Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8:30 p.m. Price Range: Entrees: $4.95 to $9.95, except for Peking duck, which is $16 for a whole order and must be ordered one day in advance. Special Facilities: Plenty of parking. Booster chairs. Accessible to wheelchairs. Credit Cards: VISA, American Express, Mastercard, Dinner's Club. Reservations: Accepted for parties of four or more.
If you go on the right evening and stick to the house specialties, you can have a tasty and rather exotic family outing at the House of Liu.
Only a few minutes' drive from the Capital Centre, the restaurant is elaborately styled after the imperial palaces of old Peking and seems a bit incongruous in Landover Mall.
Peking was the captial of Northern China. Before the Cutural Revolution, it was the home of China's emperors and aristocrats. Its architecture and style of life were noted for imperial grandeur.
Though fraying a bit around the edges after eight years of existence, the House of Liu evokes the opulence of Peking in its heyday. Its red and gold pagoda-like entrance is a striking contrast to mundane suburban stores surrounding the restaurant. Entering the imperial gates you come upon a large handsome room.
A massive and intricate mural dominates one side of the room. It depicts in colorful detail the sort of elaborate Chinese banquets found in imperial Peking. Steaming dishes, dancing girls and musicians, lordly persons and their attendant personnel, all in traditional garments, educate us about China as it once was.
It's a mural that will entertain your children while you wait for dinner. Point out the chopsticks set before each diner. Count how many people are in the picture, how many dishes are before them. Look in vain, though, for egg rolls, wonton soup and chow mein.
Such American favorites would have been unlikely at a Northern Chinese banquet, at least in the days of old.
They do appear on the menu, though. But it's the northern specialties that you'll want to order at the House of Liu.
The menu itself is striking, in keeping with the theme of imperial elegance:
it consists of large pages bound within red and gold hardcovers, bountifully illustrated with drawings of traditional Chinese activities and costumes.
A northern specialty that makes a good appetizer: jao tze, also known as "Chinese ravioli." These are cresent-shaped meat dumplings, fried at the House of Liu, though elsewhere they often are steamed. For $3.25 you get six, a good way to begin your meal.
We had come to eat the widely advertised house specialty: Mongolian barbecue. The Mongols invaded China from the north during the 13th century and left their mark on northern cuisine. Genghis Khan is said to have favored Mongolian barbecue.
At the House of Liu, a hexagonal gazebo stands in the middle of the restaurant, existing expressly so that guests can watch the chef grill the barbecue dish. Traditional Chinese music accompanies him.
Disappointment: We had come on a Sunday evening, our family night out, and Sunday is the one night that the Mongolian barbecue is prepared in the kitchen, not in the gazebo.
The traditional music, we asked? "The tapes are being changed, so we won't have it tonight." was the reply.
In any event, though sorry we had missed the drama, we were still pleased with the results. First you get a bowl of hot and sour soup, an earthy combination of bean curd, pork, slivered vegetables, seasoned with vinegar and hot pepper oil and thickened with corn starch.
Then comes the barbecue: a generous platter full of sliced meats (lamb, pork and beef), shredded vegetables of five or six varieties, all seasoned with ginger, chili oil, seasame flavoring, soy sause and other spices. It was a delicious and filling dish.
A bowl of steamed rice came with the dinner, as did a small Chinese pastry called a dim sum, this one sesame-studded.
Then too there was a salad. It was plain old iceberg lettuce, but the soy-based dressing was a tasty surprise.
In all, the barbecue is a nice meal for $9, at least by today's standards.
Another typically Northern Chinese specialty is moo shi pork. Northern China is a wheat growing region, and wheat pancakes stuffed with julienned pork and vegetables is a common dish in the area. The House of Liu version, which included cellophane noodles and was served with hoisin sauce, was very good.
A house specialty that was disappointing was the house special duck, a Szechwanese creation that is supposedly marinated, then steamed over camphor and tea leaves. This version tasted like it was flavored with plain old liquid smoke, and it had too large a fatty layer under the skin.
Other Northern specialties on the menu include Peking lamb, also a Mongrol dish originally. Here it is cooked with spring onions in a soy and sherry sauce.
There are also such standards as oyster beef, pepper beef, Peking duck, lobster mandarin.
Though fortune cookies come with each meal, the house special sweet is worth considering. It is also a typically northern Chinese dish: deep fried fruit, either apple or banana, in a crisp caramel sauce that is crunchy and very sweet. One order brings five pieces for $3.95.
"When opportunity knocks, open the door," read our youngest child's fortune cookie. We took this to mean that at the next opportunity, we would return to the House of Liu, but not on a Sunday night.