Taking a break from my Joe's Noodle House regimen, on the recommendation of a trusted friend I stopped yesterday at House of Fortune (in a little strip mall south of Nicholson Lane, just west of the Pike). The Washingtonian gave it a good write-up a couple of years back, as did the usually reliable Eve Zibart in the Post a few months ago. The chef allegedly is from the Sichuan province, and there are a couple of pages on the English-language menu devoted to Sichuan specialties. (Not as many as at Joe's, but still.)
More notably, there were two laminated Chinese-language menus with scores and scores of additional choices, which are not translated into English. The uniformly Chinese clientele all were ordering from the Chinese menus. My very pleasant and attenitve waiter was somewhat skeptical that I wanted to order dishes from the Chinese menu, but he nevertheless attempted to accommodate, albeit in broken English -- the result of which was that I simply decided to trust him to bring me a couple of interesting things of his choosing, one of which sounded like it had something to do with shrimp. (From Eve Zibart's column: "You will need to go over some of the menu, or rather the English definitions, with the staff rather carefully. House of Fortune has a large Asian clientele, but the staff is reasonably cautious about American diners. 'Oh, I don't think you'll like that,' one waitress warns about the tripe.")
I ended up with (i) the scungilli with "roast chili vinaigrette," from the English-language menu -- very good, very fresh; (ii) what appeared to be Shanghai-ish pork soup dumplings, not quite up to Joe's Shanghai or New Green Bo quality, but very good for the DC area (not a Sichuan dish, however, IIRC), off one of the Chinese menus; and (iii) a dish of about 12-15 *huge* prawns, "deep-fried" (not that deep, actually), which were very, very good, even better than, e.g., the typical Full Kee shrimp. The very weird thing about the shrimp, however, is that they were smothered in a bunch -- and I mean, a *bunch,* like, say, a quart -- of an ingenious mixture of bread crumbs and pine nuts. I kid you not. This appeared quite ridiculous at first. But whadda ya know? -- turns out to give a nice extra crunch to the shrimp, and taste delicious mixed with rice, as well.
Now, I'm firmly convinced that, as good as these dishes were, they're not what I would have ended up with had I been able to read Chinese, or had my waiter had the time and ability to translate 300 or so menu items for me! I'm not complaining, mind you. I had a great meal, no regrets. And sometimes a shot in the dark is more fruitful than the most calculated restuarant choices. But at places such as this and Joe's, I feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer unknown mystery of it all, and there's a tinge of anxiety that the best meals of my life are sitting right there for the tasting, unbeknownest to me, just out of reach by virute of the language/culture barrier. My usual solution -- pointing to the next table and saying "I'll have one of what they're having" -- will only get you so far. Perhaps tossing darts at the menu . . . . And even if I could snap my fingers and magically make translations appear, I'd still have the problem I encounter at Joe's, where 90% of the items are translated, but where I've barely scratched the surface of the menu after about a dozen visits and where I just know that I'm missing out on most of the ultra-deliciousness. (I know, I know -- I should just be happy with the great dishes that I have come to know and love. But such is not my nature.)
Are there any DC-area Chowhounds out there who can read Chinese and who would be willing to spend a few weeks going through the menus at Joe's and HoF, taking careful and copious notes as to which dishes are the absolute best? We (i.e., I) would be forever grateful. And, while you're at it, could you subtly inquire as to where the very best area Sichuan chefs are located nowadays? I'm pretty sure Joe's and HoF are right up there, but I'd hate to be missing out on an even more delicious array of hundreds of untranslated gems.
Only half in jest -- Marty L.