A few weeks ago, while in Washington DC on business, I had the opportunity to have dinner at an old favorite. Actually, my choice was pretty much made for me since the only restaurants located within walking distance of my hotel were located in the Gallery Place/ Chinatown area of DC and the area was teeming with Caps fans converging on the nearby Verizon Center for the evening’s game.
I had just finished visiting the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and was starving. This area of DC has changed significantly over the last 12 years and has a lot of restaurant choices but most were packed to the gills, with lines going outside the door in some cases. And, when I checked Open Table for a place to get a reservation I was out of luck until much later in the evening.
Then I remembered Tony Cheng’s Restaurant right around the corner from all the hustle and bustle and near to the Chinatown gate. The restaurant upstairs is a standard “sit down” place but downstairs has the “grill,” a buffet that hasn’t really changed since I last dined there, more than 12 years ago. The dining room was a sea of red Caps’ jerseys but I was seated immediately.
I always loved this place and this visit re-cemented that adoration. The waiter took my drink order and asked if I was familiar with the routine. Since I was, no explanation was necessary but he did issue a reminder, vegetables and noodles in the bottom of the bowl, meat on top.
The grill is centered in the middle of the dining room and there are two access points to the food. You, essentially, move around in a semi-circle around the buffet and fill your bowl with the items you want cooked on the grill. The food generally “cooks down” so filling up the bowl is a requirement unless you want to make lots of trips back and forth to your table. The vegetables include cilantro (an herb but who cares), carrots, peppers, onions, bean sprouts, snow peas and more. There are also noodles and scallions – cooked white rice is automatically placed on your table. The choice of meats are thinly sliced frozen versions of beef, chicken, pork and lamb. Shrimp costs extra.
After you’ve filled your bowl you end up in front of the tiered array of sauces and oils that are used to cook the items. You can pick your own sauces or just hand the bowl over to the cook and have them select the sauces appropriate to the meat you’ve selected. Over time I’ve realized that the cooks are a better judge of what will taste good than I am so I just handed them my bowl and watched them cook my beef and vegetables loaded with cilantro. This whole exercise took less than 5 minutes from the time I was seated.
When I returned to my table the bowl of white rice, a dish of marinated cabbage, and a basket of sesame bread were waiting for me. The bread is ideal for sopping up the sauce at the bottom of the bowl. I went back a couple more times for chicken and lamb and I was done. The meal is topped off with a small dollop of the ice cream selection(s) for the day and a fortune cookie.
And, of course, the check. The buffet costs $16.95 plus drink, tax and tip. For this neighborhood and the quality of food this is still one of the best deals in town. The neighborhood may have changed a great deal over the last several years and most people will say that is a change for the better but it’s nice to know that Tony Cheng’s still offers its traditional fare at reasonable prices.