A few months earlier, on a gorgeous fall afternoon, I walked into Great Wall on 14th Street NW for the first time in what seemed like forever. I was surprised to see Kuang at the cash register; I thought she had extracted herself from day-to-day operations because, whenever I did visit, she was never there. Or at least not where I could lay eyes on her. But she was there on that October afternoon, and per our usual greeting ritual, her face lit up, my face lit up and we gave each other a hug.
I don’t have this kind of relationship with many restaurant owners and chefs, but Kuang and Chen are different. I met them in 2006, a lucky break really, after cold-calling countless places in my OCD pursuit of a story. I was the Young & Hungry columnist for Washington City Paper at the time and was searching for genuine ma-la cooking, not the stuff you’d often find in Cantonese-owned restaurants, where the kitchen tries to pass off chopped breast meat smothered in chile flake and oil as Sichuan chicken. The printed menu at Great Wall back then wasn’t promising. It featured the usual multi-page scroll of Chinese American dishes, but Kuang told me her husband could prepare the real stuff if I wanted it.
When I arrived at Great Wall all those years ago, Kuang and I spoke through a small opening in the bulletproof Plexiglas — and around our language differences. She introduced her husband, Chen, and indicated that he was a master Sichuan chef. I had no idea what that meant at the time. Over the next few visits to the restaurant, Chen gave me a personal tour of Sichuan cuisine and beyond: He fed me mapo tofu, double-cooked pork, ma-la dumplings, eggplant in Sichuan garlic sauce, even elaborate, Imperial-style dishes featuring carved vegetables and carefully engineered ingredients arranged to look like peacock plumage.
Kuang and Chen taught me about Sichuan cooking, and I, in turn, suggested that the District was ready for Chen’s ma-la dishes, which were available only by special request for diners in the know. The advice led to a separate ma-la menu at Great Wall and, eventually, to greater success, a renovation of the dining room (so long, bulletproof glass!) and the admiration of Washingtonians for more than a decade now. This helps explain Kuang’s beaming smile, our embrace and my constant battle to pay the check whenever I arrive at Great Wall. I have literally hidden money under plates only to have Kuang chase me down the sidewalk to try to give it back.
Kuang and Chen treat me more as an honored guest than as a customer, and in my desire to maintain some sense of journalistic distance, I’m sure I have breached a few Chinese protocols on the host-guest relationship. The fact is, it’s hard. I have genuine affection for this couple. I’m always happy to spend time with them, even in October when I learned about Chen’s accident.
He was working a high-powered wok in April 2019, preparing an order of orange chicken, when the lid of a squeeze bottle popped off. After a couple of conversations with Kuang, I’m still not sure whether the bottle was oil, an orange extract or something else altogether, but it doesn’t matter. The liquid was flammable, and it instantly engulfed Chen in flames. He spent 10 days in the ICU, and another eight in a regular hospital room, with burns to his chest, arms, neck and face.
“That day, I was off at home,” Kuang says, “so I didn’t know anything.”
Chen spent nearly three months at home recuperating. Kuang prepared him a lot of soup to help the recovery process. By August, the chef returned to the kitchen part time, but Kuang wasn’t sure about the wisdom of running Great Wall anymore, some 17 years after they opened it in 2002. She thought it smart to give her husband more time to heal.
“I think, ‘Maybe we cannot handle this restaurant,’ ” she says. “That’s why we put it on the market to sell.”
If there were few interested buyers before the pandemic, it’s crickets now. Kuang and Chen tried takeout and delivery for a brief period, but fretted about the health of their staff and customers. But after shutting down all operations for six weeks, the couple returned to their restaurant on May 1 for takeout and delivery only. They have placed a table at the 14th Street entrance for touchless pickups. No one can enter the restaurant, potentially exposing Chen, 60, to a virus that is particularly cruel to older folks.
But Kuang and Chen feel happier now that they’re back in business, and I do, too. Since their return, I’ve ordered from Great Wall several times, even if it requires a 30-minute drive from our home, not a 15-minute walk from the office. I’ve delighted in many of my favorites from Chen’s kitchen: mapo tofu, with custardy curds that provide a cool counterbalance to the chile oil; Chinese eggplant in Sichuan garlic sauce, a dish that lubricates your palate before flooding it with sweet, muted aromatics; slippery ma-la wontons, whose sheen of oil lights up your skull; boiled fish with sour mustard greens, a preparation that doesn’t begin to describe the silky and decidedly spicy elements of the dish; even a Peking duck, a plate that would seem outside Chen’s wheelhouse but which he executes with great skill.
Like so many of their peers, Chen and Kuang are limping along during this pandemic, their sales about half of what they once were. Kuang jokes that they’re basically working for the landlord, with whom they have a good relationship. Neither are complaining. They get to work. They get to see their regulars. They get to feed people. They plan to ride out the storm if they have to. They are the very embodiment of “hospitality,” beyond the transactional niceties required of the industry.
“We get less money, not a problem,” Kuang tells me. “We’re still living. Right? I hope you understand what I’m saying to you.”
She then pauses for a second and adds, “It’s service.”
If you go
Great Wall Szechuan House
1527 14th St. NW, 202-797-8888 or 202-797-0098; greatwallszechuan.com.
Nearest Metro: U St./African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, with a 0.6-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.75 to $13.95 for appetizers and soups; $8.95 to $18.95 for chef’s specials, lunch plates and other entrees.