Sum Good, Sum Not
China Garden offers up sometimes excellent Cantonese fare in Rockville
The chef is Keung Wang, who worked at China Garden in Rosslyn for 25 years. The Cantonese cooking here is not revelatory, but there are bright spots here and there. Let’s start with the dim sum. (China Garden offers dim sum every day of the week at lunch only. On weekdays, the selection is more limited, but the cooking excels because the kitchen is under much less stress than on weekends.) In addition to the congee, I am a fan of beef riblets, coated with cornstarch and steamed with a tad of soy sauce and garlic. They are tender and meaty, whereas their pork counterparts are mostly bone and gristle. All the dumplings I try are excellent: pork and shrimp topped with fish roe; shrimp; and shrimp and garlic chive. Don’t miss the deep-fried crab mousse balls, each peach-size orb wrapped around a crab claw. Steamed or baked pork buns are nicely delicate, even if the barbecue pork filling may be too sweet for some palates. The dessert pineapple buns with eggy custard filling and a crunchy sugar topping are delightful.
There are clunkers aplenty, though. Steamed rice crepes with shrimp are stingy on the shrimp and gelatinous rather than delicate. The sausage sticky rice I sample is cold and hard, a result of being left on the cart too long. The same condition afflicts chow fun noodles with beef. (It’s a good idea to ask to be seated near the kitchen.) Turnip cakes are nicely browned and crisp on the outside, but too mushy inside.
China Garden’s full menu, also available during dim sum lunch, is extensive. In addition to the requisite noodle, rice, meat and seafood dishes found and expected in America’s Chinese restaurants for decades, there are ample Cantonese specialties, plus a large section of casseroles. Frog, tripe and abalone make appearances, but you’ll also find barbecued ribs (reheated by deep-frying and therefore terrible) and General Tso’s chicken, a fine rendering of the dish with a light, crunchy batter on the deep-fried dark meat chicken pieces and a well-balanced sweet and sour sauce. The Peking duck is moist and flavorful but arrived cold. Another disappointment: The duck is served with pasty, store-bought bao buns instead of thin, delicate pancakes. Hot and sour soup is way too heavy on vinegar. Combination fried rice is a shoulder shrug—not the best I’ve had, not the worst.
Exploring specialties is the best option at China Garden. Steamed cod topped with julienned scallions and ginger and resting in a subtle soy-ginger sauce is beautifully uncomplicated. (Have your server extinguish the Sterno flames the platter rests over so the fish doesn’t overcook.) A casserole of braised beef shank slices with wood ear mushrooms, Chinese celery and dried jujubes (similar to dates) in brown sauce is hearty and delicious. Kingdom shrimp—giant head- and shell-on crustaceans in a bold, barbecue-like sauce—dazzle the eyes and taste buds. A pile of Szechuan-style green beans sauteed with bits of pork belly and a zesty red pepper sauce is enough for four people to share.
Service is attentive at China Garden, but English speakers definitely face a language barrier here. Don’t expect to ask questions about the food unless you speak Chinese. The food is hit or miss, but if you’re looking to satisfy the dumpling urge, dim sum service is the time to strike.