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Our waiter at Ping Pong Dim Sum, in an attempt to give us some perspective on the Chinatown restaurant, has just described its cuisine as “Western dim sum.” Now, I’ve been doing this beat long enough to recognize a gift when one is presented. I mean, in my two previous visits here, no other server had dropped such a broad suggestion that this London-based chain doesn’t trade in traditional Cantonese-style dim sum.
“What do you mean by ‘Western dim sum?’” I ask the waiter.
“Look around you,” he responds.
He’s got a point there. The main dining room has a black-lacquered sleekness about it, almost nightclub-like in intensity. There are no steam-heated carts here. There is only style: The tabletops are black. The stools are black. Even the floor is black. Throbbing, club-like music thumps over the sound system. The ambiance generates an almost Pavlovian response: You feel like you need a cocktail asap, and Ping Pong can accommodate—in ways that wander far from the streets of Hong Kong. Asian Manhattan. Kumquat mojito. Ginger and limoncello caipirinha.
But our waiter wants us to understand that the dim-sum menu itself leans more West than East, too. His speech is intended to be prophylactic: He’s trying to ward off any potential disappointment, should we want to order, say, fried taro dumplings or fried turnip cakes or steamed chicken feet or any other standards of the Hong Kong dim sum menu. He even tells us one startling fact: Ping Pong’s head chef is Australian.
When I tried to confirm the chef’s background, I was met with resistance from Ping Pong’s corporate offices. A locally based publicist informed me via e-mail that the chain’s “focus is on the food and not on the head chef at Ping Pong at any location. With that they would rather not send his information.”
OK, despite what you may think, I don’t have much interest in turning this column into an anti-chain, anti-corporate screed, which I find knee-jerk and tedious. The truth is, I’ve had some good plates at Ping Pong: three browned squares of puff pastry in which the stuffing of honey roasted barbecue chicken smartly balances sweet with savory. A trio of tiny toast rounds, each crunchy bite pregnant with delicately spiced prawn meat. A steam basket of shu mai, in which every little pork-and-prawn package comes encased in a wrinkly egg-based wrapper; the combination’s so soft and meaty that the dish lives up to its name: “cook and sell” dumplings, a reminder that chefs back in China can barely lift the shu mai out of the steam pot before they’re gobbled up by greedy customers.
But I’ve also had some dreadful plates at Ping Pong: honey-glazed pork ribs so bland and chewy I left most of the meat on the bone. Thin translucent tubes of Vietnamese spring rolls, presumably stuffed with prawns and vegetables, whose only discernible pleasure was their deep-fried crunch. A pair of Valrhona chocolate buns that were, essentially, gummy white-dough balls barely redeemed by their dark, liquid interiors. Even plates that had previously pleased my palate could turn disappointing: A second helping of prawn toast tasted only of fryer oil.
The selling point of any restaurant chain is supposed to be its consistency, its ability to put systems in place that almost guarantee a level of quality each and every visit. I haven’t found that to be the case at Ping Pong. And on my final visit, to Ping Pong’s dim sum bar, I may have received a small glimpse into the reason why. I chatted up one of the cooks who told me that the dim sum is not prepared in-house, but in Rockville, where imported ingredients are turned into dumplings and buns and then trucked to Chinatown every 48 hours, sometimes frozen. You could be, in other words, choking down a dumpling that is two days old. (By press time, Ping Pong had not yet responded to my question on this matter.)
Twelve miles to the north, at the recently reopened Hollywood East Café in Wheaton, the dim sum cooks hand-make every single item on premise, hundreds and hundreds of sweet and savory bundles for the restaurant’s daily lunch-time service. How do I know this? Because I asked owner Janet Yu to give me a tour of her kitchen, part of the restaurant’s new spacious digs at the Westfield Shopping Center. It was the first time, she said, that she had ever allowed a journalist to see the inner workings of Hollywood East.
What you find inside Yu’s kitchen are not gleaming, show-pony steamers like you see behind the dim sum counter at Ping Pong, where a short tower of bamboo baskets gets a steam treatment before arriving at your table. Instead, you find a narrow maze of prep tables and industrial-sized woks and cramped walk-in coolers, the quarters so tight you routinely have to walk over and around boxes of fresh taro roots or containers of sliced pork butts marinating for the following day.
Around one corner, you might run into head chef, Kenny Lei, who’ll be slicing up a thin roll of rice dough. He’ll flatten each piece of the wheat-starch dough into a perfect circle with his cleaver and then scrape that skin off the work surface so that the next cook can fill it with, say, a shrimp mixture and crimp it into these gorgeous, pleated, sea-shell like dumplings known as har gau. The process will be repeated over and over and over again, perhaps 200 times in a short, 30-minute span.
Around another corner, you might meet the wiry woman who handles the noodle crepe station, perhaps the most demanding in the entire kitchen. Next to her station, there is a container of rice flour and water, which she will pour onto a perforated tray in a thin layer and let steam for a few minutes until it turns into this large translucent membrane. The cook then peels the sheet from the tray and places it onto a work counter, where she adds cooked shrimp and begins the painstaking process of rolling and cutting this delicate pan-size noodle until it resembles those folded-over crepes found on Hollywood East’s dim sum carts.
Did I mention that Ping Pong Dim Sum doesn’t offer rice noodle crepes on its menu?
Nor does Ping Pong serve fried taro dumplings. Allow me to attempt an explanation why—well, aside from the obvious notion that the starchy root doesn’t play to Western diners. Another reason may have to do with the dish’s preparation. The dumpling cannot simply be tossed whole into a basket fryer, like all the fried dim sum dishes at Ping Pong. At Hollywood East, chef Lei has jerry-rigged a device for deep-frying those dumplings: He takes a perforated metal disc and lowers it by hand into the hot vegetable oil—yes, by hand—via a handle fashioned out of old wire hangers. The stuffed taro balls sitting on the disc must be dipped gradually into the oil, little by little, until fully submerged. The technique ensures proper cooking and creates the taro balls’ fright-wig appearance. The technique, I’m sure, must require the arm strength of Albert Pujols.
Some of the skills demonstrated in Hollywood East’s kitchen are virtuosic. I’m thinking particularly about Lei’s ability to take a small wooden roller and quickly fashion a stack of round, almost cup-like dumpling skins from a length of dough. But like all good kitchens, this one also demands classical skills, like the ability to roast a whole duck and debone it for the chopped meat necessary for duck dumplings. Or just the knowledge to demand the right cut of beef short ribs for the braised, peppery dish on the dim sum menu.
Out in Hollywood East’s cavernous dining room, I suspect few customers understand how much work Lei and his team put into the plates that crowd those rolling steam carts. The fact is, I didn’t know until recently myself. It’s part of the perfect deception here: You show up for dim sum, you sit down, and you immediately start shoveling down one succulent dish after another. Finished with one plate? Three more are ready right now, if you’d like. It has the feel of an assembly line—just press a button and your dim sum arrives!
It’s a beautiful lie, of course, designed to mask the human, hand-crafted, and hard-earned skills responsible for every single bite at Hollywood East. Ping Pong Dim Sum seems to have diluted this art form into a multi-step, multi-location process in which the people who actually steam or fry or grill your dim sum at the restaurant sometimes have very little knowledge of the dishes they’re cooking. Something can’t help but get lost in that cumbersome process. It’s the main reason why I’ll choose Hollywood East over Ping Pong Dim Sum any day of the week—and not because the latter is part of a multi-national chain.
Ping Pong Dim Sum, 900 7th St. NW, (202) 506-3740
Hollywood East Café, 11160 Veirs Mill Road, Wheaton, (240) 290-9988