When married Great Wall Szechuan House owners May Kuang and Yuan Chen talk about their Logan Circle restaurant they liken it to raising a child. The popular Logan Circle restaurant known for its hot and numbing dishes opened in 2002, making it 18 years old. But earlier this year, they made the tough call to put Great Wall up for sale.
“I love this place,” Chen says, with Kuang translating. “It’s like our child. We have lots of good regular customers. 80 percent of our customers are regulars.”
Regulars will not doubt worry over news of the potential sale, but there’s a good chance Chen will continue cooking.
Back in April 2019, Chen was preparing orange chicken when he says a bottle of orange extract with a faulty lid sprayed into his wok, igniting a swirl of flames that burned his face, arms, and chest. Orange extract mostly consists of alcohol, making it extremely flammable. He went to Washington Hospital Center and stayed in the ICU for 10 days, according to Kuang.
They didn’t tell their families in China until Chen returned to the kitchen in August. At first he only cooked when the restaurant was at its busiest during lunch and dinner. His stamina wasn’t what it used to be before the accident. Kuang did her best to fill in.
Chen, who moved to the U.S. in 1991 and is now in his sixties, thinks he would benefit from taking a few years off to fully recover.
John P. Lin of CapStar Commercial Realty listed the business for $300,000. Kuang says they do not own the building and the buyer would be taking over their lease. She says she thinks a buyer would have better luck trying out a new style of restaurant rather than trying to replicate Great Wall’s menu.
“If someone wants to buy it, we’re happy,” Kuang says. “If not, we will still continue.”
Kuang describes two possible scenarios. If a buyer takes over the business, Kuang and Chen will consider opening a new restaurant in the future after they regroup. If no buyer comes forward, they vow to continue business as usual at 1527 14th St. NW at least until their lease runs out. Kuang says there are about six years left on the lease.
Great Wall Szechuan House hasn’t always been a beloved temple to ma po tofu. When it first opened in 2002, it specialized in Americanized Chinese dishes. “They were General Tso’s chicken people,” Kuang jokes. Then several years into business they got a visit from a curious diner: Tim Carman, who was City Paper’s Young & Hungry columnist at the time.
Kuang says Carman, who is now a food critic and reporter at the Post, found out Chen is from Chengdu in Sichuan and asked if he could make a few specialities from home. Then he wrote about it. Soon after, Great Wall rolled out a concise menu of “ma la” dishes that feature hot and numbing Szechuan peppercorns. At the time Szechuan cooking wasn’t overly popular in the District. Chen had to make his own chili oil because he couldn’t find it in stores.
Over the past 14 years or so, Great Wall has evangelized ma la cooking in D.C. Chen and Kuang say they purposely kept their prices as low as possible despite the rising costs of rent and ingredients to ensure as many people as possible could try dishes like dan dan noodles, ma la beef, and ma la wontons.
“We’ve loved introducing people to ma la sensations,” Kuang says.
Great Wall Szechuan House, 1527 14th St. NW; (202) 797-8888; greatwallszechuanhouse.com