When Kam Fong closed in DC’s Chinatown and moved to Wheaton, it did more than pick up and start over in a new location. It brought a shot of old-school Chinatown energy to a quiet strip of stores near the corner of University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue. Festooned with balloons and banners and so blazingly lit that the dining room could serve as a new-car showroom, the restaurant—rechristened New Kam Fong—has slowed nighttime traffic to a crawl as motorists slow down to look.
Inside there’s a crackling energy, too, much of it from the young, fast-talking manager, Kenny Li, who—as he plucks a menu from the stack by the bar and directs you to a chair—bids you to inspect the ducks and pigs and chickens hanging in the lighted display case and tries to interest you in the nightly special, which always seems to be lobster.
As it turns out, New Kam Fong is not the culinary revelation one might have hoped, given the stir it’s created. What it is is a thoroughly dependable Hong Kong–style Chinese restaurant, good for quick and inexpensive meals and carryout, that every so often rises to greater heights and encourages you to think of it as something better.
The shrimp dumplings are among the successes, their soft, thin wrappers bulging with the star ingredient and enlivened by a red pool of chili oil. Shrimp is as vital to Hong Kong–style cookery as steak is to Tex-Mex, and diners would be wise to order anything containing the versatile crustacean. A plate of shrimp and rice comes blanketed in a gravy of quickly stirred eggs, wine, and vinegar that knits the main ingredients together and makes for an unexpectedly rich and comforting dish. Shrimp also turn up deep-fried and bathed lightly in mayo for that dim sum staple, shrimp with walnuts; the kitchen takes the extra step of toasting the walnuts until they’re dark and nutty, then candies them.
A hot-and-sour soup was thin and punchless, but duck-and-cabbage soup was marvelous—a stew-like cauldron of chewy noodles, slivered barbecued duck, black mushrooms, snow peas, and pickled vegetables, all floating in a broth fragrant with ginger and star anise.
I never got around to trying the lobster—I’m averse to the hard sell, and an unchanging special doesn’t strike me as particularly special—but a dish of deep-fried bean curd with a sauce of egg whites and bits of lobster has a homey elegance and is oddly addicting.
Lamb with ginger, one of many entrées billed as “sizzling,” emerges looking like a skillet of fajitas; the meat is shaved thin, and the flavor of ginger is clear and pronounced. Other “sizzling” dishes have ranged from mediocre to worse: Slices of veal were soft but fatty and unappetizing. And a sputtering hot pot one night yielded a lot of rubberized octopus and dry pork in addition to soft bands of bean curd. Almost as a rule, these stir-fries have been in want of salt.
The roasted meats are hard to resist ordering, whether due to the fervency of the sales job or the sight of the glistening carcasses in the case, but their pleasures are intermittent: One night’s order of roast pork contained luscious pieces and dry pieces; another night, only dry.
Beyond the plate, there are not many comforts. The dining room is bare and white and too bright. In contrast to the bland efficiency we’ve come to expect in a Chinese restaurant, the staff often appears rushed and is sometimes forgetful. And little things are too often slighted: Tea has been tepid, and the fortune cookies—admittedly a throwaway—have been stale.
New Kam Fong has energy. Now what it needs is a little more mastery of detail.
This review appears in the December, 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.