Three Tastes of China From Tom Sietsema

Enjoy setting your mouth on fire? Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema suggests ordering a spicy
Enjoy setting your mouth on fire? Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema suggests ordering a spicy "ma la" dish, such as these noodles with bean sprouts, from Great Wall Szechuan House. (By Juana Arias For The Washington Post)
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Sunday, August 3, 2008

By nature, I'm a snacker and a grazer. Bring on the small plates (and don't stop)! That's why I like the tiny A&J (4316-B Markham St., Annandale, 703-813-8181) so much. Its all-day menu of dim sum allows me to sample a little bit of everything. Among my habits here: noodle soup brimming with bits of pork and mustard greens, batons of cucumber invigorated with a tingling-hot garlic sauce, a plate of sliced smoked chicken and long, fried-pork pot stickers -- with nothing priced higher than $6.95.

The original restaurant sits in Rockville (1319-C Rockville Pike, 301-251-7878), but I prefer this branch, dressed up with an undulating mural of ancient China and a faux-stone half wall. In a rush? This is fast food, but prepared with care.

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From the outside, the plain Great Wall Szechuan House in Logan Circle (1527 14th St. NW, 202-797-8888) looks like the sort of Chinese restaurant you would pass right by and not bother investigating. The spare, white-walled dining room, nominally dressed up with pictures of flowers, doesn't encourage lingering, either.

Do yourself a favor and venture in, particularly if you're a fire eater. The dozen or so dishes flagged as "ma la," or what the Chinese recognize as numbingly spicy, deliver the same kick I got from eating in some of the best Sichuan restaurants in Beijing earlier this summer. At Great Wall, my standing order involves wiry yellow noodles ($4.95) tossed with bean sprouts for a little crunch and a sauce of Sichuan peppercorns, chilies, garlic and onion. Be warned: That flavor-packed oil races from a pinprick to a pow! within seconds after contact on the tongue.

Co-owner May Kuang may well be on the phone taking orders when you show up; neighbors within a two-mile radius know that with a $10 minimum, they can get her goods delivered.

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To experience one of the best dishes at Pacifica Cafe (621 Center Point Way, Gaithersburg, 301-519-1488), a diner has to order it at least 24 hours in advance. That's because the luscious duck stuffed with sticky rice ($35) requires the bird to be marinated a minimum of seven hours in a bath of vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and hoisin, after which it is steamed for four hours.

Helping to swell the deboned bird, along with that sticky rice, are a kitchen sink of treasures: walnuts, shrimp and Chinese sausage. Enough food to feed at least six diners, the duck comes to the table in a cover of lotus leaves, which are removed at the table by a server. The bonus: Anyone hovering over the feast gets a free, and fragrant, facial.

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