As you may have heard, the Olympics open tonight, August 8th, 2008, at 8:08:08 PM Beijing time, or roughly two hours before this post goes up.  The start time was chosen because of the confluence of so many 8s, a number deemed auspicious in Chinese culture because of its phonetic similarity to words that mean “prosper” and “fortune.”  The American homophone is much less glamorous, but it makes a great invitation to celebrate the opening ceremonies with a meal that honors (but completely Americanizes) the host country: Chinese food!

The debate over the best place to go for Chinese food in the District is like so many others on the Hill: contentious, intractable and at times tedious, waged by fierce partisans whose loyalty to their side blinds them to the values of all others.  We figured we’d fan the flames by weighing in with our own personal favorite: City Lights of China.

Find out why (or just come in and berate us for our choice) after the jump.

To me, the most amusing thing about the ‘best Chinese’ debate here in Washington is that almost no one who lives here sides with any of the options in (what’s left of) Chinatown.  AOL’s City Guide (you know how I love them) points to Mei Wah (between Dupont Circle and Georgetown on M Street).  Tim Carman at the Washington City Paper swears by Great Wall-Szechuan House on 14th Street between P and Q.  Washingtonian Magazine only included two Chinese restaurants in their annual Top 100 list this year – one in Rockville and one in Wheaton.

But there are sometimes when you just crave the savory broth of wonton soup or the sweet-hot bite of a good Kung Pao chicken – and that’s when it’s key to know which places will deliver on flavor, even if they won’t deliver to your doorstep.  For us, that means a take-out order called in to City Lights of China and a 15-minute drive across town to pick up this reliable old favorite.

City Lights is located at 1731 Connecticut Avenue, near Bistrot du Coin and the Church of Scientology.  If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s easy enough to miss – but City Lights has been serving up some of the tastiest and least fussy versions of the standards we all know and love for more than twenty years now.  Even Mei Wah’s popularity is a testament to City Lights’ quality – Mei Wah owner Larry La established himself at City Lights and built up a loyal following here before selling the restaurant and moving on to open his new venture.

But our love of City Lights is not founded on nostalgia – Elizabeth didn’t even taste their food until 2002, long after La had left.  Even without him at the helm, the restaurant has continued to provide quality food with great customer service.

A usual meal for us starts with wonton soup and a generous appetizer that offers ten small dumplings stuffed with pork and chives.  The dumplings are always steamed to perfection – chewy but not rubbery, with a filling that has a little bit of spice and a long, savory flavor.  The soup offers pillowy wontons instead of the small, pinched versions at some other local establishments.  We tend to follow these up by splitting an entree, as the portions are large enough for one person to eat and have leftovers or two people to share without going hungry.  Favorites include their hot-but-not-overpowering Kung Pao and their rich version of chicken and cashews.

Like many other Chinese restaurants, City Lights is quick to point out their City Lite Menu in their takeout flyer, noting that “Most dishes can be steamed without oil, salt, sugar or corn starch.  A choice of tasty sauce will be served on the side. (Some beef, lamb and pork dishes are not recommended.)”  At the end of the day, of course, the sauces, oils and assorted other flavoring ingredients are what makes Chinese food so darn tasty…but it’s nice to know they care enough about our health to at least offer this.  A section of Chef’s Specialties runs to the usual – Peking Duck, Seafood Delight, Crispy Fried Shredded Beef, etc.

So what is it that makes City Lights our go-to?  Simply put, we’ve never had a bad experience here – the food is always hot and delicious, with none of those off-putting smells or not-quite-right tastes that occasionally crop up at other places we’ve tried.  And although it’s not exactly convenient, they always have our food ready right when I arrive to pick up our carry out orders.  As easy to please as we think we are when it comes to Chinese, somehow City Lights is the only place we’ve found that we can count on to do it right.

City Lights of China
1731 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC  20009
(202) 265-6688

Eat-In, Carry Out, & Delivery (limited delivery area)

City Lights of China on Urbanspoon