July 21, 2024


The Food community

American Chinese food is the best American comfort food. These 10 spots prove why.

9 min read

This is a love letter to the restaurants with sprawling, triple-digit-count menus that serve up wire-handled cartons of General Tso’s chicken or beef and broccoli, the results of immigrant ingenuity melding with American tastes. Think of the varied combinations of rice or noodles and proteins swimming in mother sauces including dark, silken oyster and syrupy orange and red — you probably have your own favorite that hits a specific kind of nostalgic feeling.

In an era during which most restaurants are revamping their operations for carryout, Chinese takeout remains a surefire neighborhood staple, which made it all the more fun for chef Tim Ma to research when he was prepping to open his latest restaurant, Lucky Danger, an American Chinese pop-up in his currently dormant Prather’s on the Alley in Mount Vernon Triangle.

Ma, a Chinese American who fondly recalls his uncle’s Chinese restaurant in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., as the center of his family’s goings-on, has been prolific in the area’s dining scene — by his own count, Lucky Danger is his 10th restaurant concept — but he has typically modeled his cooking off his study at the French Culinary Institute.

“Normally, for American Son or Kyrisan, you’re researching Michelin or fine dining restaurants,” Ma says, but in meeting with his brain trust for Lucky Danger, they had different jumping off points in mind. “Yum’s . . . China Wonder, literally I was like, ‘Everybody on the phone, tell me what [your] go-to Chinese takeout is.’ And that is who we’re comparing ourselves to.”

Chef Danny Lee grew up eating American Chinese food in the Virginia suburbs, and the ritual of it brings a welcome sense of nostalgia when he’s able to gather with family. The co-owner of Chiko and Anju says that his late father’s favorite restaurant was the departed Wu’s Garden in Vienna, and that the Lees would dine there three to four nights a week in his youth. A table at Wu’s became as essential as his family’s dining table.

“The lazy susan . . . something as simple as getting that hot pot of tea at the end of the meal to help you digest,” Lee says. “And then getting the fortune cookies, and then reading my fortune out to my sister, my sister reading it to our dad and then vice versa and laughing about it — sure, is it gimmicky? Yeah, but I think some of those gimmicks sometimes create some of the strongest familial memories that stay with you for the rest of your life.”

My fondness for the cuisine owes itself to my Vietnamese parents, who craved the visual bait of these restaurants. They would debate the freshness and merits of a plate of roast pork with crackling skin or whether a whole steamed fish with ginger scallion sauce was a better pick to twirl around our lazy susan. When you think about some of your favorite restaurants, it’s not always about the food but the time you were able to spend there.

Perhaps undertaking such an accounting of the “best” Chinese restaurants especially at a time when we can’t forge those bonds in person is a fool’s errand. For some of us, the answer to the question of what’s the best Chinese takeout is simply the one closest to your home. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to stake that claim.

So in that spirit, I looked for a takeout spot that best captured the spirit of that nostalgic, comforting cuisine in each of D.C.’s eight wards, plus the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. When ordering, I usually went with a sweetened, crispy chicken dish (General Tso’s, but occasionally orange or sesame), a noodle dish and, if available, the District classic of fried chicken wings and mumbo sauce.

Ward 1: China Town

Even by takeout standards, the indoor waiting area at China Town would be generously described as shoebox-size. Not great, in the pandemic era, but once you get a taste of what emerges from behind that window, you’ll understand why loyal neighborhood residents are wise to wait around.

The nondescript Mount Pleasant eatery offers the usual array of dishes — including a dish less commonly seen around these parts called yat, a noodle dish in brown gravy akin to New Orleans’s yaka mein. But China Town hits the mark: The beef and broccoli is rich and hearty, and the lo mein is treated with more care and finesse than typically found around the city. The only miss on a recent visit was General Tso’s chicken. While nicely crisped, the dish lacked the depth typically imparted by dried peppers and was topped with a thinner, citrusy sauce as found in orange chicken.

3207 Mt. Pleasant St. NW. 202-332-8955. Open daily.

Ward 2: Eastern Carry Out

In better times, you might have ignored Eastern Carry Out after a long, hazy night in Adams Morgan, opting instead for a filling pupusa from El Tamarindo or a jumbo slice of impeccably artificial cheese from Duccini’s. Next time, take a cue from Lee and indulge in chicken wings.

“They are, I think, the best in the city. I tell my other chef friends about it and they just make fun of me,” says Lee, who ventures into the longtime carryout following nights at his nearby Anju. “They serve it with crinkle cut fries, which I’m also a huge fan of, and they actually do a really delicious combination fried rice.”

Also worth ordering are the sesame chicken, which hits most of the right notes, and a filling container of egg drop soup. But don’t leave here without a few hard-fried wings topped with mumbo sauce.

1784 Florida Ave. NW. 202-483-1931. Open daily.

Ward 3: Mr. Chen’s Organic Chinese

While it’s hard to get many to agree on a “best” Chinese food spot in the city, multiple colleagues offered up fond memories of meals at Mr. Chen’s Organic Chinese, which moved from Woodley Park to Cleveland Park a few years ago. Dishes such as a darkened and delightfully sweet orange chicken and spring rolls fried similarly to what you’d find in a Vietnamese restaurant are among the highlights.

The roomy dining room is more comparable to a suburban, banquet hall-style spot than others on this list. However, at the moment the restaurant has shifted to an all-takeout operation. But it’s easy to picture yourself in Mr. Chen’s with a few loved ones, spinning around a few plates of General Tso’s chicken, beef and broccoli and more, when the time is right.

3419 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-966-8988. Open daily.

Ward 4: Twin Dragon Carry Out

Egg rolls are an afterthought on a Chinese takeout menu, at least for me. They’re often just an overstuffed transportation device for cabbage and beg for steady squeezes of duck or soy sauce. But curiosity won out on a recent visit to Twin Dragon, when I saw that every order leaving the lunchtime rush included at least one egg roll.

It’s easy to see why regulars make them a priority — my order was delayed ever so slightly because the kitchen was frying them to order and had a backlog — as one of these egg rolls could reasonably be your entire lunch itself since it compares in size to a small telescope. Instead of relying merely on cabbage, the shop adds in strips of your choice of pork or shrimp. The time in the fryer was well spent, as the wrapper crackled on the first bite without seeping any excess oil throughout.

If you still have enough room after an egg roll, the carryout’s combination lo mein offers its own filling amounts of shrimp, beef and chicken with well-cooked noodles — but you should probably pick a different base than fried rice for any of your choices.

5504 Third St. NW. 202-545-0033. Open daily.

Ward 5: Tsim Yung

Tsim Yung has been doling out massive portions of American Chinese food with the no-nonsense charm you want from a takeout in Brookland since 1988. Its appropriately unadorned shop and prompt service is punctuated by whimsy on the menu: surf-and-turf translates in takeout menu to Sea and Earth (scallops and beef).

The abundance of General Tso’s chicken was welcome, and each piece was reliably crunchy and flavorful, if a bit too sweet at times. The combination lo mein was satisfying in its richness, but perhaps the kitchen was a little short that day on shrimp.

3625 12th St. NE. 202-635-1318. tsimyungdc.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday.

Ward 6: Lucky Danger

If the initial opening rush at Lucky Danger is any indicator, the city can never have too much American Chinese food, even with restaurants seemingly on every other block. Timed pickup or delivery slots, which become available each night at midnight, sell out quickly for prime dinner hours, and Ma says all slots are usually gone by 2 or 3 p.m.

Dishes fall into one of two categories. There are the classic offerings that Ma and executive chef Andrew Chiou, formerly of Momo Yakitori in Brookland/Woodridge, wanted to make sure they got right, such as lo mein. Lucky Danger’s version was a great balance of well-sauced noodles and the perfect amount of thinly sliced chicken, onions, cabbage and carrots. Other highlights include a crispy orange beef and juicy pan seared pork dumplings.

Then there are the dishes that exist as a personal dedication to the foods Ma and Chiou adore, such as the pig ear salad, which Ma admits they sell “all of one a day” (unlike the duck fried rice, the best seller so far). “We have these dishes we made for our parents to judge us,” Ma says. “I refuse to take [pig ears] off because I eat that all day while snacking and prepping. I guarantee you my parents would scrutinize the hell out of it.”

455 I St. NW. luckydanger.co. Open Wednesday through Sunday (slots open up each night at midnight).

Ward 7: Wah Sing

The large dining area at Wah Sing sits vacant at the moment. But in a more joyful time, the strip mall dining room would be a perfect spot to plop down after a nice, long skate around the nearby Anacostia Park roller-skating pavilion.

The restaurant’s loyal customer base still turns out for its generous helpings of such classics as a shrimp fried rice that spends the right amount of time in the wok. On a recent visit, nearly everything leaving the kitchen had some crustaceans, so your order should follow suit.

2521 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-581-4500. Open daily (cash only).

Ward 8: Hong Kong Delite Carry Out

As my colleague Tim Carman noted in his August quest for the city’s best wing and mumbo sauce combo, “Hong Kong Delite’s mumbo sauce dispenses with niceties. It’s pure fire.” I can attest that a sampling of other items on the menu follows suit.

The General Tso’s chicken, among other dishes, earns its typical chile pepper indicator with a good punch of heat from the dried chiles. But there’s something about the heat in that mumbo sauce as it coats the crackling crust of the whole-fried wing that tempts you back for more.

3123 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. 202-562-7047. Open daily (cash only).

Maryland suburbs: Full Key

When it comes to the suburbs, you have to pay respect to the classics, with their long menus that beg to be picked through with a group. The typical American Chinese standards hold up to expectations at Full Key, especially anything in the beef family.

But it’s some of the dishes that are just outside the usual menu array of beef and broccoli or firecracker shrimp that keep restaurants such as Full Key close to my heart. Rather, it’s the glistening cuts of duck and pork that dangle in a glass-pane display and are ordered off a whiteboard or marked-up sheet of paper on a wall, as with other D.C.-area Chinese restaurants.

2227 University Blvd. W., Wheaton. 301-933-8388. Open daily.

Virginia suburbs: China Wok

Chef Wang Wen Fang’s mastery of carving up a traditional Peking duck has earned the Vienna restaurant its rightful place as one of the area’s best. In October, Carman wrote that even during a pandemic, China Wok’s duck makes a superb takeout companion.

If you’re in search of extra dishes, let Lee’s seasoned wisdom — he’s been going since back when Tower Records was its neighbor be your guide through China Wok’s menu. Lee favors the orange chicken, ma po tofu, lo mein, fried rice and Hunan shrimp in any spread he’s ordering.

But don’t just take his word for it, China Wok retains a strong grip on Lee’s heart for an even more important reason: It’s one of his mom’s favorite restaurants.