China Canteen: A Humble Shrine to the Sichuan Kitchen

Emily Tian, age 17

China Canteen, off Hungerford Drive in Rockville, Maryland, is known to its Chinese customers as 老四川: Old Sichuan. The restaurant has planted itself on the border of a nondescript strip mall for eighteen years — old indeed for an area where restaurants surface and sink in droves.

Between the inked horse paintings and specials handwritten in sloping green Expo, the restaurant wears its age plainly. Chinese parents and kids are seated in cracked maroon booths, deftly breaking apart bamboo chopsticks and pouring steaming cups of tea. Even our broad-shouldered Hispanic server has waited tables here for over a decade. He takes our party’s orders in Mandarin.

We first try a traditional dish, 夫妻肺片, which translates literally to husband-wife-lung-slices. It’s not really lung, the menu coaches us, but the marriage of thinly sliced beef tendon and chili oil, constellated with peanuts, is nevertheless a breathless one.

The Sichuan fish is electric. Filleted tilapia simmers under a blistery rain of peppers. Its spice-bombed fragrance, lightened by bean sprouts, infuses the room; our neighbors turn to ask us what we ordered.

To the chef’s credit, milder dishes don’t erode against the numbing ones. I find myself reaching again for the pi pa tofu: silken tofu beaten with shrimp then gently fried. The size of a toddler’s fist, each ball is soaked in a delicate broth of shiitake mushrooms and bok choy. For $17.99, we share a platter of tea-smoked duck, which arrives wreathed by sprigs of green onion and airy buns painted with sweet bean paste.

As with many Chinese joints, however, the bowls of white rice have become something of a chef’s shrug. And skip the scallion pancakes: the cumbersome dough all but smothers the pale ringlets of scallion. Lunch specials will set customers back $7.99, but they sport none of the traditional plates that charge the rest of the menu.

The restaurant is run by two brothers and their father, all from the Sichuan Province. Mr. Yu, the younger brother, who greets regulars and recommends dishes to new diners with a Buddha-like warmth, says they have no plans for renovations. Every three years, they’ve renewed their license; if business is decent, they see no reason to change.

Of course, it might not be so simple: Along Rockville Pike alone, China Canteen must train its steady firepower against nearly-translucent soup dumplings, A&J’s dense, chewy noodles, and sunny, Instagram-happy newcomers like the pan-Asian food hall, The Spot.

But the Yu brothers brush those thoughts aside. For now, they’re most comfortable in the kitchen, braising fish, cubing duck blood, dicing chicken, slicking the wok with red oil and peppercorns.

And I, for one, am not looking for anything else.