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Burma Restaurant Asian

Burmese

 

740 Sixth St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 638-1280

Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for dinner. Dinner until 10:30 pm daily.

 

 

As one of the few Burmese restaurants in the country, Burma attracted an initial following of patrons who collect exotic dining experiences. Its well-executed cuisine now attracts a faithful stream of regulars to its modestly appointed second-story dining rooms. What makes Burmese cooking fascinating--as well as habit-forming--is that it shares the products and condiments common to the kitchens of China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but combines them in a manner all its own.

Good introductions to the Burmese table include pork stir-fried with pickled mustard greens; stir-fried squid with a julienne of salty country ham; a vigorously spicy Burmese beef curry; and bean curd simmered in a tomato-curry sauce. For a pause that refreshes between bites of the hot stuff, the pan-fried rice noodles with a topping of chicken, pork, and scallions, all bound in a glaze of stock-based sauce, are reminiscent of the Hong Kong chow mein served in the neighborhood's Chinese restaurants.

 

If you order dishes with a pronounced spicy-sweet flavor--such as the tamarind fish or the Burmese mango pork--consider one of the salads as a foil: Either the pickled green-tea leaves tossed with shrimp and crushed peanuts or a plate of vinegary cabbage and Burmese vegetables will serve as a welcome relish.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2003

 

 

 

For diners to whom General Tso's Chicken, sushi, pad Thai, and Hanoi Grilled Pork are no longer exotic curiosities, Burma offers Asia's least known regional cuisine. Its location--a second-story dining room in premises that once housed a martial-arts school on Sixth Street in Chinatown--lends it the air of an insider's restaurant, but nothing on the menu would intimidate diners familiar with other Asian cuisines.

While the Burmese cupboard is stocked with ingredients borrowed from its Asian neighbors--sesame oil, fish sauce, dried-shrimp paste, and thread-thin rice noodles--it combines them in a manner very much its own. A dish of noodles stir-fried with chicken, vegetables, and curry may resemble the Singapore-style noodles found at most restaurants in the neighborhood, but the lingering heat of its curry-and-coconut-milk sauce is purely Burmese. For an initial foray into this cuisine, plan a communal meal and include a salad of pickled green-tea leaves; okra salad textured with peanuts; a fiery stir-fry of shrimp, bean curd, and chili sauce; bean curd with curried-tomato sauce; and chicken with pickled mustard greens.

 

Burma Restaurant, 740 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-1280. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2001

 

 

 

This is one of the few places in the entire country where one can taste Burmese cuisine. Although it borrows ingredients and condiments from its neighbors--rice noodles, fish sauce, bottle chutneys, fermented black-bean spice, sesame oil, coconut milk, and dried-shrimp paste--the dishes that emerge from its kitchen are singularly Burmese. An appetizer of fish###### is lightly coated with cornstarch, deep-fried, and served with an edgy dipping sauce made with lemon juice, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, scallions, and fresh coriander to yield crunchy morsels unlike any dish encountered at other Asian tables.

A quick introduction to the spectrum of Burmese flavors might start with one of the kitchen's unique salads, which can act as a palate refresher between other dishes. Good choices include the Spring Ginger Salad, the gar######y okra salad glazed with an egg-yolk dressing, and the beguiling mixture of green-tea leaves marinated in sesame oil and tossed with a dressing of lemon juice and dried-shrimp paste. As a foil to such spicy dishes as bean curd simmered in a tomato-curry sauce, marinated pork in a pungent bean sauce, and a racy combination of shrimp and bean curd stir-fried in chili oil, include an order of Pan-Fried Rice Noodles, which is as close to comfort food as Burmese cooking gets.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2002

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Chinatown Express Asian

Chinese

 

774-746 Sixth St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 638-0424

Open daily for lunch and dinner; dinner until 11.

 

 

Why would this sub-sidewalk-level restaurant catch the eye of a New York Times reviewer exploring the hot restaurant scene around the MCI Center? For the same reason Chinatown Express attracts Chinese diners: Against a backdrop of crisp-skinned, Cantonese-style roasted meats--soy-sauce chicken, firecracker-red pork tenderloin, whole pig, and ducks the color of clover honey--a chef demonstrates the art of lai mein, an amazing trick of Chinese culinary magic that means "stretched noodles."

Through lunch and dinner, the chef repeatedly stretches and twirls a thick rope of chalk-white dough until a snapping pull from his outstretched arms causes it to break into dozens of spaghetti-like strands. The noodles are then placed on trays and rushed to the kitchen, where they go into meal-in-a-bowl soups or are stir-fried with the diner's choice of meats or seafood.

 

The regular menu is a humdrum list of Chinese-American and Cantonese dishes. On a separate sheet you'll find the house specialties, beyond the lai mein and the roasted meats, being enjoyed at the Chinese tables. Look for broth-filled Shanghai dumplings under the cryptic listing "Steamed Bun (Pork) (8 Pieces)," the delicious Fresh Dumpling Made on the Spot with a choice of several fillings, and Sauteed Green Leaf with Garlic Sauce, a stir-fry of the top part of the snow-pea plant.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2003

 

 

 

If you were on your way to Burma Restaurant or to Mr. Yung's--probably the only reason to stray from H Street's stir-fry corridor--you would more than likely dismiss Chinatown Express as yet another purveyor of $4.50 combination lunches.

But look for lai mein, or stretched noodles. They are nothing short of a culinary conjuring trick: The chef takes a length of floured dough the diameter of a thick rope, stretches it to the breadth of his outstretched arms, then brings the ends together and twirls the dough into a braid. The stretch-and-twirl procedure is repeated until, all of a sudden, the chef gives a sharp tug to the ends and the dough separates into dozens of thin noodles. The lai mein are then rushed on floured trays to a kitchen in the back, where they are stir-fried or boiled in meal-in-a-bowl soups. Both preparations, garnished with the diner's choice of meats or seafood, are bargain-priced at $4.95.

 

The largely Chinese clientele is here for the lai mein; whatever else is on their tables, you can count seeing either stir-fried noodles or large bowls of lai mein soup. Also offered is a sheet of house specialties--most of which are English translations of the Chinese written on the brightly colored strips of paper on the wall--presented along with the standard Chinese-American menu.

 

Among the most popular are a Pyrex pie plate filled with ten Fresh Dumplings Made on the Spot and a metal steamer of Steamed Bun (Pork). These are not the usual heavy buns stuffed with a spoonful of barbecued pork, but siu lim bao ("juicy little buns"), the Shanghai soup dumplings rarely encountered on the local Chinese circuit. Although large, Shanghai soup dumplings are meant to be eaten in one bite, since the pleasure of each "juicy little bun" is derived from the rich stock that fills the diner's mouth as he bites down on it. To avoid being scalded by the boiling stock, wait until they are just hot enough to be held in the palm of the hand.

 

Depend on visual cues for the best of the rest at Chinatown Express--the Cantonese-style roasted meats in the window, the firecracker-red barbecue pork tenderloin, and the lobsters and Dungeness crabs basking in the tanks by the entrance.

 

Some words of caution: Chinatown Express has a seedy setting that may discomfit the finicky. But old Chinatown hands relish their lai mein, their Shanghai soup dumplings, and their combination platters of Cantonese-style roasted meats.

 

Chinatown Express, 746 Sixth St., NW; 202-638-0424. Open daily for lunch and dinner; dinner until 11.

 

— Robert Shoffner

August 2001

 

 

 

This is a discovery best appreciated by adventurous fans of Chinese cuisine, the sort who have learned to tolerate a seedy setting to enjoy specialties that the kitchen prepares better than its dressier competitors. The best reasons to visit Chinatown Express--and what explains this little storefront's enthusiastic Chinese following--are lai mein and Shanghai soup dumplings, two dishes rarely encountered in this area.

"Stretched noodles" is the literal translation of lai mein, a culinary trick performed in the restaurant's front window by a grandfatherly chef who stretches and twirls a thick rope of dough until a snapping pull from his outstretched arms causes it to turn into dozens of spaghetti-like strands. The noodles are then rushed to the kitchen, where they are stir-fried or boiled in meal-in-a-bowl soups. Either preparation, garnished with the diner's choice of meats or seafood, is a bargain at $4.95.

 

What is listed on the menu as Steamed Bun (Pork) is a metal steamer filled with eight siu lim bao ("juicy little buns"), the famous Shanghai soup dumplings that have captivated Manhattan foodies and made the fortunes of several Chinese restaurants there. Although relatively large for Chinese dumplings, they are meant to be eaten in one bite so the rich stock is released in your mouth as you bite down.

 

Aside from a fine dish of stir-fried snow-pea leaves listed as Sauteed Green Leaf with Garlic Sauce on a page of house specialties, depend on visual cues for the best at Chinatown Express: the Cantonese-style roasted meats hanging at the front counter, particularly the crunchy-skinned roast whole pig and the firecracker-red pork tenderloin, and either a small lobster or a Dungeness crab taken from display tanks at the front of the restaurant to the kitchen, where they are stir-fried with ginger and scallions.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2002

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Eat First Asian

Chinese

 

609 H St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 289-1703

Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner until 2 AM Sunday through Thursday, 3 AM Friday and Saturday.

 

 

CRITIC'S CHOICE

A visit to Eat First isn't complete without a portion of the best Cantonese roast duck in or out of Chinatown. Its crackling skin is evenly burnished to a rich mahogany, and its flesh is moist and tender, basted by the layer of fat rendered away by expert roasting. At that, it would be a very good Cantonese roast duck; what makes it great is its cooking sauce, which imbues its flesh with perfectly balanced flavors of soy sauce, sugar, and five-spice powder. At a bargain $5.95 for a quarter portion accompanied by a small order of Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, it is a feast for a single diner; with two other dishes, it is ample for a couple or a sampler for four.

 

Not only will devotees of Chinese cuisine find dishes here that are unavailable elsewhere in the area, but the kitchen willingly accepts requests for dishes not listed on the menu. A floor staff of well-informed young servers is happy to steer diners to the kitchen's best, perhaps steamed live shrimp, stir-fried sweet-potato leaves, or baby bok choy so young that it resembles sprigs of watercress. Or you can dine well by ordering specialties from the regular menu: a superb dish of chicken breast simmered with ginger, scallions, and a light brown sauce in a Chinese casserole; Fantail Shrimp with Old-Fashioned Jiangnan Special Sauce; Shrimp-Cake with Chinese Broccoli; and Soy Sauce Chow Mein, a meatless version of the traditional Hong Kong noodle dish.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2003

 

 

 

Eat First is blessed with talented chefs who specialize in the cooking of Hong Kong, so it takes a lot of trying--or just dumb luck--to encounter the occasional disappointments on its impressively long menu. A dream meal for a table of four interested in authentic Chinese cuisine would include a pound of live shrimp--usually available on weekends--steamed and served with a dipping sauce of soy, sesame oil, fresh ginger, and green chilies; a quarter portion of the kitchen's superb Cantonese duck, served at room temperature; slices of chicken breast cooked with scallions and fresh ginger in a covered Chinese casserole; snow-pea leaves stir-fried with garlic; and Hong Kong-style shredded-pork chow mein.

Whether you're an old China hand or a diner eager to learn more, you'll find the help of Eat First's floor staff invaluable. These friendly young servers will suggest specialties--such as the leaves of the sweet-potato plant stir-fried with garlic, and Shrimp Cake with Chinese Broccoli--that other restaurants normally would reserve for their Chinese clientele. They also accept orders for dishes not listed on the menu--the kitchen recently answered a request for bok choy with Chinese sausage with an unexpected but superb stir-fry of bok choy so young that its stalks and leaves were almost as small and tender as sprigs of watercress.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2002

 

 

 

The old axiom "Chinese restaurants never close, they just change owners" no longer holds true in Chinatown: Urban renewal and the downtown dining renaissance have chipped away the Asian solidarity of H Street's stir-fry corridor. The area now has a Brazilian steakhouse, a Boston seafood chain, a Texas barbecue pit, a couple of Irish pubs, and the inevitable Starbucks.

During its brief life on Seventh Street--before it vanished in the same cloud of redevelopment dust that claimed the grand Golden Palace--the restaurant Eat First made a lot of friends. Its excellent Hong Kong cuisine attracted a Chinese clientele, and it built a following among Occidentals with its helpful floor staff and its posting of English translations of the seasonal specials written in Chinese on strips of brightly colored paper on the wall.

 

Regulars knew that a visit to Eat First would be incomplete without an order of the best Cantonese roast duck available in or out of Chinatown: a bird whose moist, tender flesh was sheathed in an evenly brown, exquisitely crisp skin. In a neighborhood where expert Cantonese roasters were manning the ovens at Tony Cheng's, Tai Shan, China Inn, Full Kee, Mr. Yung's, and Li Ho Food, what clinched the title for Eat First's duck was its sauce, a finely balanced mixture of soy, sugar, five-spice powder, and the duck's own roasting juices.

 

In the space that until recently was the home of Ruby, Eat First has returned. A mirrored wall lends an illusion of width to the narrow premises, and an open kitchen brightens the back room with pyrotechnic flashes created by chefs stir-frying in superheated woks. Hanging in the window that separates the kitchen from the back dining room are ducks, chickens, and red strips of barbecue pork. You also can see fish swimming in tanks at the rear of the kitchen.

 

During its opening months of July and August, Eat First's dining room seemed like a reunion of regulars from the old location: a young businesswoman working her way through a leisurely meal of three dishes, including a dish of sweet-potato leaves stir-fried with garlic that her waitress had encouraged her to order; three lawyers feasting on a steamed striped bass, a casserole of chicken with ginger and scallions, a plate of Cantonese roast duck, and a platter of Singapore-style rice noodles; and an older gentleman who doesn't bother looking at the menu before ordering a meal-size bowl of shrimp-dumpling soup and a small portion of Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce.

 

With the exception of dim sum--for which there is no room on the menu or in the kitchen--there is something for everyone. Eat First has a double-sided menu of noodle dishes, full-meal soups, and small savory dishes meant to accompany the soups; a regular menu that emphasizes specialties from Canton and Hong Kong while offering a good selection of familiar classics from Szechuan; and an impressive selection of seasonal specials posted in Chinese on wall-mounted strips of paper and translated into English on posterboard.

 

This kitchen does so many things so well that Eat First once again joins Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant and Lei Garden as one of Chinatown's top restaurants. Alongside dishes that were house signatures at the old location--seared shrimpcakes with Chinese broccoli, a casserole of bone-in fried flounder with roast pork, a robust soup of fresh ham hocks and noodles, and snow-pea leaves stir-fried with shrimp--are new specialties.

 

Inexplicably, the kitchen seems to have lost its knack for producing its once-perfect Cantonese roast duck. Sampled five times, the result was the same: Picture-perfect for its glistening, evenly browned skin, it lacked the tenderness of the birds that once were Chinatown's best. Part of the problem is that, unless instructed otherwise, the kitchen reheats orders of duck for Occidental tables while serving them at room temperature for the Chinese clientele. But even straight out of the display case, the ducks fail to achieve the remarkable tenderness that was their hallmark.

 

When one of the kitchen's fish tanks is stocked with live shrimp, there is no better way to begin a meal than with half a pound for two or a pound for four. Steamed in their shells and served with a dipping sauce of soy, sesame oil, onion, ginger, and a few slices of fresh green chili, they are stunning in their natural sweetness. A grand meal for two could be composed by following the shrimp with a live striped bass, netted from its holding tank and steamed under a thicket of shredded scallions with a splash of soy sauce, a dribble of sesame oil, a few slices of garlic, and a spare scattering of julienned ginger root. Its best accompaniment would be a dish of yu choy with oyster sauce, a vegetable similar to Chinese broccoli but more delicate in flavor and particularly complementary to seafood.

 

The kitchen's shrimp cakes with Chinese broccoli remain wonderful, their smoky-sweet flavor contrasting with the subtle edge of bitterness of the jade-green vegetable.

 

Several new dishes are likely to join the shrimp cakes as house signatures. In the Fantail Shrimp With Old-Fashioned Jiannin Sauce, the shrimp are dusted with cornstarch and fried just long enough to firm their flesh rather than form a crust. The sauce is a mystery, a spare amount of crystalline liquid that, though it seems not to have a flavor of its own, emphasizes the sweetness of the shrimp.

 

A dish worthy of a formal banquet is the platter of steamed flounder rolls stuffed with shiitakes, Chinese sausage, and Smithfield ham, each cylinder tied with a yellow Chinese chive. Eat each roll in one bite to best experience its kaleidoscope of sweet, salty, and woodsy flavors.

 

A couple of discoveries are best appreciated as foils to more complex preparations. The first is a stir-fry of sweet-potato leaves with garlic, which resembles a similar preparation made with snow-pea leaves but has a subtle, intrinsically sweet flavor. Soy Sauce Chow Mein sounds so plain that it might be dismissed, but this seldom-seen Hong Kong specialty of crisply fried, thread-thin egg noodles topped with bean sprouts, shredded scallions, and a spare amount of chicken stock darkened with soy sauce is a splendid dish, a feather-light point-counterpoint of textures and flavors.

 

Eat First's extensive selection of noodle dishes includes some of the best in Chinatown. Don't ignore the Shredded Pork Chow Mein because you outgrew the Chinese-American version. This is the Hong Kong classic, a pad of crisply fried egg noodles topped with a stir-fry of shredded pork, scallions, and carrots, all bound in a glaze of sauce. Other recommended choices are the Yee Fu Mein With Alaskan King Crab Meat--which also can be prepared with shredded pork--and a fine version of roast pork chow mai foon, which, although not listed on the menu, is available by request.

 

The appearance in the last decade of some very good restaurants catering to the Chinese communities in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs--Good Fortune and Hollywood East in Wheaton, Oriental East in Silver Spring, Seven Seas in Rockville, Formosa Cafe in Crystal City, and Maxim Palace in Baileys Crossroads--has drawn the spotlight away from DC's Chinatown.

 

But no other area offers the range of Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, Lei Garden's dim sum and pan-regional cooking, and the handmade lai mein ("stretched noodles") and Shanghai Soup Dumplings at the raffish Chinatown Express. Now the welcome return of Eat First is more evidence that you can dine authentically and very well in Chinatown.

 

Eat First, 609 H St., NW; 202-289-1703. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner until 2 AM Sunday through Thursday, 3 AM Friday and Saturday.

 

— Robert Shoffner

October 2001

 

 

 

On Seventh Street between h and G, Eat First flourished until 1999, when it vanished in the same cloud of redevelopment dust that claimed the grand Golden Palace. Fans of our shrinking Chinatown lamented the loss of a kitchen that served the best Cantonese roast duck in the neighborhood, along with countless specialties unavailable--or, at least, not readily offered to Occidentals--elsewhere along H Street's stir-fry corridor. But Chinatown, like nature, abhors a vacuum: Early last year, when the venerable Ruby closed, its narrow space was transformed into spare dining hall with an open kitchen, a virtual reincarnation of the original Eat First. The talented cooks from Seventh Street were back at their woks and the friendly staff was back dispensing advice about seasonal specialties and hidden treasures on the set menu.

In the breadth of its offerings, the new Eat First is even more impressive than its memorable predecessor. Saltwater tanks in the kitchen provide the luxury of live shrimp--steamed whole and unshelled, they are exquisite in their natural sweetness, which is emphasized by a dipping sauce of soy, sesame oil, ginger, and a few slices of fresh green chilies. Also offered is steamed striped bass of a freshness that rivals that experienced by fishermen who cook their catch on the boat. Should the live shrimp not be available, look for the Fantail Shrimp with Old-Fashioned Jiannin Sauce, a marvel of large shrimp with a mysterious, crystalline sauce that boosts the sweetness of the shrimp.

 

Eat First's return has been impressive. Along with its signature Shrimp Cake With Chinese Broccoli, the kitchen's list of seasonal offerings has been expanded, and there are more than a few gems to be discovered on the set menu, such as the Soy Sauce Chow Mein, a Hong Kong specialty rarely encountered on local Chinese menus. But what happened to that superb Cantonese roast duck, once without peer in Chinatown? For the first several months after Eat First's return, it was good, but hardly the match of the tender duck of the old days. In November, a quarter order of duck tasted like that matchless dish of memory. When Eat First starts again to consistently produce a Cantonese roast duck that good, it will regain the second star the original once held.

 

Eat First, 609 H St., NW; 202-289-1703. Open daily for lunch and dinner. No wheelchair access.

 

— Robert Shoffner

January 2002

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Full Kee Asian

Chinese

 

509 H St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 371-2233

Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner until 1 am Sunday through Thursday, until 3 am Friday and Saturday.

 

 

Many restaurants in Chinatown, as well as in the suburbs, now offer meal-in-a-bowl soups from Hong Kong, but none prepares them quite so well as the lone chef who labors in the kitchen framed by Full Kee's front window. There are bowls of noodles awash in broth with stewed beef brisket or topped with a generous portion of Cantonese roast duck or studded with fish######. The rice gruel called jook, Hong Kong's breakfast of champions, is a soothing porridge with garnishes ranging from pickled vegetables and peanuts to slices of preserved eggs and ground pork. But the kitchen's treasure is the Hong Kong shrimp-dumpling soup, a bowl of fragrant broth packed with dumplings and sprinkled with sliced scallion tops. The dumplings, wrapped in tissue-thin dough and stuffed with large pieces of shrimp and a sliver of shiitake mushroom, are a marvel of Chinese cuisine.

In the past, a typewritten page of specials at the back of the menu--English translations of the specials written in Chinese on red tickets taped to the dining-room wall--made it easy for non-Chinese to sample the kitchen's best. To sample dishes the Chinese patrons are enjoying, ask for snow-pea leaves stir-fried with ginger and garlic; Chinese leek blossoms stir-fried with shrimp; shredded pork stir-fried with bean sprouts; a casserole of roasted pig and bean curd; and the Hong Kong version of Singapore-style rice noodles made with fresh green chilies instead of green bell peppers.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2003

 

 

 

Whatever other dishes they order to share, the tables of Chinese patrons at Full Kee can be counted on to have one of the meal-in-a-bowl soups traditional to Hong Kong set before each diner. Assembled to order in an open soup kitchen at the restaurant's entrance, choices include congee, a soothing rice porridge with garnishes ranging from minced beef to a combination of pork and preserved eggs; brothy noodles interspersed with pleasantly resilient fish###### or topped with crisp-skinned roast duck; and, best of all, bowls of fragrant, elegantly light broth packed with shrimp-and-pork Hong Kong wontons or exquisite shrimp dumplings.

Full Kee's old menu made it easy for non-Chinese diners to order authentic dishes to accompany their soups: On the back page was a typewritten translation of the Chinese on the red tickets taped to the wall that announced seasonal specials. The new menu requires a bit of study to separate the Shredded Two-Kind (a stir-fry of julienne pork and dried bean curd) from the Moo Goo Gai Pan.

 

If you can't find what you want, just ask: Full Kee's waitresses will translate the specials on the red tickets as well as convey requests to the kitchen. Ask for snow-pea leaves stir-fried with garlic and ginger; leek flowers, either stir-fried with garlic or garnished with shrimp; a sparely sauced stir-fry of shredded pork and bean sprouts; a hot pot of roasted pig and bean curd; and, if your soup doesn't include noodles, the authentic Hong Kong version of Singapore-Style Rice Noodles made with fresh green chilies instead of shreds of green bell pepper.

 

Full Kee, 509 H St., NW; 202-371-2233. Dinner until 1 AM Sunday through Thursday, 3 AM Friday and Saturday. No credit cards.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2001

 

 

 

The house signatures at Full Kee are the soups that begin and end a Hong Kong diner's day. In Hong Kong, they are likely to be a breakfast of rice gruel--known as either jook or congee--and the late-night restorative of a bowl of noodle soup with fish######, both purchased from a street stall. Full Kee ladles out these satisfying meals from a steam-wreathed kitchen framed by the restaurant's front window, and the results are as good as you'll find outside Hong Kong. Hence the strong Chinese presence in both the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms.

The rice gruel, the noodle soups, and the dumpling soups can be found elsewhere, but no one prepares them quite as well as Full Kee. In other places, the congee seems to have been run through a blender rather than having the traditional roughness of a gruel created by gently cooking grains of rice until they break up into granules. Choice garnishes for the noodle soups are the pleasantly resilient fish######, the robust beef brisket, or the brothy tangle of noodles topped with soy-roasted chicken. Among the dumpling soups, nothing matches the one with Hong Kong shrimp dumplings.

 

The set English menu is a jumble of Szechuan-Hunan dishes aimed at the American clientele, as well as the specialties you'll see at the Chinese tables. Follow the lead of the Chinese patrons: Order a soup for each person and a dish to be shared. Recommended for sharing are the casserole of roasted pork and fried bean curd; slices of boned pig's knuckle with a vinegary dipping sauce; shredded pork stir-fried with bean sprouts; pan-fried noodles with mixed seafood; and chive blossoms stir-fried with shrimp.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2002

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Hunan Chinatown Asian

Chinese

 

624 H St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 783-5858

Open daily for lunch and dinner.

 

 

As the number of restaurants that merit a special trip to Chinatown continues to dwindle, this perennial award-winner remains a model of consistency. There are no surprises on Hunan Chinatown's relatively short menu, but this is a kitchen that turns familiar dishes into house signatures. Its Ma Po Bean Curd, Szechuan Beef, Two-Flavor Lobster, and General Tso's Chicken are among the best renditions of those classics that you'll find on the local Szechuan-Hunan circuit.

The one classic you'll rarely find on the menus of Hunan Chinatown's competitors is one of the famous specialties of southwestern Chinese regional cooking, Tea-Smoked Duck. Perhaps its preparation is too daunting for most kitchens. First the duck is marinated in heavily spiced brine, then smoked over smoldering tea leaves, then steamed to tenderness, and finally deep-fried just before serving. With its shiny, crackling, dark-brown skin and moist, smoke-suffused flesh, it is a splendid dish that will impress both the casual diner and the serious student of Chinese cuisine.

 

Hunan Chinatown, 624 H St., NW; 202-783-5858. Dinner until 11 Friday and Saturday.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2000

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RESTAURANT

REVIEW

 

 

 

Lei Garden Asian

Chinese

 

629-631 H St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 216-9696

Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner until 11 Monday through Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday.

 

 

No matter how good the dim sum ordered from an a la carte list, it never matches the pleasure to be had from selecting the dumplings and small portions of savories from a rolling cart. Thanks to a sprawling second-story dining area that at other times serves as a banquet hall, Lei Garden attracts an enviable lunchtime crowd by serving dim sum from carts daily. And the best recommendation for the quality of its dim sum is that at any given lunch, most of the patrons enjoying shu mai, shark's fin dumplings, bean curd stuffed with shrimp, and clams stir-fried with black-bean sauce are Chinese.

Downstairs, the long L-shape buffet has a strong following among lunchtime bargain-hunters. For $10 weekdays and $12 on weekends, you can run the gamut from cold salads and steamed dumplings to barbecue specialties and stir-fries as many times as you want.

 

For diners who prefer their stir-fries straight from the wok, some of the best on the menu are eggplant with spicy-sweet-vinegary yushion sauce; a crisp pad of pan-fried noodles with shredded pork; and Five-Flavor Chicken. Try to leave room for one of the "boiled" house specialties, such as the Sichuan Very Spicy Boiled Beef or the Boiled Fish Filet, a rustic casserole packed with crisp-crusted fish filets, fresh green chilies, and napa cabbage, all awash in a heady sauce flecked with dried hot-pepper flakes.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2003

 

 

 

Whatever the budget, whatever the appetite, Lei Garden aims to please. For its Chinese regulars, a visit here means climbing two flights of stairs to a dining room where an assortment of dim sum is served from rolling carts daily at lunch. Downstairs, an all-you-can-eat buffet--$8.95 during the week, $10.95 on weekends--lures tourists and workers from nearby offices. There is also a long pan-regional Chinese menu for those who want their stir-fries hot out of the wok.

Old China hands who wouldn't otherwise consider dining buffet-style might choose first courses from the cold selections, the pan-fried dumplings, and some of the excellent Cantonese roast duck and the firecracker-red barbecue pork tenderloin. While enjoying these, watch the buffet for the moment the staff emerges from the kitchen to replenish the stir-fries. Then head for the spicy shredded pork with dried bean curd and a very good General Tso's Chicken.

 

Lei Garden took over the premises of China Garden, one of the neighborhood's oldest restaurants, and diners might convince the floor staff to ask the new kitchen to produce some of the former tenant's signatures: roast pork chow mai foon; chow hoi shin, a classic Cantonese stir-fry of seafood with a spare glaze of white sauce; and "dry-cooked" spareribs with black-bean sauce.

 

Some of the best things on the Lei Garden menu are the signature "boiled" dishes, such the Very Spicy Boiled Curry of Lamb and the Boiled Fish Filet, a rustic clay pot packed with crisp-crusted, red-pepper-flecked fish, sliced green chilies, and a cooling note of napa cabbage; the Pan-Fried Noodles With Pork; eggplant with sweet-spicy-sour yushion sauce; and Five-Flavor Chicken.

 

Lei Garden, 629-631 H St., NW; 202-216-9696. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

 

— Robert Shoffner

January 2002

 

 

 

Never underestimate the power of dim sum to draw an enthusiastic Chinese crowd. Lei Garden's management transformed what was the somnolent China Inn into one of the busiest restaurants in Chinatown by turning its second-story banquet room into a sprawling dim sum parlor. Now Chinese patrons help keep every table filled at the peak of the lunch hour.

The standards--purse-shaped shu mai, shark-fin dumplings, and bean curd stuffed with shrimp paste--are splendid, and some of the kitchen's less familiar specialties, such as plump, translucent dumplings stuffed with a dice of pork and whole peanuts, are worth keeping an eye out for.

 

Downstairs, lunch patrons can order from Lei Garden's traditionally long Chinatown menu or serve themselves from the steam-table buffet. Priced at $8.95 during the week and $10.95 on weekends, it requires a bit of strategy to be enjoyed at its best. Start with a choice of saladlike pickled vegetables, roast duck and barbecue pork, and dumplings such as shu mai, their freshness protected by covered steamers. As you enjoy these, keep an eye out for the moment the staff emerges from the kitchen to replenish the offerings, then head for such winners as the portions of steamed whole fish, General Tso's chicken, and spicy shredded pork with dried bean curd.

 

For patrons who prefer their stir-fries straight from the wok, some of the best from Lei Garden's pan-regional menu are Five-Flavor Chicken; eggplant with spicy-sweet-vinegary yushion sauce; and Pan-Fried Noodles With Shredded Pork. Leave room in your order for one of the kitchen's signature "boiled" dishes, such as the Sichuan Very Spicy Boiled Beef or the Boiled Fish Filet, a rustic clay pot packed with crisp-crusted, red-pepper-flecked fish, slices of fresh green chilies, and a cooling note of napa cabbage.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2002

 

 

 

In DC's Chinatown, which seems to shrink by one or two restaurants a year (the venerable Ruby recently joined such past casualties as Golden Palace and Eat First), Lei Garden has come out of nowhere to challenge Tony Cheng's long-held position as the busiest restaurant in the neighborhood. And it has done so not by siphoning off patrons from Tony Cheng's, which is as busy as ever.

In the sprawling premises formerly occupied by China Inn, Lei Garden's formula for success is based on accommodating the appetites and budgets of a variety of diners. For the bargain hunter with a big appetite, the first floor offers an all-you-can-eat buffet for $8.95 on weekdays, $10.95 on Saturday and Sunday. An extensive selection of dim sum is served from rolling carts in the second-floor dining room from 11:30 AM to 3 PM daily. There is also a long menu of classics and less-familiar dishes drawn mainly from the spicy repertory of southwestern China, plus an untranslated Chinese menu featuring dishes from Canton, Shanghai, Peking, and Taiwan.

 

Pitting a fixed-price, all-you-can-eat buffet against pay-per-dish dim sum would seem like unfair competition, but judging from the packed tables upstairs, Lei Garden's tea snacks outdraw its invitation to gluttony downstairs. Small wonder: Much of this dim sum is as good as--and sometimes better than--that served at restaurants in Maryland and Virginia catering to resident Chinese communities. On any given day, about half the patrons having dim sum at Lei Garden are Asian, and the rest are Occidentals who know the difference between a taro dumpling and a turnip cake.

 

There are some failures--a small portion of flat-flavored Singapore-style noodles and plates of carelessly cut, pale-skinned roast duck--but most of the offerings are of excellent quality. Look for the light and tender shu mai; probably the most popular dim sum in Hong Kong, these little purse-shaped dumplings filled with pork and shrimp are a sure test of a kitchen's talent. Also first-rate: the ruffled shark-fin dumplings; crisp-bottomed dumplings filled with vegetables; classic har gow, with translucent wrappers that reveal the pink shrimp stuffing; chicken-scallop dumplings; a small platter of thin slices of boned pig's feet; and steamed spareribs with black-bean spice.

 

To drink, order the classic accompaniment for dim sum: a pot of chrysanthemum tea, which derives its pale-gold hue from dried blossoms and is meant to be sweetened with chunks of rock sugar.

 

Lei Garden's buffet can be a good introduction to both its dim sum and dishes from its regular menu.

 

Whet your appetite with Chinese pickled cabbage--slightly sweet, slightly spicy--and crunchy seaweed salad scented with sesame oil. Next, look for the Cantonese-style roasted duck--surprisingly better on the buffet than as part of the dim sum upstairs--and the firecracker-red barbecue pork tenderloin, both best enjoyed at room temperature. Then consider a plate of assorted dumplings from the stack of miniature steamers that hold a sampling of the shu mai and other dim sum offerings.

 

For a main course of the best of the stir-fries, wait until the spicy shredded pork with dried bean curd and the General Tso's Chicken arrive steaming from the kitchen.

 

With almost 200 dishes on its English menu--and close to a hundred more on the Chinese menu--it is a task to sort out the strengths of Lei Garden's kitchen. Within a single category there are inexplicable highs and lows: The Pan-Fried Noodle with Pork, a crisp, tender pad of fried noodles topped with a lightly-sauced stir-fry of pork, bean sprouts, snow peas, and shiitake mushrooms, is as good a version of Hong Kong chow mein as you'll find in Chinatown, while an order of roast-pork chow mai foon--a classic stir-fry of thread-thin rice noodles--is marred by bits of irregularly cut barbecue pork. Singapore-style noodles are undercurried and dull, as are their uncurried counterpart, Taiwanese-Style Angel-Hair Noodles.

 

The kitchen shows talent in preparing regional specialties from southwestern China. Recommended choices include eggplant or pork with sweet-sour-spicy yu-shion sauce; Five-Flavor Chicken; and Ma-Po Bean Curd.

 

Lei Garden touts its Szechuan Very Spicy Boiled Beef on its page of chef's recommendations. The brothy casserole packed with sliced beef, napa cabbage, scallions, and slices of fresh green chilies is popular with Chinese diners. It is so good that it encourages one to check back over the menu for other "boiled" dishes. A search resulted in the discovery of a very good Very Spicy Boiled Curry of Lamb and one of the kitchen's best seafood dishes, Boiled Fish Filet, a rustic clay pot packed with crisp-crusted, red-pepper-flecked rectangles of fish, sliced green chilies, and a cooling note of napa cabbage.

 

On a gentler note, what is listed as Sauteed Fish Fillet is one of those classic Cantonese stir-fries whose glaze of white sauce almost imperceptibly flavored with garlic points up the natural sweetness of the fish. But pass up the Fried Minced Bean With Fish Filet, which obliterates any flavor its fish may have had by submerging it in a bog of torrid bean paste.

 

Lei Garden is the only restaurant in the District that serves dim sum from carts daily, but the real discovery for Chinese-cuisine fans is its regular menu. It would take a year's worth of visits to find all of the best dishes on the English menu, and one can only wonder about the hidden treasures on the untranslated Chinese menu. Having sampled the winners on this list--including Braised Side-Pork With Watercress and Steamed Bean Curd Stuffed With Shrimp Paste in Black-Bean Sauce--one hopes that management will see fit to translate it to accommodate non-Asian diners.

 

Lei Garden, 629-631 H St., NW; 202-216-9696. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner until 11 Monday through Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday.

 

— Robert Shoffner

August 2001

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Li Ho Food Asian

Chinese

 

501 H St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 289-2059

Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner until 11 pm daily.

 

 

Easy to dismiss because it looks like just another Chinese carryout, Li Ho Food is a favorite among Chinatown insiders. Ignore the $3.75 lunchtime special with its egg roll and fried rice, all languishing on a steam table, and look to the big menu that is a veritable catalog of Hong Kong cooking.

With its open kitchen sharing equal space with its main dining room, Li Ho is not easy on the eye, but it has thrived because it serves some of the best Hong Kong cooking in Chinatown. American chefs swear by its Singapore-style rice noodles--the only authentic version of this dish currently being served in Chinatown--studded with fresh green chilies instead of sliced green bell peppers.

 

Hong Kong dumpling soup, a combination platter of Cantonese roasted meats, a rustic casserole of pork and oysters, seasonal specials that include sea snails with black-bean sauce and snow-pea leaves stir-fried with ginger and garlic--all inspire serious students of Chinese cuisine. For those who need a guide to the pleasures of Hong Kong cuisine, the proprietress, Mrs. Ng, is a worthy guide. Ask her counsel, and she'll steer you to the kitchen's best dishes.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 1999

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Tai Shan Asian

Chinese

 

622 H Street, NW

Washington, DC

(202) 639-0266

Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner until midnight Sunday through Thursday, until 3 am Friday and Saturday.

 

 

Since the closing of the much-missed Eat First on Seventh Street, Tai Shan should now be considered for the title of best Cantonese roast duck in Chinatown. Although it is not quite as good as it was when it was showcased in the restaurant's front window during its first few month of business, it is crisp skinned, well rendered of its fat, moist and tender of flesh, and lightly aromatic with five-spice powder. Ask for your quarter or half portion to be served at room temperature, as it is for the Chinese clientele, rather than heated, which imparts a stale taste.

If you're at a table of four or six, order a combination plate of the roasted specialties, which will include soy-sauce chicken and firecracker-red barbecued pork tenderloin along with a quarter portion of duck. Then consider some of the seasonal specials posted on the wall for the Chinese clientele and thoughtfully translated for Occidental diners: a hot pot of bone-in flounder with pork, or the topmost leaves of the snow-pea plant stir-fried with your choice of chicken or shrimp. And try to remember two favorites of Chinatown insiders: the noodle soup with fresh ham hocks, and the authentic Hong Kong version of chow mein, a crispy pad of thin noodles topped with a julienne of fresh pork, bean sprouts, snow peas, and dried shiitake mushrooms, all bound in a spare glaze of sauce that won't turn the noodles soggy.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 1999

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Tony Cheng's Mongolian Restaurant Asian

Chinese

Mongolian

 

619 H St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 842-8669

Open daily for lunch and dinner.

 

 

In a neighborhood with a tradition of long menus, this spacious dining room, decorated with Disneylike murals of Genghis Khan's cavalry, offers only two specialties: Mongolian Hot Pot and Mongolian Barbecue, both prefaced by a complimentary appetizer of pickled, lightly spicy napa cabbage.

Although the avid Chinese clientele at Tony Cheng's Mongolian Restaurant don't think of the hot pot as diet food, health-conscious Westerners will welcome it as an opportunity to feast without guilt. The Asian counterpart to fondue, the hot pot is a participatory meal where diners cook vegetables, meats, seafood, and noodles in a charcoal-fired brass pot of boiling stock and finish the meal with a bowl of broth enriched by the ingredients cooked in it. For the uninitiated, a waiter stands by the table to advise on the order of ingredients to be added to the pot and their cooking times.

 

For those with big appetites and no fear of cholesterol, the $14.95 all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue is the natural choice. Choose the ingredients that appeal to you from the refrigerated bins that surround the big cast-iron grill that is the focal point of the dining room, and wait for less than a minute while one of the chefs cooks the first of the many bowls of your barbecue. At table, the barbecue is traditionally eaten by stuffing generous portions of it between two halves of flaky, house-baked finger rolls.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 1999

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Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant Asian

Chinese

Cantonese

Seafood

 

619 H St., NW

Washington, DC

(202) 371-8669

Open daily for lunch and dinner. Wheelchair accessible.

 

 

Year after year this Chinatown landmark manages to cook its three different styles--the elegant cuisine of Hong Kong, the spicy specialties of Szechuan and Hunan, and a full complement of Cantonese dim sum at lunch--equally well.

Although the Chinese diners wait for the weekends to enjoy dim sum, the items available from an a la carte checklist on weekdays are as good as their counterparts chosen from the carts on weekends. One gem on the list that rarely appears on the carts is a bowl of rich stock generously garnished with shark's-fin dumplings and a stalk or two of the jade-green vegetable yu choy sing.

 

When composing a meal at Tony Cheng's, follow the visual cues: tanks filled with Dungeness crabs and lobsters and a brightly lit showcase on the back wall displaying Cantonese-style roasted ducks, chickens, and firecracker-red pork tenderloins. From the lengthy menu, a representative sampling of the kitchen's fine work might include shrimp stir-fried with asparagus in a spicy black-bean sauce, Fish Filets With Green Vegetable, pan-fried noodles with pork, Chicken With Spicy Wine Sauce, and Szechuan Crispy Beef.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2003

 

 

 

While its dim sum offerings are Cantonese, Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant is the only kitchen in the metro area that produces both Cantonese specialties and the spicy dishes of the southwestern provinces of Szechuan and Hunan equally well. Before opening the menu, consider ordering a quarter or half portion of the crisp-skinned Cantonese roast duck that hangs in a display case at the rear of the restaurant and one of the lobsters or Dungeness crabs showcased in the tank in the center of the dining room. After a server nets your choice and presents it for your approval, the kitchen will stir-fry it with your choice of ginger and scallions or black-bean sauce.

To sample a few of the many dishes that have long made Tony Cheng Washington's leading Chinese restaurateur, search the voluminous menu for such house specialties as Fish Filets With Green Vegetable, shrimp and asparagus stir-fried in a spicy black-bean sauce, pan-fried noodles with mixed seafood, Shanghai bok choy with oyster sauce, Chicken with Spicy Wine Sauce, and Szechuan Crispy Beef, a dish as good today as it was when Tony Cheng first brought it to Washington 26 years ago.

 

— Robert Shoffner

January 2003

 

 

 

Every year, several very good restaurants in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs challenge Tony Cheng's primacy on the local Chinese circuit. Despite the support of substantial Chinese communities in both areas, none has yet bested this Chinatown landmark.

Diners serious about Chinese cuisine know that they can enjoy the best meal at a given restaurant if they restrict their choices to dishes from the chef's native province, but Tony Cheng's is one of those rare places where the kitchen consistently produces dishes from Canton, Hong Kong, Szechuan, and Hunan equally well. As a bonus, whether ordered a la carte on weekdays or chosen from rolling carts on weekends, the dim sum here matches the best available in the area.

 

For the average diner, the length of Tony Cheng's menu can be dizzying; for the student of Chinese cuisine, it is an exciting challenge. When ordering, newcomers should first consider the dining room's visual cues. See those feisty Dungeness crabs crowded in a display tank? Ask for one stir-fried with ginger and scallions. And consider a quarter or half portion of one of the Cantonese roast ducks hanging in the stainless-steel showcase along the restaurant's back wall.

 

The usual rule of thumb in a Chinese restaurant is to order one more dish than the number of people at the table, but the portions here are unusually generous, and three dishes are likely to challenge a couple with good appetites. Two people will not feel overfed if they choose a quarter of a Cantonese roast duck, shrimp and asparagus stir-fried in a spicy black-bean sauce, and Shanghai bok choy with oyster sauce. But if you want a feast representative of this talented kitchen's specialties, it is well worth the effort to arrange for three or four couples to meet at one of the restaurant's round tables whose lazy Susan will make it easy for each diner to enjoy the likes of Fish Filets With Green Vegetable, Chicken With Spicy Wine Sauce, Mongolian Pork With Ginger and Scallion Sauce, and Szechuan Crispy Beef, a dish as good today as it was when Tony Cheng first introduced it 25 years ago.

 

— Robert Shoffner

January 2002

 

 

 

More than 25 years ago, Tony Cheng woke up a sleepy Chinatown by opening Szechuan on I Street. Then as now, its location was on the wrong side of the tracks from H Street's stir-fry corridor. But Cheng's winning personality and dynamic salesmanship--as well as a national-class kitchen with more dishes than any other in a neighborhood known for long menus--made Szechuan the prime destination in Chinatown. Six months after it opened in 1976, it was not unusual to arrive there at 9 on a weeknight to find a line of customers waiting on the stairs that led to its second-story dining room.

Tony Cheng opened his Seafood Restaurant in the early '80s to diversify his clientele. While the fiery, meaty specialties of China's southwestern provinces attracted an enthusiastic following of Western patrons, local Chinese diners, who prefer the more restrained cooking of Canton and Hong Kong, favored restaurants that catered to their traditional tastes. It was a prescient business strategy: In the late '90s, when Chinatown restaurants fell on hard times, Tony Cheng's continued to prosper, thanks to an impressively long menu that offers both the spicy specialties favored by the old Szechuan crowd and the elegant seafood preparations that draw the largest native clientele of any Chinese restaurant in the District.

 

Arguably, some fine Chinese kitchens in the suburbs match Tony Cheng's chefs in preparing traditional specialties from Canton and Hong Kong, but none cooks the Szechuan-Hunan repertory as well. The standard dishes are wonderful: a feisty lobster, netted from the holding tank in the dining room and stir-fried with ginger and scallions; a steamed flounder presented in a lagoon of soy sauce and sesame oil; and some of the best versions of Cantonese roast duck and firecracker-red pork tenderloin to be found in the area.

 

But the payoff for working one's way through the voluminous menu are such rarely encountered gems as grouper filets coated with a glaze of white sauce and garnished with Chinese greens; shrimp stir-fried with black-bean sauce and asparagus; Szechuan-Style Crispy Beef; slices of chicken glazed with a wine sauce that is a balanced combination of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors; and briefly poached iceberg lettuce with oyster sauce.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2002

 

 

 

Given the number of restaurants in the suburbs that offer excellent dim sum, it's a wonder that Tony Cheng's attracts so many Chinese diners at Saturday and Sunday lunches. No doubt many of these patrons have enjoyed the dumplings and little savory dishes served at such award-winning dim sum specialists as Maxim Palace in Falls Church and Oriental East in Silver Spring yet have decided that the breadth of selection and impressive quality of the dim sum at Tony Cheng's justifies a trip to Chinatown.

Weekdays, dim sum is not served from rolling carts but may be ordered from a list of more than 40 items. If you have a craving for it on a Wednesday, though, don't hesitate: The quality of the shrimp ######, shark-fin dumplings, and spareribs in black-bean sauce is every bit as good as it is on weekends. Plus, curiosity may lead you to discover a hidden treasure that you won't see on the carts: Ambiguously titled Dumpling in Soup, it is a bowl of delicately fragrant broth packed with pork-filled dumplings and topped with a stalk of jade-green choy sum.

 

With its list of more than 200 dishes, the regular menu at Tony Cheng's is a seminar on the regional specialties of Canton and Hong Kong, liberally spiced with representative classics from Szechuan and Hunan. What distinguishes this kitchen from the competition is its consistent ability to produce both the delicate and the brash styles of Chinese cuisine equally well. Just a few of the dishes that entice newcomers to become regulars are shrimp stir-fried with asparagus and black-bean sauce; a lively, impressively large Dungeness crab netted from the display tank in the center of the dining room and stir-fried with ginger and scallions; sweetly fresh filets of grouper coated with a glaze of white sauce and garnished with Chinese greens; briefly poached lettuce with oyster sauce; a plate of the best Cantonese roast pork in the metro area; shrimp ball with a cube of scallop hidden within and glazed with black-bean sauce; and a classic rendition of Shredded Crispy Beef, Szechuan Style.

 

— Robert Shoffner

June 2001

 

 

 

This year Tony Cheng celebrates his 25th anniversary as a Chinatown restaurateur. His two restaurants in that neighborhood were major influences on the development of authentic Chinese cuisine in the Washington area. His long-closed Szechuan on I Street, between Sixth and Seventh, introduced the length and breadth of southwestern China's assertively spicy cuisine to our area. The lines of diners waiting on the steps to his second-story dining room inspired competitors to copy his voluminous menu.

In the mid-1980s, Tony Cheng opened his Seafood Restaurant, aiming for a Chinese clientele--which prefers authentic Cantonese and Hong Kong cooking--while still offering a rich selection of Szechuan-Hunan dishes for the regulars who gravitated to the new restaurant after Szechuan closed. Now, as Chinatown is being overtaken by restaurants of other ethnic persuasions, and when the neighborhood's kitchens are no longer the match for those that cater to the sizable Chinese communities in northern Virginia and southern Maryland, Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant remains unique: It has the area's only kitchen that cooks specialties from Canton and Szechuan equally well. The large fish lazing in the aquariums at the dining room's entrance and the brawny Dungeness crabs basking in a showcase tank in the center of the room are a magnet for the large Chinese clientele. At the back of the restaurant, superb Cantonese-style roasted ducks, chickens, and pork glisten in glass-fronted stainless-steel cabinets.

 

Before reading through the large menu, students of Chinese cuisine will find it hard to resist ordering one of those Dungeness crabs stir-fried with ginger and scallions and a quarter or half of roast duck. To make up the rest of the meal, consider some of this inspired kitchen's signatures: Crispy Szechuan Beef; shrimp stir-fried with asparagus and black-bean sauce; chicken with wine sauce; Crispy Fry-Pan Noodles With Seafood; Shanghai bok choy with oyster sauce; and filet of grouper stir-fried with a leafy green vegetable called choy sum.

 

— Robert Shoffner

February 2001

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