With two Chinese restaurant soujourns in three days, it is hard not to do some sort of comparison. Authentic Chinese is a cuisine and taste I am growing ever familiar with – and when I say Chinese, I really mean Sichuan. Sichuan food is known for its use of cilantro, peanut, chili oil, and its specific peppercorns that make the mouth numb. It is bold, spicy, and with heat – a flavor profile my South Indian tongue is terribly used to.
Michael’s Noodle – This is in Rockville, MD. I was buoyed by both the glowing recommendations in Yelp as well as the write-up in the essential Tyler Cowen Ethnic Dining Guide. Given the wild array of cuisines (Manchurian, Taiwanese, Sichuan) on the menu, I was either encouraged or worried. Really with these things you can go either way – better to do 2 things well than 15 things poorly. We started with a small plate, the shredded tofu with spicy sauce. When I think spicy in this instance, I think hot – this isn’t Trinidad after all – but the dish lacked zip. The firm tofu was fine, but firm tofu is not a dish that gets me going generally, and the relative blandness bothered me. I am not sure if we communicated to the waitstaff correctly about the heat we wanted, or whether the waitstaff just judged that we were not natives so they had to hold back the zing. Either way, not a fan. The Sichuan dumplings we ordered were well prepared as dumplings, but the sauce lacked any markers of Sichuan – heat, peppercorns. It was almost sweet, which is nice if you are looking at teriyaki. The entree of shredded pork and spicy noodles also lacked spice, aside from a small undercurrent of heat. This was not an offensive dish, but just not memorable. The best dish was the vegetable, the mustard greens with dried scallops. The dried scallops manifested itself almost tasting like tunafish, and the sauce was tasty. The greens seemed a little overdone, but the flavor was solid. Overall, while I cannot say it was bad, it was not what I was looking for, and a wholly unnecessary restaurant when other places are nearby.
Sichuan Pavilion – This would be one of those other places. The smell of cilantro and yumminess greets you from the start. The ambience and decor are surprisingly upscale by suburban strip mall ethnic standards. Usually as I have been touring these sorts of joints, a clear function over form decision is what I come to expect. But here the tea was in an actual “good china” teapot. The tea also did not taste like dishwater – actual body. The menu was also very impressive, with a clever “American” vs “Authentic” reversible format. The amazing variety of small plates, zany dishes and such was alluring – and the authentic Chinese lunch special made me almost want to move to Rockville (well, except for being in Rockville). The waitress we had was very friendly and her first recommendation was on the money, the Mini Pork Buns filled with Chicken Broth. In other words, the elusive SOUP DUMPLING! With the black vinegar sauce, the dumplings are delicious and the chicken broth squirting out makes them basically impossible to eat gracefully, not that I would want to. The vegetable was good, Baby Bok Choy with Preserved Egg on top. That said, the Preserved Egg added nothing. I am sure it was well done, just not my style. The entree was flounder and silken tofu in spicy soup. We had asked the waitress earlier to make it spicy and they did not disappoint. The dish lacked some of the subtlety of the similar dish elsewhere, more straight heat and savory – but how tasty it was! The flounder perfectly cooked, the silken tofu and sauce providing wonderful texture. I could eat it all day. All in all, this was a total triumph, and would be the restaurant I would whine about going to every day if I lived in Rockville.
Hong Kong Palace – Alas, I live on the other side of the river, but do not weep for me. Falls Church’s Hong Kong palace holds its own quite nicely, maybe every bit as good as Sichuan Pavilion, with a 20 minute less drive. My first voyage there was on New Year’s eve 2008, and we sat down sharing a table with two stranger we had just met (so we could cut the wait and sit at a table of four). We ordered the fish and tofu in spicy broth, and the lady we shared the table with ordered the Beef and Beef Tendon in Szechuan sauce. The fish and tofu was divine, spicy and full of the Szechuan peppercorn and fragrance. The heat-numb combo is a huge winner. The Beef Tendon is a perfect appetizer, thinly cut, tender without being chewy. Really after that, it has been love. In the myriad of trips, we have covered much of the menu. Their Dan Dan Noodles (pork, spicy sauce), Chengu Dumplings, and most of their vegetable sides are delicious (remember this is the authentic menu – if you are the sort to order Moo Goo Gai Pan, what can I tell you>). But the superstars have been the fish and the stir fried chicken with stuffed chiles. This involves breaded, fried chicken (always a good start) and features peanuts and peppers – solid heat and flavor. But the star are the stuffed dried chile peppers, the peppers are stuffed with sesame and spices, and could be a snack on its own. I would buy it for gameday – seriously. The waitstaff is friendly and familar, and while the restaurant is smaller and more no-frills than Sichuan Pavilion – it has nothing to apologize for. I kick and scream when I go too long without it for sure.