New restaurants aren’t only places where we eat; they dominate dinner conversation, too. Talking about chefs, food, farms, farmers and the newest, weirdest edible trends is our national pastime. Today, what and where you’ve eaten shapes your identity. You are judged by the ramen you slurp and the latte you sip.
Inside this story—the best new dishes from the past year—is a small snapshot of what’s out there.
Beef Empanada at Senor Ramon Taqueria
It was the alfajores lining the walls.
“Are you from South America?”
“Argentina,” says Damian Dajcz, owner of Leesburg’s Senor Ramon Taqueria and the man working the register.
Though it usually wouldn’t be recommended to order an empanada at a taco shop, heritage trumps menu sense.
Pastry packaged around salty, pungent beef mixed with sauteed onions, red peppers and roasted garlic is a juicy little pocket of joy. And the alfajores, in both dulce de leche and chocolate, are made down the road in Sterling by Lovin’ Sweet. // 15 Loudoun St. SE, Leesburg
Burrata and Arugula at Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap
Now that the reign of beet and goat cheese salad ended, burrata (plus any assorted mix of vegetables) slid into its place on the menu. This indulgent mix of cream and mozzarella tucked inside stretched-out mozzarella oozes onto the plate with a scattering of celery leaves, fried sage, crispy candied hazelnuts and a slick of squash puree. // 401 E. Braddock Road, Alexandria
Banh Mi at Roll Play
The second concept from the pair of former poker players who seem to love word games too (their first restaurant is Chasin’ Tails, and their forthcoming tea shop will be called Teas Me), Roll Play offers rolls and bowls with a customer-led touchscreen ordering system allowing for endless customization.
Choose from among a variety of meats (lemongrass beef, five-spiced chicken, garlic shrimp), toppings (pickled vegetables, mango, crushed peanuts) and sauces (the spicy peanut sauce is pretty magical) or from the set menu, like the fried egg-topped bahn mi. Is the fried egg add-on authentic? Who cares? Fried eggs grace burgers and pizzas, so why not this French-Vietnamese fusion sandwich filled with pork belly balanced with crunch and just enough heat. // 8150 Leesburg Pike, Vienna
SHL HouseMade Shiner Bock Brat at Smokehouse Live
The owner of Leesburg Village’s Smokehouse Live comes to barbecue not as a boy from Texas Hill Country but as someone with an appreciation for the way meat is made. Jim Foss grew up in Philadelphia, the grandson of a professional butcher. He remembers his grandfather’s walk-in garage: a giant chunk of ice to keep meat cool. Seriously old school.
“I want to stay true to what a brat should be,” says Foss of his Shiner Bock-spiked sausage. A hand-cranked mix of pork butt and brisket, seasoned with garlic and smoked paprika, wears a layer of smoke well for a crisp, flavorful sausage. No mustard required. // 1602 Village Market Blvd. SE, Leesburg
Kushari at Alsaray
This little storefront changes owners and cuisines quite frequently, but for now it sells a mix of Middle Eastern food. Built with rice, elbow macaroni, lentils and chickpeas, kushari, a conglomerate of carbs, is then topped with fried onions. Break up the heft with the provided vinegary tomato sauce and a garlicky-gingery vinaigrette. It’s a shovel-in-your-mouth type of feast. // 6304 Springfield Blvd., Springfield; 703-644-0819
Chorizo Taco at ABC Canteen
Wesley Chen met Violeta Vergara when they worked at Potbelly back in 2003, and together they now own ABC Canteen in the former Arthur Treacher’s space. But that’s not why there’s fish and chips on the menu.
It’s “out of anger,” Chen says. “I know what cod costs, so why am I paying $12 for fish and chips?”
What you shouldn’t be angry about? This eclectic menu that also serves tacos.
Vergara, a native of Oaxaca, presses the corn tortillas at order. Ask for the spicier Mexican/Salvadoran-style chorizo inside. // 9528 Lee Highway, Fairfax
Poke at Hula Girl
Google poke. A year ago I’m not sure you’d find anything but links to restaurants in Hawaii. But this year, the seafood salad is popping up on menus up and down the East Coast and at the truck-turned-Shirlington Village restaurant Hula Girl.
It’s a simple dish: cubes of bright pink ahi tuna left raw and gently dressed in sesame oil and shoyu decorated in green onions and sesame seeds. It’s light, fresh and fully flavored. By the way, poke rhymes with OK. // 4044 Campbell Ave., Arlington