Published: Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2012 23:10
Keren Restaurant | 1780 Florida Ave. NW
Don’t dismiss Keren because of its unassuming exterior. The Eritrean food is both humble and complex, and an incredibly wholehearted and welcoming staff ensures you feel like a special guest at their dinner table. Here, it’s not just a courtesy for your server to ask how your meal is going — he really wants to know. Your mouth might be embarrassingly stuffed with hot and spicy beef tbsi (stew), but you’ll have nothing negative to report.
People often confuse Eritrean and Ethiopian styles, but Keren offers heartier food with European influences from its 60 years as an Italian colony. And while other restaurants skimp on vegetables and treat them as simply a side dish, that is not the case at Keren. Meat-eaters should sample something from the tbsi vegetarian platter — it’s impossible to feel like anything is “missing” from this full-bodied variety of stews. Of course, the balanced sourness of the injera bread is incredible mixed with any of the tbsi placed on top. The ful (fava beans pureed with spicy berbera powder) with eggs is also a delicious option for brunch, especially if you are in the mood for something spicy.
Kotobuki | 4822 MacArthur Blvd.
While you might have to wait in line on the stairs outside this tiny, second-story restaurant, it’ll be well worth the wait. “Cheap” is not usually a word I welcome when considering raw fish options, but somehow, this place manages to provide fresh sushi-grade seafood at a reasonably low price. It has the added benefit of a menu that sticks to Japanese authenticity.
The simple, no-frills decor might explain the affordability, but it in no way detracts from the food. If you’re a sushi-lover, you’ll appreciate the straightforward menu without the flashy names you might see at other Japanese places, not to mention the fact that Kotobuki sticks to the the traditional style of preparing sushi and sashimi. Very few extra ingredients are needed to make such fresh fish stand out.
And while fish is clearly the specialty, a selection of appetizers and the option of kamameshi (slow-cooked rice with chicken, vegetables or eel) are equally delicious. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the uni (sea urchin sashimi).
Finally, try the mochi, a sweet rice-based gelatin and a light indulgence that is a perfect finish to the meal.
Tortilla Cafe | 210 7th St. SE
Tortilla Cafe specializes in real, homestyle Mexican and Salvadoran dishes that will have everyone from the jaded Southern Californian to the Chipotle-lover thrilled. This small, sparsely decorated restaurant in the heart of Eastern Market is often crowded, especially because it was featured on Guy Fieri’s show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in January 2011.
The basics, such as the burritos, quesadillas and flautas, are delicious and filled with perfectly seasoned meat. Try their signature stuffed corn tortillas, known as pupusas. The side of cabbage slaw offers a crunchy texture to complement the melted, gooey goodness of the pupusa. A platter comes with either a cheese or pork pupusa and two sides — my favorites being the perfectly seasoned rice with black beans and the deliciously crisp yucca fries.
The cafe also offers a selection of sweeter options. The corn tamales, which have a taste and consistency similar to buttermilk cornbread, are surprisingly rich with sour cream. The fried plantains are delightfully moist and not too sweet, while the horchata, a rice-based beverage, is an uncommon balance of creaminess and sweetness.
Salt and Pepper Grill | 2632 Georgia Ave. NW
Indian food often comes with a pretty big price tag, but Salt and Pepper Grill near Howard University offers genuine dishes from North India and Pakistan in all their glory without burning a hole in your wallet.
For appetizers, get the succulent paneer pakora — lightly battered and fried cottage cheese — or flaky samosas — stuffed savory pastries — with mint and tamarind chutneys.
As an entree, you can’t go wrong with the chicken tikka masala; both the frequent Indian-food eater and the neophyte will appreciate the perfectly marinated and tender chicken.
If you’re feeling adventurous, the vindaloo curry offers a literal trial by fire for your taste buds. Salt and Pepper Grill, however, manages to balance spice with the intricate flavors that traditionally characterize the dish. And of course, the light and pillowy naan smothered with fresh garlic, herbs and ghee (clarified butter) goes well with any option.
Finish up your meal with some authentic chai (not that powdered, sugary stuff you get at coffee shops), a harmony of traditional herbs and spices including cardamom, ginger and cloves mixed with black tea and whole milk.