For the last 23 years of my life I’ve only ever really lived in one place. It’s not where I was born, nor was it where I spent the early years of my life. But it has always been home. That place is Northern Virginia. Recently I left home for a new life and new adventure in a new place. That’s a big deal! So this post is dedicated to all the things I love and, therefore, will miss about home. My latest (but maybe not final!) edition of Northern Virginia: Local Eats begins now.
I will admit, I haven’t always loved NoVA. It’s been more like a love/hate thing, which I feel like most people who grew up here would totally understand. There’s so much about being here that’s great. But at the same time I will not miss the traffic, angry and equally terrible drivers, social and economical divides, politically-charged environments, etc. Needless to say when I left for college, I was glad to get out. But leaving now is a bit more permanent than just moving for 8-9 months of the year. I find myself feeling nostalgic and realizing how much I really do love this place. (Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 now!) So let’s start the countdown of my NoVA top 10 now!
10. Proximity to D.C.
As I said, I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Northern Virginia as my hometown for a long time. In fact, when I was in college I wrote a rather disparaging column of dear old NoVA, which (proudly) got me my first disparaging letter to the editor. But one of the letter’s complaints was that I didn’t talk at all about how amazing it is to live so close to D.C. That was probably also the only complaint that I cared about.
Truthfully, growing up here I did take it for granted how close D.C. was. My father (like everyone’s father) worked there, so I went to the city pretty frequently. Plus in school we took a lot of field trips to museums and such. But it wasn’t until I moved away from D.C. that I realized what a true privilege it is to live near there. In fact, it wasn’t until I got older that I realized just how much there is to do in D.C., and more to the point, just how little of it I had experienced! I did a lot of sightseeing when we first moved to the area, naturally. But I was also 4 or 5 years old, so I couldn’t really appreciate (or remember) most if it.
I wish I had more time to explore D.C. Honestly, I wish I took more time to explore D.C. I am glad that I got to do things like visit the new pandas at the zoo. Or go to various bars with friends from college who moved to the area. I’m even glad that I got to visit the Capitol building and the Newseum! P.S. I definitely recommend both. Hopefully moving away now will give me a renewed sense of tourist-fever with regards to the District. I’ll be sure to come back and see some more things when I’m home again.
9. A truly diverse area
As a Filipino immigrant and general brown person, I am thrilled that I got to grow up in such a diverse place. My parents chose this location purely because they had the best public school district in the country at the time. My dad had a job in D.C. and where we lived–again, at the time–was relatively more rural and removed from the hustle and bustle of say, Arlington. But of course, after many years I watched our area grow alongside me.
Large groups of immigrants moved to the surrounding areas. And the area reflected that! Where we once had large chain restaurants and vacant shopping areas, we now have booming local cuisine and diversified choices. In a 20-minute radius of my house you could have Korean, Japanese, Latino, Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, Indian, Greek, Lebanese or your old classics like Five Guys or Subway.
I loved feeling like one of the many immigrants rather than the weird foreigner girl–the only brown face in the room. That was the case when I was young, but as the years went on, that changed. As a result, I got to experience many cultures. I ate at some amazing places as well. Some of my favorite places to eat–and most of the ones featured on this food series–are cultural experiences. Most of the local cuisine is small restaurants with food from different cultures.
One of my most favorite that I haven’t talked about yet is Bakery, Bread and Grill in Fairfax, VA. Right off of route 29, near route 50, is a small Bolivian bakery and restaurant. This place makes the best salteñas that you could ever have. Salteñas are particularly special to our family because we eat them every midnight on Christmas Eve, going into Christmas day. They became our little tradition. Theirs has a luscious fillings that ooze with flavor. On the outside is a buttery crust that is crunchy when it needs to be and soft where it counts. In a word, they are perfect. Word of warning: they don’t have a lot of seating at this place so get in while you can! You won’t regret it.
8. International grocery shopping
So we’ve established that I love to cook. We’ve also established that Northern Virginia is pretty diverse. Stands to reason, then, that the grocery stores also extremely diverse. Guess what? They are! I’m really going to miss this one. Being someone who cooks an international cuisine, it’s a great comfort and relief to know that there’s a million international grocery stores in the area–at least three within immediate proximity to my parents’ house in NoVA that I went to regularly.
Two of the three are pretty big chain grocery stores, HMart and Lotte. The former is based in New Jersey and has locations all over. The latter is really only in the DMV area. Both stores, however, cater mostly to Korean cuisine more than anything else. However, all Asian food has a lot of crossover when it comes to flavors and ingredients. Thus, it was pretty easy to find my Filipino ingredients at either store. And when I couldn’t find something at one, I just went to the other! That’s a privileged grocery-shopping situation.
The third place is a much smaller, only local store, called Park and Shop. My family has been shopping regularly at Park and Shop since moving to the area. We even shopped there before the current owners bought and took over the location! The current owners are Vietnamese so a lot of the food and items are Vietnamese. But they also have a lot of specialty Filipino items, including some of my favorite snacks and small bites (like ensaymada–a cheesy Filipino pastry!!). If you’re in the area, definitely stop in for lunch. In the back of the shop they make Vietnamese smoothies and sandwiches, which are hella affordable and hella yummy! My favorite is the grilled pork (Bánh Mì)!
7. Local chains
Of course this whole series was inspired by my desire to find truly local food in an area that’s bursting with chain after chain. But there are many–what I like to call–local chains around the DMV. These are places that have multiple locations, but only in the D.C./DMV area. The reason that there’s a lot of these sort of local chains is because Northern Virginia is a city suburb. So many of these places have locations in both D.C. and then the surrounding metro areas–sometimes even on in MD and one in VA.
One of these local chains that I love is Founding Fathers. I’ve only been to the one in Tyson’s Corner, but they also have locations in D.C., Potomac, MD and even one in Pennsylvania! This place is an homage to the farmers. They’re all about fresh ingredients, the farm life, and living sustainably. Oh, and in case the name didn’t give it away, they serve up classic American dishes. To read more about their story, click here. The first time I went here was with my sister and brother-in-law. Needless to say, I went back a few times after that. Do yourself a favor and get their Spicy Fried Chicken and Jefferson Donut. I just drooled a little thinking about it!
Another great set of local chains for me falls directly in the brunch category. My parents and I would go to church together every Sunday morning. Right after we had brunch. That’s what makes this next place special. I’m not just going to miss the amazing breakfast and lunch foods, but the time I spent chowing down here with my parents and other family members.
Silver Diner is a large local chain. They have locations all over Northern Virginia, Maryland, and even in New Jersey. Their motto? “Fresh. Local. Delicious.” And that’s exactly what you get! All of their ingredients–or at least as much as possible–is locally sourced. In the location we go to, they tell you what farms in Virginia they source their ingredients from. Another great thing about this place is that their menus are all-day. You can have dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner! My recommendation is to try their Bison Huevos Rancheros for brunch and their Chicken Tenders for any other time of day. Another fun fact: Owner Chef Ype appeared on Chopped Diner Edition and WON. That should tell you something about the food!
6. Virginia is for (wine) lovers
I’m not a huge drinker. I love a good cocktail every now and again, and I love me some tequila too. But overall I’m not huge into drinking–especially since my digestion system got a bit wonkier post-gallbladder. But I. Love. Wine! Wine is one of those drinks you can casually sip on, like beer. And it’s a bit on the sweet side, which happens to be my preferred side when it comes to food in general.
When I turned 21 I was living in Charlottesville, attending the glorious University of Virginia. Charlottesville is simply covered in wineries and breweries. They are all around! Tastings in the area are super affordable and they come with a beautiful view of the mountains. So when I moved back home I was in search of some new places to casually sip on some wine. Luckily, NoVA is littered with wineries. The bad news is that it’s not that close to me. It’s about a 30 min drive to get to wine country in Virginia–in Loudon County–but it’s absolutely worth it!
There are two wineries that are pretty close to my house that I adore. The Winery at Bull Run is just off of route 29, near the battlefield. For just $10 you can taste the whole menu and take home your very own wine glass. They have amazing seasonal wines as well–I recommend their peach wine; it’s my favorite! Once you’ve figured out what to drink, have a seat in a rocking chair on the back patio and enjoy the open field.
Just past Old Town Clifton is a little winery called, Paradise Springs. This place is a bit smaller than Bull Run but has just as much charm. The place is gorgeous and has much patio space and seating. When the weather is nice, they even open up the back wall of doors for a more indoor-outdoor feel. Wine tastings are $15 for the whole flight and an additional $8 for the glass. This place is also dog friendly–just not inside the building!
I didn’t get to spend as much time exploring all of the Loudon County wineries–because truly, there are A LOT. But when my friend Allie was home for the summer we toured a few places. One of my favorites was Stone Tower Winery. What set this place apart from the others we went to? It was beyond gorgeous. First, it was huge! Tastings take place in two different barn-like structures with views on views. There’s so much space to roam around and sit. They have a beautiful patio area that looks out into the neighboring mountains and valleys. Occasionally, they also have food trucks as well! Tastings are $15 for the whole flight. Leashed dogs are welcome as well!
The takeaway here? Get yourself out to some of these Northern Virginia wineries. An affordable party awaits you!
5. Bella Pizza
I love pizza. If there was one fast food that I couldn’t live without it would be between pizza and burgers–and pizza is only mildly better for you (but really, barely). When I don’t feel like cooking or don’t have time, pizza was one of our go-tos for delivery. We are true believers in Pizza Hut. I mean, that crust, amirite?! But a few years ago Bella Pizza opened up near our house. I didn’t know much about it; I assumed it was just another chain. Turns out, I was wrong! It’s a local pizza and Italian restaurant that is entirely delivery and takeout.
And they have a pretty wide delivery range–From Centreville to Fairfax. They’re deliveries are insanely quick, usually under 30 minutes, which is pretty miraculous in the NoVA area. So, how did I come to fall in love with Bella? Pretty easily. I was looking for something pretty cheap and close by to eat one afternoon and decided I’d give Bella a try. What a great idea that was! Pretty soon, I was convincing my parents that we needed to transition from chain pizza to this local discovery!
My dad is a huge fan of NY pizza, which happens to be what they serve at Bella. So he was on board. As soon as we tried it once, it easily became our new pizza place. The crust is fresh and homemade, breaded but not too bread-y. The sauce is traditional Italian. Best of all, the toppings are fresh. And amazing! Every bite is absolutely gourmet, which is what they advertise! Not in the mood for pizza? They have an entire menu of Italian food with everything from salad to dessert. Just give them a call or order online to try today.
4. Jireh Bakery Cafe
When my parents first moved to the Centreville/Clifton area, it was remote. They actually chose it because it was more rural than the rest of suburban D.C. But over the years it grew into just another Northern Virginia town. You could track these changes in the building where Jireh Bakery stands. Over my years it’s been every iteration of a coffee and/or bakery and/or breakfast place. At one point it was Jamie’s Coffee House, where my brother’s high school band played during open mics. After that there were a couple of failed businesses.
Nevertheless it’s been Jireh for quite a while now! The business itself has certainly evolved over the years as well. Originally it was just a small, quaint Korean bakery with coffee. Then there was the remodel and it became trendier and more homey. Now, it’s a full-on bakery, coffee house, and lunch place. They have free wi-fi and a beautiful upstairs area that overlooks the Centreville area.
Around the perimeter of the ground-level are selections of their homemade pastries. Not sure what to get? Don’t worry. You can sample nearly all of the pastries before purchasing them. Just grab a toothpick, open the plastic container with bite-sized samples, and have at it! Their pastries are delightful–light and airy with creamy custards and vibrant flavors. Not in the mood for a pastry? I definitely recommend a sandwich with homemade potato chips (amazing!) or any of their boba tea smoothies. My personal favorite is the taro root smoothie with tapioca balls. I wish I had one right now; might help with the Texas heat!
3. Guapo’s Rotisserie
I guess by this point you’ve guessed that the best thing about Northern Virginia–especially when it comes to food–has a lot to do with the massive diversity. I’ve had lots of kinds of food, but nothing like this place. Guapo’s is all about Peruvian flavors! And their Peruvian chicken is the best rotisserie you will ever have.
Now, Guapo’s is a chain restaurant. But the one that I hold near and dear to my heart is not one of those restaurants. It’s a smaller location with a much more limited menu. However, limited may not be the best way to describe it. Really, it just doesn’t serve their full menu–just their rotisserie one. And truly, that’s all you’ll ever need. We always order enough chicken and fried plantains for a small army. Then we get buckets of green and white sauce to supplement the flavors in the chicken.
I cannot stress how truly delicious and amazing this food is! Every bite is juicy, moist, and full of flavor. The skin is peppery and punchy. Overall it’s savory at its best, Peruvian at its highest of highs, and dinner at its most satisfying. This place doesn’t deliver, but we make the drive down to Manassas and back just to have it. My sister will even go there with her husband from farther up Northern Virginia! That’s how good it is. That’s how worth it it is.
2. Cenan’s Bakery
Three words: best cake ever. Cenan’s Bakery is in Vienna, right off of Nutley. It’s a small place in the middle of a shopping center. Blink, and you’ll miss it. And what a shame that would be, because this place is magic.
I’m not exactly sure who found this place in our family. I just know that for as long as I can remember, whenever there was a family birthday or celebration–basically any excuse for cake–we went to Cenan’s. It was such a special part of our birthday! At least it was for me. We would either tell our parents which one we wanted or pick it in the store ourselves. Then the rule was whoever’s birthday it was got to eat the chocolate piece on top of each cake that had the Cenan’s logo on it.
Our favorite cake was the chocolate mousse cake covered in chocolate ganache and topped with chocolate shavings. Every bite was rich and chocolatey. Every piece was better than the last. No cake was ever enough for us. Through the years we’ve expanded what we like to order. My parents’ favorite is the fruit tart. We also tried the white chocolate version of the ganache cake and it was just as fantastic! My favorite, however, is the chocolate and hazelnut–chocolate cake with hazelnut mousse and covered with chocolate ganache.
If you’re not in the mood for cake, Cenan’s also offers great homemade pastries, bread and a selection of sandwiches. They also have an awesome coffee bean selection. My point is there’s something for everyone. This place is what I consider to be Northern Virginia’s best hidden secret, its secret gem. Don’t miss out!
1. Richard McKay’s Used Bookstore
In Manassas off of Sudley Road is a bookstore that sells and trades used books, DVDs, CDs, comics, records, board games and more. But really, I go there for the books. By now you’ve figured out that I like to cook and write–hence, I write about my cooking. But did you know that I loved to read? Well, you do now.
I’ve had a kindle and I’ve tried reading on my iPad, but it’s just not the same. Nothing compares to a real book in your hands. There’s nothing like actually turning a page-turner. I like to track the progress of my reading with bookmarks and page covers–never an ear-marked page corner. Sure, it’s more convenient to read on a kindle. It saves space, which would definitely have helped during my move! And it is (usually) cheaper. But still, I still love the feel of a book.
McKay’s is a book-lover’s dream. I went there probably more often than I should. I buy kids’ books for my friends with kids and babies, cookbooks for the blog and just to brush up on some recipes. Of course, I also got things to read for myself. Gotta keep up with that annual Goodreads goal, ya know? (P.S. If you love to read and you don’t have a goodreads account, you should absolutely go make one right now.) It is a truly rewarding feeling to walk out of Mckay’s with 10+ books for less than $25. I The only downside is that it can be difficult to find new releases or currently popular books. Amazon is still the go-to on that front. But McKay’s has hardly ever failed me. Really, it’s my happy place, which is why it was really hard to leave it behind.
No matter how far I go, or where I end up, Northern Virginia will always be home–even with our love-hate thing going. It’s where I grew up and where my parents still are. These places are just some of the many things I’m going to miss, some of the things I’ll think of fondly here. But alas, every bird has to leave the nest. Look out for new Austin Local Eats to come. And hey, never say never to another edition of NoVA’s best. I mean, I have to go home for visits eventually!