Sunday, April 13, 2008

chinatown sentiments

the inn at little washington may be on top in the dc region in terms of quality and experience on an absolute scale, but my vote for the favorite eatery in town will definitely go to full kee(富記), a "cha chan tang"-style chinese deli serving usual stuff like noodles, rices and congees. apparently i am not alone - it's also been rated the favorite restaurant by the locals/food critics/travel journalists, as reported by the washingtonian magazine and the ny times previously.

full kee's located on one of the main streets in washington chinatown - h street, a few blocks away from the verizon center, home of the washington wizard basketball team, and government offices. since the opening of the stadium, the area has slowly transformed into an interesting hybrid of traditional down-to-earth chinese restaurants, and an array of sports bars and upscale restaurants catered to the sports crowd or business people, in the midst of not exactly the best neighborhood in the city. it's also close to the national mall, at the west end near to the capitol. so when we were done sightseeing at the smithsonian and national gallery of art (and meals after meals of western food in the previous days), there's no better place that i can think of for a quick bite than full kee.

well, my "情意結" to this place dated back to the old days when i still called this city my hometown. this is my un-official "飯堂" on every occasions you can imagine - whether that be a simple sunday lunch after working at the smithsonian as a volunteer, or introducing my friends to a taste of authentic chinese food for the first time, or making a late-night snack run (they open til 4am on weekends), this is the place to go. i remembered one time i dashed straight to this place for a bowl of comforting wonton noodles after a 20-hour flight from hongkong - must have gotten homesick already then. it's not unusual to see me sitting at the same table on the same day every week, eating essentially the same food - even after they open a branch closer to my home, i still prefer the chinatown one better.

menu choices at full kee are wide and varied - true, they do have "gwailo"-oriented dishes like general tso's chicken and sweet and sour pork, but they also have dai pai dong-style street food like marinated pork intestine or pig blood, or typical cantonese/hongkong dishes like deep-fried squid, steamed fish, barbecued meat, or "dry-fried" beef rice noodles (chow fun). they are written all over the place - in the menu, on the wall, and on the little laminated placards on each table. my favorite dishes are their "粥粉麵飯" actually - either a bowl of wonton noodles, or congee with pork and thousand-year eggs - in my opinion, they are as good as any above-average "cha chan tang" in hongkong, and that's certainly good enough in u.s. standard (sans places with high concentration of chinese population such as orange country or new york city)

we arrived there at 1pm - towards the end of lunch hours for most people - that is perhaps why we only waited for 5 minutes before we were seated. the restaurant is the same as i remembered - still the same set-up with tables on both the ground floor and the connected basement, the large plaque with the words "full kee" engraved hanging prominently above the cashier (the name of the restaurant literally means rich), the noodle stall in the front part of the restaurant, and even some wait-staff looked familiar. (i heard there's a change of ownership since i left dc but i suppose some waiters remained)

cyy ordered the lunch special of stir-fried beef and broccoli (with rice) while i had a bowl of wonton noodle - just as i've always been. feeling inadequate, we later ordered an a-la-carte dish of deep-fried salty squid as supplement. the total bill came to around $20 - probably the cheapest sit-down lunch we've had in the entire trip. while waiting for our food, i can't help but looking around and checking out what other people are eating and talking about. it's peculiar scene of dining crowd - at one table there are a group of local office workers gossiping and chatting about politics while enjoying their noodles and seafood dishes, then there's a family of out-of-towners taking a break from museum-hopping with beef and vegetable dishes, or couple of friends just catching up with each other over a bowl of congee and veggies. there are both regulars and newcomers (and old-timers like me), westerners and chinese, locals and tourists. a true reflection of what washington dc is about - essentially a mixing bowl.

after the meal and the fortune-cookies, i am happy to report that full kee's still the same good old full kee, and it's going to remain as my "cheers bar" in heart - "where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came..." even as i felt like i have left town a long long time ago.

when? april 11 2008
where? full kee, 509 h street nw, washington dc
occasion? vacation
menu highlights? wonton noodles hongkong style
drinks? chinese tea! cha-chan-tang style

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