KAM FONG RESTAURANT -- 807-809 SEVENTH ST. NW. 202-898-1168. Open: daily for lunch 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. All major credit cards. No reservations. Separate smoking area.
LEI GARDEN RESTAURANT -- 629-631 H ST. NW. 202-216-9696. Open: for lunch and dim sum on carts daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner and dim sum menu Monday through Thursday 3 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 3 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 3 to 10:30 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Smoking in bar area only.
CHINATOWN GARDEN -- 618 H ST. NW. 202-737-8887. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 3 to 11 p.m., Friday 3 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area.
Lose a few, win a few. Since my favorite Chinatown restaurant, Eat First, has closed, I've been forced to look harder for a satisfying Chinese lunch downtown. New restaurants have opened in Chinatown, but those recent additions have tended to be glossy showcases for gloppy food.
My search hasn't been futile, though. While I have found no single Chinatown restaurant I'd trust from soup to fortune cookies, I've unearthed some specific moments of glory.
KAM FONG The cluttered entrance and disheveled dining room don't look promising, and the waitresses are practiced in avoiding your eye as they rush by. But if you can't expect much assistance in this plain storefront restaurant, at least it provides the wherewithal for you to make your own informed decisions.
Look in the window. Do the mahogany lacquered ducks and chickens hanging there look plump and fresh today? Does that skin-on side of pork look moist or dry? Are any of those barbecued innards in stainless steel containers appealing to you? Choose by your eye. If you're not unduly afraid of fat, sample that crusty, succulent, anise-scented roast pig. You can get an ample plateful as a "small order" for $5.95. Ditto the steamed chicken, which is of course leaner, and wildly aromatic from its topping of garlic and ginger. You can also do the look-and-point routine with the golden brown baked and fried dim sum in the bakery case.
The most intriguing displays in this anteroom are the fish tanks with creatures swimming lazily, not just lobsters and sea bass but giant Dungeness crabs and slithery eels. The crabs are the most expensive choice on the menu, at $23.95, but they're plenty for two. Their pearly chunks of meat are messy to extract from the shell but sweet and fragrant from ginger and scallions. Steamed bass is a relative bargain at about $17.95, and its freshness is obvious on the tongue. To balance all this protein, you can order a platter of firm yet silky eggplant buried in dark, faintly sweet garlic sauce, good enough to consider a full meal. Prices: appetizers $1.25 to $4.25, entrees $2.50 to $23.95; lunch specials $4.95. Full lunch with tax, tip and tea $10 to $25 per person.
LEI GARDEN My first lunch at Lei Garden left me with no wish to return, but then I discovered that the restaurant had done something to make life a little better. It now devotes one of its second-floor rooms to dim sum served from rolling carts at lunch time, seven days a week. The array is large -- 60 varieties, the maitre d' estimated. Although the room has a chaotic and shabby look, the carts come frequently, their offerings are steaming hot, and the waiters patiently uncover each dish for you to pick and choose. Some of the dim sum tastes tired, but if you skip the dumplings with torn or dried-out wrappers and watch for those that look most plump, glistening and fresh, you'll encounter some dim sum as good as any in town. I found the triangular translucent steamed seafood dumplings delicate and succulent, but wished I'd had the flaky pinwheel-shaped scallion pancakes earlier in their life. Plates of dark green Chinese broccoli add welcome crunch to balance the heaviness of shrimp-taro fritters, steamed pork bao, steamed beef balls, rice-noodle pork crepes and other meaty dumplings and turnovers. Prices are low; a portion of three or four dim sum costs less than a glass of bottled water would in many restaurants. Prices: dim sum $2.50 to $3.95 per portion. Full dim sum lunch with tax, tip and tea about $15 per person.
CHINATOWN GARDEN Wandering through Chinatown at another lunch time I was confronted by a woman rounding up customers for Chinatown Garden, a newish restaurant on H Street. She was so aggressive that before I had time to think, I found myself inside the restaurant's entrance. Once there, though, I recognized the place. I'd been there nearly a year ago, a few months after it opened, and found the food -- like the burgundy leatherette banquettes and carpeting -- so dreary that I didn't even bother saving my notes. I looked at the lunch menu: predictable. I asked for the dinner menu: equally predictable. Then I spotted a laminated sheet listing a fascinating array of dishes: sour cabbage soup with tripe or duck blood, conch with spicy sauce, small fish with peanuts, beef with dry bean curd.
"That's for Chinese people," the hostess warned me. I assured her that I would like to try some dishes "for Chinese people." She seemed pleased -- and worried.
By now I've had the Chinese menu's nutty, spicy Sichuan bon bon chicken; its aptly named fragrant squid, scored into curls and served cold as an appetizer; and a similarly appropriately named Nanking salty duck, which has a silky cured-meat texture. Among the entrees, bean leaf sauteed with shrimp turned out to be delicious snow pea shoots with small shrimp; the vegetable was luscious but the shrimp weren't. I've learned that Chinese-style kung pao chicken and Chinese-style shredded pork in garlic sauce are tangier and less sweet than the American versions. And I've verified that if you are insistent, even the most Americanized Chinese restaurant might be induced to produce food with real Chinese character. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.20 to $5.25, entrees $5.25 to $15.95; dinner appetizers $1.30 to $5.75, entrees $7.25 to $15.95. Full lunch with tax, tip and tea $15 to $25 per person.
While most Ocean City restaurants are growing ever more massive -- and mass-produced -- there is an antidote. The Grove Market & Smokehouse, on St. Martin's Neck Road outside Bishopville, has six tables with plastic garden chairs plus a few bar stools squeezed into what was a small seafood market. Dinner is the work of a couple of good old boys who execute a madcap choreography of foil pans with one oven and a smoker outside the front door. Thus they produce nine entrees and nearly as many appetizers, the likes of very fresh rockfish coated with a horseradish crust, snapper perched on a red pepper coulis or garlicky smoked pork. Appetizers run to house-smoked fish or startlingly delicious oysters with balsamic vinegar, shallots and bacon. Entrees are $15 to $20, including side dishes that don't quite do them justice. You pick out your own wine or beer from the fridge. It's a down-home friendly scene with two drawbacks: Payment is cash only, and there's always a scramble for reservations, since the Grove Market is only open Thursday through Monday. Try calling 410-352-5055. -- P.C.R.
CAPTION: Lunch story: Chinatown diners can pick out a nice midday meal at Kam Fong.