Chinatown in DC is still very much alive with restaurants today, but as people flea for cheaper rent in the suburbs, the population has become increasingly older people. The food and dining scene has become more American because of the spread of the original Chinese residents. 
 Phillip Lui, 35, son of the owner Lui Shing of Chinatown Express, lives in northern Virginia and works at his family’s restaurant. He is a first generation Chinese immigrant. His parents moved to the US from China. “I was born here,” he said.  According to Lui there has been a move from Chinese food to American food in Chinatown restaurants. “They’ve become more like a Fuddruckers, Ruby Tuesday, or like Clyde’s,” he said. He said there’s not a lot of Chinese people left in Chinatown and that because they are spreading out, so is the culture of the neighborhood.
 Lui manages, one of Washington, D.C.’s highest rated “authentic” Chinese food restaurants, touting handmade noodles and dumplings made fresh in the pane glass window storefront daily. Fresh Peking duck hangs from the ceiling and workers make the dumplings in front of a crowd every day. A chef comes on every day at five o’clock to do a performance in the window for tourists.
 A woman makes dumplings in the window of Chinatown Express, in Chinatown, Washington, D.C.
 A poster with an article from The Washington Post, touts the authenticity of Chinatown Express and Lin Han, the noodle master. It tells the story lai mein and the Chef that makes it. Li Yi, owner of Eat First on H St. which has been in business 18 years calls Chinatown Express fake. “The dumplings made in the window are for Americans,” he says.
 Two workers make Chinese dumplings, or xiao long bao, in the window of Chinatown Express. They do this for show for the tourists who come to Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to experience authentic Chinese food in the Southern Chinese style. The restaurant has a three-star rating out of five on Yelp.com with 1,132 reviews.
 Tourists visiting DC dine at Chinatown Express because they believe they are getting authentic Chinese food. Some of the cuisine strives to be authentic to a southern Chinese style of cooking, but Li Yi, owner of Eat First on H St. which has been in business 18 years calls Chinatown Express fake. “The dumplings made in the window are for Americans,” he says.  One of the reviews reads: “You'll see a window with cooked ducks and watch the chef make fresh dumplings and   steamed pork buns   (both completely delicious!).”
 The window of Chinatown Express is filled with rare and authentic Chinese cuisines, like hanging backs of pork, chicken, and duck, as well as the orange signature Cuttle fish—which isn’t really a fish at all but a baby octopus! Some of the food comes from as far away as New York City.
 Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Barbecue and Grill is pictured here with the Chinese style architecture. His restaurant is one of the oldest in Chinatown, and has maintained it’s place in the Chinatown restaurant scene by offering a $20 all you can eat Mongolian or Korean style barbecue experience for tourists coming to watch hockey games or basketball games at the Capital One Arena.
 A cook at Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Barbeque and Grill is making stir-fry on the barbeque griddle in the middle of the restaurant. Without a game going on at the neighboring Capital One Arena, the restaurant is completely dead on a Thursday night.
 (Above) Tony Cheng poses in a photo with President Jimmy Carter in the early 1980s.  (Below) Tony Cheng poses with Bill Clinton in the early 1990s.
 Eat First, one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Chinatown is located in the middle building, sandwiched between another condo style building with a café called Jackie Lee’s and the towering Wah Luck House—a subsidized apartment complex for elderly Chinese citizens. Both condo-style buildings are owned by elderly Chinese people, and the Li Yi, co-owner of Eat First is uncertain about the fate of his 18-year-old restaurant in such an old property.
 Li Yi, co-owner of Eat First, shows a finished platter of chicken Chao Mein in the traditional Southern Chinese Cantonese style of cooking. He is extremely proud of his family’s recipes which have existed in the Chinese dining scene in Washington DC for over 40 years. His restaurant, Eat First, in Washington, D.C. is one of the oldest Chinese food restaurants in the city.
 Richard Li, Yi’s brother, and co-owner of Eat First, supervises his cooking space. The restaurant serves Chinese staples like fried rice and Lo Mein, but specializes in Southern Chinese, Cantonese and Szechuan styles of cooking. Li is from Guang Zho in the South of China by Hong-Kong. Some signature dishes include Chicken Chao Mein, Lotus Root, and Cuttle fish.
 Richard Li, flash fries green beans in the traditional Southern Chinese, Cantonese style of cooking. He uses a wok at an extremely high temperature with boiling oil to give the exterior of the beans that crispy shriveled look. They only take a few seconds to cook and a few flicks of the wrist until they are ready to be served.
 A wok brush is a key to Chinese cooking, as it is used to spread the grease around in the metal wok, giving flavor to the food and maintaining that slight coating of food taste throughout the pan. It is made out of tied together pieces of bamboo. The cook scrubs the hot wok with it between dishes, but never actually wash it out.
 Hand-made wontons for soup are crafted out of pieces of dough sealing the pork inside with battered egg. The kitchen at Eat First is busy on a weekday afternoon with Washington Capitals hockey fans who are looking for a quick cheap bite to eat in Chinatown before catching that night’s game at the Capital One Arena.
 Li Yi stands in the front of his restaurant, Eat First on H St. in Chinatown. He is the co-owner of this restaurant with his brother Richard. They both have cooked at some point, and he started out working for Tony Cheng next door when he first moved to DC in the early 1980s to join his four uncles.  “Business is slower than before. Lots of new restaurants opened, people like newly opened restaurants. Still in the Chinese style, we are the best. My uncle opened the restaurant in the 1970s. They all have retired and the owners sold their properties. We used to own five restaurants in Chinatown: Taishan, Li Hood Food, Mr. Young’s, and Wu Co., they all have closed. My whole family cooks,” he said.
prev / next