Food

The Best Cheap Chinese Restaurants Around DC

Diners share peking duck at China Wok. Photo by Scott Suchman

China Wok

Vienna, VA, 8395 Leesburg Pike

You’ll want to visit this Cantonese/Szechuan restaurant when chef Wang Wen Fang is working—at age 86, he still puts in three days a week (Thursday through Monday). You may catch him in back, rolling pancakes and certainly in the dining room, where he carves some of the best Peking duck we’ve sampled. It seems silly to stray from a feast of moist meat and crackling skin, but don’t ignore the Chinese special menu under the plexiglass table and along the walls. Dishes such as young bamboo shoots with tofu skin or white fish fillets with black beans, chives, and lotus blossoms threaten to steal the show.

Also good: Spicy seafood hot pot; beef chow fun noodles.

Full Key

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

Wheaton, MD, 2227 University Blvd. W.

You could probably close your eyes and point to random dishes at this old-school Chinatown-style eatery and end up with a stellar meal, but a better ploy is to enlist the savvy waitstaff. Otherwise, you might pass over sleeper hit casseroles such as a black-pepper-infused tureen of beef. Other go-to choices: a platter of juicy soy-sauce chicken and glossy-skinned roast duck and pork, and perfectly fried shell-on shrimp with spicy salt. Watercress, snow-pea leaves, and water spinach done up with oil and garlic make it easy to eat your greens.

Also good: Clams with black-bean sauce and chilies; eggplant-and-chicken casserole.

Hong Kong Palace

Hong Kong Palace’s garlicky cold cucumbers. Photo by Scott Suchman

Falls Church, VA, 6387 Seven Corners Center

Szechuan restaurants have dominated the scene lately—so what keeps us coming back to chef Liu Chaosheng’s tiny, bare-bones place, in business more than a decade? Attentive service and home-style cooking that’s fresh and bountiful (each plate easily feeds three to four). The lengthy menu—plus specials written in Mandarin on the wall—holds too many treasures to indulge in at once, though we rarely skip Chengdu dumplings and cold noodles swimming in chili oil; fried chicken with fiery peppers; and tea-smoked duck. Despite the place’s cozy size, three banquet-style tables can fit eight—so we always bring as many hungry friends.

Also good: Garlicky cold cucumbers; flounder hot pot.

 

Peter Chang

Pan-fried pork belly with a generous amount of chilies. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Arlington, VA, 2503-E N. Harrison St. and Rockville, MD, 20-A Maryland Ave.

Once-elusive chef Peter Chang is now settled with a string of restaurants in Virginia and Maryland, plus a new finer-dining flagship in Bethesda. At these twin branches, you’ll find streamlined Szechuan menus with top-quality ingredients. We continue to delight in balloon-like scallion-bubble pancakes, ethereally crunchy bamboo fish, and smoldering bowls of custardy mapo tofu (one of the best versions around). Delicacies such as cumin lamb chops can bust the Cheap Eats budget, but most are big enough to feed a crowd.

Also good: Grandma’s cold noodle; whole volcanic fish.

 

Shanghai Taste

Soup dumplings at Shanghai Taste. Photo by Anna Spiegel.

Rockville, MD, 1121 Nelson St.

Soup dumplings (xiao long bao), elusive in these parts, are an obvious draw at this tiny spot. Chef Wei Sun’s versions hold their hot liquid-and-pork fillings beautifully and are served with ginger-laced black vinegar for dipping. (A popular pan-fried version is available only on weekends.) Still, there’s much more among the list of 200-odd dishes to revel in. Home in on Shanghai-style specialties including chilled chicken poached in rice wine and grain liquor; toothsome noodles with spicy beef and peppers; and a comforting bowl of ground pork, cabbage, and chewy rice cakes. Then spring for an extra order of those dumplings.

Also good: Lemongrass duck; sautéed pea shoots.

 


Cheat Sheet

Drinks

Refreshing Tsingtao or Zhujiang beer with spicy or meaty dishes; jasmine tea (often complimentary).

Condiments

Chili-garlic paste; iridescent chili oil; sinus-clearing Chinese mustard; black vinegar, which adds a smoky note to dumpling sauces.

Pro Tip

China has eight main regional cuisines (Szechuan and Cantonese are the most popular around here). Find out a place’s specialty to help navigate menus—and don’t be shy about asking servers to interpret.

Desserts

Dim sum is the best place to find real Chinese sweets—rarely offered after lunch and dinner. Look for confections such as sticky sesame balls, egg tarts, and honeyed tofu pudding.

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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 Logan Circle.

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.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.