Lilly Qin speaks about her mom’s mapo tofu the same way you might talk about your mother’s lasagna or pozole or fried chicken or whatever childhood dish that you loved, and still love, with every fiber of your being. In her 35 years, Qin has never sampled a version of the celebrated Sichuan dish that could improve upon the one of her youth.
“Nobody does it better than her,” she says about mom’s bowl of silken tofu suspended in a chili oil that numbs the lips and microwaves the tongue, those twin ma-la disruptions to the system. Qin’s words practically hang in the air like a dare.
Perhaps you think Qin has no perspective on this subject, her objectivity blinded by a daughter’s love and by the power of those first flavors imprinted on a child’s blank slate of a palate. This might be true if Qin’s mother were an ordinary civilian, and by “ordinary civilian,” I mean the kind of maternal being who must typically find time to cook in between working, parenting and nurturing the emotional state of everyone around her.
Qin’s mother, however, is not an ordinary civilian. Sharon Lu is a Sichuan native who has devoted years of her life to the formal study of her native provincial cuisine. Lu, her daughter says with a mix of pride and wonder, had to memorize the flavors of 500 ingredients, give or take a few, so that she could have instant recall of how each should taste. After running their own restaurants, including Sichuan Village in Chantilly, Va., Lu and her husband moved into semiretirement — until it dawned on Qin, an accountant by training, that her mom wouldn’t always be around to whip up her favorite dishes.
Enter Fahrenheit Asian, a modest McLean soup and noodle house that doubles as Qin’s family recipe archival project, one abetted by her father, David Qin, also a chef. Fahrenheit is something of a mother-daughter reunion, too. “She’s been busy. I’ve been busy,” Qin says. “This is the first time we could come together and talk about things and develop a different relationship.”
When Fahrenheit debuted in late 2016, the place didn’t even sell mapo tofu. Qin and her parents wanted to keep the menu small and manageable, but one day when Lu had prepared a batch for her own lunch, a customer asked if he could sample her mapo tofu. His reaction convinced mother and daughter that they needed to expand their offerings. “The guy was like, ‘You have to put this on the menu. You’ll have so many more customers,’” Qin recalled.
I must confess that, before this conversation with Qin, I had not tried the mapo tofu, focusing instead on dishes that struck me as unique to Fahrenheit, such as the Sichuan glass-noodle preparation called, with figurative flair, “ants climbing on a tree.” (Its brittle, almost al dente pasta runs counter to the more slippery strands found in dishes like the exquisite Chongqing spicy noodles.) But after our talk, I had to slip back into Fahrenheit, hopefully without detection, to place a to-go order of those tofu cubes in chili oil. (If you order the dish to eat at the restaurant, it’s served on a tabletop burner, to mimic the flavors fresh off the wok.)
Once in the car with my mapo tofu, I popped the take out lid and was immediately struck by its electric sheen, its color somewhere on the spectrum between red brick and blood. Even in its black plastic container, even with the poor illumination of my car’s dome light, this dish commanded attention, its invitation impossible to ignore. I broke the joint on my wooden chopsticks and started plucking out squares of tofu, each one coated in oil and a light sprinkling of ground Sichuan peppercorns. The tofu had the texture of custard yet was firm enough to stand up to the meaner ingredients. The complexity was impressive: There was sweetness, pungency, meatiness and the clean, cooling rush of pine needles.
If I’ve had a better mapo tofu, I couldn’t remember when.
Strictly speaking, Fahrenheit isn’t a Sichuan restaurant. As a kind of risk management, the family has opted to take a wider, pan-Asian approach to the establishment, which explains why you’ll find a spicy Thai soup and jajangmyeon, the noodly Korean comfort food, on the menu. (The latter is a Sichuan-influenced impostor, without a trace of earthiness or umami, trying to pass itself off as jajangmyeon.) Mother and daughter are far more successful in their experiments in fusion, starting with their soups, which split the difference between Sichuan hot pots and Korean bone broths.
One afternoon before leaving on a flight for France, where my first meal would be a tasting menu at the Michelin three-star Paul Bocuse in Lyon, I found myself staring into a pot of beef broth, which roiled atop a potable burner on my table at Fahrenheit. Slices of beef, still pink and semi-frozen, were shaved over a marsh of ingredients already submerged in the soup. Whatever morsel you plucked from the liquid — a shriveled length of freshly simmered beef, or wide, translucent strips of mung-bean noodles — each was bathed in broth, at once sweet and spicy and savory. The skill required to develop this kind of depth of flavor, I thought, would impress even those Michelin inspectors who cling to their clean, clarified bowls of consommé.
The family sometimes reimagines dishes that you didn’t realize needed reimagining. The onion pancake, its surface blistered and browned like a Neapolitan pizza, is paired not with a standard soy sauce-based condiment. Instead, it arrives with a lacquered dipping sauce, built with fermented soybean paste, which anchors the airy appetizer to the dark, compound earth. Then there is Fahrenheit’s pan-fried pot stickers: The kitchen rolls out its own wrappers, thin and wide, which are stuffed with your choice of filling. The large, delicately draped dumplings sport a crispy edge and, when dipped in a black vinegar-infused sauce, explode like fireworks on first bite.
The pot stickers, I dare say, could easily become your baseline dumpling, the one against which others are compared, much like Lilly Qin and her childhood mapo tofu.
1313 Dolley Madison Blvd., McLean, Va. 703-646-8968; fahrenheitasian.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. Sunday.
Prices: $6.99 to $12.99 for appetizers, and $9.99 to $21.99 for entrees.