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“Gee, there’s a line,” a man observes, climbing over Raku’s waist-high fence to join a friend. The man’s friend is visibly unamused that he’s had to wait in line solo. Instead of responding to his tardy companion, he shoots him a sarcastic, no-shit-Sherlock glance. The late guy breaks the silence: “It must be trendy.”
Most often, people in the District say “trendy” when what they really mean is “popular.” There’s a difference. Restaurants earn popularity over time because they offer consistent quality and comfort. Successful steak houses fall into this category. Trendy restaurants’ appeal is urgently ephemeral, fresh, and a bit confounding. “Where exactly are we supposed to be?” asks my friend, as he takes a seat on Raku’s sidewalk patio. We’re all feeling a tad smug just to be getting a table, and no one in our party gives our friend the same answer. Raku is trendy.
Trendy concepts help a trendy restaurant’s cause, and Raku’s got one. The kitchen prepares pan-Asian cuisine and purports to duplicate the sort of quick dishes that are available on streets throughout Asia. In theory, pan-Asian food betrays the unique qualities of the disparate cuisines it crossbreeds—a perpetuation of the old stereotype that all Asian foods are essentially the same. But in practice, pan-Asian can also be pretty good.
A large portion of Raku’s menu is comprised of appetizers. The portions are small, which is frustrating given what delights some of them can be. Aside from the summer rolls—buxom veggie logs with no shortage of cilantro—Raku’s wrappers are miniature. The seaweed slims, which are filled with seasoned pork and cabbage, the sweet-and-hot vegetable Thai sticks, and the egg rolls look like postage-stamp depictions of what I have in mind. They’re also uniformly delicious and pretty cheap (about $4.50 a pop).
The skewers can be a hassle; more than once I find myself gnawing on wood after unsuccessfully trying to remove sticks stubbornly embedded in meat. It’s not a problem with the tender shark bites, marinated in green curry and served juicy, or the awesome Saigon satay—the minced chicken and shrimp is molded around a stalk of sugarcane. Like the wrappers, Raku’s skewers are served with a tiny pile of pickled cucumbers.
Raku’s most daring pan-Asian concoctions are its dumplings. The firecrackers (chicken, pork, corn, and scallions set ablaze with chili) and the black-bean-and-chicken dumplings taste almost Mexican. When my friend passes the bamboo bowl of Peking duck dumplings, he offers a word of advice: “Don’t think Peking duck.” The dumplings’ innards taste more like a bizarre smoked sausage. They go great with the hoisin BBQ sauce.
Critics have taken exception with Raku’s practice of preparing food off-site the night before, charging that Raku’s kitchen staffers are little more than fast-food cooks in chef’s hats, frying, tossing, or steaming what’s presented to them in plastic wrap. We hardly notice. (For that matter, I doubt that fancier Asian restaurants wait to prepare all dumplings and sauces until the very minute they’re ordered.) Whether or not Raku’s entree-size salads are fresh is never an issue. They’re the dullest dishes on the menu, although the vegetables are always crisp.
The noodle bowls work best with pork. Namban
udon is a blend of medium-size noodles, bok choy, spinach, and tofu in a pale brown dashi broth; set on top are thick-cut hunks of Japanese-style pork that are worthy of a plate all their own. The pork in the dan dan noodles is cooked Szechuan style, and the spices permeate the near-viscous poultry broth. Other noodle dishes do suffer from Raku’s version of the fast-food treatment; in the Korean chile beef and the kowloon noodles, for example, the ingredients are never given a chance to mingle. But in the effort to present truly pan-Asian cuisine in one heaping order, Raku’s noodle creations come pretty close to succeeding.
The downside to operating a trendy restaurant is that the success is usually fleeting; I can almost hear people boasting a year from now how they used to frequent Raku back when it was cool. The upside, for now, is that Raku makes for decent theater even if the food isn’t your bag. The decorations and furnishings on the inside vaguely resemble oversize scraps of Asian jewelry, and in general the clientele is appropriately self-conscious (my friend calls it the “Perry’s crowd”). You’ll always feel like you’re out. And even though the cooks aren’t exactly performing miracles, they work in plain view, all the better for patrons to see them gamely absorb the pointed demands of the wait staff.
“I’ve asked for that kim chee three times now,” barks one pissed waiter, and for the third time the stone-faced cook points to a harmfully hot but surprisingly sweet bowl of cabbage. I commend the cook on his composure. “That’s the trouble with this place,” he says, smiling. “I can’t get mad. Everybody’s watching.”
Raku, 1900 Q St. NW. (202) 265-7258.
In the District, what many takeouts lack in ambience they make up for in diversity. I’ve lost track of how many holes-in-the-wall I’ve spotted with signs trumpeting their stylistic promiscuity—Chinese, subs, soul food, pizza, ribs, Middle Eastern. I’m just waiting to find a place that tutors in math. Reader Denise Taylor recommends China Wonder for those times when you want to indulge several cravings at once. “It’s just a greasy place, but a college hangout where lots of locals go,” she says. “The sandwiches are good. So is the Chinese.” The seafood, wings, and spareribs don’t look bad either. I order the string bean and chicken special, expecting some kind of soul food–type casserole. I’m wrong. The dish is made with soy sauce and is served over rice—I guess that makes it Chinese. Stick with the subs.
China Wonder, 2301-F Georgia Ave. NW. (202) 265-8136.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.