This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide as No. 6 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
6. Tiger Fork
On the wall, dragons play in heaven. In your glass, Chinese medicinals supposedly help cure what ails you. From the owners of Fainting Goat on U Street NW comes yet another excuse to explore Shaw’s Blagden Alley: an Asian night market with food by Irvin Van Oordt, Peruvian born and Rockville raised. His menu is small by design and thoroughly delicious, with most dishes touched by some level of heat. Bring on the wontons stuffed with shrimp and turkey and splashed with chile oil, the deep-fried dorade served with mellow eggplant and smacking of smoke (from cooking oil infused with coconut charcoal)! And by all means, make room for the crispy sour potatoes, a bowl of raw and fried spuds with a vinegar tang. Hong Kong feels close.
2 1/2 stars
Behind 922 N St. NW (in Blagden Alley). 202-733-1152. tigerforkdc.com.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
Prices: Dim sum $6 to $16, main courses $14 to $36.
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
More of Tom Sietsema’s top 10 new restaurants
This review was originally published April 2, 2017.
Down an alley, find a playful take on Hong Kong-style cooking in Shaw
Cabdrivers still question my destination when I tell them Blagden Alley, a tucked-away slice of Shaw that cocktail enthusiasts know as the home of the Columbia Room and food lovers recognize as the source of Mid-Atlantic cooking at the Dabney. Maybe the debut of Tiger Fork will put the alley on more mental maps. Hong Kong-style restaurants don’t pop up every day, nor do young chefs as enterprising as Irvin Van Oordt. And I know of no better steamed rice noodles in the city right now than the cheung fun, rolled into loose coils and set on a chile-lit dressing of black beans and sesame seeds.
Conceived by the owners of the Fainting Goat in the U Street corridor, Tiger Fork takes over the building once occupied by Rogue 24, the epicurean journey from R.J. Cooper. Very little of the past remains, which means the new restaurant, fronted with an octagonal window, suggests you’ve stumbled into an Asian night market. The brick walls have been painted over with murals: dragons playing in heaven on one side of the dining room, lions playing in the mountains on the other. Bench seating is made comfortable with bolsters. The balloon lights over the rows of rough-hewed tables are one of the few carry-overs from the previous restaurant, although the fixtures now sport tassels.
The past year has been a good one for Asian-food aficionados, what with the opening of Kyirisan on Eighth Street NW, Himitsu in Petworth, more and better ramen shops around the city and the rollout of Kobo, the kappo-style dining experience within Sushiko in Chevy Chase.
Greg Algie and Nathan Beauchamp wanted to bring something different to the table. Inspired by a trip to Hong Kong, they settled on Chinese and Tiger Fork, the name a reference to a trident. Their search for the right chef ended with the hiring of Van Oordt, a native of Peru who was raised in Rockville but returned to his birthplace to study cooking. Only 27, he has already punched clocks at such notable restaurants as Central in Peru, hailed by the judges of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list as No. 4. In Singapore, he collaborated on a dim sum book with chef Janice Wong, the acclaimed pastry chef, a gig that repeatedly took him to Hong Kong.
The port city gets more hat tips than royalty at Tiger Fork, where the kitchen crew works beneath red plastic lights of the sort you see in markets and stalls all over Hong Kong. And the big glass jars around the room aren’t just for show. Some of them, filled with licorice root and chrysanthemum leaves, are tapped for making holistic cocktails. Sitting at the round bar affords customers the best drinks experience.
Show interest, and the talent behind the bar might introduce you to an ancient Chinese liquor that is just now making inroads in the States: baijiu (say bye-joo), a clear spirit derived from fermented sorghum. A thimble-size shot, faintly musky, is plenty for the novice, although the drink is apt to grow on you. Easier to knock back from first sip are the signature drinks purporting to cure what ails you. Eight O’Clock Light Show, for example, mixes ginseng and kola nut, among other recruits, into a rum and yuzu combination designed to combat fatigue. (Having sipped the drink right after a four-hour drive one night, I can attest to the powers of persuasion.)
You must be hungry by now. Fewer than 20 dishes, the menu is brief by design; Van Oordt thinks a small number of items, done well, is preferable to the opposite. His strategy bears fruit at Tiger Fork, and if there’s a first among equals, it’s the aforementioned cheung fun, speckled with black sesame seeds and a choice companion to a drink here.
A diner also needs to try crispy sour potatoes. “My favorite thing on the menu,” says a server, all but demanding we order the appetizer. It shows up as a bowl of pickled raw julienne potato and golden fried potato that together taste like a noble version of vinegar potato chips. Chopped cilantro stems on top lend color and aroma. Smashed cucumbers, a ubiquitous staple in dim sum parlors, start sweet and finish hot, spurred along by candied arbol chiles.
Hong Kong inspires the chef but doesn’t fence him in. The filling in an order of wontons is ground turkey and shrimp, for instance, rather than the more traditional pork. The turkey gives the dish, splashed with chile oil, a lightness I find very appealing.
Van Oordt is a self-admitted chile head who graces every dish but dessert with some fire, albeit it in such a way that while you notice the heat, it never pummels the tongue. Even the Night Market Grill, skewers of soft octopus and beef tongue with liberal applications of chile paste, is not so intense you can’t taste the seafood or meat.
One of Tiger Fork’s showier displays, dorade is dredged in cornstarch and potato starch, fried in rice oil, removed from the wok and filleted so that the facade of the succulent fish stays intact. “Most of the work is done for you,” says a server as she presents the attraction: fried chunks of snowy fish and mellow eggplant heaped beside the empty frame of the dorade. The hint of smoke in the dish comes from the coconut charcoal Van Oordt infuses in the cooking oil.
The flavorful meat in the seared Kowloon bun, offered with black vinegar for dipping, and in the beef chow foon, another noodle attraction, comes from dairy cows in Virginia. Prized for their flavor, they’re the beef of choice in the chef’s native Peru and more sustainable than cows bred for their meat. Like baijiu, dairy beef is something chowhounds need to check off their list.
While there are no dishes I would say no to, some plates have a definite edge over others. Bright green pea shoots scattered with crushed peanuts and anointed with oyster sauce bests the Chinese cauliflower moistened with mushroom soy sauce. And the
bits of pork and vegetables beneath a heap of cold dan dan noodles
are too few and too sweet for my taste.
Desserts tend to get short shrift in Asian restaurants. Tiger Fork bucks the general rule with a fine, not-too-sweet egg tart and a bubble waffle that looks like it sounds. Pleasing on its own, the raised-dot confection arrives with green curry ice cream, candy sprinkles and a thick chocolate sauce for spreading on the waffle. It’s one of those dishes you want a bite of — out of curiosity — and end up finishing, it’s that much fun.
Above the kitchen is a sign in Chinese that hints at both the restaurant’s discipline and sense of humor. In English, it says, “Talk does not cook the rice.”