Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Carlos was not impressed

It is one of my proudest accomplishments that after taking Carlos to a Zagat rated restaurant, he looked at me with a “ho-hum” expression in his eyes and said, “I’m not impressed”.

It is just a scant year since we met Carlos, who is here from Bogotá, Colombia. Colombian cuisine is very simple and to the uninitiated borders on the bland side. Colombians are concerned with the basic taste of an ingredient and, as such do not use a lot of seasonings. With that said, when Carlos arrived here in the states, dining was often a perplexing experience for him. The portions were too big, the spices too forward and for a while it seemed he would never be able to eat again. That is why it is no small achievement on my part that Carlos can now sit in a restaurant, sample its offerings and express his casual disdain with the meal.

The radio station WRNR in Annapolis must be sick of me by now. I listen to the station almost exclusively and when they do “give-aways”, I always try to win. Lucky for me, I have been successful on numerous occasions. I have won tickets to concerts, CD’s etc… I even won a Thanksgiving turkey from Whole Foods one year. Last week I won tickets to see John Mayer at the Verizon Center.

Steven had ZERO interest in attending a John Mayer concert on a Wednesday night, so I hit up Carlos who has become my stalwart concert companion. Of course, we had to have dinner and since the Verizon Center is in Chinatown, a Chinese restaurant was the obvious choice. I have a few Chinatown favorites (Full Kee, Eat First and Tony Cheng’s), but I was in the mood to try something different so I consulted the Zagat dining guide for ideas. That is where I discovered Chinatown Express. The restaurant can boast a “23” in the food category of the Zagat rating, which is very respectable. They are known for their hand stretched noodles, as well as roasted and barbecued meats.

The restaurant is a small, “divey”, basement affair with formica tables and dead ducks hanging the window. The ceilings are low and the walls are dingy. Large tanks of fresh fish welcome you, and they are not for decoration. The walls are adorned with long strips of Chinese calligraphy advertising the “off the menu” items that only those who can read Chinese can order. Paper napkins are set with cheap silverware that feels like it came from an elementary school cafeteria. Needless to say I was thrilled. These are all good things to me. Oh and did I mention that the place is cheap? DIRT CHEAP!

I ordered too much food.

I couldn’t help myself, the prices were so damned cheap! 12 Hand-made steamed dumplings filled with ground pork and leeks for $4.95! Stir fried hand-stretched noodles with chicken for $5.00! The barbecue sampler for $10.00, and the, much touted, House Roasted Chicken with Special Sauce for only $9.95! What else could I do? The meal also came with complimentary hot tea.

Did I mention that everything was really cheap? Oh yeah, there’s a reason for that. The steamed dumplings were sodden and doughy. They were accompanied with the traditional soy dumpling sauce, but nothing could hide the fact that they weren’t any good. The filling had a strange texture and little flavor on its own. Carlos thought they weren't actually cooked. He may have been right. The hand stretched noodles were better. The noodles were fantastic, appropriately chewy and fresh. They had a great hand made quality about them and I liked the sauce, which I assume was some combination of soy and oyster sauce. The chicken in the dish however was dry and sparse. Lots of noodles… not a lot of chicken.

Dry. You’re going to see that word again.

The barbecue sampler had some great moments and some really bad ones. A small platter with an array of roasted and barbecued meats was presented. It included, smoked squid, roast pork, barbecued pork, roast chicken and roast duck.

The roast pork with crispy skin was a revelation. Like a good crackling, with great flavor, perfectly roasted with unctuous rounds of pork fat capped by an incredible crispy skin adding to the overall pleasure and guilt of the dish. The duck was fine, but overly spiced with Chinese five-spice and a bit dry. The roast chicken was dry, flabby and dull. The barbecued pork had the flavor of Chinese barbecued ribs, but again, the meat was dry and seemed reheated to me. The squid was virtually flavorless and chewy. We had to ask what it was. I suspected it was squid but wasn’t sure.

The House Roasted Chicken with special sauce was the least successful of the dishes. A whole roast chicken was hacked into many pieces and presented in a deep dish over a savory soy sauce. It was topped with fresh ginger, scallions and cilantro. Thank God there was some sauce on the plate because the chicken was, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now… dry.

Despite the obvious flaws in this restaurant, I would go back. Did I mention that the place is cheap? If I did go back, though, I would order more selectively, concentrate on the noodles and the pork and I would lower my expectations, because just like Carlos, over all, I was not impressed.

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