A&J currently has two locations in the DMV Area: 1) Rockville, MD and 2) Annandale, VA. I visit the VA one more so let’s talk about that one. This Chinese café is located off of Little River Turnpike in a very non-descript parking lot / center. It’s one of the very few non-Korean establishments in Annandale. When you walk into the building, there really isn’t anything in there other than A&J, the Beautiful Life Salon (which gives some great haircuts if you’ve got Asian hair and want to keep up with the styles in Taiwan), a Ramen shop (which I haven’t tried yet but feel kind of skeptical about it), and one or two random shops. Originally, the Chinese grocery store (Kam Sam) was there, but after the owner got into some questionable business that involved the police and a warrant, the grocery store and associated video store were shut down, but I digress….let’s talk about the food in A&J.
A&J is quite a small café, so expect it to be packed, particularly during lunch time on the weekends (especially Sunday!). When it is very crowded, sometimes you are given the option to split one of the larger round tables with other strangers. This can make for either a very personable meal if your table mates are up to talking and sharing or a somewhat awkward moment of staring and not trying to listen to each other’s conversations. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced more of the latter and there is an unspoken rule to just not talk to one another, other than an occasional head nod or smile or question on what to order, but, again, I digress!
Wait staff is generally friendly, not much engagement, even if you do know Chinese. The owner (white haired Chinese gentleman) will sometimes be around to assist but is typically not very chatty either. However, if you do need help in figuring out what to eat, the wait staff will point you in the right direction. And, if anything, sitting is a bit close quarters so you can check out what other diners are eating and just point to those as reference. I have found that most folks are quite nice if you ask them what they’re eating.
When you sit down, you’re given the typical pot of hot tea. If you want water make sure to ask since Chinese folks are usually fine with drinking some hot tea with their meals. Personally, I like both. You want some hot tea to cut through some grease, but you want that cold water since you can get quite thirsty or if you put too much spice on a dumpling hehe.
You’re provided a menu and a white slip to mark up your orders. The menu has Chinese and English. The white paper is just in Chinese, but no worries, just match up the numbers and you’re good to go. When ordering noodle dishes, remember to provide your preference of thick or thin noodles. A&J’s makes their noodles from scratch so you can’t go wrong either way (I usually go for the wide though). If you come on the weekends prior to noon, you can also order off the breakfast menu, which is on a small white menu that you mark up.
When I first started coming here, I thought A&J’s to be the equivalent of a Chinese tapas place. You can order small little dishes or you can order a full dish. So, here are some of my favorite eats (I’ll update with more pictures and dishes in the future.
- Beef Noodle Soup: Great comfort food and is reminiscent of the Beef Noodle Soup in Taiwan. As of right now, I think A&J has got one of the better Beef Noodle Soups in NoVA. Hunan Manor in Fair Oaks Mall might be on the same level (I know, this is a shocker for a mall eatery, but Hunan Manor is quite good). A&J’s soup broth is beefy with good kicks of spice. The beef tender and the noodles soak up the broth nicely. So it’s tasty, but be warned: I’m sure there’s MSG in there.
- Chicken Soup with a side of Fried Chicken: So the chicken version of the Beef Noodle soup. The broth is flavorful, comforting, and gives you that great feeling when you eat mom’s chicken noodle soup. Its broth is lighter than the Beef Noodle Soup and doesn’t have a very salty or MSG-like feeling. The soup comes with a side of fried chicken, which is delicious. Crispy, fried, seasoned goodness. I think it has some of that five spice seasoning in there and it’s great to take a crunch bite of chicken while slurping down the noodles and getting a mouthful of the broth.
- Fried Meat and Rice: Related to the Fried Chicken Soup dish above, there is also a rice dish with the fried chicken and mustard greens with a side of soup broth which is also equally delicious. This rice dish also offers fried pork chops (very good!).
- Noodles with Ground Beef, Bean Sprouts, & Cucumbers: This is another favorite go-to dish of mine. When you get the dish, meat, sprouts, and shredded cucumbers sit atop a bed of noodles. Mix the ingredients together and the flavors combine to give you a nice beef flavor which the crunch of sprouts and cucumbers to contrast and lighten the heavier beef flavor. I like to add some spice and vinegar to this to give it a bit of a kick.
- Noodles with Peanut Sauce: So, it’s a simple dish – you could ALMOST say it’s just noodles with peanut butter sauce BUT there’s something very appealing with the simplicity. For starters, the home made noodles are really highlighted here and I definitely recommend the wide noodles for this one. The peanut sauce is not just a slapping of peanut butter. There are flavors of the peanut / sesame oil and just a hint of spiciness that make this dish good. It’s basic, simple, and if you’re really wary of trying anything, this is safe (unless you’ve got peanut allergies of course….).
- Noodles with Ham, Cucumber, Egg, & Bean Sprouts: When I first came to A&J, this was the first dish I had tried. It’s a cold noodle dish with ham, cucumber, egg, bean sprouts, and the beef flavored sauce found in the Ground Beef noodle dish above. It’s good if you want a cooler dish and something slightly lighter than the ground beef noodle dish. After having tried all the other good food at A&J, I really haven’t revisited this dish. It’s delicious, but I’m generally not a fan of cold noodles.
- Pig Ears: Thinly sliced pig ears with a crunchy, cartilage-like texture with a good kick of spice. It tastes as if the pig ears were marinated in spicy oil. It’s great to munch on while waiting for your other food or when eating with soup (or congee) to change up texture and taste.
- Mustard Greens: Lightly tossed in oil, the mustard greens are mixed with edamame beans. Again, it’s a great little side dish to munch on to change up textures and flavors while eating your main dishes. I also like to eat this with plain congee to add flavor and texture.
- Smoked Chicken: This is delicious and I highly recommend this if you’re coming here for the first time. I distinctly remember having this dish the first time I came and since then when I think smoked chicken I think of A&Js. The quality of the smoked chicken has been a bit inconsistent in the past years (maybe bad economy or something) but it’s still delicious and memorable. You can taste the smokiness of the wood and flavors in the chicken meat itself. Good flavor, but it is a bit greasy, so maybe avoid eating the skin (as it’s not crispy anyhow).
- Thinly Sliced Beef: I like the simplicity of this dish. It looks like mixed meat (think bologna) but it’s got some great texture and a sesame oil taste that goes well with the breads or congee. It can be greasy, but that’s why I recommend eating with some sort of starch (the sesame bread or the thousand layer pancake).
- Thousand Layer Pancake: This side dish is pretty straightforward. A&J’s make it fresh, so the outer layers are hot and crispy. Peeling off the layers make it fun to eat! It’s great to dip into sauce or broth or on its own. Personally, I like making a sauce of soy sauce, white vinegar, and hot chili paste and dip the pancake in there.
- Scallion Pancake: It’s different from the Thousand Layer Pancake and is not quite as flaky or peel-able. The Scallion Pancake is rather dense but is chewy and tasty. As its name implies, scallions are embedded within the pancake. When it arrives, it’s sliced into 4 pie pieces for easy eating.
- Stuffed Meat Bun: I don’t know the official name of this dish. I saw an old Chinese couple next to us eating it and it looked scrumptious. Apparently, you can get the Meat Option (ground beef) or the Vegetarian Option. Being the dedicated carnivore, I went with the beef. Lots of great flavor in this one. When you bite into it be careful! There’s some beef soup / juices in there and it’s piping hot but it’s awesome.
- Thousand Year Old Egg: Ah I wish I had a picture of this. So, it’s Thousand Year Old Egg sitting on top of mound of soft tofu with green onion / scallion. So this dish is definitely textural and it could be more for those who are on the braver end of the eating chain. The dish itself is not stinky but its appearance can be off-putting. The egg is black and the yolk is very gooey since these are duck eggs that have been preserved in some combination of ashes, tea, salt, and other ingredients for approximately 100 days (give or take depending on the restaurant). I find that the combination of the hard boiled black part and the seasoned tofu is delicious, but I’m still not convinced that I like the yolk all that much. It’s definitely stronger tasting than a typical chicken egg. However, when this dish is eaten with congee, then it’s a powerful good combo. I think the plain congee offsets the stronger, saltier flavors of the egg yolk.
- Fried Dumplings: I can’t recall how the hubby says it in Chinese, but it’s on the menu. They’re long fried dumplings. If you’re craving dumplings, try it. A&J gets the bottom nice and crispy but the insides are still juicy and flavorful. Dip it in some chili paste / soy sauce and it’s great. A&J does have soup dumplings but they’re just okay.
- Sticky Rice Roll: This is offered as either savory or sweet. It’s a roll of sticky rice with dried meat. It’s filling but quite good. I prefer the savory taste to the sweetness.
- Breadsticks & Sesame Bread: You typically insert the bread sticks into the bread and eat it like a giant carb sandwich and wash it down with some hot soy milk. I like being atypical and will eat the sesame bread with meats sometimes.
There’s not much in the way of desserts other than Bubble Tea, which I don’t really recommend as it’s pretty standard or even subpar. But there is this stuffed pastry with red bean and pine nuts which is delicious. It’s heavy, sweet, nutty and all densely packaged in a flaky crispy pastry in the shape of a mini dumpling. Yum.
So, overall, A&J’s is pretty solid. Prices are decent, but just make sure to bring cash. There is a lot of variety and different dishes to try, so be adventurous and eat up. You really can’t go wrong with too many dishes here.
Check it out: http://www.yelp.com/biz/a-and-j-annandale
Food Quality: Good variety and authentic.
Service: Wait staff can get incredibly busy but they’re efficient.
Overall Rating: Pretty good food, decent price, and I like the small plate options since that means more room to eat a variety of foods.