30 Iconic DC Area Foods You & Your Kids Must Try
- Pupusas at Salvadorian restaurants
Why you need to try it: Cheesy goodness oozes out of this flash fried corn flour pancake, sometimes packed with beans or meat if you prefer. It’s the national dish of the El Salvador, and lucky for us, there is a huge population of El Salvadorians in and around Washington. Pupusas are usually served with pickled cabbage slaw on the side and blended salsa.
Steamed Crabs at Bethesda Crab House
Why you need to try it: Bethesda Crab House is one of the few places that serves blue crabs year-round. During the summer, they’re from the Chesapeake Bay, but they can be shipped north from the Gulf Coast too. The uber-casual restaurant with paper tablecloths steams these live critters and adds Old Bay spice and malt vinegar for flavor. They’re not the prettiest food, but everyone enjoys “the picking hon.”
- Italian Ice at Carmen’s Italian Ice & Cafe
Why you need to try it: Carmen’s has been in business for a very long time, and it’s hard to find a kid who doesn’t love Carmen’s tropical flavors, smooth texture, and refreshing iciness. The Italian ice is non-dairy so everyone can eat it. Look for Carmen’s Truck at many local soccer tournaments.
- Half Smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl
Why you need to try it: This beloved sliced frankfurter is covered with chili, and many people like to add diced onions and pickle relish to the mix. The concoction is served on a overly soft hot dog bun, so don’t try to walk around carrying one, or you’ll be wearing it.
- Pho at any Pho Eatery
Why you need to try it: The huge population of Vietnamese who settled in the area has taught locals to adopt Pho as the DMV’s version of chicken noodle soup. The earthy broth is filled with linguini noodles and your choice of meat or veggies. Servers provide basil, jalapenos, bean sprouts and a lime to add to the broth. Some people add rice vinegar and Siracha sauce to this mysterious, yet delicious brew.
- Baklava at a Greek Church Festival
Why you need to try it: Washington has a lot of Greek churches and nothing says family better than the crispy, buttery layers of honey and nuts. Homemade baklava is served at the every Middle Eastern restaurant too. What makes baklava special is that everyone has their own recipe, so you should sample lots until you find your favorite.
- Berger Cookies at the Giant or Safeway grocery stores
Why you need to try it: It would be hard to find a more decadent cookie than a Berger Cookie. Made in a Baltimore bakery since 1835, these hand-dipped dark fudge-topped shortbread cookies aren’t especially good looking, but they taste sublime
8. Cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcakes
Why you need to try it: These cupcakes started a national obsession. Packaged in a pretty pink box, each tiny cupcake is almost too pretty to eat. After the equally pretty owners started their business on a busy corner in downtown Georgetown, they were invited to host their own reality show. Just prepare to stand in line, and then fret over which one to choose.
Handmade Pop Tarts from Ted’s Bulletin
Why you need to try it: What kid can resist a scratch-made pop tart topped with colorful jimmies? What adult can? Besides their adorable appearance, the flakey tarts have just the right amount of icing on top and a delicate slather of homemade jam inside.
- Falafel & Pita from Amsterdam Falafel
Why you need to try it: Amsterdam Falafel shop is the perfect introduction to Israel’s national dish—fried chickpea-balls tucked into pita bread. Selecting your toppings from the pickley relishes, savory sauces, creamy dips and fresh veggies allows you to customize and make it your own.
- Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes from Market Lunch
Why you need to try it: The busiest section of the very busy Eastern Market is Market Lunch. Line up to order, and then find a seat at the communal picnic tables. Market Lunch also serves burgers and fried oyster sandwiches, but these beloved pancakes are not to be missed.
- The Tibs at an Ethiopian restaurant
Why you need to try it: Washington has the second largest Ethiopian population in the world, right after Addis Ababa. For that reason, we have access to the unparalleled experience of scooping up spicy cubed beef dishes with spongy injera bread. You will enjoy the adventure of eating with your hands and expanding your palate.
- Risotto Balls at Taylor Gourmet
Why you need to try it: This Philadelphia-inspired sandwich shop has a plethora of delightful hoagies from which to choose, but everyone can agree on the risotto balls; an appetizer made with rice and mozzarella cheese, served with a side of sultry marinara.
- Marshmallow Shake at Good Stuff Eatery
Why you need to try it: Toasted marshmallows in a shake—‘nuf said. This festive, quick-serve, locally-owned burger joint doesn’t rest on its patties, oh no, they offer their creamy, s’more-like milk shake creation to set themselves apart from all others (here’s to you, Spike!).
Waffle Cone & Ice Cream at Thomas Sweet
Why you need to try it: All ice cream shops have cones, but the crisp, handmade waffle cones covered with jimmies at Thomas Sweet, are not only adorable, but taste divine. Don’t get frustrated by the lines. It’s worth the wait for their homemade chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream…promise!
- Charbroiled Chicken & Yucca at El Pollo Rico
Why you need to try it: The Peruvian rotisserie chicken has become a mainstay in the D.M.V., and there are many excellent outposts roasting up these cluckers. But El Pollo Rico’s charred, cumin-covered skin with the juiciest of meat is a standout. Compliment your meal with crispy yucca fries dipped in one of three signature sauces.
- Scallion Bubble Pancake from Peter Chang
Why you need to try it: Like a puffy blowfish, this crisp pancake is filled with air until you burst it like a balloon. Pull apart pieces of this family-friendly pancake, and savor the delicate texture and savory flavor.
- Olive oil and Pomegranate Syrup with Homemade Bread at Zaytinya
Why you need to try it: If you can train your kids to slather olive oil on their bread rather than butter, you’ll influence a lifelong habit of eating healthier. Zaytinya’s sparkling Greek olive oil is served complimentary at the start of the meal. Kids love how the server pours the rich syrup in the shape of a “Z.”
- Fajitas at Guapo’s Restaurant
Why you need to try it: This is a favorite place for birthday celebrations, thanks to the festive sombreros and family friendly food. Kids adore their sizzling carne asada, pollo, shrimp and veggie fajitas at this cheerful family restaurant known for supporting local sports teams and for having the city’s favorite salsa.
- Palak Chat at Rasika
Why you need to try it: Sure it’s a reach, but spinach for a D.C. kid, not so much. They’re often game to try international dishes of questionable nature, because they can’t actually tell what they are eating. Such is the Palak Chat at Rasika, the lightest, crackliest version of spinach ever, with a dollop of cool yogurt for the tartness, and tamarind for the sweetness.
- Chicken, Fries and Macho Peas at Nando’s Peri Peri
Why you need to try it: Everyone absolutely adores the aromatic chicken and fries at Nando’s—for good reason—they’re amazing! But if they’re eating big, this is your chance to introduce peas. Sure, they ate a bland version in their baby food, but Macho Peas are packed with flavor, mesmerizing texture and are absolutely addictive.
- Design Your Own Cookie at Firefly
Why your kid needs to try it: We should give our kids props for behaving well in a restaurant, and here’s one-way to show your appreciation. Firefly offers kids a cookie shape and toppings to design their own creation before the entrée’s arrive. At the end of dinner, the baked cookie is served. Smiles abound.
- Made to Order Guacamole at Rosa Mexicana
Why you need to try it: Everyone appreciates a little showbiz when dining out, and no one more than your kid. So, reward the family with a meal at Rosa Mexicana to watch guacamole prepared tableside. The avocado maker mixes ingredients based on your taste specifications in a black lava bowl. They also serve delicious fried sweet potatoes.
- Empanadas at Julia’s Empanadas
Why you need to try it: These little Latin-inspired pastries are filled with tantalizing ingredients including cheese, sausage and spinach. They are the perfect size for small hands and easy to carry off to picnic somewhere.
- Pad Thai at Sisters Thai
Why you need to try it: The national dish of Thailand, Pad Thai is the perfect combination of sweet and sour noodles, peanuts, egg, and bean sprouts. While you’re waiting for your meal, everyone remains captivated by Sisters Thai’s eclectic décor, with shelves of super heroes, kids’ books and a trip to their tiny in-house bakery.
- Rice Bowls at Cava Mezze Grill
Why you need to try it: This fast-casual restaurant defies the perils of eating fast food thanks to their homemade, freshly prepared ingredients including hummus, tzatziki, tabbouleh, pickled cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers and pita chips. Select a protein for the main ingredient. If you like spicy food, sample Cava’s superb Crazy Feta.
- Pesto Cavatappi Pasta at Corner Bakery
Why you need to try it: Nearly every kid loves pasta, but why not expand their horizons by trying different sauces? The creamy pesto sauce with chunks of grilled chicken is a hearty, protein-packed version of pasta served in a portion big enough to share. They also serve an excellent breakfast.
- Chicken Kebabs at Moby Dick
Why you need to try it: The marinated grilled chicken is tender, lightly seasoned and universally beloved by kids. They also go crazy for the giant flat bread and yogurt sauce. The generous portions include a mound of jasmine rice. Try their eggplant dip too. Despite paper plates, this place is not fast, so be prepared to wait.
- Bento Box at Raku Asian Dining
Why you need to try it: The small slots in a Bento Box inspire kids to sample many delightful Japanese styles of food preparation. Behold the miso soup, ginger-infused salad, California rolls, Portobello mushrooms and string beans. Then, choose an entree from teriyaki beef or chicken, or tempura-fried veggies. This is a well-priced way to treat burgeoning taste buds to new flavors and textures.
- Cheese Pizza at Ledo’s
Why you need to try it: Sure there are artisanal pizzas and delivery pizzas, but nothing says the DMV like Ledo’s Pizza. An institution for decades, the first Ledo’s was established near the University of Maryland, but has spread its dynasty far beyond. Their unique pies are actually square, with sweet sauce, smoked provolone cheese and a flakey crust.
There you have it, 30 standout dishes/menu items in a foodie town rivaling any American city. It’s a fact that the earlier your kids try new foods, the more likely they will grow up with an appreciation for nutritious well roundedness. And that’s a mouthful!
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Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.
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