An Orthodox Jewish family eats lunch outside Holy Chow, one of the only Kosher Chinese restaurants in the D.C. region.
It's a few days before Christmas and the phones at Holy Chow, a Kosher Chinese carryout restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland, are ringing nonstop.
"We've had people putting in orders a month in advance," says co-owner Ami Schreiber, looking around proudly at his small, spotless shop. The bespectacled father of three, dressed in a Holy Chow-branded T-shirt, dad jeans and a kippah, the small head covering worn by observant Jewish men, scooches over as an employee brings out a bag of food to a waiting customer.
"One order of vegetable dumplings, and a chicken fried rice?" the employee asks. The customer, also in a kippah, smiles and takes the bag.
Every year at Christmas, Jews in the Washington region and around the country participate in a time-honored holiday tradition: eating Chinese food. The tradition has its roots in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where Chinese and Eastern European Jewish immigrant communities congregated in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Kosher law prohibits the mixing of meat and dairy, so Chinese restaurants offered more acceptable options to Jews than, say, an Italian restaurant or American hamburger joint.
But while the tradition is as popular as ever, observant Washington-area Jews don't have many kosher Chinese options. Pow Pow on H Street serves up fast-casual Kosher Asian fare, and David Chu's China Bistro in Baltimore offers a more white tablecloth experience. The once-popular Royal Dragon restaurant in Rockville closed a few years ago.
But if you're looking for a traditional carryout experience complete with red takeout containers, packets of soy sauce and fortune cookies, Holy Chow might be your only option.
Montgomery County's sizable Jewish population provides a built-in customer base for Ami and Rivka Schreiber's kosher business.
When Schreiber and his wife Rivka opened the eatery in March 2018, they had two priorities: make high-quality food and hold their restaurant to the highest standards of kosher law.
To accomplish their first goal, Ami asked for advice from Uri Herzog, one of the owners of Chopstix, a Chinese restaurant in Teaneck, New Jersey, near where he grew up. Herzog was so excited about the restaurant's business prospects that he became an equity partner. Schreiber also hired David Sun, a Chinese chef with four decades of restaurant experience. The rest of the kitchen staff is a mix of Chinese and Latin American workers.
Next, the Schreibers had to get their kitchen clean enough to pass the muster of the rabbis. Organizations like the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington send mashgichim, or on-site inspectors, to make sure a kosher establishment is following the rules.
According to Rabbi Jesse Paikin of the Sixth & I Synagogue in D.C., kosher law is complex and up to community interpretation.
"The rules aren't just about the food you eat, but how it's prepared and the degrees to which you can cook certain foods in proximity to one another," he described. "Really the question comes down to a matter of trust. Who do you trust to make sure the rules follow your understanding of Jewish law?"
From the way business is pouring in, it's clear the Jewish community in the Washington region trusts the Schreibers. The restaurant is nestled in an unassuming strip mall in Kemp Mill, an area of Silver Spring with a robust Orthodox population. Its neighbors include kosher food businesses like Shalom Kosher, Kosher Pastry Oven and Ben Yehuda Cafe and Pizzeria. The couple estimates that about 90% of their customers keep kosher.
A Holy Chow employee keeps track of the Christmas preorders.
One reason for the preponderance of Jewish clientele, they suspect, is their prices. Because of the lengths they have to go to ensure their ingredients and facilities are uncontaminated, their price point is higher than other restaurants with similar fare. They also have to make up for the fact that they're closed most of Fridays and all day on Saturdays in observance of Shabbos, the Jewish Sabbath.
Plus, Holy Chow's menu doesn't include some Chinese takeout staples like shrimp fried rice or pork dumplings because kosher law prohibits the consumption of shellfish and pig products. Ami says shrimp fried rice is their most-asked-for dish by non-Jewish potential customers.
But even with those constraints, business is booming. Outside of their carryout service, they run a catering business for nearby synagogues and Jewish day schools, as well as Jewish school groups visiting the nation's capital from New York and New Jersey. Last Christmas they had to turn down about half of their Christmastime orders just to keep up.
Amy Fan, the owner of David Chu's China Bistro in Baltimore, expects to serve around 800 customers on Christmas Day alone. Fan immigrated to the U.S. from southern China in 2002 and took over the restaurant in 2006. She didn't know much about Jewish tradition starting out, but she's picked up a lot from her customers and from the process of working with the mashgichim.
Her favorite Jewish tradition? Shabbos. She calls it the best part of her business.
"Shabbos makes you take a break from what you're doing. You can have more time with your family," she says. "The reason why we keep running for so many years is the Shabbos."
The Schreibers also treasure Shabbos, and the one right after Christmas will be particularly sweet. They both will be burning the midnight oil this week so that their customers can enjoy plates of egg rolls, chicken lo mein and beef with broccoli with their families on Christmas Day.
Then, on Friday, it will be time to rest.