Best time to go: 10/01 - 12/31
If eating Swedish meatballs at the IKEA cafe is your idea of a cultural experience, you need to get out more. Washington, DC’s international heritage goes well beyond the Smithsonian Folklife Festival or the seasonal embassy parties along Connecticut Avenue, and although many of its cultural centers (such as U-Street’s Little Ethiopia) are within the city limits, you may need to drive outside the city proper to experience the most authentic foreign communities. For it’s in the suburbs — usually on the back-side of an unassuming strip-mall — where the expat community thrives.
Take Arlington, for example. Just across the river from Washington, DC, Arlington has one of the highest concentrations of foreign-born residents in the United States, and the diaspora of DC’s suburbs span many different cultures, from the Salvadorian community along Columbia Pike to the proud Korean community of Annandale. Touring Washington, DC’s 5 Cultural Centers is a particularly good winter activity, as there’s plenty to do inside, and these places can make you feel like you’re touring the world, even when you’re stuck at home. Here are just a few of our family discoveries:
Washingtonians head to Annandale for Korean shopping and cuisine. If you’ve never had Korean Barbecue, start at Honey Pig BBQ, our favorite spot for bulgogi and K-pop. But that’s just the beginning. Oegadgib offers up all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ at an affordable price (last night we had dinner for three, including a bottle of Soju, for $110). More adventurous foodies find comfort at Nak Won and Yechon and JK Seafood (which is mostly raw, seasoned Korean fish). Somewhere between the lavish platter of fermented veggies that comes with every meal and your last order from the Soju menu, you’ll find yourself transported to another land.
The “Little Saigon” of Eden Center
One of DC’s best kept secrets is the Eden Center cultural center, where you can experience Vietnamese traditions, food and culture, just outside the DC city limits. The largest Asian-themed mall on the East Coast, Eden Center’s offerings go far beyond the restaurants that Anthony Bourdain visited in 2009. The Pho and Bun is good almost anywhere on the strip, and some of the secret hideouts inside even offer Korean barbecue and Thai street food. And don’t forget to wander! From inexpensive nicknacks to hand out at your next dinner-party, to the exotic produce and live seafood at the Good Fortune Supermarket, the offerings are nearly as endless as a bazaar in Saigon.
Local Secret: Parking is a real problem at Eden Center, so don’t come here after noon on a weekend. Even at 10 on a Tuesday, though, you’re likely to have trouble finding a spot in the main lot, in front of all the shops. Those in the know take the service entrance behind the mall, where there’s plenty of space. Just be sure to find a spot near one of the entrances to the indoor mall.
Although there is a standing argument over whether the best Chinese food in the area is Rockville’s Bob’s 66 (the old Bob’s Noodle House) or that Panda Gourmet in the Day’s Inn 2700 New York Ave NE, you can still find a decent noodle in DC’s Chinatown (near the Capital One Arena). And there are also some tiny shops that offer tourists the same inexpensive goods you’d find in its larger counterparts in New York, LA or San Francisco.
Arlandria / Chirilagua Cultural Center
This once-private neighborhood in Northern Alexandria (just North of Del Ray) was settled by immigrants from El Salvador’s Chirilagua in the 1960s. The population exploded in the 1980s as refugees from El Salvador’s civil war sought safety among their relatives and friends. Seeking to exploit the population growth of the region, developers “scheduled mass evictions of thousands of low-income renters” in Arlandria but, to their surprise, the tenants organized and fought back to hold on to their community.
Today, you can visit the beautiful mural outside the Tenants and Workers United, Alexandria, VA (which is both a cultural center and a place for civic activism) or grab a Plata Tipico or Pupusas at one of the many Salvadorean restaurants just south of Four Mile run. Many folks like the very authentic Señora Lola Taquería, which serves Tacos Languas (the taco that tastes you back), but if you’re not fond of extremely loud Conjunto Norteño music or just want a waiter who speaks English, you might try El Pulgarcito. And if you happen to be down that way on a weekend from 1-4pm, swing by the nearby Arlington Historical Society for a broader survey of Arlington’s historical context.
DC’s Other Little Ethiopia
With over 200,000 Ethiopian immigrants (and counting), DC is home to the largest Ethiopian community in the world (outside Ethiopia, of course!). Like the Salvadorean community, the Ethiopian community was built by refugees: in this case, people who were fleeing Ethiopia’s military coup in the 1970s. The community and best restaurants are spread throughout the region (Meaza on Columbia Pike is our favorite), but the biggest concentration are in DC’s Shaw neighborhood (9th and U) and the Build America Plaza, a strip mall and cultural center near Bailey’s Crossroads.
Today Amy and I walked around the perimeter of the Build America Plaza, which brought back memories of when I used to wander 9th and U on my lunch breaks at The Washington Post. We were looking for Nazret, which is one of Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s five favorite restaurants, but we couldn’t find it.
So we wandered over to Eyo (the Ethiopian sports bar, pictured above). This is not your usual sports bar. Whereas most sports bars smell of sour beer, Eyo has a faint incense smell (and no booze on the menu). Instead of blaring sports announcers, we heard pleasant traditional music (the big television showed a soccer match with the sound off). And in place of fish and chips, our generous host served platters of Injera heaped with wonderfully fragrant meat and vegetable delicacies.
After our lovely meal, we walked around the plaza. I had to coax Amy back to what looked like a service alley, but was in fact a whole other side of this expat Ethiopian community. There we found Nezret (which we’ll do next time). We also ran into a man with a lamb thrown over his shoulder and checked out the bulk spices in one of the many Ethiopian markets. I peered longingly into the window of the largest hookah store I’ve ever seen and remembered my younger days, when I would often find myself among friends at a hookah bar in the wee hours of the morning.
If I hadn’t read about this place in The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, I’m not sure I would have ever stopped in. I’m glad I did.
Baltimore’s Little Italy
As I am writing this, I have just returned from a giant meal at Amicci’s (pictured below) in Baltimore’s bustling Little Italy. I feel like I got hit by a garlic train. Although best known for its Italian Festivals (St. Anthony’s is the last Sunday in August & St. Gabriel at the end of March), Baltimore’s Italy never really takes a break from its heritage. I have, more than once, passed a random group of old men playing bocce, and Mamma Mia! did I mention the food?
Abrams, Amanda, Capital melting pot? Not when it comes to food, Boston.com, 2010.
“Our History.” Tenants and Workers United, 2021.