From the moment my review was published in August 2013, I started hearing complaints about Panda Gourmet. It’s on the ground floor of a dumpy motel! It’s hard to reach when traveling east on New York Avenue NE! The staff has all the warmth of test dummies!
I’ve heard these criticisms, and, sometimes, I’ve experienced them personally. But even when my server seemed to enter a witness protection program after dropping off our dishes, I could never find room in my heart to hold that against Panda Gourmet. Maybe it’s because my heart — and my tongue and brain — were always in a fevered state from the Sichuan chili oil.
Panda Gourmet has become a semi-frequent haunt for a group of my friends that goes by a nickname that’s unprintable in these modest pages. We earned our handle for believing in the value of loud, boisterous living, even in public spaces. We get a lot of dirty looks. One member of our merry band of miscreants is quick to recommend a return trip to the Panda, which usually inspires a small sigh from the critic in me, who doesn’t want to revisit a proven restaurant when so many are yet to be discovered.
But then my friends and I will sit around a giant table, the lazy Susan groaning under the weight of our Sichuan and Shaanxi dishes, and I’ll remember all over again why I love the place. Panda Gourmet sweats the important details — the depth and quality of its chili oil, the texture of its house-made noodles, the potency of its spices — without losing track of other essential Chinese elements, such as saltiness, bitterness and sweetness.
The place may have its faults, but rarely do they appear on the table, which is why Panda Gourmet tops my list of favorite Chinese restaurants in the area.
To be frank, this list was trickier to compile than I imagined. Our region is rich with the cooking of Chinese immigrants, whether they’re from Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai or some other province in a country that has had a huge influence on the world’s pantry. The list forced me to boot some restaurants that I admire and ignore a whole class of dim-sum parlors for the sake of convenience (my convenience mostly, because I’m writing about dim sum for a future package).
In short, it’s a flawed list, but mostly because of the places it excludes. And just to be clear: I make no apologies for Rockville’s dominance here. Serious fans of Chinese cookery know the suburb is a destination for the country’s rainbow blaze of dishes.
10. Bob’s Shanghai 66 (305 N. Washington St., Rockville. 301-251-6652). Although Bob’s offers a substantial number of dim-sum plates, the place is not limited to them. Bob’s provides a well-curated menu of regional Chinese cooking, including spicy pig’s ears, cumin lamb and the soup dumplings that generate so much traffic.
9. Nanjing Bistro (11213 Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 703-385-8686, nanjingbistro.com). The menu at this strip-center operation wanders all over the place, but stays focused on house specialties such as the Nanjing wonton soup or the Nanjing-style beef noodle soup with its thick, toothsome strands that add texture to the thin-yet-potent broth.
8. China Wok (8395 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. 703-893-4488 or 703-893-4489). I visit this spot for basically one reason: to pay my respects to a legend. Now in his mid-80s, chef Wang Wen Fang is the fedora-topped master behind the Peking duck, a dish that he carves tableside with the grace and dexterity of Baryshnikov.
7. Peter Chang (20A Maryland Ave., Rockville., 301-838-9188; 2503-E North Harrison St., Arlington. 703-538-6688, peterchangarlington.com). As much as I admire master chef Peter Chang’s cooking — and his business plan to mainstream authentic Chinese cooking — I sometimes sense he’s stretched thin. His restaurants are uneven, but their peaks (dry-fried eggplant, hot and numbing flounder, scallion bubble pancake) are breathtaking.
6. Big Wang’s Cuisine (16051 Frederick Rd., Derwood, Md. 301-977-7676). This mysterious outpost has impressed me with its meticulous approach to Sichuan cuisine, starting with an infused chili oil that requires 12 hours to reach full maturity. Take a chance on the stir-fried pig’s feet, the spicy dry hot pot or the Sichuan-style fish fillets, which are as radioactive as promised.
5. Great Wall Szechuan House (1527 14th St. NW. 202-797-8888, greatwallszechuanhouse.com). One of the first Chinese restaurants in the District to take a chance on authentic Sichuan cuisine, the 14th Street institution remains one of my favorites for its many ma-la (or spicy and numbing) dishes, including ma-la cucumbers, chicken and mapo tofu.
4. Shanghai Taste (1121 Nelson St., Rockville. 301-279-0806). The soup dumplings attract all the attention — particularly on the weekend, when a rare pan-fried version is available — but there are pleasures beyond the molten pockets. Such as: the garlic-sauce noodle soup with pork, the shumai with glutinous rice and the salty crispy fish.
3. Northwest Chinese Food (7313 Baltimore Ave., College Park. 240-714-4473). The owner of this tiny noodle house hails from Liaoning province, near North Korea, where the dishes have dominant, almost overbearing personalities, many pumped up with garlic, chili oil and woody Shaanxi vinegar. The liang pi, or “cold skin,” noodles are a good place to start, but also try the spicy potato noodles, the tomato-and-egg noodles and the spicy cumin lamb burger.
2. Joe’s Noodle House (1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301-881-5518, joesnoodlehouse.com). Amid all the changes along Rockville Pike, Joe’s Noodle House has remained a constant comfort for more than 15 years — as long as, of course, you find comfort in such searing fare as Dan Dan noodles, Sichuan-style soft bean curd and the cumin-sprinkled dry-sauteed beef.
1. Panda Gourmet (2700 New York Ave. NE. 202-534-1620,
pandagourmetdc.net). Don’t obsess over the place’s cosmetic shortcomings. Luxuriate in its Sichuan and Shaanxi fare, such as the delicate hand-pulled Shaanxi biang biang noodles, the blistering cumin-beef burger, the sauteed string beans, the seafood and tofu in hot pot and many more.