Most Chinese food restaurants in the DC area come in two varieties: scary or authentic.
For whatever reason, the cheaper places around here seem to go overboard in catering to American tastes: some even offer french fries and hamburgers in addition to the ever-sugary General Tso’s Chicken. Needless to say, when I receive flyers for these places, they go directly into the garbage.
Much more authentic places are on the other end of the scale. These run the gamut from weird hours, to cash only, to out of the way, to gruff service, to non descriptive menus, to any combination of the preceding. Going to one can be rewarding, but it can take some planning.
Then there’s Tea Noodles Rice Cafe. About four years ago, I noticed this place opening in Arlington and decided to pay a visit. At the time, they had your standard Americanized Chinese menu, with two notable additions: bubble tea and meal soups. The meal soups were enormous; I was never able to finish the whole thing. While most of the rest of the menu was made up of dishes you could get at ten thousand places from here to Los Angeles, it was all served in a clean, friendly restaurant close to where I lived.
About a year ago, they redid the soups and added authentic Chinese meals. I’ve tried the meals a couple of times now; they’re delicious! Unlike the standard sugar-saturated, meat-and-carbohydrate heavy fare, these dishes feel a little bit more like an everyday meal that someone whipped up for a family. While I have no way of verifying the authenticity short of a trip to China, these dishes are at least a step away from the tired takeout everyone knows. So far, the beef with fresh hot pepper, taiwanese style crispy chicken breast, stir fried chinese sausage with eggs, and tomato egg drop soup are winners.
If I had a few wishes to spend on this place, they would be to drop the overtly americanized food and to get some marketing help. TNR Cafe is located in a neighborhood that’s able to support something unique (young adults and office workers), but the owners are playing too safely. I think the americanized food is distracting them from further developing the authentic menu. They’re also underselling their bubble tea, which could easily tap into the Starbucks crowd. My brother and I have repeatedly said “they should have a stand out front where they give away free samples of the bubble tea.”
While I can’t run in and change their menu, nor can I run a free sample booth outside their restaurant, I can take a crack at their marketing. I’m no graphic designer, but I’d envision ads for TNR Cafe looking something like these: