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Everything I used to know about Chinese food, I learned from a Taiwanese Christian minister in the sedate upper middle-class Michigan suburb that inspired the American Pie movies.
Forgive my teenage myopia. The minister in question gave me my first job during high school, working the front counter at his drab take-out. For better or worse, it’s where I learned the basics of Chinese food—or at least the Chinese food most Americans are used to. To this day, I have my Chinese checklist, recognizable names I came to know well in high school that I expect to see on every damned take-out or delivery menu out there. Kung pao? Check. Hunan? Check. Szechuan? Check. Sweet and sour? Check.
That’s why it’s refreshing to find a place that specializes in something else. Sure, non-Americanized Chinese food is plentiful in suburbs like Rockville or Gaithersburg, but Shanghai Tea House on Glover Park’s Wisconsin Avenue commercial strip is also at its best staying away from the old standbys, and it’s right here in the District. The kitchen is known to occasionally take its orders from General Tso, but the tea house also serves a variety of dumplings, Shanghai sticky rice cake, spicy cabbage, eel rice, and tomato miso soup. The menu, in ways, has its back turned away from China’s more familiar southern regional cuisines and looks more north and northeast. (The presence of lamb dishes is a major clue.)
On a visit with a friend who has lived off and on in China, including stints in Shanghai and Beijing, I got a hint of why. We happened to be the only ones in the relatively spare, tastefully decorated dining room overlooking Wisconsin Avenue. As my friend conversed with the co-owner and chef, Lily Zhang, in Mandarin—her English was not very good—we learned that she used to live in Beijing, where she ran a tea house, which explained the robust and specialized tea offerings.
No one from Shanghai would claim the restaurant serves traditional Shanghaiese food. But the menu reflects certain cosmopolitan sensibilities that have made Shanghai, China’s largest city and financial center, into a regional culinary mixing bowl. What we ordered was generally less spicy and less sweet—a more northern approach to cooking.
Recently, the tea house’s menu has expanded to include more and more dishes from China’s diverse culinary regions (and from the takeout phone orders of my youth). But I’m still drawn to the out-of-the-ordinary items I’m not used to seeing on a typical Chinese restaurant menu.
For starters, in colder weather, I’m always in the mood for the tomato miso soup, which has more in common with egg drop soup than the miso you’re accustomed to at sushi restaurants. In this version, diced tomatoes swim in a slippery eggy-miso bath, which coats your innards with comforting warmth as it goes down. A spicy cabbage appetizer, tipping its hat a bit to Korean kimchi, is crunchy, and bites the tongue, in a good way. The menu looks east in other ways, too, with eel rice and udon noodle soups, popular in Japanese cuisine. But this is not a place going out of its way to achieve a flashy pan-Asian composure.
Meat-and-vegetable filled dumplings are plentiful and can be ordered steamed or pan fried. These aren’t the best dumplings I’ve ever had, but they’re mighty fine—simple and freshly made, and miles beyond what I was introduced to in my teenage years. If you’re going for a simple, satisfying meal, an order of dumplings (including those made with ground lamb) is filling, good to share, and pairs well with soup.
Another good dish to share is the lion’s head pork meatballs. These flavorful marvels are commonly associated with Shanghai, where time-tested family recipes have been passed through generations. These meatballs are served in an attractive casserole dish with bok choy and a thin layer of broth. They don’t disappoint. Cutting one open reveals a moist and complex mixture of ground pork flecked with mushroom and carrot chunks. If I were in a gluttonous mood, I could easily eat all four on my own.
During a recent visit, my dining companion asked the waitress if she knew what was in the meatball mix. Her frank answer, delivered with a nice smile: “I don’t like them.” She went onto say, however, that many others do like the meatballs, which take additional time to make. That’s a good thing. They’re slightly sweet, decently juicy, and worth the wait. They can stand on their own, no sauce needed. Having a big-flavored accompaniment would be distraction. These are not Italian meatballs in need of a hearty red sauce.
Orders might take some time to reach your table. Sometimes requests from customers seem to get lost in translation. Fortunately, there’s plenty of tea available to distract you while you’re waiting. Try floral standouts like peony and chrysanthemum. There are also earthy, pu-erh options, which may not be, ahem, everyone’s cup of tea—you might think you’re drinking brewed twigs. Each pot comes with an individual stand complete with a candle-powered warmer, and small, shallow translucent plastic sipping cups, meant to allow a particular tea’s defining characteristics to tantalize the tongue. The smaller cups take more work over the course of a meal—think of all the additional pouring required. But they prevent you from taking a big gulp of pu-erh, which might be too much for the tastebuds, or at least mine.
During a recent visit, I picked up the menu for carry-out and delivery, something I hadn’t checked out in many months. I noticed some curious additions: My old Chinese food checklist is now all there, and then some. You’ll find familiar Szechuan and Hunan dishes, chicken in black bean sauce, even pad Thai. A waitress confirmed that the dine-in menu was an “old menu.” When I asked if you could get the lion’s head meatballs for delivery—they’re not listed on the carry-out menu—she said yes. Anything from the carry-out menu that’s not on the current dine-in menu could be ordered in-house.
Flexibility and familiarity are critical for any successful Chinese take-out operation, but the expanded menu will distract most diners from the tea house’s hidden jewels. That said, I’d be remiss to totally write-off the tried-and-true standards. Dishes like double-cooked pork or ma po tofu are well executed, even if they’re overly familiar. Recently, I had orange chicken, a dish I normally avoid as it too often it involves a thick, sticky sauce that clumps on the plate. The kind of pre-fab, oversweetened sauces you might find in shopping mall food courts have a tendency to gum up, especially after deep-fried meat, like chicken or pork, cools.
Shanghai Tea House, however, rarely oversauces a dish. Its version of orange chicken has chunks of white meat that are delicately fried and served with broccoli. There’s a light, sweet coating, its flavors fortified with small shavings of orange peel. This sauce was not sitting in a crock pot awaiting slathering. There’s no need to mix the left-over sauce with unused rice. (Thank goodness.) Similarly, Mongolian beef does not swim in a spicy brown sauce the way it can elsewhere. The same goes for a related recipe, lamb spiced with scallions—though the meat can be tough, which goes with the territory when serving lamb.
Quality ingredients in a well-executed, simple dish shouldn’t need so much sauce. Now that I’m thinking about it, I should probably add oversaucing to my Chinese food checklist. Fortunately, I don’t have to check off that box at Shanghai Tea House.
Shanghai Tea House, 2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-338-3815
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