We travel fairly often to China and have enjoyed the food there very much, so we decided to start hunting for Chinese restaurants in the Washington, DC area that we thought produced authentic dishes that taste like the restaurants in Beijing. (With the added advantage that the restaurants in DC are cleaner, and it’s safe to drink the water.) We had several criteria for our search:
1) Level of Spiciness – Chinese restaurants in the United States generally tone down the level of spice and hot peppers for American palates. The restaurants on our list do not do so. There are non-spicy dishes to be found, of course, but if you order a spicy dish from these restaurants, you are guaranteed a spicy dish.
2) Authentic Dishes – there are many items that Chinese eat that sound alien or unappetizing to American tastes. These dishes include items such as tripe, tendon, jellyfish, and sea cucumber. Mind you, we don’t like tripe, tendon, or sea cucumber either (I do confess that I like jellyfish), but if you’re not offering those dishes, then you aren’t an authentic Chinese restaurant.
3) Mapo tofu – this is a classic spicy dish with tofu and ground pork. The Beijing version has an explosion of peppercorns with each mouthful, and a restaurant had to do this dish well in order to make our list.
This is only the beginning of our search, but we’ve come up with three restaurants that we think fit the criteria. They are as follows (in order of discovery):
Sichuan Pavilion (1814 K St NW; 202-466-7790): a friend of mine who works at the World Bank introduced me to this restaurant. She told me it was where all of the Chinese who work at the World Bank go to eat. (Branching out to other cuisines is not a Chinese strength—why sample other cuisines when your own is so clearly superior?) The restaurant is better decorated than most Chinese restaurants, and the staff is knowledgeable and competent. It gets very crowded at lunchtime, so make sure you go early or late if you want to avoid the lines.
Chalin’s, formerly Charlie Chiang’s (4250 Connecticut Ave NW; 202-966-1916): the parents of a friend of our daughter’s introduced us to this restaurant. They formerly worked at the Chinese Embassy, which is just down the street and told us that Chalin’s is a popular place for lunch for embassy employees. In fact, the restaurant shut down during Hu Jintao’s visit so that the chef could cook for him while he was in the United States (note previous comment about branching out or the lack thereof.) We’ve only been for dinner, and it’s never been crowded. They have private rooms that you can reserve, which is a nice touch for large family gatherings.
Great Wall Szechuan House (1527 14th St NW; 202-797-8888): some Japanese friends introduced us to this restaurant. Mapo tofu is a favorite dish amongst the Japanese—go figure. This is the most casual of the three restaurants (which is a pretty high (low?) bar when you’re talking about Chinese restaurants). There is limited seating, but if you live close by, takeout is very doable. Parking is VERY limited. We are seriously thinking about using a car service next time we go. Jim thinks the mapo tofu here is the best of the three because it is the least greasy, but the rest of us disagree. The twice-cooked pork here is a must order. Normally, it’s a very ordinary dish, but at the Great Wall, they use pork belly instead of ordinary pork. Not to be missed!
We know there are more restaurants to be found, especially in Montgomery County and northern Virginia. I’ll keep you posted on additional discoveries!