Faculty Favorites: Ms. Chang sends me to Chalin’s Restaurant

Margot Durfee

When you think of Chinese food, what comes to mind? Lo mein, orange chicken, and fortune cookies? If so, you’ve been missing out. Many of the typical “Chinese” dishes people eat in America are adapted to suit American tastes; portions are bigger, the food is sweeter and less spicy, more deep-fried, and many of the dishes aren’t ones you would find in China.

Chalin’s Restaurant, Wilson Chinese teacher Yin Chang’s favorite DC eatery, is a great introduction to authentic Chinese food—in this case, food from Sichuan (also spelled Szechuan).

Chang grew up in Hong Kong and later moved to pursue a degree at the University of Maryland. As Wilson’s only Chinese teacher, she teaches all six classes, from Chinese level one to AP.

“I heard about [Chalin’s Restaurant] from another Chinese teacher from Cardozo,” Chang said.

With over 1.3 billion people, China is a huge country with countless styles of food. Saying “Chinese food” is like saying “European food.” There is a lot of variety behind this label. People often forget that there is not just one type of Chinese food.

I am Chinese-American, and for the majority of my childhood, I lived in China (Hong Kong and Beijing). When I first moved to DC a few years ago, I was surprised when I went to a “Chinese” restaurant and could not recognize any of the dishes being served. Luckily, for all the American-Chinese restaurants that have long dominated the American perception of Chinese food, there have been an increasing amount of restaurants opened that also serve more authentic Chinese food, including Chalin’s.

Chalin’s Restaurant is located in Foggy Bottom, a block from the Farragut West subway station. It specializes in Sichuan cuisine, a province in southwest China famous for its spicy food.

The interior is relatively spacious, with a high ceiling and large front window that lets in natural light. Orange and red cloth-covered partitions are organized around the room, allowing diners privacy as they eat. The arrangement of potted plants and the distant sound of running water from a mini fountain creates a serene atmosphere.

Chinese food is generally served “family-style,” meaning you order a couple of dishes and share them with a group of people, rather than each ordering an individual dish. So while the dishes may seem pricey (on average they are around $13), remember that each dish can serve two to three people.

Chalin’s Restaurant offers two different menus: what the waiter refers to as the “regular” menu and the “Chinese” menu. If you are looking to eat authentic Chinese food, I’d recommend ordering from the “Chinese menu,” which offers a range of delicious rice, vegetable, tofu, meat, and noodle dishes.

On Chang’s recommendation, I ordered the cumin lamb ($15.95), which is composed of stir-fried lamb, broccoli, mushroom, bell pepper, and celery. Lamb has a very strong, gamey flavor that some people don’t like, but I thought its sweetness complemented the saltiness of the stir-fried vegetables.

I also ordered the mapo tofu ($12.95), composed of cubes of springy tofu soaked in a salty-sweet chili oil and peppercorn sauce. This is one of the spicier dishes, especially with the peppercorn. This staple ingredient of Sichuan cuisine elevates the spice by producing a tingling sensation when eaten.

My favorite dish was the Kung Pao Chicken (in Chinese it is pronounced gong bao ji ding) which was $13.95. The tender, diced chicken is stir-fried in a chili soy-sauce that accentuates the sweetness of the chicken, and pairs well with the crunchy roasted peanuts.

The two side dishes we ordered were the soft bean curd with green onion and the Sichuan pickle. The bean curd (tofu) is finely diced and served cold with crispy slices of scallion. It is a very simple dish that gives your tastebuds a break from all the spice. Sichuan pickles are made of crunchy daikon radish and cabbage that add a tangy complexity to your meal. Don’t forget to order rice! Rice elevates the flavors of other dishes and overall makes a meal tastier.

Chalin’s Restaurant deserves a 4.5 out of 5 stars. Although the dishes are on the more expensive side, each one can feed two to three people, so I would recommend going with a group of friends. Be sure you know which menu you are ordering off of! If you want authentic food and see the words “General Tso’s Chicken” or “Lo Mein,” then you are reading the wrong one.