Address: 535 E. Braddock Road, Alexandria
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Top seller: Fajitas, any style.
Staff pick: The tacos al carbon. "I could eat it every day," owner Ricardo Arias says.
Address: 639 N. Washington St., Alexandria
Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and 5-9 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 12-10 p.m.
Top seller: The "hot and spicy" roll. "The name is crazy, but it's really very good," manager Jaruvan Simuang says.
Staff pick: The grilled yellowtail collar.
Location, location, location — that’s the first tenet of any successful restaurant. A cutthroat business on a good day, restaurants need every advantage they can get in order to thrive, and location is crucial. A plum spot on a busy, pedestrian-friendly street gives eateries a chance to show off their wares to hungry customers. A more tucked-away, remote location means restaurants have to work that much harder to even plant themselves on would-be diners’ radars.
But forget the common wisdom for a moment. Instead, let’s turn our attention to two restaurants hidden in plain sight, well off the main drags of King Street, Mount Vernon Avenue, and Duke Street, that are thriving night after night. If location is everything, these eateries are bucking the trend. And if location isn’t the be-all and end-all, then Dos Amigos and Zento are right in style.
Dos Amigos, 535 East Braddock Road, Alexandria
At first blush, it would seem that Alexandria needs another Tex-Mex restaurant like it needs a hole in the head. But take a closer look at Dos Amigos before making a final ruling. Situated across from the Braddock Road Metro station, in a space that has seen several restaurants (La Piazza and Grass Roots Station, just to name two) come and go in relatively short order, the restaurant is packed with people nearly every night. On weekends, it’s not unusual to encounter a wait for a table after 6 p.m., and on weeknights the place is bustling with happy-hour activity.
And there’s certainly a reason for that. The food is fresh, spicy, and teeming with Tex-Mex flavors, and the service is warm and attentive. To say nothing of the margaritas and mojitos, which are crisp and enjoyable without being overly sugary.
Want to get the full Dos Amigos experience? You can’t go wrong with their enchiladas. They’re coated with flavorful, often-spicy sauces (my favorite is the ranchero) and filled neatly with vegetables, chicken, beef, or shrimp, just to name a few selections. A liberal but thoughtful amount of cheese drapes over the top, and the rice and beans on the side complement the main event beautifully.
Bring an appetite to try their burritos, which are stuffed thick with fillings and served with beans on the side. And their taco salad is one of the best items on the menu (and good luck trying to leave the tortilla bowl uneaten). Served with a choice of proteins, each salad features beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole, all of which come together to form a hearty main-course salad nestled in a generous tortilla bowl. It’s perfect for those who are feeling virtuous — or who at least want to appear so.
For a summertime meal al fresco or air-conditioned, Dos Amigos is certainly a viable contender. Kick back with a frosty beverage and a basket of chips and salsa and prepare to be delighted with whatever comes next.
Zento, 639 N. Washington St., Alexandria
Tucked away on the corner of the Saul Center property, adjacent to FedEx-Kinkos, location doesn’t seem to be on this Japanese restaurant’s side, either. Sure, its storefront faces Washington Street, but in an area known more for its fast-food and takeout options, can a sit-down establishment really hang in there?
Lucky for Zento, the answer is yes. It’s not uncommon to find a seat at the last empty table in the restaurant, no matter the day, and a discerning eye can spot many regulars who return time after time. The restaurant caters to a steady stream of call-ahead orders, as well, making it a destination for folks who just want to pick up a quick dinner on their way home from work.
Not simply a sushi bar, Zento offers plentiful options for the hungry would-be diner. From dinner-sized salads to an assortment of ramen and teriyaki selections, it’s got something warm and comforting for even the most sushi-averse.
One of the best selections on the menu is the chirashi, essentially an assortment of sashimi toppings served in a bowl over sushi rice. The chef doesn’t skimp on any of the wide array of sashimi or garnishes, which can range from a selection of fish to a variety of vegetables (for the vegetarian version). And that’s another interesting note, as well; vegetarians certainly will not leave hungry. There are vegetable adaptations to nearly every component of Zento’s extensive menu, and each of them is thoughtfully prepared and executed.
Are you looking to taste your way through the menu? Give Zento’s bento box a try. Its components run the gamut from sushi rolls to seaweed salad, from lightly fried tempura to teriyaki, and is served with miso soup and a side salad. It’s another menu favorite and never disappoints.
Whether you select a soup or a salad, a rice bowl or noodle dish, sushi or sashimi or a combination of all of the above, Zento will get you where you need to go with quiet fanfare and excellent food — and a hot sake or Sapporo to accompany your culinary journey.