With good fortune, a very fine feast
By Tim Carman
Friday, March 29, 2013
Let’s deal with the Seth MacFarlane segment of this review right from the start, shall we? I’m writing about New Big Wong in Chinatown. Go ahead, have yourselves a good laugh. I’ll wait.
After 21 years of overseeing New Big Wong, manager and co-owner Michael Weng has probably heard just about every joke you can imagine. (For the record, Weng says “wong” means “fortune” to the Chinese) What would surprise him more, I suspect, is if some sunburned tourist stumbled into his Cantonese restaurant and actually knew how best to enjoy it.
Frankly, I shouldn’t be picking on the sightseeing crowd. I know from experience that it’s easy to get lost in New Big Wong’s menus, both the hardbound version and the one mounted on the wall in Chinese, with some 200 dishes of appetizers, congees, noodle soups and stir-fries. If you’re not careful, you could end up with a Chinese-American plate of fried crabmeat wontons that could double as shingles. You also could spend years and hundreds of dollars trying to sift out the winners.
I didn’t have that kind of time or budget. So I called in ringers: chefs Mike Isabella of nearby Graffiato and Nick Stefanelli of Bibiana, both of whom have spent many a late night at New Big Wong, trying to put the world of pasta, pizza and demanding patrons behind them for an hour or so. The restaurant’s comfy, budget-minded ambiance -- with its panel wainscoting and warm, earthy hues (to match its subterranean location?) -- seems to offer the perfect cover for a chef, celebrity or not, to hide in plain sight.
With zero need for a menu, Isabella and Stefanelli start bombarding the waitress with orders: jellyfish with “pork loin,” deep-fried spicy pork chop, deep-fried shrimp in shell, pig navel in black bean sauce, dry scallop fried rice, stir-fried intestine with sour cabbage, eggplant with garlic sauce and sauteed snow pea leaves with garlic.
The waitress dutifully records our training-table feast and sort of congratulates us, “All Chinese!” We proceed to raise the drop-leaves on our table for some much-needed space.
It’s understandably fashionable to mock our shrinking Chinatown for the corporate campground (in Chinese logograms) it has become. But as I listen to Stefanelli and Isabella share their stories of shadowy tables where genuine Chinese cooking still hides in the neighborhood, I’m struck by how ingenious some restaurants are at undermining the neon-colored candyland outside their doors. (And, no, I’m not going to spill all the chefs’ secrets right here, right now. I have a column to fill!)
Weng and his partners bought Big Wong in 1992 and affixed the appropriate adjective, which after two decades has lost much of its significance. There's a whole generation that never knew the previous incarnation, located at the same address in a Chinatown that would seem utterly foreign to modern Washingtonians. "Wig shops, peep shows, homeless people sleeping in the 'park' created by [a street closure] . . . and drug dealers were all part of the landscape," writes my friend Heather Johnson, who used to visit Big Wong after shows at the old 9:30 Club on F Street.
The old Big Wong served mostly Chinese-American dishes, Weng tells me. New Big Wong has a chef, Jun Xu, who has 20 years of experience preparing Cantonese cuisine. Truth be told, some of New Big Wong’s better dishes don’t fit under my designated price point. So don’t even bother looking at the water tanks in back. As devout tightwads, you and I will have to forgo the fresh lobsters and blue crabs awaiting their fate; their Cantonese preparations push past the $30 mark.
As our dishes begin to arrive, I’m struck all over again by the great variety of flavors, textures and temperatures found on the Cantonese table. The cold, gelatinous strips of jellyfish come with that satisfying, always-surprising crunch (and, in this case, a flavorful five-spice-scented pork “loin,” which Stefanelli thinks is actually a stuffed trotter). The warm snow pea leaves release a small wave of sweetness (and a pinch of bitterness, perhaps from overcooking). The head-on shrimp, cocooned in cornstarch batter, are stir-fried with an intoxicating mix of onion, scallion, garlic and pepper aromatics. The sweetness of the chewy intestine is cowered by the cabbage’s vinegar invasion. The pieces of deep-fried pork go down like meat candy, the spice barely detectable.
The only outright disappointment is the pig navel, a rubbery mystery meat no one could identify and barely anyone cared to choke down. Interestingly, among these plates, the dry scallop fried rice proved timid, but it was mostly an illusion. Its quieter flavors just trembled in the face of these bold voices on the table.
The fried rice did throw its weight around in one way: It, in part, caused both chefs to dismiss their tiny bowls of white rice. “At the end of the day, I just want to eat the protein,” Isabella says.
I can relate. At New Big Wong, if you order wisely, you don’t want to waste precious stomach space on steamed rice.