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Chinese restaurants have too many choices?

  • d


Matt Yglesias is confused. I'd suggest he go to Grace Garden

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  1. Or Joe's Noodle House. I've never counted, but there must be well over 200 items on their menu.

    1. His point was DC vs going out to the suburbs. He laments that while looking for good Chinese food, "folks just drive to Rockville instead " of eating in DC.

      Within DC however, he says there are, surprisingly, places that produce a few exemplary dishes while the rest of the menu is garbage. 'If only they would cut out the lousy stuff, they would gain a better reputation. '

      I partially agree with him in his example of Great Wall.

      I don't agree with Chinatown Express for which he gives blanket praise for their homemade noodles. I find them unremarkable and if you get them in a stir-fry, drenched in oil.

      He mentions New Big Wong, which I agree has gems, but not everyone will agree on where to find them. (I personally like their baby squid heads, but they are not on the menu; they are posted on the wall, only in Chinese.) His other example is Panda Gourmet in NE DC, which I haven't been to.

      However, his logic falls apart when you consider they may not have enough talent in the kitchen to produce more than about 4 or 5 really worthwhile dishes, and I'm not sure that Great Wall, for example, would survive on those alone.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Steve

        The baby squid heads are on the paper menu, I believe. It's worth mentioning the two other standouts at NBW, the house special vegetables with dried squid and crispy baby fishes, and the ka pang noodles. But I've had many other excellent dishes there over the decades, including conch with sugar snap peas, frog, beef with sour mustard, and the best fried "good dale" in the DC area. (Gotta wonder if ipsedixit has ever had that.) Furthermore, several of the dishes on the handwritten specials board (there are only about a dozen total) are actually on the paper menu--they do an extraordinarily good job of making their entire menu available to all of their customers.

        One of these days we should try their version of the oyster hot pot you like.

        1. re: KWagle

          Best thing I ever got from New Big Wong was one of their t-shirts.

          1. re: flavrmeistr

            They had t-shirts? If you still have one I'd happily buy it from you.

              1. re: flavrmeistr

                Hah, I thought you might be pulling my leg.

      2. If we rule out the 'burbs, we pretty much rule out worthwhile Chinese food altogether. Sad.

        2 Replies
        1. re: flavrmeistr

          It's a function of the high rents driving these business to the lower cost suburbs. NYC's Flushing Chinatown is in effect a 'suburban' Chinatown based on the lower rents in Queens and the affordable housing for most the people working and living nearby. Manhattan's Chinatown had run out of cheap real estate a long time ago.

        2. I love the photo of the hand picking up a morsel from the plate of Gong Bao Ji Ding - so impolite in Chinese culture!

          I would imagine DC is like Manhattan. Pockets of poverty (Anacostia) amid areas of wealth.

          Actually Flushing is not a Chinatown, it's an ethno-burb! And it's a little more complicated than higher rents. What is the difference between Chinatowns and ethno-burbs?

          Urban Chinatowns in America today are marked by the presence of poorer Chinese immigrants: 60% are foreign born and have a high school education or less. About 50% of them speak only Mandarin, Fujianese or Cantonese. Wages are fully 50% below regional averages and 20% live in poverty.

          It is a different story in ethno-burbs like Flushing and the San Gabriel Valley in southern California. In Flushing, 38% of the Chinese-Americans are business professionals compared to 14% in Manhattan. More than one-third have college degrees compared to 7% in Manhattan. Four times as many Chinese now live in the outer boroughs than Manhattan. Flushing as a center for Asian immigrants began in 1946 – when the UN began work in temporary quarters on Long Island. The Chinese (only Taiwan then) delegation opted to live there as it was cheaper than more exclusive north shore property.

          When the UN building in Manhattan opened in 1951, the Chinese decided to remain in Flushing and commute. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act in particular spurred large scale immigration from the Eastern hemisphere. Ethno-burbs then are more ethnically diverse than urban Chinatowns.

          This is from UCLA professor Min Zhou’s “Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity, and Community Transformation” (2009) and Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic’s “Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest New Community” (2005).

          14 Replies
          1. re: scoopG

            Speaking as a diner from the suburbs of the DC area (NoVA), it's confusing to me that it's so difficult to find good Chinese food-I can get Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, & Japanese food that is miles above the Chinese food close by (not a huge problem, I just eat more of the other Asian food). For reference, I live in southern Fairfax county & the only decent Chinese I've found is at Sampan Cafe, on Franconia, for basic dim sum-I've heard that a new spot has opened in the old Canton Cafe spot in Springfield, I'm going to try it, but I have low expectations.

            1. re: thistle5

              I will take a little flak for this, but finding really good chinese food is harder in China, too. I found great food in Thailand, in Malaysia, in Viet Nam. You just looked for the crowd of locals, looked it over and usually you found a winner. In China, it was a lot harder to find really good food. I had snails that tasted like a 9 volt battery was hidden in the dish, noodles that tasted like yesterdays leftover pork and fish that tasted like they had been coated with some sort of viscous slime, and those were in the 'great' restaurants.

              Here in the DC area, Joes has a phenomenal menu. I have never had a dish in China that was as good as most of the dishes I have had at Joes. The Peking Duck at the Old Duck in Beijing was very good, but I know there are better places in China. They are much harder to find, though, I believe.
              I ate widely in Kunming, Guilin, Yangshuou, Beijing, and Pingyao, so I ate in different regions albeit with less than 2 months of eating each time I went to China. So I know I am no expert, but most chinese restaurants are only ok, in my experience.
              Sadly, I have to rank China alongside Indonesia on my list of favorite nations for dining out.
              BUT, I have only dined at places that cost less than $20 a meal, so maybe I missed the great places in China.

              1. re: Ziv

                Joe's is a gem (I equally like Sichuan Jin River, BTW), but it represents just a sliver of the whole pie. Could be that Little Pepper in Queens is better, but I don't mean to quibble with deliciousness. Some things here are limited in scope. You're not going to find a carp in your 'water-cooked fish' (the old H20) at Joe's.

                Sorry you went all the way to China and did not eat well, you have my sympathy. I understand how that can happen. I had a far different experience, and I am aware of the shortcomings here in DC.

                My focus on Chowhound is to point out the gems we do have, and there are certainly some mighty delicious places/dishes in MoCo. And a few spots elsewhere with some real finds.

                1. re: Steve

                  Steve, thanks for the tip on Sichuan Jin River, I will give it a try the next time I cross the water and go into Maryland. I have really enjoyed nearly everything that is recommended here when I go to Joe's, and it will be cool to try another Chinese spot in Rockville.

                  1. re: Ziv

                    Sichuan Jin River has some great dishes that have no Joe's equivalent, so I would start there:

                    Double Cooked Pork with Crispy Bread
                    Minced Chicken Ya Cai (served with steamed buns)

                    Caution: both of the above are very heavy dishes.

                    In addition, if you are the squeamish type that might like to try something out of the ordinary, than SJR is the best place to do that. Go for the spicy gizzards and the spicy braised intestine in hot pot. Both surprisingly accessible. See link below:


                    1. re: Steve

                      Thanks! I just entered those dishes into my iPhone. I have had double cooked pork in a couple places, interested in Jin River's version! But steamed buns sound good too...

                      1. re: Steve

                        Both of the dishes Steve mentioned are outstanding. The gizzards at SJR are dry and seasoned with huajiao, in the same way as the Sichuan beef jerky at Joe's. I've never had gizzards any other way but I quite love these. They also have a pork shred and lotus stir-fry that Jon Singer and Lisa and I have thoroughly enjoyed.

                        The crispy rice cakes (like rice krispies, not the chewy noodle also called rice cake) was excellent but the stir-fry on top of it was pretty boring. I expect they could make that with some other stir-fry on top, though.

              2. re: scoopG

                Thanks for the post. Informative and fascinating.

                I'm guessing Rockville is as close as we come to a Chinese ethno-burb, though not nearly as intense as SGV or Flushing.

                My own POV is that, for DC, Chowhound is even more important. Finding the one or two things that standout from the mediocre.

                I agree with the article, in general, that there is success to be had for a Chinese restaurant that can do a few things really well and quit while they're ahead.

                1. re: Steve

                  I'd say Rockville and Seven Corners/Bailey's Crossroads/Annandale. Ellicott City is starting to gather steam.

                  1. re: Steve

                    All too often Chinese restaurants have to be all things to all customers.

                    Perhaps because DC is the center of government (not finance, entertainment, culture etc.) it attracts a different set of immigrants? It was your rec some years ago that sent me to a Burmese restaurant in Falls Church!

                    1. re: scoopG

                      Yes, that Burmese place is Myanmar, so many good items on the menu.

                      Before my time in DC, there used to be a 'real' Chinatown, but the community got displaced for the construction of the old Convention Center, which has since been torn down. Some of the residents disbursed, and some accepted housing in a purpose-built apartment building called the Wah Luck House. Maybe the food was pretty bad back then, I don't know. But the development changed the trajectory of how the area evolved.

                      Some things progress is not good for.

                      1. re: Steve

                        The Nan King at 9th and New York. We ate there all the time. Still the best ever in Washington, even though it burned in 1979.

                        1. re: Steve

                          That Burmese place (Myanmar) is totally fabulous. Steve and Jon and I have explored a huge chunk of the menu, and it's been really hard to find anything disappointing in any way.

                          1. re: KWagle

                            You have to wait a while for your food, but it's worth it.

                  2. And that, my friends, is why amazing dishes can be found on "secret Chinese menus".

                    1. It's a classic case of supply meets demand.

                      The menu simply reflects the local demographics and palates.