D.C.'s Best Cheap Eats

Is it possible to get a really good meal in the Nation's Capital without blowing your budget? You bet!
Cassandra M. Vanhooser

Let's face it. Washington, D.C., is an expense account kind of town. You can find a fancy, upscale restaurant around almost every corner. But where do you eat if you're seeing the sights and don't want to spend a bundle? Come with us, and we'll give you a taste of a few of the city's budget-conscious offerings.

Capital Q Texan B.B.Q.
If you're seeking a bona fide Texas roadside barbecue shack, look no further than D.C.'s Chinatown. That's right--Chinatown.

Port Arthur, Texas, native Nick Fontana blew into Washington long before our current President got here and quickly discovered the absence of true Texas-style pit barbecue. "We have people who eat lunch here every day," says co-owner Steven Heald. "We get suits from the Secret Service, construction workers, tons of expatriate Texans, and sometimes a panhandler with a pocket full of quarters."

Predictably, the best thing on the menu is the beef brisket. Tender and smoky, it's as good as anything you'll find in Texas. You can get it on a bun, but to experience the full flavor, order the sliced brisket plate. They'll ladle either hot or mild sauce on for you, but I prefer mine on the side. The spicy red sauce is perfect for dipping.

There are other meats on the menu, with the pork ribs being the best of the rest. Plates come with your choice of two side items, including collard greens and a cold black-eyed pea salad known as Texas Caviar. You can even get an icy Shiner Bock beer to wash it all down. 707 H Street NW.; (202) 347-8396 or www.capitalqbbq.com. Plate dinners with two sides: $5.25-$24.95.

  

Pizzeria Paradiso
Owner Ruth Gresser transforms pizza from commonplace to celestial at her cozy Dupont Circle restaurant. Locals clamor for the wood-fired creations, anchored on thin, yeasty crusts and smothered with gourmet toppings. The best seat in the house is at the bar, where you can watch the pizza makers twirl the dough and slide the pies into the oven with long-handled paddles.

Choose your own toppings, or order from the specialty creations listed on the menu. Either way, you're guaranteed to get one of the best pizzas you'll ever eat. My favorite was the Atomica, covered with tomato, salami, black olives, hot pepper flakes, and mozzarella--all drizzled with olive oil. The Genovese, a pie with potato, pesto, and Parmesan, was tasty too. If you're feeling adventuresome, try the Bottarga, topped with tomato, minced garlic, egg, Parmesan, and a sprinkling of salted tuna roe. 2029 P Street NW.; (202) 223-1245. Eight-inch pizzas: $7.95-$10.25; twelve-inch pizzas: $12.95-$16.25.

Ben's Chili Bowl
This popular U Street dive has seen its share of history. When it opened in 1958, this was the heart of what was known as Black Broadway. Then came the 1960s race riots and, later, the construction of the Metro Green Line. Now Ben's is happily witnessing the renaissance of the area.

Through it all, the old-fashioned diner has stayed much the same. A large sign outside proclaims this spot "Home of the Famous Chili Dog." Customers still sit on 1950s red barstools and belly up to the Formica counter. Others jockey for tables as they become available. The D.C. landmark even boasts a celebrity clientele, including Bill Cosby, who dines here often and has for years.

The jewel on the simple menu is Ben's Original Chili Half-Smoke. A cousin to the hot dog, the plump, slightly spicy smoked sausage is grilled and then cradled in a steamed bun and topped with mustard, onions, and homemade chili sauce. It's messy but delicious and truly worth the trip. The fries have humble frozen origins, but get them smothered with chili and cheese, and you'll never notice. 1213 U Street NW.; (202) 667-0909 or www.benschilibowl.com. Original Chili Half-Smoke: $3.95.

This article is from the September 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.