When I first tripped upon Great Wall Szechuan House, way back in 2006, the humble operation on 14th Street NW appeared to be just another take-out joint specializing in standard-issue Chinese-American dishes, a Yum’s without the fried chicken. There was no evidence on the electric menu overhead or in the to-go dishes prepared behind bulletproof glass that a real Szechuan chef lurked beyond this Wall.
Back then, the only way you could order chef Yuan Chen’s firebreathing ma-la dishes was to make a special request. None of them appeared on the regular Great Wall menu.
Much has changed in five-plus years. Today, Great Wall not only has a special section devoted to Chen’s spicy and numbing dishes (which attract a loyal flock of Szechuan-cooking freaks), but the tiny eight-table restaurant plans to keep pace with its increasingly tony neighbors on the 14th Street corridor by undergoing a facelift, as first noted by Prince of Petworth this month.
After weighing the benefits of a makeover for weeks, manager and co-owner May Kuang told All We Can Eat that Great Wall officially closed for dine-in service yesterday and will remain shuttered until renovations are complete, perhaps as soon as Dec. 19. The operation will continue to offer take-out and delivery orders during construction.
Crews were tearing down drywall in the narrow dining room, looking to unearth the bricks that lay beneath. The owners plan to clean those old bricks and leave them exposed, the first step in transforming the no-frills space into something that might actually attract sit-down diners. Crews also plan to install a new tile floor and build a small bar in back of the restaurant, where Kuang will offer a selection of beer and wine. The lack of alcohol, I must confess, has long been a deterrence for my companions and me as we searched for dining options in the Logan Circle area.
The timing of Great Wall’s renovations is not coincidental. The owners signed a new five-year lease in September that raised their rent by about 50 percent. Not to worry, though. Kuang is happy with the lease; she describes it as a very good deal in a 14th Street market where rents are skyrocketing. “We have a really good relationship with the landlord,” she said.
With the new lease in place, Kuang and Chen wanted to turn Great Wall into something more than a take-out. They had already upgraded the furnishings with new wood tables and chairs, and once they reopen, they plan to employ wait staff to work the 18-plus seats in the dining room. The chef might even expand the menu for the reopening, including some new ma-la dishes, Kuang said.
The renovations could come with a price, though. Kuang is considering a price hike on her menu. “I’m not sure how much yet,” she said. “Maybe under $1 [per dish]. Some of them, not all of them.”
Frankly, it’s a small price to pay for some of the best Szechuan cooking anywhere in this area.