The take-out menu stated that chef Jinsong Xie had won Sichuan’s Best Chef competition in 1996. “He has worked in some of China’s most acclaimed restaurants, including the historic five-star Jinjiang Hotel in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan,” he continued.
I didn’t really have a clue what it all meant, but it was tempting enough to get behind the wheel of my car and drive north to the heights of Montgomery County. I found Tasty 68 tucked away in a corner of a strip mall, which also houses a gun shop, CBD dispensary, State Farm agent, salon, and mixed martial arts studio (motto: “Let egos and excuses at the door”). The local water tower dominates the center, resembling a Funko Pop! statuette painted in the colors of the Lycée de Damas.
Tasty 68 didn’t return to indoor dining so when I arrived my way into the main room was blocked by a pair of tables. A woman behind the counter across the dining room asked me what I wanted. We had to speak, as my colleague Tom Sietsema would say, “with a high voice”. I ordered the Chengdu fish fillet and green onion pancakes.
Having no table on which to dig my meal, I retired to the car and pulled out my flywheel tray table for the spread. The silky slices of plaice from my Chengdu fish fillet were buried at the bottom of a one-litre container, beneath a forest floor of dried Chinese bell peppers and Sichuan red and green peppercorn husks. I had to use the empty side of a clamshell container to make a starter of rice and fish. The ivory fillets were almost creamy, coated not only in chili oil but also tasted like doubanjiang, a spicy fermented bean sauce. The slippery fillets were pungent. They smelled of pine needles and green tea. They made my palate buzz with the unmistakably sour and metallic notes of Sichuan peppercorns.
I knew right away that I had to find out more about Chief Xie.
This turned out to be easier said than done. I don’t speak any Chinese dialect and Xie didn’t feel comfortable enough with her English to conduct an interview without an interpreter. I drafted May Kuang for this task. You may know her as the face and co-owner of the Great Wall Szechuan House on NW 14th Street, where her husband, Yuan Chen, is a master chef from Chengdu. Kuang didn’t want me to reveal her or her husband’s background before the interview. She was worried that this would intimidate Xie.
Sitting in his empty dining room one morning, Xie cut a figure far younger than his 53 years. Tall and thin, wearing a Spyder fleece jacket and jeans, Xie said he opened Tasty 68 seven years ago after emigrating from China in 2002 and touring restaurants in Maryland, Virginia- Western and District. He chose Damascus as his base of operations because the rents are cheaper and the competition less fierce than in Washington.
Xie, it turns out, isn’t a Sichuan master chef, but he studied under a chef for more than 10 years at the Jinjiang Hotel, the historic property famous for hosting foreign dignitaries, including many presidents around the world. Lu Chaohua, one of China’s most revered chefs, brought Xie out of obscurity and put him to work in the kitchens of Jinjiang, teaching the young cook everything he knows. It was a ten-year apprenticeship that shaped Xie as a chef.
The best way to tap into Xie’s experience is to order from the ‘chef’s specialty’ and ‘classic Chengdu cuisine’ sections of the menu. I’ve eaten many, if not most, of the dishes in these categories and found plenty to admire: cumin lamb, light on the spice, but more tender than the jerky-like preparations found at other places; Chengdu Spicy Chicken, those breaded nuggets whose heat is secondary to the salty burn marks left by the hot pan, a cooking reaction known as “wok hi”; spicy crispy fish, a heap of breaded and fried plaice fillets whose heat releases ancillary fumes, a garlicky aroma that perfumes each bite.
But I also tasted enough dishes to spot a pattern: Sichuan dishes that lacked the mala, the famous numbing and spicy qualities of the cuisine, or even just the la, the heat so characteristic of the province’s cuisine. I ordered mapo tofu in which the chili oil lacked the expected fireworks. I tried a double-cooked pork entree in which the pork belly had been sautéed with peppers rather than long hot peppers. Even the Chengdu squid with spicy salt and hot peppers—a name that telegraphs its intentions—increased its heat slowly, bite after bite, instead of working its way to my heart.
During our meeting, I asked Xie about her approach to Sichuan cuisine in Damascus. I wondered if he was toning it down for those unfamiliar with the cuisine, reserving the real fireworks for Chinese-American customers who head to Tasty 68. He reassured me that he cooks his signature dishes the same way for everyone. But later I spoke to an employee who told me that the locals generally stick to General Tso’s chicken, orange chicken, beef and broccoli and other American Chinese staples.
Which made me think of an alternative theory: is Xie, more or less, pulling his punches at all levels, subconsciously addressing the community where he has planted his flag? I can’t answer that, but I know a way to take advantage of Xie’s skills. Ask the kitchen to prepare your extra spicy Sichuan dishes. Or, better yet, don’t order ahead and just talk to the employees behind the counter. Tell them you want real, Sichuan dishes like Xie would cook them in Chengdu.
That’s exactly what I did one afternoon at Tasty 68. I was rewarded with a mapo tofu that spoke the bubbly language of mala. But the real treat was my order of sliced fish in hot sauce. My plaice fillets were coated in a black batter, concocted with ungodly amounts of red chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, fermented beans and more, the peppercorns sitting on top of the mixture like warning signs on Highway. Two bites and I started to feel it: the heat of the chili igniting my head like a furnace, the sour electricity of the Sichuan peppercorns racing along my jaw.
That was it. That’s why I drove an hour to Damascus.
26131 Ridge Road, Damascus, Maryland; 301-391-6138 or 301-391-6139; tasty68.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. from Monday to Saturday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $1 to $19.99 for all menu items.