Last month, Peter Chang was named a finalist in the category of outstanding chef for the James Beard Foundation Awards. In 2016, he was nominated for the best chef Mid-Atlantic, but this is his first potential win for the best in the country. His competition are all big-city toques, hailing from San Francisco to Chicago to Savannah, Ga. Getting one of the top honors from the awards many refer to as akin to the culinary Oscars is nothing to sneeze at.
“We were surprised this time it’s the outstanding chef category, not the regional. It’s such an honor to be recognized among all the talented chefs,” Peter Chang told me in an email through his daughter, Lydia Zhang. When Zhang informed him of his nomination, he says, his response was, “OK, what’s next? We have a business to run here.”
More like an empire. There are seven Peter Chang locations in Virginia and Maryland, as well as Mama Chang in Fairfax. However, he spends the majority of his time at Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda. “He goes to each location for quality control and meetings on a regular basis,” Zhang explains.
It seemed like the right time to try Northern Virginia’s Peter Chang and its food that may win big on June 13. What I found at the Arlington location was not what I was expecting or hoping for, so I feel it’s my duty to share my professional opinion with readers.
A heavy hand with seasonings isn’t always a bad thing at a Sichuan restaurant; when it comes to the numbing Sichuan peppercorns and chiles, I generally think the more the merrier. I also tend to like my food to err on the side of more seasoning, not less. I complain far more often about a meal being under-salted than the reverse. But to give you an idea of the trauma wrought on my taste buds by multiple dishes across a pair of visits, I will tell you this: I didn’t know it was possible to eat so much salt in a sitting that it would make water taste like saline. Turns out, it is.
It’s a pity because, beneath the excess NaCl, many of the flavors are very appealing. Take Grandma’s Noodles (pictured at top), for example. The ropey tangle of pasta is almost transporting comfort food thanks to its combination of fresh garlic and cilantro flavored with soy sauce and chile powder. But I had to stop eating after just a couple of strands, choked by salt. Another starter, scallion bubble pancakes, is the safest bet. Greasy by design, the balloon-like orbs occupy a space in the culinary world somewhere between a typical, flat-and-flaky Chinese scallion pancake and Indian poori. In fact, they’re closer to the latter, partly due to their near-absence of scallions. But the bread itself is really just a vessel for creamy curry sauce that, though salty, too, invites compulsive dipping.
Choosing best dishes from among the ones I tried, although each had potential, feels a bit like choosing the prettiest pup at an ugly dog contest. This is coming from a canine and Sichuan food lover, who thinks there’s something to appreciate in all of them. For example, beneath the shaker of salt, the robust mapo tofu was spicy, numbing, and full of melty silken tofu. Cumin lamb was tender and lacks the gaminess that can dominate the flavor of such a dish. It was a little bit sweet beneath the earthy cumin. Side-by-side, the two dishes created a pleasant interplay of different types of heat.
At another meal, though, the fire I was expecting was mostly absent. Dry-fried eggplant was nicely battered with a soft center, but the heat I anticipated (on the menu, it has one chile out of a possible five, denoting a mild flame) was replaced by salt. Fresh scallions and cilantro were a welcome respite. The experience wasn’t much different when I tasted the Hot & Numbing Combination, a bubbling hot pot filled with proteins including shrimp, flounder, beef, and chicken. The three-chile dish tasted like an oily, salty soup, but even the visible presence of dried peppers didn’t seem to bring the heat the way a mala dish should.
As is the case with many pandemic-era restaurants, there aren’t always enough servers to attend to everyone at Peter Chang. If one had asked if I was enjoying my food, I would have told them the truth. But no one ever did. It was struggle enough just to get a check when I was finished.
This I understand, is a product of the times. However, there is a handful of restaurants in NoVA serving Sichuan food replete with fiery flavor. Right now, despite its golden reputation, Peter Chang in Arlington is not one of them.
Big awards lift us all. Here’s to recognition for all the fine restaurants that deserve it. But I’ll be surprised if NoVA takes home a medal this year.
2503 N. Harrison St., Arlington
See this: A group of riders on horses fill a large painting on one of the orange-painted walls. The name “Peter Chang” emblazons tables and water glasses.
Eat this: Scallion bubble pancakes, cumin lamb, mapo tofu
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior
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