The other day, a colleague asked me whether I had eaten at Panda Gourmet lately. The dry, neutral tone of her voice hinted at the unpleasantness she was about to share: She and some friends had a substandard meal there, poor enough that she wondered if the restaurant had changed hands or something.
Her intel was alarming. In February, I placed Panda Gourmet (2700 New York Ave. NE, 202-534-1620) atop my list of Washington’s best Chinese restaurants, despite its sometimes aloof service and its location inside a Days Inn that looks like the setting for a “No Country for Old Men” gunfight. I needed to reassess the place, fast.
To answer the most pressing question, yes, Panda Gourmet is still owned by Joseph Huang and his two partners, same as always. Which led me to ask whether Huang has had turnover in the kitchen, because my recent experiences, while not nearly as tortured as my colleague’s, were off in ways that I had not encountered in previous visits.
The most absurd example was the cold-skin noodles, an import from Shaanxi province and a specialty at Panda Gourmet. The elements of the dish were all there: the malty sensuousness of black vinegar, the pepper clocking of chile oil, the spongy nuzzle of mian jin (tiny cubes of solidified wheat gluten). At issue were the wheat noodles, a motley collection of strands that looked like they were cut by someone in a zero-gravity kitchen. Some ribbons were thick. Some were thin. Some were wide. Some were narrow. Some were wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, looking like a child’s distracted scissoring.
The cumin lamb, a Muslim-influenced dish native to Xinjiang province, was just as perplexing. The gnarly pieces of lamb were stir-fried with large, clumsy sections of red and green bell peppers, multicolored mufflers to a motor that usually runs clean and hot. Worse, the cumin seeds were applied as if they were as precious as saffron threads: The seeds were so few, the dish was deprived of its musky pungency.
The hot tub of fish fillets and silken tofu in hot chile oil played down the mala — that is, the spicy and numbing — qualities of the dish, despite about 1,000 dried chile pepper husks floating on the surface. Give or take a few husks. I didn’t necessarily see this as a sign of trouble: Panda Gourmet has a track record of muting the mala on its Sichuan dishes for non-Chinese customers. I should have pressed the issue with the waiter from the start.
The kitchen, however, showed no mercy with the cumin beef Chinese burger, a Shaanxi snack whose crackerlike bun was packed with these softened strips of chile pepper, their seeds still attached like the suckers on an octopus. This beauty burned bright and long. The steamed dumplings in chile oil were equally spot-on: Their wrappers were thin, almost translucent, each one slippery with oil, at once sweet and pungent. The dumplings disappeared faster than a dog at bath time.
Huang says that any inconsistencies at Panda Gourmet have less to do with the new chef he hired from Xi’an last year, and more to do with the line cooks under the two Chinese nationals who run the kitchen, one from Shaanxi and one from Sichuan. When the head chefs are present, the owner said, the cooking is more consistent than without them. Results should improve, he added, as the crews gain more experience with provincial Chinese dishes.
Florida Avenue Grill (1100 Florida Ave. NW, 202-265-1586). Earlier this year, Washingtonians almost lost Florida Avenue Grill to the auction block. Mercifully, owner Imar Hutchins was able to settle a lawsuit against his financier, allowing him to keep the flattops sizzling at the oldest continuously operating soul food restaurant in America.
A near-death experience always gives one a new appreciation for life, and Florida Avenue Grill’s flirtation with the big sleep made me want to revaluate my relationship with the historic diner, founded in 1944 by Bertha and Lacey C. Wilson. I didn’t want my 2013 review to be the last word on the place, particularly now that soul food continues to fight for its survival in a changing and contradictory dining culture, which borrows the bold flavors from African American foodways but doesn’t always support the diners where the food was served for generations.
In recent weeks, I’ve bellied up to the counter at Florida Avenue Grill four times, and I think I’ve finally solved the mystery to my roller-coaster experiences: The best dishes here are prepared to order by the short-order cooks who run the griddles behind the counter, the original open kitchen. They are masters of the flattop and spatula, turning out scrambled eggs with a custardlike consistency, bacon so expertly rendered it shatters on first bite and pancakes with scalloped edges and downy interiors.
The dinner plates, by contrast, are a crapshoot: I enjoyed a pair of golden, Cajun-spiced catfish fillets, fried to order, even if the closest thing to Louisiana seasoning was the black pepper. But the diner’s famous pan-fried chicken — “our special recipe has been passed down in the oral tradition for 70+ years,” the menu says — was a reheat. The bird parts were fried earlier in the day, then warmed in the oven, leaving you with a plate of lukewarm chicken, with loose, listless skin. A recipe with such history deserves better.
My advice for navigating Florida Avenue Grill? If you can see the cooks preparing the dish, order it.
More from Food: