BEST OF CHINATOWN
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.