Imagine you’re a Chinese tourist making your first visit to Washington D.C. You want to check out the Chinatown in America’s national capital, since it is quite close to the attractions on the National Mall. So you head over to the main drag of Chinatown, 7th St. N.W., and, looking for a nice place to dine, you spot Chinese characters that say “Owl Restaurant.” Of course, because the American name of the restaurant doesn’t mean anything to you, you’re quite surprised when you find you’ve walked into Hooters.
As I have previously written, America’s historic core city Chinatowns are often not the best place in town to look for an outstanding Chinese meal. This rule is no more true anywhere than in Washington, D.C. Even though the restaurants in the Chinatowns of San Francisco, Manhattan, and Los Angeles are far outshone by those in other parts of their respective metropolitan areas, at least these Chinatowns still have a significant population of Chinese residents and numerous sources for decent Chinese food. However, in Washington, Chinatown has just a few hundred Chinese residents, and furthermore, D.C.’s Chinatown is by far the most gentrified core Chinatown in the country. Where 7th St. N.W. was once home to numerous Chinese restaurants, including President Clinton’s favorite, Golden Palace, little Chinese food can be found on that street today. Indeed, my two most recent meals in Washington’s Chinatown were at American chain restaurants on 7th St. N.W. (no, not including Owl Restaurant). And while it’s nice that the city mandates that all businesses in Chinatown include Chinese language signage, that’s little comfort for those searching for Chinese food.
There are still a number of Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, but mostly on H St. N.W., to the east of 7th St. N.W., referred to as “Chinablock” by some in light of the gentrification of the rest of Chinatown. Two of the better Cantonese-style restaurants on this strip are Full Kee Restaurant and Jackey Café. But my first choice for Chinese food in D.C. is the improbable China Boy on 6th St. N.W. It’s improbable because you can walk right by this residential-looking structure without realizing its basement houses a restaurant. And even if you notice the China Boy signage, you might conclude (like I initially did) that it is an abandoned restaurant location and not even stop by. Only later did I discover it was an operating restaurant, and only after walking through a small hallway stacked with supplies was it clear that this small restaurant offers a two-table dining area. But despite its improbability, China Boy serves perhaps the best chow fun rice noodles and rice noodle (cheung fun) rolls on the entire east coast. No wonder many D.C.-area Chinese restaurants get their rice noodles and rice noodle rolls from China Boy.
So where should you go to find good, authentic Chinese food in the Washington D.C. area? As is the case in many other cities, you have to go to the suburbs to get the good stuff, either west or east. To the west is Falls Church, Virginia, where, as is the case in San Diego and Orlando, a nice accumulation of authentic Chinese restaurants has assembled in the midst of the Vietnamese community. Most of the Chinese restaurants in Falls Church trend toward Hong Kong/Cantonese-style food. The top choice for both the best dim sum and the best Chinese seafood is Hong Kong Pearl, but there are also other contenders close by including Mark’s Duck House, X. O. Taste, and Fortune Seafood. There are also a few options for those looking for other Chinese regional cuisine choices. Don’t let the name Hong Kong Palace fool you — this restaurant serves outstanding Sichuan cuisine, with the incongruous name testament to the practice of some Chinese restauranteurs to buy a restaurant and retain the existing name while revamping the menu, and perhaps to save on signage and business card costs. Those partial to Taiwanese food will be pleased by a branch of California’s A & J Restaurant chain, located in nearby Annandale.
But if you’re looking for a greater variety of Chinese regional cuisines, head east from D.C, to Maryland, particularly Rockville, and a lesser extent to Wheaton and Gaithersburg. Rockville’s best includes Bob’s Shanghai 66 for Shanghai-style food, Joe’s Noodle House for Sichuan-style, Yuan Fu Vegetarian for a tasty and creative variety of faux meat Chinese dishes, dumplings from both China Bistro and East Dumpling House (with varieties of Chinese dumplings reminiscent of those found in California), and another branch of A & J for Taiwanese food. In Gaithersburg, try Hunan Café, and for authentic Sichuan, Yu Zhou Café. Most of the Hong Kong/dim sum/Cantonese food in the region is found in Wheaton, at such restaurants as Hollywood East Café, Gourmet Inspirations, and Full Key, with another dim sum favorite in the area, Oriental East, in Silver Spring.
Before departing the Washington area, I should mention two unique varieties of Chinese restaurant fare only found here. First of all, no other city has such a wide collection of Chinese restaurants that openly purvey “Chinese Food, Subs, Chicken, and Seafood.” Throughout the residential areas of the District, one sees small restaurants offering that exact combination of food, though occasionally a restaurant may also throw pizza or fish into the mix. The best guess is that these combination-restaurants started in the very poorest parts of Washington DC, where national fast food chains were reluctant to open up, and Chinese restaurant owners stepped in to fill the void. However, “Chinese Food, Subs, Chicken, and Seafood” has spread far beyond the inner city and can now be spotted in suburban areas of Washington, D.C., too.
D.C.’s other unique Chinese restaurant phenomenon is mumbo sauce, a reddish, sweet and tangy sauce typically served with chicken wings and fried fish, mostly at Washington DC’s Chinese Food, Subs, Chicken, and Seafood take-outs, though you’ll find it elsewhere, too. Mumbo sauce is not Chinese in origin, even though there is some similarity to sauces found in Americanized Chinese restaurants. Often referred to as “The City’s Sauce,” mumbo sauce was actually invented by a restauranteur in Chicago. Yum’s Carryout in Washington DC has won renown as the Chinese Food, Subs, Chicken and Seafood eatery with killer mumbo sauce, leading many to believe erroneously that Yum’s invented it. In any event, in D.C., mumbo sauce is synonymous with Chinese carryout.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. “When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America,” Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. “As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once.” He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can’t use chopsticks.