In this edition of Off the Beaten Turf, UrbanTurf ventures up New York Avenue to an unassuming restaurant that one food critic called “The best Chinese restaurant Washington, DC has had, ever.”
UrbanTurf is a fan of economist Tyler Cowen’s side project, Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide (All Food is Ethnic). Cowen is able to sniff out little-known restaurants in DC, Maryland and Virginia that serve notably delicious food, and his recommendations send a stream of geeky followers to unlikely locations in strip malls all over the area. He also acknowledges well-known restaurants if he feels that they deserve it; in early 2012, for example, he wondered if Little Serow might be the best Thai restaurant on the East Coast. National publications followed suit.
Panda Gourmet (not to be confused with Panda Express) falls into the “little-known” category; it opened just a few months ago in a glum-looking Days Inn on New York Avenue NE. But Cowen was equally hyperbolic in describing it. “This is a top drawer Chinese restaurant and for authenticity it is #1 around of all choices,” raved Cowen, who also cross-posted the restaurant review to his economics blog, Marginal Revolution.
After reading that review, UrbanTurf felt compelled to try it out.
Coming from the center of DC, the arrival at 2700 New York Avenue NE is tricky. The restaurant is on the left side of the street, and you either need to make a U-turn quite a bit up the road and then take a service road, or turn right on Bladensburg Road and wiggle your way through a few parking lots.
On a Monday in the early evening, the parking lot was empty and we were the only customers. After about an hour, a group of three bespectacled thirtysomethings came in, making us wonder what proportion of the clientele Cowen was responsible for.
The menu is divided into two sizable sections: one with American and Chinese-American dishes on it — like General Tso’s — and another, the Szechuan Chef’s Special menu, with items like Ma Po tofu and Dan Dan noodles. Apparently, if you ask your waiter, you can also get access to a Chinese menu, which is written entirely in Chinese and includes a few more items.
We stuck to the Szechuan menu (and Cowen suggests ordering off the Chinese menu for the best experience). We ordered several noodle dishes — Dan Dan and Chengdu cold noodle — as well as a couple saucy protein entrees: Beef with cumin and Tofu Country Style. The food did not disappoint. Chengdu cold noodle was perhaps the tastiest noodle preparation I’ve had in a Chinese restaurant, with warmth, a vinegary sourness, a chili-infused red color, and fresh ingredients. Each noodle was completely saturated and we gobbled it up.
Beef with cumin has an extremely appropriate name: the dish contains an unprecedented amount of cumin. Each morsel packs a spice-filled bite. Other ingredients include hot red peppers, which are liberally scattered throughout. The beef was thin, fatty and bite-sized, prepared in a manner that made it feel tender but well-cooked. In glancing at a few recipes for the dish, it appears that preparation involves marination and a two-step frying process, once on low heat and then on high.
Overall, we left quite satisfied, and with a generous amount of food to take home. The dishes were made with high quality ingredients, and the flavors felt unusual and potent. Usually, finding ethnic food this good requires trekking out to the suburbs. If you are looking for tasty Szechuan food and are willing to travel to an unlikely address within DC, Panda Gourmet should find a place on your list.