The people: Sisters Joanne and Julie Liu like to run neighboring neighborhood restaurants. They opened Scion in Dupont Circle in 2009, and Crios Modern Mexican right next door to it in 2012. In 2013, they branched out with another Scion in Silver Spring, and in March 2014, opened Nainai’s Noodle & Dumpling Bar in the adjacent space; the two restaurants even share a kitchen. The Liu sisters are no strangers to the restaurant world; as kids, they helped out as dishwashers, food runners and bus girls in Jenny’s Asian Fusion restaurant, the eatery their parents have owned for more than 30 years in Southwest Washington. The name NaiNai, which means “grandmother” in Chinese, is a tribute to their own grandma, with whom they’ve shared many meals.
The place: Compared to other new fast casual eateries, the décor isn’t rustic or earth-toned; it’s original and personable. A big bulletin board on one wall, with photos of area grandmas, invites you to “Bring Your NaiNai to NaiNai’s.” Pages of Chinese-American newspapers laid underneath the tabletop glass illuminate articles written in Chinese with accompanying photos of their subject matter: U.S. icons such as Peyton Manning, Brat Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Miley Cyrus and Jessica Alba. Another thing: even though the place has counter service, the food is delivered to your table, and someone even comes back to check on you. Very nice touch.
The food: As the restaurant’s name suggests, the bulk of the menu is comprised of homemade dumplings and noodle bowls; there are also small plates and baos (Chinese steamed buns). I wanted to love the food, since I really like the concept and the space, but my meal was a bit of a mixed bag. The dumpling dough seemed thick and bulky, and the fillings in the seafood Year of the Dragon and the vegetarian Year of the Rabbit tasted just plain weird. Better options: the pan fried beef or the juicy steamed pork dumplings. Noodle dishes seem to have the upper hand here; the Tipsy Noodles—with wide flat rice noodles, chicken breast, red onion, spicy peppers and crispy Thai basil—was a total soother, and the plum ginger pickles, salted peanuts and Cajun edamame mix-ins, served in a sectioned dish, serve as fun flavor enhancers. Hot head alert: The red curry Muay Thai Noodles are seriously spicy.
The bottom line: Loveable venue for homemade dumplings and noodles; worth a trip even though the food isn’t a wow.
1200 East West Highway, Silver Spring, 301-585-6678, www.nainaisnoodles.com. Baos, $7.95 for 2; dumplings, available by 6, 9 or 12 per order, range from $6.50 to $11.95; noodle bowls, $9.95 to $12.95.