Peter Chang’s New Rockville Restaurant
Popular Chinese Chef serves up authentic, fiery cuisine in Rockville
Pork belly is fried potato chip-crisp, creating a delicious treat that’s attractively served in a bamboo cornucopia. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
“IS PETER CHANG in the kitchen today?” I ask our waitress shortly after sitting down for lunch at Peter Chang, the new Rockville restaurant opened by the elusive Chinese chef.
She’s unsure, but soon returns with the news that he’s not here. He’s around at lunch sometimes, but more often at dinner, she says, later telling us that he’s very busy.
Now you see him, now you don’t. For those unaware of the backstory, that’s been the narrative for Chang ever since he surreptitiously left his job at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., in 2003 and began an odyssey of popping up for short periods at restaurants in Virginia and the Southeast.
His mysterious disappearing acts fueled a cult-like following, although according to a March 2015 profile in The Washington Post, the stealth behavior had a rational explanation. Chang, a native of China’s Hubei province, was not only eluding immigration and embassy authorities after his two-year cooking contract was up, he also was escaping strained relationships with restaurant owners, the newspaper said. Chang now has permission from immigration officials to work in the U.S.
But even as he’s settled down (he lives in Rockville Town Square, the development where the restaurant is located), he’s rapidly branching out, necessitating a come-and-go schedule. The Rockville restaurant, the first outside Virginia, is his seventh eatery, and there are plans for more.
For now, the chef checks on the Rockville restaurant daily, as well as on his place in Arlington, which opened in March, according to Gen Lee, Chang’s business partner. During the week, he also visits his other restaurants in Virginia. “He’s a general, not a soldier,” says Lee, explaining how Chang oversees his growing kitchen empire.
Left: Chef Peter Chang. Right: Cilantro flounder fish rolls are reminiscent of spring rolls with crisp and crackly wrappers. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
Needless to say, with all the hype surrounding the Harry Houdini of Hubei and his authentic, fiery cuisine, I was expecting to be consistently blown away by the cooking. After three visits—during at least one of which I know Chang wasn’t in the kitchen—I found several of his signature dishes to be sensational, while other choices were nothing special.
Nonetheless, with out-of-the-box offerings, fresh-tasting ingredients and pretty presentations, you can certainly expect Chinese food in a different league than the gloppy, soy-laden competition (although Rockville, at least, has a better collection of bona fide contenders than other local areas).
The setting is a cut above as well. The former Taste of Saigon, which was also a lovely space, has had a minimal redo; the curved walls, painted a pleasing apricot, are hung with soothing Chinese scrolls; and green-shaded lamps dangle from the mustard-colored ceiling. Lest you forget where you are, each marbleized table is etched with the name Peter Chang.
The best dishes tend to be the appetizers, and the fried ones at that. First on the must-have list: the well-known scallion bubble pancakes. Made by submerging a flat, thin pancake in a wok with extremely hot oil, the disk puffs up to the size of an ostrich egg, with a crisp and blistered exterior. The hollow popovers don’t actually have that much taste; their appeal is more visual and textural, plus they’re a blast to deflate and rip apart. Unfortunately, the boring, watery curry dipping sauce served alongside provides little added oomph to the dish.
Left: Dry-fried eggplant is stir-fried quickly in a dry wok with spicy peppers, cilantro, scallions and salt. Right: A boneless whole tilapia is sprinkled with pine nuts and served in a sea of sweet-and-sour sauce. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
Dry-fried eggplant, another signature starter, is similarly amusing. Rectangular sticks of peeled eggplant are lightly battered and briefly deep-fried in scorching hot oil, then drained and stir-fried quickly in a dry wok with spicy peppers, cilantro, scallions and salt. The result is indeed dry, which in this case is a good thing, as there’s no greasiness, just moist vegetable encased in super-crunchy coating. It’s sort of like the Szechuan version of steak fries.
Continuing with the fried theme, the cilantro flounder fish rolls, bamboo flounder and crispy pork belly are all don’t-miss appetizers. I devoured the plate of potato chip-crisp pork belly, attractively served in a bamboo cornucopia, even though pork belly is generally not on my pig-out list. And while the two fish appetizers were similarly flavorful and expertly fried, I did share them.
The popular scallion bubble pancakes are fun to deflate and rip apart. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
The biggest disappointments were among the main courses. The “Hot and Numbing Combination,” a collection of flounder, shrimp, beef, chicken, vegetables and sweet potato noodles, was one-note hot, but not particularly numbing, and the meats were drowning in a chili oil pool. Thin, dry and overcooked slices of salmon dominated the “Pan-fried Salmon on Hot Iron Plate”; the same version of that dish but with duck, seemed overrun with too many onions, and the heavily fat-rimmed slices of duck didn’t uplift the dish.
One of Chang’s specialties, duck in a stone pot, was strangely mild and dull the day I tried it, almost as if the “hot and numbing sauce” was MIA.
More intriguing was the dramatically presented boneless whole fish with pine nuts, a deliberately mild dish of tilapia sprinkled with pine nuts and plated atop a sea of sweet-and-sour sauce—more refined and less gluey than the usual. I also liked the cumin-dusted pan-fried lamb chops, a creative and spicy dish that even tasted good as leftovers.
To be fair, I visited the restaurant in its early days, before the kitchen may have fully settled in. Time will tell whether the place will draw consistent crowds, but in the meantime, it’s nice to have Chang in the neighborhood. Let’s hope he sticks around.
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor. To comment on this review, email firstname.lastname@example.org.