Is Rockville the New Chinatown?
17 of the best spots to find authentic Chinese cuisine in Rockville
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Salty and crispy shrimp at Sichuan Jin River
If you’re looking for A Tasty Meal Deal Try
Sichuan Jin River
Lots of Chinese restaurants offer lunchtime specials, but the selection and quality of the “Authentic Chinese Style” dishes at Sichuan Jin River make it a standout. On weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., $23 buys three entrées and a tureen of soup at this no-frills star of spicy Sichuan cuisine, with its worn but homey atmosphere and endearing service. Don’t-miss dishes: salty and crispy shrimp, flounder with Chinese greens, “General Guan’s Chicken,” eggplant with ground beef in spicy garlic sauce, and basil chicken with ginger. If you’re a party of two, look forward to leftovers.
Sichuan Jin River, 410 Hungerford Drive; 240-403-7351, www.scjinriver.com
Taiwanese fried chicken is available to go at Jumbo Jumbo Bubble Express.
If you’re looking for Taiwanese Street Food Try
Taipei Cafe or Jumbo Jumbo Bubble Express
For an introduction to the street food sold in Taiwan’s lively night markets, Taipei Cafe is a good start. The eatery features items such as the oyster pancake, a light egg foo young-like omelet with a mound of cooked oysters under the center, or the fun-to-eat Taiwanese hamburger, a chunk of pork belly and pickled mustard greens stuffed in a steamed bun. Diners who aren’t “scent-sitive” can scout out the stinky tofu. Taipei Cafe also serves Taiwanese fried chicken, but for a version with more meat inside the crunch, check out the gnarled nuggets at Jumbo Jumbo Bubble Express. The counter service joint does a good job of frying the salty-peppery tidbits so you’re not left with oily fingers, and the traditional fried basil it's served with adds a crispy, fragrant foil.
Taipei Cafe, 802 Hungerford Drive, 301-838-5998
Jumbo Jumbo Bubble Express, 765 E. Rockville Pike (Ritchie Center); 301-545-1708, www.jumbojumbocafe.com
If you’re looking for Hong Kong Fare Try
Maria’s Bakery Café or East Pearl Restaurant
To break out of a morning meal rut, head to Maria’s Bakery Café, the only restaurant in the area to serve a Hong Kong-style breakfast. Go for “Breakfast B,” a rotating selection of Chinese dishes, which may include a bowl of the rice porridge called congee (flecked with bits of preserved duck egg, pork and scallions), a tangle of soy sauce fried noodles (for a real wake-up call, toss in a dollop of the spicy sauce) and a cup of coffee mixed with tea (it really tastes like both; try it with sweetened condensed milk). Finish with a pineapple bun from the adjoining bakery. For more of the traditionally lighter and less oily Hong Kong/Cantonese cuisine, the nicely appointed but noisy East Pearl Restaurant offers roasted meats (the pork and miraculously moist soy chicken are the best), congee (kudos for the oatmeal-ish version with plump shrimp) and other staples, such as beef chow fun.
Maria’s Bakery Café, 1701-B3 Rockville Pike (Congressional Village); 301-984-2228
East Pearl Restaurant, 838-B Rockville Pike; 301-838-8663, www.eastpearlrestaurant.com
Purple rice pudding at Seven Seas
For a finale beyond fortune cookies, the purple rice pudding at Seven Seas—a mounded mixture of red bean paste and sticky purple rice surrounded by a moat of warm coconut milk—is a soothing, not-too-sweet comfort food. Red beans also make an appearance at Sichuan Jin River in the red bean paste and mashed taro wraps, slider-shaped fried patties sprinkled with sesame seeds that are good with hot tea. A few Rockville restaurants, such as Bob’s Shanghai 66 and Taipei Cafe, offer Taiwanese shaved ice, an avalanche of sweetened condensed milk, syrup and/or sugar sliding down a mountain of shaved iced, with accompaniments at the base such as taro, red beans, green beans, peanuts, grass jelly and lychees. Intensely sweet, it’s worth ordering at least once, if only for its dramatic presentation. And by all means don’t miss the fried milk at Super Bowl Noodle House; the crispy-creamy confection, made by deep-frying slabs of frozen sweetened condensed milk coated with tempura powder, resembles fried chicken tenders but tastes like doughnuts.
Some lessons learned from eating at Rockville’s Chinese restaurants
◆ The vast majority of dishes labeled “spicy” were not. While heat level is tricky and subjective, make it clear if you’re a hot head.
◆ If you’re not Asian and ask the waitstaff for suggestions or tips on the most popular items, you’ll often be steered toward the Chinese-American list. If you’re a more adventurous eater, ask what the Chinese diners order, or look around at nearby tables to see what they’re eating. Or, if the server is Chinese, ask what he or she likes there, and seek out a helpful manager or owner if you’re having communication problems. Peggy Lam, co-owner of Maria’s Bakery Café, will pinpoint dishes for customers by asking what type of protein and noodle styles they prefer.
◆ Scope out the strong points of the kitchen by identifying the most prevalent dishes on the menu. For example, at Bob’s Shanghai 66, dim sum and rice and noodle dishes take up the largest portion of the menu. “That’s where we spend most of our time, what we’re trying to do well,” says co-owner Ivan Liang. “Restaurants always want to sell more of what they’re good at.”
◆ It’s sometimes difficult to identify the regional emphasis of restaurants, since many menus combine Sichuan, Hunan, Taiwanese, northern Chinese and Cantonese/Hong Kong dishes. “Even our restaurant is a hybrid,” says Liang. The menu at Bob’s Shanghai 66 offers Taiwanese, Shanghai and Sichuan dishes. Liang believes area restaurants are catering to Chinese diners who eat at them often and want a variety of choices. “When four or five Chinese come in, everybody wants to eat something different,” he says.
◆ The regional cuisine overlap at area Chinese restaurants is further complicated by the fact that the same dishes can be prepared differently, even at the same place. For example, at Super Bowl Noodle House, Taiwanese zha jiang noodles are served with ground pork, and the dish is a little sweeter than the fattier and saltier Beijing version, which is served with shredded pork. Both come with black bean sauce, julienne cucumbers and bean sprouts, but the Beijing style gets a scattering of edamame.
◆ Fortune cookies may be a hokey American invention, but their messages are unfailingly upbeat. You can’t argue with “Let the world be filled with tranquility and goodwill.”
Contributing editor Carole Sugarman lives in Chevy Chase.