Little China
[from November 2002 issue]

Sometimes it pays to listen to advice. A foodie who'd lived in Taiwan--and who has also taught Chinese cooking--raved about an unpretentious Chinese carryout she'd found along MacArthur Blvd. It's an unlikely place, she noted with delight. And then went on to talk about the menu, the sauces, the crisp vegetables, the on-target flavors, the dressed-up tofus. Try it, she urged.

And I did, marking Chen's Gourmet among my top picks for DC Chinese eats. True, it is not in the same league as Cleveland Park's Yanÿu [Ed. Note: See June 1999 review, “Can Yan Cook!”; text available in this website’s restaurant review archives], but for sturdy home-cooking with undeniable quality, Chen's has few equals. Besides, you can eat here--well, not actually in house, since there is only one table indoors, five outdoors--for less than $30 and probably comfortably feed four-that is, unless you order their duck.

Duck from a Chinese carryout? That's one of the improbable finds here, and admittedly, not one I've tried. But with its modest price tag--Peking duck comes for $11.95 for a regular order, $21.95 for large--it is sure to find its place on some upcoming carry-away order of mine.

And the lack of seating may be the real clue to the restaurant's budget prices. No seating cuts down on such overhead items as waitstaff, cutlery, glassware, and plates. This cash-and-carry proposition, however, is no real hardship if you live in the neighborhood. And if you don't, eat in the car or just drive straight home.

Chen's has expanded its horizons in the past year or so, moving from strictly Chinese to a more pan-Asian effort, and maybe that's not such a successful step. Take the pad Thai, for example, a colorless and spiritless dish when I tried it that lacks the dark hues of a rich pad Thai sauce based on tamarind juice and palm sugar, and it misses out on the textures from preserved radish, crushed peanuts and crunchy bean sprouts that a true pad Thai has. Maybe the chef was taking a break; who knows? The kitchen is also offering both Singapore and Taiwanese-style rice noodles, assorted other Thai offerings, and a handful of Japanese tidbits--California rolls and a few tempuraed items.

Apart from that, the main menu stands as a tribute to Chinese stir-fries and lots of them. For a kitchen that can't hold more than two or three woks and not much workspace, Chen's manages to put on quite a show. Start off with the sesame noodles salad, perky with its creamy nutty dressing, and add on the hot and sour soup. Trite and commonplace, but this version has real guts.

Also commendable for their winning ways: the orange chicken, slightly sweet and citrusey but few chilies; crispy beef, in very crispy shreds; and the pork with eggplant and ginger, a delicate dish made with the costlier Asian, not Western, eggplant.

In the past, friends and I have tackled the lemon chicken, which fortunately does not taste like it comes as part of a lemon meringue pie; shredded pork with string beans; and the jet-fueled Szechuan eggplant. And I remember one hot evening sitting on the front porch tucking into a shrimp dish, but can't remember which. Never mind: they'll all surely be worth the calories.

But you've now come to the end of the menu, unless you want to sample the only dessert: steamed sweet buns, 2 pieces, in buttermilk, lotus or red bean flavors. Buttermilk?? That's a puzzler, but Chen's probably does it well, whatever it may be.

Drinks are limited to Chinese jasmine tea, soft drinks, juices and bottled water. And if you are thinking about cutting down on fat, the kitchen will steam those dishes marked with a green dot. The red chili logo, of course, means spicy.

Chen's Gourmet, 5117 MacArthur Blvd., NW; tel., 364-8313. Hours: Daily for lunch and dinner, and in-between. Entrée prices: $4.75 to $21.95.

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