It’s a Sunday afternoon and China Garden restaurant, which opened in the former Paladar restaurant space off of Rockville Pike in July, is packed—no small feat considering there are 400 seats. Servers make their way through the labyrinth of tables, pushing carts holding all kinds of dim sum. Customers’ heads bob like chickens to see what each offering is, then nod acceptance or dismissal. Thanks to a complete lack of resistance or restraint, my table quickly fills with translucent crystal dumplings fat with shrimp and garlic chives, rolled up rice crepes, 1-inch-wide pork riblets and various other goodies. Though full, I nod yes to the offer of congee and the server ladles out the thick, soup-like rice porridge into a bowl and tops it with chopped scallions. It’s an intoxicating elixir, rich with chicken stock and rife with bits of chicken. I scrape the bowl clean.
China Garden’s majority owner is Chris Zhu, who owns the Pacific Miss Asian American beauty pageant. Zhu, who lives in North Potomac, got into the restaurant business in 2015 when she and business partner George Cheung bought the China Garden restaurant in Rosslyn, Virginia, from its founders, Ken and Linda Lee, who opened the Cantonese restaurant known for its dim sum weekends in 1973. “I have a big family in the D.C. area and we are from Canton,” Zhu says. “So being able to carry on this restaurant was a great opportunity. Mr. Lee was my mentor.”
The landlord bought back the lease in 2017, which is when Zhu and Cheung decided to move China Garden to Rockville. That took longer than expected when the original location, the former REI space at 1701 Rockville Pike, fell through. In the meantime, the business partners opened Pandora’s Seafood House and Bar in Rockville Town Square in October 2017 and vacated it a year later when they were evicted for non-payment of rent. (Zhu and Cheung are suing their former real estate agent for misrepresentation.)
China Garden is a large, 8,600-square-foot room, also meant to house banquets, using sliding partitions to create smaller private rooms when necessary. An enormous—and very bright—rectangular chandelier composed of rows of crystal balls the size of golf balls outlined with a fringe of crystal tubes dominates the space and screams wedding. Red and gold carpeting, carved wooden screens and framed silk panels add touches of formality. On a Saturday visit, I discover that a wedding is taking place (the human dragon making its way through the dining room is a clue), and it will be a 45-minute wait for a table. On another visit, I can hear wedding speeches from the next room. The strategy for inner peace as a China Garden diner: Go with the flow.