If you want good Chinese food, your best bet is to hit the suburbs. Sure, there’s The Source if you’re willing to throw down some money, or Panda Gourmet if you don’t mind a dining room attached to a Days Inn. But for the most part, Americanized Chinese restaurants and greasy takeout joints dominate the District. Chinese cuisine hasn’t seen the same renaissance and reimagining in D.C. as, say, Southeast Asian cuisine.
Chao Ku, which opened yesterday in Shaw, is looking to provide an alternate option: fast, affordable Chinese food that isn’t drowning in greasy sauces. The new spot from Broad Branch Market owner John Fielding and chef Paul Pelt (formerly of The Tabard Inn) isn’t necessarily boasting total authenticity (whatever that means anyway), but it’s not fusion either. As Fielding explains, “We love Chinese food, and this is our homage to Chinese food.”
Chao Ku, which means “super cool” in Mandarin slang, has a takeout counter on the first floor and a 60-seat dining room on the second floor. The restaurant is only open for lunch this week, but will expand to dinner next week.
Fielding says they wanted to highlight foods that Chinese people eat but that aren’t always as common in restaurants. For example, his Chinese mother-in-law and her family eat a lot of salads and cold dishes. And so Chao Ku’s menu includes a range of lighter dishes like a cucumber salad with a spicy chili sauce, a cold steamed eggplant salad, and pressed tofu with edamame and black rice.
“You can get a bunch of stuff and not feel like everything’s over-the-top seasoned, salty, heavy,” Fielding says. “When people think of Chinese food, all they think of is hot to-go boxes.”
There are also a number of noodle dishes—from dan dan noodles to cold hot and sour noodles to Singapore noodles. Other staples include mapo tofu, salt and pepper crispy calamari, and a Chinese “burger” with the choice of a lamb, pork, or veggie patty and housemade bun that resembles pita bread. The most substantial dish, however, is the “tower of power,” which includes wok-fried spare ribs, brisket, pork belly, a scallion pancake, pickles, and various condiments. “It’s like a Chinese barbecue plate,” Fielding explains. (See the full menu below.)
It will still be a few more weeks before Chao Ku gets its liquor license, but the restaurant will eventually serve simple mixed drinks, maybe wine spritzers, and canned beers. Rather than Asian beers, diners will more likely find Tecate tallboys. “I want the price points to be good,” Fielding says. “Mexican beer goes great with Chinese food, and I can get them cheaper.”
Fielding’s goal is to get food and drinks out fast. The restaurant will soon have an online system where you can place an order and pay in advance. Meanwhile, those who grab a table upstairs simply mark their orders on a yellow menu card and then place it upright. A server grabs the card, immediately attaches the receipt, and brings it back, so you can don’t have to flag someone down for the check. Tables can add on more food later, and the check will be updated.
But perhaps most appealing of all are the prices on that check. Nothing on the menu is more than $15, and most of the items are $10 and under.
“You look around at other cities. You go to Chicago, you go to New York, you go to Austin, and there’s a lot of food that’s affordable and really good and fun,” Fielding says. D.C. has historically lacked a strong middle ground—but more hip, cheap, high-quality options are arriving. “That’s the next component to D.C.’s dining scene.”