Full Kee, Bailey’s Crossroads

Full Kee in Bailey’s Crossroads is completely unrelated to the Full Kee in Chinatown and the Full Key in Wheaton. It is an independent restaurant that’s open until 2 AM, 7 days a week (!), and does not get enough love in this or any other community. I have had it ranked in Italic in the Dining Guide for years, but haven’t visited it in far too long; I decided to give it a thorough follow-up, and visited three times.

First of all, take note that Full Kee (website) advertises being open until 2 AM, 7 nights a week – that alone puts it in a tiny handful of DC-area restaurants of any quality that can make such a claim.

On my first visit, for a consistency check, I ordered the exact same dish I last had here a couple of years ago, from the “Casserole” section of their menu: Beef Brisket with Turnip Casserole (Nồi Bò Kho Củ Cải Trắng), $14.95. This dish was exactly the same as I remember from before: steamed rice, with a stew-like casserole set into thick, brown sauce (I almost want to say “gravy”), featuring two things, and two things only: large, barely-bite-sized pieces of brisket, with plenty of tendon thrown into the mix; counterbalanced by equally large pieces of turnip, cooked until soft (which is not always the case with turnip). To get the most out of this dish, I recommend managing your bites to include both small pieces of brisket and/or tendon, as well as turnip, in the same bite; rather than alternating between the two. Of course, you can always begin by alternating, but you’ll quickly see that the bitterness of the turnip is necessary to combat the rather extreme nature of the tendon, which this kitchen is not shy about adding – I’d say that in terms of the beef portion alone, it’s about two-thirds brisket, one-third tendon. It’s a rich, satisfying, filling dish that is fully on the mild side, and really isn’t all that complex – it features primal flavors of beef and tendon, bitterness and softness from the turnip, and some salt from the brown sauce. It needs to be eaten hot, and is really enough for two people to share (preferably with a green; by itself, it’s too much of a good thing, and at $14.95, it’s very gently priced for the quantity of food that you get).

I remembered the clean fish tanks at Full Kee (and they are still clean), but the hanging, roasted whole ducks and chickens in back, near the pass, had slipped my mind. I made it a point on my first visit to ask my server about their whole chickens, and they serve them two ways: Soy Sauce Chicken (Gà Xì Dầu) and Ginger Scallion Chicken (Gà Hấp Muối) are both $23.95, and are the exact same amount of food (a whole chicken, cleaved, with some steamed rice). I knew I was going to get a whole chicken, and would have enough for two meals, so I called it in as a carryout order, and ordered the Soy Sauce rendition. Also wanting to try their seafood, and get a vegetable, I killed two birds with one stone by also ordering the fascinating-sounding Eggplant Stuffed Shrimp Paste in Black Bean Sauce (Cà Tim Dồn Tôm Tương Đen) for $13.95, which pretty much left me without a clue as to what, exactly, I would be picking up. Okay, so, how best to describe this? Let’s start with the chicken, which comes in a very large, rectangular, aluminum baking pan (with lid) – probably 2 feet by 1 foot in dimension. Inside the pan, I found a cleaved chicken (with the head thrown in, but no feet, so be on the lookout for the head), and also a little plastic tub of … minced ginger and scallions – I had gotten the wrong order, but I hadn’t realized that at the time. So I went rooting around in the paper bag for my soy sauce, which I assumed I’d need to pour over the chicken, and found a surprisingly large container of a thickened sauce which surprised me, as I figured the chicken would just be lying there in watery-thin soy sauce. I decided I’d reheat it in the oven, so I dumped the container of sauce on top, and … oops … it was my other entree. What this entree was, is diagonally sliced pieces of eggplant, stuffed *with* shrimp paste (now it finally made sense), and what I thought was inexplicably thickened soy sauce, was the black bean sauce. So now, I had on my hands a giant, ten-pound, cooking tray with everything except the steamed rice. Fortunately, I was able to bore out some space for the stuffed eggplant – then I dumped the little tub of ginger and scallions onto the chicken, added another small tub of soy sauce (which was in the bag) onto the chicken, made sure both dishes were separated, put the lid back on, and heated it in a 350-degree oven for awhile.

What emerged was nothing short of spectacular. Even though the chicken – which had been picked up at something close to room temperature – was roasted earlier in the day, it reheated beautifully, and I don’t feel the least bit of guilt for reheating a dish that’s served “slightly warm” in the restaurant – I like *hot* chicken and I just can’t lie. Maybe got back in about 10-15 minutes to unveil my re-interpretation, and everything was just wonderful. I’m glad I kept the two dishes completely separate, because although they were wonderful as compliments to each other, they would be ridiculous mixed together. That said, a little dab of black bean sauce did absolutely nothing to hurt the pieces of chicken; nor did mixing the soy sauce in with the ginger and scallions. The other dish, the shrimp paste-stuffed eggplant, was tailor made to be had alongside (or on top of, if you’re a heathen like me) the steamed rice, and these pieces of eggplant were just terrific. You can picture the shrimp paste – it has that same texture as the classic Thai appetizer, Tod Mun (fish cakes), except that it’s shrimp paste of course. And I was left staring down a sultan’s feast of an entire roast chicken, delicious stuffed eggplant, and enough food for three people. Needless to say, I had this again for lunch the next day, and recommend both, although I personally am not a fan of cold, cleaved, (invariably frozen) chicken, so if you’re a white boy like me, I recommend getting this to go, and reheating it for 10-15 minutes in your oven, and with 1-2 other things, such as my eggplant and a green (there’s no reason not to round out your meal by getting a green) you’ll have a no-fuss dinner for your entire family, and you’ll love it, too. Seriously, when it comes to carryout food, this is about as good as it gets.

On my third visit, I doubled down on the roasted birds, despite being sorely tempted by the Scallop Stuffed Shrimp Paste (undoubtedly the same dish I had, but with scallops instead of eggplant). Instead, I went for the Big Daddy, the most expensive dish on the menu, the Whole Peking Duck ($28.95). And a wonderful Peking Duck it was, too, my only quibble being a fairly important one: it wasn’t cut as well as a Peking Duck should be. In particular, it relied on uncut legs for much of the crispy skin, as opposed to having it shaved from the body meat (that was there too; just not enough of it). Other than that, it was $28.95 well-spent, and the pancakes were of good quality, albeit in slightly short supply. It would have been more in proportion to get 2-3 more pancakes, but they had a very neutral scent, and that is not always the case with this dish – often you will get pancakes that smell of rancid oil (I’m sorry to tell you that and ruin your next Peking Duck, but it’s often true). I want to give this dish another try here, because I think they can do even better – it was an off-night, and I’m unconvinced their “A-List” Duck Cutter was working on this evening. For now, I have to say it’s better than average, and certainly in the very good category, but it’s not quite at the top level of Peking Ducks that I’ve had in this town. (Mark’s Duck House, in its prime, may get that prize, but I’ve also had good versions at Duck Chang’s and Peking Gourmet Inn as long as twenty years ago – it’s time for someone (me?) to do a city-wide Peking Duck evaluation). I adore this dish, I have no clue if it’s authentic or Americanized, and I don’t care – I adore it.

So Full Kee batted 4-for-4 in my three visits, with not a clunker in the bunch, but with some dishes showing greater potential than actual greatness. They remain in Italic in the Dining Guide, and must be considered one of the best, if not *the* best Cantonese restaurant in Northern Virginia right now – granted, that’s not saying all that much, but it’s saying something. Chinatown in San Francisco this is not, but especially with the whole-chicken dishes, you probably won’t go wrong at Full Kee, unless you go to the wrong Full Kee.

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