Good Fortune

Some of the best Cantonese, Sichuan and Hunan-style cooking in the country is being done by Virginia chefs who show us a world of Chinese cuisine that is so much more than run-of the-mill lo mein.

I get it. I really do. Deep fried, cabbage-filled egg rolls dipped in nasal clearing hot mustard sauce, steaming bowls of egg drop soup with just a hint of soy sauce, chunks of battered sweet and sour pork bathed in that cloying red sauce, and flaming pu pu platters brimming with crispy fried shrimp toast and sweet lacquered spare ribs. Who can resist?

Without question, the standard, run-of-the-mill Chinese food that’s so familiar to us hits the spot, and it can be found on just about every street corner, making it a convenient and inexpensive dinner option. And let’s face it: Curling up in front of the television with a container of warm, comforting lo mein noodles is one of life’s great pleasures. But there is so much more to be discovered when it comes to real Chinese food; from steamed dumplings filled with abalone (a large edible sea snail) to bubbling hot pots brimming with beef brisket, tender fish and mung bean noodles, there’s a world of deliciousness out there just waiting to be sampled.

You might not know it, but Virginia is home to some of the finest Cantonese, Sichuan and Hunan-style cooking in the country. And our local Chinese chefs have the honors to prove it, including James Beard semi-finalist nominations and printed accolades in publications that know food, like The New Yorker, Washington Post and The New York Times. Here are three outstanding Virginia-based Chinese restaurants and the extraordinary dishes that make them so special.  

Peter Chang China Café, Richmond

“Can you feel that?” my husband asks me while gently patting the outside of his bottom lip. “It’s a weird tingly sensation, kind of like my lips and tongue have been coated in Anbesol.”

We’re sitting in one of several chocolate brown leather booths at Peter Chang China Café in Richmond’s far West End. Sandwiched between a GNC and a Walmart Supercenter in a typical suburban strip mall, what used to be a run-of-the-mill casual Chinese lunch buffet establishment has been taken over by one of the most celebrated (and elusive) Sichuan chefs in the country, and you’d never know it. That is, until you take your first bite and feel it, too.

It might be the Hot and Numbing Dry Beef with its one-pepper menu rating that tingles your taste buds while numbing the lips and tongue (three peppers is the hottest rating). Strips of beef are almost jerky-like due to a multi-part cooking process that involves simmering the beef at length to draw out excess moisture and fat, after which it’s marinated in a blend of Shaoxing wine and ginger before hitting the wok to be fried in a blend of Sichuan peppercorns, chili flakes and sesame oil. The beef is delightfully chewy and packs that signature Sichuan pepper wallop that somehow magically gives way to a numbing feeling on the lips and tongue, making the whole dish remarkably tolerable even for those who are sensitive to hot foods.

Elevate the spice even more by ordering Chang’s Shan City chicken, which duly earns its three-pepper rating with stir fried, lightly battered pieces of chicken tossed with whole dried chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, cilantro and sesame seed. Puffy scallion bubble pancakes will help to temper the burn and are just plain fun to eat as you tear off pieces of dough and dip them in the accompanying mellow curry sauce. To continue your cool down, try giving my personal favorite dish a whirl: shredded pork with bamboo shoots and smoked tofu, which bursts with umami (that legendary fifth taste) along with a subtle soy-enhanced saltiness.

This is cooking that operates in synchronicity—pungent, sour, hot, bitter, sweet, aromatic and salty flavors all melding together in seamless cohesion, and arguably no one articulates this culinary unity better than Peter Chang.

Raised in the Hubei Province of China not far from the Sichuan region, a young Chang eventually left his small family village to attend culinary school. After stints at various restaurants and hotels, he and his wife Lisa relocated to the U.S. in 2001, where Chang served as the private chef for the Chinese ambassador in Washington, D.C.

A few years later Chang went on to work as chef at China Star in Fairfax, where he began to cultivate his now loyal following. Chang then cooked at a number of restaurants from Virginia and Georgia to Tennessee (often abruptly leaving his post and disappearing without warning, thus solidifying his chef cult status with his army of Sichuan-pepper-addicted foodies).

By the time Chang opened Peter Chang’s in Richmond in 2012, the influential Calvin Trillin had already profiled him in The New Yorker and his Richmond outpost was named one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country by Bon Appétit magazine. (In 2015, Chang was a semi-finalist for the prestigious James Beard Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic award.)

Chang opened new eponymous restaurants in Arlington in March and Rockville, Maryland, in April, as well as the “fast casual” Peter Chang Wok in Virginia Beach. Recently, Chang announced plans to open another Richmond restaurant located in the historic Hofheimer building in downtown Scott’s Addition, and there’s word on the street that another one of Chang’s fast casual concepts will debut later this year near Virginia Commonwealth University. Recent chatter suggests another Peter Chang fine dining establishment may open at D.C.’s Navy Yard sometime later this year. These new ventures are in addition to his current restaurants in Richmond, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg and Williamsburg. Is Chang poised to become the Sichuan King of the Mid-Atlantic? Possibly so. Either way, a flock of tingling tongues anxiously await.

Andy Chang China Grill, Forest

There’s a new Sichuan kid in town, although this acclaimed chef has been around the cooking block several times over, from China to New York to Virginia. Andy Chang, chef and owner of the newly launched Andy Chang China Grill just outside of Lynchburg, attended culinary school with his longtime friend and mentor Peter Chang back in China (they are not related, by the way). He later went on to help Peter Chang launch several of his famed restaurants throughout the state. In addition, Chef Andy Chang served as the head chef of Peter Chang China Grill in Charlottesville for three years before finally going off on his own. So, without question, Andy Chang knows his peppers.

“Why Forest?” I ask Andy Chang’s son, Ray, one afternoon while enjoying a particularly stellar lunch. “Because there isn’t any real Chinese food in this area,” he answers curtly.

Simple enough, I think.

Lunch at Andy Chang’s sees a boisterous, packed house—an expansive space with 50-plus tables, some with built-in lazy Susans. The Tuesday lunch crowd is a mix of people in suits and athletic shoes, dust covered workers coming straight off the construction site, older couples scooping up noodles and fried rice with their forks and a smattering of cheerful Liberty University students munching on spring rolls and sipping tall glasses of Coke. The vibe is different here as compared to Peter Chang’s restaurants. Andy Chang’s is a true locals place where food snobbery ought to be checked at the door.

Start your tour of the extensive menu of very Peter Chang-ish offerings with the fried shrimp and onion with chili powder, complete with dry fried yellow onions, green onions, crunchy garlic pieces, fresh cilantro and salty, spicy chili flakes. It has just enough kick to perk up your senses before moving on. More adventurous diners may want to try the beef tendon and tripe in Sichuan sauce, which pays homage to the offal in a spicy red chili-oil-laden sauce topped with crunchy peanuts for texture.

A cooler-on-the-palate three-gorges chicken offers respite from the flames with stir-fried chicken, asparagus, garlic and minced green onions bathed in a mild sweet soy sauce and accented with a few scattered dried chili peppers. Between this dish and some fresh steamed white rice, you can ready your taste buds for the coup de grâce—the hot and numbing combination in hot pot, which arrives at the table still bubbling over a small flame. It’s a brilliant presentation because the fire goes out on its own after about 15 minutes, so the bevy of fresh flounder, beef, chicken, shrimp, cabbage and mung bean noodles don’t overcook in the rich, oily broth. It’s one of the spicier dishes on the menu and contains plenty of Sichuan peppercorns, especially if you dig deep into the bottom of the pot.

Andy Chang’s has been open less than a year, so it’s new to Virginia’s burgeoning Sichuan scene. However, judging by the cheerful, hungry lunch crowd enjoying everything from shredded tofu skins and sour cabbage soup to General Tso’s chicken with fried rice, Chang’s son Ray just might be right about one thing. Perhaps it’s as simple as introducing people to real Chinese food.

Mark’s Duck House, Falls Church

Dining at Mark’s Duck House during its hectic weekend dim sum brunch is an exercise in controlled chaos. It begins when you first pull into the parking lot of the unassuming Willston Center 1 to find 20 or so voracious diners impatiently standing outside on the sidewalk directly under a set of Chinese characters that not-so-ironically read, “Great Crowded Restaurant.” Once inside, your immediate task is to snake through a mixed crowd of families, hungover millennials and well turned out after-church goers and muscle your way up to the hostess stand, where you will receive a small slip of paper with a number on it. This is a golden ticket that should be protected—dare to step outside when your number is called and the hostess will move right on to the next strip of paper and you’ll lose your table. The key is to stay close, but also out of the way.

Use your wait time to survey the landscape of this Northern Virginia mainstay, founded in 1986 by Frederick and Esther Mark, that specializes in true Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine. Just as its name suggests, Mark’s is renowned for its roasted duck. If you’re lucky, while you wait, you might get to witness the restaurant’s famous crispy-skinned whole Peking duck carved tableside. Served with slivered scallions, paper thin pancakes for wrapping and sweet and tangy plum sauce for dipping, it’s a must-order, even if it’s not technically a Cantonese dish.

When you finally take your seat, be prepared to act quickly as steaming metal carts will magically appear from various directions bearing a dizzying array of dim sum specialties. Sticky, translucent steamed shrimp dumplings (har gao) arrive neatly packed in metal tins and are just begging to be dipped in black vinegar, soy sauce and hot chili oil. Soft, chewy, thick rolled rice noodles (cheong fun) are filled with steamed shrimp and drizzled in sweet soy sauce. Crispy, blanched Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce (gai lan) offers a brief respite from its starchier counterparts, while the roast suckling pig is a textural experience of tender roasted pork topped with strips of crispy pork skin that create a surprising crunch.

The steamed jumbo oysters, which are about the size of your hand, are a must-try. Served raw on the half shell with slices of fresh ginger and shredded scallions, their arrival elicited applause from the staff after we ordered them, either because they are one of the pricier items on the menu or because they wanted to see if and how we would eat them using only our chopsticks.

Mark’s Duck House is a no frills kind of place with sparse décor and minimal ambience. A frenzied, fun eatery, it’s all about the food here, with more than 400 menu options. If braised chili beef stomach isn’t your thing, something from their extensive menu will surely suffice.

This article originally appeared in our Aug. 2015 issue.

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