2008 Chinese Food Olympics

With all the excitement brewing for the Olympics starting in just one week, and gossip about the 10,000-person cast, top secret opening ceremony performance swirling around, I can't help but feel the international thrill that we're supposed to feel every two years when the Olympic Games roll around. All politics and protests aside, I am happy the games are in China (except for the tape delays or 3:00 AM events). To me, it reminds me of all the great things about the country, people and culture of China. But as sure as any warm-blooded American, it also reminds me of the food!

Chinese cuisine in America is as diverse as, well, America. There is bottom of the barrel, greasy garbage and there are high-end, culinary interpretations. We see myriad different regions of China represented, and now with Asian fusion being so popular, many restaurants have modernized and blended with other Asian and even euro cuisines for some dazzling results. I've seen a Chinese restaurant win Restaurant of the Year in the suburban Detroit area recently, your greasy college-campus fried rice and dumplings delivery, as well as an incredible Sunday morning dim sum brunch right in the heart of Chinatown in Manhattan. (Incredible, even ignoring the seven heart attacks I wanted to have later that afternoon!) Bottom line is, it's tough to find good Chinese restaurants because there are SO many, the gems are often hidden, and we all know so many of the dishes and envision our ideal version, that it is tough to try even the most conservative variation and enjoy it.

This is why I look for two extremes: the absolute classic or absolute creativity and innovation. I took a shot at creativity recently in my new neighborhood – Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia – at Charlie Chiang's Crystal City, a member of the Charlie Chiang's family of restaurants in the DC area. And surprisingly, I ended up right in the middle of my two extremes! And I was pretty darn happy. Décor? Decent. Service? Adequate, especially because our very nice waiter seemed obsessed with making sure Julia’s order actually was vegetarian top to bottom. Price? Very affordable for the area. One Japanese beer, one specialty martini, one appetizer, one soup, two entrees, tax and tip got us out of there for under $50. Not bad. But as always, it is really the food I care about. If the peripherals at a place are excessively good or excessively bad, I’ll care, but other than that, they are what they are – peripherals.

MENU – What I like about this menu is that it has a classic Chinese food setup (i.e. apps, soups, chicken, seafood, etc) but the dishes within are mostly updates of classics, fusion dishes or new dishes altogether. Plus, they offer a Mongolian Barbecue style make-your-own stir-fry bar, which adds an extra layer of intrigue to an already loaded menu. There are dishes like Lamb of Two Seasons and Orange-Tangerine Steak, which looked very appealing, and an extensive and interesting vegetarian offering, including Garlic Eggplant and Asparagus Kung Pao Tofu. They have a healthy “revolutions” section too, which offers healthier dishes that go particularly well with sodium-, sugar-, gluten- or MSG-free diets. Plus they have a full bar with lots of house specialty drinks, wine by the glass and bottle and a decent beer selection.


VEGETARIAN PAN-FRIED DUMPLINGS– This appetizer, one of the classics of Chinese Food restaurants, is one of our favorites. We like them steamed too, for a somewhat healthier option, but we wanted to try them in all their glory. And it was a good decision! They were a little different from normal dumplings, but excellent. They had a slightly crispy but still soft exterior, and the inside was packed with interesting flavors including zucchini, marinated tofu and more typical dumpling insides like scallions. Plus, the sauce was a very nice complement, nicely and ever-so-slightly sweet and not too salty or soy saucy. It was just enough too prime us for our dinner.

VEGETARIAN HOT AND SOUR SOUP– Well, almost enough to prime me. I just cannot go to a Chinese food restaurant and skip soup, so when I saw their selections, I had to order. Not only did they have 100% Vegetarian Hot and Sour Soup (a rarity) but they had a seafood version as well, which sounded tremendous with fresh shrimp and scallops in the already rich broth. However, I opted for the simpler option, if not just to have the opportunity to let Julia try H&S Soup for the first time. She liked! And so did I! It came with some nice crispy wanton noodles and had a great bite to it, as it should. It had big pieces of very flavorful tofu and veggies. I nursed it down in less time than it took Julia to nurse her Chi Chi Martini (Vodka, crème of coconut and pineapple juice).

CHARLIE CHIANG'S CRISPY PURPLE EGGPLANT – We found this entrée on their “Chef’s Recommendation” section, which happened to have quite a few interesting dishes. Julia was impressed by the fact that there even was a vegetarian special, as it is not common in her experience, and thought it looked better than the regular vegetarian dishes, which she was already impressed by. So, she ordered this and it was superb. Not the healthiest thing in the world; but it doesn’t matter sometimes....Like the times when dishes are so unexpectedly good! These were little hunks of eggplant fried up and then served with an awesome orange peel and chili sauce. I thought the sauce complemented the eggplant perfectly and I did not find it excessively sweet, even though it was meant to be a sweet sauce. Okay I’ll just say it! They were McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets! Or at least tasted like big McD’s chicken nuggets with a nice smattering of really good Sweet and Sour sauce. For someone like me, who used to love those little things and has since sworn off fast food, this was like heaven. Because they literally tasted the same, but were not goopy, weird McDonald’s chicken fried in who knows what, but honest to goodness hunks of eggplant. I was hooked. Oh yeah, and since it was Julia’s meal, I guess I should mention that she liked it too – and thought it was cool that they tasted like McDonald’s chicken nuggets (considering this lifelong vegetarian has never even tried a chicken nugget)!

SHREDDED PORK WITH HOT PEPPERS– This was my choice, because it was probably the best looking of all the non-deep fried dishes, and well, you know, I try. The name was a little bit of a misnomer, but that was good in my opinion. Rather than shredded pork (as in pulled pork), this was jagged, little strips of pork – almost like how chicken and lamb are in Middle Eastern Shwarma plates. And it was barbecued and tasted amazing! The whole dish had a great smokiness that you can only get from grilling, and the strips were complemented with small chunks of bell peppers, jalapeños, scallions and black beans, and it just had a light sauce over it. It was so festive and colorful, and everything was cut to the perfect size for appetizing eating. But for this one, I need to emphasize the smoky flavor above all. It made the dish, and my night!

And the other beauty of Chinese food – you can never finish it all, and it saves SO well. I had the remains of both dishes for lunch the next day, and well let’s just say Charlie Chiang’s, chain or no chain, made my next day as well! I’ll be looking for excuses to go back, if not just to try some more of their cool-sounding takes on traditional Chinese fare. And with the Olympics right around the corner, my excuse might be hand delivered via NBC.

Check out my reviews of these places in even more detail at Menuism.com!

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