Mama Chang

As regulars at Q by Peter Chang, we eagerly anticipated the chef/restauranteur’s new spot, Mama Chang. This isn’t a strictly a Peter Chang restaurant, though. Mama Chang celebrates the women in the chef’s life – his daughter Lydia runs the front of the house as well as business development while his wife Lisa, is his pastry chef. In fact, Lisa was running the kitchen the day of our visit.

On a Sunday morning, we made our way from Silver Spring to Fairfax via public transit (doable) to see what Mama had to offer. I heard early reports on social media that the restaurant had been wildly popular, so we were not surprised to find a 20-30 minute wait when we arrived at 1pm. (It cleared out by the time we finished eating which you can see in the photo below.)

room

It’s a good idea to start your meal with dry-fried cauliflower, a take on Peter’s famous dry-fried eggplant. We actually found the cauliflower to be a little spicier than the dry-fried eggplant, and that is certainly no slouch on heat! The cauliflower was so green and fresh that for a moment I thought we were eating Romanesco, because of the color. But no, this is just fresher than your typical cauliflower.

cauliflower

The pan-fried noodles with vegetables were different than what we were expected – they are seriously fried to a crisp in the pan. In the picture below, you can see that some of the sections have been blackened. Once the noodles mix with the sauce, though, they suddenly reconstitute and become slippery yet toothsome. They go well with the bounty of fresh bok choy and carrots piled on top, which may be the secret star of this dish.

noodles

Everything we ate at Mama Chang was great, but the salt and pepper crispy lotus root sandwiches were truly a revelation. Lotus root gets stuffed with ground pork and fried until it is shatteringly crisp. The sweet flavor profile of the rich ground pork reminded us of the Dong Po pork belly at Masterpiece, in suburban Atlanta. All this is topped with chopped scallions and red onions for freshness.

Chang

The only thing we did not love was the red pepper fried chicken with sesame, and that was only because it was not as crispy as we imagined. That, though, is the smallest of quibbles.

Although it’s still new, Mama Chang has already become the place to go in Northern Virginia for authentic regional Chinese cooking. Our only question to you, dear reader, is: When are you going to go?

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Salt and Pepper Crispy Lotus Root Sandwich

Address
Mama Chang: 3251 Old Lee Highway, Suite 101 Fairfax, VA 22030
Closest Metro: Vienna

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Atlanta Recap

For my birthday weekend in November, Marnay and I headed to Atlanta for a quick getaway. This was our first time in Atlanta and we couldn’t wait to start exploring.

Atlanta skyline from the Beltline

Friday

We flew out of BWI on Friday night. Since I work in Baltimore and Marnay works in downtown DC, this is the easiest airport to get to on work nights. We don’t typically include our flights in our travel recaps, but we had to include our meal at the airport. Varasano’s Pizzeria, which has a location in Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, is actually an incredible pizzeria. Jeff Varasano, the man who figured how to hack off the lock on the self-cleaning feature of his home oven so he could cook homemade pizzas at 800 degrees, is something of a pizza savant. While he is originally from New York, he chose Atlanta to open a pizzeria. (The main location is in the Buckhead neighborhood). As soon as we landed in Atlanta, we made our way to Concourse A. It was about 9:30pm and the restaurant was closing, so we took a Margherita Di Bufala pizza and ate it in the baggage claim. It was so much fun and so delicious.

Margharita Di Bufala pizza from Varasano's Pizza in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta

Saturday

Our Airbnb was in the Inman Park neighborhood, immediately behind the transformative rail trail called the Beltline. Inman Park is one of the most walkable neighborhoods in Atlanta, which is a very spread out city.

We wanted to explore and hike one of Georgia’s mountains so we rented a Zipcar from the Edgewood-Candler Park metro. On our 1-mile walk to the car, we picked up coffee and an incredible croissant from one of our Atlanta favorites, Bread and Butterfly. Conveniently, Bread and Butterfly was directly across the street from our Airbnb.

Breakfast at Bread and Butterfly in Atlanta

The highways in Atlanta are insane, mainly because this area has poor public transit and a tremendous amount of sprawl. We traveled to Forsyth County, in the northern exurbs, and stopped at Dutch Monkey Donuts for an excellent caramel apple fritter. Feeling sated, we drove about 20 more minutes north to Sawnee Mountain Preserve.

Eating a caramel apple fritter at Dutch Monkey Donuts in Forsyth County, Georgia

The brisk 4-mile hike led us up Sawnee Mountain on the Indian Seats Trail for some amazing views of Northern Georgia. This part of Georgia is at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, which stretch from Alabama to eastern Canada. From the top of the mountain, we could see as far as the Tennessee-North Carolina border, 52 miles away. The hike was just right – good exercise, but not so difficult that we would be worn out.

View from the top of our hike at Sawnee Mountain Preserve in Georgia

Although we had been snacking all day, we had not had an actual meal. We hopped in the car and drove to Masterpiece in Duluth, a suburb northeast of Atlanta known for its excellent Asian cuisine. Masterpiece was recently named a semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Awards, so we had high expectations. With one dish, Masterpiece immediately exceeded those expectations. The Dong Po Pork is a braised block of pork belly in an ethereal brown sauce, part sweet, part salty, party spicy. I want to eat that pork belly every day for a week.

Dong Po Pork, braised pork belly in an ethereal brown sauce at Masterpiece in Duluth, Georgia

Sunday

Since Saturday involved driving around the region, we decided to stay local on Sunday and explore the city. It was another beautiful day so Marnay and I walked on the Beltline to Little Tart Bakeshop, in Krog Street Market. Krog Street Market is a new-wave food hall in Inman Park, about half a mile from our Airbnb. Little Tart Bakeshop was a 2018 James Beard Foundation finalist for Best Baker (in the entire country!), so they also had a lot to live up to. Our best bites were a slice of the cranberry-almond butter cake and the apple gallete.

Breakfast at Little Tart Bakeshop at Krog Street Market in Atlanta

We then made a required stop at Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park to pay our respects. The park encompasses the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church and his birthplace. This is a important visit for any stay in Atlanta, as we cannot forget our country’s history.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

Afterwards, we took the Atlanta Streetcar to Centennial Olympic Park, home of the 1996 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. This is definitely the heart of the tourist area but it was a great outdoor space and surprisingly large.

Marnay and Paul at the Coca Cola sign in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta

The issue with this area, though, is that the downtown is COMPLETELY dead. One of the worst downtowns we have even seen. It is most likely because Atlanta is so spread out, but this is definitely not where the action is. That is why we stayed in Inman Park!

We hopped right back on the streetcar to escape downtown and had some downtime at Chrome Yellow Trading Company, a very hip coffee shop near the King Historic District. We had a great time writing in our journal and sipping on a cold brew.

Drinking cold brew coffee at Chrome Yellow Trading Company near the King Historic District in Atlanta

After that relaxing time, though, it was back to more walking on the fantastic Beltline. It’s just a phenomenal addition to Atlanta (or any city), and the whole idea was cooked up by a couple of grad students. We checked out Ponce City Market, which was like a hyper-upscale version of Krog Street Market, with high-end stores in addition to food. To be honest, it was a little too much.

Walking by Ponce City Market on the Beltline in Atlanta

Later that night, after some relaxation at our Airbnb, we headed to dinner at Chai Pani in the close-in suburb of Decatur. It is so close to where we were staying, you could easily call Decatur part of Atlanta. Chai Pani, a purveyor of authentic Indian street food, ended up being our favorite meal of the trip. We were wild for the matchstick okra fries, so crispy and so salty (and absolutely not slimy). The vegetable uttapam, a rice pancake, was also stellar.

Matchstick okra fries and vegetable uttapam at Chai Pani in Atlanta

Monday

Happy birthday to me! We celebrated the morning by walking over to Bread and Butterfly for a chocolate croissant. I could have picked anything for my birthday, but all I really wanted to do was get a croissant from Bread and Butterfly and then go for a long walk on the Beltline.

Chocolate croissant and coffee at Bread and Butterfly in Atlanta

By early afternoon, unfortunately, it was time to head to the airport. But the fun wasn’t over, because that meant we could have another pizza at Varasano’s, and MAN was it good. Not only does this pizza look perfect, it tasted phenomenal. I can’t say enough about it.

Pizza at Varasano's Pizza in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta

What to know if you want to visit Atlanta:

  • Almost all of the hotels in Atlanta are downtown. There is absolutely nothing to do downtown outside of Centennial Olympic Park. Instead, try to stay in an Airbnb in a neighborhood along the Beltline, like we did.
  • Be aware that the public transit system is not great. You will need to either rent a car or take Uber/Lyft.
  • Make sure you don’t miss out on the restaurants that are just outside the city, such as Masterpiece and Chai Pani.
  • Spend some time on the Beltline! Seriously, we can’t stress that enough. It’s the coolest attraction in Atlanta.

Q by Peter Chang: Dim Sum

For two straight weekends, we had dim sum brunch at Q by Peter Chang, the famous chef’s first foray into fine dining. If our first two visits are any indication, this is going to become one of our go-to restaurants.

It’s hard not to compare Peter Chang Bistro and Q. For one, the service at Q seems to be much more polished than Peter Chang Bistro, at least the Rockville location. For example, water cups and tea pots are promptly filled and servers are knowledgeable and patient. The space at Q is large but inviting, full of these gorgeous bright green chairs. Large tables are outfitted with a lazy susan, making it easier to share dishes among a group. When you are at Q, you can easily forget that you are in the ground floor of an office building.

Q by Peter Chang restaurant interior

We tried to vary what we got at each visit, but the pork shumai were just too good. Our server suggested that we dip the pork and shrimp dumplings into his favorite sauce, the off-menu spicy garlic sauce. What a combination! If you visit Q, make sure to request the spicy garlic sauce with the shumai.

Q by Peter Chang Dim Sum pork shumai dumplings with spicy garlic sauce

The shrimp rice rolls were a surprise hit. We imagined they would be something like spring rolls, but it was actually sheets of thick steamed rice noodle dough wrapped around plump shrimp in a light soy sauce.

One of our favorite noodle dishes that we partook in was the stir-fried rice noodles and beef. The beef was really flavorful, which points towards the quality and attention to the meat.

Q by Peter Chang Dim Sum shrimp rice rolls and stir-fried rice noodles and beef

You can find Peter Chang’s trademark heat in the pork-filled hot and numbing wonton, covered in a generous slathering of Szechuan pepper spiced sauce and drizzled with chile oil.

Q by Peter Chang Dim Sum pork-filled hot and numbing wonton

It’s easy to stuff yourself full of noodles and dumplings, but it would be a serious mistake to miss out on dessert. Marnay and I are going to have to agree to disagree about which was our favorite, but the sesame balls and the egg yolk bun are both fantastic. The former are filled with decadent red bean paste and the latter oozes custard from its flaky, biscuit-like exterior.

Q by Peter Chang Dim Sum dessert sesame balls and the egg yolk bun

Both of our dim sum meals were less than $50 total. We plan on returning for dinner which will most likely be more expensive, but if you want fine-dining quality food for cheap eats prices, dim sum brunch at Q is the place to be!

Best Bite
Paul: Egg yolk bun
Marnay: Pork Shumai

Address
Q by Peter Chang: 4500 East-West Highway #100 Bethesda, MD 20814
Closest metro: Bethesda

Bob’s Shanghai 66

Bob’s Shanghai 66 is located in a strip mall just off Rockville Pike, near the Rockville metro station. It has been in Washingtonian’s Best Cheap Eats for many years, so I was very excited to finally get to try it.

Bobs Shanghai 66

When we walked inside from the cold at 8pm on a Friday, the dinner rush was just about ending. We were greeted by a genial host who brought us to our table. Upon being seated, we were served complementary tea. The menu at Bob’s is long, but it helps to go in knowing that they specialize in soup dumplings, also known as XLB. You will want to make sure soup dumplings are part of your meal at Bob’s.

We took our own advice on the soup dumplings and also ordered lamb with cumin, sautéed snow pea tips (leaves) and dry noodles with pork. It takes practice to eat the dumplings, because they are twice the size of normal dumplings. They are also filled with very hot broth, so putting the whole thing in your mouth and biting it is out of the question. My suggestion is to gently pierce the top and have a spoon nearby, ready to scoop up the rich, gelatinous, porcine broth.

Bobs Shanghai 66 dinner

The surprise hit of the night was the snow pea tips. Next time we sauté greens at home, this is how I want them to taste. The preparation is simply snow pea leaves cooked in flavored cooking oils. Even when our table was crowded with food, this was the dish we kept coming back to. Also a surprise was that, at $16.95, they were the most expensive dish of the night.

Both ma and la of “mala” were present in the lamb with cumin. I had heard of mala before and knew that it had something to do with Sichuan peppercorns, but I did not know the exact translation until a read a review by the New York Times’ Ligaya Mishan of a restaurant named Sichuan Dry Pot. She explained that “ma” means tingling and “la” refers to heat.  The lamb was not quite as spicy as similar dishes at Peter Chang, but it was full of flavor.  I happily ate the leftovers for lunch on Monday. The dry noodles with ground pork, on the other hand, were unremarkable.  They were not bad, but it isn’t something I would order again.

As we finished our meal, the kitchen staff sat down at a spot near us to enjoy a tableful of their hard work.  Bob’s Shanghai 66 is a good deal in a metro-accessible location in Rockville. We will be back.

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Snow pea tips

Address
Bob’s Shanghai 66: 305 N Washington Street Rockville, MD 20850
Closest Metro: Rockville

Northwest Chinese

On Friday night after work, we met at the College Park metro station and walked in the oppressive heat to Northwest Chinese, where we hoped to be greeted by a different (and much more welcome) type of heat. Northwest Chinese is in a strip mall on the edge of the University of Maryland campus in downtown College Park, a little less than a mile from the metro station. The interior of the restaurant looks modern and pleasant, with a soothing waterfall by the cashier’s stand.

We were directed to a seat along the wall and given a laminated menu along with a purple washable marker. You put a “check” next to what you want and then bring it to the front when you’re ready. We checked off the Black Vinegar Peanuts, the Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger and the Sour Soup Dumplings.

Northwest Chinese: Black Vinegar Peanuts, Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger

The peanuts, glazed with Shaanxi vinegar and then topped with cilantro, red pepper flakes and sliced garlic, were addictive. They are the ideal snack to order while waiting on the rest of your meal. Next up: the Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger, with ground lamb on a house made rice bun. The rice bun had a crispy, cracker-like consistency. A softer bun would have disintegrated under the weight of the spice-saturated lamb. While the burger had some heat from the cumin and a few flecks of red pepper, it’s a good option for those looking to dial down the heat.

Northwest Chinese Sour Soup Dumplings

The sour soup dumplings, other the other hand, does not dial down the heat. The initial surprise, for me at least, was the spicy and sour combination. Taking one look at it, I knew it was going to be spicy. After all, the peanuts had prepared me for this mix of flavors. But when I tasted the vinegar, it jarred me a little. Once I warmed up to the incredible complexity of the broth, though, I just wanted to devour it all. We both agreed that the housemade pork dumplings, which had more heft and chew than usual, were the best dumplings we had ever had. As Marnay would say, those dumplings are what all dumplings aspire to be!

All of this food—the peanuts, burger and soup—was $18 before tip. For this quality, we would happily pay much more.

Best Bite
Paul: Soup
Marnay: Dumplings

Address
Northwest Chinese: 7313 Baltimore Ave College Park, MD 20740
Closest Metro: College Park

Peter Chang

We made a game-time decision on a Thursday night to go to Peter Chang in Rockville Town Center. Peter Chang is the former chef at the Chinese Embassy and has a history of opening a restaurant in the South and then disappearing. More about that here

The restaurant was crowded when we arrived, but we got a table right away. We started out with two of his signature dishes: scallion bubble pancakes and dry fried eggplant. The dry fried eggplant looks like thick French fries dusted with Szechuan peppercorns and herbs, along with a sprinkle of salt. The peppercorns are more than just spicy, they truly give off a numbing sensation.

The scallion bubble pancake is one of the craziest things we have ever eaten, a work of art. I’m just glad that we have visual proof of the thing, because it’s hard to do it justice through words alone. It tasted a little like fried wontons, but more doughy and more like fresh bread. Very addicting and very difficult to stop eating, especially when dipped in a warm curry sauce.

These were just our appetizers. We knew we were ordering more food than we could eat, but the food makes for great leftovers. Marnay got Golden Mountain Chicken, which is similar to a classic Sesame Chicken but much fresher. This is what Sesame Chicken wishes it could be.

I got the Szechuan Double Cooked Pork Belly, which was stir-fried with leeks, cabbage and Szechuan black bean paste. This was a very rich dish. It’s was not particularly spicy, although I don’t think it was intended to be. The leeks were the most prominent non-pork belly part of the dish. The white parts of the leeks felt more incorporated in the dish than the green parts. The black bean sauce was subtle and didn’t overpower the dish, it just added a little saltiness. Not too much, though, because the dish already had plenty of salt from the pork belly.

Overall, it was a fantastic Szechuan dinner. I am sure that we will be back to Peter Chang, and soon!

Address
Peter Chang: 20A Maryland Ave, Rockville, MD 20850
Closest Metro: Rockville

Dim Sum Garden

We took Amtrak to 30th Street station in Philly on a Saturday morning. When we arrived, we went with Marnay’s Mom to Dim Sum Garden, which is in Philly’s Chinatown. Dim Sum Garden is one of the places that Tom Sietsema went to on his recent trip to Philadelphia.

We had a little trouble navigating the narrow streets of Chinatown with our rolling suitcase, but we eventually found the restaurant. The place was packed—always a good sign. They shoved in a very tight space. To get into and out of our seats, the people next to us actually had to get up to allow us to pass. Dim Sum Garden is known for their soup dumplings. We were excited because we have never had soup dumplings, although we have heard a lot of about them. Dim Sum is still relatively new to us. We weren’t introduced to it until we moved to Maryland since it isn’t that popular in New Jersey.

The three of us ordered what seemed like a lot of food, but which ended up being quite reasonable. We ordered steamed pork soup dumplings, steamed shrimp dumplings, steamed vegetable buns and sweet red bean cakes. Red bean cakes are one of our favorite treats, and they were as decadent as expected. None of us had had soup dumplings before, so we had no idea how to eat them. One method was to just put the whole thing in your mouth. That was delicious, but there was more broth than I expected! The other method was to pierce the dumpling with a chopstick (no forks at this place) and just use the broth as a dipping sauce. Both methods were good!

The shrimp dumplings tasted extremely fresh, as did really everything at Dim Sum Garden. It’s usually a safe bet to go to a Dim Sum Place on a Saturday afternoon, since that’s when they are busiest. We now have a new favorite in Philly’s Chinatown!

Address
Dim Sum Garden: 1020 Race St, Philadelphia, PA 19107