I admit: I’m susceptible to dim sum delirium. Actually, maybe “susceptible” isn’t a strong enough word. I have an affliction, a fear. Have you noticed how the carts of food seem to come out of nowhere? And the thugs pushing those things—I’m convinced they’re either half-mad or being paid a straight commission. Or both. The obituary headline appears in my nightmare: “Death by Dumplings.”
Here’s the scenario: I’m having a dim sum lunch at
Fortune. Before my napkin’s even unfolded, there’s a woman at my side: “Stuffed crab claw?” she asks. They’re bulbous, deep-fried things containing a whole lot of shrimp meat and very little crab. I tell the woman, “Sure.” But, instead of going away, she grabs yet another plate. She says something I can’t understand and hands me some seaweed that’s been mounded with shrimp paste, deep-fried, and covered in sweet-and-sour sauce. Then a guy with a steam cart starts pushing dumplings at me. On his heels, there’s another woman: “Pork bun? How about egg roll?” The barrage continues in this manner until I have to take table settings and set them on a chair just to make room for all the food. Can’t these people see that I’m weak, disoriented, and totally overwhelmed? “How about shrimp?” More shrimp?! I need more shrimp like the world needs another story about Jennifer Lopez’s ass. But they’re salt-baked, and they look awfully good.
I’ll take the blame for my own lack of composure, but consider yourself warned: Fortune’s atmosphere isn’t exactly calming. The owners have made valiant attempts to beautify the room with chandeliers and lavender curtains, but the decor isn’t enough to keep diners from feeling like little cogs in a big engine. This restaurant is about feeding hordes, period. You can’t really blame the people in charge for erecting a space so large that—as is the case during one of my dinners—it can handle a massive wedding party without disrupting its regular guests. If you could fill 400 seats and still have enough people waiting in line that you needed to hand them numbers, you’d build a barn, too.
In some ways, Fortune’s mechanical bustle is endearing—truly memorable dim sum dining, after all, is supposed to be a relentless battle of wits and resolve. The restaurant, officially titled Fortune of Seven Corners Center, marks another extension of a Virginia minichain that has built a cottage industry out of serving seafood to rival all competitors and dim sum that’s hard to refuse. The newest location is the enterprise’s magnum opus—a Chinese restaurant as big as Chinatown that specializes in everything.
The menus are daunting. The dim sum menu lists 70 items that aren’t included, at least not in snackable portions, on the massive main menu, which itself contains upward of 100 dishes. The bigger of the two documents, which is the only choice you’ll have during the non-dim-sum dinner hour, is nice if only because it allows you to ponder choices. There’s plenty of exotica here—sea cucumber, fish mouth, conch—and it’s exotic for more than just looks; I’m not the only one in the joint ordering braised abalone, probably because it’s rendered so well.
I’ve had good luck ordering items fresh from the gurgling tanks—the baked lobster in chili sauce is just as good as it sounds, as is the baked Dungeness crab with ginger and spring onion. I’m a devout fan of anything salt-baked, although going that way here yields spotty results: Scallops taste shriveled and dry under their crust, whereas the shrimp I order as dim sum is so emboldened by its salty shell that eating it from head to tail seems to be an unspoken rule of the house. Here are a few more rules: Stay away from anything that includes the word “curry,” don’t be scared of dishes involving cantaloupe (they’re juicy), and, if you’re in the mood for whole fish, consider the snapper steamed Cantonese style. You’ll leave nothing behind but skeleton.
Surpassingly, perhaps, given my poor performance in the face of Fortune’s cart-pushing mafia, the single best piece of advice I can offer is to come for dim sum and forget about navigating the printed menus. To be sure, there are some losers riding on those carts, many of which are a result of excess batter or the kitchen’s tendency to overuse ground shrimp. And what’s with those mussels covered in melted cheese?
Yet, even delirium-stricken, I manage to snag an excess of beauties: Steamed spare ribs soaking in their own oily juices. Shredded pork that oozes through a buttery pastry shell. Crackling fried taro-root dumplings. Pan-fried pot stickers plumped with spicy ground pork that could stand on its own as sausage. Deep-green Chinese broccoli gleaming with oyster sauce. Deep-fried sesame balls with lotus-seed paste. Crisp-skinned chicken cut through the bone and dusted with a pinch of salt and pepper. And then there’s that glazed duck that I aim to get every time I arrive. Problem is, I’m always too full to speak by the time it rolls my way.
Fortune of Seven Corners Center, 6249 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church, (703) 538-3333.
Post-dim-sum-trauma, King’s Chicken, humid as it may be, is a breath of fresh air. Veggie burgers and cheese steaks have been added to the menu, but the only real decision-making involves choosing between rotisserie-style or fried, and for me, that’s no choice at all. I’ll take fried every time. Although I have to disagree with the reader who claims that this fried chicken is “the real deal,” given that the real deal is generally juicy and doesn’t come from a chain. The appeal here is in the sides (particularly the bitter, pork-seasoned collard greens) and the couple in charge of the franchise. “So this is your first time,” the husband says, making small talk as he hooks me up with an extra biscuit to make sure it’s not my last.
King’s Chicken, 1010 U St. NW, (202) 939-0900. —Brett Anderson
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