7 Must-Try Chinese Restaurants in Washington

Todd Kliman picks his spots for favorite dumplings, noodles, ma po tofu, and more.
NaiNais Noodle and Dumpling Bar serves delicious noodle bowls, like this pai gow with ground pork and chili oil. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Hong Kong Palace

6387 Leesburg Pike, Seven Corners Center, Falls Church

Forget the name; this isn’t a Cantonese restaurant, it’s a Szechuan restaurant, and one of the best in the area, maybe the best. The chef is Liu Chaosheng, who also operates Uncle Liu’s Hotpot in Falls Church, China Jade in Rockville, and Mala Tang (with co-owner Owen Molovinsky) in Arlington—an empire that makes his the preeminent name in Chinese cooking in the area. I’m a fan of the latter restaurant, in particular its array of excellent small plates, but I’m giving HKP the nod for its versatility and its value. All the staples of the Szechuan canon are here—cumin lamb, dan dan noodles, ma po tofu—and the kitchen works with such deftness that you’re not just hit with wave after wave of heat, but can taste the thrilling interplay of hot and numbing, of pungent and smoky. Timid souls are advised to dip their toes into the roiling water with the Chengdu-style Kung Pao chicken, which is hotter, yes, than the dish you know, but also more focused in its flavors.

China Bistro

755 Hungerford Dr., Rockville

The Chinese name is not China Bistro, it’s Mama’s Dumplings. That’s not to say if you don’t order dumplings, as a good friend of mine did recently on a visit, you’ll be sorry (his crispy beef was a cut above the norm), but you won’t be tapping into what makes the place special. The dumplings are as supple as you can expect from wrappers that don’t aspire to be thin and delicate. An order brings a dozen steamed bundles in the shape of tied kerchiefs, generously packed and juicy (go for the shrimp-and-chive or the pork-with-dill), and eminently satisfying. And be sure to fill your tiny saucers with black vinegar and dumpling sauce, and dip liberally. I also like to get a bowl of the excellent cold sesame noodles, with its smoky, pungent chili sauce, and an order of garlicky cucumbers.

Full Key

2227 University Boulevard W., Silver Spring/Takoma Park

Amazing? No, not amazing. But consistent, mostly delicious, always filling, and on top of all of that, a stupendous value in an area that is stupendously overpriced. The dish to come for—the dish you can’t leave without ordering—is the shrimp dumpling soup, a dish that has changed not at all in two decades, and thank god for that. The dumplings are small and delicate, packed to bursting with shrimp, pork, and water chestnuts, and with subtle notes of white pepper flavoring the mix, and the broth has unexpected depth for something so clear. Among the entrees, don’t miss the beef hot pot, laced with black pepper. It’s what pepper steak can only dream of tasting like.

Panda Gourmet

2700 New York Ave., NE

There are some dishes at this crummy motel restaurant that will astonish you, they’re that good. You may find yourself saying something like, “I’ve never tasted ma po tofu like this, ever, anywhere.” Your expectations will begin to rise, like the heat in your system; you’ll become giddy at the thought that everything that comes after will be as terrific as that ma po tofu. It won’t be. For every two dishes that knock you out, there will be another one that will leave you wondering what the hell they did with the cook who made your ma po tofu. We haven’t even gotten to the service, which, on a good day, is gruff, forgetful, and negligent. But that ma po tofu. That fish in spicy soup. That double-cooked pork. That lamb with cumin.

Bob’s Shanghai 66

305 N. Washington St., Rockville

The proprietor, Bob Liu, used to own Bob’s Noodle 66, which, in its day, in the early aughts, was one of the most dependably delicious spots in Rockville’s unofficial Chinatown. It slid so precipitously after Liu left the restaurant that it became irrelevant. When Liu returned to the scene a couple of years ago, he made big moves, shifting Bob’s Noodle 66 to a spot around the corner, and installing Bob’s Shanghai 66 in the old Bob’s Noodle space. Confused? Don’t be. The restaurant to remember is Bob’s Shanghai 66, which has found a wonderful groove after a slow start. My most recent visit was full of gems. Go for the bean curd and pork—the long, thin bands of curd have the slipperiness and chew of great noodles, and the saucing is delicate and tight—and a plate of tiny shrimps in a surprisingly balanced sweet-and-sour chili sauce.

Hunan Taste

10160 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax/718 N. Rolling Rd., Catonsville

You know that ballplayer who either smacks a home run or manages a weak single, and only rarely produces a result in between? That’s what eating at this elegant strip-mall restaurant is like. Fortunately, the mushroom casserole with pork (best not to study its long, dark tadpole-like fungi), or a plate of silken strips of fish fillet in a tight and spicy bean curd sauce, or Divine Incense Mint Pork (chewy-crunchy strips of pork belly with fried mint) are so memorably good as to make you forget all about those dishes that did nothing for you.

NaiNai’s Noodle and Dumpling Bar

1200 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring/Takoma Park

Pluck one of the long strands from your noodle bowl, and you’ll see a thick end and a thin one. Don’t ask what gives with the irregularity; be grateful. The lack of uniformity tells you that nothing comes from a package, which is just what you would hope to find in a place that bills its noodles in its name. Each bowl, here, features the genuine article, hand-rolled and hand-pulled, and with just the right heft and chew. My favorites are the pai gow, the noodles tossed in a heady stew of ground pork, bean sprouts, and mustard greens, blitzed with ground peanuts, and dashed with smoky chili oil; or a Northern Chinese preparation called mahjong noodles, in which a thick tangle of noodles, cucumbers, carrots, and bean sprouts is drenched in a rich sauce of peanut butter and sesame paste. The dumplings, alas, are merely good, not great.

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