Atmosphere: Festive and bright.
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday.
Price range: Most entrees, $3.95 to $6.25.
Reservations: A good idea on weekends.
Credit cards: Visa and Master Charge.
Special facilities: Shopping center parking lot; accessible by wheelchair; booster seats available.
Friends of ours had a hot tip. Peking Gourmet Inn in the Culmore Shopping Center in Falls Church was a great family place for Sunday dinner. We jotted down the name and number, waited for a Sunday when we had a yen for Chinese food, made a reservation for a 7 p.m. dinner and went to see what we could see and eat. Despite the reservation, we had to wait 10 minutes for a table. A lot of Virginians were on to Peking Gourmet.
The decor was not the usual shopping center variety. There were crisp white tablecloths, red velvet drapes, lovely Chinese watercolors and a collection of beautifully carved jade figures and oriental antiques displayed on glass-enclosed shelves high above the dinning room.
When we were finally seated, there squeezed into a table next to us were our friends. They had some more hot tips. "Try the dumplings. Don't miss the duck. The stringbean dish is sensational."
We already had an inkling about the duck. The restaurant is fairly small -- about 15 tables, but it will double in size soon -- and while we were waiting to be seated, we had a complete view of what everyone was eating. At least three-quarters of the tables were graces with duck: Peking duck, served whole and carved before your very eyes.
The perfect, thin layers of meat were accompanied by a dish of scallions, a bowl of soy bean sauce and delicate, thin pancakes. Everyone was busy dabbing the pancakes with sauce, layering on the meat and scallions and then rolling the duck-filled pancake into a manageable eating size. Here was Peking Duck that didn't have to be ordered a day in advance and, as we learned from our menu, here was Peking Duck at a very reasonable price: $15 for a whole duck; $8 for a half.
We went with a half order and were sorry. The duck was nothing short of superb -- greaseless with juicy meat and gorgeously crisp skin.
We were especially sorry about the half order because none of the other dishes quite measured up to that standard of excellence. Our friends had warned us the soups were nothing special, but two members of our family feel a Chinese meal on a cold winter night is not complete without soup. My husband tried the wonton soup, 90 cents, and my son ordered the egg drop, 70 cents. Neither was remarkable. The wonton was particularly dull.
For appetizers we tried the fried dumplings, $2.45, and egg roll, $1.40, which our children always enjoy. The dumplings were interesting. The heavy pasta-like dough was stuffed with pork that was delightfully spicy and a good contrast to the bland thickness of the dough. The dumplings, which were originally boiled, had been panfried to reheat. They were accompanied by a zesty sauce.
The egg rolls, like the wonton soup, suffered from blandness. The shell was too thick and not crisp and the stuffing too heavy on the meat and too light on the vegetables.
Our main course, in addition to duck, were shrimp with lobster sauce, $5.95, which we also found bland; shaw erh tong beef, $6.25, which was sliced beef in a soy sauce with vegetables, (erh tong which has a sweet, apple-like taste); and bean curd family-style, $4.95, which featured well-seasoned bean curd set amid vegetables and an occasional slice of beef. The beef dish was the only one to come close to the duck in taste, style and interest.
We were content to have fortune cookies for dessert, but our friends had ordered toffee peaches, $3.95, and passed some over to us for a taste. They were sensational. Peach chunks had been coated with hot, caramelized sugar and were brought to their table, dunked quickly and individually in ice water (to firm the sugar) and placed on plates. It was a delightful dish, and helped wipe out the taste of the fortune cookies which were remarkably bad.
Overhall, we found the Peking more bargain than brilliant, but selectively excellent. It was a very comfortable and pretty place to go with children. Many of the customers the night we were there were families with young children.
Our bill for dinner came to $36.64, including tax and tip. For that price, there was more food than our family of four usually orders or needs. All leftovers were cheerfully packed in little white cartons and lugged home for lunches and afternoon snacks.