hot broth inside.
These dumplings are served with a soy, black vinegar, and ginger dipping sauce that complements the savory pork with its acidity and brightness, and come in an order of six ($7.25). Shanghai Taste is currently offering takeout only, but tables and chairs are available in the shopping center, making Shanghai Taste a viable outdoor dumpling brunch solution. Sheng jian bao are available only on Saturdays and Sundays. —Brian Oh
Lentil Sambusas at Mimi’s Ethiopian BBQ
2523 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, (202) 481-0414, mimisbbq.com
Mimi’s Ethiopian BBQ may be named after Siham “Mimi” Mohammed, a small business owner and single mom, but her business partner and sister, Hikmah Tasew, is the chef behind this Ethiopian restaurant, which opened in Randle Highlands in October 2020. “The intention was helping the neighborhood,” Mohammed says. “We see a lot of fast food settings. We tried to bring in healthy food.”
While they’re not the healthiest pick on the menu, start every meal at Mimi’s with an order of sambusas—an East African cousin of South Asian samosas that are deep fried until they’re golden brown. They offer four flavors: lentil, potato, chicken, and beef. The lentil sambusa has the advantage of being both vegan and packed with protein. Mohammed says her sister boils the lentils and seasons them with onion, green pepper, and cilantro. The sambusas come in orders of three ($3.99) with a side of “Mimi’s special sauce,” which Mohammed says is a secret recipe.
Mohammed and Tasew are from Gondar in northern Ethiopia. They’re Muslim and explain that sambusas are a common sunset snack for breaking fast during Ramadan. Ethiopians eat sambusas all year round as an afternoon snack with tea or coffee. “My sister makes the best sambusas,” Mohammed says. “With everything, she puts her heart out there to cook.” The restaurant is closed Mondays and is looking to add seating in the coming months. —Laura Hayes
Spicy Toasted Ravioli at Ledo Pizza
814 H St. NE, (202) 849-6897, ledopizza.com
No self-respecting St. Louisan turns their back on the original toasted ravioli, but goddammit if D.C’s version isn’t a close comparison. Ledo Pizza’s spicy toasted ravioli has been on the menu since the mid 1980s, says CEO Jamie Beall. Ledo’s take on the handheld pasta is stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, and jalapeños. Beall says the kick from the pepper plays well with Ledo’s sweet marinara sauce. The tomato based sauces in St. Louis tend to be more savory.
Ledo’s “t-ravs” are also a bit softer around the edges than the version Midwesterners are used to, but Ledo’s are deep fried like their St. Louis counterparts. Beall explains that Ledo experimented with meat filling, which is more common in Missouri, but opted to stick with cheese. An especially fatty piece of beef could “eat through” the dough, he says.
Dueling origin stories for the toasted ravioli date back to the 1940s, when they were served in Italian restaurants on the Hill, an Italian American neighborhood in St. Louis. Both versions say the tasty pillows of meat-filled dough are the result of an accident, when chefs mistakenly dropped ravioli in hot oil instead of boiling water. The restaurants tested out the dishes on their staff, and they’ve been a staple on St. Louis menus ever since. A third story says the recipe came to the United States from Sicily by way of a St. Louis area chain of restaurants called Lombardo’s in the 1930s. They filled the pasta with beef, spinach, cheese, and eggs.
Beall, the third generation owner of the pizza chain that first opened in 1955, can’t recall how the toasted ravioli landed on Ledo’s menu. But he confirms that his restaurant’s take is absolutely based on the St. Louis delicacy. —Mitch Ryals