“Help me up!” a young woman cries. She is wobbling back from the restroom, en route to what remains of her shrimp lo mein, when she clumsily misses her seat completely. She lands with a noticeable thud on the unforgiving tile floor.
“That chair just jumped out of the way,” cracks a guy at her table. He gets up to help lift the bleary-eyed redhead off the floor.
“Water for Table 4!” heckles another patron watching the whole episode from a neighboring table.
It’s a few minutes past 1 a.m. at New Big Wong, the longstanding basement-level Cantonese and Szechuan restaurant in the District’s ever-shrinking Chinatown. And the night, as the saying goes, is still relatively young.
Big Wong is among those rarest of D.C. restaurants that stay open late—really late. Even on weeknights, you can still get your Buddhist Delight up until 3 a.m. And it is that even rarer nocturnal D.C. eatery that is routinely endorsed by people who know food—namely, big-name chefs from several of the city’s finer dining establishments. On a given night, intermingled among the various fitshaced bar-goers that frequent the place, you might spot, for instance, celebrity chef Susur Lee, the Toronto-based proprietor of D.C.’s Zentan, chowing down on conch with chives. Or Top Chef alum Mike Isabella, owner of nearby Graffiato, who’s partial to the Wong’s pan-fried noodles with pork and salt and pepper shrimp—“heads and tails on,” he specifies. “All the restaurants [in Chinatown] have good food,” Isabella says. “If you go to Full Kee, like, their congee with the thousand-year egg and the roast pork? Bangin’. But, the scallop fried rice, when you get it right at Big Wong, that’s the fucking shit.”
Restaurant workers, who often toil into the wee hours in their own kitchens, tend to gravitate at quitting time to almost any place that’s (a) still open, and (b) offering different flavors and, maybe more importantly, different aromas. “The ability to have a good meal at a great restaurant at 1:30 in the morning, when you get out of service, is a good option to have,” says Nick Stefanelli, executive chef at Bibiana, also a Big Wong regular.
The Wong’s epicurean partisans insist the quality of the cooking still rings true during normal waking hours, too. Stefanelli, for one, is prone to order the stuff at home on his days off. Although, admittedly, convenience plays a role in that, too. “They’ll deliver to my house,” notes Stefanelli, who lives in a different quadrant, along H Street NE.
Stefanelli goes so far as to suggest that the Wong’s culinary credibility transcends international borders. “A friend of mine, who has a restaurant in Shanghai, told me it’s the only place he’ll go out to eat in D.C.,” he says.
But, now, the Big Wong’s status as the go-to after-hours spot for local chefs may be in jeopardy.
Two years ago, Ming’s, another Cantonese eatery with equally late hours, opened right across H Street NW. The newer, more stylishly designed eatery has won the vocal backing of one of D.C.’s most reputable toques in terms of Asian-style cooking, Scott Drewno of The Source by Wolfgang Puck. Inevitably, the rivalry has many of the city’s most talkative chefs taking sides.
For instance, the issue of which late-night Chinatown spot is tops is the subject of a simmering debate between Drewno and Isabella, his Penn Quarter-area contemporary.
“We fight about this,” says Isabella, who suggests the stand-off boils down to a simple dichotomy. “Ming’s is newer,” he says. “Big Wong has the credentials.”
Drewno, for his part, calls it “a fun rivalry.” But he’s not backing down, either. “There’s really no comparison,” he says.
On a recent night after his own kitchen is closed, Drewno heads to Ming’s, where he is greeted like royalty with hugs and big smiles from the staff, several of whom he seems to know by name. For a guy who cooks Chinese food even when he’s on the clock, Drewno’s frequent patronage of the place seems either a testament to the quality of the cooking or a sign of a serious szechuan peppercorn addiction. Maybe both.
When proprietor Michelle Tam found out that Drewno, her regular patron, worked at his own Chinese restaurant, she let him back in the kitchen one night and even served his fried rice to her patrons. “It’s pretty good rice,” Drewno recalls Ming’s chef saying, “but he’s messy.” Tam has since checked out The Source, where she’s become a fan of Drewno’s chive dumplings and beef chow fun, she says.
The fandom is mutual. “It’s like true Cantonese cooking,” Drewno tells me as he orders up a bunch of his favorite dishes at Ming’s, including stir-fried pig intestine with chilis (“mostly chilis,” he points out), the super spicy boiled beef (“really fucking spicy,” he says) and the crispy fried pork chops (“there’s bones in there,” he warns). The latter dish is a particular obsession for Drewno. “I’ve probably been here 50 times and I’ve ordered them every single time,” he says. “They’re crispy, salty, spicy—everything you want.”
I enjoyed the chops, as well as the prawns with walnuts and special sauce (condensed milk is part of the recipe). The sweetness of the shrimp nicely counters the latent heat of the boiled beef, which is literally swimming in a deep bowl of chili-laden oil. The lean strips of intestine prove chewy but not tough.
Looking around the room, it’s easy to see why a guy like Drewno, who comes from the more refined environs of The Source, would prefer this setting to grungy Big Wong with its old wooden chairs, out-of-date china, and water tanks full of lobsters and crabs in the back. At Ming’s, you find poinsettias in the window, soft lantern-like lighting, modish furniture and contemporary plateware.
“It’s small things here that are different than a lot of Chinese places,” says Drewno. “There’s no plastic container of duck sauce sitting on the table that hasn’t been washed in three weeks,” he points out.
The clientele, too, seems a lot more subdued than the sometimes-rowdy crowd across the street. Surprisingly, considering the super-late hours at both places, neither venue has drawn the ire of liquor regulators. The city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration offers not a single report of over-serving intoxicated patrons or late-night violence at either location.
That leaves the food as the main point of comparison. After return visits to both places, I’m leaning increasingly toward Drewno’s side of the debate. Each eatery has its own specialties. But there are some dishes in common that illustrate the vast differences in approach.
Take the jellyfish salad. I prefer Ming’s, with its lightly sweet dressing, mixed with onions, carrots, and tender pieces of duck. It’s more refreshing and, frankly, more palatable version than Big Wong’s, where the gelatinous ocean creature comes served with slabs of the most gristly pork loin I’ve ever tried to choke down.
If you’re liquored-up enough, though, I suppose those little differences don’t really matter. CP
Ming’s, 617 H St. NW, (202) 289-1001
New Big Wong, 610 H St.NW, (202) 628-0490
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery