The Best Cheap Chinese Restaurants Around DC

The Best Cheap Chinese Restaurants Around DC
Photo by Scott Suchman

Bob’s Shanghai 66

305 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-251-6652

It tells you something that on a menu encompassing dim sum; dumplings (there’s a special window to watch the cooks stretch and roll the dough); and Cantonese, Szechuan, and Taiwanese dishes, one of the most winning items is the simplest: a plate of snow-pea leaves. They hit the table tender and crunchy, the slight vegetal bitterness leavened by generous spoonfuls of fortified cooking liquid. When it’s on—and lately it has been very on—Bob’s delivers this degree of effortless excellence across the board, in teeming bowls of delicately wrought soups that are best shared with a group, in the tender soup dumplings known as XLB (pierce the top and slurp the hot broth inside before eating), and in stir-fries without even a smidge of excess oil.

Also good: Pan-fried pork buns; shrimp in chili sauce; spicy beef tendon; sour-cabbage-with-pork-belly pot; shredded pork with Chinese celery; shredded pork with green-mustard soup.

China Bistro

cheapest places to eat Cheap Eats 2016 China Bistro, chinese restaurants
Go on a dumpling bender at China Bistro. Photograph by Scott Suchman

755 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 301-294-0808

China Bistro is the English name—the Mandarin characters on the sign out front mean “Mama’s Dumplings.” Not that you should expect Mama herself in the back, toiling over floured balls of dough: The name refers not to a maternal guru of the age-old craft but to the home-style character of the dumpling-making, which eschews elegance and lightness in favor of heartiness and chew. The wrappers are plenty supple, the fillings always fresh and light even when they make use of meat (we gravitate to shrimp-and-chive and beef-and-celery). To maximize the experience, ask for a portion of chili sauce, mix a little into your soy-based dumpling sauce, and dip away.

Also good: Pork-and-chive dumplings; garlic cucumbers; cold sesame noodles; Singapore noodles.

China Jade

16805 Crabbs Branch Way, Rockville; 301-963-1570

The menu at this no-frills restaurant is voluminous, covering Cantonese and Szechuan cuisines along with Chinese-American standards (think crab Rangoon) and more arcane finds (bullfrog with yellow chives—far more delicious than it sounds). But the dishes that keep us coming back are the chili-stoked Szechuan preparations: thin-skinned dumplings with a slick of fiery oil, chili-flecked green beans stir-fried with bits of pork, jerky-like strips of spice-rubbed dried beef, and mapo tofu, a fragrant tureen of pork and silky bean curd with a torrent of peppers. Tamer plates such as snow-pea leaves with garlic, bacon with smothered leeks, and salt-and-pepper fried fish are worthy—and for many of us, necessary—counterpoints to all the heat.

Also good: Kung Pao chicken; shrimp-dumpling soup; scallion pancake.

China Star

9600-G Main St., Fairfax; 703-323-8822

This strip-mall mainstay has the feel of an old-time Chinatown restaurant, with families gathering around steaming tureens and platters and a menu that goes on for pages. Though all the greatest hits of neighborhood Chinese carryouts are here, there’s much more to the place. Focus on the Szechuan dishes, perked up with the likes of garlic, chili, ginger, and peppercorns. That means wontons in broth with a flotilla of chili oil, or salty-sour green beans with pork, or a delicious plate of fried eggplant studded with slivers of ginger. Don’t miss the puffy scallion pancake, which is lighter than most and makes a nice accompaniment to the spicy stuff.

Also good: Szechuan chili chicken; sautéed flounder with tofu and chili sauce; cumin lamb; mapo tofu.

Full Key

Full Key Cheap Eats 2016, chinese restaurants
Roast duck and pork sport lacquered skins at the Hong Kong-style Wheaton restaurant Full Key. Photo by Scott Suchman

2227 University Blvd., Wheaton; 301-933-8388

Regulars know that the soy-sauce chicken, roast duck, and roast pork that hang enticingly in the glass case here sell out fast on weekends, so it’s best to call ahead to reserve orders to eat in or take out. But all is not lost if you don’t snag a taste of those delicacies—the long menu at this snug Chinese dining room has other lures. A flavorful Cantonese-style soup bobs with marvelous dumplings stuffed with bits of shrimp, pork, tree-ear mushrooms, and white pepper. And the kitchen has a way with greens. Depending on the season, you might find stir-fried snow-pea leaves, watercress, or Chinese spinach.

Also good: Beef-with-black-pepper casserole; soy-sauce noodles; salt-and-pepper shrimp; clams in black-bean sauce.

Hong Kong Palace

cheap eats 2016, chinese restaurants
Delicious green vegetables are only a fraction of the delicacies at Hong Kong Palace. Photo by Scott Suchman

6387 Seven Corners Center, Falls Church; 703-532-0940

Restaurateur Liu Chaosheng (also behind Uncle Liu’s and China Jade) continues to build his Szechuan empire—a high-end Tysons venture is expected this year—but we keep returning to this reminder of his humble beginnings. Little has changed in the plain strip-mall dining room, where plates of cumin lamb and dried chili-fried chicken remain bountiful—even by family-style standards—and specials are handwritten in Mandarin on the wall (ask the waitstaff to translate, for tasty results). Though dishes arrive in a haphazard order, don’t miss appetizers such as wontons in fiery chili oil.

Also good: Mapo tofu; Chengdu salt-and-pepper shrimp; sesame balls; green-bean leaves with garlic.

Mala Tang

Cheap Eats 2016, chinese restaurants
Szechuan Hot Pot at Mala Tang. Photograph by Scott Suchman

3434 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-2381

You’ll eat to the tune of bubbling hot pots at this Virginia Square dining room. The waitstaff urges a cauldron per person, filled with simmering stock in which diners can cook an à la carte array of meats, seafood, and vegetables—we found that a single order for two to three people works perfectly well, and you’ll have more room to sample from the expansive Szechuan menu. The fare is both spicy and drink-friendly—large-format beers are offered for a reason. Opt for the “Mala (spicy)” broth, and round out the meal with garlicky dan-dan noodles, tender wontons in chili oil, and crisp-edged scallion pancakes.

Also good: Pork buns; mapo tofu; hot pot with wine-marinated beef, lobster balls, and mushrooms.

NaiNai’s Noodle & Dumpling Bar

cheap eats 2016, chinese restaurants
Pai gow, a noodle bowl at NaiNai’s, is tossed with chili oil and ground pork. Photograph by Scott Suchman

1200 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring; 301-585-6678

This zippy noodle parlor takes a pan-Asian approach to bao, those pillowy steamed buns that keep popping up all over town. Beyond the usual pork-belly and duck fillings (both done with flair), there are rave-worthy takes such as seared teriyaki Spam with mango salsa. The kitchen is even better with noodles. The Streets of Taipei bowl brings together hand-rolled strands with five-spice beef brisket, mustard greens, crispy garlic, and bok choy in a spicy beef broth. And pai gow—a tangle of noodles, ground pork, sprouts, and scallions tossed with soy sauce and chili oil—is lovely.

Also good: Chinese-sausage-and-garlic skewers; soba-noodle salad with nori, edamame, and ginger-wasabi dressing; bao with crispy chicken and Sriracha mayo.

Nanjing Bistro

Nanjing Bistro Cheap Eats 2016, Chinese Restaurants
Crawfish delicacies at Nanjing Bistro. Photo by Scott Suchman

11213 Lee Hwy., Fairfax; 703-385-8686

If you’re not familiar with Jiangsu cuisine, don’t worry—this bright restaurant offers a delicious introduction (and a pictorial menu for easy ordering). Start with salted duck, a delicacy of the region—it’s not “salty” at all but lightly cured to emphasize the bird’s meaty flavor, and served in fat slices. Groups can splurge for one of the kitchen’s head-turners: a whole “flower fish,” scored crosswise and fried so it resembles a pinecone glazed in a sweet-sour sauce. Still, don’t overlook humbler offerings like spicy cucumbers. The julienned slices arrive in a bright toss of garlic, chilies, and cilantro—a dish that makes you wonder why there aren’t more Jiangsu restaurants around.

Also good: Spicy wonton soup; pork with hot garlic sauce; stir-fried string beans; fish in hot-pepper broth.

Northwest Chinese Food

7313 Baltimore Ave., College Park; 240-714-4473

It’s well established that there are legions of eaters who chase spicy food as if it were on the black market. Chili-heads, they’re sometimes called, for their pursuit of the addictive high found in scorching renditions of Thai, Indian, or Szechuan cooking. To fully appreciate Hua Wang’s little thing of a place, you need to be a tang-head. You need, that is, to love vinegar—specifically the complex depth of Shaanxi vinegar, a dark, earthy, faintly smoky liquid that punches up, for instance, her sour soup with tiny pork dumplings (a marvel, and only $6) as well as her “cold skin noodles,” a plate of noodles, cucumbers, peanuts, and tofu that’s so much more than just its core elements. For those who can’t take that much brightness, there are also excellent burgers (with ground meats stuffed inside house-made rice-flour buns) and big, rewarding hand-cut-noodle bowls.

Also good: Boiled peanuts; spicy potato noodles; stewed pork burger; spicy lamb burger.

Panda Gourmet

Panda Gourmet Cheap Eats 2016, chinese restaurants
Enjoy everything from dumplings, lamb skewers, noodle bowls and more. Photograph by Scott Suchman

2700 New York Ave., NE; 202-534-1620

It’s in a dingy-looking motel in Northeast DC, and the service—at best!—approaches a sort of gruff efficiency. But you’re not here for niceties; you’re here for the superlative Szechuan cooking, which has a power and zing that none of the remaining restaurants in Chinatown can touch. The whiffs of cumin when you walk in should guide you—to the skewers of lamb that crunch with the fried, fragrant seeds or to an aromatic stir-fry of cumin lamb. Szechuan isn’t one big lip-scorcher—the cuisine has a wide variety of moves, including burgers (sandwiched in crisp rice-flour buns) and noodle bowls—but many of the greatest rewards are in those dishes swimming in vats of red-chili oil, from a starter of pork dumplings to a mouth-numbing tureen of soft tofu and fish that could feed four.

Also good: Mapo tofu; biang biang noodles; cold-steamed noodles; dan-dan noodles; “fiery pot.”

Peter Chang

peter chang cheap eats 2016, chinese restaurants
Pan-fried pork belly with a generous amount of chilies. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

2503-E N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-538-6688; 20-A Maryland Ave., Rockville, 301-838-9188

In the food world, Peter Chang has become the equivalent of Waldo, with devotees of the chef’s sometimes magical cooking wondering, on any given night, which of his seven restaurant kitchens (from Richmond to Rockville) he’s commanding. Here’s one way to tell: Order the scallion bubble pancakes, which on a recent night at his Arlington outpost were every bit the showstopper they had been in his pre-expansion heyday—big and round and puffy as lanterns, without even a trace of grease. One misstep aside (an unremarkable duck special), the meal hummed along at that high level. There were stellar renditions of Chang’s greatest hits—crispy cilantro fish rolls with fingers of lightly fried, cumin-dusted flounder plus a perfect mapo tofu that, even as the fiery pool of chili oil made our heart race, couldn’t stop us from eating.

Also good: Grandma’s Noodles; dry-fried eggplant; wood-ear mushrooms with Thai chili sauce; hot and numbing flounder in clay pot with tofu.

See what other restaurants made our 2016 Cheap Eats list. This article appears in our May 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.