Many of our very favorite Asian restaurants are holes in the wall. The food speaks for itself, but it might not be the place you’d take a first date or go for a celebratory dinner. The choices below are superb destinations for exactly those kinds of occasions. With the holidays coming up, these are places from our 2020 Best Restaurants list where you might want to feast if you’re craving something worlds away from turkey or ham.
Sterling / Burmese / $$
There’s a reason that the late Anthony Bourdain kicked off Parts Unknown, his beloved CNN show, with a trip to Myanmar. The cuisine of the Southeast Asian country also known as Burma is not well represented in the United States, but it should be. An amalgam of Indian, Chinese, Laotian and Thai traditions, the food is at times fiery but always soothing.
The friendly service at A Taste of Burma will make you feel at home even if you’ve never eaten anything quite like the fermented tea leaf salad or spicy fish soup before. But one taste, and that first visit will fast become one of many.
See This: Embroidered wall hangings and statues from Myanmar dress up a small, homey strip mall space.
Eat This: Split yellow pea fritters, goat curry, semolina cake
When to Visit: You want to expand your horizons without venturing to a hole-in-the-wall.
Ashburn / Modern Indian / $$
Rupa Vira may be self-taught, but you’d never guess it when you see her elegant, gold-decorated creations. And when you taste her spice-laden oeuvre? There’s no question this woman is a chef to be reckoned with.
Creativity, a bright color palette and bold flavors run wild across artistic plates at this new restaurant. Vira takes Indian classics and re-creates them after a trip through her creative mind. Street foods like dahi puri are reborn courtesy of modernist methods with tricks like blueberry pearls in place of chopped veggies. Yes, Vira’s dishes look great, but they taste even better.
See This: Colorful Indian art decorates the purple and lavender main dining room. By the bar, tones are bright shades of green instead.
Eat This: Seashell Scallop, dum ki sunehri nalli, rasbhari ka ghosla
When to Visit: You’re craving Indian flavors and want to get a bit dressed up.
Centreville / Korean / $$
To many of us, Korean food means barbecue. And while bulgogi is absolutely in the pantheon of the world’s great foods, there is so much more to love. Bo ssam, for example, will enchant meat lovers just as much, without getting the smell of smoke in their hair.
The pork belly dish is prepared to perfection at Danji, leaving the meat so tender it’s difficult to discern it from the thin layer of fat that lines it. Wrap it up in napa cabbage leaves with spicy soybean paste; pile the pork with skinny strands of chile-flecked pickled daikon, jalapeno slices and slivers of raw garlic for a bite that will (at least temporarily) purge Korean barbecue from your thoughts.
See This: It’s all about the food at this bare-bones-but-comfortable restaurant, where servers whiz by with fragrant, sizzling dishes.
Eat This: Bo ssam, galchi jorim, tteokguk
When to Visit: Feasting is on the menu, and you have friends ready to share. These meals are portioned for a group.
McLean / Northern Thai / $$
Northeast Thailand is the country’s largest region, but most Americans have never tasted its food. This restaurant seeks to change that, one chile-filled plate at a time.
But don’t worry. Dishes aren’t uniformly fiery hot. The som tum, or green papaya salad, comes in five different versions, each complex enough to make every bite interesting. Crunch into the som tum muor, and you’ll taste fish sauce. Then you’ll notice pork cracklings before your mouth fills with tart cherry tomato.
Other dishes, like tangy Chiang Mai sausage, are flavored with lemongrass and other herbs but are barely spicy at all. This isn’t Thai cuisine you’ll find just anywhere, but you’ll wish it were.
See This: The walls are decorated with articles written about the restaurant. Clearly, we’re not the only ones feeling the love.
Eat This: Chiang Mai sausage, som tum muor, kai yang Esaan
When to Visit: Bored with your typical Thai food? Esaan is sure to spice up your life.
Fairfax / Korean Barbecue / $$
Feeling meaty? Few places will scratch that itch for animal protein quite like Korean barbecue. And most Korean barbecue in NoVA pales in comparison to the splendor of Meokja Meokja.
On the surface, not much distinguishes this barbecue joint from others. The dining room is slightly fancier and the wait a little longer, but the menu of meats and sides is standard issue. It’s not until you taste the quality of the flesh that you realize the difference. They don’t need marinades, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make sure to try the sweet, garlicky bulgogi. Like the rest of the offerings at Meokja Meokja, it rises above its competitors.
See This: It’s a party every night with fairy lights strung around the sparkling metallic ventilation systems.
Eat This: Combo 2 has everything you need, from meats to the Angry Egg and gooey corn cheese.
When to Visit: You’re really hungry. REALLY hungry.
Arlington / Vietnamese / $$
Cold-brew Vietnamese coffee with coffee ice cubes in the shape of cartoon characters. Both local and Asian beers. Colorful cocktails with Asian flavors.
It’s rare that diners go to a Vietnamese restaurant to drink, but Nam-Viet, with its original dishes and outsize flavors, is no ordinary pho purveyor. Yes, you could order one of the noodle soups, but the best bet is to stick to the specials menu for dishes you won’t find anywhere else. How about deep-fried pork ribs with that cocktail? This is the place to go way beyond basic noodles and rice plates for a meal unique to Arlington.
See This: Don’t be swayed by the dive-y exterior; presidential portraits with the owners line the walls here. Check out the fancy bathroom sinks, too.
Eat This: Can Tho baby back ribs, caramelized salmon, green papaya salad with beef jerky
When to Visit: You want to go beyond your usual Vietnamese basics—and you’re thirsty.
Alexandria / Nepalese / $$
The Himalayas may extend into India, but don’t get it twisted: Nepal has a robust cuisine all its own. Yes, you can get chicken tikka masala here, but resist the urge. What you need are momos, and you need them filled with yak meat.
Sound forbiddingly out of your wheelhouse? Don’t be fooled. Royal Nepal deals in comfort food from a different part of the world. Yak is mild, and momos are just juicy dumplings, seared on one side then served with a spicy tomato sauce and a cooling mint one. We should all resolve to explore the world one dish at a time, and Royal Nepal is your ticket to one of the planet’s greatest (culinary) heights.
See This: Nepali music videos play on TVs over the bar, but colorful Nepali textiles will catch your eye, too.
Eat This: Yak momos, Nepali thali, Royal Nepal sikarni
When to Visit: You’re ready for something truly different with a side of great service.
Ashburn / Thai / $$
Whether you’re looking for the drunken noodles and curries you’ve been craving since you were a kid, or you want to indulge in a lesson in the cuisine of the southern-coastal Chumphon region, this restaurant is for you. Fans have long flocked to this One Loudoun eatery for Jeremy Ross’ cocktails, but the food can be just as worthy of a pilgrimage.
Order the Siam tray for a meaty meal built around green papaya salad (som tum) that will make you sweat. Just mix it with sticky rice and an Old Bay-flavored Chesapeake Bay cocktail for some relief. And yes, you can order pad thai, but skip the basic one in favor of the crab-filled Chumphon version or co-owner Porntipa “Pat” Pattanamekar’s take, upgraded with roasted pork shoulder and bok choy.
See This: Thai movie posters and ironwork roosters decorate the chicly colorful interior.
Eat This: Siam tray, Pat pad thai, Thai tea creme brulee
When to Visit: You’re hoping for a Thai-hot date night.