"Welcome," intones a computer-generated voice when diners push open the door to Chop Stix at Muddy Branch. But with 70 percent of its clientele of Chinese descent and dozens of entrees more traditional Chinese fare than chicken chow mein, you'd almost expect to be welcomed with a "Ni hao," hello in Chinese.
Although the cuisine is several notches above fast food, waiters don't come to the table. Instead, diners order at the front of the restaurant from one of three color-coded paper menus or from specials listed on a board. After paying (no credit cards accepted), diners are given a number to take back to their table. Within about 10 minutes, the order will arrive.
Although the three menus overlap a little, and all are printed in English and Chinese, the green one is intended more for diners who are accustomed to egg drop soup and shrimp with cashew nuts. The entrees, which range from $7.50 to $11.95, include kung pao shrimp, sweet and sour pork, and beef with broccoli. Lunch specials, available daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., include an entree and spring roll for $5.39 to $6.25.
Although the dishes on the green menu include many of the standard Chinese American fare, the fresh, just slightly stir-fried vegetables in the dishes make them stand out. That may be because owner Alex Li also owns the Vegetable Garden in Rockville, which serves only vegetable-based dishes.
In addition, Li owns two other Chinese restaurants in Montgomery County. He used to own Chop Stix restaurant in Rockville, but sold it several years ago. He opened Chop Stix at Muddy Branch seven years ago.
Next in the trio of menus is one for dim sum. The yellow menu includes many choices, including $1.50 for two sweet red bean rice balls, and Cantonese-style crispy seafood noodles for $9.95. Eight steamed vegetable dumplings are $4.50.
The beef chow foon includes fat noodles at least a half-inch wide with generous chunks of beef. A dozen soups are on the dim sum menu, such as the hearty fish, pork and black mushroom noodle soup, and a broth brimming with spinach and bean curd.
The menu most Chinese diners order from is pink and titled "The Real Home Style Chinese Meals," in case there was any question about their authenticity. The soup of the day is included with any of the 70 dishes. Order one entree for $7.95, two for $15.62 or three for $23.19 to share.
One of the most popular dishes, Li said, is a fiery pork dish with dry bean curd, a tofu that's really not dry, just less squishy than those found in many other Chinese dishes. Another popular item is kung pao tofu or chicken, a more incendiary version than that found on the green menu, with none of the usual green pepper slices.
Other home-style dishes include pork and squid; Chinese broccoli with garlic; chicken with scallions and ginger; and hot pots steaming with bean curd, shrimp, pork or vegetables, or a combination.
Many Chinese families choose the round tables in the center of the dining room, inset with Lazy Susans so that the dishes can be passed easily. Booths line the sides of the room, and the walls are decorated with framed Chinese calligraphy. In addition, a party room at the back of the restaurant can be reserved for groups as large as 30 people.
Chop Stix at Muddy Branch, 820 Muddy Branch Rd., in the Muddy Branch Shopping Center, Gaithersburg, 301-330-2458. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.