A visit to Chinatown usually disappoints. Too often, a restaurant whose cuisine proves memorable on one visit offers a menu of taste-alike fare when you return. Eat First, a 3-year-old restaurant at the center of Chinatown, isn’t like many nearby establishments. While some of its higher-priced neighbors try for glitz, Eat First is content with a look that shouts greasy spoon. The restaurant’s white tables, some of them showing the yellowish tint of age, are covered only with paper placemats, plates, and upended cups ready to be flipped over and filled with hot tea. Grease-smudged Plexiglas separates the kitchen from the dining room, where a handwritten menu posted on a mirrored wall contains info about the seasonal specials. The place is kind of ugly, actually. But if it’s ambience you want, get takeout and light a candle at home. Eat First is about food.
Eat First’s menu runs the gamut from staples like beef lomein and sautéed veggies, both of which are what you’d expect, to more adventurous exercises, such as braised fish head clay pot and intestines prepared several different ways, meals neither I nor my companions can muster the guts to try. The wait staff is respectful of timid American palettes. When I inquire about the goose web with oyster sauce, my waiter issues a warning. “It’s a lot of bone,” he says. “Chinese people like it, but I notice Americans leave a lot.”
Eat First is at its best with dishes less dangerous than pig’s belly but considerably bolder than fried rice. The finest are listed under house specialties or seasonal specials. After the waiter steers me clear of the web, I opt for the oyster with ginger and scallion clay pot, which, like a similar dish prepared with shrimp in the shell, comes with its seafood soft and the scallions crisp. The bean cakes (basically tofu), green paper (basically green pepper), and eggplant with shrimp is covered in a black bean sauce and can be enlivened with sliced chilies, which can be ordered on the side. The subtle fruit flavor of the filet mignon and chicken sautéed with snow peas and apple is a piquant (and unexpected) delight. Our hands-down favorite is the soft-shell crab, encrusted with spicy salt, fried, and served unadorned save for some scallion chunks. It’s like candy.
As befits a place that has the plain feel of a diner, Eat First’s more familiar dishes come recommended because they are so predictable. A friend who fears he might have an ulcer finds comfort in a simple plate of chicken with cashews. If you’re in the mood for sweet and sour chicken, Eat First’s got it, but also consider the orange chicken or beef, which have a stronger citrus flavor and are just a tad more spicy. For a sampling of Chinese barbecue, order the roast duck, pork, and chicken combination served on a bed of rice. One of our only regrets about Eat First is that the chow mein displayed in full color on the menu’s cover no longer seems to be offered.
Eat First’s list of appetizers is sparse, having only five items. We recommend passing on them altogether and ordering soup instead. The noodle bowls can be meals unto themselves: Mammoth portions of noodles are tangled together with a choice of meat and/or vegetables and sunk in a bowl of light broth. A consensus hit is the noodles with fragile but hearty dumplings that are filled with bamboo, shrimp, pork, and Chinese mushrooms. The noodle-free soups are less filling (and less expensive) but more complicated in their flavors. Both the seafood with bean cake and the sweet corn with mashed chicken soups (served in portions meant for two) are delicate and soothing, comfort food done up Asian style.
At noon, Eat First has a budget menu of pre-prepared dishes ($3.95) that attracts a throng of business types. As a result, the one inconsistency at Eat First is the crowd: During lunch there is one; at night you’ll have the place to yourself. It’s one trait Eat First shares with the rest of Chinatown.
Eat First, 728 7th St. NW. (202) 347-0936.
According to Louis, a reader, the family-run Astor attracts “all sizes, colors, and shapes of people. A member of the family is always there, sometimes two or three.” Judging from the number of hack mechanics who tap, slug, or otherwise futz with a temperamental television that doesn’t want to project sound, I’d say that I am the only person eating there who isn’t kin. One guy even suggests I take part in the family ritual. “Your turn. Give it a whack,” he says, pointing toward the mute box broadcasting the first day’s news of the TWA 800 crash. The folks at the restaurant are much more proficient working on less technical objects. Take the hamburger, for instance. “The astro burger is what McDonald’s really needs for a sophisticated hamburger,” says Louis of the spicy Mediterranean meatball flattened into a patty, topped with feta cheese, and slipped between the halves of a toasted roll. Ask for it with white wine sauce and a side of fries.
The Astor International Cuisine, 1829 Columbia Rd. NW. (202) 745-7495.—Brett Anderson
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