Dan-Dan Noodles!

I came onboard the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, when we were at Columbia Plaza, just down the block from the Magic Gourd Restaurant at Virginia Avenue and 23rd Northwest DC. That was 28 years ago, and if you believe some of the current online reviews, it’s not changed much since then. I ate there often; there weren’t a lot of other nearby choices; still aren’t.

The dish that stuck in my mind through all these years is their Dan-Dan Noodles, an appetizer. I may even have dreamed about it! Warm noodles drenched in a sauce that’s mostly smooth peanut butter, with hot oil and some more sesame or peanut oil added for consistency. Mmmmm!!! I LOVE it! Makes me feel all warm inside, kinda like being wrapped in an electric blanket.

I wangled a recent lunch there with a State Department employee, partly ‘cause she knew where it was, but mostly because of the Dan-Dan Noodles!

I ordered one serving, and she ordered another, on my recommendation. Each was about two cups worth; I managed to finish mine. It was just as I remembered: one of the best uses for the lowly peanut, a bit hot and spicy, and comfort food of the first order.

As for the second order, I asked for a serving to “take out,” because I was going to take it to Grace Garden. This is a tiny out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant on Maryland’s route 175, AKA Odenton’s Annapolis Road, and opposite Fort Meade (just down from a tattoo parlor, and in the Colonel’s shadow).  My wife and I were taken there by the head of the Asian Division in the Library of Congress; his wife, like mine, is an Anne Arundel County Master Gardener.

Grace Garden’s chef and owner, Chun Keung Li, and his wife Mei, serve all the regular stuff, but also authentic Chinese dishes I’ve never seen elsewhere. I get there about once every other week, and I’ve been trying to find something I don’t like. I’ve been unsuccessful. So far. I’ll keep trying.

Chef Li will make any recipe you bring in, and will also happily use ingredients that you bring him. And after 34 years in the business, my guess is that if you can name it or describe it, he’ll make it and you’ll love it!

So I wanted him to try the Dan-Dan Noodles, and maybe even put them on their menu. I arrived at about 2:30PM, long past the lunch hour, to find the entire staff — Chef Li, Mei, and a helper — eating lunch at a table in the empty restaurant. What luck! I opened my takeout bag, and started talking about Dan-Dan Noodles, and how much I loved them. Mei poured them out on a plate, and Chef Li looked at the pile and said “Too much sugar!” He tasted them, and said again, “Too much sugar!”

We started talking about “proper” Dan-Dan Noodles, and after a minute Chef Li got to his feet, went into the kitchen, and started chopping and mixing. Mei told me that Dan-Dan Noodles, to be done “right,” required their own special noodles. These came in large packages, and they don’t have room in their small restaurant for all possible noodles, much less all the other ingredients they could be using. Sigh.

She said that if they used the wrong noodles, their Chinese customers would blog about it, and they’d be in trouble. I of course said that their American customers wouldn’t care, and would buy the dish by the bucketful, given the affection that we all feel for peanut butter. I even suggested putting up a sign advertising “Special: Crazy Dan-Dan Noodles” to give themselves an “out” with their Chinese customers. No go! [See why I love the place?]

At about this time, Chef Li returned with a plate of warm noodles (the wrong kind, but delicious) and a PINT of freshly made sauce! He insisted that I try it – not a difficult sell. Using chopsticks to move the noodles from the dish to my plate, but a fork to eat them, I dug in.

The sauce was aMAZing! Instead of two flavors, there were so many I lost count! I was then told that the sauce included not only peanut butter, peanut oil, and hot oil, but garlic, scallions, Chinese vinegar, and various peppers. (I think there are some ‘secret ingredients” too, and given their proximity to Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, this is unsurprising.)

The total effect was like a fireworks display! Mei told me that the proper dish includes thinly sliced fresh cucumbers, celery, or zucchini, under the noodles. That’s not food, that’s a symphony!

Chef Li said that Dan-Dan Noodles is really a family plan dish, with noodles in the middle of the table, and a variety of toppings around it. Diners get to choose what toppings they want – not everyone wants the hot sauce! Who knew?

He also said that making the sauce was “simple!” I asked Mei if he’d measured ANYTHING as he made it, and she said “No.” I then said that I MIGHT be able to learn to make it, but it would take at least thirty years, and I might not have the time! We all laughed.

After some more conversation, and Mei’s agreement that they’d make the dish for ME without the right noodles, if I’d call a day in advance, I left – with almost a pint of the new sauce, some noodles, and a bottle of Chinese vinegar. I promised to call, identify myself as “the crazy man,” and ask for the non-standard Dan-Dan Noodles. You do what you can.

I know I’ll go back to the Magic Gourd for their noodles when I have the opportunity, but…

Warm blanket or fireworks display? Hmmmm….

One Response to “Dan-Dan Noodles!”

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