Call me naïve, but I expected a little more ceremony when I took on the Chow, Baby challenge — maybe a walk under an arch of Wusthof knives held by chefs? A scepter? At least a cardboard crown. Instead I got Chinese food, which turned out not to be such a bad thing.
King Chinese BBQ (907 E. Pioneer Pkwy., Arlington) is almost exactly what my decades of movie-watching had led me to expect in a big-city Chinatown dive, down to the flickering final letters on the neon sign that left it reading “King Chinese B.” Not that this stretch of Pioneer Parkway will ever be seedy enough to satisfy my glamorized ideal of a proper Chinatown, but it’s about as close as you can get in these parts. The Arlington culinary scene, in fact, has it going on. And by “it,” I mean a wide variety of decent to brilliant ethnic restaurants that serve excellent, authentic food to a United Nations of customers.
The first sign of a good Chinese restaurant: Asian people eating there. Second: butchered animals hanging out in the open. Third and possibly most important: No kitschy, over-the-top decorations. Check, check, check. There’s nothing so fake-feeling as a Chinese restaurant that looks more like a Hunan theme park. King Chinese’s sparsely decorated walls, carpeted floors, and television blaring some Chinese soap opera (a lawyer drama, if memory serves) all lent authenticity, and a menu printed in both English and Mandarin drove the point home.
My guest and I were a little intimidated by the six-page menu — long enough, we joked, to warrant its own book on tape. Another authentic if horrifying touch: the gruesomely specific names of the dishes: Marinated stomach, ear, and tongue. Pork blood congee. Beef tendon and stomach. In other words, General Tso has left the building. I’m not opposed to exotic dishes, but I didn’t want my fist Chow, Baby column to turn into an episode of Bizarre Foods.
We settled on a couple of appetizers: the cold sliced spicy beef ($7.95) and crabmeat-and-asparagus soup ($7.95), both served in portions large enough to have fed Mao’s army. The beef was a slab of sliced meat, simply arranged on the plate; because it was cold, the fat was gelatinous and flavorful. The meat had an almost chocolaty sweetness and a beef jerky-like texture. The soup, designed for two people to split, featured white asparagus and a mild, delicious broth, the crab flavor merely an insinuation, echoes in the aftertaste.
For entrées, we decided to play it safe with marinated duck ($7.95) and “assorted seafood and bean curd in hot pot” ($9.95). The duck was fatty and sweet, served with a sweet, vinegary dipping sauce. While the skin wasn’t as crispy as, say, the roast duck that’s also on the menu, what it lacked in crispness it makes up for in refinement. The hot pot was nothing short of brilliant. It featured crab legs, scallops, shrimp, sqid, fresh mushroom buttons, bok choy, and chunks of tofu, all of it slathered in a spicy, gingery bean curd sauce.
The service was prompt and friendly, and our server was very patient with a couple of foreigners — foreign to her, anyway. The language barrier was nothing that some erratic gesturing and pointing couldn’t overcome.
As it turns out, dining as Chow, Baby is a lot like what I’ve always done. I was ready to let my claws out a little, but I didn’t have to. I was treated to one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time, in a culinary scene that can’t possibly fly under the radar much longer — not with this much to offer.
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