Open every day, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. V,MC. Reservations accepted. Prices: Appetizers $1.50 to $3.25 entrees $4.25 to $15. Diner with wine or beer, tax and tip about $9 to $15.
If you were to survey Washington area diners about restaurants in Prince George's County, the prevailing view would probably be that P.G. is all but hopeless. You'd hear about the endless string of fast food chains on U.S. 1. And about those tacky little places scattered all over the area where the sign outside always says "cocktails" or "liquor" before "restaurant," as though the numbing effect of the alcohol were needed before the food could be tolerated. And about those innumerable "Italian" restaurants where everything is buried under an acid lava of old, mean-spirited tomato sauce.
But to write off P.G. county completely would be a mistake. There are oases in the desert, places where a few lonely restaurateurs are bravely ignoring their surroundings and serving up food worth traveling for. One of the most refreshing is the Golden Wagon, a Chinese restaurant that occupies the site of the old Smile restaurant in Riverdale.
This is a place where trying hard is the theme, and where lots of seemingly disparate little things -- like impeccable trimming of meat, and painstakingly uniform dicing of vegetables, and careful balancing of sauces, and attentive shirt-and-tied waiters, and a manager who seems to visit each table at least twice per meal all add up to Chinese food that's well above the norm.
There's another plus for the Golden Wagaon: The opportunity to try dishes not ususally available in the Washington area. The unusual ones are listed on the menu under the heading "House Special," and include such intriguing possibilities as pig leg meat with crystal sugar, stewed port balls with bean curd, sea cucumber in brown sauce, curried egg dumplings, fried beef cakes, and lamb soup. These dishes are available only on weekends, and some are served only for large parties, although, unfortunately, neither of these restrictions is explained on the menu.
The Golden Wagon is plain but immaculate, a large, nicely quiet dining room with widely spaced tables and booths along one wall. Except for a few obligatory lanterns, it's free of Oriental paraphernalia. Who cares? Can you eat wooden dragons or red lacquer?
For starters, the steamed dumplings are first-rate, with a dough wrapper that has the satiny, dry sheen that spells proper draining, and with a ground pork filling in which the garlic and ginger are applied subtly. Available to spice the dumplings is another of those extra little touches: three separate soy-based sauces (vinegar, hot oil and garlic) at the table to choose from.
On weekends you can have boiled dumpings as well as steamed. The boiled ones have a vegetable-beef-pork filling and a dough wrapper that's a little thicker than the steamed. They're excellent, and a good buy at $2.95 for 10.
Another weekend special is a more exotic cousin of the dumplings: fried beef cakes, hamburger-size envelopes of dough, filled with ground beef and green onion, then pan-fried. They're a bargain, at $1.50 for two, and a marvel, the filling steaming and juicy, with the wrapper retaining chewiness and the outside surface dry and slightly crisp.
Ballance is the hallmark of a good kung pao chicken -- a balance of flavors in the sauce between hot, salty and sweet, and a textural balance between tender chicken morsels, crunchy peanuts and delicately crisp vegetables. It calls for special care in preparation, too -- care in trimming the chicken, in dicing it into uniform cubes that match the peanuts in size, and in stir-frying so that the vegetables retain crispness. The Golden Wagon's version is flawless.
Szechuan crisp duck must be ordered a day in advance, but the planning is worth it. The skin is delicately crisp, the underlying fatty layer practically gone, and the flesh wonderfully moist and succulent.
Several items -- shrimp, scallops, pork and eggplant -- are offered in the yu shiang style, that is, cooked in a sauce traditionally used for fish. At the Golden Wagon, the yu shiang sauce is a subtle blending of sugar, vinegar, garlic and ginger, with water chestnuts, tree ears and string beans. The combination is intriguing, with a slight sweet-and-sour flavor, but without the sugar-candy ickiness of so many Cantonese sweet and sours.Again, little things: the string beans are perfectly fresh, carefully chosen to be uniformly small, and sauteed just long enough so they're bright and crisp.
Three dishes are listed as "volcano" style -- "sizzling rice" in the jargon of most Chinese restaurants. Super-heated rice is mixed at the table with the other ingredients, and the result is a dramatic hissing and steaming. The show generally gets at least a few people at adjacent tables to turn and stare. The volcano portions are immense, the mild egg-white sauce is not over-thick, and the vegetable ingredients are beautifully done.
Special flavor shrimp is a rarity: a batter-fried dish with lots of sauce in which the batter coating remains crisp under all the liquid in the serving dish. That means close attention to timing in the kitchen, and quick serving. It also means you should eat this dish without delay.
It wasn't until our third visit to the Golden Wagon that we encountered the Disaster of the Whole Crispy Fish. Everything else had been so uniformly good it was hard to believe that this elderly, poorly prepared fish could have come from the same kitchen. The fragrant sauce couldn't disguise the unmistakable aroma of advanced age, the batter coating was over-thick, and, in a stroke of extreme carelessness, the cook had allowed much of the batter to get inside the fish, which meant little globs of uncooked flour mixed with the flesh. Still, that's just one strikeout among the 10 dishes we tried.
Incidentally, try the Tsing Tao (pronounced "Ching Dow") beer from mainland China. It's full and deep-flavored, in the style of Japan's Kirin beer, but even smoother.