January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

Look past the grubby stripmall exterior--this is some of the best Szechuan cooking in the area.

No. 78: Joe’s Noodle House

It’s a truism of Chinese restaurants that the more disoriented you are, the more likely the food is to be authentic.

Joe’s has institutionalized disorientation with its system of ordering: First you secure a table—if there’s one to be snagged; often as not, there’s a line out the door. Then you look over the menu and decide on your choices. It’s no easy feat, with more than 200 dishes to consider plus a separate vegetarian menu; the variety of styles (Szechuan, Cantonese, Korean, and more) and preparations (noodles, pickled dishes, whole fishes, stir-fries, soups, even breads) is daunting. Only now, after your head is swimming, do you go to the counter and place your order.

That doesn’t end the chaos. The food often arrives in a happily haphazard manner (two, three plates at a time). But with the food comes clarity and focus, as the intensity of the cooking forces you to concentrate on the dishes at hand: a whole tilapia topped with pickled vegetables; slices of garlicky pork with chives; pickled long beans with minced pork; a deep-fried baton of bread; minced pork with black beans, sliced garlic, and chives; delicate rice cakes with pork and mushrooms; tender shrimp with edamame in a light Cantonese sauce.

Blessedly free of cloying saucing, packing heat when appropriate, and full of complexities, these dishes offer an intriguing contrast to the genericized Chinese-American cooking that predominates today.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.