I had heard many people extol the virtues of the duck noodle soup at Chinatown Express. Given the very mixed reviews of the place online and the fact that it seemed like a bit of a tourist trap, I was deeply skeptical. However, given the fact that there are few authentic Chinese spots remaining in DC’s sad Chinatown and since they do have someone in the front window making noodles by hand, I figured I ought to give this veritable institution a try. I went on a nice evening and sitting outside was pleasant, despite the fact that the outdoor seating is hardly idyllic and you’re likely to be placed next to an A/C unit or something similar. Nevertheless, it all would have been pleasant enough had the food been better. The duck noodle soup really was disappointing; the duck had little meat on it and the broth was thin and utterly lacking in flavor. I left feeling that my skepticism was warranted and not understanding why people say they love this place. If you insist on eating Chinese food in Chinatown, stick to Reren or China Boy.
Chinatown Express is located at 746 6th Street Northwest.
Reren Lamen’s name is not some kind of racist joke about confusing Ls and Rs. Lamen, if you did not know (I didn’t) is the Chinese equivalent of ramen and is Reren’s specialty. Reren holds the distinction of being one of the few Chinese restaurants left in DC’s Chinatown, a shell of its former self, that is both good and authentic. While lamen is the main attraction, Reren offers a wide selection of food and drink options, including bubble tea, baijiu and pork xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings). Since xiao long bao are one of my favorite foods and are hard to find in DC, I had to try them. They were flavorful, though a bit too small and contained too little soup to be truly great xiao long bao. They’ll work to satisfy a craving, but it’s still work trekking out to Rockville for places that specialize in them. As for the lamen, I ordered the signature lamen with pork belly and a tea egg. While I certainly enjoyed it, it had less of that strong umami flavor than Japanese ramen at the likes of Sakuramen or Bantam King and the pork belly was not as tender as pork belly at other spots, like Purple Patch. Nonetheless, it was overall an enjoyable meal and Reren Lamen remains a bright spot in DC’s otherwise fairly bleak Chinese food scene.
Reren Lamen is located at 817 7th St NW.
It can be tricky to sift through the maze of carryouts in DC. They are invariably pretty sketchy and some are downright awful, but if you know where to look, there are some hidden gems. Johnny’s Carryout is in many ways very typical. It’s not the cleanest-looking, there’s bullet-proof glass and the menu is miles long, with a massive array of Chinese dishes, cheesesteaks that they tout as the “world’s best” (just tell that to someone from Philly), fried chicken, and fried fish.
I ordered vegetable lo mein, which was pretty standard but well-priced at $6 for a large portion. It wasn’t anything particularly special, but it did have a good assortment of vegetables, including baby corn, broccoli, mushrooms, carrots and snap peas. However, the reason this place gets 4 stars is their Chinese sugar donuts, which are basically fried dough dusted with sugar. They’re simple but absolutely delicious and at $3.50 for 10 pieces, it’s a great deal.
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot is a branch of a large Chinese hot pot chain (most locations are in China), where you can enjoy a delicious, warming and authentic meal of spicy lamb, beef, or pork hot pot. If you’re unfamiliar with how hot pot works, it’s a lot like meat fondue or Japanese shabu shabu. Raw meat (and vegetables) arrive at your table, and you toss them in the pot to cook. The meat is thinly sliced and cooks in seconds, and then you can dip it in a variety of tasty sauces. I especially liked their meatballs, which took longer than the thinly-sliced meat to cook but which were particularly flavorful. As of now, the place is BYOB which is a blessing in disguise because you can pick up some delicious Beer Lao at the Chinese supermarket in the same shopping center.
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot is located in the Eden Center, a mainly Vietnamese shopping center, at 6799 Wilson Blvd #10, Falls Church, VA.
Bob’s Shanghai in Rockville: it’s quick, it’s cheap and, most importantly, it serves authentic Chinese food, something that is in short supply in DC proper. The dish they’re best known for happens to be one of my absolute favorite foods: xiao long bao (soup dumplings). They offer pork xiao long bao and pork and crab mixed xiao long bao. I wasn’t looking to get too fancy so I stuck with the pork. The bao were a tad on the small side, but perfectly cooked and delicious. For the uninitiated, eating these little bundles of deliciousness requires a little finesse- you have to pick them up with your chopsticks, place them on a spoon, bite a small hole in the side, and suck the delicious soup out before you eat the dumpling. Approach your first with caution: it’s tough to know exactly how hot the soup will be. In addition to the xiao long bao, I also ordered an order of two large fried leek crescents, which were essentially tasty leek-filled dumplings. In the future I’d like to go back and try more of the menu; at the very least, xiao long bao are worth a trip to Rockville.
Bob’s Shanghai 66 is located at 305 N Washington St in Rockville, MD.
Google Street View of the blighted exterior.
Twin Dragon Carry-Out is a Chinese takeout place located at 5504 3rd St NW, and is one of the sketchiest-looking places I have ever seen. Most carry-outs in DC look pretty sketchy, with spare interiors and bulletproof glass separating the customer from the employees. Twin Dragon Carry-Out is, however, a sight to behold. There’s a boarded-up storefront next door, but the inside is where things get really interesting-looking. The interior almost looks like a bus station, with a row of plastic seats affixed to the ground attached to each wall.
This would make a great set for a horror movie.
What’s with the fancy-schmancy relief.
But in an odd way, the place has a certain faded beauty to it. Twin Dragon Carry-Out has been around for decades (at least since the 1960s) and has the feel of a bygone era, with a tin ceiling and an incongruously grandiose Chinese relief on the wall. Basically, the place would make a great setting for a horror movie.
So now you might be wondering, why was I there? Well, it turns out that Twin Dragon Carry-Out is known for their massive egg rolls, which people apparently drive from all over the DMV to get. I ordered two shrimp egg rolls for $4 and change and they truly were the largest egg rolls I had ever seen. They were basically my whole dinner for the night. Taste-wise, they weren’t anything special, though some mustard and/or duck sauce jazzed them up a bit. Nonetheless, Twin Dragon Carry-Out is definitely an experience, both for its somewhat spooky bygone look and its ginormous (and very cheap) egg rolls.
They really are massive… Note the quarter for perspective.
Good Hope Carry-Out, located at 1350 Good Hope Road SE has similar offerings to other carry-outs in DC, providing the same eclectic selection of Chinese food, fried food and sandwiches. And, as is typical of DC carry-outs, the thing to get is fried chicken wings with jumbo sauce over fried rice, that uniquely DC concoction of greasy, tangy goodness. However, not all carry-outs are created equal and Good Hope Carry-Out is clearly one of DC’s best. All too often, DC carry-outs are dim, dirty and downright sketch. Good Hope Carry-Out is bright and clean. The fried chicken wings with mumbo sauce over fried rice were also the best I’ve had so far- the chicken was perfectly crispy, the mumbo sauce was tangy and plentiful, rather than sweet and the fried rice itself was solid. All in all this is the best spot I’ve found so far to enjoy this classic DC meal.
Joy Luck House is a Chinese restaurant located at 748 6th St NW, right next to the much better-known Chinatown Express. The name, of course, reminds me of the book, “The Joy Luck Club” and is across the street from one of the last bastions of Chinatown’s Chinese community, the Wah Luck House. I ended up at Joy Luck House one evening because I was trying to go to China Boy their famous chow fun but stupidly forgot that China Boy closes at 5. Since I was stuck in DC’s rather meager Chinatown and craving chow fun, I decided on Joy Luck House, which at least gets decent reviews (unlike some of the real tourist traps in the area. And decent it was. The people were friendly enough, the food came fairly fast, and the chow fun was tasty. Since China Boy reportedly sells its handmade noodles to many places in the area, I would be willing to bet that the noodles were from China Boy. Ultimately this place gave me my chow fun fix, but wasn’t anything particularly special. Not that the chow fun at China Boy is necessarily better- that’s just the original and there’s something to be said for that. In the future, though, I do need to try their homemade sweets.
When a college classmate told me that Panda Gourmet, a Szechuan restaurant located at 2700 New York Ave NE was really good, I was very skeptical. Yes, it is well-reviewed, but it is located in a weird, remote part of town on New York Avenue, across from the National Arboretum in what’s apparently called the Gateway neighborhood. Surrounding areas are blighted or industrial, and the restaurant itself is attached to a pretty sketchy-looking Days Inn motel. However, since DC (at least the District itself) has a serious lack of authentic Chinese restaurants, I was willing to give it a shot. I read
up on some of the online reviews, in order to help me navigate Panda Gourmet’s extensive menu.
It turns out that the place is not really all that sketchy, once you get past the location. It has the feel of an average Chinese restaurant and feels infinitely less sketchy than a DC-style Chinese Carryout. I ordered the Dan Dan Noodles, the Cumin Lamb and the spicy wontons, all of which were excellent. I expected the food to set my mouth on fire, but the spiciness, while relatively intense, wasn’t so strong as to overpower the flavor of the dishes. The cumin lamb was well-cooked and very
Dan Dan Noodles
flavorful, but had (unsurprisingly) a very strong cumin flavor to it. The spicy wontons, which were boiled, not fried, were fairly small, and delicious. The Dan Dan Noodles were excellent as well. The service here is the main drawback- it is entirely apathetic and un-attentive. But Panda Gourmet still gets high marks for offering an authentic Szechuan experience in a city that really lacks good Chinese food options.
China Town is a carryout located at 3207 Mt Pleasant St NW. As the name suggests, (Americanized) Chinese food is the focus, but like most DC carryouts they serve a wide variety of other foods like burgers and subs. Since it is a carryout in DC, China Town, of course, specializes in fried chicken wings with mumbo sauce, which is a uniquely Washingtonian African American-Chinese fusion dish.
China Town offers a special of four wings with fried rice or french fries for a mere $5.50. Be aware, however, that there is a $7 minimum for credit cards, which isn’t posted anywhere. Since I had no cash on me, I had to order an egg roll to make my total over $7. China Town also offers a wide variety of lunch specials for under $5. The wings were deliciously crispy, with a thick batter that tasted as though it had possibly been fried twice. The mumbo sauce, which is a mystery concoction, was slightly sweet and pleasantly tangy. I really liked it, though I think it takes a true DC native who was raised on the stuff to be a mumbo sauce connoisseur. I am not one. I prefer fried rice over french fries any day, but the fried rice itself was just ok. It was a bit of a cross between fried rice and yellow rice. The egg roll, which I didn’t want in the first place was large, tasty, and delightfully fatty.
Unlike most carryouts, China Town does have a couple of small tables, but if it’s a nice day it’s much more pleasant to sit outside at one of the tables in the small square across the street. The food may not be gourmet, but this is a solid spot to eat on the cheap and experience the authentic, pre-gentrification DC classic that is fried chicken wings with mumbo sauce over fried rice.