Despite the heavy student and starting-job population of the West End, there are precious few "affordable" eateries between Foggy Bottom and Georgetown. (There are some franchised small fries and pizzarias for the penurious, but even favorite fast foods lose their cheap thrills eventually.)
But one of the major attractions of most Chinese restaurants, and probably the primary reason for their traditional success in urban areas, is their ability to parlay a little money into a big plate. And the New Far East, two doors above the venerable One Step Down, should be able to put itself on the local population's required eating list.
Actually, the most traditional offerings at the New Far East are among its least interesting. The special drink menu includes all the usual Suffering Bastards and Planter's Punches, no more potent than ever; along with a few brews apparently aimed at the younger elbow-benders and trenders called the M Street Killer, the VIP Special and the Georgetown Rumor.
The fried dumplings are well made, the meat tender and the heavy dough transformed on one side into the crispiest of crusts; but the meat is badly underseasoned, and the sauce not much brighter.
On the other hand, dumplings are often specially priced at $2.95 (a half dozen), down a dollar from the usual price, and such minor qualms are easily overcome for such a bargain.
The menu depends heavily on beef and shrimp -- 18 versions of the former, a dozen of the latter -- with a single hard-shell crab dish and one sea cucumber preparation for the journeyman.
Incidentally, it's worth reading the menu rather closely, as certain dishes appear in unexpected categories. The Mongolian lamb (has anyone, a friend of mine wonders, ever been served truly uplifting Mongolian lamb?) is tucked into the beef, and the spicy bean curd casserole is listed under pork.
The "vegetarian" list includes not only Szechuan string beans and garlic eggplant, but crabmeat with mushrooms and "Crabmeat Peking Style," a mountain of crunchy, steam-green broccoli iced over with a lavish snowcap of crabmeat stirred into a cornstarch broth -- misleadingly named, but le must de crabmeat.
As specialties go, the magic word is duck. New Far East is hoping to cash in on the revived craze for Peking Duck; the $16.50 dish is available on 30 minutes' notice. Duck fans supping solo, or wanting more variety, could try Crispy Duck (fried) or Roast Duck, either of which is available half or whole.
There are also the requisite American favorites, their blandishments tending to the bland: moo shi pork, velvet chicken, beef and broccoli and "Happy Family" combination, a mishmash of vegetables, shrimp, chicken, pork -- exactly the sort of the dinner one woks up at home.
"House Special Beef" is a variation on the crispy beef theme -- julienned, dipped in seasoned sugar and double-fried -- but somehow the coating doesn't caramelize, leaving a grainy, smoky surface (somehow reminiscent of the fudge kids make before they learn enough patience to cook the sugar thoroughly).
The special dishes, on the other hand, exhibit rather more flair. Squid and scallops in black bean sauce, for example, was a generous portion of pleasingly tender cross-cut squid and scallops coddled to the consistency of egg custard, dressed with a modest but not entirely self-effacing fermented sauce. ("Hot" in this case is relative, tangy rather than torturous.)
Speaking of bargains and trends, the New Far East offers an all-you-can-eat (for $4.95) lunch buffet on Thursdays and Fridays. The sidewalk sideshow, which ranges from jazz musicians to nouveau-romantic rockers and designer mods, is free.