The two storefronts sit side by side on a semi-fashionable strip of 14th Street NW. Their facades are basically a diptych that tells the story of Chinese food in Washington over the past three decades.
On the left is a Yum’s carryout, its bright blue awning advertising a familiar litany of comestibles — CHICKEN SALAD SUBS SEAFOOD & CHINESE FOOD — likely in descending order of importance to many D.C. diners in the 1980s. On the right is Da Hong Pao Restaurant and Bar, a place that specializes in Cantonese cooking, including a daily running of the dim-sum carts.
Both places are owned by Jerry and Janice Chen, a pair of natives from Fuzhou, China, who tied the knot in America in 1984. Four years later, they opened Yum’s in a Logan Circle neighborhood that was, at the time, better known for hustlers on the street than chefs in the kitchen. If you had uttered the words “dim sum” to someone on 14th Street in 1988, you probably would have received a blank stare — or maybe a roundhouse to the head just for causing confusion.
More than 30 years later, dim sum has become destination dining for countless weekend brunchers, who will stand in line, whether on a frigid winter sidewalk or in a sterile suburban mall, for the chance to sip hot tea and bite into beef rice crepes, pork dumplings, turnip cakes and many other delicacies served up in threes and fours. If the late food critic Jonathan Gold’s inner life were measured out in “radishes, meat and limes,” a dim-sum lover marks time — and maybe even discovers ecstasy — in a spread of small plates, steamer tins and a bottomless pot of jasmine tea.
Except, for many Washingtonians, the ecstasy is immediately followed by the agony known as a long drive back home. It’s been common knowledge for years that the best dim-sum parlors are in the ’burbs, maybe in a shopping mall in Wheaton or a strip center in Falls Church. The District has been, more or less, a dim-sum wasteland, save for the faded, red-carpet elegance of Tony Cheng’s in Chinatown and the stylized, Wolfgang Puck-approved Saturday dim-sum brunch at the Source.
When Da Hong Pao debuted in 2016, the Chens promised a Cantonese feast right in the District, featuring a menu with more than 200 dishes, far more than any mere mortal could possibly sample. With 50-plus dishes, the couple’s dim-sum menu was not only more accessible for Washingtonians but also more manageable for a critic on deadline. The dim sum is available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
Back when Da Hong Pao opened, I thought its three dim-sum chefs from Hong Kong were turning out a rather timid assortment of plates: har gow king prawn dumplings split indecorously at the seams; deep-fried pork dumplings almost bereft of seasoning; rice crepes whose semi-translucent skins were too thick to appreciate the fillings. Those initial plates suggested, to me at least, that the chefs were still mastering the many skills demanded of them: the dough-making, the steaming, the deep-frying, the baking, the pleating, all the elements that add up to the edible artwork that is dim sum.
After all but writing off Da Hong Pao’s dim sum, I made a random return visit about six months ago and was struck by the improvement, which was (mostly) confirmed by subsequent meals. I found har gow with perfect pleats, as gorgeous as seashells at sunset; soft, gelatinous chicken feet coated with a black-bean sauce that tingled the lips; fried taro-root cakes funkified with dried shrimp; shrimp rice crepes as warm and light as barely set egg whites; siu mai pork-and-shrimp dumplings wrapped in a gossamer-thin wrapper; emerald-colored pastries perfumed with the sweet, delirious stink of durian; roast duck all lacquered up and chopped up into bony, bite-size pieces for immediate gratification.
I also found that the best way to enjoy your dim sum here is to order the house drink: a pot of da hong pao, the legendary Chinese oolong tea that can trace its origins to the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian province. This is not “mother tree” da hong pao, considered the most expensive tea on Earth, but a more accessible blend, which produces a pale apricot-colored brew, at once roasty and stone-fruity and wonderful to sip, or just hold in your hands on a cold day. The tea makes for a fine companion to whatever plates you assemble from the hand-push carts that roam the dining room, a drop-ceiling space with a minimum of decor but white tablecloths on every two-top and four-top.
The staff is so attentive you may feel as if they’re on a stakeout. Your water glass will be forever full, your teapot always replenished and your empty steamer tins removed posthaste. Servers will also inquire, repeatedly, about your meal. One afternoon I laid out my whole bittersweet history with Da Hong Pao to a server, and she nodded appreciatively. She suggested there was a new chef in charge of the dim sum, which explained the improvements. This turned out to be a strange bit of fiction, as I learned later from Diana Chen, daughter of Jerry and Janice. Diana Chen said there have been no wholesale changes in the kitchen, only modifications and refinements along the way.
Whatever the reason, Da Hong Pao has become a dim-sum parlor that now hits its marks more often than it misses them. The restaurant has not yet reached the heights of Hollywood East Cafe, which remains the gold standard, or Vinh Kee, whose XO turnip cake may be my single favorite dim-sum plate in the entire Washington region. But Da Hong Pao has wormed its way into the conversation of dim-sum establishments that, when running on all cylinders, prove that the line between commerce and the culinary arts is very fine indeed.
1409 14th St. NW, 202-846-7229, dahongpaorestaurant.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo or Shaw-Howard University, with a 0.6-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4.25 to $9.45 for dim-sum plates.