Chef Liu Chaosheng has been cooking Chinese food for 31 years, almost half of which he's spent in the United States. Though he got his start in America working at Charlie Chiang's, Liu opened Hong Kong Palace about six years ago. In the subsequent years, Liu followed it up with China Jade, Uncle Liu's Hot Pot and, just this past spring, Mala Tang. Widely considered among DC's more authentic Chinese restaurant options, these draw upon the Sichuan cooking that chef Liu mastered in China. Eater sat down with the chef to discuss how he got his start, his thoughts on incorporating both traditional and Americanized dishes onto his menus and what style of Chinese food he'd like to introduce to Washingtonians next.
What were the reasons for opening your own restaurants?
The reason I wanted to open these restaurants is because I realized that in the DC area there’s very few very traditional Chinese restaurants — so instead of having Americanized Chinese food we should provide real traditional Chinese food. That way we can provide healthy, pristine food. Whenever you serve fried things like sweet-and-sour chicken it’s all breaded and fried. We don't do that all the time. Instead we use just a little starch or stir-fry it. Not Americanized but traditional, and introduce that to the diners in the DC area. Each of our restaurants is a different style. At Hong Kong Palace it’s traditional Sichuan style, but if you go to China Jade they have Sichuan food but also some Cantonese style, too. Uncle Liu’s is different from Mala Tang — similar but different. That way people from around here can try share the different styles of different food.
Is there a big difference in clientele between your restaurants? Do you find more Chinese visiting Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot and more non-Chinese coming to Mala Tang?
For Hong Kong Palace it’s about 60 percent non-Chinese but the other 40 percent are Chinese. We advertise in the local Chinese newspaper so a lot of people know that Hong Kong Palace serves traditional Chinese food. Uncle Liu’s is about 50/50. Because it’s right next to Great Wall supermarket we don’t really have to advertise it. Local Americans visit, too, because they find it on Yelp or somewhere online. And it’s still growing. Mala Tang is about 70-80 percent Americans. This one is designed for the American style. If you go to Uncle Liu’s it’s big-pot, family-style sharing.
Why did you decide to present hot pot in individual pots rather than family/communal style at Mala Tang?
We wanted to try to improve everything. We use the small pots because it’s clean and less messy. If you share with other people you have four pairs of chopsticks in there. With individual hot pot you cook your own so you can tell when it’s done. You can time it. Beef should take 15 seconds but if you have a big pot you throw something in and then others throw things in and you don’t know if it’s done or not. So with the individual hot pots it’s healthier and has a better taste. And everyone can have their own flavor, you do your own. We wanted to make customers comfortable with hot pot.
Did you change the broth or flavors at all between the two places?
It’s little bit different. The taste here is a little bit light. Uncle Liu’s is stronger. People complain about it because Uncle Liu’s is spicier and they feel that that is more traditional. Here we only do a very light ma la because we don’t want to give people extremely ma la. Ma la means numbing and spicy. If you were comparing extreme ma la I would say Uncle Liu’s is only seven and Mala Tang is only five. But customers can always add in extra ma la that way they can adjust to their own taste.
You do serve some Americanized dishes at Hong Kong Palace. As a chef, how do you adjust it for an American palate?
I worked for Charlie Chang before so I know Americanized food. I have no problem adjusting. The reason I do some Americanized food is because when I open a new restaurant I try to see which one will sell better. Even though I try to do all traditional Chinese food, we still want to keep some Americanized food. That way we can gain more customers. Some people still like Americanized food. So about 20 percent of our sales are Americanized food and the other 80 percent is the traditional Sichuan food.
What do you find are the some of the differences between Americanized and traditional Chinese food?
For Americanized food they put more sugar in it. You can taste it. It will be sweeter than the other stuff. And their sauce is prepared. Every time you cook it you just add in the sauce. And the chicken is fried already. Like General Tso’s chicken, sauce is ready and chicken is already fried you just have to mix them, stir it and it’s done. But traditional Sichuan food is a little more complicated. You have to get a lot of different sauces. And not all the flavors come from the sauce but it also comes from the vegetables.
What are some of the most popular dishes at your restaurants?
Kung pao chicken, tea smoked duck, mapo doufu, cumin dishes — lamb, beef, fish. Stuffed pepper chicken is very popular.
How do you come up with off-menu items at Hong Kong Palace?
I come up with those myself. But sometimes I call my former classmates from when I was learning to cook in school. My friend is in China so that way we can communicate, “What kind of food can we create? What kind of food do you have right now?” So we will adjust different dishes. It just depends on how customers react to the new off-menu items. After two months we will change to new stuff. That way customers can try new stuff, not just things on the menu. The reason why we don’t put it on the permanent menu even though customers like it — like the stuffed pepper chicken — is because we want to have something that people feel like, “Oh they only have this menu for two months, I have to try it.” That way people feel there is something fresh. And every time we post new items customers will try that first.
What is the best way for adventurous diners who don’t read Chinese to order off-menu items?
Our servers can explain everything to them. If you see the menu (on the wall) just tell the servers, “I don’t understand that menu,” and the servers can tell them what is in there and how it tastes. Our thinking is if it’s your first time or second time we would rather you just get familiar with the [regular] menu but after a couple visits diners figure out that we have special items and they’re no longer shy or uncomfortable, they will just ask the servers. It’s different if it’s your first time or you’re a return customer.
Do you ever have issues finding the exact ingredients that you want?
Some of them we import from China, others we find here. Sichuan peppers we have a hard time finding in America. We really have to buy it in China and have them ship it here. And also spicy bean paste – they have it here but sometimes they’re sold out and we have to call China and get it shipped. But a lot of stuff once we get it we still need to change it a little bit, we add peanuts and sesame.
Do you go anywhere else for Chinese food?
I do. Sometimes I go back to Charlie Chiang’s because I worked there before and there’s a feeling of family. But I visit new Chinese restaurant openings. I go there and try it, see what specials they have, what kind of styles they serve. And I like the Peking Duck at Peking Gourmet Inn. I also really like Cantonese food, so I go to Mui Kee on Arlington Boulevard.
Are there any other styles of Chinese food that you would like to introduce to this area?
I’m interested in Cantonese style food, and I’m discussing with other chefs to see if we can combine Cantonese and Sichuan styles together to make a new style. Not just Cantonese or Sichuan but a combination style. I used to try to mix the Cantonese and Sichuan styles. It’s very comforting and tasty. It’s fresh and spicy. For example, we’d use fresh rather than dry peppers. That would make a difference.
Is there anything that you would like to serve but are worried that Westerns wouldn’t like or be interested in?
I visit both Chinese and Western restaurants and see what they’re doing, what kind of flavors they have and then I decide what kind of food to create. But before I serve those dishes I ask my Americans friends to come and taste it to see if they like it or not. If overall they like it, nine out of ten, then I’ll start serving it. But I don’t really have a problem serving different things. I like to try something new. If you never try it you never know.
—Sharon Stirling, with translation assist from Mala Tang's Ryan Chen
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