22 Best Cheap Eats in Washington, D.C.
Gone are the days when Washington was thought of as nothing but a steakhouse-and-lobbyist-lunching kind of town. Instead, track down delicious and fairly cheap fare from around the globe — including Peruvian chicken, Vietnamese pho, Ethiopian stews and all-American pancakes. So when the rent is too damn high, here’s where you can grab lunch or dinner for around $10.
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Photo By: Rey Lopez
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Penne alla Vodka Slice at Wise Guy Pizza
Washington may be a quick train ride from New York, but it doesn’t mean the New York pizza abounds. For the next best thing, dive into Wise Guy. Sure, you could go traditional with the supreme or margherita, but why not indulge with some carb-on-carb love and order a slice loaded up with creamy, tomato-y pasta? Slices from the 20-inch pies cost a very reasonable $2.99-$3.99, making this filling lunch very pennywise.
Tikka Chance on Me at Rasa
The handcrafted blue door, the rainbow-colored strings zigzagging above that recall a Renwick Gallery exhibit and bright pillows stuffed into hanging swings are your first clue that this is no ordinary fast-casual joint. Located in the shadow of Nationals Park, this homegrown business invites hungry masses to either go the DIY route or try one of the signature options, like the one loaded up with chicken tikka, tomato-garlic sauce and mint-cilantro chutney, among other things, for $9.32.
Chopped Pork Sandwich at Sloppy Mama's BBQ
There are several well-worn food laments for Washingtonians —no spots for good bagels, New York pizza, etc. But when it comes to barbecue, one taste of Sloppy Mama’s chopped pork sandwich will banish all Texas yearnings. It’s smoky, savory, sweet and satisfying. Order it on a bun at the Union Market stall for $10, and maybe add a side of baked beans for $3 more, or go for a “meat and two” platter for $15.
What started years ago as a single shop in Adams Morgan quickly became a D.C. institution when locals discovered they could satisfy after-bar hunger with golden-fried falafel balls in pita with unlimited (and free!) toppings that include baba ganoush, Turkish salad and house-pickled beets. The Amsterdam-inspired shop now has three locations around town, plus outposts in Boston and Texas. In D.C., a small pita (three falafel balls) goes for $7.50, and a large (five falafel balls) is priced at $8.75. Don’t even consider skipping the twice-fried frieten, which run $3.95 for small and $4.95 for large.
Shrimp Tacos at Taqueria Habanero
Once upon a time, finding a great taco in the DMV meant driving to Hyattsville just northeast of D.C. and trying your luck with the many wonderful Mexican spots there. Nowadays, there are wonderful versions that don’t require a car, including this taqueria up 14th Street Northwest that serves excellent housemade tortillas filled with perfectly plump and juicy shrimp topped with tomato, onion, cilantro and a wedge of avocado. Priced at $3 each, they can be mixed and matched, ideally with the equally excellent al pastor and mushroom tacos.
Pancakes at Ari's Diner
Truth be told, it’s not easy to choose one cheap eat at this Ivy City diner, since almost everything on the menu comes in under $15. Try the $11 burger served with fries, the $6 avocado toast or the $11 plate of two eggs with hash browns, breakfast meat and toast, and you’ll be happy. But it’s the stack of fluffy, buttery pancakes — $8 for four, $5 for two — that’s the stuff of diner dreams. Be prepared to share because once everyone else at the table gets a taste, you won’t be able to keep them to yourself.
Pho at Pho 75
You could drive yourself crazy trying to find the area’s perfect bowl of pho, but the lines at this longtime Arlington favorite are an easy way to tell that the cash-only old-timer still holds sway. It’s tempting to stick with what you know and opt for something like brisket or paper-thin slices of rare steak for your steaming bowl of broth and noodles, but the addition of tripe and tendon undoubtedly adds richness to the broth — even if you have no intention of eating tripe or tendon. The hefty regular-sized bowl costs $7.95, but you might as well go for the large for a dollar more and take some home. And don’t worry, those lines go super fast. With only one thing on the menu, these expert pho slingers know what they’re doing.
Peruvian Chicken at El Pollo Rico
Like Pho 75 just down the road, this Arlington mainstay sticks to one thing, and does it amazingly well. After braving the stiff competition for a parking spot out front, your reward is envelopment in the most-comforting aromas of juicy chicken and spices from the moment you push through the door. Spits of whole chickens pirouette over orange embers to your left while efficient and friendly folks take your order. A quarter chicken with two sides and two sauces sells for $7.27, and your slim choices for sides are cole slaw, rice and steak fries. No matter — you’re here for the chicken, and the lack of choices means it’s the perfect spot to avoid hunger tantrums.
Pop's Beef Brisket Sandwich at Bub & Pop's
This subterranean sandwich shop — run by a chef and his parents — easily won the heart of locals with its mom-and-pop feel and gargantuan sandwiches. Among the roster of satisfying options is the signature beef brisket, a torpedo-sized umami bomb that would satisfy the hunger of a sumo wrestler stranded on a desert island. The slow-braised brisket slathered with apple-horseradish cream, aged gouda and veal jus sells for $10 a half or $18 for a whole sub, and you shouldn’t need much convincing to spring for the fried egg on top for $1 more.
Creamy Kale and Potato Tacos at Chaia
We can all thank Chaia for coining the term "farm-to-taco," thanks to its farmers' market origins. Now nestled into a Georgetown storefront with expansions on the horizon, Chaia makes it easier than ever to get your fix of roasted potatoes and sauteed kale tucked into a tortilla with a poblano crema, pepperjack and pickled onions. They cost $4 each and are quite filling, but it's fun to add a butternut squash or smoky collards taco to mix and match.
Passion Flakie at Buttercream Bakeshop
It’s tough to choose a favorite confection at this Shaw bakery and temple to towering Funfetti cakes, glittery unicorn bars and piled-high slices of pie. But pastry chef and owner Tiffany MacIsaac has abundant skills, including flakies. The sugared croissant dough shaped like a giant muffin ($3.85) contains its own magic: a creamy fluff that falls somewhere between a mousse and pudding in flavors that change with the seasons. You might find strawberry, Biscoff, matcha or lemon, but the passion fruit and butterscotch varieties are heavenly marvels.
Vegetable Sampler at Letena Ethiopian
Sure, you could save a few pennies by ordering one vegetable dish for $11.50 rather than opting for the veggie sampler for $17.50 at Letena, but you get so much with the sampler that you might as well bring a friend and split the cost. An order comes with a choice of any four vegetarian dishes, plus two side salads. Try the mushroom dulet cooked with red onion, garlic and jalapeño; smoked cabbage with carrots, potatoes with caramelized onion; and kik, a rich stew of yellow split peas simmered with onion, garlic and ginger. The Letena salad — which blends lightly steamed broccoli with avocado — will make you rethink these two ubiquitous green veggies altogether.
Sid Vicious Taco at Taco Bamba
Not all tacos need to evoke a legit Mexican street stall. Take the Sid Vicious, named for the notorious Sex Pistols bassist, which tastes more like what would happen if a plate of fish and chips went on vacation in Baja. You'll find the tortilla filled with crispy cod, malt vinegar salsa macha, mint tomatillo slaw and tartar sauce under the "taco nuestros" section of the new Chinatown Taco Bamba for $4.50 apiece. If you're at the Falls Church location, try the Black Pearl taco, a longtime favorite stuffed with fried grouper, spicy slaw and black aioli.
Classic Fried Chicken Biscuit at Mason Dixie Biscuit Co.
Unfortunately, both the Union Market and Bladensburg locations of D.C.’s favorite biscuit shop have shuttered. But never fear: These biscuit-preneurs wouldn’t dream of leaving you hanging. While they wait for an undisclosed new shop to open later this year, they have a Navy Yard pop-up inside Ice Cream Jubilee, offering decadent stacks of fried chicken thigh, Benton’s bacon, honey and hot sauce on a fluffy biscuit ($10). No matter where these chickens land, we know you’ll follow.
Pizza at Vace Italian Deli
This isn't Neapolitan pizza or New York-style pizza or even Romanesque pizza. The thin-crust pies coming out of the kitchen at Vace are more like pizza della nonna, an Italian grandmother's rustic round topped with a flavor-packed housemade pizza sauce capped by whole milk mozzarella. It definitely isn't beholden to any DOC pizza-making canon -- it's just dang delicious, and cheap to boot. An entire 14-inch cheese pizza will set you back only $9.50, while a 16-incher goes for $11. You can also buy it by the slice for $2.50, or try the $6 Italian cold cut sub. Stock up for a rainy day with the freezer full of sauces and take-home meals like lasagna that are great to have on hand for dinner emergencies.
Savory Oatmeal at A Baked Joint
Where is it written that breakfast must be sweet, or even that oatmeal requires doctoring with maple and baking spices? A Baked Joint, owned by the team behind Baked & Wired, provides compelling evidence that steel-cut oats loaded with smoked ham, kale, caramelized onions and pecorino, all topped with a beautifully poached egg, is every bit as satisfying — and filling. Served only till 11 a.m., the hearty $8.75 bowl will easily take you through lunch, whether you’re tromping around the museums or just sitting through interminable meetings at the office.
Chili Half-Smoke at Meats & Foods
The half-smoke is one of the few creations that can really be tied to DC. Made famous by Ben’s Chili Bowl just down the street, the food has now spawned an artisanal version at Meats & Foods, a tiny storefront that makes and grills up its own sausages. This half-smoke tastes smoky, as the name suggests, but also earthy, sweet and spiced. The $6.50 dog comes on a potato roll with the traditional fixin’s of mustard and onions, plus chili for $1 more. While you’re here, try the chilito, a toasty tortilla filled with meat chili, for another $3.50.
Cauliflower Pita at Shouk
Shouk shook up the idea of eating a plant-based meal — at least in DC, where there weren’t many vegan options for a long time. Leaning on Israeli and Middle Eastern culinary traditions, these flavor-packed and satisfying pitas and bowls are well-assembled and totally satisfying ($9.75). The cauliflower version features the cruciferous veg tucked into a pita with tomato, scallion, tahina and parsley. Save room for the shockingly vegan choco-cardamom cookie.
Bogan Burger at Lucky Buns
As the opening chef for Duke’s Grocery, which is known for its killer burger, Food Network Star alum Alex McCoy knows a thing or two about making a great version of the all-American classic. Now the owner and chef of the burger joint Lucky Buns in Adams Morgan, McCoy serves up $10 single-patty burgers like the Bogan Burger, a decadent stack of Creekstone beef, gouda, bacon XO jam, pickles and arugula, along with a few other flavor boosters.
Dim Sum at Da Hong Pao
D.C. dwellers had long lamented that a dim sum craving used to necessitate a trip out to Falls Church or up to Wheaton — that is, until this spot opened on 14th Street NW (1409 14th St NW) offering aromatic carts of dumplings, roast duck ($8.45), beef chow fun ($8.45) and pork buns ($4.25). Aside from the reliable plates of shrimp-stuffed eggplant ($4.75), sticky rice with sausage and heaping servings of Chinese broccoli ($7.45), one of the best parts is that the silver carts roll through the dining room from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, rather than just on weekends. Prices range between $4.25 and $9.45 and, of course, the best way to keep this cost-effective is to go with friends who like to share.
Pork and Cheese Pupusas at Pupuseria Susana
As with many pupuserias scattered throughout the city, this Columbia Heights shop (3801 14th St NW) barely has room for a table and a counter with a few seats. There’s no menu, and only four or so varieties of the filled masa cakes—pork and cheese; spinach and cheese; jalapeno and cheese; and just plain cheese. But honestly, it really doesn’t matter what’s inside when you know they’re being hand-formed and griddled to order, as these are. They come with the traditional cabbage slaw referred to as cortido for about $2 apiece, but the best way to give them a punch of flavor is to load up on the spicy pickled veggies near the register.
Grilled Pork Sandwich at Banh Mi DC Sandwich
Is there any such thing as a bad banh mi? The Vietnamese sandwich is a pretty alluring blend of crunchy, sweet-pickled veggies, cilantro and some kind of pork. To make an outstanding banh mi, like the ones found at this Falls Church market (3103 Graham Rd, Falls Church, Virginia), the difference is in the details. Here, you can tell the bread is made on-site the moment you open the door and the warm, yeasty aroma hits you. Choose from 20 or so sandwich varieties that cost around $4 each (buy five and get the sixth one free), including the #2 topped with tender slices of grilled pork and jalapenos.