The Great Wall on 14th St., NW - Report
Four Chowhounds finally took the advice of Tom Sietsema, other reports on this board and from dr.com to try the Sichuan food at this hole-in-the wall in an up and coming neighborhood.
Despite the very limited Sichuan choices on the menu, this place is really worth seeking out for some excellent chowing. Most of the menu appears to be average (if that) Chinese-American food, but the final section of the menu is entitled MA LA SPECIAL, both appetizers and entrees.
Ma La Wonton, Ma Po Tofu, and Ma La Kung Pao Chicken from the special section. In addition, we ordered off-menu some baby bok choy sauteed with garlic and from the menu, the Double Cooked Pork.
Ma La Wonton here is very thick, hand cut dough wrapped around a tiny bit of filling. This was exceptional. If you look in my profile, you will see that Hong You Chao Shou (aka Ma LA Wonton) is my favorite comfort food, and this really hit the spot. Impressive stuff.
Carrying through with the theme of "lack of delicacy" were the thick blocks of tofu with minced pork and hot, hot oil. If you insist on silken tofu, you might be disappointed. But I think this is the best version of ma po tofu I've eaten. Also the most fiery.
We made a mistake in forgetting to order the Ma La Kung Pao dry-fried. It came with a sauce - and a gloppy, overly sweet one at that. Not sweet from sugar, I don't think, but from a seasoned brown or mature vinegar, like the Chinese version of balsamic. A little goes a long way, and they used about four times the long way.
The baby bok choy, which can be a bit stringy elsewhere, was a gorgeous plate of food, thoroughly delicious and satisfying. I cannot stress enough how important it is to always order a simple green vegetable with a Chinese meal, and you probably have to go off-menu to order something this fresh and delicious.
The last item was the Double Cooked Pork, a thankfully dry-fried mess of pork belly, served ma la (hot andd numbing). This was surely the most powerfully salty dish I have ever eaten. One Chowhound agreed with me, but the other two weren't so sure about that. At any rate, everyone enjoyed it immensely. Be warned, though, if you are limiting your salt intake to a kilo per day.
Great Wall fortunately is not too far from where I live, so on Sunday, I drove 5 blocks to pick up an order or their Ma La Kung Pao chicken and the Ma La wonton. This is the 2nd time I ordered the Kung Pao, and I loved it both times, although they were different. So, remember that the recipes vary with who happens to be cooking that night. But the KPC was sweeter Sunday than it was my first time. It was also way more numbing!!! My tongue, lips, gums were buzzing! A heavy hand on the sichuan pepper, but I loved it.
The sauced Kung Pao (i.e., not dry) is a traditional way of preparing the dish, by the way, as most of the numbing sichuan pepper is infused in it. The sour flavor comes from black vinegar, which understandably can be associated with balsamic vinegar -- but it is different. The only thing I find missing from Great Wall's KPC is the lack of sliced slivers of gingerroot and garlic. They might however infuse those flavors into the sauce, though. Hong Kong Palace in 7 corners has the sliced ginger and garlic.
As for too sweet, Asian food is often characterized by the balance of hot, sour, sweet, and salty. I think the balance is right on at Great Wall.
You could be right about the vinegar... but I have bottles of Black, Brown, and Mature Chinese vinegars in my kitchen cabinet, and the syrupy taste I got from the Kung Pao chicken was more like Mature Vinegar, which is aged for a long time and is pretty sweet. Plus sauces with black vinegar tend to look black, and this was a brown sauce.
At any event, it is simply my preference to order Kung Pao dry-fried, not necessarily traditional. I wouldn't know how the dish is traditionally served.
For those of you out there who have not tried Kung Pao dry-fried, you're in for a real treat. It is always served dry-fried (though not spicy) at Peking Gourmet Inn and China Star (very spicy). Both versions are exceptional.
Thanks for the report on Great Wall. After having eaten a bit more Sichuan in this area, in both MD and VA, I will add that while Great Wall has a limited menu, the ma la flavor there is almost model in execution. I still remember finishing a tongue tingling plate of ma la chicken by myself. Oh so good! Has the white rice improved??