NaiNai’s Noodle & Dumpling Bar is so cannily conceived that you might find yourself wondering whether you’ve walked into a chain. Or someplace on its way to becoming one.
There’s the cartoon logo of a fat, smiling, chopstick-clutching grandma—or nainai in Mandarin. There are the concrete floors and industrial design that Chipotle helped make a fixture of the so-called fast-casual restaurant. There’s the order-at-the-counter format that emphasizes efficiency over warmth and personal attention.
But—surprise—this is a standalone, at least for now. The bigger surprise? That it minds the details often enough to rise above its streamlined structure and deliver some soulfulness on the cheap.
Noodle bowls are the thing to get, and you have only to tweeze out one of the long strands to understand why. One end is fat, the other thin. That might not sit well with persnickety sorts likely to be put out by any deviations from uniform appearance, but lovers of good eating are sure to appreciate the evidence of irregularity. It means the noodles don’t come from a package.
These are the genuine article, hand-rolled and hand-pulled, with exactly the heft and chew you hope for. And the kitchen is generally smart about dressing them. Of the seven varieties, I’m craziest about the pai gow—in which those noodles are tossed in a heady stew of ground pork, bean sprouts, and mustard greens; dashed with a smoky chili oil; and blitzed with ground peanuts—and a Northern Chinese preparation called mahjong noodles, which gives the Sunday-gravy treatment to a thick tangle of noodles, cucumbers, carrots, and bean sprouts, drenching them in a rich sauce of peanut butter and sesame paste.
Each comes with a small tray of snacks that change regularly (recent choices included ginger plum pickles, spicy bamboo shoots, and salted peanuts)—the sort of distinguishing detail that even a good chain is likely to find superfluous and expensive.
The dumplings are good, not great, but even a good, not great dumpling is a pretty wonderful thing. Go for the Year of the Pig, plumped with juicy ground pork, or the Year of the Dragon, packed with shrimp, scallops, and water chestnuts.
Beyond that, things get iffy. The steamed, stuffed buns are delicately made, but the meats inside, such as pork belly or five-spice duck, tend toward dry. Among the short list of small plates, I found the barbecue-glazed squid to be stiff and flavorless and a bowl of packaged soba noodles blandly sauced. But the spicy pickled bamboo shoots were crisp and addictive, and a dish of long-cooked baby back ribs over braised sweet potatoes was impossible to resist and deserves to be expanded into an entrée.
The beer list is better than at the vast majority of Chinese restaurants, putting you in mind of a detail-conscious neighborhood bistro, the kind that stocks DC Brau and Port City as proof of its commitment to the local scene.
The most disappointing thing about the place is nothing it can do anything about: a dearth of parking. NaiNai’s occupies the ground floor of an apartment building in that cluster of high-rises between Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue that makes Silver Spring feel more citified than some parts of DC. Each time I went, I parked in the garage under the building. (The only other option is metered street parking.) Five bucks even before you’ve set foot in the restaurant—or nearly the cost of a plate of dumplings.
This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.