9900 Key West Ave
Rockville, MD 20850
With the construction of the Verizon Center supplanting the old Chinatown, Rockville and Wheaton in Montgomery County have become the de facto Chinatown in the DMV. Mama Wok, one of several “authentic” Chinese restaurants in Rockville, is located in a small strip mall just off Rockville Pike. Unlike Bob’s Noodle 66 or Michael’s Noodle, two more well-known restaurants in the area, Mama Wok does not specialize solely in Taiwanese cuisine, but rather serves a panoply of dishes hailing from regions as diverse as Sichuan, Guangzhou, and Shanghai (the cuisine of General Tso also makes an appearance on the menu). However, the food is primarily Taiwanese, with its hallmark delicacy and restraint being the primary characteristics of the dishes we ordered.
When you first walk in, the décor is not wholly dissimilar to that of the many standard Chinese carryouts that you probably walk past in DC or many other cities. Certainly cleaner, and a bit homier, but still retaining the familiar backlit menu above the formica counter, adorned with photographs of the Chef’s Specialty “Buddha’s Delight” and the Pu Pu Platter.
The clientele was a mix of Chinese and non-Asian families, with the Chinese families ordering the more traditional Taiwanese entrees while the non-Asian invariably dined on the Americanized fare. Hopefully this observation would disabuse the tired canard that one can ascertain the “authenticity” and quality of a restaurant by simply looking at the ethnicity of its diners. In this case, while there are many Chinese diners, this should not be taken as indication that you can order anything off the menu and expect it to be a traditional Chinese dish. Most Chinese restaurants, for misguided reasons, in my opinion, feel compelled to offer Sesame Chicken, Egg Foo Young, and the other Panda Express standards you can find in your local mall food court. Just because you see Asian diners doesn’t mean that you are going to get an authentic, or even good, rendition of Chow Mein. You are just as likely going to get something that the cook in the kitchen haphazardly tossed together while working with greater care on the more authentic entrees.
After we are seated, we decided to eat family style, sharing each entrée among ourselves accompanied by a bowl of rice. I looked at the menu and noticed that, unlike many other Chinese restaurants, they don’t segregate the Americanized offerings from the “authentic” offerings. Not being Chinese, I deferred ordering to my dining companions, though I did insist that we order the beef tendon dish after my initial request for pork intestines and duck blood is vetoed.
After sipping tea and ordering water (I notice that many Asian restaurants, be it Korean or Chinese, tend to offer tea as the default beverage and tap water has to be specifically requested), our appetizers arrived. The Crispy Squid was, unlike Italian calamari, unbreaded and fried in a light batter. I enjoyed it, though my dining companions found it a bit ponderous and heavy for their tastes. I did notice that the squid finishes with noticeable greasiness, but I thought the green onions and other seasonings managed to give it good lift and balance. But, then again, I do enjoy grease. We also ordered “steamed buns,” i.e. xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). The dumplings were well prepared, with a tender, moist skin. Unfortunately, the soup inside the dumpling had a pronounced ginger and umami flavor that overwhelmed the flavor of the pork fillings, rendering the dish a little one-note for my tastes.
The waitress stopped by and also offered us free soup, and rather than order the egg drop or hot and sour, we decided on the House Specialty. The fish broth was light, but flavorful. The mushrooms, tofu, and seaweed added nice texture as well. The one flaw was that it was a little too savory, suggesting a heavy hand with the MSG, which is unfortunate. To me, excess MSG is a technical issue similar to oversalting. Much like salt, MSG can add to a dish when used with restraint and, to me, is otherwise unobjectionable if a cook chooses to use it.
Our two seafood dishes came next. The first dish was a flaky, white-fleshed fish fillet smothered in a thick fish broth with snow peas, carrots, mushrooms, and baby Napa cabbage. The fish was flavorful in a delicate way, though texturally a little too soggy. But, the sauce imparted a deep seafood flavor that was tasty, if a bit overwhelming in the umami. The other seafood dish was similar: a poached shrimp dish with broccoli, baby corn, snow peas, and carrots. The broth was as flavorful as the previous one, imparting a deep crustaceous shellfish flavor on the dish. But, again, the heavy-handedness with the umami, which I presume was MSG, was noticeable and marred the dish.
The highlight for me was dish of well-prepared sautéed snow pea leaves. The texture of the greens remained intact, slightly wilted, but still retaining some bite. The sharpness of the greens was also lightly accented with garlic and otherwise judiciously seasoned. A simple dish, but very well done.
The fried chicken’s skin was crispy and its meat juicy. The grease was not as pronounced as it was with the Crispy Squid dish. I also appreciated that the kitchen chopped the chicken into chop-stick friendly portions, making it easy to pop into the mouth and savor. Personally, I wish there was a little more assertive seasoning spice-wise, but it was well-salted and generally most of my companions liked this dish quite a bit.
The dish I ordered, the Beef Tendon with House Sauce, was a disappointment. Generally, I enjoy the gelatinous texture and mouthfeel of beef tendon, which I have found most of my non-Asian friends to consider confounding. But, to me, the palate coating sensation of melted tendon is one of the homiest, most comforting gustatory sensations, invoking stark sense-memories, of rolling banks of snow, of logs burning in the fireplace, and of cold puffs of crisp, gelid New England air (I grew up in an atypical household). Unfortunately, the sauce was heavy on processed tomato paste: one of my friends suggested they used ketchup…personally, it reminded me of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni (and I mean that quite literally). The sauce then dissipated quickly, leaving you with a long, bland, unctuous finish.
Service was very good for this type of restaurant. The waitress was attentive and quick. We never ran out of tea and water was regularly refilled. The courses came out in a sensible manner, with appetizers, vegetables and seafood, and the poultry and beef dishes coming last. Also, providing a free course was most welcome. But, I’m sure that it helped that two of my dining companions spoke Mandarin, so YMMV.
As we finished our meal, we ended up conversing for some time and we noticed some platters of food on the table next to us. This is an oft-repeated scene I am sure many others have witnessed, as the kitchen starts preparing dinner for the wait staff after a hard night’s service. And, almost without exception, the food is always different from what is served to the diners. Now, my friends (and I to a lesser extent) pride ourselves on our palates and our knowledge of true, authentic Asian cuisine. I, of course, expected food like ours to be plated and served, “real” Chinese food for palates attuned to those traditional flavors, But, instead, of the ornate seafood dishes, the delicate soups, the beef tendon and offal, the plates being set on the table are filled with dishes completely different from those served to us. We saw shredded cabbage, steamed cauliflower, and stir fried meat and potatoes. Hearty, simple food. And as we polished off our fish, soup dumplings, and our beef tendon, a Mandarin-speaking, Taiwanese friend of mine comments, “We never get the same food as the waiters.”