Location: 746 6th St NW (Gallery Place Metro)
DC is the first city I've ever been to where Chinatown a) is in a nice part of town, b) has more white people walking around than Asians, and c) doesn't smell like hot garbage. Add in a major Metro hub and a gigantic basketball arena right next door, and somehow Chinatown is a major destination. Well, after spending the weekend hanging out with my parents and moving into my new apartment, I took my parents to go get food they actually want to eat. We passed by Chinatown Express, saw the fobby chefs making hand-drawn noodles in the window, and decided to give it a try.
Chinatown Express is, like most other Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, a hole in the wall with iffy hygiene and worse service. As if that's why you go to Chinatown for food. However, while most other places in Chinatown offer a huge menu with hundreds of choices, Chinatown Express opts to go in the opposite direction, trying to do a few things well rather than everything suckily. In particular, I'd heard that their hand-drawn noodles and steamed Xiao Long Bao (Northern Chinese-style pork buns) were the jewels in their crown. And that's exactly what we ordered.
First came the xiao long bao. Six bucks gets you 8 steamy, wrinkled-looking critters with a side of ginger soy sauce for dipping. My first impression was that the buns were small. And thick-skinned. I'm used to Shanghai-style xiao long bao, which are wider, much thinner and more delicate, and filled with soup inside the bun that greets you when you bite into it. Because of their thicker skin, these buns tasted tough, took more effort to chew through, and were dry on the inside (hence the soy sauce for dipping, I guess). The pork filling In any case, they are an experience that you should definitely try if you've never had xiao long bao before.
Next up: hand-drawn noodle soup with sliced beef, chinese spinach, and chopped scallions. I love my noodle soups, and was really looking forward to this because I literally saw the noodles being made before my eyes. Chinese restaurants definitely have a thing about showing you the food you're about to eat before it becomes food. Don't believe me? Head to a ritzy one and order any kind of seafood dish - the waiter will bring you the fish to take a look at and inspect before they turn it into food, the same way sommeliers will show you the bottle of wine you ordered before they open it up to serve.
Like I said, I was really looking forward to this dish, but in the end, it kind of just fell flat. The soup base was rather bland, and the taste perked up only after throwing in a bunch of chili paste and some soy sauce. That said, the noodles were pretty darn tasty; being freshly made definitely makes a difference. They were just chewy enough to give the dish some texture, but slippery enough that you don't have to work hard to eat them. The beef and veggies, however, brought the dish down multiple notches. Make no mistake - it's the same beef and veggies they use on all of their dishes that use beef, and it gives the dish a really cheap, assembly-line feel. Even if they used a different cut of beef, anything to make the dish feel altogether different from the same, tired chop suey that every other Chinese restaurant slings, it'd make the dish so much better.
Interestingly enough, this was the actual fortune inside the cookie I was given at the end of my meal. It sums up my Chinatown Express experience very well - I came in with high hopes, but left only partially satisfied. For getting my hopes up with something different, but failing to execute it well, Chinatown Express earns 3.5 Cherries.