Not too long ago, I caught wind of an Uyghur restaurant existing in the DMV area that perked my attention. Since I was in Istanbul about a month ago, I was curious about these Asian-looking people and their culture that seems to spread as far from Western China into the far reaches of the Asian continent next to Europe. So, last Sunday, I managed to coral the dinner group to have lunch at Queen Amanissa in Crystal City, Arlington, VA. Walking in, I was impressed by the modern spacious space that was both inviting and appealing to the eye. After much contemplation on the menu, many questions (not me), and with the help of the amiable helpful owner/manager, we placed our orders.
The first appetizer was the Home-Made Samsa. The triangular packet came baked with sesame seeds on top, looking appetising for the hungry eyes. One bite into it revealed not a flacky dough but a rather soft one much like some Chinese baked goods I’ve had before. The stuffing was chunks of lamb that were cooked with some onions; the meat was moist and very savory with a slight scent of lamb gaminess that paired well with the sweet onions. This was a good starter, however, I wanted some sauce that would complement these small bites – but, good start indeed.
A salad that caught my curiosity was Tasty Wood Ear Mushrooms. The moment it landed on the table, it grabbed our attention only by its visual appearance but the nutty scent of sesame oil as well. The first bite sent my senses into overdrive, not due to overwhelming flavors, but by the interesting flavor combinations. Silky soft wood mushrooms (actually fungus) is paired with tomato, red bell pepper, and white onion, which provided some textural contrast and sweetness. But it was the seasoning that made this a success: acidity from a light vinegar, salt, and heat from some chili flakes. The dish was not overwhelming at all as the seasoning was fairly even-handed. No wonder online reviewers highly recommend this dish.
Cuisines from Central Asia are known for their dumplings, and I had to try this house’s version. The owner warned me that it would take some time since it was made from scratch, and sure enough, it was the last dish to arrive. The skin looked beautifully pleated, an indication that some manual attention went into it, tasting quite chewy, not industrial pasty, much like fresh-made pasta. The filling was a mixture of fairly large chunks of lamb cooked with some leeks (they were more fibrous than onions, unlike what the owner claimed). I quite enjoyed them as these parcels were very savory, but I found the size of the lamb bits too large, and their slightly dry nature did not add to it. I would have wished that the meat was cut into smaller pieces, or hashed, and a pairing sauce would have made them perfect, much like what other dumpling cultures do.
I had read online that the restaurant made hand-pulled noodles, and I’m glad that a dinner mate ordered Braised Meat Laghman. What arrived was an explosion of colors. After not heeding to my advice, as well as the owner’s, to mix everything up, he complained it was rather bland. I tasted the sauce to check on the flavors and I was amazed at its complexity and baffled at my friend’s remarks. But he did eventually mix it up, with a touch of thick soy sauce, and he started to be effusive about its wonderful flavors. The sauce reminded me of Chinese restaurant sauces that are not found in home cooking, and I kept dipping my fork to taste it. But the star was the hand-pulled noodles that had a bounce only found in such manner of preparation, with a slightly al-dente interior. Although the diner was not fond of spice heat, he could tolerate a tinge of chili in the mix. Based on other reviews, I would also order the Dry Fried Laghman which is popular and supposedly quite fiery.
A couple of my friends ordered a dish similar to the Afghan version – Polow. Touted as the main Uyghur dish, they had to give it a try. What arrived was a bit different to what we were used to. The pieces of lamb were mild and devoid of its gaminess, and falling apart easily. The rice was very savory and full-bodied from cooking with a good stock, albeit the grains were medium grain and not the nutty basmati, which I didn’t really mind. The pieces of carrot were not sweet like in the Afghan version, but extremely savory that they amazed me, paired up with pieces of raisins that added the sweet pop. This meal was made complete by an accompanying salad and a bowl of home-made yoghurt that lightened the meal with its acidic goodness, to which one diner marveled at its well-made quality. I would say that this dish is a sure bet for anyone unsure about the menu.
I was also glad that one of us decided to try the kebab or grilled meats. My friend ordered the Lamb Ribs, and its appearance did not belie its nature. I managed to taste a bit, and the meat was moist, well-seasoned with adequate saltiness and spices, reminding me of Ghanian Chichinga, but with a fairly strong lamb scent, perhaps due to the nature of the cut. But it was fresh-tasting and appetising, especially for the lamb lover. I suspect that here they do well with the other types of kebabs, especially with the less exotic cuts. I’m curious about the Roasted Leg of Lamb which may be my order the next time.
Queen Amannisa is a great find, especially being one of the first establishments in the DMV area serving Uyghur cuisine. Here we see world history of the Silk Route playing itself out in the offerings, from the Chinese influences of hand-made noodles, to the hand-pleated dumplings, to the use of sesame oil, and the Central Asian influences of Polow and Kebabs. Yes, some of us were hesitant, as well as grouchy, at the beginning of the meal, and the late timing and the long decision-making compounded that anxiety level. But, at the end of the meal, we were calmer, sated, and definitely, if not surprisingly, pleased by this new culinary experience. This place is going into our list of dinner places, for sure.
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