WASHINGTON -- For a goodly number of us in the D.C. area, Christmas is a day to be celebrated with moo shu and a movie. And for those of us who meet this demographic, we're lucky to have a rich bounty of Chinese restaurants -- authentic and Americanized -- available to us on this most delicious of days.
But first, some history: There are a number of reasons that Chinese food for Christmas became a Jewish tradition. For one, says Dallas Observer food writer Hanna Raskin, who wrote a master's thesis on the relationship of Jews and Chinese food, Chinese food is very nearly kosher. It's "safe treyf," meaning that the ingredients that violate Jewish dietary laws, like pork and shellfish, are generally chopped finely enough to ignore.
Then there's geography -- the proximity of immigrant Chinese and Jewish neighborhoods in New York from the 1870s to the 1940s led to some friendly intermixing. Raskin says that Jews considered Chinese restaurants "an oasis from bigotry" as well; at these restaurants they were free from the anti-Semitism faced elsewhere.
There's a simpler reason for why Jews still eat Chinese food on Christmas, though -- a reason that was pointed out by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) during Elena Kagan's 2010 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Kagan was asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) where she was on Christmas day in 2009 and she replied, "Like all Jews I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."
"No other restaurants are open," Schumer offered up by way of clarification.
And indeed, even if some of the restaurants on our list specialize in decidedly non-kosher food and others are a schlep to get to, all these well-loved D.C. area Chinese restaurants are are open on Christmas. (Well, except one -- Grace Garden in Odenton -- which comes so highly recommended that we included it anyway. So maybe go there Christmas Eve?)
Hollywood East Cafe (11160 Veirs Mill Rd., Wheaton) offers what some say is the D.C. area's best dim sum. "If you can't find something to eat among the dozens of possibilities, you're impossible to please," writes Tom Sietsema in The Washington Post. Sietsema loved Hollywood East's shrimp balls, its razor clams and its yeasty barbecue pork buns. George Mason University economics professor and prolific food blogger Tyler Cowen writes (a little backhandedly) that Hollywood East "is the best dim sum place around, although that has never been a strength of this area." He finds Hollywood East is "consistently interesting" and has "very good greens," and recommends spending at least two hours so you'll get to try a huge variety of dishes.
Mala Tang (3434 Washington Blvd., Arlington) in Ballston is a stylish and large Metro-accessible restaurant by Liu Chaosheng -- famous for his Falls Church Szechwan restaurants Hong Kong Palace and Uncle Liu's Hot Pot and his Cantonese/Szechwan restaurant China Jade in Rockville. Mala Tang specializes in Chinese street food and hot pots for one, and has a big menu filled with food for almost every taste (including many vegetarian options). The Washington Post is especially fond of the cumin fish; Tyler Cowen says Mala Tang has "the best MaPo Tofu in the entire area."
Visit X.O. Taste (6124 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church) for Cantonese favorites like roast duck, noodle soup, porridge and an extensive seafood selection. "From the moment we met, I knew I'd like X.O. Taste Seafood," writes Tom Sietsema in The Washington Post. "Every single dish was great, and the dishes came out quick," writes a reviewer on the Chowhound bulletin board. Warning: the restaurant can be hard to find -- it's in a complex on Patrick Henry Drive, despite the Arlington Blvd. street address.
China Star (9600G Main St., Fairfax). The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema recommends China Star for diners who like hot food, calling this restaurant a "spartan Chinese restaurant, whose rambling menu features Sichuan dishes that don't pull any punches." Szechuan chili chicken is one of the restaurant's many specialties -- Sietsema suggests diners ask the wait staff for help ordering a meal of seasonal and local specialties.
Wok and Roll (multiple locations in the District) is Metro accessible and has decent Americanized Chinese and Japanese dishes: beef and broccoli, tempura, sushi, and the like. The General Tso's tofu is a good vegetarian option. History buff bonus reason to eat there: Wok and Roll's Chinatown location (604 H Street. NW) is reputedly where Abraham Lincoln's assassination was plotted.
Rockville's Sichuan Pavillion (410 Hungerford Dr., Rockville) elicits great enthusiasm from foodies. "Wow and double wow," writes Tyler Cowen on his ethnic dining blog. Tim Carman, when he was still Young & Hungry for the Washington City Paper, chose Sichuan Pavillion's smoked duck as his "dish of the week" and named SP one of the best new restaurants of 2009. Recommended dishes include crispy fungus with pickled peppers, twice-cooked pork with fried bread, dan-dan noodles, a winter Sichuan sausage and a host of other authentic dishes -- order off the Chinese rather than the American menu.
Don't mind eating take-out? Eddie's Cafe Chinese Cuisine (2600 Connecticut Ave. NW) in Woodley Park is take-out only, and delivers, if you live nearby. One online reviewer called Eddie's "americanized Chinese carryout at its best" -- you'll order from there for Chinese comfort food like Kung Pao chicken, cold sesame noodles, shrimp fried rice and all the other deliciously greasy dishes that say Christmas.
The much-loved Grace Garden (1690 Annapolis Rd., Odenton) is the only Chinese restaurant we came across that actually isn't open on Christmas. When we called, we were told that the restaurant will be closed not in order to celebrate the holiday but because the restaurant is closed every Sunday. It's worth trekking out toward Annapolis one Monday through Saturday for this restaurant's celebrated fish noodles, pork belly, Szechuan fish fillets and other authentic delicacies. As one fan put it on the Chowhound bulletin boards, "I'm not sure how/why a GEM like this place ended up here but everyone who lives anywhere near here should consider themselves LUCKY."
Which D.C. area restaurant do you like best for your Christmas moo shu? And what movie are you going to see after your meal?
RELATED VIDEO: Brandon Walker's "Chinese Food on Christmas."