The $20 Diner: China Canteen’s mysterious take on ma la cooking


Chongqing chicken at the China Canteen in Rockville. (JUANA ARIAS/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 6, 2013

As my colleague and I walk out of China Canteen, with more questions than opinions about the place, we spot a familiar scene on the sidewalk: the chef enjoying a few quiet moments away from the kitchen following the evening’s service. Though I hate to interrupt his peace, I figure now is the time to seek clarity about my latest meal at this 12-year-old Sichuan restaurant in Rockville.

After all, my dining partner for the night is Mike Laris, a Post reporter who lived in Beijing for seven years. He chats in Chinese with chef Cheng Changping while I assume the role of a lamppost. Here’s the takeaway of their conversation: China Canteen specializes in a regional form of Sichuan cooking from Chongqing, the megatropolis with a population of some 30 million and pollution bad enough to make buildings disappear.

During a follow-up interview, Cheng explains that Chongqing cooks stress the numbing and spicy characteristics of ma la cooking. Sugar apparently has little place in the Chongqing pantry, a fact that seems to jibe with this passage from Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper”: “Even in Sichuan, Chongqing was infamous for the ma la . . . punchiness of its food.”

The truth is, I’m trying to reconcile these heat warnings with my own experiences at China Canteen, where the primary qualities of ma la cooking can be in short supply. Take our order of Chongqing chicken, a plate piled high with neatly chopped pieces of chicken stir-fried with an obscene amount of dried red pepper, then garnished with sesame seeds. The sight of the plate alone is enough to make the weak faint from fright, but the dish is a toothless croc. The pepper husks are mostly ornamental, barely passing along their capsaicin content to irritate the tongue.

I’m searching for similar irritation in my mapo tofu, one of the dishes by which I judge a Sichuan restaurant. More to the point, I’m searching for clues, for any sign really, that this mapo tofu bears a passing resemblance to previous ones I’ve enjoyed. Its sauce is not the thin, oily kind infused with chili peppers and the lip-tingling intoxications of Sichuan peppercorns. No, it’s thick, like tomato sauce, and smacks of pickled red peppers, with only a small pinch of heat. I’m suffering from culinary cognitive dissonance: I want to love this dish, I can’t love this dish.

Not to obsess over this, but I have a theory about that mapo tofu (which was my second time ordering it here): I think Cheng relies heavily on the fermented chili-and-broad-bean paste known as douban jiang, an ingredient routinely ditched or underplayed at Sichuan restaurants that cater to a non-Chinese crowd. He also uses less oil, which I think has the unintended consequence of keeping the dish’s spicy-numbing qualities in check. Oil is the UPS of flavor. Oh, and one final observation: Mapo tofu should never include sliced hot dogs, as my earlier take-out order did.

I’m being hard on China Canteen, but mostly because I have tasted dishes here that raised my expectations to Joe’s Noodle House levels. Like Cheng’s cumin lamb Chongqing-style. I spent a delightful afternoon in China Canteen’s spare, pale-pink dining room (the shade of a Mary Kay Cadillac), ignoring the stares of the regulars and shoveling down forkfuls of the lamb. The cumin’s gentle heat and fragrance plays the perfect foil to the meaty slices of lamb, which are stir-fried with sweet, slightly caramelized pieces of onion and scallions. I alternated between bites of lamb and cool, crunchy cubes of cucumber dressed in a spicy red sauce, thinking I might never want to leave this comfortable booth.

The real attention-grabbing, stretch-Hummer of a dish, however, is the Chongqing spicy fish fillet soup made with thin strips of long li, a type of flatfish (perhaps flounder?) common to Chinese cooking. For a soup, the dish has a rather gelatinous appearance, due in large part to the glass noodles floating near the surface. But beneath its humble, green-around-the-gills facade lies a soup of great complexity: sweet, piquant and even sour, thanks to the addition of house-pickled peppers and vegetables. It’s a signature dish worthy of the chef’s autograph.

It’s also the kind of dish that makes the disappointments at China Canteen echo louder. The dense, pan-fried scallion cake, for example, would have benefitted from the inclusion of, well, scallions. The steamed eggplant in a spicy brown sauce was missing its promised heat and was as formless as melted mozzarella. The Sichuan cold noodles, made in-house, were soft and slippery, but more vinegary sour than spicy.

Compare those noodles to Cheng’s sour-and-spicy bean jelly, these rectangular mung-bean blocks so ethereal they barely hold together when you lift them with chopsticks. The jelly strips boasted a sauce similar to the one coating the cold noodles, a light oil infused with chili, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic and god knows what else. Except this time the sauce’s flavors popped like M-80s, providing the necessary ma-la contrasts that emphasize the jelly’s fresh and cooling counterpoints.

The more I think about China Canteen and its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t approach to ma la cooking, the more I think I need to dig deeper into Cheng’s multi-page menu. I suspect the answers I’m seeking are still buried there.

China Canteen

808 Hungerford Dr. Rockville.
301-424-1606.

Hours: 11 a.m. to
10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Nearest Metro: Rockville, a 0.8-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: Entrees, $6.99-$16.99.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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