"Chungee" means "stupid pig" in Cantonese, but you are not the stupid pig at Chungee's Drink 'n Eat on Capitol Hill. Note the possessive: As owner Wen Long candidly puts it, "We are so stupid to open a restaurant!" She and her partner (she'll tell you, standing sociably by your table) mortgaged their houses to open the place, and it's been a ton of work, and then there's the economy. And (though Wen doesn't mention this) there's also the space. Chungee's (pronounced "chun-jeez") is on 12th a couple blocks north of Pine in the tiny, awkward storefront that used to be Topolino's Pizza. When that failed to thrive, burrito sales were grafted on. When that failed to thrive, it became Esmeralda Mediterranean Fusion Bistro. There was increasingly desperate signage ("TWO MEATS TWO SIDES $7.99!"). Then, again, failure.
With Chungee's, the jankiness of the space has been turned, improbably, into an advantage. On one side: a six-seat bar (behind which you'll sometimes find local bar hero Kevin Doig, aka Kevin the Scot). Then there's window seating and an island of a two-top. Then, up a couple steps, a Being John Malkovich–style dining room: the lowest ceiling ever, four tables very close together, red Chinese lanterns, silky pillows, golden tassels. It feels like a great little secret (as opposed to the prior sensation of built-on-a-Native-American-burial-ground).
The close quarters make for excellent eavesdropping. Overheard: A person who'd already been there once had forgotten their wallet, which contained $500; when they returned the next day, it'd been stowed safely, still fat with cash. You can also see what looks (and smells) good mere feet away from you. The menu is Cantonese (the best flavor in all of China, according to Wen; her people are from Guangzhou), with dishes averaging around $10. The Yum Yum Crispy Chicken (Wen's grandmother's recipe) is, in fact, yum yum and crispy, with a light but protective potato-flour crust and juicy interior (and translucent fried basil leaves on the side). Some neighbors were deeply enjoying what should be known as candied meats (glowing red sweet-and-sour pork, General Tso's chicken), while the vegetables (asparagus, bell peppers) in various dishes were bright and fresh, not floppy. A wonton tini—a single, slippery dumpling with julienned vegetables in a commendably unsalty broth, served steaming in a martini glass—caused widespread interest. The only thing unrecommended so far: a doughy, heavy, ungingery ginger pancake.
Wen's specials (like salmon steamed with soy) are for those who want to go beyond the usual by-the-numbers Chinese food; everyone should order them, because this kitchen seems capable of very good things. Wen's ready: "I hope you guys can become my regulars. Help me pay my mortgage!"
Chungee's, 1830 12th Ave, 323-1673