The brick facade still sports the name of the previous tenant, a vegetarian shop that engineered such bastardized dishes as vegan kung-pao chicken and meat-free Chinese barbecue pork. The obsolete name, in fact, dwarfs a tiny framed sign that announces the new occupant of this prime real estate within sniffing distance of the University of Maryland’s hungry student body.
Just don’t mistake the new tenant, Northwest Chinese Food, for the former one, OVO Simply Veggie. They may share a taste for cheap Asian eats, but the two establishments could hardly be more dissimilar. Northwest Chinese owner Hua Wang has no interest in re-engineering the dishes of her homeland just to attract the swelling number of vegans on college campuses.
“I like to make the traditional local Chinese food,” Wang says, needlessly apologizing for her English skills. “I like the American people to try . . . the real Chinese food.”
Wang hails from Shenyang in Liaoning Province, a region known for flavors as bold and exaggerated as a certain presidential candidate. Her dishes, heavy on noodles, are a frontal assault of garlic, chili oil and aged Shaanxi vinegar, a smoky, woody, inky liquid made from sorghum, barley and peas. You’ll be wiping both your hands and your nose when dining here.
Most of the noodles are not prepared in-house, save for the liang pi variety, these translucent wheat-flour ribbons whose name translates into “cold skin,” which is both a misnomer and, well, a surefire appetite suppressant. Rest assured, you members of the Terrapin vegan army: No animals were harmed in the production of the liang pi noodles. The slightly chewy pasta is paired with all kinds of contrasting textures — peanuts, mung beans, tofu, slivers of hothouse cucumbers — and coated in chili oil and vinegar, which detonate into blast waves of spice and sourness.
Wang grew up on many of the cold dishes on her menu. She’s particularly fond of the spicy potato noodles and the “Northwest peanuts,” a pair of dishes that are easy to embrace even without happy childhood memories attached. The former is a glistening tangle of potato strands, ignited with more of that hot-and-sour sauce, not to mention obscene amounts of minced garlic. The latter is a pile of skin-on peanuts clinging for life in a pool of dark, viscous sauce that shows no mercy to either animal or legume.
The relentlessness of Northwest Chinese Food’s assault fascinates me, largely because it runs counter to the typical college-town eatery, which has historically assumed students have the sugar-obsessed cravings of an 8-year-old on Halloween. Chinese restaurants near campuses tend to trade in cornstarch-laden morsels ladled over white rice, or stir-fried beef and broccoli slathered in brown sauce, not regional Liaoning fare heavy on the aged black vinegar. Wang’s place in College Park signals a shift from the Yum-ification of Chinese cuisine.
Just as fascinating is the inherent geography lesson of Northwest Chinese Food. The owner’s home town rests squarely in northeastern China, not far from the North Korean border. But the name of her restaurant flips the map, placing its emphasis on an opposite quadrant. Wang’s rationale, at first, seems contradictory to my Western thinking: She says she loves the dishes from northwest China, particularly those grounded in Shaanxi cuisine. But when I review a map, I place Shaanxi closer to northeast or central China. Cartographers take a different view: They officially lump Shaanxi in the northwest.
My dessert tonight will be humble pie.
You can taste the Shaanxi influence in the small line of “burgers,” these meaty, hand-held bites known as rou jia mo in the Chinese province. The kitchen bakes its own thin, chewy buns for the sandwiches, and the bread works exceptionally well with the stewed pork burger, whose oiliness and juiciness seem to saturate every pore of the crackery bun. Make sure the server has stocked the napkin tray before you dig in. The spicy cumin lamb burger doesn’t scorch the earth like a similar, incendiary sandwich over at Panda Gourmet on New York Avenue NE, where the kitchen also dabbles in Shaanxi cooking. But, seriously, you’d need to be a Class A masochist to seek such heat; I’m content with Northwest Chinese’s spice level.
The noodle dishes come with broth or without it. The former category includes a pork-and-mushroom bowl in which the sliced shiitakes prove as meaty as the featured protein swimming in a light, savory, opaque broth. The liquid at the base of the spicy beef noodles provides the faintest whiff of sweetness to dance around the chili-flake fire of the dish.
To me, the noodle bowls, sans broth, have more character, even when funneling humble, home-style Chinese cooking. Take the tomato-and-egg noodles. This bowl is pure comfort: a big mess of oiled-up noodles tossed with scrambled eggs, chopped tomatoes, garlic, cabbage and chili flake. Attention frat boys: This is your new late-night drunk food. If I were to channel my inner bro, I might even order a bowl of hot oil-seared noodles after a night of 12-ounce curls. The dish boasts enough garlic and chili flake to sober up Sinatra.
Whether bro or real-estate broker, anyone who sets foot in Northwest Chinese Food must accept a modest amount of dysfunction. It’s not just the decorative water wall that has apparently run dry or the semi-crooked shelves of Chinese products that you cannot buy, or even touch. It’s also the tiny cocktail napkins that are supposed to mop up all the oil on your fingers. Or the squat paper water cups that get drained fast — and refilled slowly — when the chili burn hits. Or the menu with new dishes written in longhand into the margins.
I point out these shortcomings not to revel in the operation’s flaws but as tips for improvement. Because, to my mind, Northwest Chinese Food is just a few small steps away from a regional Chinese destination. In a college town, no less.
7313 Baltimore Ave., College Park. 240-714-4473.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro station: College Park, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.