City Paper is not for tourists.
People think I’m joking when I say that the place where I probably eat most often is China Cafe in College Park—if they’ve even heard of it. Then, taken aback by my enthusiasm for the place, they remind me of its garish fluorescent lighting, its unadorned gray interior, its egg-yolk-yellow menu hanging above the cash register. But you’re a food critic! they seem to be saying. You can’t possibly be talking about that unlovable dump, can you?
Saying that China Cafe—Kimi & Phil’s to me, from the sign on the building’s exterior—is the place I eat most often, of course, is not the same as saying it’s the place I’d love to eat most often. If I had my way, I’d probably be at Citronelle every night until I got sick of slurping Michel Richard’s mushroom soup through a straw. (It might take a while.)
But the demands (I use the word loosely) of the reviewer’s life mean that you seldom return to the places you adore—and seldom eat the foods you most want to eat. You sometimes feel like a traveling salesman, skipping from city to city with scarcely a moment to come home and recover. Things begin to blur—dishes, ingredients, design schemes. Sometimes, it can seem like a single restaurant you keep returning to (a recurring dream of mine, by the way).
So a food critic needs a back-pocket kind of place—a place that feels like home—and China Cafe is mine. It’s where I go when my wife or I am sick and cooking is too much work. It’s where I go when I’m running errands and need a quick bite. It’s where I go when I don’t feel like changing to go downtown. It’s where I go when I want pepper salted squid.
Prices have recently gone up, so what used to be a form of charity at $4.69 is now merely an incredible deal at $6.05: Tiny rings of squid, coated in cornstarch cut with a lot of salt and a good amount of pepper, are fried until blond and tossed with slices of jalapeño, chopped garlic, and diced green onion. It’s everything I want in fast food—salty, crunchy, addictively hot—and more, thanks to a scattering of steamed broccoli that provides a needed ballast to all that salty, lip-smacking fry. It’s served atop steamed white rice and, like most dishes here, in a styrofoam container.
The other dish I have a hard time resisting is kung pao chicken, Chinese-style. What makes Chinese-style different from the usual kung pao? In this instance, an abundance of green onion. Occasionally, the kitchen cheats when it’s running low on ingredients, and slices of white onion find their way into the mix. It’s hardly the same dish without the sharpness of the green onion to counter the hoisiny, smoky depths in the cubes of chicken.
Those two dishes, plus the gargantuan bowl of noodle soup laced with sour napa cabbage and gnarled little strips of pork (a much more modest version of a steaming bowl of pho), are what I usually recommend to friends. I am convinced that my obsessional attachment to these meals has everything to do with the fact that when I’m making the rounds—when I’m working—I am duty-bound to ignore my own tastes and sample as widely as possible. But recently I began to wonder: Is it China Cafe I like, or merely a handful of its dishes? After all, a lot of places can do a few things well.
I’m almost ashamed for having doubted. Several things I tried are so good, and such good values, that they may force me to expand my list of favorites. Beef-brisket rice is a gem, bringing together large, soft cubes of beef with chunks of crunchy carrot and turnip in a dark-brown sauce that gives off whiffs of Chinese five-spice. Rice cakes with chicken—small, glutinous discs made from rice flour—come coated in a tasty if salty brown sauce and interspersed between cubes of the meat, with thin strips of celery thrown in for crunch. Five bucks fetches 14 unexpectedly light little dumplings stuffed with ground pork and green onion—they put to shame what you can find on all those downtown happy-hour menus that like to think they speak with an Asian accent.
Not everything sings so brightly. I like but don’t love the black-pepper chicken; the same goes for a version of noodles with sour cabbage and pork without broth; and some of the more conventional dishes are hardly thrilling. But when six bucks is what you can expect to pay for the most expensive thing on the menu, you don’t quibble with a few imperfections. You don’t turn up your nose at a restaurant find for not being everything you might hope it to be.
A lot of people have made a point of telling me in recent weeks that, in leaving the Washington City Paper for the Washingtonian, I will be leaving behind my ardent quest for these kinds of discoveries. I won’t. The fact is, I was a food lover long before the City Paper turned me into a food critic, and I still think of myself as a civilian in dogged pursuit of tastiness in all its infinite variety. Fads? The machinations of the PR industry? The seductions of a designer’s trendy new scheme? Ha. The proof is always in the pudding—or, as the case may be, in a styrofoam container of lovably reliable pepper salted squid.
China Cafe, 4370 Knox Road, College Park, (301) 277-3737.—Todd Kliman
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.