Northwest Chinese Food

NW Chinese FoodFinding veritable Chinese cuisine in the DMV is as challenging as locating an endangered species.  I attribute that to two causes: the long history of Chinese-American food that was introduced by Chinese immigrants in the West Coast at the turn of the 20th century, and the lack of demand for authentic Chinese cuisine until recently with the tide of immigrants from the Mainland.  In the last couple of years I have come across establishments serving fare that would satisfy the truth-seeker culinary wise.  Recently, I read that there was a small hole-in-the-wall in my old college neighborhood, College Park, MD, serving regional Chinese food.  Northwest Chinese Food (name lacks originality, but not culinary confusion) is located on the main drag sandwiched by other eating establishments that are desperately calling the hungry students’ attention to walk through their doors.  I paid it three visits for this review, and I was lucky to have a table by the window for the photo shots despite it’s busyness and the cramped space holding only 9 tables.

Black Vinegar Peanuts, NW Chinese Food

This place has garnered lots of online reviews and recommendations, and with that list in hand I placed my first appetizer/opener.  Black Vinegar Peanuts was frequently mentioned and high on my list too.  The plate of nuts arrived with skin intact swimming in a pool of black sauce.  One bite revealed the dish’s nature.   Toasted peanuts were punchy to the taste, made even more aromatic by pungent raw garlic and herbaceous cilantro, spicy by red chili flakes and finely julienned ginger, and picked up by a slightly earthy black vinegar that reminded me of good Balsamico.  These nibbles were highly addictive and we couldn’t stop serving ourselves of it despite the other ordered dishes and the dish’s copious amount.

Shredded Potato Salad, NW Chinese Food

Sesame Chili Sauce, NW Chinese FoodThe other highly raved dish is Shredded Potato.  This vegan dish sounded and looked unique at first glance.  The plate was filled with very finely shredded pieces of white potato that has been marinated in a sauce.  The matchstick slivers had a most interesting texture, tasting barely cooked, yet exuding a crunch that would suggest it being raw and reminding me of Asian radish.  But it was the seasoning that elevated this lowly tuber to an ethereal level, tasting spicy from the chili sesame seed oil (also served at the table), fragrant cilantro, raw garlic, and a hint of vinegar to counteract this starch.  I was quite blown away by this simple dish since its treatment and flavors hit all the right spots.

Sour Soup Dumplings, NW Chinese Food

Another appetizer that looked like a dish I had savored before was Sour Soup Dumplings.  The bowl arrived with these stuffed pasta floating in a bowl of broth.  However, they tasted quite different from the Shanghainese version that I was used to.  The dough was thicker than wanton skins but the stuffing was the same aromatic and moist finely minced pork mixture.  It was the broth that took it in an interesting direction with a mild savory flavor spiked by some chili sesame seed oil, made sour by pieces of pickled mustard green, and some body added by chunks of raw garlic.  There was a soulful element to this dish that did not taste stodgy or passé, and it can definitely make a complete dish by itself.

Spicy Beef & Lamb Skewers, NW Chinese CuisineSkewers seem quite popular among the reviewers and other customers during my stopovers. On my visits, I tried the ones made with beef, with lamb, and with chicken.  The sticks came filled to the brim with thin small pieces of meat.  All the meat versions (a couple of non-meat versions are offered too) were seasoned with the chili sesame seed seasoning and whole cumin seeds.  The bites were quite spicy and aromatic from the seasoning and spices, but they lacked some salt.  Their slight oiliness indicated that they were cooked in oil, but I was missing the grill char that would have made them more interesting and flavorful.  As for the cuts of meat, the lamb was a bit tough, but the rest of the meats were quite tender to the bite.  As small bites, they were not bad though.

Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger, NW Chinese Cuisine

Along the same line as the above skewered meat are the burgers, and I tried the Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger on one occasion.  The sandwich arrived in a basket laced with sandwich paper.  The bun was a flat unleavened bread showing its in-house quality and reminding me of a thick pita bread, an indicator of the Muslim influence in that part of the world.  Its stuffing was dripping with grease, unfortunately, but one bite into it detracted me from its flaws. The meat was chopped up from whole pieces, tasting very spicy from chili flakes and very aromatic from toasted whole cumin seeds that immediately perked the senses up.  After allowing some more of the grease to drip out of the burger, I was enjoying every bite while relishing its flavors and textures.  The beef version was much less greasy, as well as spicy, coupled with some sweet vegetable elements of red onions and green peppers.  Hey, after all, “burgers” are meant to be greasy, and this is my new find of this type of handheld food.

Sesame Sauce Rolled Noodles, NW Chinese FoodThis place is known for noodle dishes from that part of the world, especially hand-cut noodles.  Since it was getting rather warm from the strong Spring sun, I ordered Sesame Sauce Rolled Noodles. The bowl arrived with the disparate elements arranged in their areas, reminding me of Vietnamese Bun Noodle Salad:  cucumber, bean sprouts, finely shredded carrot, cilantro, peanuts, raw garlic, all sitting on a mound of wheat noodles lathered with sesame sauce and the chili sesame seed oil.  One swirl and a chopstick full immediately perked my interest.  All the ingredients contributed their flavor element of spiciness, nuttiness, herbaceous quality, garlic pungency, cooling quality, along with different textures that made each bite quite a kaleidoscope.  The sesame sauce was the perfect liaison that added its tahini-like creaminess with a hint of vinegar that elevated the noodles that were perfectly al dente and tasted handmade, akin to Spaghetti alla Chitarra.  This vegan dish comes without protein, but I added a topping of minced pork that was moist and made fragrant from the use of Asian cinnamon (cassia) exuding a faint note of enticing licorice to the protein.  This is the perfect summer dish in the next few months, and I will be planning to order it then, vegan or not.

Spicy Beef Noodles, NW Chinese Food

One of the most mentioned dishes online is Spicy Beef Noodles, and it is one that I recognized from this region due to my addiction to food and travel programs.  The bowl arrived wafting with an enticing smell and immediate appeal.  The soup, like most noodle soup dishes, is the key to the success to any dish of this kind.  This version had a body, probably from beef bones, made aromatic with hints of star anise, spiked by the mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorn, and it carried sour and salty notes from the pickled mustard green.  The beef chunks were amazingly sumptuous with its tender and fall apart quality, tasting more seasoned than the soup due to its cooking apart from the stock, which added to its appeal.  Additionally, the rice noodles had an al dente quality that did not turn mushy throughout the meal, reminding me of well-made fresh egg pasta.  The pool of chili condiment (not the table type) added some extra zing to the whole mix but still made it quite palatable.  I could not get enough of this dish as it was exciting both flavor and texture wise.  This soup noodle has now been added to my eating repertoire of this genre.

NW Chinese FoodNorthwest Chinese Food has become one of the most exciting discoveries for me on this gastronomic journey.  Partly it is because this is newfound territory, and also because this regional food is exciting and downright delicious.  This excitement was found in the flavors in nearly all the dishes  especially the peanut dish, shredded potato salad, the lamb burger, and both beef soup and sesame sauce noodle dishes.  In addition, the wheat and the rice noodles that I savored had a texture that I have never tasted in other Chinese establishments due to their hand-made quality and perfect cooking treatment.  Yes, the place is small and quite crowded on certain days, and I was even scolded by a waitress for holding a table while I waited for my party  – typically Chinese.  But with food this exciting and quite mind-blowing, such inconveniences can be tolerated or even overlooked.  This is definitely my latest gastronomic find, and it quickly ranks high on my personal list.

Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot

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Last weekend, I invited my gang to a dinner a la Chinese, Hot Pot style.  For them, one was familiar with it due to his visits with me to Southeast Asia.  However, for the rest of the quartet, this was terra incognito culinary wise.  Located in Falls Church, VA, Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot is located in a strip mall off the main drag.  But finding it was quite difficult due to its ensconced location, and the fact that only the Chinese sign, not the English, had its lights functioning.  After the travel challenge, we entered its doors and after a slight wait, we got a table with a hole in the middle.

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Hot Pot Soup – mild (left), Szechuan spicy (right).

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Bean thread Noodle, Chinese Spinach, and Shrimp.

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Enoki Mushrooms, Soft Tofu, Flounder, and Lean Pork.

The heart of a Hot Pot meal is the stock that the raw ingredients are cooked in.  For that, we chose a ying yang of a mild bone stock on one side and spicy Szechuan on the other, much alike what I had seen on travel channels about this fadish dish in China.  The mild soup had pieces of tomatoes and green onions along with the common Chinese Goji berries that provided some mild sweetness as well as its antioxidant properties.  The spicy stock had bits of dried chili peppers and Szechuan peppercorns floating on a rather thick layer of fiery oil, a common trait of this dish.   The secret to partaking in this meal is cooking more or less one plate of ingredients at a time so that the diners could savor one type of dish.  After helping ourselves to the different sauces at the buffet table, we started the process.

The different ingredients were very fresh and most didn’t not take too long to cook due to their vegetable nature or the thinness of their slices.  The usual order of cooking the ingredients starts with the mildest tasting ones, proceeding to bolder tasting elements like meat.  So, we started with Flounder which was quite spongy from a thick coating of corn starch, followed by shelled shrimp (I prefer with shell) which was quite sweet. Following that was tofu which was silky smooth, and some Spinach leaves that were nice and turgid before wilting in the soup.  We ordered a plate of tomato pieces since the group was fond of it being cooked by the mild soup.  It was followed by the Enoki mushrooms with its mild and delicate taste, and some Snowpea shoots which imparted a mild yet discernible vegetal quality.  I introduced the lean pork earlier since I sensed some impatience on the part of the novices with the meat tasting mild for pork yet quite tasty.  The various sauces (Hoisin, oyster, sesame, bean) added the flavor to the naked flavors, and a special mixture of Hoisin, oyster, and green onions made by the owner was the highlight, but I still missed the Malaysian version made with crushed chilies, vinegar, sugar, salt and sesame seeds.  The noodles are usually cooked last so as to sop up all the richness of the stock after cooking the various ingredients.  This time we cooked them in the mild stock as my friend and I were getting bludgeoned by the searing dried chilies and numbing Szechuan peppercorns in the fiery stock.

This meal was an example of Cultural Gastronomic Relativity.  Firstly, the cooking in two stocks was the veritable cooking method, and the fiery spicy one was no way a dilution of the authentic version, although we were starting to suffer its effects towards the end of the meal.  The ingredients were fresh and the usual ones associated with this meal.  The cooking of single dishes was also the way to go, albeit a bit frustrating to some.  The serving of starch at the end is the common practice even though my friends were perplexed why they couldn’t have some of it earlier – they were tempted to order some rice which is not common with this style.  The meal was more vegetarian and pescatarian which was a bit challenging for the meat-minded eater.  All in all, we pretty much towed the authentic line with this meet-up.

Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot offers the veritable thing.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea especially for the uninitiated ones.  However, it did convert one of my friends despite his initial trepidation.  If you are willing to try a new gastronomic experience, an authentic one it is, here is the place to visit, and you may enjoy this new style of cooking/eating.  Don’t blame me for suffering from the fiery stock – you have been forewarned!

Uncle Liu's Hot Pot Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Highlights 2016

Despite a rather tumultuous year, personally, professionally, and politically, I managed to squeeze in some great restaurant finds during my moments of respite.  Here is a quick rundown of the top dishes that I sampled throughout the year. Happy New Year 2017!

1. Thai Orchid (read Blog)

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Seafood Prik Prao

Seafood Prik Prao

2.Taqueria Los Primos (read Blog)

Tacos Al Pastor/Carnitas

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Quesadillas

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3. Chez Dior (read Blog)

Thiebou Diene

Thiebou Diene - Senegalese Stewed Fish

Accra/Black Eye Pea Fritters

Accra - Black Eye Pea Fritters

4. Panda Gourmet (read Blog)

Shanghai Bok Choy and Winter Mushrooms

Shanghai Bok Choy and Braised Mushroom

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

5. Evolve Vegan (read Blog)

Southern Fried Chick-un/Yams/Sweet Maple Kale Salad

Fried Chick-un

Raw Chocolate Cheesecake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

6. Woomi Garden (read Blog)

Jap Chae

Jap Chae

Beef Bulgogi

Beef Bulgogi

7. Great Sage (read Blog)

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Spinach Artichoke Dip

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

8. Jerusalem Restaurant (read Blog)

Hannet – Stewed Lamb

Hannet - Stewed Lamb

Makdous/Stuffed Eggplant

Makdous - Eggplant stuffed with Walnuts, Red Pepper, Garlic

9. Swahili Village (read Blog)

Grilled Goat, Beef, Chicken, Chapati Bread, Collard Greens, Spinach, and Rice Pilaf.

Group Platter - Swahili Village

Samaki Wa Nazi/Fish in Coconut Sauce Samaki Wa Nazi - Fish in Coconut Curry

10. Yekta Kabobi (read Blog)

Chicken Soltani Combination Kabob

Chicken Soltani Beef Kabobs

Bastanee Nooni/Saffron Ice-cream Wafer

Bastanee/Saffron Ice Cream

11.Baan Thai (read Blog)

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Northern Thai Pork Curry

Northern Thai Pork Curry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading my blogs throughout 2016. Happy Eating in the New Year!

Panda Gourmet

For some time, I had been reading and hearing about a Chinese restaurant in a most improbable place, inside a Days Inn motel on the busy gateway of the New York Ave. and Bladensburg Rd. intersection.  I had passed by it a number of times on my way to town, but I was quick to dismiss it due to its name (akin to a Chinese fast-food chain) and its suspect location.  But my Thai-Chinese doctor assured me, as well some online reviews, that it was the real deal serving authentic Mainland Chinese dishes that I shouldn’t overlook.  So, after getting over my reluctance and convincing my usual Friday-dinner group, we stepped into Panda Gourmet‘s doors to savor its offerings.

Panda Gourmet Restaurant Coming from the Maryland suburbs was not as tough getting there unlike the convoluted U-turn one has to maneuver from the direction of downtown DC (by the Moonie’s Washington Times).  Parking was not an issue there since it is located within a hotel which was a huge relief for this reviewer who is weary from parking battles that DC has lately become known for.  Looking at its rather confounding menu, typical of many Chinese restaurants, I managed to pick a few dishes that were based on some reviewers’ recommendations. Xian Pork Sandwich

Spicy Cumin Lamb SkewersThe first appetizer was Xian Sandwich with Pork, which was destined for my roomie who couldn’t make it to dinner.  When I got home, he was graceful enough to allow me to take a few bites of it.  I quickly fell in love with this meat package.  The bun was an interesting combination of a semi-hard crust with a rather spongy dough under it, coupling the shredded pork stuffing that reminded me of a long-smoked chopped barbecue.  The meat mixture was extremely savory with the right amount of saltiness and a hint of cumin rubbed on the exterior.  If weren’t for tasting it after my meal, I would have begged for more of this wonderful small bite.  The other was Lamb Skewers that came with many online recommendations.  The 4 skewers landed with rather generous chunks of meat attached to them.  One bite revealed fairly tender meat that was not overcooked and they lacked the gaminess usually associated with that meat.  The seasoning of crushed chili peppers and whole cumin seeds elevated these bites to something that was both savory and enticing, delicious enough for the dinner party to do a reprise of this dish close to the end of the meal. Ma Po Tofu

The establishment is known for Szechuan and Xian dishes of which I focused my eyes on from the menu.  Ma Po Tofu with Beef was an order used as a litmus test of this cuisine.  The fiery red dish arrived with nuggets of tofu studded in between with bits of minced beef hidden among the whole mix.   One mouthful was a bit overwhelming at first.  It was quite salty from the heavy use of bean sauce, and spicy from the chili oil and Szechuan peppercorn powder, evidenced by their presence on the white tofu.  The silken tofu provided some relief from the salt and spice, as well as the white rice that should be mixed with the main course, hence its over seasoning.  The minced beef was lost in the mix partially due its small pieces and the lack of its amount.  I was hoping for some textural contrast like green peas that I had savored in versions from other establishments.  Despite the above flaws, I appreciated the dish after picking through the pieces, and I was yearning for more spice heat as well as the numbing effect of the Szechuan peppercorn.  Not bad.

Chicken in Spicy Garlic SauceA spicy dish recommended by online reviewers was Chicken in Spicy Garlic Sauce. The dish was brimming with pieces of chicken breast, snow peas, celery, broccoli, mushroom, wood fungus, and bamboo shoot.  The first taste of the dish raised my eyebrows due to the sauce that was an interesting combination of chili oil and garlic, tasting sour from vinegar and sweet from sugar.   The sauce flavor was quite prominent and the sweet-sour element nearly overwhelmed the nuances of the mild chicken meat and the crunchy but perfectly cooked vegetables. But then, I was reminded of the nature of Szechuan cuisine that is bold in flavors, which this dish is up the alley, including the pool of red spicy oil which my parents complained about Mainland Chinese cooking during their travels.

Shanghai Bok Choy and Braised Mushroom

To appease a fellow dining companion, we ordered a couple of non-spicy dishes, in addition to balancing out the whole meal without bludgeoning our palates with spice.  The first was a newly added dish on the menu – Shanghai Bok Choy and Winter Mushrooms.  The dish arrived with halved bright-green baby bok choy accompanied by a pool of whole Chinese mushrooms covered with a dark sauce.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked and I was appreciating their fresh quality.  But it was the mushrooms that stole my attention with the woodsy notes and slippery consistency, an indication of them reconstituted and cooked properly to give a luxurious mouthfeel.  The sauce had hints of oyster sauce that is a classic match in Chinese cuisine.  As a respite from the chili heat, this was a perfect vegetarian dish.

Shrimp with Mixed Vegetables

Another fellow dinner wanted to take some reign on ordering the dishes, and he chose Shrimp with Mixed Vegetables since he is fond of that seafood and is always trying to add more vegetables to the mix.  The shrimp was accompanied by the usual Chinese mix of vegetables: broccoli, celery, carrots, baby corn, snow pea, bamboo shoot, and water chestnut.  It was a colorful and multi-textural mix despite the rather pedestrian brown sauce that coated the dish.  Even with the ingredients cooked just right, there really was not much to write home about, or in this, in this blog.  Meh, just not bad. Panda Gourmet Restaurant

Panda Gourmet is not for everyone, especially those who are not familiar with Chinese cuisine from the Mainland.  Sometimes, one has to apply some degree of cultural relativism when approaching certain ethnic cuisine, or in this case, gastronomic relativism, and with this angle, I evaluated what I ordered at this eatery.   The pork sandwich and lamb skewers were the perfect appetizers, even for the fussy or critical eater.  The Ma Po Tofu, Bok Choy and Mushroom, and the Spicy Garlic Chicken scored high in my books with their authentic approach despite the nearly overwhelming sauces and slightly oiliness, which come with the culinary territory.  Looking at their daunting menu, I realize that there are most veritable dishes to explore, offering some “funky” dishes with frog, tendon, tripe, and many dishes served on the Mainland.  This is a joint worth venturing into, and you may discover dishes not found in your usual carry-out, some to your liking, and some rather challenging.

Panda Gourmet Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Highlights 2015

I’m posting this blog to highlight the restaurants and dishes that I enjoyed the past year. Happy New Year to everyone.

Zaytinya (read Blog)

Batijan Bin Laban - Zaytinya, D.C.

Turkish Coffee Chocolate Cake & Matisha Ice Cream - Zaytinya, D.C.

Batijan Bin Laban/Fried Eggplant
Turkish Coffee Chocolate Cake, Matisha Ice Cream

Askale Cafe (Read Blog)

Vegetarian Combination, Askale Cafe, Washington DC

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Askale Cafe, Washington DC
Askale Vegetarian Combination
Ethiopian Coffee

Yuan Fu (Read Blog)

Chow San Shein

Veggie Duck with Basil & Ginger
Chow San Shein
Veggie Duck with Basil and Ginger

Toki Underground (Read Blog)

Fried Chicken Steamed Buns

Toki Classic Ramen

Fried Chicken Steamed Bun
Toki Classic Ramen

El Patio (Read Blog)

Empanada Tucumana

Grilled Ribeye Steak
Empanada Tucumana
Grilled Ribeye Steak

I Love Pho (Read Blog)

Bo Bun Hue

Crispy Noodle
Bo Bun Hue/Spicy Beef Noodle
Crispy Noodle

Myong Dong (Read Blog)

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Be Beam Naeng Myun/Cold Buckwheat Noodles
Mandu/Korean Noodles

Thip Kao (Read Blog)

Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon Wraps

Laab E'kae/Minced Alligator Salad
Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon Wraps
Laab E’kae/Minced Alligator Salad

Thank you for following my blog in 2015.  I hope you will enjoy my new finds and postings for the new year.  Happy Eating.

Yuan Fu

Yuan Fu Vegetarian Restaurant

I have always had an affinity, and still do, for vegetarian/vegan cuisine.  However, I have found that the best forms of this meatless realm are the ones tucked among the meat and seafood dishes, notably in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian restaurants. My experience has proven that vegetarian cuisine is very tricky in sustaining the interest of the diner, especially the omnivore, and that many exclusive vegetarian establishments don’t quite “get it”.  But there is one place that has kept my taste buds curious with their offerings over the last few years.  I paid the eatery my first visit many moons ago, and I left with a favorable impression by what I had that night.  Due to the long distance from my former home to it, I did not return until my recent move closer, and this also made easier by the monthly meetings that I have to attend at a nearby school.

Hot & Sour SoupYuan Fu Vegetarian Restaurant is located on the busy Rockville Pike in Rockville, MD, at the end of a 4-business strip mall that has been left unscathed by the rapid development around it – it is very easy to miss it especially due its location on the service road off the main road.  Inside, the space is rather small without feeling cramped. The menu lists quite a number of appetizers and soups, and a few were sampled. On a number of occasions, I started my meal with the Hot and Sour Soup. The first spoonful was a bit of a surprise but it said it all.  I was expecting a good hit of vinegar but what I tasted was milder.  As my tongue adjusted to the flavor levels of vinegar, salt, chili heat, and savory stock, I was appreciating the fine balance that did not steer my tongue too far in any direction.  The bits of button mushroom, Shiitake mushroom, Chinese mushroom, wood fungus, bamboo shoot, and tofu pieces added the “meaty” body and different textures to this thick bowl.  The side of crispy dough bits tasted fresh and nearly greaseless.  For me, this rendition will put any of the meat versions to shame with the well-balanced flavors and the bowl chokeful of mushroom and fungus.

Crispy Black Mushrooms

Continuing the mushroom theme, I ordered the Crispy Black Mushroom on one occasion.  Pieces of dark sinuous pieces arrived on some lettuce with a hint of a sticky sauce.  Biting into them, the slightly crispy batter gave way to pieces of rather thick and chewy mushroom strands.  I was truly amazed at the texture that was quite “meaty” and the flavors of the forest since I’m fond of these fungi, and I can never get enough of their flavors.  The batter was made from rice batter, evidenced by the firm texture and slight bouncy give.  The dark sweet sauce had hints of sugar, vinegar, and orange peel that made these pieces irresistible.  Never mind that they are deep-fried since they were not greasy and the flavors enticing.  This is a must-order in my books.

Sesame Spinach PancakeAn appetizer on another occasion was Sesame Spinach Pancake.  Triangles of pan-fried dough arrived with a deep green spinach stuffing peaking through.  The outer layer was crispy tasting fragrant from whole sesame seeds toasted by the hot oil and slightly bouncy from the rice flour, much like Chinese sesame doughnuts I grew up on.  The spinach filling tasted fresh and wholesome, but it was devoid of any salt which made them a bit underwhelming.  But with the help of some condiments, Chinese mustard and sweet sauce, my interest was perked up with the sinus-clearing mustard and the sugar in the red sauce.  Not exactly the most flavorful bite, but I appreciated the healthy elements in this pancake.

Tan Tan Noodles

Still within the realm of dough and spinach, I ordered Tan Tan Noodles on one night.  A bowlful of green noodles arrived topped with carrots, beansprouts, Inochi mushrooms, snowpeas, and shredded carrots.   The star in the dish is definitely the noodles which were thick as udon, stained with spinach and cooked al dente, which made these dough strings slightly chewy and healthy tasting.  The flavoring to the whole mix comprised of bits of salted radish and chili flakes that added the necessary saltiness and heat to each slurp.  In addition, a small pool of broth at the bottom added the moisture and more savoriness to the mix.  Not quite comparable to the real version that is heavily flavored with chili oil and seasoned chopped meat, I was yearning for a bit more flavor.  But I appreciated this much healthier version as well as that bright green noodles whose every strand was worth slurping .

Pan-Fried DumplingsI was curious how the house would stand up to a Chinese classic – Pan-fried Dumplings.  Four dumplings arrived with one side pan-fried and the rest steamed, signs of being cooked the proper way.  One bite into the first bundle pointed my tongue in the right direction.  The skin was thin and slightly elastic, encasing a stuffing of chopped Napa cabbage, bits of mushrooms, a good dose of ginger that added a fresh zing to the slightly dark flavors of the filling partners.  The dipping sauce had notes of oakey black vinegar and chili oil that took these little parcels to another level, and I could have eaten the whole order easily before my main course – but I had to refrain from indulging in these wonderful  bite-size packets.

Veggie Duck & Cilantro Rolls

The last dish that I savored from the appetizer section was Veggie Duck and Cilantro Rolls.   Two halves of a wheat wrap arrived stuffed with mock duck, lettuce, cilantro leaves, and crushed peanuts.  One bite into them revealed a rather firm but fresh wheat pancake, reminding me of the ones used for Peking Duck.  The “meat” was made with pressed soy sheets and it was rather soft and moist, much like fowl meat, and exuding notes of dusky spices.  The greens and herb were vibrant and they added the fresh notes to the meat, along with the fresh-tasting crushed peanuts that added some rich nuttiness to the whole mix.  The sweet plum and Hoisin sauce was the perfect accompaniment with its sweet and sour notes.  Although these bites were rather filling, it did not take much time to finish them off before the other courses due to the fresh and satisfying flavors and textures.

Veggie Duck with Basil & GingerFor the mains, one of the first dishes that I tried years ago, and is one of my favorites, is Veggie Duck with Basil and Ginger.  A hot metal pot arrived boiling with a mound of brownness topped with some fragrant fresh basil.  Pieces of “duck” (pressed soy sheets) are paired with button mushroom, fresh Shiitake mushroom, dried ginger, and mock smoked ham.  This dish was a hit with me and friend from the first bite with the fragrant 5-spiced infused “poultry”, the depth of flavor from the dried ginger, the firm texture of the fungi, and the “meaty” smokiness from the “ham”.  It was the gestalt effect of these elements that brought a lot of satisfaction to this diner and made this hot bowl totally irresistible for me. Not only is it a popular Chef’s Special but a must-order in my books.

3 Kinds of Crispy Delight

Another dish on one night was Three Kinds of Crispy.  The platter arrived with a mound of brown pieces that were not easily discernible at first sight.  I started off with the dark strands sitting on top, and immediately I recognized it as the Crispy Black Mushroom appetizer that I was fond off – one down.  The second bite was one of the battered rounds.  The crispy and fairly exterior gave way to the silkiest and mildest eggplant piece that impressed me right away.  Underneath this layer, I found pieces of battered mock chicken that mocked me for its meat-like texture and poultry-like flavor – three down.  What brought these disparate elements together is the similar sweet dark sauce found in the mushroom appetizer that tantalized the taste buds with the fragrance of dried orange peel and heat from whole dried chilies.  This is definitely a vegetarian version of the ubiquitious Orange Chicken, but tasting supped up with the chewy mushroom and melt-in-the-mouth eggplant pieces which kept me marveling at each bite.  The batter got to be a bit filling, making the side rice bowl a bit redundant in the fill-the-stomach category.

Crispy Hunan "Fish" FilletAnother fried battered dish that caught my attention one night was Crispy Hunan Fish Fillet.  The colorful plate comprised of large pieces of “fish” and some parboiled fresh vegetables on the side.  The “fish” pieces had a soft texture and appearance of crab meat, while the seaweed wrapping imparting a scent of the sea.  I found the protein pieces a bit stodgy due to a thin piece of taro root used to hold the “fish” together, but by removing it, it didn’t taste as “heavy”.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked as well as the pieces of pea and carrot on top of the fish.  But no Hunan dish is really veritable if were not for its sauce.  Here, we have a perfectly executed one with the right amount of vinegar, sugar, chili heat, salt, and spicy bean paste – the proper elements to make the right Hunan sauce.  I would order this again just for that well-executed sauce that made this dish sing.

Chow San Shein

Another Chef’s Special was the last dish I savored on my trips there – Chow San Shein.  The plate arrived glowing bright with colorful pieces of sweet pepper, broccoli, snowpeas, yellow squash, and three types of main elements.  The smoked “ham” like in the Veggie Duck dish was present, exuding its savory smokiness and having a meat-like bite.  The oval bites of “baby abalone” had a slightly firm texture reminding me of fish cakes and tasting of seafood notes.  But it was the “carved and curved” Shiitake mushroom that screamed for my gastronomic attention. These pieces were slighty “meaty” in texture, reminding me of the consistency of squid, and replete with its forest goodness that made me look for more of it among all the other goodness.  The brown sauce, probably vegetarian oyster sauce, was the right balance of flavors that brought all the elements together without being gloopy or overwhelming the integrity of each ingredient including the fresh-tasting perfectly cooked vegetables.  I must say I couldn’t get enough of this flavorful and healthy looking dish and I’m looking forward to another order of this dish.

Yuan Fu Vegetarian RestaurantFinally, I have found a vegetarian restaurant that not only serves dishes that are well-executed and properly seasoned, but they are inventive enough to keep me wanting to try more of its offerings despite the lack of animal protein.  At times, I could not believe that I was enjoying them as much as I did, with the wonderful perfectly balanced Hot and Sour Soup, the crispy “meaty” bites in the Crispy Black Mushroom, the al dente spinach-colored Tan Tan Noodles, the gingery and savory Dumplings, and the flavorful and equally tempting mains made with mock duck, seafood, ham and chicken.  Putting aside the lack of meat and seafood protein, the kitchen here understands what it takes to serve exciting and flavorful dishes, pointing towards the history of vegetarian cuisine in the Far East as the result of  practicing the Buddhist faith. No wonder an article published yesterday named it the top Chinese restaurant in Maryland (read article) – maybe a slight hyperbole, but a quite fair estimation in my books.

Yuan Fu Vegetarian on Urbanspoon

JDS Shanghai Famous Food

JDS Shanghai Famous Food

Early in the year, I visited an eatery serving typical mainland Chinese food which I enjoyed due to its authenticity and its gastronomic revelation (read blog).  But more importantly, I managed to savor a culinary import that has become a delight for foodies for me – Xiao Long Bao or Soup Dumpling.  So, when I got wind that another establishment had opened up serving this steamed bundles, I knew I had to go off my usual trek into the hinterland, at least for me, to have a bite of their offerings.   JDS Shanghai Famous Food is located in Gaithersburg, MD, an area not quite known for exotic cuisine, compared to the closer suburbs like Rockville where the aforementioned restaurant is located.  But due to the expansion of the suburbs and burgeoning immigrant communities, places like this have popped up to cater to the needs of such segments of population.  Thus, I walked into JDS Shanghai (its full name is way too long and quite presumptuous) with a longtime friend living in that area for dinner recently.

Xiao Long Bao/Soup Dumpling

Xiao Long Bao/Soup DumplingThe space is rather modern with clean lines and lots of space between booths and tables.  Perusing the menu was a bit daunting since there were many dish categories with a number of offerings in each.  But we came here for mainly one item – Xiao Long Bao.  The menu lists three kinds of stuffing: Pork, Shrimp and Pork, and the latter mix with Okra added to it – we chose the second type.  The bamboo basket arrived with 8 dumplings exuding their steamy heat when the lid was removed.  Just like the other place mentioned above, the dumplings looked perfectly round with delicate pleats as their crown.  We waited a few minutes while I took a couple of photos and let them cool down a bit.  One bite into them revealed their true nature.  The outer wrapping was a fairly light and spongy skin that was not too thick or starchy, strong enough to hold in the soup and the meat/crab filling (some broke easily when we waited until the end to finish them).  The soup produced from the melted gelatin was just the right amount for the diner to taste without overwhelming the experience.  What I liked most about this version is the seafood sweetness from the crab that was subtle yet present in the whole mix, with a hint of ginger to mask any extraneous seafood flavors, this being a common Chinese pairing.  The young ginger and black vinegar sauce is a must-have seasoning with these dumplings, providing the root bite and an acidic foil to these rich mouth-sticking bundles.  However, when tasting the vinegar by itself, it exuded a tannin note that was borderline metallic and a bit of a letdown; obviously, the vinegar was lacking in quality.  But with such tasty and well-made dumplings, I was satisfied with this order, and I will definitely have to try the version with okra in the filling.

Salt Pepper Shrimp

To balance off the meaty delights, we went to the ocean, not literally, but in the menu – Salt Pepper Shrimp. A long plate arrived with pieces of large shrimp neatly stacked together with a heaping of accouterments.  One bite into the seafood brought a smile to my mouth.  The shrimp had a light coating of rice flour batter, and it was crispy from a good high-heat frying,  yet brittle enough to be consumed whole with shell intact with the flesh still quite moist and non-rubbery.  The seasoning was just right with the salt although I couldn’t detect much in the pepper department.  The toppings added more flavor with the softened onion and garlic, as well as the sweet red and vegetal green peppers.  The sprinkling of fried vermicelli noodles added more crunch to each bite which I was thoroughly enjoying.  This was a winning combination with very fresh seafood (and large pieces) cooked perfectly with the right seasoning, and the portion was generous to boot.

Shanghai Fried Noodles

For the final dish, we ordered Shanghai Style Pan Fried Noodles.  Again, the portion was rather large and it was the first dish to arrive from the kitchen after only a short wait – hmmm.  One mouthful of the dish left me a bit nonplussed.  The seasoning was quite lacking not just in the salt content but also in the wok flavor, an indication that this dish was hastily cooked or the wok was not hot enough.  The bits of Napa cabbage, shrimp, and beef were adequate but rather bland.  We managed to avoid abandoning this dish with a help of some soy sauce (strangely, none at the table) and chili oil, as well as the al dente udon-like thick noodles that provided some good body and firm bite to each forkful.  Interestingly, my check came with this dish listed as Pan Fried Udon, which is not listed on the menu.

Although this visit cannot be representative of this new Chinese eatery due to the few dishes that I ordered on a single trip, I must say that this place peaked my interest, as well as the crowd of Chinese customers who arrived near the end of the meal that drove the din level close to stratosphere.  Never mind the misstep with the Fried Noodles.  What I came here for is the Soup Dumpling that I thoroughly enjoyed with the right combination of wrapping skin thinness and the ginger-spiked crab/pork mixture.  Yes, I will probably throw in the order of Salt Pepper Shrimp that won me over on this trip with the wonderful crispy shells protecting the sweet fresh flesh, topped by the textural and tasty toppings (4 t’s in a row – wow!).  So, when I am in the mood for Xiao Long Bao and not wanting to deal with the long lines and packed space in the other place in Rockville, I will be heading here to Gaithersburg instead.

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