Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Resservations. Prices: Hors d'oeuvres $1.60 to $3.25; main dishes average $5 to $7. Combination lunches $1.75 to $2.45. Weekend buffet brunch $4.95.
CHINESE restaurants can opt for the high road or the low road; Hwei Ping chooses to walk both.The high road follows uncompromising preparation of sophisticated Chinese dishes -- steamed whole fish, smoked duck -- without muting the seasonings or adjusting for the mythical American palate. The low road is a path of American-Chinese dishes such as chow mein and of Americanized modifications of traditional Chinese idshes, probably by adding sugar or concentrating the taste with monosodium glutamate. Thus you can get three kinds of whold fish and three varieties of whole duck at Hwie Ping; it is a Chinese restaurant for the aficionado. You can also get sticky, candylike sweet-and-sour pork and viscous chicken chow mein. The restaurant straddless both paths comfortably.
You can keep a foot on both paths with the weekend brunch buffet. It starts with a glass of white wine or Shirley Temples for Children -- hardly traditional Chinese morning drinks. Appetizers are egg rolls and fried chicken wings, both seasoned for timid palates, the egg rolls too dependent on cabbage to plump them, but both served crisp and hot. (At dinner another day, however, the eggs rolls tasted as if they had been reheated from brunch.)
If spicier food suits you on a Sunday morning, you can concentrate on ma po tofu, the cubes of bean curd and ground pork simmering in a deep red fiery sauce.
Retreating again from such daring, the buffet might have chicken chow mein -- a pleasantly delicate sauce studded with reasonably crisp vegetables and juicy chunks of chicken, not bad if you like that sort of food. The sweet-and-sour pork is kept on the chafing dish with its sauce separate, so, cloying as it is, the fried cubes of pork at least remain crisp.
Finally, there is lightly fried rice studded with peas and bits of egg, at most a backdrop for the sauces, and pan-fried noodles laced with beef and vegetable bits, seasoned with soy sauce and ginger, a dish likely to please every sort of palate. It is a plentiful buffet, its food maintained in good condition, and a good buy, particularly for hungry children whose parents pay only $2.75 (under 6 free).
But this introduction to Hwei Ping is far short of the restaurant's best. And although the standard dishes are indeed standard, the special dishes are very special. If you order carefully, you can have a dinner worth fighting U.S. 50 traffic.
Start with shrimp toast. It is a fried wonder of shrimp pounded and beaten to a fluff, spread thickly on bread and coated with sesame seeds. And, if your appetite or the size of your party warrants, add steamed dumplings or pot stickers (the pan-fried version of the steamed dumplings); their noodle wrap is thin, translucent, glutinous, and their meat filling is extremely fragrant and juicy. Don't mess around with the other fried appetizers -- overbreaded shrimp and measly wontons -- or the barbecued spare ribs (tired) or spicy beef sticks (chewy). As for soups, the hot and sour is indeed hot but lacks depth, and the wonton is brighter in color than in flavor.
For main dishes, concentrate on the second and third pages of the menu: "Chef's Specialties" and "The Generous Repast." The latter identifies whole fish and fowl, recommended for parties of four or more. But the fish are sometimes available in small sizes for one or two people.
Steamed fish is one of the glories of Chinese cooking. If you doubt that, try it at Ping. The whole sea bass is simply rubbed with wine and salt, steamed to a juicy opaque stage, and moistened with a shower of soy sauce and a tangle of julienned pork, black mushrooms, scallions and ginger. The whole is a subtle intermingling, allowing the delicacy of the fish to be recognized.
Szechuan spicy fish would suit a narrower audience. The fish is equally sweet and fresh, but the vivid red of the pepper-paste sauce is disconcerting, and its fire is a distraction from the subtle fish flesh. Because the dish differed significantly from its menu description, what we tasted may have been an aberration. In any case, the steamed fish is a safer choice.
Another seafood dish to note is Tung Ting Shrimp, the tender, sweet shrimps stir fried just to the point of being cooked and still juicy, along with decoratively carved carrot slices, snow peas, straw mushrooms, tiny ears of corn, bits of mild ham and small clouds of egg white. It is seasoned lightly enough that the intrinsic flavors are highlighted, and like all the sauces except the sweet-sour ones, the thickening is restrained.
Fish would be the highlight of Hwei Ping if it weren't for the poultry dishes. Shantung crispy chicken has a lot to teach America's chicken fryers. The chicken is rubbed with wine and seasonings and hung to dry, then fried so that the exterior is utter crispness, the interior still juicy. Ours had a faint flatness that made me wonder if the meat had been reheated, but even so was difficult to fault. The chicken was accompanied by a dipping sauce of vinegar, hot peppers and soy sauce. Sure beats ketchup.
Another fowl difficult to resist is the camphor-and-teasmoked duck, the plate sending up smoke signals from its kitchen cooking over smoking leaves. The meat is dark and moist, the skin a crackle of brown lacquer. The woodsy scent and contrast of texture kept one tasting just one more piece.
More basic fare -- straightforward and likeable but no more -- were red-glazed Middle Kingdom spareribs and moo shi pork that, like the egg rolls, overdosed on cabbage. The menu continues with about 50 more main dishes and unwinds with desserts of fried bananas and apples and a crisp rolled pancake stuffed with red bean paste: dense and very sweet.
While the usual Chinese red predominates -- not only in the Szechuan fish and the dessert pancakes, but also in the banquettes, carpets and tablecloths -- Hwei Ping looks a restful cross between Scandinavian modern and traditional Oriental.
On the walls are panels of geometric fabrics between the watercolor brushwork and temple rubbings. A bamboo halfroof over one part of a dining room and scalloped latticework over another haven't been allowed to run to Polynesian excess, at least if one ignores the plastic palms and avoids the outlandish Polynesian drinks. While the restaurant is attractive, a back room which handles overflow was, at least on one visit, unkempt, and our service there followed suit, with the table left uncleared for dessert.
The front rooms are definitely prettier and tidier. Service in the Front rooms is better too, being shy but watchful, willing and prompt.
Hwei Ping is a special Chinese restaurant -- if you order its special food. It is also ordinary if that is what you seek, elegant or plastic depending on where you sit. In any case, it is an asset to Virginia dining.