Pigging out in the Year of the Pig

I was late in celebrating the Chinese New Year, which is the Year of the Pig and began Feb. 18, according to the Chinese calendar. But I made up for it by pigging out at Tony Cheng’s Seafood Restaurant in the heart of Chinatown.

Despite its name, Tony Cheng’s isn’t limited to seafood, even though there are more than 36 seafood choices on the 12-page menu, which the namesake owner claims is the longest in the city. And while the 47-year-old Hong Kong native prides himself on his lobsters and Dungeness crabs — on display in giant holding tanks — as well as shrimp, oysters, clams and a half-dozen varieties of fresh fish, he also offers 29 chicken and duck dishes, 22 beef and 18 pork dishes, and 29 kinds of noodles and fried rice. All are prepared in a variety of styles, ranging from the classic Cantonese to the spicy Szechuan and Hunan.

The complexity of the menu — all items are listed in Chinese and English — can make ordering your meal daunting. Not to worry. My guest, the Rev. Richard Shmaruk, a Catholic priest from Boston who was here for the memorial service for Art Buchwald on Monday, and I stuck to the chef’s specialties, which gave us plenty to work with: There are 29 choices, ranging from crispy stuffed bean cakes to honey walnut shrimp.

We enjoyed a couple of the excellent Tsingtao Chinese beers as we perused the gargantuan menu. We decided to start with a puu puu tray, two portions each of tempura-fried prawns, honey-glazed spareribs, spring egg rolls, shrimp toast and marinated beef on skewers ($9.95 per person).

Only the shrimp toast and egg rolls lived up to my expectations of a restaurant that has been in business for 20 years and is considered by many the best Chinese restaurant in the city. The tempura-fried prawns were undercooked and doughy, and the spareribs and marinated beef were overcooked and leathery.

Fortunately, the rest of the meal redeemed the unimpressive appetizers. First to arrive at our table was the crispy-skin Peking duck, which our waiter sliced and served wrapped in a pancake with spring onions and hoisin sauce. Messy, but simply delicious. However, our waiter should have advised us to order a whole Peking duck for $32.95 instead of two half-portions at $20.95 each. In fairness, like most of the restaurant’s waiters, his English was little better than my Cantonese, so maybe it wasn’t his fault.

Neither my guest nor I was feeling adventurous enough to sample some of the more exotic dishes, like pig’s belly with preserved mustard greens, or boneless duck feet with hot pepper in black bean sauce. So we settled on the sizzling steak Chinese-style and the sizzling salmon, ($18.95 each), along with the combination fried rice ($14.95).

The steak and salmon were indeed sizzling when they arrived at our table. The sliced filet mignon was bathed in a brown sauce fragrant with soy and fresh garlic, while the salmon had been cooked in a hot pot in the chef’s special sauce of soy, white wine and oysters. Both were prime examples of the complex interplay of flavors and textures that characterizes the best Chinese cuisine. Our fried rice was generously endowed with shrimp, chicken, beef, bean sprouts, green peas, carrots, onions and scallions.

Cheng’s Seafood Restaurant has something of a split personality — the dining room, which seats 170, is located one floor above Cheng’s Mongolian Barbecue, which also seats 170. The latter has a much more limited menu since diners must choose among beef, lamb, chicken and pork, and assorted vegetables, which are then cooked on a giant griddle. I was content to leave this to the tourists. There’s also a third-floor banquet room that seats another 300 people.

The second-floor dining room is accessed via a rather dingy stairway to the right of the street-level entrance to the Mongolian Barbecue, but the room itself is bright and cheery, with a pleasingly low noise level, even though it was entirely filled when we arrived about 7 p.m.

Since we’d ordered so much food, I knew we wouldn’t be able to finish it all, so I had the uneaten portion put in the Chinese equivalent of a doggy bag and delivered it to my older daughter and her hungry colleagues at National Public Radio three blocks away. I regret that I didn’t try the spicy lobster, Szechuan-style, or the dim sum, which Cheng told me is a favorite of many customers.

Cheng noted that D.C.’s Chinatown has been transformed in recent years since the Verizon Center sparked a neighborhood building boom. It was a rather quaint area when he opened his present restaurant in 1987, “but it’s like Times Square now,” he said.

Cheng isn’t given to excess modesty. “It’s the best Chinese restaurant in town,” he declared, adding, “The newspapers say that, I don’t say that.”

Cheng came to Washington from Hong Kong in 1966 and worked in Chinese restaurants for a couple of years before moving to New York to open his own. He returned in the late 1970s and opened the Szechuan Restaurant on Eye Street, where his cooking impressed President Carter so much that he invited Cheng to the White House to cook a special dinner for his family and top aides in January 1981, just before leaving office. He showed me a copy of the menu, autographed by the dazzled guests. “It was wonderful!” Rosalyn Carter wrote. “This was one of the best dinners I’ve ever eaten,” Stu Eizenstat said. “Yum!!” Amy Carter exclaimed.

I guess I’d echo that praise for Tony Cheng’s (Not Only) Seafood Restaurant, despite the disappointing puu puu tray. How could I do otherwise when the fortune cookie served at the end of our meal promised, “You will have a fine capacity for the enjoyment of life.”

Tony Cheng’s Seafood Restaurant
619 H St. N.W.
(202) 371-8669

Open seven days a week: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.–midnight.

Moderate: Chef’s specialties $14.95-$24.95; whole Peking duck $32.95; dinner for two with beverage, tax and tip $65-$75.
Ratings: Based on one-to-ten scale for food, service, ambiance and price/value; up to five domes awarded on the basis of reviewer’s judgment.
Food: 7    Ambiance: 6    
Service: 7    Price/Value: 8