2008 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008
The sesame-showered beef shows up meaty and crisp, and the batter-fried shrimp arrives sweet with chopped onions and brightened with broccoli. Both are decent dishes, but the meals that draw me back to chef Yuan Chen's eight-table Chinese restaurant in Logan Circle are those designated as "ma la" -- read: numbing and spicy -- on the menu. Nowhere else in the city will you find more convincing Szechuan cooking. The zesty treasures include purple eggplant in a vinegar-fueled blanket of garlic and ginger sauce; ribbons of double-cooked pork that are equal parts meat and fat, tossed with salty black beans; and wiry yellow noodles teamed with crunchy bean sprouts and a sauce of Szechuan peppercorns, chili peppers, garlic and onion that packs a serious wallop. I doubt anyone comes to the family-run Great Wall Szechuan House for the ambiance, but live bamboo does its best to dress up each table, and an outsize fan and a few flower prints lend a bit of color to bare white walls. The motorcycle occasionally parked in the middle of the dining room? It's a reminder that the place delivers to its neighbors for just a $10 minimum.
When new owners took over this small Chinese restaurant in 2002, it had two menus. The first: a standard takeout menu with fried rice, lo mein and kung pao chicken. The second: a secret unwritten list of ma la dishes, the "numbingly spicy" cuisine of chef Yuan Sheng Chen's home province of Sichuan.
For the first four years, only Chinese and locals who had lived in China knew enough to ask for the ma la dishes, says May Kuang, the chef's wife and restaurant co-owner. Slowly, word trickled out, until so many customers were asking for them that the dishes were added to the regular menu.
Great Wall turns out respectable iterations of the usual Chinese restaurant fare. But it's the ma la dishes and the always-fresh vegetables that shine.
Ma la sauce is an oily, spicy blend of Sichuan peppercorns, garlic and several types of chili peppers. True to its name, it will make your tongue tingle and go at least a little bit numb. For those who don't tolerate terribly spicy food, begin with the wontons, enormous triangles of tender dough stuffed with meat and vegetables served in the sauce ($3.95 for six) or the ma la cucumber ($6.95), a cold dish that, with the addition of vinegar and a little sugar, is designed to refresh. Real pepper lovers should go for the ma po tofu ($7.95), silky cubes sauteed with bits of chicken and a solid dousing of ma la sauce. (It also can be ordered as a vegetarian dish.) "Sinus clearing," said one taster, reaching for a box of tissues. True, but the heat doesn't overwhelm the flavor.
Still, even the most fearless eaters will want other dishes to balance the ma po. So order any of the deliciously prepared vegetables. Some are listed on the menu, but ask Kuang what's available. The baby bok choy, stir-fried with garlic ($8.50), is perfectly cooked and without a trace of grease; ditto the broccoli (small $5.50, large, $7.50). Oily but still delicious is the eggplant in Sichuan garlic sauce ($7.50). It's a beautiful dish, pale purple and red, and satisfying -- a great alternative for meat eaters.
Our one exception to the order-off-the-ma-la-menu rule is the chow fun noodles ($9.95 with seafood, $8.95 with meat, $7.95 with vegetables). Tossed with juicy chicken, carrots, mushrooms, bean sprouts and a distinct sprinkle of white pepper, the dish is inexplicably addictive. Even better, if you live in the neighborhood, there's fast and free delivery (with a $10 minimum).
-- Jane Black (March 19, 2008)