By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009
To navigate a menu that runs from pumpkin cakes to pork blood soup, and from tea-smoked duck to fish head casserole -- more than 250 dishes altogether -- even an experienced Chinese hand could use some guidance. At Michael's Noodles in Rockville, the expert in the house is Wai Wang, the restaurant's general manager. Tell her your preferences, and she's likely to suggest plates heaped with pleasure: peppery sauteed pork and bean curd, perhaps, or a robust beef noodle soup elevated by wheat noodles that are made right there. The kitchen employs four chefs: one from Taiwan and the others from Sichuan province. Unlike so much of the competition, they cook with a light touch. Sauces show care, and oiliness is kept to a minimum (but garlic is used with a generous hand, as with an appetizer of crunchy peanuts, minced hot peppers and thread-thin little fish). From the outside, this shopping-strip shoebox doesn't look like much. Inside, a handsome Chinese mural and an immediate welcome of fragrant tea reveal more style. But the real draw for some of us is Wang the Good Hostess and whatever suggestions she drops off. If only she could be cloned!
Using Her Noodle
The guide and food at this Chinese outpost make the journey worthwhile
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Good Chinese cooking is a dear commodity in the Washington area. Better-than-average Chinese restaurants with helpful guides are even more rare. Michael's Noodles in Rockville is the kind of place where a diner can find someone to successfully translate all eight of its kitchen's specials into English, and the food is worth straying from the comfort of your neighborhood.
Allow me a caveat: Your chances for success at this tiny suburban outpost are improved considerably by asking for Wai Wang, the restaurant's general manager and genial hostess. She's the kind of attendant who, when you tell her you're adventurous and unafraid of heat, steers you to dishes she herself might eat. (To test her understanding, I inquire about the shrimp toast on the menu. When she crinkles her nose, I know she gets that I don't want anything Americanized. Score!)
To navigate a menu that runs from pumpkin cakes to pork blood soup, and from tea-smoked duck to fish head casserole -- more than 250 dishes altogether -- a diner appreciates any and all help.
Wang tells us to try "cold shredded seaweed." We do, and what arrives is a gently crunchy nest of kelp flavored with sesame oil and strewn with scallions and carrot threads. "Shredded pork with dried bean curd," she continues. Squiggles of sauteed meat and matchsticks of bean curd turn out to be only part of the pleasure. The entree's peppery notes appear to be on time-release, revealing themselves slowly but surely in the eating.
Those dishes listed in Mandarin on a pink slip of paper on the cover of the menu? Our trusty guide explains each special in detail, and she touts the "lamb in brown sauce" in particular. Such understatement! Chunks of tender meat share the plate with nutty bamboo shoots and spongy black mushrooms, everything draped in a light gravy and framed in pale-green baby bok choy. The plate looks good, it tastes good, and you'd order it again if dozens of other dishes weren't competing for your attention.
The kitchen uses garlic with delicious abandon. One pungent case in point: an appetizer of crunchy peanuts, minced hot peppers and inch-long, thread-thin, albino-white fried fish. The salty, spicy snack has enough garlic in it to ward off half the cast of "True Blood." There's plenty of the stinking rose in a very good vegetarian dish featuring gently crisp Chinese watercress, too. (The vegetable reminds me of celery.)
Michael's Noodles employs four chefs: one from Taiwan, the others from Sichuan province. They cook with a light touch. Unlike at some of the competition, the food isn't slick with oil, and the sauces show care. Steamed rockfish comes with the option of a beige wine sauce that hints of Marsala. And chicken is packed into a hot pot and glossed with a mahogany-colored liquid curtain that pulses with fresh ginger and basil. It's messy but tasty.
Tucked away in a shopping strip, Michael's Noodles doesn't call much attention to itself from the outside. Inside, however, a mural depicting a Chinese village, an immediate welcome of fragrant tea and an occasional family celebration at the giant round table up front reveal more style than you might expect. The storefront feels like the right place to be for Chinese food, filled as it tends to be with diners who aren't ordering in English. (Wang estimates that 60 percent of her patrons are Chinese.) But please, don't everyone go at once: Michael's has a mere 50 seats.
It took a third visit for me to put on my investigative hat. Yes, my friends and I learned, there really is a Michael (Wang, no relation to the manager), and he has owned the place for more than six years. As for the noodles, "they're homemade," Wai Wang reports with pride. Where to start sampling? She quizzes us about our taste preferences and decides we should try one of the bestsellers on the menu: beef noodle soup. In theory, the strapping dish is easily enough for two to share and best suited for cold weather. In reality, the soft chunks of sweet beef bobbing in a sea of luscious wheat noodles, crisp cabbage and a broth stoked with hot bean paste is tempting to keep to oneself and good for any season. Starches are a draw here: I also appreciate the thin and slippery covers of the pork-filled won tons splashed with chili oil.
Michael's Noodles could use another Wai Wang. The other servers are efficient and pleasant, but not nearly as deft in English or as engaging as she is; when I asked one of them to translate the specials written in Chinese, he raced through them with one-word descriptions. ("Lamb.") To get the best from this place, you really need to enlist the expert in residence. FYI: "Tuesday is my day off," Wai Wang told me when I asked one night. That said, ordering without assistance, I discovered a Taiwanese dish of finely ground chicken veined with dark-green sour cabbage that mimicked the spicy heat of a good Thai larb gai.
Come dessert, I never have room for anything more substantial than the cellophane-wrapped fortune cookie that comes with the check. "Come back for the whole fish," Wai Wang tempts me as I settle the bill on my most recent visit, making sure to leave a generous tip. Twice now, she has either added something extra to my bag of leftovers (spicy cabbage) or sent out a treat ahead of my ordering (bright-green soybeans tossed with kerchiefs of bean curd). My job doesn't allow me to become a true regular in a restaurant or to introduce myself, but if it did, Michael's Noodles would be where you'd find me, and Wai Wang would be my new best friend.