Washington DC

How Baltimore's NiHao Became an Unlikely Pandemic Success Story

The shrimp dumplings and Peking duck might have something to do with it.

Photography by Melissa Hom / DESIGN BY GRACE HAN FOR THRILLIST
Photography by Melissa Hom / DESIGN BY GRACE HAN FOR THRILLIST
Photography by Melissa Hom / DESIGN BY GRACE HAN FOR THRILLIST

When Pichet Ong was a chef and dessert consultant in New York City, he would make frequent five-hour drives to visit his partner, Jase, in Fairfax, Virginia. A little over halfway to his destination, he always stopped at the same point. “Baltimore was always a stop for me to eat and take a rest,” he remembers. “I became friends with many of the chefs there. Baltimore is still in that gritty phase that New York used to be in.”

Little did he know that, in a few short years, he’d be opening NiHao on the corner of Boston and Wagner streets in Southeast Baltimore. The contemporary Chinese restaurant has received massive critical acclaim-including a spot on Esquire‘s list of Best New Restaurants-and, perhaps more importantly, has been so embraced by locals that dumplings and Peking duck sell out at least five nights a week. All this after opening on the brink of a global pandemic.

With decades of experience working in kitchens at Chez Panisse, Olives, Jean-Georges, Tabla, and Spice Market, Ong knows a thing or two about running a strong restaurant-no matter the circumstance. The original plan was for NiHao to open in November 2019 and they had all the managing members in place but, due to a construction delay, the opening got extended until March of 2020, one week before the COVID-19 shutdown.

“We saw what was happening in Asia and we were not optimistic,” says Lydia Chang, NiHao manager and business partner of legendary DC chef and restaurateur Peter Chang.

Still, Chang and Ong knew that they’d open in whatever capacity they could, even if it was just takeout. And that’s exactly what happened. The first night of service saw lines of customers out the door to pick up their orders, and staff brought out cookies and tea to ease the wait.

Photography by Melissa Hom
Photography by Melissa Hom
Photography by Melissa Hom

“We were so fortunate to get tremendous support right away from the Canton neighborhood,” Chang says. “The minute we started construction, people were excited. If we were to do anything close to NiHao in DC, people would already come with the presumption of Peter Chang. Baltimore residents don’t go by names, they’re like, ‘So what? Let me taste the food.'”

NiHao fills the city’s void between a mom-and-pop spot and a fine-dining restaurant, providing a type of cuisine not overly saturated in Baltimore at a price point that city residents can afford. The food itself draws on flavors of central China with some modern twists, and was intentionally designed to appeal to the average diner. 

Ong draws on his multifaceted heritage when conceptualizing dishes. Born in Bangkok to a Thai Chinese father and Singaporean Chinese mother, he grew up in a very food-focused household with his aunt in Singapore, who would whip up steamed custard, fried chicken wings, fried tofu, cold-smoked fish, and BBQ pork. For Chang, she is inspired by her grandmother, who was illiterate and communicated love through food, like her excellent fried rice.

“There are a lot of dishes I grew up eating in Singapore and Hong Kong and then the flavors from Central China are more balanced and not in your face.” Ong says. “We liked the idea of opening a restaurant of things we like to eat, to bring it back to the basics of cooking. The first NiHao menu was very basic and Chef Peter said, ‘Where’s the lobster? Where’s the salt and pepper shrimp? Where’s the technique? Where’s the wow factor?’ I said, ‘I like this, let’s try this out.'”

Photography by Melissa Hom
Photography by Melissa Hom
Photography by Melissa Hom

Turns out that Ong’s instinct was right and diners flooded the phone lines and online delivery platforms with orders-mainly for the whole Peking duck kits, pillowy soft shrimp dumplings, and signature savory desserts. Keeping up with demand became a good problem to have.

After being open for about three to four weeks, the restaurant added Uber delivery to keep up, then when COVID-19 cases decreased in Baltimore, it was able to add indoor dining. Next, NiHao got its liquor license and then, at the beginning of December, it was back to shutdown. Currently, the restaurant is back open and gearing up for Lunar New Year specials.

“Every month, we feel like we’re doing something different,” Chang says. “We understand we have to be flexible, but we have this dining room that is beautiful and built-out all occupied full of boxed containers.”

With all of those pendulum swings certainly came learning curves and priority shifts. A big focus became sustainable packaging and trying to provide meals that would travel home well with customers.

“You want to deliver a restaurant experience because you’re asking the customer to pay $30 for a meal they might have to reheat at home,” Ong says. “We had to adjust portions, include instructions, give the food enough room to avoid re-steaming. Peter is well-known for his fried items so we wanted to make sure the fried chicken fared well. At one point, we were spending more on containers than protein. Thankfully, we’ve stayed busy.”

Photography by Melissa Hom
Photography by Melissa Hom
Photography by Melissa Hom

While Ong oversees operations as managing partner, he knows it was important to hire local staff-like chef Antoni Szachowicz and bar manager Ashley Mack-who really know the neighborhood and could keep the place feeling close to the community.

“We needed them to be the anchors,” Ong says. “We have chefs that don’t live far from the restaurant. They’re not trained in the style of Chinese food, but they know how to deep-fry, how to toss the wok, how to cook protein. The best compliment is to see chefs who grew up eating Chinese food tour the kitchen and whisper, ‘Wow, I can’t believe the cooks aren’t Chinese!”

Ong and Chang agree that it’s this blend of cultures-from Singapore to Baltimore-that makes NiHao the success story it is today.

“NiHao’s menu reflects all of us. If I had to sum it up, this is the food based on all of our lives,” Ong says. “You can’t really describe anything as truly authentic, because food moves.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Jess Mayhugh is a Cities Editor for Thrillist, who got her hands on those shrimp dumplings as soon as she could. Follow all her food and drink cravings on Instagram.

Washington DC

The Eight Most Exciting Suburbs Outside DC

You could use a little space.

Regine Poirier/Shutterstock
Regine Poirier/Shutterstock
Regine Poirier/Shutterstock

When people say Washington, DC, it’s hard to tell if they’re talking about The District proper, or the sprawling metro area that is sometimes nicknamed the DMV: The District, Maryland, and Virginia. The fact is that DC is made whole by its vibrant suburbs, whether you’re looking for a shopping center dedicated almost entirely to Vietnamese cuisine, a rock climbing wall in-you guessed it-Rockville, or a wetland preserve that’s wide open for hiking and fresh air.

The DC suburbs practically have it all, and you can reach many of these neighborhoods by bike, public transit, or a set of four wheels. Here are eight great suburban destinations that you may find yourself visiting soon. We won’t judge you if you want to stay.

Earth Treks Rockville
Earth Treks Rockville
Earth Treks Rockville

Rockville

Distance from DC: 30 minutes
Many people will inevitably cruise Rockville Pike, aka 355, for all of its big-box delights, since this retail corridor has always been a sprawly place to shop for decades. But more recently, Rockville has become something entirely different. It’s walkable and bikeable, thanks to the Pike & Rose development. And it remains a destination for some of the best Chinese soup dumplings in the DMV at A&J Restaurant and Bob’s Shanghai 66. Rockville is also, fittingly, home to the best rock climbing wall attracting serious spelunkers and climbing newbies alike. And it remains a place for family-run restaurants, many of which are run by immigrants. For a small taste of the magic of this Montgomery County suburb, visit Bombay Bistro for Chef K.N.Vinod and Surfy Rahman’s take on Indian fare from the country’s southern region. Like many of the best eateries in Rockville, this restaurant is tucked away in a shopping strip. When you find it, you’ll be rewarded with mouth-watering dosas, biryani, and vindaloo.

Fresh Baguette
Fresh Baguette
Fresh Baguette

Bethesda

Distance from DC: 20 minutes
Anyone who grew up near Bethesda has probably spent their early teenage years loitering at the Bethesda’s Regal Cinema or by The Barnes & Noble water fountain. Now, both of those legendary spots of yesteryear have been transformed into a suburban-style city with sidewalk cafes, trendy shopping, and an upgraded Capital Crescent Trail-a longtime favorite with joggers and bikers. Bethesda is also home to a world of flavors: Fresh Baguette for Parisian-style pastries, Pesca Deli for Portuguese, Taqueria El Jalapeño for tasty tacos, and Passage to India just to name a few. To reach all of these places, you can hop aboard the Bethesda Circulator, a free shuttle service that picks you up at the Bethesda Metro station and takes you in a loop around town.

Brookside Gardens, Montgomery Parks
Brookside Gardens, Montgomery Parks
Brookside Gardens, Montgomery Parks

Wheaton

Distance from DC: 20 minutes
There is absolutely no beating Wheaton when a food craving hits, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner. This Maryland suburb, just north of DC on Metro’s red line, has one of the best diners in the region, Nick’s Diner, owned and operated by Nick Markopoulos and his Greek family. For lunch, Wheaton is home to a handful of pupuserias that are indicative of this neighborhood’s Salvadoran community. Pupuseria La Familiar, Los Chorros, and Irene’s Pupusas are three great options. Finally, for dinner, Peruvian chicken at El Pollo Rico or Bolivian fare, and specifically the beef silpancho, at Kantuta’s are hearty and tasty offerings. Finish your day of dining on a high note with a cannoli or rainbow cookie from Filippo’s Deli. After a day of eating, you’ll need to walk off all those carbs. Go for a leisurely stroll around the pond at Wheaton Regional Park’s Brookside Gardens. The park is a five-minute drive north of Wheaton’s retail corridor, and it’s free and open to the public year-round.

Streetcar 82 Brewing Co.
Streetcar 82 Brewing Co.
Streetcar 82 Brewing Co.

Hyattsville

Distance from DC: 20 minutes
A brewery tour is a safe bet when visiting Hyattsville, Maryland-a community with a small-town vibe, located in Prince George’s County, just across The District line. A primary reason why beer nerds flock here is Franklins, a brewpub that last year opened a tiki-themed bar in its parking lot to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are more than a dozen beers on tap, plus Franklins makes its own root beer if you prefer some nonalcoholic suds. That’s in addition to a historic hardware shop that’s been converted into a bottle shop, with a wide collection of craft beer and local wine. Nearby on Route 1, find a local brewery that specializes in outdoor drinking. Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. opened two years ago and is named in homage to the 82 Streetcar line which ran by the brewery’s site from 1888 to 1957. This converted auto garage now serves hop-forward beers and has bike rack parking and picnic tables, perfect for a Sunday Funday. For more craft beers from around the country paired with wood-fired pizza, Pizzeria Paradiso is a top-notch eater across the street, and cap off your crawl by swinging by Maryland Meadworks, which serves a range of meads from sweet to semi-sweet to dry.

Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary

Upper Marlboro

Distance from DC: 45 minutes
Fulfill your childhood wonder and delight at the greatest playground in the DMV. Watkins Regional Park is great for kids (or the kid at heart) looking to romp around themed playgrounds. The first is a horse-racing-themed playground, part of Maryland’s legacy as a horse racing capital. Meanwhile, the second option is the stuff of fairy tales-a Wizard of Oz-inspired playground, complete with a yellow brick road, a ruby slippers slide, and an Emerald City climbing wall. Grownups and kids alike will also enjoy the hiking options at nearby Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, an expansive preserve that’s part of the tidal reaches of the Patuxent River. There are more than 1,700 acres of unique freshwater marshes, forested wetlands, creeks, meadows, pines and sand barrens, plus fields and park areas for an afternoon picnic. If you’d rather fuel up than bring-your-own food, Upper Marlboro’s Main Street Coffee & Treats is where the community gathers for coffee, pastries, fresh-pressed juices, and vegan cupcakes at all hours of the day.

Photo Courtesy of Ada's on the River
Photo Courtesy of Ada’s on the River
Photo Courtesy of Ada’s on the River

Old Town Alexandria

Distance from DC: 20 minutes
With waterfront views, historic homes along cobblestone streets, and a trolley that goes up and down King Street for free, it’s hard not to imagine why Old Town Alexandria wouldn’t be on our suburban list. You might come for the charm, but there’s a lot more to this city than just Instagram-worthy streetscapes. The Torpedo Factory is a burgeoning artist enclave for purchasing one-of-a-kind sculptures and artwork. Those who prefer a pleasure cruise down the Potomac can take the Potomac River Water Taxi to or from the city. And outdoor eating by the water offers plenty of space and social distance. The food and outdoor surroundings at Ada’s on the River and King & Rye, two of Alexandria’s latest eatery additions, are great places to book a weekend brunch.

Eden Center
Eden Center
Eden Center

Falls Church

Distance from DC: 30 minutes
Most people know Falls Church as the home of Eden Center-a shopping center with dozens of Vietnamese businesses and restaurants. This might be the biggest draw for Falls Church food lovers. However, there are several more reasons to make this Northern Virginia suburb a part of your food bucket list. Start at Takumi, a popular Japanese sushi spot, serving quality grade sashimi, sake, and sushi tastings. Got a craving for cavatelli? Then book it to Thomspon Italian. Chef Gabe Thompson and Pastry Chef Katherine Thompson are a husband and wife team who make this spot feel more like home. While the dining room remains closed, Thompson is offering several of its top dishes, including housemade pasta and gelatos, for pickup.

Wolf Trap
Wolf Trap
Wolf Trap

Tysons Corner

Distance from DC: 30 minutes
When you visit Tysons Corner, you’re probably here to do one thing-shop until you drop. Tysons is home to two malls, sometimes nicknamed Tysons I (Tysons Corner Center) and Tysons II (Tysons Galleria). The former is pretty typical while the latter leans more upscale. Not surprisingly, Tysons II also has good taste in food. Find the Urbanspace Food Hall, home to Donburi DC and Andy’s Pizza, plus an upscale pastry shop called Lady M. Aside from the shopping and dining, another good reason to visit Tysons this summer might be for a concert. The Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts recently announced its outdoor summer concert lineup, which could start as soon as the end of May. We’ll keep our fingers crossed!

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Tim Ebner is a contributor for Thrillist. 

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