Unagi paella at Cranes
Unagi paella at Cranes Credit: Laura Hayes

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D.C. area chefs kept the hits coming over the past year. Comfort food came calling and food that traveled well was king. These 13 dishes were particularly memorable and all cost less than $35. Desserts and even one life-alternating side made the list.

If you’re looking for more dining inspiration, read our local dining guides. They cover everything from top vegetarian eats to the best fried snacks in the city.

Unagi Paella at Cranes ($33)
724 9th St. NW, (202) 525-4900, cranes-dc.com

The secret to Cranes’ unagi paella is that it’s prepared in a shallow pan, which maximizes the socarrat factor. That’s the crispy rice at the bottom of the pan. The dish, which is on the a la carte menu at the sprawling downtown restaurant, also represents the vision of Chef Pepe Moncayo. He wants to wed the best of Spanish and Japanese cuisines. He tops the rice with smoked eel, snap peas, fresh herbs, jalapeño aioli, and white ponzu sauce.

Lo Sui Duck Drumettes at Queen’s English ($18)
3410 11th St. NW, (202) 751-3958, queensenglishdc.com

Maybe you heard chicken wings were in short supply this year? Don’t worry, because duck answered the call. Chef Henji Cheung’s sticky sweet drumettes lacquered in loi sui sauce are a must order at the Hong Kong-inspired Columbia Heights restaurant. The meat leaps off the bone and benefits from some flavor enhancers like cashews and yeast. A little pickled daikon on the side brightens things up between bites.

Photo of quesa birria courtesy of Cielo Rojo

Quesa Birria at Cielo Rojo ($19)
7056 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park, (301) 755-0833, cielo-rojo.com

D.C. made big birria gains in 2021, but a surprising pick for best in the lot might be Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park. Chef David Perez makes three quesadillas stuffed with grass-fed braised short rib. Crispy cheese clings to the tortillas, as it should, and the meat is tender as can be. Toppings include guacamole, onion, radishes, and cilantro. But where Cielo Rojo stands out is with its consomé. Use it as a dunk tank and finish it off like a soup.

Photo of oysters Dauphine by Laura Hayes

Oysters Dauphine at Dauphine’s ($21)
1100 15th St. NW, (202) 758-3785, dauphinesdc.com

The chefs behind downtown D.C.’s hat tip to New Orleans couldn’t open without a signature chargrilled oyster preparation. Oysters Dauphine are as green as Oysters Rockefeller thanks to the spinach, but get their pop of flavor from horseradish and pecorino cheese. Sip on a Sazerac while you wait for them to cool down.

Spicy Tekka and Sake + Ikura Donburi at Sushiko ($19 each)
5455 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, (301) 961-1644, sushikorestaurants.com

Sushiko’s donburi travel better than a celebrity with a private plane, making them ideal for cherry blossom picnics. One of the area’s most enduring Japanese restaurants, located just over the D.C. line in Chevy Chase, offers two varieties of the raw fish-topped rice bowls. Try the spicy tekka donburi with spicy tuna tartare, avocado, and masago (sweet fish eggs that pop) or the sake + ikura donburi rendition combining salmon sashimi and salmon roe. Both contain house-made rice seasoning called furikake that’s way better than anything you can find on the shelf.

Photo of sfeeha by Laura Hayes

Sfeeha at Yellow The Cafe ($8)
1346 4th St. SE, (202) 921-9592, yellowthecafe.com

Eat one of these Lebanese meat pies in the morning and you’ll taste it all day. The garlic breath that results from the side car of toum is well worth it. Chef Michael Rafidi tops the flatbread with crumbled lamb sprinkled with za’atar and other spices. It’s best for savory breakfast or a mid-day snack. The cafe is a must visit when in Navy Yard, especially if you need a caffeine fix.

Photo of cherry vareniki by Darrow Montgomery

Cherry Vareniki at Mari Vanna ($16)
1141 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 783-7777, taplink.cc/marivannadc

Dumplings for dessert are exactly what we deserve this year. Each delicate triangle of dough at Mari Vanna contains two or three coarsely chopped cherries that burst in your mouth. Run each one through a side of sour cream to cut some of the sweetness of the berries and powdered sugar. There’s enough for two to share if you’re feeling generous when you visit this Eastern European hockey player hideout.

Photo of crispy herbed potatoes by Laura Hayes

Crispy Herbed Potatoes at Duck & The Peach ($13)
300 7th St. SE, (202) 431-1913, duckandpeachdc.com

A side dish has entered the chat. If you’re the type of person who answers “potato” when asked what single food you’d bring to a deserted island, you need to try these impossibly crispy Yukon golds served with fresh herbs and garlic aioli. Chef Kat Petonito, who helms the Capitol Hill kitchen, debunks our theory that they’re fried six times. She bakes the potatoes at a high temperature for 45 minutes and then breaks them down while they’re still scalding hot. “That way water escapes and activates the potato starch,” she says. “Once they cool down, we fry them and toss them in a secret spice.” They’re on the dinner menu and may make an appearance when Duck & The Peach adds brunch.

Photo of crispy lotus root salad by Laura Hayes

Crispy Lotus Root & Grilled Shrimp Salad at Baan Siam ($12)
425 I St. NW, (202) 588-5889, baansiamdc.com

This Baan Siam starter is a textural wonder with its crispy fried lotus root chips and plump grilled shrimp. Chef Jeeraporn “P’Boom” Poksubthong gussies up those simple ingredients with peanuts, scallions, onion, cilantro, roasted coconut flakes, and chili paste. What’s not printed on the menu of the Mount Vernon Triangle Thai eatery is the sweet, funky dressing made from tamarind, palm sugar, and fish sauce. Try this salad if you’re looking for something that won’t weigh you down.

Photo of apple brown better by Laura Hayes

Apple Brown Betty at The Salt Line Ballston ($9)
4040 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 566-2075, thesaltline.com

Come for the lobster roll, stay for the apple brown betty that’s unique to The Salt Line’s new Ballston location. Pastry Chef Joy Razo tops dense squares of fried bread pudding and apple-cranberry compote with a triple play of sauces: dulce de leche, cinnamon whipped cream, and Calvados anglaise. Every meal should end with this little crock of love.

Photo of honey butter fried chicken sandwich by Laura Hayes

Honey Butter Fried Chicken Sandwich at Roaming Rooster ($9.49)
Multiple locations, roamingroosterdc.com

The owners of Roaming Rooster, Biniyam Habtemariam, Hareg Mesfin, and Michael Habtemariam, invite you to have lunch and dessert simultaneously with their honey butter-slathered fried chicken sandwich. Line your whole body with napkins and dig in. The sandwich is already so rich you’ll wonder if it needs the cheddar cheese. It does. The growing local company uses free-range, grain-fed chicken that takes a dip in buttermilk before it’s dredged. In D.C. proper, you’ll find Roaming Rooster in Woodridge, on U Street NW, in Tenleytown, and inside Western Market in Foggy Bottom.

Photo of sausage and peppers pie by Laura Hayes

‘Nduja + Peppers Pie at Martha Dear ($21)
3110 Mount Pleasant St. NW, marthadear.com

Putting sausage and peppers on a pizza is hardly novel, but Martha Dear’s version is a departure from the norm. Chef Demetri Mechelis uses little morsels of spreadable ‘nduja sausage from Calabria instead of anything that comes in links. The 12-inch pie hailing from Mount Pleasant is also topped with mozzarella, peppers, onion slivers, and fresh basil. Sniff the crust before you dig in so you can get wafts of the heavenly sourdough that Mechelis recipe tested with abandon.

Photo of char kway teow by Laura Hayes

Char Kway Teow at Makan ($19)
3400 11th St. NW, (202) 730-2295, makanrestaurantdc.com

This glistening mound of Malaysian street noodles gets its smoky flavor from Chef James Wozniuk’s skill working the wok. They’re one of the Columbia Heights restaurant’s most popular dishes because of the pleasant chew of the wide rice noodles combined with the savory Chinese sausage, shrimp, bean sprouts, and egg. The sauce has a slight kick to it but won’t have you glued to your water glass.