It’s time to rethink everything you know about Chinese food.
At this point, the Americanized version of Chinese food is so entrenched in our culture, you’ve likely got a standard order—kung pao chicken and a couple of egg rolls—and would feel weirdly unsatisfied if you weren’t served a fortune cookie at the end.
Northern Virginia’s dining landscape and diverse residents admittedly cultivate a much more educated palate when it comes to Chinese food, but even here the cuisine found in Western China’s Xinjiang province is sorely under-represented. Thankfully, Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine opened late last year in downtown Fairfax serving traditional dishes of the Uyghur people, an intriguing blend of influences from China and border countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mongolia.
A sign in the window indicating that the meat is halal, or prepared according to Muslim rules, plus menu items like lamb and chicken kebabs, three types of naan and dumplings called manta will be your first clues that fortune cookies aren’t in the cards.
Take a seat in the tiny but pleasant dining room and start with orders of flaky and pancake-like katlama naan and a marinated beef salad served cool and sprinkled with garlic, cilantro and a manageable level of chilies. Eggplant is another standout appetizer, thanks to its melty flesh and chewy skin bathed in garlic, oyster sauce, cilantro and tomato.
Those lamb and chicken kebabs are easily shareable and beg for sampling since they’re priced at only $3 apiece. Our table was split on which was the favorite, a sure sign that they were equally well seasoned and succulent. The samsa are less memorable thanks to their too-dry filling of minced lamb. A salad of cucumber with sliced red onion, diced tomato, vinegar and herbs is basic but a welcome addition of color and crunch.
Many of the entrees look the same when they land on the table: a protein in a tomato-based sauce with peppers and onions. But tuck into a few of them and you realize the spicing is quite different. Boneless chicken qourma with rice benefits from fresh ginger. Laghman, a dish of housemade noodles sauced with lamb and veggies, comes mild but is served with an intense homemade chili blend. The cut-up noodles in the chop fried soman gains stew-like richness from the beef. (Insider tip: Go ahead and use a spoon. These small noodles would be a challenge for even the most adept chopstick users.) And dapanchi—aka, the big chicken plate—is a spicy curry-like sauce of boneless chicken, potatoes and vegetables over wide, flat hand-pulled noodles.
No matter which one you go for, the soft noodles featuring a perfect chew are the star—as is an order of whole pomfret fish swimming in ginger, garlic, oyster sauce and soy sauce. Mantu dumplings filled with spiced lamb and a bowl of noodle soup were fine but far less interesting and flavorful.
If you simply must go the rice route, keep in mind that the pulao, which sounds like a close cousin to the Afghani rice and lamb dish Kabuli palaw, is only offered Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, owing to how long it takes to prepare.
Whether you opt to try the housemade cakes for dessert or not, consider ending with a French press filled with a house blend of black and green tea accented with saffron, cardamom, rose and a homemade spice blend. The cakes are all the same except for the flavors (chocolate honey, creamy walnut or honey), each made up of thin layers of puff pastry and buttercream. Note that the tea is the most exciting drink you can order since the mostly Muslim culture means no alcohol is sold here.
Over lunch, a friend who lived in China reveals that she never understood why Uyghur cuisine wasn’t more popular in the States, pointing out that it’s perhaps the most similar to what Western palates are used to. Thanks to a handful of local places like Eerkin’s, that lack of availability might be on the verge of changing for good—but hey, if you’re really craving one, go ahead and order the egg rolls. They’ve got those, too.
Eerkin’s Uyghur Cuisine
4008 University Drive, Fairfax
Open daily for lunch and dinner