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  A Dining Guide

By Phyllis C. Richman
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page W32
The Washington Post Magazine

The game starts as soon as you hit the neighborhood -- the game of finding a meal. If you're not dining at the arena's own Velocity Grill or grabbing a hot dog, the question is either, Where can you eat early and quick? or, What kind of meal will you be able to get after the event lets out?

The latter's easy. Chinatown restaurants have always been open long after midnight, and the area's hip new Latin places such as Cafe Atlantico, Coco Loco and Jaleo stay awake at least until 10 weeknights, later on weekends. Eating before the game is the struggle. Unless you're just going to nibble happy-hour cheese cubes, it's a challenge to find a restaurant that can get you in and out fast enough for a 7 p.m. start.

The District ChopHouse & Brewery, right down Seventh Street from the arena, couldn't be more handy. Nor could this big, noisy brewpub better set the sports fan's mood. But be warned that the kitchen can be slow. This is a jock kind of Big Food place, where even the Caesar salad warrants a steak knife. I only wish I could think of a way to fashion a balanced meal out of onion rings and cheddar mashed potatoes, for they are the highlights here by far. Try to capture a place at the bar for a one-course filler and a $2 happy-hour beer. The Rock on Sixth Street, even with countless TVs and a roof deck, looks as grim as Alcatraz, and such fare as dry sweetened ribs tastes like punishment. Fried catfish and beer on tap are the safest bets.

At Coco Loco or Jaleo (on Seventh Street), a few tapas should do it; at either place it can be hard to find a table, but both will serve you at the bar. And such Chinatown restaurants as Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, Golden Palace, Szechuan Gallery, Hunan Chinatown and Mr. Yung's are large enough to pack in half the arena-goers at a seating. But can you get service in time? Bowls of soup with noodles or dumplings shouldn't take long; they're the specialty of Full Kee. And Tony Cheng's Mongolian Restaurant is a fast one-bowl demi-self-service possibility.

But if you want to be sure, and you don't want to be limited to what's inside the arena, a carryout meal is the best plan. The arena doesn't promote the idea, but it allows food from outside as long as it doesn't include bottles, cans, thermoses, coolers or any alcohol.

At any place in Chinatown that has roasted ducks hanging by their necks, you'll find an array of barbecued meats that put to shame any flabby old hot dog. Eat First, on Seventh Street between G and H, packs orders quickly and efficiently, and mine was still hot enough to sting my fingers half an hour later. Ask for plenty of napkins when you order your roast duck, chicken, pork or spare ribs (pork is $6 a pound, half a bird is $7.50; a family-size combination is $9.50), or rice-paper-wrapped chicken ($8.95). If you don't mind a mess, try chopsticks-or-fork food such as shrimp-stuffed eggplant with chili-spiked black bean sauce. Fortune cookies are included, so you might find advance notice of the evening's outcome. Mine said, "You are full of hopes about your future." Yup.

Unfortunately, most of the Chinatown carryouts, such as the excellent Vietnamese Cafe Deli on Sixth Street below H, close at 5 p.m. Becky's Cafe (the sign still says Maria's) at 505 H St. is now open until 8 p.m., and among the standard American sandwiches and Chinese specials it has a platter of three pieces of freshly battered fried fish, with coleslaw and frozen fries -- but ask for fried rice instead. The huge portion comes with a soft drink, and costs a mere $4.25.

A couple of blocks farther away from the arena is Caribbean Delite Cafe (747 Fourth St. NW), throbbing with island music and so sure of its barbecue sauce that it bottles the stuff by the gallon. Rotisserie chicken is the star here, massaged with that sauce of vinegar, hot peppers and spices. Its skin won't be crisp by the time you eat it if you carry it out, but it will still be tingly and juicy. Jerk chicken has an equally fiery appeal, but it tastes more stewed than grilled, and is messier. If you dare risk spills, the spice-rubbed shrimp -- large and moist, served on spaghetti -- is terrific. Don't miss the potato salad, half chunks and half mashed, with lots of scallions. Prices are low: A quarter-chicken costs $3.95 to $4.50, and even shrimp is only $6.95 for seven pieces. That leaves plenty to quench the fire with drinks at the arena.

Phyllis C. Richman is the Post food critic.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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