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wlohmann

Chalin's (Formerly Charlie Chiang's), 19th and I Street Downtown, Van Ness is Closed - New Name for Chinese-American Institution

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I was walking back to the office after an almost life-changing Garlic Chicken Lemongrass Banh Mi from Bon Mi (about which I will post separately) and saw out of corner of my eye across Eye Street a restaurant I'd not seen before called Chalin's. Couldn't even discern from the name what cuisine it served so I walked in out of curiousity and found it to be an old-school-looking Chinese restaurant. Lightbulb then went off in my head that it used to be a downtown location for Charlie Chiang's.

I would have nothing to post about except that I wound up having a long and delightful conversation with the guy who is managing the restaurant (during the absence of his wife, Jessica Zhang, who is apparently in China visiting family). His name is Kenny Wang and he was a delight. He told me the story of the restaurant's evolution from being part of the "Chiang" chain (I didn't precisely follow it, but I gather that it is now independent of what is left of the "Chiang" dynasty). We got talking about their chef and his reputation locally and among the Chinese diplomatic community and the IMF/World Bank and all kinds of special functions (with suitably exotic menu's) for which he has cooked. This led to him showing me the "Chinese menu" (in English and Mandarin) that, he confided, they give as the ONLY menu for customers they perceive as native Chinese and as one of TWO menu's (that and the regular "American" one) they give to Chinese-Americans. Non-Asian customers just receive the "American menu." I expressed interest in arranging a lunch or dinner for friends or co-workers and Kenny said that the chef would be happy to design a menu to our specifications (the only determinant being how much we wanted to spend per person) and he (with really contagious excitement) pulled out some Chinese language invoices from past events to walk me through some of the dishes we might want to consider (he seemed to think I'd be disinterested in tripe but he was so enthusiastic about it, who knows, I might go for it!).

I ate nothing during this visit (rest assured I will when I go back) but what I was struck by (and what led me to post) was the energy and enthusiasm and pride that Kenny exhibited in chatting with me. I can't help but expect that, when I DO dine there (perhaps after prearrangement for some special dishes), it will be a delightful meal. I'm so glad I stuck my head in!

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Interesting, the Charlie Chiang's up in Van Ness recently rebanded itself to Chalin's. Perhaps I'll have to wonder in and demand a look at the real Chinese menu. They regularly have large tables of Chinese eating there, generally in a back banquet room, sometimes arriving by the mini-bus load. I can't imagine they are eating the Americanized junk they are serving to me.

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Interesting, the Charlie Chiang's up in Van Ness recently rebanded itself to Chalin's. Perhaps I'll have to wonder in and demand a look at the real Chinese menu. They regularly have large tables of Chinese eating there, generally in a back banquet room, sometimes arriving by the mini-bus load. I can't imagine they are eating the Americanized junk they are serving to me.

According to their website, they still have "the same chef's[sic] and owners that have been here for over 25 years!"

So, enthusiasm aside, this appears to be nothing more than a rebranding, right down to the coupons.

I'm willing to accept genuine change, but the burden of proof is on Chalin's, not the dining community.

You know, maybe they *can* offer some really good, authentic Chinese cooking (and if the masses want to support the covert operation by using coupons to order pint-size orange chicken, then that's just fine with me).

Chalin's, I know you're reading this - it would be a really bad business decision to treat the readers of this website as Washingtonian subscribers. But if you've got game? Authentic Chinese (preferably regional Chinese) game with a back story? Show us, and let's rock it.

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Living only a couple blocks from the Van Ness Chalin's and having never set foot inside I can't speak for the food. I have observed that the Van Ness Chalin's is never full but is very large and assumed that they stay in business from weekday lunch business that is primarily a function of lack of better options in the neighborhood. As Tweaked mentioned, there are often large groups of Chinese people eating there. The Chinese embassy is only a block away, so it wouldn't be shocking that they would have a special menu to cater to that clientelle. This is highly intriguing.

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While we are waiting for "Peter Chang" to come back and rescue us from Americanized Chinese food, maybe somebody on this board-- who can speak and read the lingo--would be willing to reconoiter the place and see if the real goods can be had if we ask politely. This might be a $20+ Tuesday (or whenever) like we had in the past when the good Mr. Chang was wielding the wok in various locations around these parts. The fact that Dame Edna and I wouldn't have to travel to the 'burbs makes this all tremedously intriguing.

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see if the real goods can be had if we ask politely.

This is bullshit.

Restaurateurs, if you stopped being scared of your patrons, you'd be better at your jobs.

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<snip> The Chinese embassy is only a block away, so it wouldn't be shocking that they would have a special menu to cater to that clientelle. This is highly intriguing.

<snip>The fact that Dame Edna and I wouldn't have to travel to the 'burbs makes this all tremedously intriguing.

This is bullshit.

Restaurateurs, if you stopped being scared of your patrons, you'd be better at your jobs.

I used to have to go to the Charlie Chang's downtown against my will for business lunches. Maybe went there a dozen or so times over a period of several years. I remember lots of bowls of wonton soup, ribs and shrimp with lobster sauce. Ick. Always thought the food bad to mediocre depending on the day. Never had a clue about a second, secret menu though, come to think of it, I do recall some large tables of asian customers from time to time and also that I wondered why they'd be there since, after all, the food wasn't very good. So this thread explains that mystery retrospectively.

jparrot's thought that that what prompts this has to do with restauranteur fear is an interesting one but not sure that always applies; the "dumbing down" if you will. Whenever something seems incomprehensible in business (restaurants or otherwise), it's almost always because someone at the top of the totem pole thinks it's a revenue-maximizing strategy; whether right or wrong. If one assumes that applies here, then the only explanation for this alleged, two-menu policy is that that those "in the know" customers, from the embassy or wherever, value the exclusivity of what they're offered as much or more than the quality of what they're offered. In other words, they value getting something others don't more than they'd value just getting something very good or better. And, the restaurant's owners feel they do better with this setup than they'd do by offering everything to everyone. Knowing a bit about the culture, that's probably a very viable explanation. And, if it is right, then no doubt the restaurant would set up a "special", 20-dollar Tuesday type thing if they were asked. In fact, that seems to be exactly what wlohmann did ask and what the proprietor agreed readily he'd do.

Different people will have different views about the ethics or sense of this. Personally, while the secret menu policy, if true, seems a bit ill-advised to me, it also doesn't seem too egregious or even dishonest. I think it's more cultural with generally empty dining rooms doing nothing to change any minds about something so ingrained. And, of course, the restaurants have been around a long time while so many others have come and gone so guess that tells us something. Putting the ethics of bloggers/journalist benefits aside, there are all kinds of perks that regulars enjoy at different spots unavailable to others including off-menu delights about which regular customers don't know to ask.

If the food at a restaurant is mediocre or worse, I avoid the place (as I always have with this purveyor except when I had no choice). If it was a different setup, likely to be much better quality or more interesting, I'd go.

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This is bullshit.

Restaurateurs, if you stopped being scared of your patrons, you'd be better at your jobs.

Sorry, Jake, but I have to disagree. This goes all the way back to the 1970s, when I discovered a new place in Chinatown. It had the most interesting and thoughtful food than I had ever encountered. A revelation. Went a couple of times and it was never too busy. The third time found a completely different menu that was full of the Sweet and Sour Pork/Shrimp/Whatever stuff and gloppy sauces on everything. Typical "Chinese" food. There is a reason for Peter Chang to have such a following; but, his food wouldn't meet with much approval from the vast majority of Americans who expect the egg rolls, wonton soup, etc. If there's a restautant with a "secret" menu, then I want to know about it. And, will happily encourage their better instincts.

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Have two menus, that's fine. The secrecy is the issue. The secrecy is the evidence of the fear. And the fear is bullshit.

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Just think really worth considering this is a cultural phenomenon rather than something devious or weak-kneed. Maybe right that the owners "fear" that their non-asian customers won't like or appreciate the secret menu. But maybe not always or usually nefarious. Rather, in some cases, a narrow-mindedness of sorts brought on by beliefs cemented from overseas or whatever. I think many of us who've traveled overseas have had the experience of surprising a foreign host by loving something local they were sure we'd hate. Many Americans of course play into those stereotypes by their choices, questions or whatever. Exported American movies and tv don't help matters. That the proprietor was so open about the "secret" with wlohmann once asked evidences this as a cultural phenomenon IMHO.

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Maybe right that the owners "fear" that their non-asian customers won't like or appreciate the secret menu. But maybe not always or usually nefarious. Rather, in some cases, a narrow-mindedness of sorts brought on by beliefs cemented from overseas or whatever.

Sure sounds like fear to me.

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I don't see anything nefarious My sense is that Chinese restaurants catering to the American general public have always sought to offer what their clientele wanted to eat When I was a kid, Chinese menus were very short and contained very few truly Chinese dishes-they were carrying on the tradition of offering the chop suey and chow miein and egg foo yung they had offered since the turn of the 20th century. And my guess is that, when the staff had their meals or welcomed family, they prepared their favorite regional dishes from home, exotic things, things they couldn't fathom western palates would tolerate. When the first Szechuan and Hunan and traditional Cantonese restaurants were opened by more adventurous chefs or owners and paved the way, that more culturally appropriate fare gradually crept onto mass market menus. The restaurateurs were anxious to serve the mass market but rarely adventurous enough to challenge their customers or get ahead of the market. They would happily serve anyone who wanted more traditional or challenging dishes, but their perceived, perhaps misguidedly, that only Chinese patrons wanted the chicken feet, the congealed duck blood and the sautéed intestines, etc. So they put those dishes and other more exotic fare on Chinese language menus or posted in mandarin on wall posters, etc. In part they may be trying to protect the sensibilities of western customers--as when Kenny rushed to say "you wouldn't like tripe." So my sense is just that the Chalins of the world are trying to serve their market (or actually their two markets) with what they think they'd enjoy eating. I know from my conversation with this manager that he would be proud to serve any customer a meal of adventurous, truly regional dishes, and maybe a DR group should give them a chance to "rock it" as Rocks so aptly put it. I'm sure game!

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Some Chinese restaurants keep a separate menu because they have been burned by customers who think they are adventurous but really aren't. If the customer starts complaining or worse, starts bad-mouthing the restaurant, it's not worth the hassle. It they end up having to comp customers who don't appreciate authentic food, it doesn't make financial sense either.

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As wlohmann said...it's really a simple answer:

The majority of apartment land dwellers in Van Ness aren't going to order tripe/blood cake/congee etc. They want General Tso Chicken and egg rolls

The embassy workers and/or World Bankers want the real stuff...and would never return if they were served up Americanized Chinese food.

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As wlohmann said...it's really a simple answer:

The majority of apartment land dwellers in Van Ness aren't going to order tripe/blood cake/congee etc. They want General Tso Chicken and egg rolls

The embassy workers and/or World Bankers want the real stuff...and would never return if they were served up Americanized Chinese food.

Which. Is. Fine. Just give people both menus, in translation. The secrecy is the symptom of the fear.

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Which. Is. Fine. Just give people both menus, in translation. The secrecy is the symptom of the fear.

much like Sichaun Pavilion has Authentic Chinese Style and American Chinese Style menues.

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Which. Is. Fine. Just give people both menus, in translation. The secrecy is the symptom of the fear.

I'm not convinced "fear" enters into this. More likely Conventional Wisdom among Chinese restaurants. Handing out a menu with strange-sounding food might well be off-puting for some folk. For instance, I have an SIL from Omaha who claims she can't eat anything spicy. Doesn't even like plain, ol' Black Pepper. No, I'm not kidding. Which also reminds me of the "salsa" some women in Minnesota were canning and trying to sell. The reporter said it tasted just like stewed tomatoes. The makers were delighted by his assessment. Such people might be scared away from the Orange Chicken because the place was also putting out such oddities as lung or tripe or whatever. It's up to us to find a place with the real goods and reward them for it with our patronage and good reviews. It was Foodies who made Peter Chang famous, after all, beginning with Pandahugga being able to read that certificate hanging on the wall. And, he was the one who translated the real Chinese menu for us at China Gourmet.

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Just for clarification (not sure if it was in my original post) but both the "Chinese" and "American" menu's are out in the open in separate piles at the hostess station - - and both are in both mandarin and english. It's funny Tweaked would mention Congee- -while I was talking to Kenny about the tripe, he pointed to a bowl of congee HE was having for lunch and said "I'm sure you wouldn't like to eat that." I like Barbara's characterization of it as "Conventional Wisdom."

Re: the oddities, I must admit my family has great fun, when at Full Kee or Taste-Asian where they only have ONE menu covering all, trying to gross each other out with the various blood, foot and offal dishes - - I can honestly see how restaurants aiming for the mainstream would hesitate to list everything on their "regular" menu.

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Here's my ideal approach for restaurants that insist on having separate menus, and not delivering the Chinese menu to non-Chinese: put a note at the bottom of the Americanized menu: "A separate translated menu with traditional Chinese dishes is available on request."

A manager at a place that has separate menus once told me that when he had only one menu, he lost a measurable number of American customers from people who saw tripe, tendon, etc. printed on the menu and walked out in a huff, and people who ordered those things and then complained that it didn't taste like Sesame Chicken, and loudly demanded that it be replaced at no charge. Do places like Joe's Noodle that only have the authentic stuff survive? Sure, but this guy is not that place, and happily serves General Tso's chicken to the masses while having authentic dishes for his Chinese and in-the-know customers.

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Here's my ideal approach for restaurants that insist on having separate menus, and not delivering the Chinese menu to non-Chinese: put a note at the bottom of the Americanized menu: "A separate translated menu with traditional Chinese dishes is available on request."

DanielK gets the pony.

If you want to think I'm a rube when I walk in the door, fine. But don't make me beg, cajole, or (especially) guess beyond that.

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Here's my ideal approach for restaurants that insist on having separate menus, and not delivering the Chinese menu to non-Chinese: put a note at the bottom of the Americanized menu: "A separate translated menu with traditional Chinese dishes is available on request."

Absolutely the right approach. A sensible approach. A solution that totally addresses the problem.

Chalin's owners, however, don't (yet) see any problem so they're not trying to solve it as we are. We're a bunch of westerners debating this through western eyes and brains. As others upthread have written in different ways, Chalin's (almost certainly) isn't driven by an intent to deceive, cheat or fear. They're doing what they think best and have had some success with it. It's cultural. They simply see it differently than we might. No doubt in part because they come from a different context. A context from whence comes those great dishes with chicken feet, tripe, blood & rice porridge ;)

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It's cultural. They simply see it differently than we might.

Hmmm. I don't even get a batted eyelash when I buy stewed intestine-on-a-stick on the streets of Mong Kok. (It's delicious). Of what culture do you speak?

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I've heard plenty of natural US citizens say that immigrants should "learn to speak the language if they're going to live here". Perhaps that sentiment might explain why Americanized foods are on the menu, and why at least some proprietors are relunctant to pass out Chinese menus. Jake, I don't think you can compare the streets of Mong Kok to restaurants in America here.

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Jake, I don't think you can compare the streets of Mong Kok to restaurants in America here.

I was attempting to refute the statement, "It's cultural," by probing to what culture the poster was referring. Certainly not any Chinese culture I've observed in situ.

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