Monday, March 18, 2013

The Peking Gourmet Inn

When I was a little girl, a very solid memory was formed in my little head while dining in a fancy Chinese restaurant with my parents, uncles, aunts and cousins. We went out for a family meal together, which was in itself rare and special, and while I don't recall the occasion for getting dressed up and I don't remember the details of the meal, there are a few vivid visions that the smell of wonton soup brings back in an instant. I remember a lot of red and gold, I remember a grand entrance like temple gates, a koi pond that my cousins and I tentatively dipped our little fingers into, and I remember the ultra-attentive waiters in jackets that made me feel like this must be a really nice place to eat at. I think every kid wants to feel like royalty once in a while, or maybe it was just me after watching too many episodes of Robyn Leach's "champagne wishes and caviar dreams."

I had eaten plenty of Chow Mein and Sweet and Sour Chicken before that, but this fancy Chinese restaurant had an over the top regal formality to it that I think it must have sealed the deal.  The only food I remember eating there was the Butterfly Shrimp on Toast appetizer -- the perfect combo of rich, crispy, salty goodness. The experience as a whole has stayed with me through the years and continues to stir up little yearnings to find the ultimate fancy meal at a new white-linen-table-cloth Chinese restaurant.

A friend invited us out for dinner tonight at the Peking Gourmet Inn. He had been there once before and said it was great. In our heads, we pictured it as being just an extra tasty restaurant with the normal offerings on the menu and the generic red booths, tea pots, and fortune cookies at the end of the meal. No need for reservations, no need to get dressed up... just a yummy meal with a friend on a Sunday night. Oh no my friends, the Peking Gourmet Inn is something quite special.

Very unassuming from the outside, this ultra popular establishment is located in a strip mall in Falls Church, Virginia, tucked in among a middle eastern market, a cell phone store and a furniture rental store with signs all in spanish. No windows, no fancy doors. You could easily drive by it everyday for 10 years and never be inspired to stop. That benign exterior, I must admit, is part of it's intrigue.

Not only do all the locals seem to love it, this place has quite a reputation apparently among the out-of-towners as well. On every wall there are pictures of celebrity diners shaking hands with the extremely proud owner, starting in the '80s and stretching right up until this year of . While we waited for our table in the cozy-crowded entry way, making room for take-away customers and 10-person families of 3 generations shuffling past, we grinned at the gold-framed photos of George Senior and Barbara Bush, George Junior and kids, John Travolta, Colin Powell and even Psy of Gangnam Style fame.

After a 45 minute wait and a noncommittal hostess, we were lead through a warm, buzzingly festive dining room to a table for 3 adorned with white linen table cloths and napkins, metal fork and chopsticks, and old-school paper place mats with chinese adds on them. It smelled amazing and of course took me instantly right back to that treasured memory of a fancy Chinese meal. I got really excited for what we were about to eat.

Peking Gourmet Inn was founded in 1978 and specializes in Peking Duck. Juicy and delicious, the duck comes out whole on a platter and is ceremoniously carved up table-side and served with handcrafted pancakes, sliced spring onions and house-made hoisin sauce. They even have a farm outside of town to grow the right kind of jumbo spring onions they needed to give their dishes an authentic flavor.While the duck was obviously the thing to get here, Hubby and I stuck to our guns and ordered some vegetarian goodies, of which there were just a few.

Luckily the veggie plates did not disappoint. We started with a little plate of pickled Szechuan Cabbage that was a little spicy and sweet. The Kung Pao tofu was silky, of medium hotness and delicious. The Shitake Mushrooms and Baby Chinese Greens were the perfect pairing of crisp fresh greens and toothsome, saucy mushrooms. Our friend got Jumbo Shrimp deep-fried with a crunchy golden batter and sprinkled with savory ground shrimp and chiles, and White Rice came with it all. A pot of Chrysanthemum tea and rock sugar to sweeten it was the perfect comfort as we talked and enjoyed our feast.

The waiters of course were a model of attentive formality, wearing red jackets and making sure to top off our tea cups whenever they stopped by.

As I looked around the dining room I could picture 30 years of diners growing up here, family meals, special occasions and many more Sunday night meals to come. Next time we'll make a reservation, get a little dressed up, and I might even order the Peking Duck.