Gaze upon the Chinese characters outside Hooters in DC’s Chinatown and you realize that this landmark neighborhood is dying if not already dead. The area, now most often called Penn Quarter, doesn’t lack for Chinese restaurants. But it does lack for really good ones.
The greatest concentration of authentic Chinese restaurants these days is in Rockville—a preponderance that lends authority to claims of a “new” Chinatown. The owners of these restaurants, cafes, and noodle shops are typically the kids of parents who migrated from DC’s Chinatown to the suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s and sowed the seeds for a regeneration.
Three of Rockville’s best go by simple American names: Bob’s, Joe’s, and Michael’s. But don’t think these are bland sops to the American palate.
Bob is Bob Liu, the owner of Bob’s Noodle 66 (305 N. Washington St.; 301-315-6668). He presides over a bare-bones dining room descended upon every night by families who share tureen-size bowls of soup and dishes the likes of which are seldom found on area menus. The kitchen’s repertoire runs to more than 200 dishes, from the enticingly exotic (fried duck’s tongue) to the simple and hearty (a marvelous ginger-chicken casserole). Taiwanese hamburger, a steamed bun stuffed with long-cooked pork and mustard greens, is terrific. For dessert, take your cue from the tables all around you: a volcanic mound of shaved ice capped with red beans, peanuts, and syrup.
The menus at Joe’s Noodle House (1488-C Rockville Pike; 301-881-5518) and Michael’s Noodles (10038 Darnestown Rd.; 301-738-0370) are no less extensive. Joe’s is one of the best destinations for chili-heads, who will exult over the steamed tilapia drenched in chopped pickled cabbage and a mess of diced finger peppers, as well as a roster of fiery soups, noodle bowls, and small, snack-size dishes (a number of which, such as the dan dan mian, feature the famed ma la peppercorn). Michael’s impersonates a contemporary American bistro, right down to the dangling lights. The real appeal, though, is the cooking, which at its best favors the long, slow simmer over the quick stir-fry: slow-roasted beef noodle soup; braised chicken and rice steeped in chicken broth; thick Shanghai-style noodles.
The pleasures of China Bistro (755 Hungerford Dr.; 301-294-0808) are much the same as those found in stellar home cooking; it’s not for nothing that the place is known unofficially as Mama’s Dumplings. The lunch, dinner, and weekend lines are mainly for those marvelous steamed bundles, including the excellent beef-and-celery and the shrimp-and-chive. Both are better after being swiped in a dish of vinegar and chili oil.
The great gift of A&J Restaurant (1319-C Rockville Pike; 301-251-7878) is its lengthy lineup of dim sum, offered daily. The restaurant serves the less commonly seen Northern-style dim sum, with its reliance on pancakes and noodles. Order right and you can have a rich and varied feast for an exceptionally low price. That means balancing plates of smoked chicken and bowls of noodles and dumplings (look for the wontons in hot red sauce) with lighter, brighter tastes, including house-pickled cucumbers and boiled peanuts.