When most people think of Chinese food, the image that pops into their heads is of greasy, MSG-loaded takeout. That's because we live in a society where Chinese food is synonymous with fast food. A&J Restaurant puts this misconception to rest.
The unassuming restaurant is tucked away in a Northern Chinese and Taiwanese shopping center at 4316 Markham St. The winner of the Washingtonian Best Bargain Restaurant Award from 2001 through 2009 is known for its inexpensive fare.
Open since 1971 at its Annandale location, A&J has established a reputation in the community for serving authentic Northern Chinese dim sum. The traditional cuisine attracts not only the local Chinese and Taiwanese population, but also a mix of Northern Virginians ranging from adventurous foodies to a younger, hip crowd.
A&J has a very relaxed atmosphere. The simple décor of the modest restaurant provides a low-key vibe for patrons. Two works of art featuring monochromatic Chinese characters and one wall lined with framed Washingtonian Best Bargain Restaurant Awards are among the restaurants only decorations.
A bronze sculpture of a very happy Buddha peeks out from the small open kitchen. During quieter hours, usually mid-morning or late afternoon, a few servers will together at one of the tables and prepare food.
The lengthy menu at A&J includes a wide variety of Northern Chinese dim sum dishes. Similar to ordering at a sushi bar, customers circle the order number of each dish and turn in their personalized menu to their server. Within minutes, the individual portions of food served on small plates or bowls are presented to the customer along with a pot of Chinese herbal tea.
The food is always served fresh and for certain dishes, steaming hot. The staples of the cuisine are wheat and millet, which thrive in the cold, dry climate in Northern China. There is very little rice on the menu, but many breaded items including pastries, buns and biscuits.
The sesame biscuits with sliced beef or pork and the thousand-layer pancake are two of the more popular breadstuffs filled with flakey, doughy goodness. The pan-fried pork dumplings are pot stickers with some serious kick, making them totally worth the extra calories.
Other options include the pan-fried beef or vegetarian bun or the healthier, much lighter steamed vegetarian or pork dumpling, perfect with a splash of soy sauce.
Most other items on the menu are heavy on the vegetables and light on the fried dough. The pickled long bean with ground beef is to die for. The hash of pickled long beans and savory beef creates a delicious blend of spicy and sour that is quite unique.
The standout dish is complimented well by the bean noodle and chicken salad, a mild dish featuring the cool comfort of shredded cucumbers atop the bean noodles with just a hint of mustard and sesame sauce to spice things up.
Patrons can choose between an assortment of flavorful soups, most of which include Szechuan-style pork or beef and a spicy element like hot sauce or chilies.
A variety of noodles are also available, the most flavorful of which are covered in a spicy sesame sauce and topped with crushed peanuts. The noodles may have the consistency of sticky spaghetti, but they are easy to eat with chopsticks and have a rich taste with a superb blend of sweet and spicy.
If you have a sweet tooth, walk down the hall to Maria's Bakery Café on your way out for some traditional Chinese dessert or delicious bubble tea.
Experience authentic Northern Chinese food within a few miles of your own home. A&J Restaurant is a fresh breath of air in an otherwise stereotyped genre of ethnic food.
A&J Restaurant is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.