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


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.


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


Bean thread Noodle, Chinese Spinach, and Shrimp.


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

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

Full Key

Full Key Restaurant

Riddle:  What do a Buddhist, a Jew, and a Muslim do to celebrate the most high of feast days in the Christian calendar, Christmas?  They go to a Chinese restaurant for their yearly seasonal “celebration”.  After all, where else would be open on this most anticipated winter holiday when most folks wake up to a shower of gifts and a large spread of home-cooked meals and sweet delights?  Chinese eateries are very cognizant of the Asian population’s preference for feasting on their restaurant delights on such holidays, and they prepare themselves for such onslaught of customers. With my usual suspects in tow, along with a new friend who hails from Togo, we headed to Full Key, a regular Cantonese haunt located in Wheaton, MD,  that I have not stepped into in many moons, which explains this much tardy write-up on this place.

Shrimp Dumpling Soup

Arriving at the right time with no waiting line and a recently abandoned table covered with its aftermath, it was not long before we settled into the well-worn booth.  With a medium din level of diners and clinking bowls in the background, we quickly ordered our customary opener – Shrimp Dumpling Soup.  The bowl arrived with some whitish dumplings visible through a clear broth, much like a Monet of submerged lilies in a lake.  But one bite brought clarity with its tasty presence.  Under the silky thin dough skin, a slightly firm stuffing of well-seasoned minced shrimp mixed with some minced pork excites the palate with its Umami savoriness, along with strands of wood fungus giving each mouthful a slight soft crunch to these slightly bouncy bites.  The clear soup is the strong supporting actor to the dumplings, made from bonito flakes  and meat stocks (I learned their secret recipe from a restauranter friend) , that adds just the right amount of additional Umami-ness to each sip.  A great starter for a cold winter day that brings back memories of eating it in Southeast Asia.

Roast Duck Noodle Soup

Wanton Noodle SoupThis place is well-known for Hong Kong-style Noodle Soup dishes that are a main staple of the cuisine.  My Muslim friend decided to order a bowl accompanied by pieces of roast duck, following his dietary restrictions.  However, being a carnivore Buddhist, I prefer mine with wanton and a side of Chinese vegetables, Choy Sum.  Back to the noodle – strand of alkaline noodles are slightly chewy and eggy with the perfect al dente bite.  Again, the bonito-meat broth is the savory clean foil to the main ingredients.  The wanton dumplings are just like the shrimp version above except for its firmer texture due to the inverse proportions of shrimp and pork, but not short of its rich flavors.  A requested addition of greens makes the bowl a complete meal with most food groups included as well as a mouthful of textures and flavors.  I mentally kick myself for not coming here more often for this bowlful of childhood memories of Sunday coffee shop breakfast that I missed dearly, especially given its so-goodness here.

Another staple made a la Hong Kong is the Congee dishes, or Rice Porridge.  The plain starch is paired with different elements and I have a couple of favorites after having tasted many bowlfuls.  A popular version is made with Beef, Squid and Peanuts.  According to my Hong Kong-born friend, this is a popular dish with fisherman living in boats on the shores of Kowloon.  I must say that this strange combo works with the pieces of minced beef, strands of tender squid and nutty toasted peanuts.  Another combination is made with Pork and Preserved Egg.  Slivers of boiled pork are paired with an egg that has been allowed to ferment in ash and straw.  This is definitely not a dish for the non-initiated but it is totally up my alley with the mildness of the pork and the ashy bitterness and pungency (spell “stink”) of the fermented egg.  A side of Chinese Breadstick is de rigueur for such a dish adding its slight saltiness and crunch to the thick gruel.  Definitely The Breakfast of Champions for some, including me,

Roast Chicken Roast Duck Rice

Any dish category that this eatery is known for is the Cantonese-styled roast meats.  Unfortunately, when we arrived there, the Roast Pork was already gone – the waiter told us that customers were coming in with 5-lb orders for their family dinners – it must be that good.  My African friend was stuck with a choice of Roast Duck and Roast Chicken.  He told me he enjoyed the duck including the slightly fatty skin (not quite Peking Duck here) and the slightly dark gamey notes that this dark-meat poultry is known for.  The chicken is roasted with a mild soy sauce on the skin which was lacking in flavor for my friend, despite the tasty marinade sauce served on the side. The mentioned fellow vowed to come back and get a taste of that ever-so-popular roast pork.

Beef Gailan Chow Fun

Another style of noodle dish served here comes not with soup but stir-fried.  On this day, I was inspired by the sight of a familiar dish that I had not tasted for some time – Beef and Broccoli Chow Foon.  Wide strands of rice noodles have been slightly wok-fried and covered with a thick brown sauce with slivers of beef, carrots, Chinese broccoli (Gailan), and straw mushrooms swimming in it.  The noodles were bouncy fresh with a slight wok-char flavor, beef seasoned well and tender, vegetables still crunchy but not raw, and the mushrooms slightly woodsy, all disparate elements brought together by the tasty brown sauce tasting of oyster sauce and soy.  Looks like the back kitchen is as skilful with the fried dishes as the front noodle and roast meat counter.

Spicy Salt Crispy SeafoodEqually deft in execution as with the above dish was an order of Deep Fried Shrimp, Scallops & Squid with Spicy Salt. Bits of seafood have been lightly battered and deep-fried until crispy, seasoned with salt and a topping of fried jalapeño slices and green onions.  This dish hit the spot for my Jewish/Latino/Agnostic ex-roomie.  The crispy batter coats morsels of fresh-tasting moist pieces of seafood, seasoned with a sprinkling of salt.  The fried green pepper slices and green onions added the necessary spicy heat and slight sweet pungency.  As my friend put it to my friend from Togo, it is not an everyday dish, but worth relishing every bit of the barely greasy, crispy and salty bites.  Deep-fried and salty seafood – Yummm!

I sometimes wonder why I have deserted this Cantonese style eatery as of late after many years of patronizing it.  I guess I can blame it on gastronomic wanderlust that is enabled by the myriad of cuisines that the DC area offers to its citizens.  It could also be palate apathy that tends to set in after one has grown up eating certain cuisines his or her whole life.  But this last visit only reminded me that yes, these familiar dishes are still worth raving about, especially when well-executed as in the case of Full Key.  So instead of just a yearly visit, I will be back more often for more of the wonderful soup, noodle, rice, roast meat, and seafood dishes that hit both the gastronomic and nostalgic spots.

Full Key on Urbanspoon