Since then, the elder Bush has walked through the Chinese red front door more than 50 times, as vice president, president and ex-president. He was such a frequent visitor one of the dishes is nicknamed “Bush beef,” and numerous color photos of him and his family adorn the walls.
But the restaurant hit the jackpot just before Christmas when President-elect George W. Bush showed up for dinner with his wife Laura, Marvin and his wife Margaret, sister Dorothy Koch and her husband Robert, and his National Security Adviser-designate Condoleeza Rice. (Maybe she will suggest changing the name to “Beijing Gourmet Inn.”)
“I knew sooner or later, we would see [the president-elect], but we never expected to see him this soon,” said Tsui, a Hong Kong native and Ph.D. organic chemist who gave up a career in research and teaching to join his late father, who started the restaurant in 1977.
Dubyah and his entourage ordered the usual, which, in addition to the Peking Duck ($34) included the Four Season String Beans ($9.45), Szechuan Beef Proper ($18.95), Juo-Yen Shrimp ($24.45) and Lamb Chop Peking Style ($26.95). The president-elect paid with a personal check, which Tsui may want to frame instead of cashing.
Tsui’s sister, Lily Lee, who is in charge of the restaurant’s financial affairs, was impressed by Bush’s decision to return with his family members. “Washington is a political arena and for him to come back to D.C. and that the first thing he wants to do is get together for dinner with his brother and sister and their spouses was very touching,” she said.
Lily also revealed the reason the restaurant now accepts American Express credit cards, which it had refused to because she objected to the company’s rates and pricing policies. “The first time Vice President Bush was here, he pulled out his American Express card and I had to tell him we didn’t accept them,” she explained. “He wrote a check instead, but the next day, I called American Express.”
I sampled the Bush menu last weekend, as Raymond Cheung, who usually waits on the Bush family, delivered a succession of ever-more-tasty dishes, and Tsui explained their preparation and the history of the restaurant.
His father Eddie, who died three years ago, and mother, who is 82 and still “calls up every day to give me orders,” ran two well-known restaurants in Hong Kong before coming to Washington in the 1960s. They operated two restaurants in Arlington before starting Peking Gourmet in 1977. “He had retired and started this as an afterthought,” said the gregarious and personable Tsui, 52.
The father hired each of his four children separately, including Robert and Lily, as well as Nina Tsui, who is cashier and in charge of a thriving carryout business, and George, a Hong Kong trained chef who is general manager and oversees the kitchen. (He takes over when the Bushes are there.)
The food, which is primarily Northern Chinese, is impressive, to say the least. Each dish revealed a dazzling array of tastes and textures. The Peking Duck, carved at the table, is a classic preparation of crispy skin and duck meat wrapped in a pancake with plum sauce and spring onions — grown along with other vegetables used by the restaurant at Robert’s 136-acre “Grass Root Farm” in Purcellville, Va.
The Szechuan Beef Proper, named when Tsui told a waiter that “this is the proper way to do Szechuan beef,” is an example of why technique is so important to Chinese cooking. Strips of beef are “surf fried,” using a large quantity of oil at extreme temperatures until golden brown, then allowed to cool so it can absorb a sauce before being coated with roasted sesame seeds.
“You have to use roasted sesame seeds because they give you a totally different flavor than the raw ones you buy at Giant,” he said.
The same technique is used for the Jou-Yen Shrimp, which are seasoned with freshly diced ginger, black pepper, garlic and onion, and served with snow peas instead of broccoli, which the elder Bush is famously unfond of.
The Four Season Beans are a wonder of complexity, stir-fried in vegetable oil, almost to the point of burning, then seasoned with chopped onions, red chili pepper, garlic and minced onion and a shot of soy sauce. Just before they burn, they’re quenched with two ounces of cooking sherry and four ounces of chicken stock, then further seasoned with black pepper that has been allowed to burn on the edge of the wok.
But the Lamb Chop Peking Style is the most intriguing dish of all. They are cooked in an entirely different style, first gently fried, then fried on high heat to make the surface crunchy. They’re cooked in a variety of seasonings, including black pepper, ginger, onion, soy sauce and sherry before being flamb