For those who like to fight fire with fire, a spicy antidote to a sweltering day
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 21, 2005
I'm only a few slurps into some soup at TemptAsian Cafe, when beads of sweat appear on my forehead. I love the pleasure-pain the bowl contains: slippery white noodles wrapped around a knot of ground pork -- "baby wontons" -- swimming in a clear chicken broth speckled red with chili oil.
As an antidote to the heat, I've ordered a plate of scallion pancakes, which, despite their name, turn out to be air-filled blimps of fried bread veined with scallions. The puffy snacks deflate within minutes of showing up at the table and make good sops for the sauces and gravies of the other dishes.
Those dumplings, that bread -- "I've had these before," I think aloud.
Little bells go off again when I reexamine the menu. There are two menus, actually. One is a holdover from the restaurant that preceded this one, also named TemptAsian. It lists standards such as orange beef and sweet-and-sour pork. The other menu starts with two pages of Chinese characters and goes on to include combinations that you aren't likely to see on a flier from your neighborhood carry-out ("Spicy pig blood tofu in hot bowl," anyone?).
The five-spice sliced beef appetizer, cool, fragrant and luscious, as is the spicy diced rabbit, ignited with chili oil (but still too bony to let you retrieve all the meat from the roughly chopped rabbit). Little drawings of chile peppers on the menu indicate which choices are spicy, and you can count on them for plenty of fire. Ordering "spicy dried bean curd," an excellent vegetarian starter, yields a cool mound of diced tofu splashed with a chili- and scallion-laced dressing. In "General Kwan spicy beef," a generous entree, soft slices of beef are all but concealed under a wicked cover of roasted red chilies.
Some servers here are more helpful than others. I asked one young man, fluent in English, if he could recommend anything from the half-dozen specials printed in Chinese on a small blackboard. "Do you like fish?" he asked. I nodded, and my reward was a plate of smoked fish, cut into rough bars and draped with a slightly sweet and gelatinous brown sauce. Though ugly to look at, the heap went down easily.
Another day, an older waitress, not nearly as communicative, sounded an alarm when I asked for tripe with green peppers. "Very spicy!" she said, repeating the warning again when she delivered the dish. And yet it was a hit, soft threads of tripe -- more beefy than funky in flavor -- tossed with velvety green pepper strips and bolstered by peppercorns, soy sauce, garlic and a touch of sugar.
You don't need to be a heat-seeker to eat well here. Some of the best dishes are the tame ones. Steamed buns "with chicken flavor" translates as golf-ball-size dumplings containing chicken broth and a mild ground pork center, so that a warm rush of broth fills your mouth when you bite through the dough. A dip of soy sauce and vinegar with splinters of fresh ginger can be spooned over them to heighten the flavor. A comforting casserole of glassy rice noodles, shredded pork and pickled cabbage is enough food for four to share, and a steal of a meal at only $8.50. Indeed, pork finds its way into many appealing recipes, including fried "Beijing" pork chops in a not-too-sweet orange-colored sauce, surrounded by a forest of verdant broccoli. Mushrooms with cabbage sounds like a snooze but has me snapping to attention once I taste the robust and meaty black fungus mixed with crisp-soft Chinese cabbage, everything tied together by a delicate oyster sauce. The "salty duck" appetizer is neat chunks of steamed pink duck whose salinity isn't so obvious that you can't savor the bird's rich notes.
Now and then, a harsher reality insinuated itself into this pleasant scenario. A dim sum selection called "pumpkin cake" is jellylike in the center and tastes nothing of pumpkin, while an entree of General Tsao duck is best for the crisp snow peas that decorate its surface. (The half-duck itself is hacked into rough chunks, deep-fried and buried beneath a sweet, mahogany-colored sauce.) Even so, that there are more than 100 possibilities on the menu is less daunting than it is tempting. Every time I go to the restaurant, I find myself collecting another favorite or two.
TemptAsian's butter-colored dining room is spare but pleasant, as if the owner didn't want to detract attention from the chef's efforts. Fresh bamboo and buffed wood tables add dashes of color and style, and the background music tends to be classical.
At the entrance, a stack of foreign-language newspapers indicates that this storefront is frequented by Chinese speakers. More compelling evidence that the restaurant is worth investigating is the enthusiasm with which these customers eat -- and the clean plates that return to the kitchen.