Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard and Visa.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends.
Prices: Appetizers $1.80 to $3.85, main dishes $4.50 to $12. Complete dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip about $12 to $22 a person.
Restaurants are like major league baseball teams: they have their good years and their bad. Today's powerhouse is tomorrow's loser, and the dish that used to be worth a drive around the Beltway now may be just a shadow of its former self.
So, after not having eaten at The Golden Wagon for nearly three years, we did not know what to expect. It had been a standout among suburban Chinese restaurants, a plain, pleasant, no-nonsense place with generally excellent food and a few dishes hard to find elsewhere.
Good news: Nothing has changed.
The dining room could be switched with one of a thousand other Chinese restaurants from coast to coast and no one would notice. It's big, brightly lit and has the obligatory lanterns, wallpaper and tropical fish tanks.
But the food, thankfully, is not interchangeable. Take the odd but excellent shrimp toast, with the crust left on the bread and the shrimp filling rough cut. The frying is flawless; the snowy interior untouched by oil.
Steamed dumplings probably are still a good bet here. But the fried beef cakes (available only on weekends) are more than a good bet. They're marvelous. And still worth a drive around the Beltway.
A garlicky mixture of coarsely ground beef and scallion is sealed inside a sturdy envelope of wheat flour dough about the size of a palm, then pan-fried.
Simple to describe, not so simple to execute. And wonderful to eat, a paragon of flavor-texture contrasts. The dough is just barely crisp outside, then light and chewy inside. The moisture in the meat filling, locked inside the dough, is partly vaporized during the frying, so there's a nice squirting of steam and juice when you pierce the envelope. (Watch your shirt-sleeves.)
A nice touch: three soy sauces for dipping, with vinegar, hot pepper and garlic.
Lamb soup, another weekend special, is an unusual dish, laced heavily with what tastes like lemon grass. It may or may not appeal to you.
Something that surely won't grow on you is chicken breast fried in peanut batter. Dull.
Kung pao chicken is generally a good test dish for a Chinese restaurant. The preparation has to be painstaking, with the chicken trimmed of all fat and gristle and cut into tiny, uniform cubes to match the size of the peanuts in the mixture. The ratio of meat to peanuts must be just right to give the proper textural balance, and there's a careful juggling needed between the salt, sweet and hot flavors in the sauce.
The Golden Wagon passes the kung pao test with flying colors.
It passes the vegetable test, too. They're fresh, bright and crisp.
One of the best ways to enjoy these virtues is in the crisped rice dishes--one with just seafood, one with meat and chicken added--in which the meats and vegetables, in a light sauce, are sizzled with superheated rice at the table.
Notice how plump and sweet the shrimp are in this dish--a good sign for the other shrimp dishes on the menu.
One of the more unusual delights here is yu shiang sauce, traditionally served with fish but used at The Golden Wagon on shrimp, scallops, pork and eggplant. It's a beautiful, balanced blend of sweet, tart, gingery and garlicky flavors.
Try it on thin strips of pork, tree ears, slightly crisp green beans and bamboo shoots.
Szechuan crisp whole fish was masterfully done on our most recent visit, the fish lightly battered and crackly outside, moist and firm-flaked within, the sauce properly sweet-tart-hot.
So The Golden Wagon rolls on, still doing a first-class job in an area where good Chinese restaurants are as scarce as 1000-year-old eggs. It deserves success.