With $160 You Get No Eggroll

“Talk is cheap, barbers give it away free with haircuts.”
– Ancient Chinese Proverb

Ah, Christmas in D.C. I finally got a break and got to visit the world outside of Arkansas, and I’m pleased to report that it’s still there!

My sister lives in Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. and that’s where I spent the holidays. They had just had a massive winter storm a few days prior, and by Christmas Day there was still nearly a foot of snow on the ground hence a somewhat White Christmas.

Anytime I travel food is always a focal point for me, and this trip was no exception. Though I tend to avoid cooking shows and the Food Network, I had seen a couple of shows somewhere that touted Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C. I had to go.

Ben’s is a Capitol City tradition that features a typical “grill” menu that specializes in Half-Smokes and Chili. Imagine a chili dog made from a quarter-pound smoked sausage, drowning in top-shelf chili. Add cheese sauce from a can, a double handful of standard 3/8” fries (like Wendy’s), and a Coke. You’ll find yourself $12 lighter and covered with killer chili and cheese sauce…and that’s about it.

A coworker had told me of a show he’d seen on the Food Network where Duff Goldman (don’t know who he is but we sat next to his picture) had been to a place in Falls Church, Virginia and had one of his best meals ever. My buddy said that the name of the place was Peking Gourmet Inn and that I should go. Peking Duck he said was the meal in question and the house specialty.

From my experience in my hometown of Charlotte, NC, any restaurant that opened up in a “strip-mall” shopping center either sucked…or…wasn’t good. Peking Gourmet Inn is in a shopping center along with an Asian market, a Middle Eastern market, a bank, an insurance company, and a Thai restaurant plus a couple others. The storefront is about twice as wide as the door and not very impressive.

It was a cold Wednesday night and we arrived about 6:00. We walked into a small and cramped foyer that was mostly filled by the hostess’ podium with nothing else in view but the take-out window and pictures of the owner and several recognizable customers including both Presidents Bush and their wives. Two Chinese girls were frantically studying reservation lists and seating charts, and practically screaming at each other in their native language. It sounded like a Hong Kong auction and I’m still not sure that we ever truly got their attention.

One of the girls never looked up, but asked if we had reservations.

“No.”

They both got a little more frantic, and then one finally said, “You come now, but eat fast…another table coming soon.”

We were whisked into what opened into a huge dining room filled with white-table-cloth appointed tables, each one filled to capacity with well dressed “beautiful people”—half of them Asian. Every wall was covered with more photos of famous customers that included every Congress man and woman in the District. Amazing smells filled the room and an army of tuxedo-clad waiters and busmen danced around the packed house like well choreographed ballerinas.

How long it has been since I smelled, saw, and felt the energy of a REAL restaurant? Oh, Heaven and electricity!

Out waiter’s name was Chao, a 40-something year old Chinese veteran of the industry with a nearly indiscernible accent and a twinkle in his eye. Judging by his mastery of the dining room and the Rolex on his wrist he has been trained by the best (probably European) and been at it for decades. The kind of guy that you have no idea what he just said, but you know you’re in good hands so you just let go and let him drive.

We ordered some drinks and the first item on the menu—a six course meal for 4. Done!

Chao expediently showed up with a round of Hot & Sour Soup and a plate of very different fried noodles. They were round, a little thinner than a pencil, a little softer than the usual, and freshly fried. Everyone at the table remarked that they had never “really” had Hot and Sour Soup until this moment. To me it was hot and sour soup, tasty nonetheless.

Chinese Chili “Sauce”

I had seen a couple bowls of what looked like sliced chilies on a neighboring table and inquired about them. Chao promptly brought a dish of what he called “hot sauce”. It was a little monkey dish filled with thinly sliced little green Chinese “death chilies” (you know the ones) with a little soy sauce poured over them. I put them on everything with joy!

Next came a plate of Sweet and Sour Cabbage and another of Peking Celery. Now one might say that these were mere fillers, and one would be right, but just let me tell you. To the best of my recollection I haven’t had a vegetable in at least six weeks and these were welcome. Both were essentially raw and served room temperature. Hot would have been just not quite right and cold would’ve been just wrong.

The cabbage was firm, white, and a little curly. Oddly enough I’m not sure what kind of cabbage it was. The only thing I can figure is that it was your basic green cabbage, but only the more tender white center that had been soaked in ice water and dried thoroughly before being tossed in a little vinegar, salt, sugar, and crushed red chili.

The celery had been filleted, peeled, blanched for about 5 seconds to bring out the green, and tossed in a little sesame oil. It’s possible that the oil was in the blanching water. At any rate for the first time in my life I thought celery was really cool. I had an instructor in culinary school that vehemently believed and taught that “celery should be tasted but never seen”. Peking Celery would’ve changed Chef Z’s view.

Next came the main course, the dish we came for—the house specialty, Peking Duck.

It seemed that nearly every table had one. Out comes a little plate with warm, hand-made steamed pancakes covered with a lid to hold in the steam. A bowl of traditional Hoisin sauce, and plates of julienned cucumbers and leeks followed.

And then the duck.

A skilled server brought out a whole duck with the most amazing crispy golden brown skin. She whipped out a Chinese cleaver and began by shaving paper thin pieces of crispy skin.

Peking Duck

The whole duck is skinned but only the choicest top layer. Next she scraped off the layer of soft fat from between the meat and the outer skin, revealing juicy meat that was as soft as silk and as tender as a mother’s love. It was sliced thin and arranged next to the skin. She went through the entire animal until nothing but a carcass was left. True craftsmanship. With reverence, one by one, we passed around the components and built little stuffed rolls.

We ate the duck!

One bite and then there was dead silence for about 30 seconds. Angels drifted down from the ceiling. Some floated in from all four corners of the dining room, and a few ascended from under our table. They gathered hands and formed a circle around the table. From out of the carcass came a bright light that filled the room. Quite in unison all of the angels made a joyful noise unto the Lord, and danced around the table as in a synchronized swimming musical from the 50’s. It started as the Blue Danube and made a crescendo into a fanfare by Mozart.

We liked the duck!

It was then that plates started flying at our table from all directions. There were huge, plump Ginger Shrimp with Asparagus. The tails were removed, the asparagus was fresh and crisp, the shrimp were cooked perfectly, and tossed with long, matchstick thin strands of fresh ginger that was hand cut by virgins with razor sharp blades hewn from rarest ivory.

There was a plate of beautiful sesame/soy green beans—fresh, green, crunchy, and perfectly seasoned with flavors I’ve never experienced together. A dish of Black Pepper Beef came with a broccoli garnish. It was best described as Chinese pot roast—tender, moist, and exploding with layered flavors from outside to center.

Fried Rice

Next we all learned what fried rice is supposed to be. Perfectly cooked individual grains of rice tossed with an equal amount (not an obligatory garnish) of peas, chicken, shrimp, and barbecued pork. OMG! In parts of Asia each grain of rice is considered a representation of the children, and here was no exception. Each grain was treated with individual respect, love, and honor.

We ate what we could and the rest is still in the fridge.

Finally Mango Ice Cream, a bill for $144.00 (plus a well deserved tip), and fortune cookies. Mine said “The day only gets better.” How?

As we were leaving at 8:00 about 200+ people were seated and another 30 were waiting in line for our table. Chao passed us en route to a new table and wished us a Merry Christmas by name. His night was only half over at best.

If you’re ever within 500 miles of Falls Church, VA drop by Peking Gourmet Inn. They actually do have egg rolls on the menu and I imagine they’re good, but not what you go there for and they don’t come with. Be sure to call ahead for reservations.

Stop by Ben’s only if you’re in the neighborhood, and have a Happy New Year!