FOOD: Wok on the Wild Side at Hong Kong Palace

hongkong_palaceBy JIMMY SCARANO
Falls Church Times Staff

January 8, 2010

One of my first forays into adventurous eating was at Hong Kong Palace, a Szechuan restaurant just outside Falls Church City limits that is legendary among area foodies for its incendiary dishes. In addition to an Americanized Chinese menu, there is an “authentic” menu with Szechuan specialties ordered only by those in the know. On my maiden voyage a few years back I started rattling off Szechuan dishes in my take-out order as if I knew what they were. I didn’t.

I still recall my first bite of the Dan Dan Noodles. Slicked with copious amounts of red chili oil and a healthy scattering of ground pork, the much-touted appetizer served as my gateway drug into the cuisine, which I’ve been exploring ever since.

This week, I sat in the restaurant for the first time after doing take-out for so long. A sit down meal only strengthened my feelings that the place is a worthy visit for any heat-seeking diner. There are numerous dishes- including those Dan Dan Noodles — that are downright addictive.

If you go to a Szechuan restaurant without knowing anything about the cuisine you will be caught completely off-guard. The chili-happy region has recipes, techniques, and ingredients that set it apart from the rest of China.

Szechuan cooking is rooted in complex flavor combinations, many involving absurd amounts of dried chilies and the mouth-tingling Szechuan peppercorn. Garlic, ginger, sesame oil, dark soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, and chili bean paste also play leading roles. The interplay of all these potent ingredients is no easy task. Most any chef at a reputable Szechuan restaurant — including Hong Kong Palace’s Liu Chaosheng — has done time at a cooking school in Chengdu, the culinary capital of the centrally located province.

In the last decade, a wealth of insight into Szechuan cooking has become available to Westerners thanks to Fuchsia Dunlop, a British writer whose book, Land of Plenty, is unquestionably the best English language cookbook on the mysterious foods of the province. Dunlop was the first Westerner admitted to Chengdu’s famed Szechuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, and her depth of knowledge is remarkable. The book includes an incredible list of the 23 essential flavors of Szechuan cooking. “Hot-and-numbing flavor,” also known as ma la, is perhaps the most revered, achieved by combining spicy dried chilies and those pesky Szechuan peppercorns, which slightly numb the mouth (almost like a mild anesthetic). “Scorched chili flavor” is nearly as famous, as it is the basis behind the much-loved Kung Pao chicken.

Many Szechuan dishes are generously doused with oil and might be off-putting. An entire repertoire of cold dishes begin with heaping spoonfuls of the bright red chili oil called hong you. So I like to think of Szechuan eating-out ventures as once-in-a-while occasions. It’s just not the type of food I can eat often.

Back to Hong Kong Palace. 

If you sit down at the restaurant the waiters will give you both Chinese menus. Kindly push the white laminated Chinese-American one aside and turn your attention to the appetizer section of the Szechuan menu, which has some of restaurant’s signature dishes.

Dan Dan noodles are a fine choice, but they take a back seat to the Chengdu Spicy Cold Noodles I tried for the first time this week. The chewy-but-tender noodles, garnished with but a few bean sprouts and sesame seeds, sit in a dreamy soy- and vinegar-based sauce with plenty of chili oil that make them impossible to stop eating. I was so smitten by the noodles that I used Dunlop’s book to re-create them at home the next day.

The Szechuan dried beef (General Manager Michele Qing’s favorite item on the menu) and Spicy Wontons are two other worthy starters. Both are spicy-sweet and good for sharing.

Among the entrees, a few favorites stick out. The Chengdu Kung Pao chicken is sweeter and more vinegary than Chinese-American versions, but it’s also loaded with plenty of dried chilies, peanuts, and Szechuan peppercorns. Take a bite and you won’t be wowed, but mix it with some rice and you’ll start to understand it. Bring home some leftovers with rice, and the next day it will blow your mind. Like a complex soup or braise or chili, the flavors meld in a way that’s hard to describe.

The Lamb with Cumin has roots in Western China and is not classically Szechuan.  But it’s still plenty spicy and addictive. A dry stir fry with loads of cumin, fresh chilies, Szechuan peppercorns, sweet onions, bell peppers, and thin slivers of not-at-all-gamey lamb, the dish singes the tongue.  Eat it with plenty of rice.

I always order a vegetable to balance the heaviness of other dishes, but at Hong Kong Palace it’s all relative. You don’t save many calories with the flash-fried, oil-lubricated Tiger Skin Peppers, but with their crinkly skins, buttery-soft interiors, and throat-clearing heat, they are hard to resist. Take caution: the Korean long hot peppers in the dish can vary dramatically in spiciness, and the plump ones with seeds will leave your mouth burning for minutes.

More tame vegetable options are any simply sautéed greens — perhaps spinach or snow pea shoots — found on the daily specials menu in Chinese. Just ask the waiters what’s good.

Some dishes, while tasty, are too heavy to enjoy.  The Vegetables in Peppery Broth are absurdly savory and delicious with rice, but after a few bites it’s hard not to get bogged down by the oil floating on top. Home Style Bean Curd, which has a great lingering heat and richness from chili bean paste, suffers the same drawback, as does the Eggplant with Hot Garlic Sauce, which I’d otherwise order every time.

Aside from the food there’s much to like at Hong Kong Palace, most notably the price. Less than twenty bucks a person will leave you full and toting home plenty of leftovers. The wait staff is also enthusiastic about sharing the Szechuan menu with non-Chinese clientele, especially if you use words like ma la or inquire about the daily specials. There is a language barrier and sometimes you may end up with one thing when you thought you ordered another, but it’s all in good fun.

In China, Szechuan food has long been put on a pedestal. In fact, there’s an old Chinese saying: “China is the place for food, but Szechuan is the place for flavor.” Drop by Hong Kong Palace and you’ll see why.

Hong Kong Palace, 6387 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA, 22044. Phone: 703-532-0940

January 8, 2010 


2 Responses to “FOOD: Wok on the Wild Side at Hong Kong Palace”

  1. William Barratt, Falls Church on January 9th, 2010 6:47 pm

    I eat at Hong Kong Palace as often as I can (by the way, the restaurant’s Chinese name translates to something like “Chengdu Cafe”). I lived in Chengdu for a year and was very happy to discover a restaurant in Falls Church that makes many of my favorite Sichuan dishes. The large numbers of Chinese who eat at Hong Kong Palace are a further testament to its quality and authenticity. I highly recommend this restaurant to anyone who is willing to try new things.

  2. Ian Glen (Vienna, VA) on January 12th, 2010 11:33 am

    A great review – meaning I agree with it completely. This is my favorite restaurant in Fairfax. The sauce for the Chengdu Spicy Cold Noodles is so good you could have it as a drink!

    Other delicious dishes to try are ‘Flounder with Cumin’; “Ko Ko Chicken” (off the Chinese-language menu on the wall); “Fried Chicken with Dried Red Peppers” (like Ko Ko Chicken, but without the sesame seeds in peppers); and “Twice-cooked Pork”.

    The restaurant faces Dog Fish House and is across Route 7 from Sears. Don’t miss this place!

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