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Dining Out in Chinatown/Penn Quarter
It’s almost 75 years old, and you can still find wonderful atmosphere and delicious food in DC’s Chinatown.
Why Chinatown is Still Special
Washington's Chinatown stretches from Fifth to Eighth streets, Northwest, around G, H, and I streets. DC's first Chinatown was at Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourth Street, where in 1902 it included four restaurants. In 1931, it moved to its current site when the original location was razed to make way for Federal Triangle.
Chinatown provided home cooking for expatriates, groceries and household goods for the local Chinese community, and tasty Chinese fare at bargain prices for Occidentals. Chinatown restaurants emerged unscathed from the riots and fires sparked by the 1968 assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, which caused a middle-class exodus to the suburbs and depressed DC dining for a decade.
Yet Chinatown's restaurants flourished during the 1970s, and not just at lunch and dinner. Most kitchens served until 3 AM, and the neighborhood was considered a safe haven for diners after a night of bar-hopping. On almost any night, the stairs leading up to the doors of the two top restaurants on H Street, China Inn and Ruby, were filled with lines of customers waiting for the next free table.
Interest in authentic Chinese cuisine got a boost from President Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to Beijing, where he and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai began to normalize relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. Following the President, the White House press corps breached the Great Wall and regaled American readers with stories of dazzling banquets contrasted with the fare that ordinary Chinese ate at home and in dumpling shops, where the specialty was pan-fried dumplings called "pot stickers." It was the second coming of Marco Polo.
Two years before President Nixon's visit to China, New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne had begun work on a Chinese cookbook with Virginia Lee, whom Claiborne later described as "perhaps the greatest nonprofessional cook I have ever known." The publication of The Chinese Cookbook coincided with Nixon's China trip. For many Americans the book opened the door to a world beyond chop suey and egg foo young.
Claiborne and Lee's collaboration remains as fresh as it was in 1972. Some of today's best Chinese cookbooks were written in the 1970s and early '80s, including The People's Republic of China Cookbook by Nobuko Sakamoto, Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook by Ellen and John Schrecker, and Kenneth Lo's Chinese Regional Cooking.
But it was Claiborne's position at the New York Times that made him not only the most reliable guide to dining in New York's five boroughs but the most influential arbiter of national taste. Claiborne declared that the two greatest cuisines in the world were French and Chinese—and that they were so different that one could not be called better than the other. Francophiles who chafe at the thought should be reminded that Paul Bocuse, one of the fathers of nouvelle cuisine, made a similar declaration in the 1990s.
Until 1976, the cooking in Chinatown's restaurants was predominantly Cantonese, with an occasional nod to a popular dish from Beijing, such as moo shu pork or lamb with scallions. Then came Tony Cheng, a brash young entrepreneur who opened Szechuan, a second-story place on I Street, and offered an encyclopedic menu devoted to the spicy specialties of southwestern China. It became DC's most successful Chinatown restaurant overnight because Cheng broke every rule in the neighborhood's book: He provided a spicy alternative to Cantonese cuisine; he refused to have different menus for Occidentals and for Chinese patrons; and he devoted a section of his menu to seasonal vegetables in combinations with meats and seafoods. On weekends, Szechuan served a lunchtime menu of mainly northern-style dim sum.
And Cheng broke the ultimate Chinatown rule of indifferent service toward everyone. A theory was posited that Chinatown restaurants were unharmed in the 1968 riots because their staffs had treated every patron with equal indifference.
Tony Cheng's catch-phrase—borrowed from an Alka-Seltzer commercial—was "Try it, you'll like it!" It was printed on the menu, and Cheng repeated it, accompanied by laughter, to his clients. One of these clients catapulted Cheng into Washington's history: Hamilton Jordan, White House chief of staff to President Jimmy Carter, liked the cooking at Szechuan so much that he persuaded the President to join him there for dinner. In those days, presidents dined out so infrequently that it was national news.
President Carter enjoyed his evening at Szechuan so much that he invited Tony Cheng and his staff to prepare a Chinese banquet for friends and family at the White House. After that, patrons flocked to Szechuan to taste the dishes that had been served at the White House.
Tony Cheng's presidential dinner had such an influence that the Cantonese restaurants on H Street started adding lists of "hot and spicy dishes" to their menus. But while these preparations were spicy, they usually lacked the complexity of flavors that defines the best Szechuan cooking. Then—as now—one could dine well at the best Chinatown restaurants by ordering dishes from the cooks' home regions of Canton and Hong Kong.
Part of the adventure of dining in Chinatown for Occidental diners was the struggle to get a copy of the menu offered to Chinese patrons, then convincing the server that one wanted the dishes cooked authentically. The differences between the two ways of cooking the same dish could be startling: For Occidentals, a Cantonese classic of spareribs in black-bean sauce would be a stew-like dish of spareribs inundated with brown gravy and with little flavor of the black-bean spice. For Chinese diners, the kitchen would "dry-cook" the meat, then present the spareribs coated with a spare glaze of deliciously savory sauce.
It is much easier these days for Occidentals to get authentically cooked dishes, but not all of Chinatown's restaurants are thriving. The old adage "Chinese restaurants never close, they just change owners" no longer applies. Several Chinese places on Seventh Street have been replaced by chains such as Legal Sea Foods and Ruby Tuesday. Chinese restaurants whose premises have been shuttered include Great Wall and the building that once was home to Szechuan, both on I Street. On H Street's stir-fry corridor, Hunan Chinatown, the first restaurant in the neighborhood that had an attractive modern setting, formal service, and a menu that offered only the best-known dishes from Hunan and Szechuan, is closed.
There always has been a shortage of street parking in the area; Chinatown parking can be very hard if there is an event at the MCI Center—every lot within walking distance of the center charges upward of $25. Metro-riding patrons of the MCI Center have increased the business of some Chinese restaurants. According to several restaurateurs on H Street, hockey fans and concertgoers patronize Chinese restaurants while basketball fans tend to go to one of the American chains.
Chinese diners once came from the suburbs to DC's Chinatown because it was the best source of authentic Cantonese cuisine. In much of the 1980s, the best Chinese restaurants in the suburbs specialized in the cooking of Peking or Szechuan and did not appeal to most local Chinese, who were from Canton or Hong Kong. In the 1990s, as the Chinese communities in Virginia and Maryland grew, some very good restaurants specializing in Hong Kong cooking—places like Oriental East in Silver Spring and Maxim Palace in Baileys Crossroads—opened to satisfy the tastes of local Chinese.
Chinatown's restaurants also may be suffering because Occidental diners, particularly younger ones, now favor trendier Asian cuisines such as those of Vietnam and Thailand, both heavily influenced by China, and trendiest of all, Japanese sushi. The general reputation of Chinese food has been debased by carryouts and home-delivery: The cooking tends to be mediocre, and the food diminishes in quality as it steams in its little cardboard coffins.
To search for the best of Chinatown, one meal was taken at every Asian restaurant. Two that did not make the cut were Szechuan Gallery and the venerable China Doll. Both had signs promoting dim sum at all hours as a house specialty, but the assortments of steamed and fried dumplings at both were of such poor quality that there seemed little point in exploring their regular menus.
Aside from Cantonese roast duck, at its best in Chinatown, an effort was made to discover lesser-known dishes that are house specialties of a given restaurant. Northern dishes like moo shu pork and Szechuan preparations were avoided because Chinatown kitchens are at their best with the specialties of Canton and Hong Kong. The top restaurants on this survey offer cooking that is as good as and often better than any you're likely to encounter in Washington, and a couple of kitchens wouldn't be out of place in the Chinatowns of Manhattan, San Francisco, and Vancouver.
All restaurants reviewed are open daily until at least 11 PM, with many serving until 3 AM. The cost for two people sharing three dishes with tea plus tax and tip ranges between $26 and $36, higher if they indulge in such extravagances as lobster, Dungeness crab, and live fish.
Eat First (609 H St., NW; 202-289-1703). In its own way, Eat First is as important a restaurant today as Tony Cheng's Szechuan was in the 1970s. Now on H Street, Eat First is distinguished by a young floor staff happy to help guide non-Chinese patrons interested in authentic Hong Kong specialties. Management has demystified the specials written on posterboard in Chinese by including English translations, and the kitchen often introduces new dishes to the Chinatown repertory.
The bad news: In a biannual taste test conducted by this writer to discover Chinatown's best Cantonese roast duck, Eat First's bird—sampled at two meals—was not quite as tender as it has been at its stellar best. It finished third, after a very good second-place bird enjoyed at New Big Wong. First place went to Tony Cheng's crisp-skinned, splendidly tender duck.
Compose a meal at Eat First from the classics on the set menu—tender yee foo noodles with crab and a superb Chinese casserole of chicken with ginger and scallion—and the new dishes listed among the posted specials, or ones made from ingredients so recently arrived that the floor staff offers them verbally. One such seasonal speciality was an earthy stir-fry of sliced lotus roots—as crispy as celery and almost as sweet as carrots—dried shiitake mushrooms, Chinese sausage, Chinese bacon, snow peas, carrot slices, garlic, and ginger, all bound in a glaze of faintly sweet, dark-brown sauce.
One of the most memorable dishes was a seasonal specialty of lobster with XO Sauce, a somewhat mysterious sauce that appeared in Hong Kong 20 years ago. The dish was a stunner: chunks of unshelled, stir-fried lobster served over rolled ribbons of wide rice noodles, each topped with a teaspoon of XO Sauce. The flavor of the XO Sauce—derived from such ingredients as dried scallop, dried shrimp, and shrimp roe—enhances the crustacean's sweetness.
A dish of yu choy sum, a green vegetable like Chinese broccoli, with oyster sauce, ordered to complement the lobster, showed the care that vegetables get from this kitchen. It was far more tender than this fibrous green usually is and had the vibrant flavor of a freshly gathered vegetable.
Full Kee (509 H St., NW; 202-371-2233). For regulars, a meal at Full Kee is centered around one of the Hong Kong soups assembled to order in the open kitchen. There are noodle soups with garnishes ranging from Cantonese roast duck to fishballs. And there is jook, a soothing rice porridge lent interest by the last-minute addition of mixed seafood or pickled vegetables or slices of preserved eggs.
But the real treasure among these meal-size bowls is the Hong Kong shrimp-dumpling soup, first served in Chinatown by Full Kee in the early 1990s. Now it's on several other menus in the neighborhood, but none matches this one for the remarkable flavor of its dumplings—diced shrimp and slivers of dried shiitake mushroom sheathed in tissue-thin dough. The secret of their intense flavor is that they are made fresh in small quantities in the regular kitchen and delivered to the soup station several times during meals.
The quality of the dishes on the regular menu has fluctuated over the years but is on the upswing. And Full Kee's floor staff is receptive to requests from non-Chinese diners for dishes not listed on the menu. Asked if the kitchen would prepare roast pork chow mai foon, the waitress replied, "Dry or with sauce?" Ordered dry—as it should be—the result was the Cantonese classic of thread-thin rice noodles stir-fried with a julienne of roast pork, scallions, bean sprouts, and just enough soy sauce to lend a brown tint to the noodles. When asked that the Singapore-style rice noodles be cooked the way the dish is in Hong Kong—with a small amount of shredded fresh green or red chilies rather than sliced green bell peppers, as it usually is here—the server brought a delicious stir-fry of rice noodles with curry powder, roast pork, tiny shrimp, egg, scallions, and just the right amount of green chilies.
Full Kee was the first Chinatown restaurant to feature stir-fries with Chinese chive blossoms. Students of Chinese cuisine will enjoy chicken and salty fish with Chinese chives, but diners who shudder at the thought of a pizza topped with anchovies should avoid it. For diners with mildly adventurous palates, a good introduction to this wonderful vegetable is a stir-fry of Chinese chive blossoms with shrimp, a dish not listed on the menu but available on request.
Lei Garden (629-631 H St., NW; 202-216-9696). When it took over the premises of the China Inn in 1997, Lei Garden offered an alternative to the traditional Chinatown lunch special by introducing an all-you-can-eat buffet. From seaweed salad and Cantonese roast duck to Szechuan stir-fries and dim sum dumplings, the variety was impressive and the quality surprisingly good. The buffet suspends operation from late fall through the winter, reopening in May or June.
Lei Garden's sprawling banquet hall on the second floor features very good dim sum served from rolling carts daily from 11:30 AM to 3 PM. It speaks well for the quality of the dumplings and small savory dishes that compose this traditional Hong Kong tea lunch that at least half the patrons on any given day are Chinese. On a recent visit, the purse-shaped shu mai were remarkable for the freshness of their shrimp-and-pork stuffing; the steamed pork and Chinese-chive dumplings were a close second to the sensational pan-fried pork-and-shrimp dumpling wrapped in a translucent dough. Only the shark-fin dumpling was less than good. Among the small savory dishes, the steamed spareribs with chili and black-bean sauce, the bean curd stuffed with shrimp, and a serving of wonderfully tender chicken feet were all very good. The only disappointment of a dim sum lunch at Lei Garden is that its menu no longer has chrysanthemum tea or the classic Cantonese dipping sauce of sliced fresh green chilies in soy sauce, both standards at a serious dim sum parlor. But they can be requested.
Downstairs, one may compose a meal from a relatively brief menu of mostly Szechuanese dishes plus a few popular dishes from other regions of China, such as lamb with spring onions from Peking and shrimp with lobster sauce from Canton. But if a rather flat-flavored version of a Hong Kong classic, Singapore-style rice noodles, is any indication, it is best to focus on the spicy dishes from southwestern China. The "boiled" house specialties are unique in Chinatown to Lei Garden—a good one for newcomers is the Szechuan very spicy boiled beef, a rustic casserole packed with slices of beef, Napa cabbage, and fresh green chilies, all in a heady broth flecked with dried hot-pepper flakes. Also worth ordering, though not at the same meal, are the shredded chicken and the Asian eggplant, each stir-fried with garlicky yushion sauce.
New Big Wong (610 H St., NW; 202-628-0491). One afternoon this winter, a waiter and two waitresses from Chinatown Garden sat down at New Big Wong for a late lunch. The three slender twentysomethings shared a large platter of steamed shrimp, which a few minutes earlier had been basking in a saltwater tank near the kitchen; a soup generously garnished with mixed seafood and bean curd; steamed whole fish with garlic, ginger, and scallions; beef short ribs with black pepper sauce; and on choy, a watercress-like Chinese vegetable, stir-fried with garlic. Five dishes shared by three diners. This was not a birthday but a model of a Chinese family-style meal, exemplary in its balance of colors, textures, flavors, and nutrients.
New Big Wong was opened in the 1980s by Paul Kee, who later opened H Street's wonderful Hong Kong soup kitchen, Full Kee. In ensuing years, New Big Wong has undergone changes in its name—it was Big Wong in the beginning—in its management, and in the quality of its cooking. These days the cuisine is very good. The restaurant's clientele is preponderantly Chinese, and a student of Chinese cuisine can get the genuine article by asking for the soup menu and the dinner menu and going from there.
The soup menu is ideal for two diners who want to enjoy a variety of flavors without overordering. A bowl of Hong Kong shrimp-dumpling soup almost as good as the one that made Full Kee famous is big enough to fill two small bowls twice. To go with the soup, order a quarter-portion of roast duck and a stir-fry of baby bok choy with oyster sauce. Its dark, crisp skin and pull-off-the-bone flesh make it one of the top Cantonese roast ducks. The check for this mini feast for two, including tax and tip, is $26.
After a three-page listing of dishes intended for its non-Chinese clientele, New Big Wong's dinner menu offers five pages of authentic Hong Kong dishes. Among the specialties unique to this kitchen are a pair of preparations cooked and served in Chinese covered casseroles, called "hot pots." At the lower end of the price scale, the Chur Chur Chicken in a chafing dish is a delight of wings cut into bite-size pieces, whole shallots, slices of Chinese sausage, dried shiitake mushrooms, ginger, and scallions, all bound in a spare amount of oyster sauce. The bone-in pieces of wings make for tricky eating, but the splendid flavor of meat cooked on the bone makes up for the inconvenience. Prices for the hot pots range from $9.95 for the Chur Chur Chicken to $24.95 for the exquisite lobster with bean thread in pot, a Chinese casserole brimming with segments of unshelled lobster, sliced ginger root, scallion shreds, and julienne carrots, all in a tangle of cellophane noodles imbued with lobster flavor.
Two other dishes that make an excellent first impression are the House Kan Shaw Yee Mein, tender noodles stir-fried with beef, chicken, and shrimp—comfort food Chinese-style—and a dish listed as XO Sauce Short Ribs. The thin strips of beef short ribs are succulent and flavorsome, but the dark brown sauce that coats them bears no resemblance to the XO Sauce served in Hong Kong. Arguments about the authenticity of its XO Sauce aside, this dish deserves to be included in a meal here.
Chinatown Garden (618 H St., NW; 202-737-8887). Housed in the former premises of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association—whose opening in 1931 marked the move of Chinatown from Pennsylvania Avenue to H Street—Chinatown Garden is a much-improved restaurant under its new ownership. The personable floor staff's willingness to explain dishes encourages Occidental diners to try unfamiliar offerings.
The kitchen's specialty is Taiwanese cooking, which means that most dishes come from the Szechuan/Hunan repertory and are prepared in all of their oily glory.
Three appetizers worth seeking are a plate of mildly pickled cucumbers; conch in a peppery sauce; and Nanking Salty Duck, a brine-soaked poached duck whose pearly flesh has the flavor of country ham. Chinatown Garden's other treatments of duck are less successful. Its Cantonese roast duck has a crisp skin, but its flesh is less than tender.
Chinese-style shredded beef has the hallmark oiliness of Taiwanese cooking: Every shred of meat and cut of vegetable—celery, onion, bell pepper, scallion, and bamboo shoot—glistens, and slices of fresh green chilies fuel the dish's appetizing heat. A stir-fry of snow-pea leaves with shrimp—a preparation closely identified with Hong Kong—had too much oil.
The two best main courses were the pork with dried bean curd—on Hong Kong and Cantonese menus, this dish is often given the cryptic designation "Fried Two Kind"—and a palate-fooling Vegetarian Pork Home-Style, whose slices of wheat-gluten "meat" were absolutely convincing.
Chinatown Express (746 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-0424). This sub-sidewalk dining room is one of those Chinese restaurants that Manhattanites love in their own Chinatown: a plain place where the specialties are so good or so distinct that they make the premises worth enduring for the sake of the cooking. In fact, a New York Times review of Chinatown Express is displayed alongside notices from the local press on a sandwich board on the sidewalk. But the more impressive show takes place in the storefront's window daily at lunch: At the counter behind the glass, either young women make dumplings or a venerable chef practices the art of lai mein, a bit of Chinese culinary magic in which a thick rope of dough is stretched until the chef snaps it between his outstretched arms, causing it to separate into dozens of strands of noodles.
The lai mein—"stretched noodles"—may be ordered stir-fried with the diner's choice of meat, seafood, or vegetables or as a meal-in-a-bowl soup with a choice of garnishes. Recommended choices for the lai mein in soup are beef or mixed seafood. The Cantonese-style roasted meats temptingly displayed to the side of the lai mein counter—whole roasted pig, glossy strips of barbecue pork, duck, and chicken—grow soggy in the broth and are better as toppings for either the stir-fried stretched noodles or steamed rice. That splendid roasted whole pig, with its crackling-crisp skin, is best enjoyed served unaccompanied on a platter.
Chinatown Express may be the only local source for siu lim bao—literally, "juicy little buns." A specialty of Shanghai, these plump little dumplings stuffed with pork are eaten in a single bite because each contains broth that fills the mouth at first bite. You rarely see a table of Chinese here without at least one steamer of Shanghai soup dumplings.
Here also is the neighborhood's best buy on lobster stir-fried with ginger and scallions: Impeccably prepared, it is bargain-priced at $16.95. And don't overlook the kitchen's hidden treasure, listed among the house specialties as "house special chicken (half)." It is an intensely flavored, free-range bird whose crisp skin has been fried to an even dark brown. Resting in a pool of soy sauce and showered with thin slices of fried garlic and minced scallion tops, it is a Cantonese delicacy that by itself merits a visit to Chinatown Express.
Tai Shan (622 H St., NW; 202-639-0266). In the late 1980s, when its name was Tai Tung, this Chinatown stalwart enjoyed a brief season in the sun when Mimi Sheraton, then the New York Times restaurant critic, praised its smoked crabs—local blue crabs chopped into several pieces and stir-fried with ginger and scallion in the least amount of oil possible. Truth be told, every other restaurant along H Street's stir-fry corridor served smoked crabs every bit as good as Tai Tung's. But it became the place to go for smoked crabs in Chinatown.
When new ownership changed its name to Tai Shan in the early '90s, the talent of the new kitchen made it one of the top restaurants in the neighborhood: Its meal-in-a-bowl Hong Kong soups, garnished with dumplings or noodles or broth, equaled those served at Full Kee, and its Chinese casseroles and roast duck were competition for similar dishes at Eat First. Alas, the spiritless dishes recently sampled at Tai Shan bear little resemblance to those that earned it several Washingtonian Best Bargain Restaurant awards.
The formerly impressive Cantonese roast duck still has a dark-brown skin, but now it is less than crisp and has too much fat. The wonderful Hong Kong shrimp dumpling soup of the past has been replaced by a bowl of wan broth garnished with flat-flavored dumplings. The flounder hot pot, once the best Chinese casserole in the neighborhood, now disappoints with its inexplicably flavorless pieces of fried flounder.
Tony Cheng's Mongolian Restaurant (619 H St., NW; 202-842-8669). This is a welcome alternative for diners who find the long-format Chinatown menu daunting: Here the only two dishes offered are Mongolian barbecue, with ingredients selected by the diner, then passed to chefs who quickly cook it on a massive grill, and the Mongolian hot pot, an Asian counterpart to fondue, in which diners cook their meal by dipping components in a bowl of boiling stock.
The expansive dining room, packed to capacity every weekday lunch, reveals the differing tastes of Chinese and Occidental diners: The Chinese patrons likely order the hot pot, while Occidental patrons often choose the all-you-can-eat $15.95 Mongolian barbecue. Either meal begins with complimentary nibbles of salted peanuts and a platter of pickled Napa cabbage scattered with dangerous-looking whole red chilies.
The boiling Mongolian hot pots are no longer brought to the table in impressive brass pots with chimneys venting the smoke from the charcoal that fired them; those have been replaced by stainless-steel bowls of stock on gas-fired burners. The best incentive for trying the hot pot is that it can yield the most delicious shrimp feast at a bargain price.
Served for two or more, the hot pot costs an initial $5 per diner for the boiling stock and a plate of vegetables, bean curd, and noodles, meant to be added to the pot after other ingredients have been cooked and eaten to provide a final course of soup. Small plates of the raw ingredients to be cooked cost $5 or less for each portion of seafood, chicken, meat, fishballs, or fish dumplings with a stuffing of minced pork, which are delicious.
Good as the rest of the ingredients are—a hot pot without the fishballs and fish dumplings is a waste of a visit—start your introduction to the pleasures of the hot pot with just the shrimp. Finicky eaters can order peeled shrimp, but anybody who can eat Maryland spiced shrimp should order the unshelled, head-on shrimp. The intensity of flavor is the reward for the trouble of peeling them at table. Place them in the boiling stock for two minutes, then retrieve them to your plate. By the time they cool enough to be peeled, they will be perfectly cooked. A number of sauces are provided with the hot pot, but to appreciate the true flavor of the shrimp, eat the first few unsauced. After you have finished cooking as many plates of shrimp as you want, add the vegetables, noodles, and bean curd to the pot. The broth, now reduced and enriched by the ingredients cooked in it, will yield one of the most delicious soups you will ever taste in Chinatown.
Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant (619 H St., NW; 202-371-8669). With rare exceptions, Chinese restaurateurs and chefs work in anonymity. Exceptions that come to mind are T.T. Wang, the original chef at Manhattan's great Shun Lee restaurants, whose Shun Lee Dynasty was the first Chinese restaurant to earn a four-star review from the New York Times; Wen Dah Tai, once head chef at Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan in Manhattan; and Henry Chung of the Hunan Restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown. In or out of Chinatown, Tony Cheng is the only Washington name readily associated with Chinese restaurants—so much so that a Washington Times sports columnist refers to the area around the MCI Center as "Tony Cheng's Neighborhood."
When Cheng closed Szechuan and concentrated on his seafood restaurant, he hung onto the Occidental regulars from his former restaurant by keeping the spicy dishes they loved on the menu alongside specialties from Canton and Hong Kong that appeal to the local Chinese community.
Twenty-eight years after he opened his first Chinatown restaurant, Tony Cheng still can claim that his place not only is the busiest in the neighborhood but also attracts the largest number of Chinese diners. What has made Cheng a success with Western and Eastern patrons is his devotion to buying the best available raw materials and paying the salaries required to maintain a kitchen comparable to some of the best in Chinatowns of Manhattan, San Francisco, and Vancouver.
But premium-quality products and the kitchen talent required to prepare them properly result in the highest-priced menu in Chinatown: Lunchtime combination plate specials are $9.95, while neighborhood competitors lure customers with combos priced as low as $3.70. The packed dining room at Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant is a good indication that plenty of diners are willing to pay for the best quality.
Recommending the best dishes from a menu with more than 200 main courses—not counting the weekday à la carte dim sum menu or the expanded selection served from carts on Saturday and Sunday—is daunting. Some of the spicy specialties carried over from the old Szechuan menu include chicken with wine sauce, crispy beef Szechuan style, shredded pork with Szechuan pickle, and probably the best ma-po bean curd in the metro area. Some of the dishes that Tony Cheng's Chinese clientele enjoy are the Dungeness crabs stir-fried with ginger and scallion, whole sea bass steamed with ginger and scallions, shrimp steamed in lotus leaves, and a Cantonese classic, chopped boiled chicken in ginger sauce made with a full-flavored, free-range chicken.
A new-old dish, available by request, was first cooked from a recipe written in Chinese that was brought in by a customer who had enjoyed it years earlier at Shun Lee Dynasty in New York. It is a Szechuan dish called Bamboo-Steamer Beef—slices of beef crusted with crushed rice and pepper and steamed on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes in a small bamboo steamer. The contrast between the crunchy coating of rice and the juicy tenderness of the beef is stunning. And you can enjoy it only at Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant.Senior wine-and-food editor Robert Shoffner wrote about Washington's French bistros, past and present, in the December issue.