The question with the great Chinese chef Peter Chang used to be: Will he stick around? Chang was notorious for opening a spot and vanishing soon after. These days, as he commands an empire of seven restaurants throughout Virginia and now Maryland (plus a splashy, ambitious venture possibly coming to DC’s Navy Yard), the burning question has become: Is he in the kitchen? Changians, a devoted band of followers who trail his moves like Deadheads, have been known to call in advance of booking a table to discern his whereabouts. Is there a payoff to his being on-site? Definitely. Such dishes as his scallion bubble pancake (puffed up like a paper lantern when cooked properly) and dry-fried eggplant are lighter and defter, though with expansion has come an inevitable diminution of what’s known as ma la—the magical, mysterious combination of numbing spice and hot peppers that has ignited many of the chef’s best Szechuan dishes. If Chang’s not in, you still will likely eat better than at 90 percent of the Chinese restaurants out there, though you may be left wondering what all the hype is about.
Where you can get it: 2503-E N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-538-6688; 20-A Maryland Ave., Rockville, 301-838-9188
Also good: Cilantro fish rolls; cumin lamb chops; flounder-and-cabbage soup; mapotofu; tofu-and-fish balls.