The strip-mall location and bare walls of Alexandria’s Tempt Asian Cafe are not inviting, but who cares when the food is among the best of its kind? It’s spicy, abundant and delicious — with more than 100 dishes on the menu.
“The food is great because the chef here doesn’t try to figure out what Americans want,” says a Chinese man, originally from Sichuan province, at a neighboring table. “He does it the authentic way, the right way.”
The right way means infusing many — but not all — dishes with plenty of spices, including chili peppers, soy, ginger, garlic and Sichuan pepper.
One such spicy dim sum dish is the baby won ton with chili-oil sauce. It arrives steamy hot. This is not for the feeble-palated, and one in our party bowed out after trying a sip. For the rest of us, though, the dish proved a real treat. The won tons float in a bath of flavorful broth along with superspicy chili peppers.
If a guest wants only a hint — albeit a strong hint — of chili, simply put the chopped chilies to the side because the broth picks up plenty of the flavor and there is no need to chew the chilies.
Though Sichuan cuisine is best known for such generous use of hot spices, not all dishes explode in your mouth. The scallion pancakes, another dim-sum dish, arrive looking like balloons that deflate with each bite and each minute. They are mild, a bit greasy and perfect for sopping up various sauces and soups throughout the meal. We also tried the steamed dumplings, which were lightly seasoned and very tasty but nothing out of the ordinary.
This can’t be said of most of Tempt Asian’s dishes, which are anything but ordinary and one of the reasons that people, including many Chinese guests, come from all over the region to sample the creations of chef Peter Chang, whose resume includes cooking for a former Chinese ambassador and being chef at China Star in Fairfax.
“People come from all over the state [of Virginia], and we get people from Rockville, Bethesda and Washington, too,” says restaurant manager Ivan Hu.
The restaurant seats 50, and on a recent Friday night, the Chinese customers outnumbered others at least 2-to-1. Another clue that this is a popular hangout for Chinese guests is a tall stack of Chinese-language newspapers at the front door.
A third, of course, is the uncompromisingly hot and tasty cuisine, such as the kung pao shrimp. The stir-fried shrimp — which are large and freshly prepared (you can tell from the perfect texture) — are peppered with peanuts, garlic and chili.
The waiters, however, are very accommodating to the mild-palated and recommend several non-spicy dishes, including the fried fish fillet with plum sauce. It arrives with a few slices of blood oranges — the shade of batter and the rind matching perfectly.
“Wow, that’s orange,” someone exclaims — which is followed by, “Wow, that’s amazing. It’s the best fried fish I’ve ever had.” The fish is lightly fried and, unlike that served in most Chinese restaurants, the white, flaky fish here dominates the dough.
Another lightly seasoned but very tasty dish is the stir-fried, slightly sweet eggplant, which was liked by all in the party, even those who normally don’t order eggplant. The melt-in-your mouth texture is achieved by first cooking (which we think means boiling) the eggplant and then stir-frying it, our waiter says.
The shredded pork with sour mustard and rice noodles, another mild offering, was the only dish none in our party particularly liked. The rice noodles were a bit too slick, and the flavor was dull. We couldn’t taste the sour mustard.
The spicy emperor duck, however, was anything but dull. This combination of duck, still on the bone, comes with chilies galore in a broth. It’s difficult to eat, as the diner has to contend with many tiny bones, but, oh, it is so tasty.
There is no dessert menu, just a few sweet dishes on the dim-sum menu, including pumpkin cake and a cake with dried fruit. The restaurant also does not have a liquor license and is not expecting one anytime soon, owner Ai Fen Chen says, scrunching up her nose at the question. “But we have hot tea,” she says — which is a better match for Sechuan cuisine than a bottle of red wine anyway.
After a meal at Tempt Asian, our guess is many a customer will have a difficult time settling for less in quantity (the dishes are that generous) and even moreso for quality. (It’s hard to name a Chinese restaurant that comes close to rivaling Mr. Chang’s offerings.) To drive 20 minutes on Interstate 395 to get your Chinese fix is so worth the trip.
RESTAURANT: Tempt Asian Cafe, 6259 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria; 703/750-6801.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
PRICES: Starters, $3.50 to $6.50; main courses, $7.95 to $13.95; desserts (from the dim-sum menu), $3.50
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards
PARKING: Parking lot
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible