** (2 stars) TemptAsian Cafe
6259 Little River Tpk. (near Beauregard Street), Alexandria. 703-750-6801
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 3 to 10 p.m., Friday 3 to 11 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. MC, V. No smoking. Parking lot. Prices: appetizers $1.50 to $6.75; lunch entrees $5.25 to $15.95; dinner entrees $6.50 to $15.95. No alcohol. Full dinner with soft drinks or tea, tax and tip about $25 per person.
I'm only a few slurps into some soup at TemptAsian Cafe, when beads of sweat appear on my forehead. I love the pleasure-pain the bowl contains: slippery white noodles wrapped around a knot of ground pork -- "baby wontons" -- swimming in a clear chicken broth speckled red with chili oil.
As an antidote to the heat, I've ordered a plate of scallion pancakes, which, despite their name, turn out to be air-filled blimps of fried bread veined with scallions. The puffy snacks deflate within minutes of showing up at the table and make good sops for the sauces and gravies of the other dishes.
Those dumplings, that bread -- "I've had these before," I think aloud.
Little bells go off again when I reexamine the menu. There are two menus, actually. One is a holdover from the restaurant that preceded this one, also named TemptAsian. It lists standards such as orange beef and sweet-and-sour pork. The other menu starts with two pages of Chinese characters and goes on to include combinations that you aren't likely to see on a flier from your neighborhood carry-out ("Spicy pig blood tofu in hot bowl," anyone?). It was hundreds of restaurants ago that I last ate at China Star in Fairfax, but I think I recognize its fiery food. The lone decoration on the wall confirms my hunch: It's a framed photograph of the new restaurant's chef, Peter Chang, alongside a beaming Hu Jintao, the president of China. A native of Sichuan, Chang previously cooked at China Star.
That discovery makes it easier for me to order at TemptAsian. I simply seek out dishes I was fond of at the chef's former employer.
The five-spice sliced beef appetizer, cool and fragrant, is every bit as luscious as I remember it, as is the spicy diced rabbit, ignited with chili oil (but still too bony to let you retrieve all the meat from the roughly chopped rabbit). A history with China Star isn't necessary, though; little drawings of chile peppers on the menu indicate which choices are spicy, and you can count on them for plenty of fire. Ordering "spicy dried bean curd," an excellent vegetarian starter, yields a cool mound of diced tofu splashed with a chili- and scallion-laced dressing. In "General Kwan spicy beef," a generous entree, soft slices of beef are all but concealed under a wicked cover of roasted red chilies.
Some servers here are more helpful than others. I asked one young man, fluent in English, if he could recommend anything from the half-dozen specials printed in Chinese on a small blackboard. "Do you like fish?" he asked. I nodded, and my reward was a plate of smoked fish, cut into rough bars and draped with a slightly sweet and gelatinous brown sauce. Though ugly to look at, the heap went down easily.
Another day, an older waitress, not nearly as communicative, sounded an alarm when I asked for tripe with green peppers. "Very spicy!" she said, repeating the warning again when she delivered the dish. And yet it was a hit, soft threads of tripe -- more beefy than funky in flavor -- tossed with velvety green pepper strips and bolstered by peppercorns, soy sauce, garlic and a touch of sugar.
You don't need to be a heat-seeker to eat well here. Some of the best dishes are the tame ones. Steamed buns "with chicken flavor" translates as golf-ball-size dumplings containing chicken broth and a mild ground pork center, so that a warm rush of broth fills your mouth when you bite through the dough. A dip of soy sauce and vinegar with splinters of fresh ginger can be spooned over them to heighten the flavor. A comforting casserole of glassy rice noodles, shredded pork and pickled cabbage is enough food for four to share, and a steal of a meal at only $8.50. Indeed, pork finds its way into many appealing recipes, including fried "Beijing" pork chops in a not-too-sweet orange-colored sauce, surrounded by a forest of verdant broccoli. Mushrooms with cabbage sounds like a snooze but has me snapping to attention once I taste the robust and meaty black fungus mixed with crisp-soft Chinese cabbage, everything tied together by a delicate oyster sauce. The "salty duck" appetizer is neat chunks of steamed pink duck whose salinity isn't so obvious that you can't savor the bird's rich notes.
Now and then, a harsher reality insinuated itself into this pleasant scenario. A dim sum selection called "pumpkin cake" is jellylike in the center and tastes nothing of pumpkin, while an entree of General Tsao duck is best for the crisp snow peas that decorate its surface. (The half-duck itself is hacked into rough chunks, deep-fried and buried beneath a sweet, mahogany-colored sauce.) Even so, that there are more than 100 possibilities on the menu is less daunting than it is tempting. Every time I go to the restaurant, I find myself collecting another favorite or two.
TemptAsian's butter-colored dining room is spare but pleasant, as if the owner didn't want to detract attention from the chef's efforts. Fresh bamboo and buffed wood tables add dashes of color and style, and the background music tends to be classical. At center stage is a semicircular bar, which dispenses only soft drinks at the moment (at press time, a beer and wine license was pending).
At the entrance, a stack of foreign-language newspapers indicates that this storefront is frequented by Chinese speakers. More compelling evidence that the restaurant is worth investigating is the enthusiasm with which these customers eat -- and the clean plates that return to the kitchen.
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When Sophy Mott and four others visited the Daily Grill in Tysons Corner for dinner on a recent weekend, "the hostess led us through the attractive dining room . . . and just kept walking . . . and walking," the Alexandria reader told me via e-mail. The group ended up in the "atrium," where "the only division between our table and the mall stores was a low wall with some gnat-attracting foliage," she reported. "It was basically like eating in the food court of the mall, albeit a very expensive mall." Mott suggests that restaurants with such seating "ought to offer 'atrium pricing' as well, since sitting outside the tasteful dining room definitely detracts from the dining experience." Reached for comment, Grill manager Lisa Schroeder apologized and said that diners who are unhappy with their seating can ask to be relocated, though given the size of Mott's party, the fact that she didn't have a reservation and the restaurant's typical weekend crowds, the group might have had to wait up to 30 minutes. As for Mott's proposal to charge less for lesser tables, Schroeder said: "It's definitely a novel thought! We'll take it into consideration."
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