February 1, 2014
Photos: Courtesy Jimmy Tong, Full Key Restaurant
These days, discerning foodies can find just about anything their hearts desire at some place or other in the District: from foie gras lollipops at Jose Andres’ Minibar to kangaroo, elk and sand shark burgers at Thunder Burger and Bar in Georgetown. But D.C.’s critics still point to its lack of authentic ethnic restaurants – places that value tradition over experimentation, and can lovingly be termed “holes in the wall.” Insiders realize that the area does boast its share of these spots; you just have to know where to look for them. Just up Georgia Avenue, less than a half hour from downtown, lies the suburb of Wheaton, Maryland, an ethnic food mecca that features solid to outstanding mom and pop joints for Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Peruvian and Italian food.
Consisting mostly of strip malls on and around the triangle formed by Georgia Avenue, University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road, downtown Wheaton is not particularly picturesque, but its best food is often found behind unassuming facades. Located next to a dry cleaner and adorned with a red neon sign, Ruan Thai boasts some of the area’s top Thai food. On most nights, families fill the spacious — if sparsely decorated — dining room to snack on curry puffs and slurp on Tom Kha Gai (chicken and coconut curry soup). The kitchen nails the basics, like Pad Thai and curry dishes, but more adventurous diners might enjoy a whole cooked flounder or the Yum Watercress, a popular favorite. Wheaton’s Thai scene is an embarrassment of riches: just a few blocks down is Nava Thai, Ruan’s equal in almost every way. Resembling a large house on the outside and a fashionable pub on the inside, Nava Thai serves some of the most authentic Thai food outside of Bangkok. In particular, its noodle dishes are a safe bet, like the Floating Market Soup, a heaping bowl of noodles, pork and vegetables in an ultra-spicy broth.
In fact, Wheaton has no shortage of places to grab a good bowl of noodles. Next to Ruan Thai is the tiny Japanese Ramen House, Ren’s Ramen, whose brief menu only serves four types of noodle soup, all thick, flavorful and piping hot. The only non-noodle item – gyoza (pork dumplings) – is a savory accompaniment to Ren’s main specialty. To journey elsewhere on the continent, one only needs to continue west on University Boulevard, where two restaurants, Mi La Cay and Pho Hiep Hoa serve up generous bowls of pho (noodle soup) and other Vietnamese favorites. The better of the two, Pho Hiep Hoa, incidentally, offers some of the best spring rolls around.
Next door is Wheaton’s best Chinese option, Full Key, not to be confused with the also solid Paul Kee Restaurant on Georgia Avenue, or with another restaurant named Full Key located in D.C.’s Chinatown. Wheaton’s Full Key, another humble storefront, boasts a small but bustling dining room in which a diverse range of patrons can explore the full range of an extensive menu. Flavorful black pepper chicken is a great antidote to the boredom of “typical” Chinese food, and succulent roast duck is practically worth the trip by itself.
While a trip through town is akin to a tour of Asia, Wheaton also offers impressive Latin options – none better than a spot simply called Chicken Place on the south side of University Boulevard. Particularly popular with Peruvians and other South Americans for miles around, Chicken Place offers a full menu of Peruvian favorites, including authentic ceviche and lomo saltado (steak stir-fry). But predictably, the centerpiece is the chicken itself, juicy meat flavored with Latin spices and a hint of charcoal smokiness. Similarly tasty chicken can be found at El Pollo Rico, more of a no-frills cafeteria offering only chicken and sides.
Perhaps the highest praise that can be paid to Wheaton is that a quick run-down of its top ethnic restaurants doesn’t even include such standouts as Kantutas (Bolivian), Chin & Lee (Chinese carryout) and Los Cobanos (Mexican). D.C. will always keep pace with the latest culinary trends, but when it comes to home cooking, this little Montgomery County community has it bases covered.
Wheaton and Silver Spring Restaurants
Address: 2227 University Blvd W, Wheaton, MD 20902
Address: 11407 Amherst Ave, Wheaton, MD 20902
Address: 11301 Fern St, Silver Spring, MD 20902