Neon lights. Check. Candy apple red-brick pattern painted over real bricks as if to openly suggest a theme of artifice. Check. Massive sign advertising the lunch special for $6.99. Check.
The facade of New Big Wong has all the markings of a restaurant that serves typical, Westernized Chinese food. It telegraphs cheap, cheesy thrills like the stripes on a circus tent.
This is the place that Chef Mike Isabella recently uttered in the same breath as Volt and the Source? This is where local chefs hang out for their late-night chow?
Well then this - not Vidalia, Rustico or any of the other "reputable" places on the top 50 list - was our bulls-eye for Saturday-night dining.
We sat at a table next to a saltwater tank filled with dark brown, spined and fangy sea creatures just begging patrons to guess their identity. I flipped through the menu and was pleased to find no less than five pages of authentic Hong Kong specialties. Our waitress sidled up to the table, and ...
... she spoke perfect English. She volunteered the names of any and all dishes that didn't appear on the menu but were nevertheless available on an informal basis. I asked her to tell us about the steamed "live" oysters, and she cheerfully explained they're served on the halfshell with the house sweet and sour sauce - and, no, she joked, they don't jump around on your plate!An icy stare from our waitress jarred me out of fantasy world ....
And from our questions, she could tell we were curious about Hong Kong, so she gave a quick primer on the main difference between the cuisines of this coastal hub and, a stone's skip away, the island of Taiwan: the latter bears the influences of Japan, which ruled Taiwan until the end of WWII, and also draws on Sichuan and Beijing traditions.
Oh, and those ugly mothers in the tank making goo-goo eyes at us? They're anglers, she chirped.
So properly educated by our impeccable host, we were able to order precisely what
we wanted. The waitress didn't try talking me into deep fried versions of everything I ordered even though everyone knows that scorched and oily crap is the only kind of food American esophaguses are biologically capable of passing.
Then the food came, and noticeably absent were those MSG goo-vats that swamp most Chinatown grub like an edible oil slick. Despite Hong Kong's past as a British colony, the seasoning on dishes like the phoenix (chicken) & dragon (shrimp) was restrained and just right, more indicative of Cantonese influences than the shapings of the West.
The food, like the service, was crisp and pleasing by nature.
No wonder the chefs of DC, those oracles of the local dining scene, prophesied New Big Wong as the Next Big Thing.
... and she said, without the trace of a smile, "What you want?"
Reality is a little less hospitable at New Big Wong. Throughout dinner, the service fluctuated from mildly friendly to inattentive, but if one there was one constant, it was lingual dysfunction. I asked two waiters about the live scallops, both of whom awkwardly ducked the requests like flaming arrows and fled our table like their hair was on fire.
Monali's phoenix and dragon
And, in reality, when I tried to order the duck tongue sauteed in black bean sauce, the waitress said something I didn't understand, and which I later realized must have translated into, "We're going to deep fry this because we know that, as an American, that's what you really want." The dish that emerged from the kitchen was so goupy and salty that the taste of duck was about as remote as Hong Kong.
"Sauteed" duck. And no bean sauce.
I tried asking a waiter if Mike Isabella was planning to drop by. He laughed hysterically and walked away.
After leaving the restaurant, I heard that there's some kind of secret menu that contains the real house favorites - which, of course, no one at the restaurant mentioned to us. The best dish is supposed to be something called the whole shrimp - to get it you've got to say you want the shrimp cooked exactly one minute.
Maybe it's trite to observe language barriers at a Chinese restaurant, but they're particularly frustrating at New Big Wong. Clearly, a place like this would take a lot of trial and error to get down all the special requests, winks, nods, translations, and secret handshakes. ESP might also be a requirement.
But there's the rub: I'm not sure the "declassified" grub we had at New Big Wong was good or unique enough to justify any more experimenting. The food p*rn versions below might look attractive, and they're good like popcorn shrimp at Popeyes Chicken after 10 beers. But, ultimately, all our dishes were greasy, retarded cousins of the more authentic Chinese food you can get out in Rockville.
Lolly's curry noodles with shrimp and pork
Lolly's curry noodles with shrimp and pork