Road Trip

MoCo's Chinatown

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Where: Rockville

Why: Authentic Chinese food, lots of shopping and time for tea.

How Far: About 20 miles from downtown Washington.

You won't find an ornate Friendship Arch over Rockville, but Asian immigrants know that this is the Washington region's real Chinatown. In downtown Washington, businesses in the historical Chinatown are required to post signs in Chinese to try to preserve the area's old character even though the tourists outnumber the Chinese residents. In Rockville, there's no requirement; it's just good business. (One example: On Rockville Pike, Citibank's Chinese-language sign is bigger than its English banner.)

Close to 30,000 people of Chinese descent live in Montgomery County, which has an Asian population of 11 percent, with Chinese as the biggest group (according to the 2000 census). At least three Chinese newspapers have offices in the county, and dozens of churches, language schools and social clubs have popped up. Drawn by good schools and jobs, immigrants started moving from downtown Washington to the suburbs in the 1970s. These days, newcomers from Taiwan and China bypass downtown and go straight to MoCo.

Chain stores have followed them. Some of the most popular businesses in East Asia have set up franchises along Rockville Pike. Our trip starts in a shopping strip dominated by REI, Storehouse and other American brands, but Chinese immigrants recognize Maria's Bakery & Cafe as a taste of home. Taro pastries, pork buns and subtly sweet birthday cakes are made daily at this outpost of the Hong Kong chain. For more substantial food, choose from about two dozen Chinese restaurants in and around the Pike. A&J, a Taiwanese fast-food chain, serves up dim sum items such as fried dumplings and scallion pancakes.

Up the street at another shopping center is Ten Ren, which is for tea in Taiwan what Starbucks is to coffee. You can request a tea ceremony lesson, held in a sitting area in the back of the store. Take your cues from the first President Bush, who was a former ambassador to China. There's a large photo of him and Barbara having tea at the San Francisco outpost of Ten Ren in 1984.

Because these stores are spread out along Rockville Pike, many people don't think of Rockville as a Chinatown. So three years ago, a group of entrepreneurs banded together to set up a Chinese-oriented shopping strip on North Washington Street. It is now home to a hair salon, an electronics store, a snack shop and a restaurant. On weekends, it's a great area for people-watching. Bridal parties and orange-haired hipsters hang out at the Beautiful Life Salon, getting makeovers, and long lines of families wait for tables at Bob's Noodle 66.

Across the street, Kam Sam Supermarket features a bakery, butcher shop and herbal medicine counter, while the nearby China Books & Gifts is flush with calligraphy brushes, scrolls and Hello Kitty. Coming soon, a big arch over Rockville? Phuong Ly

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