There are several ways you can approach one of A&J Restaurant’s pan-fried beef buns. I notice one woman carefully sprinkle sugar on hers (beats me) and another who, after perforating the dough with chop sticks, drops hers into a bowl of Szechwan-style beef broth for a good long soakI leave before she retrieves it. I’ve seen others remove the crisp, lightly browned dough as if it were an orange peel, to attack the spicy meatballish center in its naked form. I prefer just to eat the thing, but not until I take an initial bite and let the juices drip onto a spoon. I call this method the bite-and-drip, not to be confused with the bite-and-smush, a technique favored by a father and his son who, after consuming one fluid-liberating mouthful of their respective buns, take the things by the hand and squeeze the sublimely greasy liquid directly into their upturned mouths.
It’s enough to make one wish there were as many ways to get to A&J itself, which, depending on your address and/or sensibility, is either in the center of it all or in the middle of nowhere. (My personal ideal here would be by helicopter, which would bypass the Highway to Hell, identified on my map as Rockville Pike.) With sister locations in places like Taipei, Beijing, and Los Angeles, the restaurant is technically a chain. But don’t think Fuddruckers (which, incidentally, is across the street). Aesthetically, A&J’s suburban Maryland outpost is mom-and-pop to the bone, its suburban strip-mall setting notwithstanding. The dining room’s roughly the size of a big studio apartment, and no more glamorous. Framed Chinese characters grace the wall, the menus are paper….’Nuff said.
Also keep in mind that A&J is one of those places that do not take American Express, or, for that matter, any other collaterala potential headache remedied by the fact that the restaurant all but gives its food away. The menu compiles an assortment of northern Chinese dishesdim sum, soups, and noodles, basicallythe priciest of which are still less than five bucks. Drinkers might not like the place much, because the only real mood-altering substance available is the hot and sour sauce. (I’ve brought my own beer.) Ditto health fiends: The kitchen does some fabulous things with cucumbers (bathed in said hot sauce and garlic) and bean curd, but the menu is about as meaty as they come; seaweed is the closest thing to fish or mollusk that’s served.
Most of the noodle soups seem like platters. And indeed, you’ll notice other diners at this family-centric restaurant passing the bowls around with their dim sum. There are two kinds of noodles available (thin and the superior, house-made wide), but aside from a couple of simple items that involve only noodles and sauce, pasta ends up being beside the point when you order it.
Two separate soups involve fried chicken and fried pork chops, for example, and both provide proof that frying doesn’t always strip meat of its natural flavor. I find the two other pork soups pretty bland, although memories of stiff broths from previous orders may be clouding my judgment. All but one of the beef soups are prepared Szechwan style, and it’s no wonder that the woman dropped her bun in her bowl as if it were filled with marinadethe stuff’s that strong. So be cautious when slurping and enjoy the deep-seasoned beef chunks that come as part of the package.
After countless visits over the past 10 months, I’ve only once seen A&J less than completely packed; the service is stopwatch-fast because there are people waiting, so don’t expect to make friends with the staff even if you do speak their language. Yet a typical meal (which, if you have a group, will involve a load of orders) is well-paced. The light stuff comes first: shredded bean curd mixed with carrots and celery or coupled with boiled peanuts and spicy-hot parsley salad; pickled cabbage; seaweed and bean sprouts tossed with garlic and vinegar. Soon after, you’ll likely see something starchya turnip pastry, say, or an addictive swirl of crisp dough known as a thousand-layer pancakefollowed shortly by soup.
Granted, the whole process is pretty quick. If the line’s short, you can plan to eat leisurely and still be in and out of the place in less than 45 minutes. But A&J’s exemplary dumpling and stand-alone meat dishes are the star performers, so it’s at least a nice symbolic gesture that they take a little longer to prepare and show up at the table fashionably late.
All plump and cuddly together in their metal steamers, the steamed vegetable and beef dumplings have been known to evoke the word “cute”but eaten with a dab of red pepper sauce, they’re much more than eye candy. The fried pork dumplings are manlier; juicy and appropriately oily, they’re like the beef buns, only rolled into logs. Slow-cooking becomes both of A&J’s simple plates of sliced beef and pork, either of which goes great with a scallion pancake. Each slice of smoked chicken comes attached to a bit of bone that invariably ends up in my mouth after the meat’s gone, a hard little reminder of the tender bird’s salty allure. As far as I can tell, it’s the best way to eat it.
A&J Restaurant, 1319 C Rockville Pike, Rockville, (301) 251-7878.
Given the concern surrounding raw oysters and their freshness, it’s always reassuring when you can trust their shucker. M&S Grill, a member of the mushrooming McCormick & Schmick’s seafood empire, has the clout to acquire some of the best, most recently harvested bivalves around. Sure, the bar appears on its way to supplanting its sister as the playpen of choice for downtown suits. But the Rhode Island oysters we ordershiny, nicely iced, and salty like the seamake it all worthwhile. When it comes to oysters, wouldn’t you rather suffer to get to them than suffer after you’re through?
M&S Grill, 600 13th St. NW (202) 347-1500.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.