By Jay Bennett
If you've never been to the Ranch Market at the Chinese Cultural Center, you have to check it out for a colorful experience. And if you're looking for Chinese cuisine that goes above and beyond the run-of-the-mill stuff served at seemingly most Chinese restaurants, you have to check out Hong Kong Express, a little cafeteria at the back of the Ranch Market.
I almost never eat at Chinese restaurants because I'm almost always disappointed with the food they serve. I don't claim to be an expert on "real" Chinese food because I've had it only once, about 10 years ago when an American friend and his new Chinese wife moved back to the U.S. and cooked me a Chinese dinner that tasted nothing like the food I'd eaten at Chinese restaurants.
I'm still looking for food like that. I can't say that I found it at Hong Kong Express, but I can say that the food there was better than what I've had at most Chinese restaurants. It was heartening to see that I was one of the only Anglos eating at Hong Kong Express; the place was packed with Chinese people. I can't say that for some of the other restaurants, like Golden Buddha, down at the Chinese Cultural Center, on 44th Street north of Washington.
The missus ordered braised shrimp. At only $6.25, this dish was loaded with plump, nice-size shrimp, probably 12 pieces in all, which is a lot for such a low price. The onion-filled sauce was sweet and quite spicy, with tons of red-pepper flakes floating in it.
Braised shrimp: Spicy! Sadly, the spring rolls weren't good.
I ordered a whole tilapia in Szechuan bean sauce and loved it. The fish itself wasn't huge, but at $6.25 it was still a great deal. The fish tasted fresh and flavorful, and the brown bean sauce was tangy, with bits of ginger giving it a little more zing. Chunks of tofu floating in the sauce added a nice touch, as did cilantro leaves sprinkled on top of the fish. The brown bean sauce was addictive. I wished I had something to sop it up or even a spoon to scoop it up. Alas, all I had were chopsticks. Warning: Keep an eye out for bones. It is a whole fish, after all.
Tilapia in bean sauce: Freshly killed, no doubt. (Photos by Laura Hahnefeld)
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My suspicion that the tilapia was fresh was confirmed as we strolled around the market after lunch. We saw a huge tank filled with tilapia swimming around, awaiting their slaughter. Another tank was filled with crabs, and another had big, live frogs for sale. Speaking of slaughter, you could stand and watch the guys behind the fish counter kill and clean the tilapia, which they were doing at a brisk pace.
The whole seafood counter was a sight to behold, with all manner of fresh fish, shrimp, oysters, eels, and whole octopi. The Ranch Market, in general, was filled with the kind of sights and smells that you're not going to find at your neighborhood Safeway. I highly recommend a visit.
If you head down to the Chinese Cultural Center or Hong Kong Express, let me know what you think. Or if you know of a good Chinese restaurant that I should check out, please e-mail me at email@example.com.