Eating in Washington DC's Chinatown

This is a short survey of restaurants in Washington DC's Chinatown, made over the course of a year or so. As I have only been to some of these restaurants once or twice, I cannot attest to absolute accuracy here, but the few restaurants that I have raved about have been tested many, many times with many different people, and they are surely accurate.

When eating in Chinatown, it's best if you can read Chinese characters because the English menus are quite limited. To the English-speaker, it seems as if all the menus in town are close to identical. If you cannot do this, your next two steps are to try some of the places listed which I have specifically pointed out as having elaborate English menus, or to eat dim sum style where you merely need to point out the dishes you wish. Specials, however, are almost always listed in Chinese only, on banners on the wall. Bringing along someone who speaks Chinese may or may not be of much use; because of the difference in dialects, there is often great confusion. Knowing how to read Chinese, however, is quite useful.

I have generally rated places overall on a ten-point scale. 10 = excellent; 1 = poor. With the advent of fancy mapping systems on the web, I have removed the Chinatown map, however, and added postal addresses.

1 - Burma - 3
740 6th St NW Fl 2, 202-638-1280
Sadly the food at the Burma is not what it used to be. While the cuisine itself has elements of both Chinese and Indian cooking, the quality of the actual food here has declined sadly. It appears that the former chef here has left to help open the Mandalay restaurant in College Park, which we have tried and which is highly recommended. (Jan 2004)

2 - Cafe-Deli Viet-Thai - ?
Best pot krapau in Chinatown, but no Chinese food here.

3 - Lei Garden - 7/3 - NOW CLOSED IN 2007
629-631 H. St NW, 202-216-9696
Formerly operating as Charlie Chiang's Grande Cafe. After 50 years, China Inn closed down and this location is now occupied by a new restaurant with new management. Dim sum upstairs is pretty good and rates a 7, reportedly with some former staff from the Golden Palace in the kitchen. Lunch buffet below is not edible and should be avoided at all costs, getting a 3. (Mar 2004)

23 - China Doll - 5 - NOW CLOSED IN 2007
627 H St NW, 202-289-4755
Generally catering to the Western trade.... limited menu although with a good variety of seafood specialties. Good soups, but the tea-smoked duck was bland and other dishes tended more toward sweet sauces than not. Everything is on one menu so you need not look for the ``special Chinese menu.'' (Dec 2002)

4 - Chinatown Express - 5
746 6th St NW, 202-638-0424 or 888-889-0038
The last trip made here was much better than previous trips. In the past I've had very poorly made chow foon, and poor hot pot items. But in the most recent trip the hot pot was quite tasty. In general, avoid anything on the menu other than the stretched noodles and fresh dumplings (which are made like the stretched noodles and are much softer than the usual dumplings). Stay away from the lunch menu and go for the steamed buns (again made like the stretched noodles, not like dim sum pork buns). Regular menu gets a 4, but the stretched noodles are very fine. (March 2002)

5- Full Kee - 9
509 H St NW, 202-371-2233
Excellent congee, good noodle dishes. Recomended. Extensive Chinese menu is translated into English. (Nov 2002)

Full Kee has another restaurant in Richmond, VA, which is also quite good in spite of some interesting use of non-Chinese vegetables in many items, and which does dim sum.

6- Golden Palace - 10
A huge dimsum operation. Best dimsum in town. Eat here. I cannot recommend this place highly enough. (Dec 1998)
---BAD NOTE--
As we go to press, the Washington Post reports that the Golden Palace is shutting down on Boxing day, to re-open some time later in 1999 at 800 Eighth st. They close only three days after President Clinton ate there. This is a tragedy, and we can only wish them luck in getting opened as soon as possible at their new location.

It should be noted that as of January 2003, the former location of the Golden Palace has been occupied by a Radio Shack. Radio Shack sells mostly Chinese products but of much lower quality.

7 - Chop Sticks - 5
717 H. Street NW, 202-898-1986
This place has changed considerably since my last visit in January of 1997, having been renovated. The food is standard Cantonese fare although you must ask for the Chinese menu because it won't be given to you by default. Hot and sour soup was very hot and they get many points for using fresh mushrooms. On my last visit, the beef was somewhat low-grade and they had stopped using char siu in the egg rolls. CLOSED MARCH 2007.

A decade ago, I went in once in the late afternoon and was the only guy there... the waitress shouted into the kitchen that there was a white guy here (and the word she used was not a polite one) and suddenly the bad Chinese pop music changed to bad American pop music. I do not think this would happen there today, which is kind of sad. (Dec 2002)

9 - Wok and Roll - 6
604 H St NW, 202-347-4656
The restaurant that was open for many years at this location, Go Lo's, has been remodelled and reopened under new management but with the same kitchen staff. They have added a sushi counter and a bubble tea stand in order to get with the latest trends in Asian foods that white people like, and the menu has been simplified with all of the flaming hibachi stuff removed. Generally the usual fare, these folks are trying very hard to cater to the Western crowd. They can cook pretty well when specifically asked but will otherwise tend to the usual sweet slop in an attempt to appeal to the white crowd. (Jan 2002)

10 - Becky's Cafe - 3 - NOW CLOSED IN 2007
505 H St NW, 202-667-3660
Formerly the site of Good Taste restaurant. Becky's has a mixture of Western food like subs and sandwiches, which I would point you toward before the Chinese food. They do have delivery, though, but that doesn't really make up for the food quality. (Jan 1998)

11 - Jackey Cafe - 7
611 H st NW, 202-408-1288.
Mostly traditional Cantonese food, with good congee, noodle soups, and wonderful pan-fried noodle. This location was previously owned by Ho Wah and then the Rainbow In, both fairly low-grade places, but the new owners have done an excellent job of cleaning the place up. (Jun 2007)

12 - Hunan Chinatown - 7 - NOW CLOSED IN 2007
624 H St NW, 202-783-5858
These folks sell the usual sweet glop for the tourist trade, but they also have the best Hunan food in the area. The tea-smoked duck is amazing. If you order carefully, there is some very fine food on the menu. You must pick carefully, though, and be aware that there is no Chinese menu and they cater primarily to the Western trade. They will make authentic Hunan food but sometimes need some motivation to do so. I have had both very fine and very poor meals here. (Jan 2003)

13 - Hunan Gourmet - 0
I am pleased to report that Hunan Gourmet is now closed, and the operation has moved to Rockville, MD where they are operating as Canton Cafe. As this is the place where I was served putrid food which in May of 1997 gave me food poisoning resulting in spasms on both ends of my GI tract for three days of agony, I am happy to report that others will now be spared this fate. (January 1999)

14 - Kam Fong Seafood Restaurant - 6 --- RELOCATED OUT OF CHINATOWN
807-809 7th St NW, 202-898-1138
Avoid the lunch menu, and stick to the dinner menu. Good bakery attached, good sizzling items. Large banquet facilities, and good tea, even. (May 2001)

Like most places in Chinatown, Kam Fong closed in the 2000-2010 decade, but unlike most of them, the management opened up a new restaurant, New Kam Fong, at 2400 University Blvd, Rockville MD. The food at New Kam Fong is appreciably better and they still have the wonderful pineapple buns that Kam Fong was known for.

15 - Li Ho Food - 9
501 H St NW, 202-289-2059
A dumpy looking place with the best chow foon in town. The chef is a serious noodle guru. Eat here. Closed Sunday. (May 2001)

16 - Mr. Yung's - 4/6
740 6th St NW, 202-628-1098
This place warrants only a 4 for items off the regular menu, but they have a seperate dim sum menu which is reasonable, and warrants a 6. The regular menu consists mostly of lunch slop, with overly sweet sauces and gummy spring rolls, but the dim sum is okay, and available seven days a week. (Jan 1999)

17 - New Big Wong - 5
610 H St NW, 202-628-0490
These folks are taking real trouble to attract the white trade, doing things like translating the special menus. The food is good if not phenomenal and if you are looking for the more interesting meals but can't read characters, they're a big help. These folks had closed down for a while in Jan 2000 but reopened after a short period. They also deliver. (Feb 2004)

18 - Eat First - 6
609 H St NW, 202-289-1703
The Ruby restaurant that served good Cantonese food in this location shut down in early 2001, and the Eat First restaurant that was previously around the corner has moved in after two years of absence. Although this place rates fairly low for food, with heavy egg rolls, and a higher than average proportion of premade sauces, they are also the only place in town which not only provides an extensive English translation of the special menu, but also provides a translation of the specials on the walls. Even so, many of my complaints about them in 1997 (like prepackaged mustard and uneven cooking) seem to be now remedied. Staff speaks good English and is very helpful, and it is the most clean and shining place in the area. I mean, the place literally sparkles. Good noodle dishes. (August 2001)

19 - Szechuan Gallery and Penang Rasa Selang- 6
617 H St NW
After a fire in 2001, Szechuan Gallery opened up in conjunction with Penang Rasa Selang, a Malaysian restaurant. They have two sides to the kitchen, a Szechuan and a Malaysian one. The Chinese food is reasonable and well-done although with a fairly small menu. They do make a point of translating all of the dishes, though, including the ``Taiwanese Foods'' which they do very well. The Malaysian food is okay, but in this town where there is little other Malaysian food available, it doesn't have to be better. The lunch combination special is also a bit of an odd idea; it's a buffet where you aren't allowed to serve yourself. Stick to the main menu. (Sept 2003)

20 - Szechuan House - 5
748 6th Sy NW, 202-628-1668
Dumpy place that seems to specialize in slop for the white trade. Lots of premade lunch items on steam tables, no specials, no real Szechuan specialties at all. This is the only place I have been in Chinatown where I have never seen anyone Chinese eating. On the other hand, the entrees from the dinner menu are edible and amazingly cheap, and the tea is surprisingly good. (Jan 2003)

21 - Mehak Indian Cuisine - ?
17 7th St NW, 202-408-9292
This is the former location of Ms. Tao's and Taste of China, both fine restaurants when they opened, but which allowed their quality to go downhill. I have not tried the Indian restaurant currently at this location. (4/00)

22 - Tony Cheng - 10
619 H St NW, 202-842-8669
Upstairs the seafood restaurant is the sort of place that would get a three-star Michelin rating; it's not cheap but it's worth it. English menu is very, very extensive (but the Chinese menu is even bigger!) Downstairs there is a Mongolian barbeque. (Jan 1999)

24 - Tai Shan - 8
622 H St NW, 202-639-0266
Good Hot Pot menus, and they also are the only place I have found that gives a good English translation of the Chinese menu and the specials. A touch seedy looking but the food is good. Open very late, also. (Jan 2003)

25 - Chinatown Garden - 5
618 H St NW, 202-737-8887
No real specials, but they can cook to order although they have no Chinese manu. The menu they do have appears to be intended to cater to the Western crowd and have in the past (1999) had a persion stationed at the door to encourage passers-by to come in and eat. This is a very bad sign. These folks _can_ cook well but have a tendency to serve overly-sweetened stuff intended for white folks unless you can convince them otherwise. They opened in 1998 and seem to be still run by the same family. Good chow foon, though, and some okay soups as well.. (Jan 2004)

xx - Great Wall Seafood Restaurant - 8
627 I St NW, (a block off the map) (202) 371-8118
These folks just opened in 2000, and while the fish in the window look a bit lethargic and the egg rolls are a big chewy, the two visits that I have made here were quite excellent. They say they don't do much lunch trade, but they are family-run and have a complete English translation of the full menu (though not the specials). And, that menu is very extensive. Owned by the same family that owns the Szechuan Gallery, a much older restaurant. (Jan 2003)

Honorable Mention: Fortune
6249 Arlington Blvd Falls Church, VA 22044-2400, 703-538-3333 It's out in Virginia and not in Chinatown, but sadly it's probably the closest traditional dim sum place that I would recommend now that the Golden Palace is gone. (Mar 2003)

Honorable Mention: New Fortune
No relation at all to the Fortune in Falls Church, this one is in Gaithersburg but also does excellent dim sum. More or less standard fare although they do add some oddities now and then in season. The food is probably on a par with the Fortune. (Jan 2004)

Honorable Mention: A&J Restaurant
In Rockville. A&J serves Northern Style dimsum, which is nothing at all like Hong Kong food. Absolutely wonderful, though. The staff will shout it at you in incomprensible northern dialect, but the scallion pancakes alone are worth the trip. Dr. Chen calls this ``Chinese hillbilly food.'' (Oct 2002)

Honorable Mention: Joe's Noodle Shop
In Rockville. You place your order at the counter and they bring it to you. A radical change from typical Cantonese food, with some really amazing noodle soups. (Oct 2002)

In the last ten years, Chinatown, like many of the ethnic neighborhoods, has shrunk considerably with the exodus of people moving into the suburbs. With the recent construction of the MCI Stadium, additional damage is being done to the feel of the area and there are many who wonder how much longer the area will last. It is with this worry that I strongly recommend that you patronize these businesses and try and support them as much as possible, to keep a unique institution alive as long as possible.

A more complete list of Chinese restaurants in the Washington DC area can be found at yeschinese.com.

If you are in Philadelphia, check out their very active Chinatown, which seems to be doing better at organizing businesses and keeping intact. They have a web site at http://www.phillychinatown.com.

Many thanks to Yong-Mi, WB8F0Z, Zbig, Dena, Parke, Hallie, Shiva and his wives, The Ampex User's Group, Barbara, Vicki, Bard, Chakaal, Jon Singer, Lisa Lisa Lisa, Lewis and Jasi for coming along on these outings. Thanks to Dawn for putting up with me for three days while I had Hunan poisoning at the conference.

This page copyright Scott Dorsey (kludge@panix.com), all rights reserved.