Before we moved back to the DC area, a friend asked me if my first order of business would be to track down Peter Chang. I’d never heard of him. “What’s he famous for?” I asked.
“Only the most amazing Chinese food that used to be impossible to find.” The friend sent me a link to a New York Times article about his restaurant in the suburbs of Richmond the next day. “Find him and tell me what the food is like,” he said breathlessly. “I ate at one of his restaurants years ago. It haunts me still.”
You can see why he and I are friends.
Well, we’ve finally had our Chang. Twice. The first time, the hubby and I took the kids to Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg and, as usual, we planned all sorts of food stops along the way. On the way back, we stopped in Short Pump, just outside Richmond, to sample some of Peter Chang’s delights. The second time, we went with our friends to the new Peter Chang that just opened in Arlington.
Our first Peter Chang experience was at the Short Pump, Virginia branch. The restaurant, as promised, was located in a nondescript strip mall, sharing space with Miss Yu Salon (get it?) and a Wal-Mart. We arrived on the early side after we’d heard that the weekend wait can stretch for an hour or more. With two hungry kids who’d expended a billion calories sliding down water slides all day, we were on borrowed time before things started to descend into a heap of tears and angry yelling. The kids would eventually get cranky, too.
At 5:00 pm, the wait was still more than an hour, but the kids didn’t seem to mind. With wafts of stir-fried garlic and pepper blowing through the breezeway every time someone opened the door to the restaurant and a captive audience of hungry patrons loitering outside, the kids took the opportunity to put on an impromptu dance party.
Before we’d even arrived at the restaurant, the hubby had meticulously plotted around eight dishes he deemed “must try,” which he’d scribbled on a notepad. I married this man for many reasons, but probably the top one is the trembling enthusiasm we both share for eating Asian food. Sometimes the thought of what to order and the idea of missing out on something that we absolutely should have tried makes us both anxious. With a written list, how could we go wrong?
Once we’d gotten inside, though, we realized we had a serious problem. The paper menus in the restaurant didn’t match the one posted online. Entire dishes, dishes we’d hemmed and hawwed and clapped our hands in bouncy anticipation over, weren’t listed. The list was inaccurate, and our hopes dashed. We’d also carefully selected a few dishes without the famous Szechuan spice (Peter Chang cooks Szechuan Chinese food, known for its fragrant peppercorns, blinding heat and oil-poached food) for the kids, and two of them were missing. Not to be deterred, we ordered extra food. So much extra, in fact, that we probably ordered enough for a dinner party of ten, not two adults and their tiny kids.
And, not surprisingly, I discovered that Peter Chang is totally worth the hype, particularly here in the U.S. I think what’s missing from the Chinese food landscape here in the U.S. is that we don’t have a solid foundation of higher end, “haute cuisine” Chinese restaurants. They certainly exist, but the vast majority of Chinese restaurants here are down-and-dirty dumpling houses, takeouts and dim sum shops that churn out good food without fuss. After living in Asia for various stints and visiting lots of different countries there, I’ve come to realize that not only is the Chinese food we commonly know here in the U.S. (i.e., sweet and sour chicken, stir fries and egg rolls) pretty much non-existent in Asia, it’s also vastly different from what true, accomplished chefs of Chinese cuisine are doing over there. In places like Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, my favorite meals were often at places that had a defined concept and vision, not to mention pleasant decor and an atmosphere. In other words, it was an experience. That’s what Peter Chang represents to me. It’s not just that his food is flavorful, authentic and devoid of the heavy oil and gloopy sauces that typify Chinese food here. It’s also that he’s elevating Chinese food for Americans in a way that many Chinese restaurants just aren’t doing right now. The restaurants are pleasantly decorated and the service is attentive, polite and efficient.
Although I enjoyed most of everything we tried, the dishes I’m still thinking about now are the appetizers. The scallion bubble pancake, a lightly fried, savory bread mysteriously puffed into the shape of a bubble, comes with a cold, sweet curry dipping sauce. The crispy bread is meant to be torn open with your hands into manageable pieces for dipping, and the curry’s sweetness complements the pancake nicely. The kids thought these pancakes were magic to eat. I also loved the coriander fish rolls, crispy rice paper rolls wrapped around a flaky white fish speckled with bits of cilantro throughout, which provided unexpected freshness to an otherwise familiar Chinese appetizer. The “fins” on the fish rolls were an artful touch, too.
Another must-try appetizer was the bamboo flounder, crispy battered bite-sized fillets of fish topped with cilantro, green onion and dried red chillies. The batter itself contains a little hint of the famous Szechuan peppercorn, bringing a delightful ting to each bite. This dish was so popular at our table that we ordered a second one as soon as the first one arrived.
We also loved the crazy beef with ghost chili, a try-if-you-dare dish of fried tender beef with onions and dried ghost chilies on a bed of crisp cabbage. The crazy beef was just that. At first bite, there’s a pleasant, warming heat akin to the kind of mild spice you might find in a generic restaurant salsa. The heat soon transforms itself and gradually takes grip of the back of your throat until it spreads throughout your body down to your toes. I felt like I was sitting in a pool of fire. The hubby, who loves spicy heat with every ounce of his being, didn’t bat an eyelash. He could’ve eaten that like a hungry first-grader eats a peanut butter sandwich.
I’d be remiss in also mentioned that Peter Chang’s noodles are made in-house. Our favorite was Grandma’s noodle (top right), a thick, hand cut noodle blended with soy sauce, chili powder and hot oil, then mixed together with green onions. The thickness of the noodles were a great conduit for the spicy sauces swirling around underneath. The hot and numbing noodle appetizer was also a big hit, with thin strands of homemade noodle sitting in a spicy soup with strands of enoki (Japanese) mushrooms and young bok choy. I liked the both the heat and the temperature in the noodle broth. The veggies were crisp and bright, too, which helped cut some of the spiciness.
As for the difference between the Short Pump location and the brand-new Arlington Peter Chang, I’d say that there doesn’t seem to be much, except that the Arlington location is still going through the early stages of restaurant opening. There’s no liquor license yet, so there’s no alcohol available to order. While I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison, it seems to me that the menu at the Arlington location is a bit more limited than the original Short Pump joint. Lastly, I’ll note that while we didn’t order the same dishes at each branch, I think the pork dishes at the Arlington branch weren’t as successful as the ones we’d ordered in Short Pump.
Reservations are limited at both Peter Chang locations, so if you’re planning to go with a big group, I’d call several weeks in advance. Alternatively, you can do like our party of 14 did and arrive at 3:30 in the afternoon, as Peter Chang stays open all day on weekends. The 3:30 pm time ended up being kind of perfect, since we had five kids with us. The kids were in high spirits, no one was melting down with hunger, and we were able to walk off our gorging afterwards with glorious playground time at a park nearby. The kids were happy, and the parents were full.
I’d call that a win in my book.