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 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 difficult 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.

Jds Shanghai Famous Food on Urbanspoon

Bob’s Shanghai 66

No holds barred:  I struggle with and shy away from Chinese food especially the insipid and bastardized versions served in this country.  You may have read that I went back to my birth place for my parents 50th anniversary over last summer, and I took the opportunity to literally stuff my face with all the dishes holding childhood memories and gastronomic reveries.  The highlight of this epicurean trip was visiting a number of fine-dining Chinese restaurants to remind myself of what veritable dishes of this grand cuisine taste like.

Bob's Shanghai 66

From aversion to affinity.  Having returned from my Southeast Asian trip, my hunt for decent Chinese restaurants has been reinvigorated, and I quickly went back to an old haunt that had not seen my face for many moons (read Full Key).  Shortly after such a memorable trip, my laptop screen flashed an online coupon offer for a restaurant offering cuisine from the mainland.  With coupons in hand, I made a couple of trips to Bob’s Shanghai 66 located on the same location where Bob’s Noodle 66 (read blog) used to be located before moving itself merely across the street, once by myself, and the other with a friend from the mainland in tow.

Bob's Shanghai 66Xiao Long Bao/Soup Dumpling

Xiao Long Bao/Soup DumplingWalking into the space, you are immediately impressed by the sheer busyness created by  customers packing the restaurant sitting at the tables or standing in line, and the large glass-enclosed assembly line of workers producing (and overtly advertising) the restaurant’s signature dish – Xiao Long Bao or Soup Dumpling. So without any hesitation, we ordered a bamboo basket full of these small beauties from the section listed as Shanghainese Tapas.  One bite into these Shanghai delicacies said it all.  The dumpling skin was slightly firm but thin enough to be both completely cooked and able to hold the ingredients of a meat filling that was well-seasoned and tasted multi-dimensional, bursting with a rich soup produced by the pieces of gelatinized stock (I noticed the little glowing cubes imbedded in the meat mixture in the production line) melting during the cooking process.  The secret is to place one dumpling in a spoon, piercing it to let the soup pour out, drink the rich liquor, and ingest the dumpling – instructions are not included there.  The side sauce of ginger slivers in earthy Chinese black vinegar is the perfect acidic and flavor counterpoint to the mouth-sticking soup and the rich pork stuffing.  These bites were worthy enough for my friend to state that he would bring his mother there just for this dish (Chinese love  their mothers too).  Another trip entailed an order made with pork and crab roe – the subtle crab flavor married well with the mild pork.  The perfect palate cleanser was the hot tea with its bitter tannins to wash away all the good richness from each little purse. Being the only restaurant in the DMV area serving this dish, they have got their act right for this house speciality.

Sticky Rice Shiu MaiAnother steamed item that I was curious to try was Sticky Rice Shiu Mai.  The shrimp version was what I am accustomed to having had enough of it in Cantonese Dim Sum houses.  But these Shanghai bites were not what I really expected.  Thin egg pasta skin has been stuffed with cooked glutinous sticky rice and steamed to bring the elements together.  The rice filling had bits of  Shiitake mushroom imparting its oakey woodsiness into each grain, along with a faint fragrance of bamboo leaf which the rice was steamed in.  But for me it was just starch on starch, and my interest in it quickly faded – my Southeast Asian conditioning was screaming for more salt and flavor interests.  Maybe a side of soy sauce and more ingredients in the stuffing would have made them a success for me.  However, my friend seemed to enjoy them, and I appreciated the dish’s veritability.

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Scallion Pancake

Another Shanghainese small bite that I had read about was Scallion Pancake, and an order made it to the table.  Flat pieces of dough containing pieces of green onion have been fried crisp, filled  with a mild pungency from bits of green onion in each bite.  Again, my Southeast Asian sensibility was screaming for more in the areas of flavor, salt, and taste interest.  After a few bites, I was beginning to appreciate this simple dish especially the light crispy texture.

Leek Fried CrescentsAnother fried small bite was Leek Fried Crescents.  Semi-circular pastries made from glutinous rice flour arrived at the table looking a bit drab and lack luster.  But one bite into it called my attention. The stuffing was a soft concoction of Chinese chives and soft fluffy scrambled eggs that  exuded savoriness that belied the simple ingredients.  As I was marvelling with each bite, my Chinese friend stated that sometimes bits of dried shrimp can be found in the stuffing.  Sound the gong!  Yes, the Umami-ness is from the use of finely shredded dried shrimp that brought each bite to another level – I could not get enough of these bites.

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Spicy WontonsThe last order from the “tapas” section was Spicy Wontons.  I grew up on these Cantonese style dumplings either in a mild-sauced noodles or in a clear broth.  In this case, these bites came swimming in a pool of redness, ringing out its fieriness with its Szechuan identity.  Sure enough, each bite was spicy hot from the chili oil and made more incendiary by the use of Szechuan spicy bean sauce, Doubanjian, which added the necessary saltiness to a well-flavored meat filling that could have stood by itself.  After a few bites, the chili heat was making my mouth slightly numb from its sting, but this salty meaty combination was completely irresistible for both of us, breaking my friend into a sweat which didn’t slow him down at all.

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Ja Jang Mien

Having read online customer reviews, Ja Jiang Mien was mentioned a number of times, and I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to try it.  My dining companion had mentioned that this Beijing dish is usually salty and plain.  A bowl of thin wheat noodles arrived with a topping of minced pork seasoned with fermented beans sauce, soy, and garlic.    Salty it was; plain it wasn’t.  After giving the noodles a good mix, it tempered the salt content, and the meat sauce imparted its savoriness to the bland starch.  The presence of couple of pieces of Edamame was a nice surprise.  My friend further exclaimed that this version was a supped-up version of the original, which was to our benefit for this sitting –  a slightly salty but savory slurp indeed.  Hint: follow the advice of cyber critics.

Mapo TofuMoving on to the main courses.  I decided to taste their version of Ma Po Tofu.  This ubiquitous  dish can be found in most so-called Szechuan eateries but I have always longed for something that give me a good sense of the true dish.  Well, this one did.  A glass bowl arrived with silky smooth tofu cubes covered in a thin pool of fiery chili oil, furthered spiked by bits of dried red chili bits, and bits of fresh-shucked peas (judging from its granular texture and myriad of sizes) and carrot that provided textural and flavour contrast to the slipperiness.  A good stock and some bean sauce provided the necessary body to what could have been a two-note dish, boosted by large slices of fresh garlic. What I thought was a sprinkling of white pepper on top totally misled me.  It was the regional Szechuan peppercorn spice that added to the singe quality in my mouth with its lip and mouth-numbing effect, compounding the back throat burn from the chili oil.  Having a penchant for gastronomic pain, I couldn’t put my spoon down, and I was enjoying every mouthful curiously waiting for the five-alarm bell to sound!

Fried Flounder in Hot Chili Sauce

Being a bit of a masochist for chili heat, I also ordered another fiery dish at the same sitting (Yeah, I know) – Flounder Fillet in Hot Chili Sauce.  Pieces of mild-tasting flounder have been battered in corn flour to produce a silky coating after being smothered by a stock-sauce filled with bits of pickled red chilies, which added some sourness, along with some scorch, and dried chilies. Like the above dish, I was enjoying the heat level that was just right, even with the mild tasting fish, and this was further aided by large slivers of pungent garlic.  The mound of blanched broad bean sprouts and Napa cabbage not only provided textural counterpoint but also some necessary relief to the sweat-inducing notes.  A tasty and satisfying fish dish indeed, but not for the faint of tongue.

Eating at Bob’s Shanghai 66 was like a study abroad lesson in Chinese culinary topography, from the rarely served and tasty Soup Dumpling, alongside a bit flavor-lacking but authentic small bites, to the fiery Szechuan tapas and main dishes that did a number on my taste buds that kept me coming back for more for its complexity and not-so-suble mouth-numbing flavors.  This is what true Chinese cuisine is about – unadulterated, revelatory, and uncompromising.  With a large Chinese population in the DMV, more restaurants are stepping up to the demand from customers and knowledge of the initiated.  Places like this puts the cognoscenti like me many steps closer to attaining the Holy Grail of this grand Asian cuisine.

Bob's Shanghai 66 on Urbanspoon

Addendum:

Beef wrap with Scallions

A recent visit to this place gave me a chance to try some new dishes. A Chinese “tapa” ordered was Beef Wrap with Scallions.  It was like a burrito wrap with a strong wheat skin encasing thin slices of beef and lettuce leaves. The beef slices tasted seasoned, made even more savory by a copious amount of Hoisin sauce that made each bite delectable.  The use of wheat and beef meat points toward the northern origin of this small bite, akin to the Southern Fujian version of Popiah (see blog).  Unfortunately, I could not detect the use of scallions which would have added a slightly pungent note and more interest to these mild bites.

Salt and Peppered Squid

For a seafood dish, we honed in on Salt and Peppered Squid.  I had tasted this dish before in another Chinese restaurant recently (see blog) that I have grown fond of.  The pieces arrived battered and deep fried, with slices of green onion and red pepper softened by a short trip to the hot oil.  However, this plate was quite lame compared to the aforementioned version.  The batter was a bit too thick and not crisp enough due to either a lack of sufficient time in the oil or the oil not being hot enough.  What a shame.

Shredded Pork and Bamboo ShootsThe last main dish was Shredded Pork and Bamboo Shoots.  Slivers of young bamboo shoots are paired with slivers of pork, tofu and green onions, all brought together by a savory sauce made of oyster sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  I enjoyed the tenderness of the bamboo shoots, the mild moist slivers of pork, and the healthy mild tasting tofu that provided more soft texture to each spoonful.  And that sauce – it was enough to whet the appetite and to beckon the mouth to get another mouthful.  This was definitely a dish that is a vestige of its former identity as Bob’s Noodle 66 (see blog).  A dish worth ordering, in my estimation.