If any fish deserves more face time in Washington, it’s the sugar toad. Until I encountered it at Queen’s English, a little Valentine to Hong Kong-style cooking in Columbia Heights, the finny inhabitant of the Chesapeake Bay seemed to be the sole reserve of the Dabney, Jeremiah Langhorne’s tribute to the Mid-Atlantic in Blagden Alley.
“They are lovely little creatures,” says Henji Cheung, the chef at Queen’s English, which he co-owns with Sarah Thompson, his wife. Surely he jests. Sugar toads are named such partly because they’re as attractive as, well, toads. Their texture and flavor — imagine monkfish crossed with lobster — make up for their appearance, however. Also known as puffer fish, the meaty little torpedo shapes are rolled in spiced rice flour and briefly fried at Queen’s English, where they’re delivered with instructions by a server. “Pick them up and eat around the bone” that runs the length of the fish, she says, and “be sure to eat the tail.”
Big rewards follow the marching orders. The combination of crisp-steamy fish dappled with rice wine vinegar ramped up with pink peppercorns sparks serious joy. When we reach the end of the bone, we bite off the small tail and discover a rival to Ruffles.
Queen’s English has fewer than 40 seats, but it swells with charms, starting on the sidewalk with a water bowl for dogs (“Doggy Bar: water served neat,” reads a sign) and a facade painted green to match the frog-shaped jade necklace the chef wears as a good luck totem. Inside, diners are greeted by a chest of Chinese apothecary drawers and treated to walls that could have been airlifted from some faraway teahouse. Wherever your eyes settle, there’s something to admire, from the six kitchen-counter stools, padded in blue velvet and angled just so, to the outsize stamp of a coronation-era Queen Elizabeth gracing the wall opposite the restrooms.
Thompson, who watches over the front of the house, also oversees the drinks program. Cocktails are in keeping with what Cheung is cooking, and if there’s a gotta-get here, it’s the celery-colored, mezcal-lit Lillibet. Its garnish of wok-roasted prickly ash has the same pleasant numbing effect on the tongue as Sichuan peppercorns. Keep the drink in mind during the next Code Red heat alert.
Yet another hook at Queen’s English is a bowl of steamed clams strewn with crumbled pork and smoky peppers, a ginger-snapped dish the chef remembers eating when he was just a boy in his native Hong Kong, tagging along with his older brother to meet friends in the shopping neighborhood of Mong Kok. “The dish brings back a lot of memories,” says Cheung, 38, whose family relocated to Bensonhurst in New York City when he was 8 but who visited Hong Kong every summer.
Speaking of memories, the chef is good at creating them for his customers. Take his lamb ribs, seasoned with cracked peppercorns “and proprietary spices I can’t reveal,” says a server. Parts of the braised meat are black and crisp from charbroiling, while other parts remind you how fat is a vehicle for flavor. Pickled red onions are the perfect counterpoint to the rich meat, and if you’re looking for just the right red wine to wash it back, try the Cacique Maravilla Pipeño País from Chile. Just as our server described it, the wine, made solely from país grapes, smelled like an old book. But the naturally fermented juice, bright with red berry flavors and pleasantly earthy, drank just fine.
Clouds of steam and fajitas-like sizzle announce the arrival of crab and asparagus cooked in a cast-iron pan and rushed to the table. A puddle of sauce coaxed from vinegar, soy sauce and rock sugar imbued seafood and vegetable with sweet tang. Ever had a “naked” dumpling? The description is a pretty misnomer for a springy patty of shrimp and scallops positioned near lacy crackers whipped up from little more than flour and oil in a hot pan. The pink dumplings come with a red condiment that will have you breathing fire afterward. (A little dab will do.)
Shell-on fried shrimp look as if they’re going to make like crabs and take work to eat, but surprise! “They’re meant to be eaten whole,” assures our server. The chef serves his food similar to the way it’s presented in Hong Kong. If you order his fried chicken — scattered with garlic and ginger the way electric scooters litter D.C. sidewalks — you’ll notice feet attached. (The head goes to the couple’s dog, Lucy Goose.)
Cheung changes his menu up enough to keep things interesting for his cooks and regulars alike. Fingers crossed, his hand-cut noodles don’t go anywhere anytime soon. White on one side and black (with squid ink) on the other, they are sensational when tossed with charred squid and Chinese celery and finished with a glaze of soy sauce that the chef ages in barrels. I feel the same way about the truly sweet-and-sour head-on branzino that emerges from a quick fry crisp and snowy and wonderful.
Every dinner is better with a bowl of fried rice, which is nothing like the oily carton you get at Chinese carryouts where subs and wings are part of the drill. The chef’s superior performance mingles fried rice with chopped Chinese black mushrooms, raw garlic and toasted dried shrimp. Bright-green and nicely crisp bok choy moistened with an XO sauce that Thompson makes is another welcome presence on the table.
Cheung offers a single dessert: a sweet rice dumpling barely visible in a pool of salted caramel with a shower of toasted cashews and black and white sesame seeds. The beige centerpiece is sticky and chewy, in a good way. The topping incorporates salt that Thompson also makes, from seawater from Montauk, N.Y.
Quibbles are few, and they have less to do with the food than say, round tables that are too small to accommodate everything you want to order. If there’s a dish I’m cool about it’s daikon fritters overdressed with garlic mayonnaise and too sweet for my taste.
When it rolled out in April, the newcomer accepted only walk-in customers. Since then, a limited number of reservations (at 5:30, 7:30 and 9:15) have made it easier to enjoy the restaurant.
Vacant storefronts on both sides of Queen’s English are poised to bring more diners to the block. Look for an Italian stop (Ossobuco Ristorante) and a Malaysian kitchen (Makan) down the road. Right now, the brightest light in the neighborhood is a mom and pop, the Sarah and Henji show, with a cameo by sugar toads.
Queen’s English (Good/Excellent) 3410 11th St. NW. No phone number. queensenglishdc.com. Open: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: Share plates $13 to $27. Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No steps into the restaurant, but the foyer is snug. Small restrooms do not appear to be wheelchair-friendly.