Travel the world while in Alexandria with local spins on global cuisine

Travel the world while in Alexandria with local spins on global cuisine
General Manager of Pho Nam Ryan Le said that their beef pho, pictured here, is their most popular item. (Photo / Pho Nam)

By Allison Hageman | 

While international travel might not be a reality for many people right now, Alexandrians don’t need to leave the city to experience food from all over the world. Instead, they can experience international food at one of the city’s many restaurants.

There are about 25 new restaurants in the city, some with international flavors for residents to try, according to Visit Alexandria. These restaurants offer both traditional and modern takes on tastes of the Middle East, South America, Europe and Asia – all here in the Port City. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite.

The chicken of Palestine

Shababi Chef and Founder Marcelle Afram said musakhan, a rotisserie-style chicken, is the national dish of Palestine. (Photo / Farrah Skeiky)

One new restaurant is Shababi, 5655-A General Washington Drive, which opened at the end of January and serves musakhan, a rotisserie chicken that is the national dish of Palestine.

Shababi was founded by Chef Marcelle Afram and shares space as a ghost kitchen in chef Roro Asmar’s Lebanese restaurant.

Afram said part of the reason he chose Alexandria was because of the city’s large Middle Eastern community. Afram’s family is Middle Eastern and he fondly remembers his grandparents cooking Palestinian food while he was growing up. He also remembers his family saying “Shababi,” an Arabic American word that means “my people,” when food was ready.

“I can cater probably to this group of people that haven’t had this dish in a really long time, and it can bring some nostalgia … and it can introduce Palestinian cuisine in general, to a plethora of people that may have not had it,” Afram said.

The chicken is traditionally cooked, but Afram said he has brought his own touch to it. It is brined with spices like Zumac, fenugreek, cardamom and cumin, slow roasted and served with bread made in-house on river stones. The chicken is made family style in whole or half chicken portions.

“For me, it’s just kind of like the food itself is like my journey as a Middle Eastern American, who grew up with these Palestinian roots,” Afram said.

As a ghost kitchen, Shababi operates on a preorder system. Preorders go live on Mondays at 3 p.m., at which point customers can order their meal online – if they can snag one. The restaurant has been open for only 14 weeks, and each week it has sold out, Afram said. He said Alexandria has a small community feel, which is phenomenal because he wants the restaurant to be a neighborhood spot.

“This is really amazing to me because it’s one of my goals, was I want people to pick up their food and I want the smells of the food on their drive home to just encapsulate the entire experience,” Marcelle said.

Pho Nam’s Vietnamese sandwich is currently only offered at their Alexandria location. (Photo / Pho Nam)

The Vietnamese sandwich

A handful of pan-Asian restaurants have opened during the last year. Sisters Thai and Thai Signature in- fuse new Thai flavors into the city’s food scene. Hinata Sushi Bar & Grill and Sushi Jin Next Door have given residents some new Japanese options. And for Vietnamese food, there is Pho Nam.

Pho Nam, 606 King St., is the second location of a Vietnamese restaurant that has been in Gaithersburg, Maryland for more than 20 years. The family-run restaurant chose to expand to Alexandria because Old Town reminded them of their historic hometown in Vietnam, General Manager Ryan Le said. They also thought it would be an ideal place to introduce their cuisine and culture because of the number of tourists and locals.

“We really feel like home whenever we come out here to eat or hang out,” Le said.

In keeping with the restaurant’s slogan, “the great taste from yesteryear,” the food at Pho Nam is traditional Vietnamese cuisine, Le said. The most popular item is the beef pho, but Pho Nam’s Alexandria location also offers another sought- out menu item: banh mi, or the Vietnamese sandwich.

“The [food] that we do in here, we try to do it as traditional and authentic as possible,” Le said. “So, we try to stick with the old original recipe and we don’t really do like fusion or anything like that.”

The restaurant opened on King Street in the middle of the pandemic, and despite low foot traffic, Le said the community has been extremely supportive.

After the pandemic, Le said he wants to create a family friendly environment at Pho Nam because the building has the size to host a lot of people and create an authentic community space.

“I want to create that family environment that you can just come back here. And when you come into the door, I would recognize you. I know what it is that you want,” Le said.

Other international flavors

Longtime friends Philipos Mengistu and Daniel Solomon of Makeda Ethiopian Restaurant on Van Dorn Street. (Photo Credit / Alexa Epitropoulos)

There are a variety of other new restaurants that will satisfy the local globetrotter.

For South American food, Alexandrians can try Silpancho’s House, a Bolivian restaurant that opened in Del Ray 2019 at 3401 Mt.Vernon Ave.

“We adopted ingredients from here and fused them with the ingredients of Bolivia, and, little by little, we found the flavor that best suited our childhood memories,” owners Eulogia Cabero, Rosemary Vasquez and their two brothers wrote to The Washington Post.

Silpancho’s House prides itself on its friendly service, Bolivian comfort food and authentic cuisine. Its menu features Bolivian classics like the eponymous silpancho, which is akin to chicken fried steak, chorrellana and peanut soup.

Another Alexandria staple and restaurant week favorite is RusUz, which, true to its name, features food from Russia and Uzbekistan. RusUz is located at 210 Swamp Fox Road and features meat pirozhki, borscht and Russian-style ravioli.

Alexandria is also host to several popular Ethiopian restaurants, including Makeda, 516A S. Van Dorn St., which opened its doors in Alexandria in 2017 and continues to serve classic dishes from chef Philipos Mengistu.

“We opened [Queen of Sheba] to introduce Ethiopian food to New Yorkers and to serve the international community. We’ve loved sharing with family and friends and now we’ve brought that experience to Alexandria,” Mengistu told the Alexandria Times in 2017.

While the pandemic has kept many Alexandrians from traveling, don’t let that stop you from taking your taste buds on a trip around the world. Many new local restaurants like Shababi and Pho Nam are ready to open their doors and share their cultures.

“We would try to keep doing the best we can then open the door and welcome everyone,” Le said.