The best Chinese restaurant Washington has had, ever.
So says Tyler Cowen, author of the DC metro area’s Ethnic Dining Guide, blogger at Marginal Revolution, and author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. Also, check out his Six Rules for Dining Out as well as Cowen’s brief review of (elegy to) Panda Gourmet.
For those of you who know of Cowen, you are familiar with his penchant for seedy, small, ethnic restaurants in the DC area. How he finds all of them and still keeps his day job as an economist at George Mason University and his prolific writing output is beyond me. But he is a treasure, despite (or perhaps because of) his sometimes over enthusiastic reviews or his opinionated posts.
For those of you who don’t know Cowen, click on some of the links in the first paragraph and Bookmark him. He stays ahead of all the other area restaurant reviewers when it comes to ethnic restaurants.
But what about Panda Gourmet?
That’s quite a statement Cowen made.
So far, I’ve made two trips to Panda Gourmet. The first was with my wife who states if she has to drive more than 14 minutes anywhere she prefers to take a plane.Thus, Panda gourmet’s location on New York Ave., NE near the corner of Bladensburg Road, NE certainly classifies as “geographically undesirable” in her mind. In fact, when I urged that we go Thursday for dinner, she gave me that look that only married men know. And when we got stuck in rush hour traffic, and it took us more than 30 minutes to go the five miles from our house, I knew she had one more confirmation in her mind of my foolishness(es).
Surprisingly, however, she gave the restaurant a chance (she does have the ability to forgive, especially if good food is involved), and three of the five dishes we ordered were outstanding, one was OK, and the fifth was disappointing. But the tastes were new, and there was no recrimination(s) on the way home.
Specifically, we followed Tyler Cowen’s recommendations and ordered the cold Chengdu spicy noodles (pix left, outstanding, and not very spicy), Dan Dan noodles (outstanding, and probably the best we’ve had, to agree with Cowen), cumin beef (pix above, right, also outstanding and a new taste for us), Shaanxi noodles (OK and a different taste but not in the same outstanding category as the three previous dishes), and Rouge Mo – Chinese hamburger? – (which was disappointing).
The first three alone are reason(s) enough to go back for a second trial. Actually, I later discovered that we had ordered the wrong Shannxi noodle dish. The one Cowen suggested, and I had the next day (see below), also belongs in the outstanding category. Thus, to be fair, he was four for five, not a bad day at the ‘plate’ at all.
So the next morning, I invited my Chinese guru friend, Tim Ball, who comes from a family of Chinese restaurant people, to go with me to lunch at Panda Gourmet. Not only did I want his take on the place, I also wanted help with translating the menu in Chinese (the one only given to Chinese dinners). Tim Ball brought along a coworker whose ability to read Chinese is much better than his. Plus, I think he knew that if we had another person with us, we could justify ordering more dishes.
Tim Ball was seven for seven. A perfect batting average.
The Dan Dan noodles was the only repeat dish from the previous evening. “As good as I’ve had,” said my guru. Two vegetable dishes were a revelation to me, teaching me that perhaps another way to judge a restaurant is by how well they do veggies. String beans in ginger sauce and baby bok choy were simple and a wonderful complement to the other five dishes. Cumin lamb, not so different from the cumin beef we had the previous night, was a winner as was the Chengdu bean jelly salad. But the best of of all was the Shaanxi noodles, the ones Cowen had written about but we had misordered. That dish alone is worth the traffic jam to get to Panda Gourmet. We also had scallion pancakes which i used to sop up the various sauces.
With nothing left and with the three of us struggling for the best words to describe what we had just consumed, Tim Ball declared, “I think I’ve just had the best Chinese food in DC.” Coworker Karen, new to the area, said she was going to bring her parents here when they visited next week. I got two containers to take home what remained of the Chendgu bean salad and the Shaanxi noodles (mah jong lian pi) sauce and began plotting my next visit to Panda Gourmet.
So was Cowen right?
I don’t claim to know if Panda Gourmet is the best Chinese food in DC ever. But I do agree it is the best there is now.
A few tips:
- If you are coming from downtown DC, turn left off NY Ave onto Bladensburg Rd and then an almost immediate right at the Langdon Days Inn sign.
- If you are coming into DC on NY Ave, just turn right into the Days Inn parking lot.
- Don’t worry about not being able to read the menu that is only in Chinese. We discovered that the numbers on that menu correspond to the dishes on the English menu.
- Be sure to order the Shaanxi noodles, which i don’t believe are on the English menu. Don’t get the Shaanxi noodle soup. You want the mah jong lian pi, the hand cut noodles (in the most wonderful sauce you can imagine).
- You might want to try Xian dish Rouge Mo just to experience something different, but there are so many other dishes that are better, don’t stress if you have to miss it.
- My wife is correct, this time, when she says Panda Gourmet is “geographically undesirable.” But then, once you get there, it’s worth the trip. I promise.
- If you need someone to join with you for an outing to Panda Gourmet, I’m available at a moment’s notice.