The fountain outside the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE pumps out limp, concentric circles of water, a decidedly un-Bellagio display that seems to underscore the bleak concrete griminess of this commercial strip. It doesn’t help that the motel exudes a Tom Waits, “Jockey Full of Bourbon” vibe or that the water in the fountain looks like the surf around Galveston after an oil spill.
The first time I pulled into this Days Inn — after I had traveled a mile or two past the motel, clearly missing my one and only chance to make a left turn anywhere near the place — I was confronted by a gentleman who insisted I fork over $20. Apparently there was an event at a nearby strip club, and the joint had contracted out the Days Inn parking lot. I refused to pony up. I informed the attendant I wasn’t going to blow my entire budget just for a parking spot. Besides, I told him, I was headed to Panda Gourmet, not to the Stadium Club.
To the more finicky eaters among us, the name Panda Gourmet alone might conjure up images every bit as seedy as those generated in a gentlemen’s club. The name can inspire an almost Pavlovian response of revulsion, a knee-jerk reaction based on years of uniformed food-court hawks passing out greasy nuggets of breaded meat-cartilage, each a little bomb of soy, sugar, salt and oil. This place is not that kind of Panda Gourmet.
This Panda Gourmet, located on the ground floor of the Days Inn just steps from the rushing traffic along New York Avenue, is an urban hideaway devoted to Sichuan and Shaanxi cuisines. Co-owner Joseph Huang has hired two chefs who specialize in the spicy-numbing ma la cooking from Sichuan province and another who exclusively pulls the noodles and bakes the breads for the Shaanxi dishes. As you might imagine, Chinese expats and dedicated chowhounds have already programmed Panda Gourmet into their GPS systems since the place opened in February.
Among critics and those four-wheeled foragers who love to “discover” restaurants, there is an awkward and sometimes self-serving tendency to overpraise the new, at the expense of the old and established. I will try to avoid this while trumpeting the genuine delights of Panda Gourmet.
Let’s start with chili-infused oil that serves as the foundation of Sichuan cooking: Panda Gourmet produces a chili oil of exquisite complexity, its flavors almost as vibrant as its color, a fire-engine red that’s not nearly as molten as the hue would suggest. When I ladled my mapo tofu over rice, I admired how the chili oil enrobed each ingredient, wrapping its fragrance, heat and flavor around everything from the silken, custardlike tofu to the tiny grains of rice, which glowed like neon. If only the kitchen had dialed up the dish’s ma la qualities — the local anesthesia of Sichuan peppercorns and the heat of chili peppers were both muted — I’d be shouting like a Telemundo soccer announcer over the mapo tofu here.
This fire suppression was a common occurrence at Panda Gourmet, even when I’d pointedly reject the Chinese-American menu handed to me, request the Chinese menu and inform the wait staff that I enjoy the numbing, nuclear interactions of Sichuan cooking. A waiter later confided that the restaurant itself has been burned — by too many Americans returning dishes deemed hotter than Sean Penn’s collar during a public tantrum.
The spiciest dish I tried at Panda Gourmet was not even Sichuan. It was the cumin-beef burger, a steer-based variation of the more common pork sandwich known as rou jia mo in Shaanxi (or “rouga mo” in Panda Gourmet). Slices of the spice-rubbed beef were tucked into a house-made bun — a saltless creation that’s part pita, part cracker — with enough pieces of hot, heart-pounding pepper to bring the dead back to life. (By contrast, the rou jia mo was more savory than superheated, as if a sloppy Joe had morphed into something far more complex and delicious.)
Even without the spectacular ma la fireworks, Panda Gourmet repeatedly ignited my palate. The slender flounder fillets that floated in my volcano/bowl of semi-hot chili sauce were just as silken as the tofu that bobbed in the same container, their delicate textures playing off the garnish of chewy soybeans.
For sheer delicacy, though, nothing topped the hand-pulled Shaanxi biang biang noodles, these wide downy ribbons dusted liberally with toasted spices and scallions; they were so ethereal they were more like a suggestion of noodles, as if their form was defined as much by the dry spices they ferried. Compare the biang biang noodles to the Shaanxi cold-steamed noodles, a dish that revels in its layering of textures — spongy tofu, velvety strands and crunchy mung-bean sprouts.
The mother of all noodles, however, goes by the name of Dan Dan. My dish of the stuff was almost too pretty to eat: ivory-white strands curled on a plate and topped with crumbled pork and scallion ringlets, the whole lounging in a liquid approximately the color of red-wine sauce. The noodles provided all the resistance of overripe bananas, while simultaneously releasing their starchiness, which combined with the chili oil to perform a kind of Chinese massage of the mouth. I am not joking.
In some ways, Panda Gourmet’s modest approach to spice allows you to revel in the complexity of Sichuan and Shaanxi cooking, nuances that could easily get lost in the radiation burn of peppers. You might discover, for instance, that the melt-in-your-mouth flounder in the Sichuan “fiery pot” deserves just as much attention as the chili oil that tries to drown it.
2700 New York Ave. NE. 202-534-1620. www.pandagourmetdc.
Hours: 11 a.m. to
10 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro station: Rhode Island Avenue, a 1.7-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $8.95-$19.95.