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Great Wall Szechuan House, 1527 14th Street

cstrother Feb 26, 2007 09:52 PM

Have seen relatively little comment on this place. Maybe I am missing it. It is located just north of the Studio Theater. Used to have plexiglass barrier, but now has open counter. Still pretty basic. Known for having a Chef trained in China in authentic Szechuan. Written up in City Paper for having close to honest to God authentic heat level for Szechuan if you ask for the right stuff. Ask for "ma la" specialties.

Sounds about right to me, although items have not been consistently so, so hot as to be unbearable. I think the ma la stuff has been pretty consistently excellent. The Ma Pow tofu with ground pork is amazing. Not only hot, but very earthy. Soft white cool tofu in a bath of fire and flavor. All of the good things any complex spicy food from any cuisine has. Heat in the front of the mouth, strong middle flavor, and burn that gets more intense, not less after you swallow a bit. I crave the stuff. Excellent deal, too. Seems unique to me for anything around DC that I have ever had. Not your dumbed down beginners Szechuan. The chicken ma la is similar, but with different flavors and not quite so far of the heat chart. Other ma la items even less hot, still pretty earthy and interesting. The double-cooked pork, for instance, not all that spicy at all, but fantastically flavorful fatty chucks of pork in a wonderful stir fry. Not your parents' Chinese food.

Anyone else have any thoughts on this place, or am I the only one driving up 14th Street a couple of time a week because I am completely addicted?

  1. c
    Chownut Feb 27, 2007 02:48 AM

    Never been there, but there's also a City Buffet option nearby in Thomas Circle.

    1. p
      ppad Apr 3, 2007 08:15 AM

      I went for the first time this weekend and can't wait to go again. Joe's Noodle House in Rockville also prepares dishes with that tongue-numbing peppercorn.

      1. g
        guojie Apr 10, 2007 02:45 PM

        As a former long-time resident of Sichuan, Great Wall is the closest thing to real Sichuan food that is available in DC. As them for their recommendations and you won't be disappointed. The Fuqi Feipian (spicy tripe & kidneys) is outstanding as is the hotpot and the mapo doufu. Try not to order the generic american chinese dishes and you're in for a great meal.

        2 Replies
        1. re: guojie
          cstrother Apr 11, 2007 11:22 AM

          Thanks for the tips. I am truly on a tripe kick, and spicey tripe and kidneys sounds great. Glad to know this stuff really is authentic. I love it. My wife hates it. It is not only the spiciness, but the earthiness, and the other intense flavors and aromas, including sort of a floral--to me--aroma, that is often present. Very complex and deep flavors.

          1. re: guojie
            Minger Feb 25, 2008 09:49 AM

            i spoke to the lady at the cash register and she said fuqi feipian is an dish that must be ordered ahead and for a group, not for one or two people.

            i tried the double cooked pork, non-ma la, this time. nothing special. i'll stick to ma la at this place.

          2. m
            MichaelCDC Jan 24, 2008 02:57 PM

            I've never actually been there, but it's my favorite Chinese delivery - it has replaced Mei Wah in that department. The Peking Duck is the best I've had in DC, the ma-la Szechuan pork is a guilty pleasure, the ma-la chicken is really good (and defininitely not in that dumbed-down beginners' Szechuan kind of way), and my friend who only EVER orders Kung Pao Chicken swears by it - so it's not just good for authentic Szechuan, but also for top-notch tourist Chinese. Love it!

            1. m
              Minger Jan 25, 2008 11:02 AM

              now that's a chow find. i'm looking forward to trying it and reporting back.

              5 Replies
              1. re: Minger
                Minger Jan 26, 2008 04:28 PM

                I didn't find spicy tripe and kidney on the menu and when I asked the girl for "intestines" (in Mandarin) she said they didn't offer that. Was this a time limited or special item? I'll try asking for "fuqi feipian" next time.

                The ma-la chicken was excellent and spicy as OP well-described. I found the degree of heat much more tolerable and flavorful than that at TemptAsian, which tends to drown everything in ma-la sauce. The chicken here is sliced, stir fried and presented on a bed of bean sprouts and pool of sauce. The separation gives you the option of increasing the heat to your taste. Without dipping into the sauce and just sampling the sprouts, my mouth was singing with ma-la.

                Btw, the restaurant is two storefronts south of that new chocolate cafe ACK* so you can waltz over for firefighting dessert to soothe tongue.

                Ma-la is like licorice: most people will either love it or hate it. I'm kinda in between, I like the novelty of the sensation but it tastes a bit too much like "burnt" to me to have too often. My mouth was definitely singing tonight, in a way it rarely does. Everyone should try a good ma-la dish at least once.

                (Ma-la is a strong note, which I think needs some complementation or shaping by perhaps black bean or peanuts. Maybe this happens in the noodle dishes?)

                I have a feeling there is much more to signature Sichuan cuisine than ma-la but maybe that's the best we can here in DC. What are the non-ma-la dishes worth trying, besides double cooked pork?

                And for the fun of it, I ordered the hot and sour soup. Most hot and sour soups are actually pretty good if not for the corn starch and msg. The hot and sour soup here is very thin in ingredients and not remarkable at all.

                The rice here is really bad. It seems to have sat in the rice cooker for two longer and possible has been through at least once heating or cooling cycle. Rice should at worst be neutral. Bad rice, like bad service, just distracts from the best of the meal.

                Lastly, Great Wall is two storefronts south of the new chocolate cafe ACK* so you can waltz over for some firefighting dessert after dining.

                1. re: Minger
                  sweth Jan 26, 2008 07:38 PM

                  Just to clarify, are you asking for suggestions of non-ma-la dishes to try in general, or ones that Great Wall in particular does well? The double-cooked pork is the only non-ma-la dish I've had there (it was pretty good, although I was also underwhelmed by the rice--I didn't think it was bad per se, but it was very meh), but tea duck is a good non-ma-la dish to try at good Sichuan places.

                  It's interesting that you mention peanuts complementing ma-la; some Sichuan places also do a non-ma-la version of gong bao/kung pao without peanuts. (IIRC that's actually the "original" version from one of the provinces near Sichuan.)

                  1. re: sweth
                    Minger Jan 27, 2008 03:22 PM

                    ...the ones that Great Wall does well.

                    btw, I was flying solo and ate a whole plate of ma-la chicken. with friends and a variety of dishes, and perhaps beer, the ma-la wouldn't be so dominating.

                    i haven't had gong bao in a long time. i've only known it with peanuts :-)

                    1. re: Minger
                      sweth Mar 12, 2008 10:34 AM

                      There's nothing wrong with eating a whole plate of ma-la chicken. :-)

                      Speaking of peanuts in gong bao: I stopped by TA yesterday, and since I hadn't tried the Sichuan-style gong bao there since Peter Chang left, I ordered that--and what I got was the non-ma-la peanut-free dish. It was fine, but not at all what my mouth was expecting.

                      I used to be a TemptAsian fan, but the lack of consistency in terms of spiciness plus what seems like a revolving door in the kitchen is making me less of an enthusiast.

                  2. re: Minger
                    Ericandblueboy Aug 4, 2008 11:16 AM

                    In Mandarin, it's pronounced foo-chi fei-pien. Food-chi stands for husband and wife, that might ring a bell. This dish is also available at Hong Kong Palace, Sichuan Village, China Star, and Peking Village (all in Nova).

                2. j
                  Jacey Mar 4, 2008 04:46 AM

                  Has anyone been here recently?

                  I'm a big fan of hot & sour soup. How is theirs? Does it have MSG or can you request to have it without it?

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Jacey
                    JoshInDC Mar 4, 2008 05:27 AM

                    I've been a number of times recently. The hot & sour soup is okay. Not much too it in the way of veggies, strips of carrots etc. It's pretty much bean curd and bamboo shoots only, but decent. I can't speak to the MSG question.

                    Their Ma Po Tofu is the best I've ever had anywhere. I've been underwhelmed by just about everything else, including other Ma La dishes and other supposed Szechuan preparations. Ma La Noodles had an awful, cooked long ago texture. Crispy szechuan chicken didn't have a single pepper or a bit of heat to the dish. And as other people have pointed out, they can't even do rice right. But the tofu!


                    1. re: JoshInDC
                      Jeserf Mar 4, 2008 08:14 AM

                      I just checked your blog...I think I studied in Copenhagen with you!

                      Man this place is full of DISers.

                      Must be something from Copenhagen that makes us run back to the US an appreciate considerably better food!

                      But - great review - it's tempting to get people from work to order delivery from there. They did it for Georgetown Cupcake, this can't be that much of a stretch

                      1. re: JoshInDC
                        Jacey Mar 4, 2008 09:49 AM

                        Do you know where they have good hot and sour soup, then, in the Dupont area...ideally without MSG.

                        1. re: Jacey
                          Jeserf Mar 4, 2008 10:00 AM

                          I heart the hot and sour soup at Mei Wah. But, I've never had food from the Dupont one - only Friendship Heights.

                          It's yummy.

                        2. re: JoshInDC
                          sweth Mar 11, 2008 09:11 PM

                          As many others have noted, their double-cooked pork is also pretty good, although not as good as their ma po.

                      2. m
                        moogjuke Mar 4, 2008 08:10 PM

                        I LOVE Great Wall Szechuan House. I consider that the restaurant has only 4-5 items...the real ma-la ones and the double-cooked pork. Many a weary Sunday lunch has been enlivened by a ma-la fix. I am actually amazed that they serve the ma-la specialities so readily to gringos. I asked "make it REALLY authentic and ma-la" on my first order some months ago. I have never again uttered those words, and my ma-la entrees are wonderfully strong and pungent. This place is a darned gem. I feel like much of the delivery food scene in and around GWSH is quite a let down. How many bad Thai restaurants does the area need? How bad can the subs and Pizza really be-- Ducchini's excepted? Is Bus Boys and Poets really a form of esoteric torture?

                        Anyway...get youz some GWSH and be numb.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: moogjuke
                          Minger Mar 11, 2008 09:28 PM

                          I ordered the double cooked pork on my last visit and they warned me, "that's NOT ma-la" as if I would be disappointed to be served anything else. :-)

                        2. j
                          Jeserf Mar 19, 2008 10:37 AM

                          well, I just had to toss most of the ma po tofu because, contrary to what I'd read here and in today's post, it was a pile of oil.


                          far, far too greasy even for me. And I LOVE mei wah, which some say is greasy (a little bit, but not much).

                          the spice was there in the ma po, but i couldn't stomach the amount of oil....

                          it's a shame - i wanted to love it

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Jeserf
                            jt1 Mar 19, 2008 03:11 PM

                            I am a huge fan of hot food. But when my wife was away on business and not able to stop me I went a little crazy and ordered three ma la dishes for myself from Great Wall. Delicious.
                            A few days later I noticed my tongue had swollen. I convinced myself that I had tongue cancer but it turned out to be contact dermatitis from all the peppers....

                            1. re: jt1
                              Minger Mar 19, 2008 03:19 PM

                              Hahahaha. Hilarious. Must drink beer between bites for the sake of tongue preservation. Don't know if they have a liquor license though. I had one chicken ma-la dish to myself and thought *that* was excessive.

                              btw, I went to Peking Village last night and they woefully underspiced my dishes, where as Great Wall seems to calibrate just right, on the tingly side.

                              1. re: jt1
                                Jeserf Mar 19, 2008 05:11 PM

                                the Ma Po was tolerable at a heat level, but not a grease level.

                                I'm gonna guess, however, that if I'd eaten more than few bites, it'd have gotten progressively more spicy...

                                I know chili oil is an important part, and i enjoyed the spice level...just not the feeling of utter fat after a few bites. i even felt greasy on my skin after the few bites.


                                1. re: Jeserf
                                  Minger Mar 19, 2008 05:19 PM

                                  I have not had the Ma Po but I know what you are talking about. I had the same complaint about the dishes at Tempt Asian. The nice thing about the ma-la chicken is that the slices are placed above a bed of sprouts and oil soup. The bed of sprouts separates the chicken from the chili oil. Ma Po likely doesn't have this separation.

                            2. k
                              kfried Aug 4, 2008 10:35 AM

                              I'm eating takeout from Great Wall as I type this. I ordered what was supposed to be the Ma-La double cooked pork. Tasty, but I'm pretty sure they gave me a dumbed down American version. For true Szechuan I think I'll stick with Joe's.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: kfried
                                sweth Aug 15, 2008 02:13 PM

                                Was your pork more like bacon? If so, you didn't get the american version. FWIW, I think they cause some confusion by labeling their entire authentic SIchuan menu "Ma-La Specials"; some of the dishes there (including double-cooked pork) aren't supposed to be ma-la at all, so if you were expecting the ma-la tingle, that's why it wasn't there.

                                1. re: sweth
                                  arlingtonstomache Jan 18, 2009 10:45 AM

                                  Dissapointing. Why is it that there is such a short window of "good" food before the kitchen changes? I was a biiig fan of their double cooked pork - it was spicy goodness. But the last couple of times just hasn't been the same. Even worse, the woman at the telephone insisted that it's always been like this and they never cook it spicier - even upon request!

                              2. a
                                anit Jun 3, 2009 12:23 PM

                                I just tried Great Wall last night after months of wanting and to be honest, I was not too impressed. Was it good? Yes. Did my outlook on the world change? No (and yes I have had experiences that have done so :). I tried the ma la chicken with veg. It was basically a ton of chicken and a few bean sprouts. I guess I was expecting more. I thought the heat of the sauce was great, but way too oily. The container had about 1/2" of an oil pool on top. Is this normal for ma la? My main problem with it was that it just didn't have a lot of flavor. It was spicy (though to me not so numbingly so) but it seemed to lack the complexity I was expecting. Just hot and oily. All in all, I was a bit bored.

                                Are all the items similar or is it worth trying something else? For some reason I really want to like this place! Probably since my options in the area for takeout have been reduced (goodbye Dan the Man's, I'll miss you!)

                                11 Replies
                                1. re: anit
                                  Steve Jun 3, 2009 02:19 PM

                                  All of the ma la dishes at Great Wall will be similar. They do a great job with baby bok choy, so the thing to do is to order one 'ma la' dish and some baby bok choy sauteed in garlic (off menu). Or whatever green vegetable they have that day.

                                  Ma La dishes can be very oily, and Sichuan food in general can be very, very salty. There is also a way of preparing dishes with no sauce, called dry-fry or dry sautee.

                                  If you think that any one dish is lacking complexity, that is because you are still ordering like an American and expecting American style Chinese food in which your sweet, salty, and sour flavors will all be combined into one dish, same with your prorien, starch, and vegetables. A typical preparation of Sichuan Chicken will have ONLY chicken in it, sometimes chopped into little bits still on the bone. In the US, everything is served with rice, but I don't think that's the case in China. The best scenario is to order a few dishes - that's the advantage of going with at least a small group.

                                  But if you are dining alone, then at least order a simply prepared green vegetable. This will not usually be on the menu. Also, you can ask them next time if they can do a dry-fry. Unfortunately, The Great Wall has only a limited Sichuan menu, so it is hard to have a varied experience there.

                                  Your best bet is to go to Joe's Noodle House in Rockville where even the solo diner can order small plates that are inexpensive and still get a variety of flavors.

                                  1. re: Steve
                                    anit Jun 9, 2009 10:39 PM

                                    I'm Chinese, so I certainly wasn't expecting American style Chinese food. I think my mom would be really disappointed in me if that was the case! However I am not that familiar with Sichuan food, but I guess it's just not for me. From my trips to China and my mom's cooking, I would disagree and say that Chinese food can be quite complex, and do incorporate salty, sweet, sour, albeit not cloyingly sweet as Americanized Chinese food is. Also, from my experiences in China and at home, rice is served at every meal. It's never combined in one dish but it is always served on the side. It is a staple, after all.

                                    Anyway, thanks for the suggestion of getting bok choy. I didn't see it on the menu but I'll definitely try it sometime. I was also not a big fan of Joe's unfortunately so it probably looks like I should save my Chinese food cravings for when I go back to NY.

                                    1. re: anit
                                      Ericandblueboy Jun 10, 2009 06:46 AM

                                      Also try Hong Kong Palace for Sichuan, or Bob's Noodle Bistro for Taiwanese influenced Sichuan cuisine. No Chinese person that I've ever met (I'm Chinese) has ever suggested that DC has a top notch Chinese restaurant at the moment but several serve authentic Chinese and are certainly palatable. BTW, I've never made it to Great Wall - responses like yours make me not want to make the effort.

                                      1. re: Ericandblueboy
                                        Steve Jun 10, 2009 08:36 AM

                                        The ma po tofu is top notch. Add the baby bok choy (or whatever green vegetable they have that day) to your order, and you have a sensational meal. I agree with anyone who says the menu doesn't go much deeper than that.

                                      2. re: anit
                                        Steve Jun 10, 2009 08:33 AM

                                        I am definitely not Chinese, and furthermore I am no expert on authenticity.

                                        However, I have seen theoretically authentic recipes for sichuan chicken and ma po tofu. They are quite simple and I am not sure where any additional 'complexity' would come from. Also, from judging what I have read on Chowhound by folks who know much more than I do, Sichuan food can be very oily and salty.

                                        My point is that, although something like baby bok choy is not on the menu, it is important to know that you should be able to walk into any Chinese restaurant and have them prepare you a simply sauteed green vegetable. I definitely recommend against going to a Sichuan restaurant and, if ordering more than one dish, ordering everything 'ma la.'

                                        But I'll be happy to be corrected or learn more from anybody out there because I will readily admit my lack of intimate knowledge.

                                    2. re: anit
                                      hamster Jun 5, 2009 07:44 AM

                                      You are not alone! I don't understand why people love this place so much. Just my opinion.

                                      1. re: hamster
                                        KevinS Jun 5, 2009 09:12 AM

                                        Because it's in DC and the closest you can come to Sichuan food in the city. This place can't touch the real places in suburbs, like Joe's or HK Palace. Not even remotely in their league.

                                        1. re: KevinS
                                          KevinS Feb 17, 2012 10:39 AM

                                          I went here when 14th street was still relativly ungentrified, and the Ma La menu was a few items. Boy, have they improved! This is almost like a Virginia place now, in quality terms if not choices. I only wish they would expand the Ma La menu even more.

                                          1. re: KevinS
                                            Steve Feb 17, 2012 11:27 AM

                                            Top notch quality on a few items, but little variation.

                                            Works great if you are just a couple and want to get a taste of ma la cooking.

                                            1. re: Steve
                                              KevinS Feb 17, 2012 05:05 PM

                                              I completely agree, the menu lacks depth. But I'll take it. It's in DC and I can walk there at lunch time. It was a pleasant surprise.

                                        2. re: hamster
                                          Steve Jun 5, 2009 06:46 PM

                                          I adore the wontons and the ma po tofu. Their baby bok choy is superbly cooked. The menu doesn't get any deeper, I'm afraid. But this is my favorite version of ma po tofu in the area.

                                      2. woodleyparkhound Jan 18, 2012 09:40 PM

                                        I stopped by here today. To my surprise, it has been completely remodeled. The place looks great! It's still the same size, but it's had a major facelift.

                                        I got the ma po tufu and the szechuan noodle soup to take away. I liked the ma po tofu, but it was a bit oily for me. However, it wasn't nearly as oily as the dan dan noodles I got there a few months ago - that dish was so oily as to be sickening. The soup was just OK; I was a bit disappointed as there was very little broth in it and on a cold day like today, I was looking forward to that. Still, I have well over half of each leftover, which will make at least three more meals. The servings are huge.

                                        I remembered seeing on Chowhound a recommendation for something that was off-menu, but I went in on the spur of the moment and forgot what it was. Now I see it - the baby bok choy! I'll get that next time.

                                        8 Replies
                                        1. re: woodleyparkhound
                                          Steve Jan 19, 2012 07:56 AM

                                          Actually, they've put the baby bok choy on the menu now. Served as a good foil for the spiciness and oiliness of the ma po tofu, but I don't know how well it travels.

                                          1. re: woodleyparkhound
                                            zeezai Jan 19, 2012 08:25 AM

                                            Any recommended veg (apart from baby bok choy) or seafood dishes at this place?

                                            1. re: zeezai
                                              plantainsandkimchi Jan 19, 2012 01:02 PM

                                              The ma la boiled fish with tofu is very good, possibly even better than their ma po. Also, for veggies, their ma la bean sprouts were a surprise, in a positive way. Nice black vinegar kick.

                                              1. re: plantainsandkimchi
                                                caerphilly Jan 20, 2012 12:56 PM

                                                Has anyone tried the salt and pepper tofu? Heading there tonight and it looks like one of the more interesting veggie options.

                                                1. re: caerphilly
                                                  Steve Jan 20, 2012 02:05 PM

                                                  The tofu they use in the ma po tofu is A+ (but not if you prefer silken tofu). I suspect it would make a killer s&p tofu.

                                                  The other ma la dish I think is exceptional is the ma la wontons, but they are unusual in that they have a homeade, thick wrapper and a ground chicken filling.

                                                  1. re: Steve
                                                    caerphilly Jan 20, 2012 07:13 PM

                                                    Thanks - we're eating the s+p tofu right now! I can't taste much s+p (killer head cold) but the texture is excellent and my dining companions think it's delicious. We also got the Sichuan string beans, which are hot enough but not Sichuan-hot- no one's mouth is getting numb.

                                            2. re: woodleyparkhound
                                              MartinDC Feb 1, 2012 11:10 AM

                                              For those who remark on the oiliness of the ma-la dishes at Great Wall, I learned from the woman behind the counter that they finish those dishes with szechuan peppercorn oil. They also use peppercorns that she insists they bring back from China (legally, one wonders?). According to her, there are many varieties of the peppercorn, but the one best ones are not exported. She gave a few, and I bit into one, and yes, the buzz and numbness happened right away -- much more intense than the peppercorns I get from Penzeys. She recommends using the oil because it is manufactured using the proper peppercorns, and they guarantee consistency.
                                              That said, I have had szechuan peppercorns in my KP chicken, but they add the peppercorn oil as well.

                                              1. re: MartinDC
                                                KWagle Feb 3, 2012 03:55 AM

                                                Did she say which brand of oil? I'd bet they are as variable as the peppercorns.

                                            3. s
                                              Steve Feb 19, 2012 03:42 PM

                                              The Great Wall has all grown up.

                                              I just ate here, my first meal after the renovation. The place looks great and the Sichuan part of the menu has expanded considerably - though not nearly the selection I see in the suburbs. I saw a group ordering a hotpot off menu.

                                              We had their usually terrific ma po tofu, and the fish with sour mustard greens. The fish was finely prepared and the pickled peppers - an important component of this dish- were distinctive and crunchy. Plenty of fresh cilantro on top. Great contrast to the ma po tofu.

                                              Now more reasons to eat here.

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