This October, the Giant Vacuum Cleaner had to take his 10th grade board exams. The Spouse felt it would be a great idea to whisk me away as far as possible in order to prevent mother-son meltdown. We ended up spending a couple of days in my favorite American city – Washington, DC. Despite having lived in the area for several years, we had never ventured into the District’s Chinatown neighborhood, other than to drive through it on our way to someplace else. Despite knowing that DC’s Chinatown is kitschy and about as authentic as an Elvis impersonator, I thought it would be fun to make like a tourist and eat Chinese food in a Chinatown restaurant.
In contrast to the sprawling Chinatown in San Francisco, DC’s Chinatown area is tiny – barely a couple of blocks, if that. Still, Chinese eateries are a dime a dozen here. We needed to pick a restaurant as close to the Chinatown Metro Station as possible, and eventually narrowed in on a tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment called Full Kee. A little research showed that this eatery was one of those love-it-or-hate-it places. Everyone agreed that it is overcrowded and that the decor takes the idea of “basic” to new lows. Many complained about the fact that unappetizing “dead ducks” greeted you on arrival, and that “strange smells” emanated from the kitchen. Just our kinda place! Since it was less than a block away from the metro station, we decided to chance it.
Setting the mood
Braces of whole roast ducks hang at the entrance, complete with beaks and claws; and large vats of soup sit bubbling and steaming nearby, causing enticing aromas to waft by as you step inside. The interiors of the restaurant are indeed bare-bones basic: laminated chairs and tabletops, paper napkins, bare floors, cheap pre-packaged chopsticks, and freshly laundered – but oil-stained – tablecloths. We chose to seat ourselves in the tiny sunken area to the left, on the same level as the kitchen and restrooms. Here, we found a couple of cops taking their lunch break, and a family with three small children partaking of noodle soup.
Despite its aesthetic shortcomings, Full Kee seems to be quite popular with Asians – most tables were occupied by people of presumably Chinese descent, with only a couple of Caucasian customers. We, needless to say, were the only desis in the restaurant – in fact, we were probably the only desis in the whole of Chinatown! Wait staff at Full Kee speak English with a cadence that can be hard to understand. They are by no means friendly – they’re too busy to waste time on niceties – but they are efficient and polite, and answer queries when asked. That’s refreshing in a country where wait staff tend to engage in insincere and cheerily enthusiastic chatter with their customers. It was a relief not to be bothered every now and then by someone chirpily wanting to know “how’re y’all doing here?”
Before we pounced on our menu cards, The Spouse decided to quench his thirst with a Chinese beer (!) called Tsing Tao, while I played safe with a glass of totally blah Chardonnay (he pronounced his Tsing Tao “serviceable” but “not spectacular”).
I knew that Full Kee specialized in Cantonese cuisine, and was looking forward to sampling their wares. Glancing around, I found some very interesting menu items listed on the wall:
- Frog with Chinsese [sic] Sausage Mushroom Casserole
- Deep Fried Squab
- Deep Fride [sic] Spicy Canadian Fish (turned out to be Atlantic cod)
Little did I realize that these were just the top of the tip of Full Kee’s foodberg. The menu contained more than 138 entrées (the point at which I stopped counting) excluding soups, appetizers, and rice- or noodles-based dishes. Talk about diners’ dilemma! So many things caught our fancy, including sautéed abalone, sea cucumber with black fungus, deep fried frog, stir-fried conch, baby clams, marinated pork intestines, jumbo oysters, pig skin in duck blood, and scallops. Helplessly, like beached fish, we flipped and flopped over our choices. Eventually The Spouse had a brainwave, suggesting we confine ourselves to the “gourmet specials” section of the exhaustive menu.
Pork, duck, and jellyfish
We decided to take it one dish at a time, thinking that we could work our way through at least some of these intriguing choices. We began our foray with Glo Heo Full Kee, sliced boneless knuckle of pig. “Knuckle” isn’t what it sounds like. It isn’t cartilaginous – it’s actually a lean cut of meat from the front part of the leg above a pig’s kneecap. Full Kee’s pig knuckle is braised (not roasted), and served cold. It’s delicious. Because it’s such a lean cut of meat, you can actually consume the fat and the skin without feeling all greasy and sick inside. This simple dish featured simple seasonings and an uncomplicated yet very intense flavor. It was salted perfectly, just enough to enhance the mild, slightly sweet taste of the meat. We were served eight larger-than-expected slices; they were also, needless to say, also more filling than we expected them to be. Nevertheless, we told ourselves that this was a “snack” to accompany our drinks, and dove back into the menu as if it was a New York Times bestseller paperback.
For our next course, we ordered Duck Stuffed with Shrimp Paste in Oyster Sauce. We both assumed that “shrimp paste” implied “kapi” or “blachan“, the salty, stinky paste of fermented dried shrimp used in Southeast Asian cuisines. So we were taken by surprise to find that in this case, “shrimp paste” meant just what it said – cooked shrimp, ground into a paste. It’s very hard to describe the symphony of flavors and textures that came together in this dish. The duck was cooked to perfection, roasted till the skin was crispy and free of fat. This delightfully “crackly” layer encased the rich, dark-meat notes of the flesh, which in turn encased the aforementioned “shrimp paste”. The whole shebang was deep fried in a wafer-thin tempura batter, and served in oyster sauce with a liberal sprinkling of blanched bean sprouts. It’s supposed to be eaten with sticky rice. The various tastes and textures combine in a heavenly meld of salt-crisp-smoky-sweetish-yum. I’m drooling over my keyboard just thinking about it!
Truth be told, by now we both felt like the duck – stuffed. But there was no way we were leaving just yet. We agreed that we’d like to try something neither of us had ever tasted before, and picked Goi Sua, a cold jellyfish salad. Yes, that’s right, jellyfish. Those translucent parachutes of the ocean, with tentacles that sting viciously on contact, causing you to swell up, turn blue, and sometimes die. I never thought I’d be so pleased to encounter jellyfish. Of course, it helped that they were no longer alive, and that their fearsome tentacles were currently sitting in a nice heap on my plate. I have no idea how the jellyfish was cooked – but if I were to venture a guess, I’d say it had been gently sautéed in light soy sauce with a hint of fresh ginger, then chilled and sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds. So what does it taste like? For those of you with adventurous palates – it tastes like squid, with the texture of black fungus and squid. In other words, it tastes like squid, but has a crunchy-yet-gelatinous texture reminiscent of thin cartilage – though it has far more “give” than cartilage does. We both loved it.
At this point we thought it politic to call a halt to our food orgy. Our bill came to $55, including the liquor and a generous tip. To my mind, it was worth every cent.
509 H Street
N. W. Washington
Phone: +01 202 371 2233