At Pacifica Cafe, you have to know which dishes to ask for
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Sound Check: Conversation is easy (averages at 62 decibels)
The first thing you need to do at Pacifica Cafe is introduce yourself to David Wang. He's the owner of the family-run, mostly Chinese restaurant. He's also as much a staple as rice there. "I work seven days a week," the native of Taiwan tells diners. Sure enough, no matter what time of the week I dropped by his establishment in Gaithersburg's Kentland Market Square, Wang was present, greeting his customers and watching over his small dining room.
Guided to the place by a Chinese American colleague, who told me stories about special dishes that could be ordered only by request, I am thwarted when I ask about them on my maiden voyage to the restaurant. My waitress, who speaks minimal English, shakes her head in misunderstanding. I ask to speak to Wang, who immediately knows what I am talking about and fetches a menu of six or so Chinese dishes whose preparation requires up to a day's advance notice. "Call and ask for me" if you want to try any, he instructs.
Duck stuffed with sticky rice and deep-fried pork leg would have to wait for another day.
For the present, I am left with hot, crisp -- and frankly ordinary -- egg rolls and merely decent minced chicken served with lettuce wraps. "Am I missing anything wonderful?" I inquire of Wang mid-meal that first night. His response -- seaweed-infused fish, from a page of chef's specialties -- grabs my attention. Fried flounder speckled pale green with crushed nori is not something you see on every Chinese menu. The fish is moist, its batter is a wisp of a thing, and the seasoning adds a subtle nutty note to the entree, which is good enough to prompt another visit.
A week later, I call Wang two days before I plan to dine at Pacifica, order the duck and the pork, and tell him when I'll be in. When I show up, I am led to a table that has been set aside for the feast -- and am sorry that I hadn't invited more than one friend to enjoy the spread. The pork leg, cooked so that the meat falls from the bone and circled in spinach, brings a homey comfort. The duck -- marinated for seven hours in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and hoisin and steamed for at least four more hours -- is showier. With obvious pride, Wang peels off the lotus leaves that cover the succulent duck, whose bones have been removed and replaced with a sticky rice stuffing swirled with a kitchen sink of goodies: shrimp, sausage, walnuts and more. Think Thanksgiving by way of China.
The name Pacifica allows Wang to offer "all Asian food": edamame and miso soup from Japan, summer rolls from Vietnam, curry and pad Thai from Thailand. While my focus was on finding as much good Chinese as I could here, good Chinese being elusive around Washington, my excursions into other cuisines delivered some happy surprises. Pacifica's green curry, for instance, would blend in well at the area's better Thai restaurants. Fashioned from your choice of protein (pearly shrimp get my vote) and crisp bell pepper strips in orange, red and green, the main course is a class act of color and nuance. Wang, who managed the late Hunan Chinatown in the District for two decades, employs three chefs, one from China and two from Hong Kong, to execute Pacifica's long menu. The restaurateur, who more recently toiled at multiple locations of Tapei Tokyo in Rockville, makes the sauces for the Thai dishes he serves.
Forget brunch. A more interesting weekend pursuit is snacking on what the Cantonese know as "heart's delight." Offered on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Pacifica's dim sum is ordered off a checklist rather than a rolling cart, and the choices run to the standard dumplings, soups and rice balls. But there's plenty to like in the lot, including the kitchen's high and airy shrimp toast paved with white sesame seeds, and the saucer-size scallion pancakes -- extra-oniony and super-crunchy. Pork-filled dumplings are nothing to e-mail home about, but "baby fish with peanuts" are. About the size of matchsticks and hardly thicker than thread, the silver fish in question are stir-fried to a delightful crackle and tossed with peanuts and jalapeno. The result is a kick and keeps everyone's chopsticks moving. "Salty duck" is pale and fatty to look at, but get past the beige skin, and you'll find succulent meat on the bones. Pork buns distinguish themselves from the same old with their outsize, tender white covers, and fillings of fatty pork and cilantro.
A warning: The food flies out of the kitchen. If you don't want everything to come out in three seconds, let your server know you're not in a rush, or order the dim sum a few dishes at a time.
The thinking that a Chinese restaurant must be authentic if it's filled with a lot of Chinese patrons gets plenty of support at Pacifica Cafe, where twice my guests and I were the lone non-Asians in the crowd (save for customers ordering takeout). The dining room is modestly attractive, with walls the shade of mustard, banquettes the color of burgundy and jewel-tone streamers separating the tables from the rest-rooms. Even when it's busy, it's easy on the ears, at least as far as the volume is concerned. Pacifica's choice of background music is quirky, though: One night, Norah Jones was followed by an elevator version of "Memories" from "Cats."
Chances are good you'll ignore the musical menu in favor of the one in your hands. Just remember to enlist Wang as your guide.