Detox fail: Peter Chang Arlington

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After I got back from NYC, I decided I needed to get into detox mode, stat. After over two days of indulgent eating, my body definitely needed a break from carbs and sugar. I was off to a good start the following Monday. However, my detox had to take a break on Tuesday evening for our cousins’ gathering in Arlington. As I have mentioned before, my family shares an intense love for eating good food. Every few months, my cousins and I get together for a meal and to scare the waitstaff of a local restaurant. This time, we decided to go with the recently opened Peter Chang Arlington.

A former Chinese Embassy chef, Peter Chang has amassed a cult-like following wherever he goes. As the NYT profile stated, “devotees will travel hundreds of miles on a rumor that he may be cooking in some far-off town.” I had never actually been to any of his restaurants, but was excited when I first heard rumors that he was considering a Northern Virginia location. I was not the only one: the opening of his first DC-area spot was eagerly anticipated and within a day of the Washington Post article announcing the news, the Peter Chang Arlington restaurant crashed from all of the traffic. Once opened, people reported extremely long waits during the first few weeks. Because the buzz has decreased slightly since then, I did not have a difficult time making a reservation two weeks ahead of time for our group.

The 8 of us, including my cousin Ivy who was in town from Barcelona, arrived hungry and ready for serious business. Everyone was prepared, having read reviews (both the food critic and yelp kind), and offered suggestions of what to order. Of course we had to get the famous Scallion Bubble Pancakes. My cousin Cynthia, who is one of those people that has driven hours to eat at one of his spots, insisted that they were so delicious we needed to order one pancake for each person, so we put in four orders. They came out of the kitchen freshly fried, with a cilantro curry dipping sauce. These giant air-filled puffs (literally huge bubbles) were even more delicious than expected, and we tore into them quickly. So much for taking a break for carbs. In the words of Regina George, “I’m on an all carb-diet!”

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Next up was the Beef Tendon and Tripe in Szechuan Sauce. I actually do not like tendon that much in general, but love it when it is prepared Szechuan style. This did not disappoint, and ended up being my favorite appetizer of the night. As soon as we each got a spoonful of this, we agreed that we needed more for the table and flagged down a waiter for another order. The spicy sauce with soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil was insanely good. I wanted to pour it straight down my throat. The thinly sliced beef tendon was soft, gelatinous, and the perfect amount of chewy.

We also ordered the pan-fried sesame pancake, which was slightly bland but crispy. I dipped my piece into the left-over chili oil from the beef tendon, which was an excellent combination. I actually wanted to drip the oil from the beef tendon over everything on my plate, and we joked about refilling our tea glasses with this oil instead of actual drinks. I probably could have guzzled a few cups of this, but my cholesterol would probably suffer some harsh consequences.

My other favorite appetizer was the dry-fried eggplant, topped with cilantro, chiles and cumin. This is unlike anything I have ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant. The lightly battered slices of eggplant tastes so sweet and creamy on the inside while the outside is crusty like the perfect French fry. This was also so quickly devoured by our table that we put in an additional order. I did not hesitate to dunk a few in the beef tendon chili oil. The word “detox” was a distant memory as my throat was coated in beef grease and fried vegetables.

From here, we moved onto our entrees. The Double-Cooked Szechuan Pork Belly was my favorite entree. The pork is first steamed, and then pan-fried with leeks and cabbage. This salty, rich dish of tender pork and soft spicy greens. Double cooking the pork belly meant that the fat was rendered, while the outside of each piece was slightly charred and crispy. The pork soaked up the flavors of the black bean sauce, and tasted slightly sweet and spicy. The Stir-Fried Shredded Duck in Szechuan chili powder, with celery, bell peppers and onions was also a solidly good dish. The duck was not too fatty, well seasoned, and the crunchy vegetables picked up the deep smokey flavor of the meat. It was a nice change from the tea-smoked duck that I find myself ordering at Chinese restaurants. We agreed that we needed at least one vegetable, and went with the Wood Ear Mushrooms & Snowpeas. The stir-fried vegetables were good with an interesting texture, but unmemorable. The Cumin Lamb Chops were generously coated in a spice rub that was earthy and slightly bitter, and the meat was tender. While I liked this dish, I think I actually prefer cumin lamb when it is prepared by being cubed and stir-fried with vegetables.

As we worked our way through the piles of food over the next two hours, we caught up on each other’s busy lives. My cousin Cynthia is the first among us to become a parent, and she shared hilarious stories about balancing motherhood with her incredibly successful career and her “hobby” of flipping homes (seriously? I don’t have any children, just balance one job and my current “hobby” is watching Netflix). I always love finding great eating companions, and the fact that these people are family makes every meal even better.

Overall, this spot is the real deal. Despite all the commotion over Peter Chang, I do not consider his restaurant over-hyped. Another pro: this is an extremely budget-friendly spot for big groups. We ordered plenty of food, covered my cousin’s fiance’s dinner (for his birthday) and only paid $24 per person. The menu was over seven pages long, and we made a very small dent in it, so I will just have to make a point of returning here (this is the closest location to me) to explore more of Peter Chang’s cooking.

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