Hours: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Prices: Lunch entrees $3.70 to $5.45; dinner entrees $6.25 to $14.95. Cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.
As labored as puns on Chinese restaurant names are, Young Chow has a long way to grow out of its moniker. Though the menu is fairly enticing, this fledgling little drop-in/carry-out is stuck in a culinary adolescence -- too much sugar and too little spice.
With so many good Szechuan- and Hunan-style restaurants taking hold in Washington, it's surprising to find a Capitol Hill kitchen going whole hog on syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce. Although a hefty percentage of dishes on the menu sports asterisks promising "hot, delightful and appetizing" treatment, you had better push for the peppers; as the kitchen serves it, kung pao has little more piquancy than Peking.
The problem is in the sauces, the area where Chinese cuisine in Washington has come the longest distance toward authenticity. The overall effect owes more to Chung King than Joyce Chen -- which may be a good idea for a family carry-out, but it's worth knowing in advance.
Besides, with the venerable Sampan Cafe still dishing it out down the street, such Americanized delicacy seems unnecessary.
Dumpling sauce, traditionally a sharp little mix of vinegar and black beans, here is stirred into (and virtually obliterated by) the thick plum sauce usually served with egg rolls. Hot and sour soup, though saved by a white pepper afterglow, was compromised by tepid temperature.
Hunan-style whole fish, while gorgeously presented, was served with a thick sauce that took all the tang out its onions. (And while some squeamish diners may find the open eyes in such dishes disconcerting, maraschino cherries toothpicked over them is not an improvement; in fact, it gives the fish the look of a Caravel ice-cream cake.)
It's a shame, too, because the fish, a fine big sea bass, was perfectly cooked: the meat flaky and moist, partially slashed away from the spine for easier serving, and the crust crunchy without a hint of grease.
The fried dumplings, too, were porky and substantive but badly missed the bite of a brasher dip. So did fried shrimp balls, which were quite tender inside their breading, but just a bit bland.
Ditto "Hunan Twins," Young Chow's version of chicken and shrimp "Hot! . . . with special sauce;" the shrimp was meaty and the chicken tender, but the flavor was lost to the sauces. (Inexplicably, at $10.95, this is one of the most expensive offerings.)
Squid was carefully slashed and blanched (although the size of the tentacles suggested an overmature catch), but the kung had no pow! The worst disappointment was a shredded duck with hot garlic sauce that came with a coating of oil, no garlic to speak of, and a texture more reminiscent of julienned meat than shredded poultry. (Perhaps the order didn't translate.)
So far, Young Chow is a Chinese puzzle. The ingredients are there, but the magic is missing. The chef may be a wizard, but the saucier's apprentice is having a bad spell.
After all, even if a restaurant has its heart in the right place, you have to go through the stomach to get there.
If it's just a case of short staffing (a possibility suggested by the presence of a solitary and understandably busy waiter), Young Chow would be well advised to hire a sous-chef before the restaurant gets old.