Category Archives: DC Dining

Eggplant with Spicy Miso Sauce

We’ve all tasted poorly prepared eggplant—a gray, bitter mushy blob so unpleasant that it left a scar on our food subconscious. I’ve sent back eggplant dishes at otherwise fantastic restaurants because their bitter eggplant brought me the same pleasure I imagine sucking on a metal popsicle would. True, it can be a challenging vegetable to work with, but when cooked correctly, eggplant can also be a thing of beauty.

There is a popular dish in Japan called nasu no dengaku: essentially, broiled eggplants with a miso, sake and sugar glaze. While delicious, I find the purely traditional form to be a little too sweet for my tastes. Even so, I love how the skin gets lightly charred and smoky while the flesh turns creamy under the intense broiler heat.

My version of nasu no dengaku came together after a dinner at Kaz Sushi Bistro in downtown DC. Chef Kaz Okochi has the most amazing spicy broiled New Zealand mussels on his menu. The sauce on this dish is incredible. In fact, I loved it so much that I went home and tried to replicate the flavors. Now I’m sure Chef Okochi’s secret is far more complex than combining three ingredients in a bowl, but to be honest my version tastes SPOT ON. Best of all you can easily whip up the sauce in under a minute & it partners beautifully not only with mussels* (see Cook’s Note), but with eggplant and a variety of fish as well.

Miso, a fermented soybean paste, imparts a deep salty flavor. The mayonnaise makes the sauce luscious, and keeps whatever you spread it on moist. As for the Sriracha… do you really need a reason to invite the ever-popular “Rooster” hot sauce to the party?

I prefer to use Chinese or Japanese eggplants because they lack the bitterness of other varieties. But if you want to use other types try curing them first.

1. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise.
2. Score the flesh. (Tiny cuts in a crisscross pattern)
3. Sprinkle generously with salt and allow the eggplant to sit for 45 minutes to an hour.
4. Rinse and dry the eggplant halves before cooking

Or you can use baby eggplants which typically haven’t had a chance to develop that infamous acrid flavor. Last Sunday I picked up some gorgeous French and Turkish baby eggplants at the Dupont farmers market (I recommend the French ones). I split them in half lengthwise, scored the flesh, spread the miso sauce over them & popped them in the toaster oven. Twenty minutes later I pulled out a visually stunning and deliciously earthy autumnal side dish.

Serves 4

1-quart baby eggplant or 2 Japanese eggplants
Neutral oil
2 Tbs. Kewpie mayonnaise
2 tsp. miso paste
1 tsp. Sriracha
Chives or scallions, thinly sliced (optional)

• Preheat the oven to 350°

• Mix the mayonnaise, miso and Sriracha in a bowl (spice lovers, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little more Sriracha).

• Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and score the flesh, taking care not to cut through to the skin. Drizzle with a little oil.

• Place a generous smearing of the sauce over the top of each eggplant

• Lay the eggplants, cut side up, on a lightly oiled sheet pan

• The total length of cooking time will vary depending on the size of the eggplants you are using but begin by placing them in the oven for 20 minutes. Keep a close eye on the sauce; you don’t want it to burn. If it starts to get too much color cover the sheet pan loosely with foil.

• Check for doneness by squeezing the eggplant. When it’s ready it’ll be soft and give easily.

• Just before removing from the oven blast the eggplant under the broiler for 30 seconds.

• Top with sliced chives or scallions and enjoy immediately

Cook’s note: For the mussel version of this dish scrub and debeard the mussels. Heat a little stock or sake on the stove in a wide skillet. Once the liquid comes to a boil add the mussels and cover tightly. The mussels will open in 30 seconds–1 minute. Remove from the heat and pull the shells apart. Spread the sauce on top of the side containing the mussel. Place the mussels on a sheet pan and under a broiler set to high. Blast for 30 seconds-1 minute. Sprinkle with scallion slices and serve.

Feast Your Eyes: Farmers’ Market Dinner

A bustling farmers’ market in late summer might be one of the most beautiful places in the world to me. I’m enthralled by the rows of red, pink, yellow and orange tomatoes, still warm from the sun. The smell of freshly cut herbs, twine bows around their stems, resting in a shady corner. Pink mountains of peaches gradually shrinking as shoppers fill their bags with the aromatic fruit. And crates of sweet corn waiting to be snatched up and grilled, steamed or turned into creamy soup.

The weekends that I’m in town, my Saturday usually begins with a trip to the Arlington Courthouse Farmers’ Market where I challenge myself to put together a meal exclusively from items purchased at the market. Below was last Saturday night’s dinner.

Summer tomatoes, sugar baby watermelon, arugula & feta cheese. Dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil

Pork & tarragon sausages topped with grilled onions and poblano peppers

Chicken liver pâté served with a warm baguette 

Ok, I cheated a little by serving a pâté that I had made the day before, along with a baguette from Whole Foods. There is a stand selling some pretty damn fantastic bread at the market, (I’m a sucker for their potato bread). However this particular pâté was inspired by Peter Mayle’s Encore Provence, and thus demanded a French baguette be partnered with it. Can’t argue with that logic.

This simple meal took only 10 minutes in the kitchen, and 15 at the grill… who can’t spare that kind of time?

Mr. Sweetums…  looking for a little love and perhaps a taste of the pork sausage 

Chef’s Day Off

I’m afraid that I have a Chinese Tiger Mother living in my head. I strive for perfection. I love lists, schedules, benchmarks and goals. There is very little time for detours or “smelling the roses”. That’s for people with safety nets and back up plans. I have one plan… be wildly successful at everything.

With that in mind, let’s look back at the last year and a half… I jumped off a solid career track to pursue a passion for food. Miraculously, I found myself in one of the top kitchens in the city, worked my butt off, learned a huge amount… and then finally admitted to myself that becoming a chef wasn’t my long term goal and left. No surprise then that on my bad days the Tiger Mama in me lashes out, questioning my life choices and asking what I’ve gained from the decision to detour off the more obvious path. Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a solid answer quite yet. But this past Sunday I came pretty damn close.

A year and a half ago I sat down to the most nerve-wracking interview of my life with Eric Ziebold (Gasp! I’ve finally given you his real name. I feel like the creators of Sex & the City revealing Mr. Big’s real name for the first time) at CityZen in Washington D.C., but on Sunday I was standing beside Eric (a.k.a. “Chef“) and his fiancé Celia, in the kitchen at my in-laws house sipping wine and making dinner. So, the answer to that question is that over the last year and a half I’ve gained confidence and some pretty wicked friendships.

Had I stayed on the safer career path I might be managing an Asian policy program, or getting ready to graduate with an MBA. But I’d also still be going to restaurants and staring at the cooks in the open kitchen and wondering what could have been. So, I’m glad that I traded the locked and loaded cocktail party drivel of my “very important DC job” for the culinary knowledge and friendships that I’ve since gained. Because honestly, in 30-40 years job titles will be a mere footnote in the story of your life. But a friend who will come over, on his one day off in months, with plates of fried chicken, grilled shrimp, freshly baked focaccia and sangria laden with liquor-soaked blueberries—I think we can all agree—is a rare and wonderful treasure.

Dinner is served

Dill potato salad. Green beans with garlic and toasted almonds. Glazed baby carrots. Guacamole

Fried Chicken 

Grilled focaccia. Shrimp and cherry tomatoes tossed with a yuzu vinaigrette and purple basil

From right: Eric, Celia, Chad & Ben 

Sangria with cherry and apricot brandy macerated fruit

Feast Your Eyes: Roasted Quail

There are so many spectacular dishes at Minh’s, the unassuming Vietnamese restaurant in Clarendon, VA but I am particularly fond of the roasted quail. The bird is lacquered in a sweet glaze and accompanied by a peppery lemon dipping sauce. Whenever I’m sucking the succulent meat off the little bones I find myself transported to a roadside grill in Southeast Asia — and that, is a very good thing.

I can’t deny that another reason why I love this quail so much is because when I hold the tiny legs and wings in my hand I feel like a hungry giant instead of the petite Asian girl that I am.

Brunch with a Side of Unexpected

I’ve always loved Frank Ruta’s cooking. His simplicity, technical execution, use of intriguing ingredients, and overall finesse continue to make Palena in Cleveland Park a favorite for many jaded food lovers.

For me, the most memorable meals are the ones in which I’m presented with a well-known dish—roast chicken, risotto, or soup—executed perfectly with a touch of something unexpected. Dishes with ingredients that are familiar but the flavor combinations seem new and inspired. It sends my mind and palate into a frenzy, searching for reasons as to why their version tastes so good. Those are the meals that I walk away from thinking, “How did they do that?” and “Why didn’t I ever think of that?”

This is the case at Palena. With their brunch offerings, Frank and his team seamlessly marry simplicity with elements of surprise to elevate what we all love for breakfast: eggs, meat and potatoes.

I found myself trying to break down the homemade tomato condiment, hoping to learn its secrets. The same goes for the spicy candied fruit that accompanied the pâté. Salsa verde isn’t anything new, but when the ramp salsa verde arrived alongside my bacon and eggs I suddenly wondered if what I’d been identifying as salsa verde all these years was really just a poor impostor.

Palena is currently serving brunch on Sundays and I suggest you head over there before word gets out and tables become unobtainable. As soon as you sit down put in an order for the fresh donuts. Then sit back and load the sweet, warm pillows of goodness into your mouth as you meander over the menu options. My suggestion? Lay claim to the bacon and eggs, then prepare to ward off the invading forks of your dining companions.

Potato frittata with mozzarella and house cured salmon  

Pork and pistachio pâté with fennel remoulade, spicy candied fruit and mustard glazed endive

Buckwheat crepe filled with Raschera cheese and spinach. Topped with a fried egg and bacon

The famous Palena burger with its glorious truffle cheese, sitting on mushroom marmalade and topped with a fried duck egg. Served with house pickles

Bacon and Eggs: grilled pork belly, potato pancake and coddled egg. Served with grilled ramps, salsa verde and Palena’s tomato condiment

The Culinary Stylings of Will, the Boy Wonder

On my first day in the restaurant kitchen I noticed this kid working to my right, shoulders turned in, absentmindedly rocking back and forth, completely engrossed in prepping the crate of artichokes on his station. The sleeves of his ill-fitting chef’s whites were rolled up exposing a patchwork of scars and blisters up and down his forearms. Being a nervous neophyte I was on the hunt for others like me to commiserate with and, judging from his baby face, he looked like a promising candidate. However, when I asked for his story he replied in a weathered and jaded tone, “I’ve been in the industry for 6 years”. I went back to my work seriously concerned about the child labor laws in this country.

For my first four months I did prep in the mornings with Will. Here’s a summary of what I learned about him:

He’s fast—very fast.

He hoards pots, lexan containers, delis and third pans but will generously hand them over if you ask him nice enough. Ask for his help and 95% of the time he’ll smile and say, “the world is your oyster, I’m just here to shuck it”.

He has the worst ADD I’ve ever encountered but possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of food and restaurants. He doesn’t know whether Australia is a country in the Pacific or in Europe, but he can rattle off Melbourne’s top 5 chefs, the names of their restaurants and at least three dishes currently on their menus.

He is constantly conducting gastronomic experiments, but gets particularly excited about the ones that include Jagermeister or meat glue.

The walk-in is his domain, and his favorite word is “consolidate”. Use an item but fail to transfer the rest into a smaller container and you’re bound to get a speech on the virtues of consolidation.

He probably utters the statement, “that’s what she said” 30 times a day. The number increased drastically when I started and inadvertently offered countless opportunities for its use. (Yes ladies, he’s single).

I’m not going to lie, there were moments during those long prep hours together, in which I would fantasize about going back to my old life of covering routine Senate hearings and dry foreign policy discussions. However, somewhere between putting away 20 crates of produce and shucking 30 pounds of peas side by side, the little guy grew on me. If it weren’t for Will, I would’ve ended up in the shit a whole lot more than I did. He saved my ass on many occasions.

At the end of the month, Will is traveling to Spain, Britain, Australia and Denmark for a year of staging at some of the best restaurants in the world. So, last Monday night a group of cooks and friends from around DC gathered for a 14-course meal prepared by the Boy Wonder himself (aided by the very talented Yama and Alex)—a last feast before he embarks on his culinary adventure. Words could not do the experience justice, so I’ve kept them to a simple description of each dish.

Will and all his quirks will be terribly missed. I feel a touch of envy for the restaurants that will encounter this enthusiastic and talented kid. I’m slightly terrified for them as well. But most of all I’m curious how long it will take him to learn how to say, “that’s what she said” in Spanish.

Fried potatoes, crème fraiche, sorrel juice, caviar and dill

Oyster and potato dauphinoise, pernod and caviar

Braised abalone on a bed of watercress and pear, with a truffle pernod sauce. Topped with crispy chicken skin.

Green apple granite, uni and crispy shiso

Yama’s dish: Lobster gelée, sea urchin sabayon, pickled muscat grape, radish and cucumber. Topped with scallop tuilles.

Foie gras poached in meade and seared. Buckwheat honey gastrique, feuilles de brick.

Alex’s dish: Roasted pork tenderloin, buttered turnip puree, fennel braised in orange and vanilla, orange vanilla cream and maple walnut crumbs.

Tataki baby leeks and pickled leeks with smoked bonito dashi sauce enriched with bone marrow. Topped with watercress and pork cracklings.

Cauliflower that was dipped in oyster liquor, wrapped in konbu, salt crusted and baked. Blanketed by speck and served with oyster, sea beans and nasturtium caper sauce.

Seared scallops, mustard seed, lardo, three kinds of cabbage and potatoes with scallop infused cream. Purple cabbage and cumin sauce (served tableside).

Squab stuffed with black sausage, on a bed of sheeted beets. Black garlic puree. Beet and liquorice sauce.

Beef tenderloin cooked in a seaweed and salt crust. Potato and oyster mousse, tempura sea beans.

Beets, ash goat cheese and olive crumbs.

Oreo cake, mascarpone, sphere of frozen white chocolate filled with Oreo mousse. Served with Oreo bavarois (not pictured, sorry).

Mediocrity: Do We Settle in DC?

Sushi… the one food item that I seriously crave on a regular basis. I love it so much that when I first heard that women shouldn’t eat raw fish during pregnancy I told my husband we were going to adopt. I can survive 9 months of no wine, coffee, hotdogs, or bacon but a life without sushi is unfathomable.

Being a sushi fiend is not like being crazy for french fries or fried chicken (my two other food vices). When you’re craving fries there are probably 5 decent spots to grab a bagful in walking distance from wherever you are in this country. Maybe a couple fewer if you’re on the hunt for fried chicken. Of course there are ranges in quality, but for a quick fix I’ll bet everyone can think of a handful of places that know how to cook a potato in oil.

Sushi is another story. My sushi preferences run towards the rice topped with raw fish. I’m not ordering California rolls, tempura whatever, imitation crab, or smoked salmon with cream cheese. I’ll never order take out sushi. I shy away from all the raw fish options at the Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca sushi bars. So where’s a girl to go for a few great slices of fresh fish atop correctly seasoned rice?

I live in DC, so it’ll take me a little time to think of a place… still thinking…. still thinking…

Before the renovations, Sushi Taro was my weekly indulgence. My non-fish eating husband would fill up on kara age (Japanese style fried chicken), inari, natto rolls (yes, he’ll eat those stringy, stinky fermented soybeans, but shudders at the thought of putting raw fish in his mouth, go figure), unctuous braised pork belly, and a juicy well-marbled rib eye steak served with a teriyaki sauce where for once the chef knew to add sugar sparingly. I would satisfy my cravings with whatever the sushi chefs recommended.

Personally, I appreciate the new Sushi Taro with its focus on serving the best quality fish, but my dining partner is not quite as enthusiastic, so we’re forced to look elsewhere.

Kaz Sushi Bistro was our spot for a couple months. The high quality of the fish and several incredibly delicious and interesting signature sushi options satisfied my cravings. But the menu rarely changes, if ever. Also, the ambiance doesn’t cry out party or romance. Rather, the dining room is most often filled by people in business suits discussing the latest economic, healthcare, foreign—fill in the blank—policy.

I feel the same way about Sushi Ko. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It just fails to be memorable.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about the opening of Kushi. Finally DC was getting an Izakaya-style joint. A place where meat, fish and vegetables are cooked over hot smoky grills and sushi chefs prepare fish flown in from the Tsukigi fish market in Tokyo.

In theory it’s heaven. In reality? Sometimes, maybe, yes, no… I’ve been there 7 times and I still can’t decide.

The ambiance is fantastic. There’s lots of great cooking action viewing at either the robata or sushi bar seating areas. It’s loud enough that you wouldn’t shy away from bringing a group of friends there for plate-sharing and sake bombs, but not so overwhelming that a couple couldn’t enjoy a fun private conversation.

All the sushi I’ve had there has been beautiful. Nice fish to rice ratios (I really hate huge slices on tiny mounds of rice and visa-versa). Rice is perfectly cooked, seasoned and served at the right temperature. They have a seared fatty salmon nigiri that defines melt-in-your-mouth. It’s slightly smoky and topped with chopped scallions. I’ve fallen in love and it’s one of the first things I order every time. Of course the offerings from Tsukigi are ridiculously fresh, and you’ll probably find many first time experiences among the options (whole baby ice fish anyone?).

As for the kishiyaki (grilled skewers) or robata (charcoal grill) offerings… meh. All the chicken options are pretty much flavorless. The pork belly is ok. Wagyu beef skewers can be dry, in desperate need of more sauce and less cooking time. Most of the meat is pre-braised, skewered and placed over the grill for just a couple minutes. Perhaps if they added more interesting cuts and stopped all the pre-cooking they might have a better final product.

The kara age and daily yaki onigiri special (grilled rice balls) are well executed standards. I hear that the buta kakuni (braised pork belly) is absolutely crave-inducing but I never order it since I now make it at home fairly frequently. The pickles that come out with the miso soup at lunch are a bit of a head scratcher. It’s hard to say if they’re pickles or if they just took a quick plunge in a salt bath. Texture is great, but there’s no flavor.

Here’s my frustration. When I talk about going out for Japanese food the options we have can only be generously described as “decent”. But I’ll keep going. Why? Because pretty decent is the best we’ve got. Can anyone explain to me how cities like Minneapolis and Denver can have great Japanese food but DC can only eek out a “meh”?

Why are places like Nooshi and Café Asia thriving?—Asia is a continent folks, you can’t properly make 20+ countries’ cuisines in one kitchen. Why doesn’t DC have a real noodle bar? Soba, ramen, udon – I’ll take anything. Yakiniku? Yakitori? Are these dining concepts too alien? Is there no market for them?

Or, have all the Japanese food lovers just resigned themselves to our semi decent food while looking longingly at all the options just up I-95 in NYC? Simple economic theory argues that if there is a demand, there will be supply to match. Dear God, please don’t let DC be the exception to that rule.

Shanghai Soup Dumplings… the perfect bite

If you’re a foodie, work with foodies, or hang out with cooks then no doubt you’ve played a round of “what would your last meal be?” This is where you go around the table and everyone talks about what they would like to eat right before they kick it. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t figured out my menu just yet. But I’m pretty certain it will contain ikura (salmon roe) with raw quail egg yolk. I think I’ll pencil that in as the appetizer…

My husband, on the other hand, has decided that he’d like his last meal to be made up entirely of Shanghai soup dumplings. Appetizer, entrée and dessert… all soup dumplings.

If you’ve never had Shanghai soup dumplings (xiao long bao in Chinese) I feel very, very sorry for you. When done right they are the most perfect little bite. Dumplings filled with savory pork and delicate broth. It’s kind of like eating a perfect bowl of noodles in one bite. The dumpling wrapper should be soft with just the right amount of bite, like freshly made ravioli. The pork filling soft and flavorful with hints of ginger, sesame, scallion and garlic. But most important, the soup inside should be plentiful and delicate. The way to successfully eat these delicate creatures is to lift them out of their steaming baskets and gently place them on a Chinese soup spoon, pour a little black vinegar and a couple slices of thinly sliced ginger on top, then pop the entire thing in your mouth. If the chef got the balance just right then I swear it’s better than 50% of the sex you’ll have in your lifetime.

So, now that you’re reaching for your jacket and car keys and wondering where in the world you can find these heavenly morsels, here’s the bad news. Very few places in the world get it just right, and none of these appear to be in Washington DC.

I so badly wanted there to be a good place for dumplings here. I would even settle for semi-decent. But alas I still haven’t located any. Chinatown Express makes something they call soup dumplings but they’re really just steamed pork dumplings in the shape of soup dumplings. They are certainly tasty especially after dunking them in a mixture of chili oil, soy sauce and house-made ginger and scallion sauce. But don’t go ordering them expecting an out of body experience.

Last Sunday I headed over to Burma Road in Gaithersburg, MD. I had read about them serving some semi-decent soup dumplings. Well, the good news is they weren’t that bad. Bad news, I probably won’t be driving out there for a second helping.  They were pretty clunky, with muddled flavors. Too large to be eaten in one bite and the broth that spilled out congealed within 30 seconds. Proper dumplings are made aspic—cooled and naturally set meat stock.  But the rapid congealing of the Burma Road dumplings made me think that generous amounts of gelatin may have been used to cut corners.

  • 617 South Frederick Ave. Gaithersburg, MD 301.963.1429

Finally, please don’t listen to anyone who tells you to buy the frozen version at Grand Mart in Centreville, VA. The skins fall apart, there’s no soup inside, and the pork turns into a hard flavorless ball when steamed.

Okay, now for the good news. There are a few places that do it up right… especially if you’re willing to travel for them.

Joe’s Shanghai in New York City: To be honest I haven’t tried many places in NYC; whenever I’m up there I just head to Joe’s Shanghai restaurant where you will find a tasty, albeit slightly larger version. Priced well, a bamboo basket with six dumplings costs $6.50. I’ve introduced several friends to soup dumplings here and they’re all mad about them now. For me, the large size ruins the perfect bite concept. It’s recommended that you bite the top and slurp some of the soup out before taking the second bite. Practical? Yes, but for me that messes with the balance and temperature (you need to eat these dumplings hot). The flavor at Joe’s Shanghai is robust, the broth not particularly delicate but they do offer so-good-you could-drink-it, black vinegar. If you live in NYC or regularly visit, Joe’s Shanghai restaurant is a great place to get your soup dumpling fix.

  • 24 W 56 St. New York, New York (between 5th and 6th Ave) 212.333.3868
  • 9 Pell St. New York, New York 212.233.8888

Yank Sing in San Francisco: This is an obvious one. You’re in San Fran, of course there’s good food. For consistently decent dumplings head over to Yank Sing, a dim sum place with two locations in San Francisco. At $10 per order these are the most expensive ones that I’ve come across.  And the skins are a little too delicate so you run the risk of breaking the dumpling and losing the valuable broth before it makes it to your mouth. However, if I’m ever in the city by the Bay—even just for a couple hours—I’m probably flagging a cab and burning a good chunk of change on several orders.

  • 101 Spear St. San Francisco 415.957.9300
  • 49 Stevenson St. San Francisco 415.541.4949

Din Tai Fung: If you want to fill your mouth with those elusive soup dumplings that can compete with half of your sexual experiences then you are going to have to travel to Taiwan where the glorious restaurant empire of Din Tai Fung is located. Years of making these little bundles of goodness has resulted in the most balanced, soup/meat/skin ratio I’ve encountered. The broth is delicate, similar to a well executed consommé, with a clean but pronounced pork flavor. My husband and I spent a week in Taiwan last March and we ate at Din Tai Fung four times. Each order contained six dumplings and cost 130 NT (approximately $4). We seriously considered ripping up our return tickets and renting an apartment next to any one of their multiple branches. Maybe one day…

  • No. 218 (alley 216) Zhongxiao East Rd. Section 4 Taipei, Taiwan (02) 2721.7890

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who thinks these dumplings are slices of heaven. Din Tai Fung now has restaurants all over the world, mainly in Asia but there is an outpost in Arcadia, Los Angeles, and one coming soon to Seattle. Since I don’t have the time or money for another transpacific flight, I’m doing the next best thing and heading to LA. Seriously, I’ve already bought my ticket.

In the meantime I’ll keep working on the menu for my final meal:

Appetizer – ikura nigiri topped with raw quail egg yolk and fresh wasabi

Entrée – Din Tai Fung steamed pork dumplings with black vinegar and ginger

Dessert – Still working on it, but I’m thinking it’ll include some of that other 50% that no soup dumpling can even come close to competing with.

Next Time You’re Craving Chinese Food in DC…

Where do you go when you have a hankering for good Chinese food? If you live in DC that’s a difficult question to answer. And when I hear your answer I can tell if you’ve ever traveled to China or at least whether or not you take your Chinese food seriously. Yes, I realize that that’s probably an unfair standard on which to judge someone but a girl’s gotta have some kind of yard stick, and that is just one of mine (and now you can start your judging of me).

In Taiwan, I remember people discussing the best way to make fried rice with the same seriousness you would find people debating national healthcare at any gathering in DC. You would think that a culturally diverse city like DC would have some pretty good Chinese food options right? Well you would be wrong. A colorful Chinese archway does not a Chinatown make. I don’t think any sober soul is going down to 7th and H Street to find authentic Chinese food these days … and if you are we will never be friends!

When I have a craving for authentic Chinese cooking I head up to Toronto, a city with some seriously tasty offerings. If I were to guess why this is the case I would say that Canada’s Asia-focused immigration policy results in a more dynamic and vibrant Chinese immigrant community. Many Chinese businessmen send their wives and children to Canada to acquire citizenship and attend universities. Because of this, the demand for authentic Chinese food is higher, and tolerance for Americanized Chinese food is pretty low. The result?—a better product. Simple economics applies to food as well.

Within minutes of arriving at my family’s home just outside Toronto I’m trying to make a reservation at Kenny’s Noodle, a neighborhood spot where the food is delicious and the staff thinks waiting on my mini army of a family is delightful rather than daunting. Fried rice comes in a bamboo basket where fluffy steamed egg whites act as a pillow for beautifully cooked shrimp (notice the exclusion of soy sauce; if I see soy sauce in fried rice that’s an immediate negative strike). Pork belly with pickled vegetables in a clay pot was a recent discovery and immediate hit. Garlic eggplant is served on a sizzling hotplate and cut tableside – this means the light sauce has a deep caramelized flavor and the eggplant is actually able to assert itself properly because it isn’t drowning in some overly starched, sickeningly sweet, unidentifiable brown sauce. Fried whole chicken is savory and moist inside, crisp outside. No doubt the result of a good brine bath, and a visit to the steamer prior to the fryer. Ummm, I wonder how much flights are this weekend….

But as much as we all fantasize about jumping in a private jet and flying to other cities just to eat good food I’m going to wager it’s not very realistic. (And if it is a reality for you then Helloooooo… I think we should get to know each other. We should become, as hip people say, BFFs). But in my simple world I have to find local spots to dine at, and so I am grateful to the wonderful person who introduced me to Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church, Virginia.

Ignore the name, the dishes are all Szechuan style rather than Cantonese. My first bite of their mapo doufu transported me back to Beijing where I was when I last tasted a really great version of this classic dish (a quick cheat sheet: doufu- Chinese, tofu- Japanese, bean curd– English). But even better is the fish and doufu with spicy sauce.

Soft doufu and lightly poached fish rest in a spicy chili sauce, topped with cilantro and crushed peanuts. The sauce is similar to mapo doufu in flavor, but because the doufu is stewed in much larger pieces it remains hot throughout the meal. Honestly, flavor-wise the fish could be removed and wouldn’t be missed but it does provide some textural contrast to the soft doufu.

The best bet when ordering a vegetable dish is to ask what they have in season. Snow pea shoots or watercress sautéed with garlic are both delicious options. Celery with wood ear mushrooms is reportedly a popular dish but I found the use of western celery, which is larger and blander, rather than the Chinese variety made this dish a pass for me.

Cold jellyfish salad, always a textural treat, is slippery and crunchy with a light sesame dressing and julienned cucumbers and carrots.

Cumin lamb is fabulous. Dusted in flour, cumin and pepper then quickly fried and tossed with sweet onions and bell peppers. The lamb is surprisingly tender with a bold almost smoky flavor, a credit to the toasted cumin and accompanying spices. Fried chicken with dry chili peppers is prepared in much the same way (sans cumin) and loaded up with sweet peppers, dried chilies and Szechuan peppercorns.

Ground pork with vermicelli is very similar to a dish I had several times at the Hunan style restaurant next to my hotel in Beijing last March. Vermicelli is tossed with ground pork, Chinese celery, ginger, scallions, chili oil and spices. Fennel seeds add a subtle anise flavor.

So next time you’ve got a craving for Chinese food instead of ordering from your usual delivery place and then spending the next hour complaining about how DC doesn’t have any good Chinese food, jump in your car and head over to Seven Corners. Yes, I realize that I’m asking you city folk to cross the roaring Potomac river and brave the wild Virginian countryside, but trust me Hong Kong Palace is worth the visit.

Hong Kong Palace 6387 Leesburg Pike Falls Church VA 22044