Image: Bok Choy and Mushrooms
Last Updated: July 2023
Every once in a while, Panda Gourmet pops up on the D.C. food world radar. In between those moments, it quietly serves up some of the best Chinese food, arguably some of the best food period, in the District out of the Days Inn on New York Ave.
The food is Chinese with an emphasis on Sichuan and Shaanxi regional dishes. The menu is admittedly overwhelming in choices. So, if you are not an expert (and we are not), we suggest ordering what sounds good or looks good in the pictures provided. It helps to go with a group, order a bunch, and sample as the lazy Susan spins.
Among the specialties are the the “Rouga Mo” Chinese burger (roujiamo) from Shaanxi and spicy Sichuan chicken with tons of chili peppers. The mapo tofu is worth writing home about, as Tim Carman waxed a few years back, “I admired how the chili oil enrobed each ingredient, wrapping its fragrance, heat and flavor around everything from the silken, custardlike tofu to the tiny grains of rice, which glowed like neon.” Fuchsia Dunlop puts in a plug for the Xian cold noodles. On our recent visit the double-cooked pork loaded with greens and the string beans with black garlic both managed to be simple presentations that had a depth of flavors. The Dan Dan noodles are a crowd favorite. The most intriguing dish on the last visit was battered squid with black pepper that seemed to make everyone want to have just one more bite. We can go on, but the point is if you read the online reviews you will find a long list of dishes tried and liked, a rare handful that did not work because of personal taste or an off night for the kitchen. So, order a bunch and you’ll be sure to have multiple pleasant surprises and some good leftovers.
They have a handful of desserts, our favorite being the sweet potato with sesame. They do not serve alcohol.
The place is pretty basic with a large room with lots of tables draped in red tablecloths. The myth is that the Chinese government housed the workers building the new embassy in the motel and the restaurant came out of that. Though the dates don’t really line up. The more prosaic story is that the manager of the Days Inn asked a friend, Joseph Huang, if the wanted to open a Chinese spot after the prior pho spot closed. Huang decided to put the food of his home province of Shaanxi on the menu but add spicy Sichuan food to hopefully get more people in fearing that “not a lot of people would understand” the cooking of Shaanxi. According to manager Mei Lai, it was the Chinese college students who helped the place take off. “Local diners started sampling the more traditional dishes after peering at the plates in front of Chinese students from the University of Maryland and Georgetown University. Diners would ask questions and change their orders on subsequent visits.” It hung on during Covid, but this is a reminder to show it some love. Maybe some tik-tokker will read this and make it a thing.
For the curious, the Chinese Embassy does play a part in the story of another great source of Chinese cuisine in the area.
Other Guidance: The place is casual. It is located at street level though it is not convenient to get there. If you are coming from downtown up New York Ave, be sure to turn at the corner before the Days Inn (and then look for the separate driveway access on the right). If you miss the turn it is a long stretch before you can turnaround. There are many vegetable dishes, though we cannot vouch that they are all vegetarian. GF on the other hand can do well.
Lori (Been There Eaten That): Short blurb
Rick Eats DC: 2016 Best Chinese
WCP: Feature piece
Tyler Cowen: In his typically restrained style called it, “The best Chinese restaurant Washington, D.C. has had, ever.”
Wong Eats – “Looking at their daunting menu, I realize that there are most veritable dishes to explore, offering some “funky” dishes with frog, tendon, tripe, and many dishes served on the Mainland. This is a joint worth venturing into, and you may discover dishes not found in your usual carry-out, some to your liking, and some rather challenging.”