We Come to Eat Fire: DanDan Reviewed
DanDan on a Friday night is a mess in the best possible way—a riot of people and bags and plates, with servers squeezing through the spaces between while the bartenders do their best to keep up with the crush that keeps backing up to the door.
The place is small, but not small-small. Downstairs, the bar takes up an inordinate amount of room, and everything else is just squeezed in. Two-tops press up against the big windows looking out onto the hustle of 16th Street, and more are tucked under the overhang of the lofted second-floor seating area. The hostess stand half-clogs the only passage between the main floor and the stairs leading up. It would be a terrible place to eat if it weren’t also such a fun place to throw yourself into. There’s a mosh-pit sensibility to it: You can get where you’re going, but not without bouncing off a few bodies first.
I sit in the corner at the bar with a sweating Tsing Tao, slurping cold sesame noodles that have a nutty, sweet kick and working through a plate of cumin pork that leaves my tongue slick with a mix of dusty-hot cumin and peppers. Even the fizz of the beer won’t wash it off.
The crowds keep pushing in. It’s a hot night, end of summer—this first visit coming not long after DanDan debuted—but even early, the place has already found its audience: Center City office drones coming to end their day with Szechuan hot pots, lo mein and glasses of white wine, and a younger crowd just getting theirs started—loading up on Sterno-fired mini-woks of Szechuan fried shrimp with pickled vegetables and chile peppers that are like eating tiny firecrackers.
Lunch a few weeks later is a similar experience. I come for beer and the namesake dandan noodles (mixed tableside, rich with a creamy, nutty sauce thickened with sesame paste, touched with dry chile heat, and topped with crumbled pork that you spend the rest of your meal chasing all the way down to the bottom of the bowl) and end up watching the tidal flow of the crowds from a seat on the second floor. The kitchen is crazy-fast. The service is smooth in the maelstrom, staffers moving like they’re on rails, and attentive in a way that speaks to the grind of doing big numbers day after day.
This isn’t hugely surprising. Owners Kevin and Catherina Huang both came from Han Dynasty in University City, where they managed and worked the floor before leaving to do their own thing, and it takes a lot to throw a Han Dynasty veteran. Plus, their own thing isn’t really that different from their old thing, is it? The mostly Szechuan menu (and particularly those dandan noodles, which Han made a Philly staple), the crowds, the ease with which the floor absorbs each new hit—it’s got a familiar feel. Fewer weed jokes here maybe than at Han. A slightly less manic intensity on the floor. But the Huangs did their time, learned their lessons in a hard school, and have passed them along now to their own crew.
When the weather changes (fall now, no longer summer), I show up at DanDan early on a Tuesday night with a friend, and we roll right in. At 5:30 there’s room at the bar, but I’ve learned my lessons, too, and ask for a table upstairs because I know what will be coming in behind me.
Even though there are only two of us, we order enough food for six. The ginger duck is tender, bright with scallions, sweet and smoky. The Taiwanese hamburger is a thick slab of pork belly, perfectly seared and not too fatty, tucked inside a puffy white bun with pickled mustard greens (which aren’t sour enough for my taste) and some disposable cilantro. It’s one of those things that sound better on the page than they look on the plate—it’s just sitting there all by its lonesome. We shrug and eat it anyway. Split in half. Three bites each.
The dumplings from the hot side of the apps menu are some of the best I’ve had in the city—the skins stiff beyond any Italian notion of al dente, the filling chunky, porky, with a green vegetable earthiness that somehow isn’t overwhelmed by the gleaming ruby puddle of chile oil in which the dumplings swim. There’s some real, mounting heat to the oil, but also, more intriguingly, an odd garlic sweetness that’s more addicting than the endorphin rush of the burn. I would’ve drunk the oil if I thought no one was watching. Would’ve slurped it with a spoon.
We have dry pepper shrimp in the shells, served head-on, crusted with dried peppers and flash-fried (a bit too long). Chopsticks laid aside, we eat now with our fingers, and the heat mounts—not to numbness, which is nice, but to a reminder of how heat doesn’t always have to obliterate the smokiness and the sweetness of chilies. Taiwanese three cup chicken is blah—sweet and satisfying in a junk-food kind of way, but one-dimensional. Dark meat. White meat. Syrupy sauce. No there there.
Which makes me think (not in the moment, but later, when I’m walking the streets and still feeling that chili oil), that I could describe much of what I ate the same way. Good but flat. Satisfying but not, you know, interesting.
Yes, there’s some heat for the fire-eaters, a little bit of weird for the adventurous (beef tendon, lychee fish and the like), but the bulk of the menu is gently nerfed, keyed for happy-hour crowds and foodies looking for lunch with a safety net. What the Huangs have built is a great neighborhood Chinese restaurant in a place that just doesn’t have many, offering Szechuan hot pots, whole fish and pot stickers, wrapped in the wood-and-polished-chrome drag of a hundred second-gen urban Chinese outposts. DanDan walks a narrow path between authenticity and modernity.
And by the time we’re ready to leave on a Tuesday night, every seat in the house is full. Again.
2 Stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood