Hours: Weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 10 p.m.
Atmosphere: Friendly, eclectic.
Prices: Entrees, $3.95 to $9.25.
Reservations: Recommended for large groups.
Credit cards: Mastercharge, Visa.
Special facilities: Booster chairs, highchairs; metered street parking days; no parking problem evenings; very close to Clarendon Metro stop.
Located in Arlington's "Little Saigon," a stretch of Vietnamese import and food shops, Rai Rai Ken ("come, come in") is an ethnic anomaly in more ways than one.
The restaurant features Chinese food, Japanese-style. Its specialty of Japanese noodles attracts a lunchtime crowd of Japanese businessmen and other noodle mavens (including a contingent from the FBI building that takes advantage of the restaurant's location near the Clarendon Metro stop). Rai Rai Ken is owned by Yung Lu Yang, a Peking-style Chinese chef whose culinary vocabulary picked up a Japanese accent during a long stay in Japan.
The decor of Rai Rai Ken--flocked Chinese on one wall, Norman manor house on another--also reflects the restaurant's two previous incarnations, most recently as Le Rendez Vous (Vietnamese), and Charcuterie Normande (French) before that.
In fact, we discovered Rai Rai Ken by accident shortly after the demise of Le Rendez Vous, to which we thought we were coming. At first, we were puzzled by the menu, which lists Peking and Szechuan specialties on some pages and Japanese dishes on another, although the geographic origin of some dishes is uncertain.
On our first visit, we stuck to the Chinese food, but envied diners at other tables. On a second visit, a month later, we tried the excellent Japanese noodles with stir-fried pork ($4.50) and realized that the winning combination for families at this restaurant is the Japanese noodle dishes (lives there a child who dislikes noodles?) and the Chinese vegetables. The spicy eggplant ($4.75) was particularly good: not very spicy, but delicious, even if eggplant normally leaves you cold. And the string beans Szechuan ($4.50) were a big hit with our children.
We tried other dishes with mixed results: sliced pork with garlic sauce ($6.25), a solid filler dish; jam pao chicken ($5.95), tender morsels of chicken in a plum sauce we found too sweet; spicy bean curd ($4.75), a mushy, boring plateful that we left virtually untouched; fresh scallops in hot pepper sauce ($7.50), an enormous platter of sliced, slightly rubbery scallops that my hungry husband found totally satisfying but that I did't enjoy because the sliced bamboo shoots had an unpleasant taste.
We ordered steamed crab dumplings ($2.75) as a substitute for fried dumplings, which were not ready, but found they were made with a different kind of dough, and the crab filling tasted too fishy.
Dessert one night was toffee bananas ($2 per person, a two-person minimum). Another night, our waiter brought us an artfully peeled section of a fresh orange, compliments of the house, because no other desserts were available.
Service is gracious, and prices are average for a Chinese restaurant. Dinner for four (two of them children) should run $25 to $35, tip included. Stick to the noodle and vegetable dishes, and you can cut the bill to $5 a head.
And, by all means, do try the Japanese noodles.