Going into it, I knew this would not be a typical romantic birthday meal. It's located in a run down strip of storefronts in a pretty rough D.C. suburb. (In fact, we later found out that the same night we were there, a pizza delivery driver was shot nearby - a fairly common occurrence. Gulp.) At first glance, Grace Garden looks like just another crappy Americanized Chinese takeout. But have a closer look, and you'll notice something a little different: Hanging on the walls of this Zagat-rated hole-in-the-wall are well-deserved awards, newspaper and magazine articles, and glowing reviews. And yet hardly anyone around here seems to know about the place. But now you will - and if you are ever in the area, you must, must, must check this place out.
But whatever you do, don't order from the Americanized menu - ask for the authentic one. Why anyone would order beef with broccoli or kung pao chicken - as I actually saw patrons do - when Chef Li is cooking up culinary works of art is beyond me. If you go, you should plan ahead: Some of the dishes must be ordered anywhere from one to three days in advance. One such dish is the Phoenix Purse Soup:
Going into it, I thought that the purses - delicate egg white crepes folded around seasoned meat - were the reason to order ahead. But it's actually the broth. Chef Li spends three hours on the broth just for one order, and you can definitely tell. I have never in my life tasted soup that progressed through as many layers of flavor as a fine wine - here, the fragrant broth goes from salty to peppery to slightly tangy to earthy. Poppa said it immediately took him back to flavors and smells he experienced in Hong Kong on a trip 15 years ago. At the end of the evening, when we were spooning the leftover broth into a takeout container, Chef Li - who had come out to see how we liked our food - nodded approvingly and said, "Don't leave any. Each drop is gold."
He was not wrong:
Three days before our visit, I ordered the tea smoked duck:
Chinese tea eggs I made last year, from a Steamy Kitchen recipe. We had many leftovers from this dish!
But I didn't want to order all of the dishes ahead - I wanted Poppa Trix to get to choose some things he wanted.
We had the crispy pork belly:
I could not stop chowing down on this. It was subtly spicy, with the most incredible smoky sauce - note that the meat and vegetables are not drowning in sauce as is so often the case at Chinese restaurants around here.
And, to round out our feast, we had the pocket tofu with shrimp mousse:
If you can imagine eating a fluffy pillow that's been swimming in an umami-rich mushroom broth, you get the idea. Poppa did a great job cleaning his plate (what a good boy!) ...
... But we still took a lot of food home. Rough neighborhood notwithstanding, we cannot wait to go back. There are so many things to try - the fish noodles, Szechuan fish, steamed empress chicken ... I am drooling.
And now, prepare to be shocked. Are you sitting down? The next day - Poppa Trix's actual birthday - just so happened to be the last day of our favorite farmer's market for the season. That meant it was the last day to have a sizzling hot fried fish sandwich topped with cole slaw - also known as the "Best Fish on Planet Earth" - from Ollie the awesome fish guy, who I wrote about it the Urbanite ("Trout to Shout About"). So ... you guessed it: Poppa Trix had a fish sandwich, with hot sauce of course, for breakfast:
It was freezing cold out that day, but no obstacle is too great when Poppa wants a sandwich. I may have had a bite ... or two. We miss you Ollie - see you in April!
|Poppa Trix with Ollie the amazing fish guy|