Last year, when I first read The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, the wonderful middle grade novel by Wendy Wan-Long Shang that recently won the 2012 APALA Asian/Pacific American Children’s Literature Award, I noticed something interesting in the Acknowledgements:
No acknowledgement would be complete without recognizing my sources of support: my mom, who told me I could do anything; my dad, who made me believe writing was in my blood; my husband, who wrote ‘writer’ on our tax forms and has never (never!) once wavered in his support; our three beautiful, funny children; my amazing extended family; Fairfax County Public Library; A&J Restaurant, which makes absolutely inspirational bowls of soup. Get the Shanghai-style wonton soup.
Is there anything more exciting than a writer who cites soup as a source of inspiration? If you’ve read the book, you know it opens with a restaurant scene and contains many food references, including a reverential beef noodle soup as well as homemade dumplings. Yum!
Well, that Shanghai-style wonton soup had been on my mind for a long time, and I knew we would meet someday. With Wendy winning that prestigious award, it seemed like the perfect time for Len and me to venture over to Annandale to check out A&J’s.
It’s tucked away on a side street, a small, cozy eatery that was packed with happy chatty customers on a Saturday. Mostly everyone was Chinese, speaking Chinese, and in their 20′s and 30′s.
After we settled our ancient, wrinkly bodies into wooden chairs, we were given two menus, both the same except one was laminated. I thought it a bit strange, not realizing we were supposed to circle the number(s) of the item(s) we wanted and pencil in quantities on the paper copy. Usually at other dim sum/lunch places the servers do the penciling, and neither of us saw this note at the bottom of the menu:
Please circle your order carefully as we do not return or exchange items ordered.
Oops! I was understandably distracted and fascinated by the offerings, many unusual for someone used to Southern China/Cantonese cuisine (A&J is known for its Northern cooking). Most of the diners, whether they were eating soup or stir-fried/deep fried dishes over rice/noodles, also feasted on a variety of mostly baked/fried dim sum — sesame biscuits with sliced pork, scallion pancakes, turnip pastries, vegetarian or beef dumplings/potstickers. Steamed pork hocks and beef tendons with garlic sauce aroused my curiosity, but the fifteen or so soup varieties won me over. I imagined each of them to be uniquely delicious, capable of inspiring brilliant writing.
- Pai Gu Mian (Pork Chop Noodle Soup)
- Hong Shao Niu Ro Mian (Spicy Beef Noodle Soup)
- Zha Cai Ro Si Mian (Shredded Pork & Szechuan Radish Noodle Soup)
Of course I knew what I wanted, number 2101: Cai Ro Wonton (Wonton Soup Shanghai Style — Ground Pork & Vegetable Wonton). Len ordered Ji Pai Mian (Chinese Style Fried Chicken Noodle Soup). The best surprise? Our entrées cost only $6.95 each, which was the highest price listed on the entire menu. No wonder A&J has won numerous “Best Cheap Eats” awards from Washingtonian Magazine! Len also couldn’t resist ordering a Fried Jumbo Bread Stick (YouTiao), since he saw the man next to him eating one. I found out later that breads are a big part of Northern Chinese cuisine because wheat and millet grow better in the dry, colder climate (vs. rice being a staple crop in the South).
While waiting for our lunches, I
eavesdropped on respectfully observed some of the other customers. Four 20-somethings at a center table discussed an upcoming wedding; one of the guys couldn’t believe how expensive wedding gowns were. The man with the giant breadstick next to Len didn’t say a word to his wife/girlfriend throughout their meal, preferring to communicate via slurping (perfectly acceptable Asian soup etiquette unless you’re from Thailand). Most interesting: a young mother at a corner table loved her food so much she picked up her plate and licked it clean! First time I’d ever seen such a thing!
I took that as a sign our soups would be tasty.
And oh, they were! I hadn’t eaten any wonton soup in ages, and loved every bite. The fried egg, seaweed and bok choy garnish added wonderful texture, and the broth, which I found a little bland at first, turned out to perfectly complement the wonton, letting its flavors take center stage. There’s just something about floating little balls of meat wrapped up neat and tidy that makes me want to hug myself.
I also tried some of Len’s Chinese fried chicken — very flavorful, reminding me a little of Hawai’i's Mochiko Chicken (which is marinated in soy sauce, eggs, rice flour, garlic, ginger, green onions, cornstarch, sugar and salt, before frying). It was served on a small plate, to be eaten as is, or dipped into the soup, which appeared to be a beef broth with wide noodles (made in-house). Total yum. Len had fun dipping his giant bread stick into the soup, too.
Now that we know the drill — where to find A&J’s, how to order, what to expect, we’ll definitely be going back. Wendy was right about their soups being inspirational. Served in a casual, unpretentious atmosphere, those steamy bowls of homemade goodness really hit the spot, and you can’t beat the prices. Next time, we’ll order some of their dim sum. If it turns out to be just as delicious as their soups, do you think I should lick the plates? ☺
♥ My review of Wendy’s book is here.
A&J Chinese Restaurant
4316 Markham Street
Annandale, VA 22003
Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.