Here's a quick review of 3 Chinese restaurants I dined at over the last 4 days (May4-8, 2005) in Washington DC: China Express, Full Kee, and Grace Bamboo (warning - the review of Full Kee may turn a few stomachs).
First off, I love Chinese Food. I'm Chinese myself, and having spent years in Toronto, Vancouver, and doing a lot of travel in HK/China, I consider myself a fairly good judge of decent Chinese food. So when this week's business trip to Washington DC came up, and knowing I was staying only a few blocks away from Chinatown, I was eager to have my try at some authentic Chinese food.
My first two meal experiences were at China Express Restaurant (corner of H and 6th). I had a rice-noodle soup with roast pork. The noodles were done very well, and the broth was clean and smooth, though a little bland. I went back a second time and had a plain plate of black bean chicken breast on steamed rice. Again, a bit bland, though the tastes and flavours were otherwise pretty spot-on. If you must eat in Chinatown, I'd recommend this place as a possibility.
My next two meal experiences were at the (reviewers and Zagat) highly-rated "Full Kee" (H street) restaurant. It was even recommended by a few local friends of mine. They are reportedly good at their shrimp-dumpling and wonton noodle soups.
My first experience was dinner - I looked through their menu and couldn't for the life of me find any listings for noodle soups. So I gave up and went for a plate of Stir-fry beef Ho-fun noodles. It wasn't until I had arleady ordered that I noticed the noodle soups were on a separate folded card sitting on the side of the table. What others here have said about their menu-items (apart from their noodle-soups) is true - it was pretty substandard. The aroma and textures were right - but it was exceedingly oily and really quite bland.
Figuring I didn't really get to try their trademark noodle-soup dish, I went back a couple days earlier (Saturday) at noontime. This time I ordered their staple Shrimp-dumplings in rice-noodle soup.
It came in a fairly clean smooth broth. The noodles were nice. But that's where it ended. Of the 4 shrimp-dumplings I got in my bowl, THREE of them had lots of shrimp shells in them!! I had to pick them out of my mouth. The side of my plate ended up littered with about 5-6 large pieces of shell that I had to fish out of my mouth. Not very pleasant. and the third dumpling had a particularly 'fishy' (almost 'gone bad') taste to it.. but I kept eating.
The last dumpling completely ruined my appetite. I took one bite and suddenly bit into something squishy yet 'grainy' as well and sortof 'tasteless'. I spit it out. I was beyond words. I had just bit into what appeared to be half of a slug. I must have spent about 5 mins in utter shock using both of my green plastic chopsticks picking at and dissecting it out (being the physician that I actually am), only to confirm an invertebrate and the presence of feelers, with some grainy dirt-like substances inside.
I was so fixated on what I had just bit into, that I didn't even look up until a cheque was hastily placed on my table (note I still had half a bowl of noodles in my soup left) - assumedly, the waitresses must have been watching me and realized by my expression that I was NOT going to be eating any more. Several individuals along the wall waiting for takeout were just looking at me with concern - I can only imagine what my expression must have been like during those 5mins...
Sadly, the Canadian in me still managed to fork out 10cents in a very undeserved tip on top of the bill. I went back to my hotel, drank back some Listerine to kill the sensation, and retired in utter nausea.
Needless to say, given all the glowing reviews this restaurant has had here, and in publications, I'm assuming my experience must have been pretty unique (and hopefully rare). But I will never go back to that restaurant in my lifetime, and urge others to be wary at any sign of foul-taste or inappropriately shelled shellfish. This experience has surpassed the bowl of cold chili noodles I had in Xi'an province in China only to find a huge dead and mutilated fly at the bottom of the bowl.
My friends in DC were embarassed and shocked at my experience. Not wanting me to leave with a bad taste in my mouth, they took me to a more upscale and fairly new restaurant near Georgetown called 'Grace Bamboo'.
What a difference. The steamed fish was light and flavourful, the steamed veggies had just the right amount of oil and seasoning. The eggplant was astounding, and the blackbeanchicken, though a little on the salty side, was good.
So my view of Chinese in Washington DC has recovered a bit - but after this dining experience, I will never ever again complain about the small handful (but good) of chinese restaurants in San Diego...