By Stefanie Gans and Rina Rapuano
Sterling | Cajun & Korean | $$
Cajun and Korean coming from the same kitchen doesn’t quite make sense—that is, until you try it. Imagine shrimp and grits plunked down next to a bowl of Korean-style dumplings filled with local bison poking through the surface of an umami-rich red broth, and the combination all starts to come together. What these regions lack in proximity, they make up for with their reputations as being flavor powerhouses.
A glance around the dining room reveals that if anyone had misgivings about the cultural mashup, they’ve clearly gotten over it in the nearly 10 years Mokomandy has been in business. The strip-mall restaurant—warmed by friendly and helpful service—serves its staples, as wide-ranging as foie gras dumplings, Korean ssam and Cajun cassoulet.
Other hits from a menu so extensive that makes it tough to choose include stuffed mushrooms with caramelized onions and garlic (and no small amount of butter); skewers of grilled baby octopus and pork belly; and a bowl of poutine gilded with house-cured bacon that was nearly licked clean.
To take the indulgence train all the way to the end of the line, find yourself a designated driver and order any cocktail that strikes your fancy—from the Spring Awakening, a dangerously drinkable blend of gin, herbs, flowers and ginger, to a boozy and broody Sazerac enhanced with housemade coffee syrup.
The reasons for its longevity are apparent in every joyful bite, in servers that are so capable they’re nearly clairvoyant (how did she know we were planning on ordering that after-dinner coffee?), and in the happy faces of the couples and groups of friends who clearly know the value of Mokomandy. Diners leave well-fed and kindly cared for, and feeling a bit like they just caught It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. Is there any better dining experience? // 20789 Great Falls Plaza, Suite 176, Sterling
Fairfax | Chinese | $$$
The space is bright, open, gleaming white with light wood. This is not the low-key strip mall digs where Sichuan sensation Peter Chang usually sets up shop. This is Mama Chang, the famed chef’s latest venture and one inspired by the women in his life: his mom, Ronger Wang, his wife, Lisa Chang, and daughter, Lydia Chang.
The balloon-like scallion bubble pancake is one of the few Chang signatures represented in Fairfax, and it still wows diners with its volume and fantastical deflation. Beyond that are the fiery dishes, a brutally spicy dry-fried cauliflower, a spicy, heady chili flounder and the chili-cumin bits of lamb. A rich, nutty sesame sauce coats noodles and crinkly green beans are salty and snappy.
The end can go simple with a squishy pineapple bun or unexpectedly Euro with a dark chocolate sesame flourless cake, featuring a slim line of fudge, and just a touch of sweetness to squelch the burn. // 3251 Old Lee Highway, Suite 101, Fairfax
Alexandria | Chinese | $$$$
Despite its location in a nondescript Alexandria strip mall, this tiny dining room is unabashedly formal in an era when fine dining is becoming increasingly casual. Female servers wear golden headpieces dangling to their ears, floor-length formal gowns, high heels and white gloves.
Each table setting consists of multiple pieces of gorgeous yellow dishware decorated with delicate flowers and golden edges, including the dome removed as diners settle in. Its removal reveals the first course, poetically titled Pine Tree Assorted Sampler, and it turns out to be an edible tableau of a garden scene composed of shrimp, broccoli, wonderful slices of dried beef sausage that tasted like Chinese salami.
At least, that’s how the meal starts when enjoying the $98 Banquet of Eternal Bliss Hot Pot menu, the least expensive of the three prix fixe options found at Chef Guo. (We’ll have to get back to you about the $158 Banquet of Peace and Prosperity menu and the $278 Banquet Filled with Precious Gem and Jade dinner.)
The 12-course hot pot experience ranges from a simple half of an orange presented on a miniature swing to the elaborate hot pot of flavor-packed chicken broth teeming with 20 or so ingredients like abalone, meatballs, sea cucumber and mushrooms. Other favorites include flounder with mustard greens sauce, a ground pork patty filled with water chestnuts and noodles with a vegetarian black bean sauce that truly tasted meaty.
Throughout the meal, there’s an effort to delight. It makes dinner here feel very special. // 6259 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria
Alexandria | Japanese | $$$$
At the end of your meal, a server might gently press diners to choose a favorite dish for a kitchen poll—and it’s no surprise to hear many of the nearby tables choose the outstanding sashimi course. The $12 upgrade from four-piece to eight-piece sashimi is 100% worth it and might include local fish joined by Santa Barbara uni, barracuda, shrimp, sea bass, mackerel and Japanese yellowtail, along with a few accompaniments like ponzu jelly, lime and edible flowers. A recent visit to this tiny restaurant, which serves an outstanding yuzu-scented whiskey highball, started with fried artichoke filled with summer-truffle-laced tuna tartare, which was awkward to eat but worth the juggle of trying to scoop soft tartare onto smallish, rigid artichoke leaves.
The pristine sashimi came next, followed by a rich course of New Zealand lamb chops accented by a foie gras miso sauce and disks of silky eggplant. Next up, a still-bubbling bowl of soup arrives filled with fresh udon noodles, sea bass, egg, burdock root and matsutake mushrooms from Maine. That last ingredient is considered to be the truffle of Japan, according to the friendly server who gently teased the table about how quickly we gobbled up our dinner. Perhaps we were rushing toward dessert, a fun twist on an ice cream sandwich made with fig-sesame-miso ice cream encased by melty rice crackers shaped like a hollow burger bun. It turns out to be in a tight race with the sashimi for the top spot. // 1209 King St., Alexandria
Chinese | McLean | $$
Pickled, diced string beans, crumbles of ground pork, wilted spinach and scallions create a first layer above a tangle of noodles. Toss and toss and toss before digging chopsticks into this vegetable-heavy version of dan dan noodles.
Cumin lamb is velvety in texture and heady in scent. Crinkly dry-fried green beans are standard issue from the Sichuan playbook, if a little less spicy in this version. But why it’s worth navigating though Tysons Corner to a nondescript office building is for its fantastical display of fish.
A large silver tray hoisted above the table on four legs frames a whole fish decorated in layers of aromatics and spices and herbs and the fish is tender to the touch, but also electric. It’s a vibrant display of the Chinese cupboard, and a meal fit for daily celebrations. // 1753 Pinnacle Drive, Tysons
Fairfax | Uyghur | $$
Maybe the predictions from 2017 that Uyghur food is the next big thing—when three local restaurants opened in less than two years—didn’t come to fruition. Maybe we still need a pronunciation guide: WEE-gur. Maybe we still need help understanding this cross between Chinese, Middle Eastern and Central Asian food, a Silk Road-fueled journey of the Uyghur people. And, maybe we still need a nudge to try this food.
Head to Eerkin’s in downtown Fairfax, a small restaurant with the full range of Uyghur delights: kathlama naan, four golden triangles that are buttery, crispy and flaky, like a flattened croissant; lamb kabobs, the quintessential meat-on-a-stick with the spices so heavily applied you can taste the texture; and manta, dumplings that are all about a salty, savory sauce freshened with cilantro. The true joys are the various noodle dishes—be it the housemade laghman, thick and chewy, almost reminiscent of Japanese udon, or dapanchi, a giant plate with chicken and potatoes, plus silky, flat, jagged-cut noodles, more like a shaggy Italian tagliatelle—no maybe about it. // 4008 University Drive, Fairfax
Falls Church | Thai | $$
Things that don’t happen in real life: elephants jumping. Things that do happen in real life: finding a great meal at Elephant Jumps.
The Thai restaurant tucked into a shopping center down the street from Mosaic District is a discovery into a world beyond pad see ew (though the version here is certainly better than other neighborhood Thai spots). Specials on the blackboard are a good idea, as are hoy jaw, a mix of shrimp, crab and pork wrapped, fried and sliced into bites of savory crunchiness; fried shrimp in kicky, beguiling tamarind sauce; and a whole red snapper decorated in purple onion strips, shredded mango, whole cashews and a lot of sassy, in-your-face flashes of flavors. // 8110 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church
McLean | Thai | $$
There’s no pad thai on the menu here. In fact, many of the Thai staples American diners have come to know are conspicuously missing. While some might be put off by this, others will appreciate the opportunity to climb out of the green curry rut and revel in the spicy, sour, herbal and fish sauce-scented dishes of Northern Thailand.
Carnivores should not even consider leaving this place without trying the spicy grilled pork shoulder—slices of tender meat loaded with dried and fresh chiles, fresh mint and cilantro, onion and fish sauce. Cracked, toasted rice lends a nice crunch to the jumble. Other menu wins include a starter of tiny chicken wings brightened by lemongrass and an array of aromatics; a whole fried rockfish piled high with cashews, ginger and chiles all swimming in a puddle of pungent fish sauce; and a dessert of coconutty, sweet sticky rice (sporting a fun blue color thanks to butterfly pea flower) topped with a creamy Thai custard. // 1307 Old Chain Bridge Road, McLean
Centreville | Malaysian | $$
We all swore we’d never do it. We were young and cool and lived in the city. And then … life. And here we are in the suburban sprawl of Fairfax County. Luckily, Malaysian Kopitiam made the move, too.
What was once a restaurant on the edge of downtown and Dupont Circle, is the same core restaurant (so is that city kid in a suburban parent body!), but now in Centreville. Fish puree wrapped in a sheet of tofu is fried to a crinkly, puffy, silky texture; it’s magical, like if tissue paper were edible. The long menu is flush with various rice and noodle dishes in various soups and sauces, like the curry laksa and mee goreng, and they all find ways to taste both comforting and electric.
And for dessert, forget what you know about mochi. Here it’s something different: a warm sphere stuffed with sesame paste and coated with crushed peanuts and sugar, and it’s salty and savory with a blast of nutty richness. It’s the first time in many years of dining that the phrase uttered by the server—“It’s not ice cream”—came not as a disappointment. // 5085 Westfields Blvd., Centreville
Fairfax & Sterling | Japanese & Korean | $
Expanding to fresh digs in Sterling doesn’t mean there aren’t still several compelling reasons to visit the original in Fairfax, in what, as any ’80s kid knows, is clearly the repurposed dining room of a former Pizza Hut. The chashu floating in both the shio and shoyu ramen broths was every bit as luscious and flavorful as slurpers want it to be. The server deftly fielded questions about which broth is lighter for one diner, which might be richer and deeper for another diner. Success comes in the form of each declaring their broth is the best. Izakaya mainstays like karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken) and a seafood okonomiyaki (pan-fried battered pancake) show off the kitchen’s ability to serve up all the things that go well with an evening of drinks. A three-piece order of mochi speared with toothpicks is the only acceptable way to end. // 3250 Old Pickett Road, Fairfax; 21438 Epicerie Plaza, Sterling
Fairfax | Korean Barbecue | $$
Korean barbecue can be a frenetic affair with K-pop blasting, various meats in various marinades sizzling and smoking and little plates (banchan) settling into any pocket of open space on the table. It’s a fun time, for sure, but not all galbi is the same. Instead of hiding behind sweet sauces, Meokja Meokja lets the beef itself shine: a 16-ounce prime rib-eye is a gorgeous, marbled hunk with only salt to bring out its fatty flavoring. A few minutes on a searing-hot grate—an inset in the table, and manned by servers—helps, too. The sides can be fun, like a vat of melted mozzarella and corn, and traditional, like gyeran-jjim, the custard-like steamed egg over broth that is reason enough to visit the land of Korean barbecue theatrics. // 9619 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax
Arlington | Vietnamese | $$
Not much has changed at the 30-plus-year-old Vietnamese restaurant, Nam-Viet, and no one is mad about that. But when there is an addition to the menu, it must mean it’s something good. The baby back ribs are a phenom: deep fried and lacquered with a sweet fish sauce, they are a carnivorous showpiece, meant to be eaten with the hands, to gnaw at the bone, to lick fingers, to let sticky sauce collect at the corners of the mouth. There is no way to be delicate around a display like this.
Of course, there are other treasures: the bubbly-fried crispy spring rolls; hu tien, a clear rice noodle soup, clean and aromatic; grilled short ribs where the char is so lovely and deep, eating the strips of fat even seems like a good idea.
Need a wake up from the pending coma? Order the Vietnamese iced coffee, which, for $1 more, comes complete with ice cubes born from cold-brew coffee. It’s an iced drink that actually gets stronger over time because sleep just means less time for eating. // 1127 N. Hudson St., Arlington
Falls Church | Lao & Thai | $
Not many non-new, non-city, non-trendy restaurants command a full dining room on sleepy summer evenings in the middle of the week. Most aren’t Padaek. Under the glow of Lao food trailblazer and legacy codifier, Seng Luangrath, who spreads her countries’ culinary feats at Sen Khao in the food court at Tysons Galleria and Thip Khao and Hanumanh in the District, Padaek is a yellow-walled, tiny spot making the case for custardy fish grilled in a banana leaf or wok-fried rice noodles in a caramel fish sauce. But really, it’s all about naem khao thadeau, or how it’s better known in foodie circles, crispy rice. That’s all anyone needs to hear and it’s obvious the next step is to order a bowl of Luangrath’s soulful mix of crunchy, porky, sour, sweetness. It’s fascinating even after all these years. Or, what the regular at the next table over told his new-to-Padaek friends: “We might have to get two.” // 6395 Seven Corners Center, Falls Church
Manassas | Indian | $$
If you’re craving a run-of-the-mill Indian lunch buffet, Rangoli can fulfill your cravings for $12 on weekdays. But if you’re interested in Indian dishes that are expertly cooked, wonderfully spiced and reliably excellent … well, Rangoli fits that bill, too. When hoping to order off the menu during lunchtime, call ahead to make sure the kitchen isn’t too slammed to accommodate. Even when they are too busy, a kind server can be cajoled into asking the chef if it’s OK—and you’ll likely be rewarded. Order the chicken chettinad, a South Indian dish made fiery from an alluring black pepper curry; the soft, spicy patty on a bun known as the Bombay burger; or juicy, bright saffron shrimp pulled out of the tandoor at just the right moment. Veg lovers will want to try the pureed smoky eggplant or the gigantic dosa filled with flavor-packed potatoes and onions. // 10223 Nokesville Road, Manassas
Falls Church | Vietnamese | $$
People are creatures of habit, and it’s tempting to order the same dish every time at this Eden Center mainstay. But Rice Paper is a place where experimentation brings great rewards. Yes, the pho is delicious and totally hits the spot when the craving hits, but consider bringing a few friends and incorporating a new dish or two. Worthy options include the Rice Paper combo platter, a massive mound of veggies, fresh herbs, ground beef in grape leaves and grilled seafood and pork, all of which can be tucked into lettuce leaves or one of the DIY rice wrappers that guests soften in warm water at the table. The special-style fried rice with filet mignon and sweet Chinese sausage lives up to the title of “special”—it really is head and shoulders above your average fried rice, thanks in part to wonderfully tender, marinated chunks of beef and a sunny side up egg. Caramelized fish in a clay pot is a sweet-and-savory bowl of white fish chunks in a peppery sauce that might turn into yet another thing you need to order every time. // 6775 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church
Alexandria | Indian & Nepalese | $$
Just beyond Del Ray and its concentration of restaurants (and babies and dogs) is Royal Nepal, a pint-sized restaurant with a devoted following. The menu is a mix of Nepalese and Indian dishes, the former must-gets are the country’s signature dish of momos, and here, filled with chicken, wild boar or yak, but why order anything else when there’s a chance to try tender yak enveloped in a seared package ready for dipping into a tomato-y sauce? It’s best to go in with a sharing mentality to snag tastes of lamb curry or goat curry or, who are we kidding, chicken tikka masala. Dinner ends with a doughnut hole-like treat, gulab jamun, saturated in a sweet syrup. // 3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria
Ashburn | Thai | $$
Like any new town center trying to figure out that right blend of retail and restaurants, there is always the short-lived failures, the seasonal pop-ups and the ones who have come to anchor the place and give it character. One Loudoun should be thankful for Sense of Thai St. During dining hours, it shows off a varied world of Thai food, especially in haunting dishes like the crab phak curry, a creamy, spicy sauce with noodles as delicate as a whisper. Backed by an experimental bar program (summer means tiki time), Thai iced coffee is a composed drink with the addition of roasted rice and caramel. And come night, well, it’s a legit party. In a town center. Reston, you paying attention? // 20413 Exchange St., Ashburn
Falls Church | Japanese | $$$
Takumi has figured out how to be the sushi restaurant everyone wants. The space is minimal, sparse, but welcoming with a touch of whimsy, like those illustrations of deep sea creatures hanging from the wall. It also serves damn good fish. The sashimi is cut with precision, and gleams in saturated hues of pink and orange and iridescent shades of cream and white and tastes just as clean, fresh and beautiful as it looks. It’s in the show, with a dab of garnish that amplifies the differences in breeds and varieties, a sweet and rich hamachi or a delicate walu or a creamy salmon or a deep, soulful tuna. Surrounding the sushi menu are options ranging from grilled baby octopus or scallop ceviche to a seaweed salad full of varying crunchy and slippery textures, fried tofu with a silky interior and a slew of puffy, tempura vegetables. Falls Church is lucky, and also, you have permission just to order the fish. // 310 S. Washington St., Falls Church
Arlington | Thai | $$
Before even sitting down, a server might helpfully ask where you left your car. That’s because tow-free parking spaces are hard to come by in the area, and this place clearly wants to make sure all that’s remembered after a meal here is how great the food tastes. Start with an order of hae kuen, a sort of pork and shrimp sausage wrapped in bean curd skin adding a delicate crunch, or the nam sod, a bright and spicy salad of pork, fresh ginger, cilantro and lime. There’s a reason you’ll hear tables around you ordering the crispy honey-roasted duck with basil, a dish that deftly marries sweet, savory and spicy.
The crackle on the batter-fried duck is downright masterful, despite it being tossed with a glaze. Fresh chilies, garlic and fried basil add to the party. Chicken with cashews are a fine rendition of the Thai menu staple and loaded up with the namesake nut. For dessert, consider straying from the usual mango with sticky rice in favor of the warm bowl of sweetened black beans, rice and coconut milk registering as comfort food even if you’ve never had it before. The coconut milk teases out the sweet earthiness of the legumes, and the combination totally works. Your spoon will keep dipping back in no matter how many times you try to stop yourself. // 3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington
Sterling | Indian | $$
Two Informational Technology professionals working in a stable sector (if there is one) decided to change paths and open a restaurant, an industry notorious for its fail rate.
Their path included everything from leasing, and then abandoning, one space to traveling through India to meet with chefs and source ingredients (the owners are even writing a book about their restaurant adventures).
Agni is better for whatever it took them to open a stylish, minimalist space in a sprawling Sterling strip mall. The South Indian food is fiery, but not just to turn on heat seekers. It’s a balance of freshness, with a rainbow of seasoning. There’s a gratis mug of soup, bright, salty and tomato-y, a little punch of what’s next.
Dishes lean spicy and dramatic: A pepper cauliflower is fried, with bracing heat; mutton pepper is intoxicatingly spicy goat; and the vegetarian thali is an all-you-can-eat lunch option with rotating curries, where every bite is a new way to make the mouth find joy in the pleasure of pain. // Agni South Indian Cuisine: 46005 Regal Plaza Suite 140, Sterling