Finding 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
Skewers 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.
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.
This 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.
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.
Northwest 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.