Neighbors like their Happy Dragon.
Thursday, March 11, 2004
For six years Happy Dragon’s owner Bong Huynh operated out of a much smaller building nearby. All the neighborhood families who kept coming back convinced him to move to more spacious quarters on Fremont Avenue.
Bong has made the most of his space. Two big red pillars on either side of the counter greet you when you walk into the wide reception area. Large scenes of Chinese landscapes with mountains, clouds, and little villages typical of Chinese landscape painting decorate the walls. Best of all there are several big, round tables with lazy Susan turntables in the middle of them designed for serving Chinese family-style meals.
So that was what I decided to do. “We’re going to eat like a Chinese family,” I told my husband Laurent and my daughter as we looked over our menus. “That means we order a soup, a poultry or meat dish, a fish or seafood dish, a vegetable dish, and rice to share all at once,” I announced, proud of the knowledge I had gleaned from Nina Simonds Classic Chinese Cuisine.
Heeding my proclamation, we ordered egg rolls (four for $3.95), crab rangoons (eight pieces for $5.50), egg-flower soup ($5), Mongolian Beef ($8.25), Shrimp in Lobster Sauce ($9.75), and Eggplant in Yu Shiang Sauce ($8.25). My efforts were undermined, however, when our waiter began bringing us our dishes in courses, starting with the egg flower soup. My family was saved from my whims this time.
Happy Dragon’s egg-flower soup tastes of ginger, chicken, and fresh corn. Crunchy water chestnuts added some texture to the velvety sheets of egg that had been stirred in at the end of cooking. The soup gets its thick consistency from the addition of cornstarch. My only complaint was that it arrived warm instead of hot. I learned later that the restaurant was short-handed the night we were there, which might explain the temperature problem.
Our egg rolls had a yummy, flaky wonton covering and al dente cabbage filling. Egg rolls dipped in plum sauce with a good dab of mustard for heat on them is one of my favorite dishes in the world. The crab rangoons resemble four-pointed stars made of deep-fried wontons with a crab filling in the middle. Laurent liked dipping the crisp rangoons in plum sauce—a Chinese version of chips and dip. The crab filling seemed buttery to me, but Laurent loved it.
The family-style dinner plans went further out the window as my daughter claimed the Mongolian Beef for herself. This dish is typical of the northern Mandarin cuisine that Happy Dragon serves. The Mongols introduced barbecuing to Chinese cuisine in this dish that features sweetened soy sauce marinade flavored with ginger and sesame. Happy Dragon uses fresh scallion that counters the rich flavor of the marinade. Mongolian Beef is not my favorite dish, but I liked the restaurant’s version.
Happy Dragon bills itself as a specialist in northern Mandarin and western Sichuan cuisine. Where North China experiences extremes in climate brought on by Siberian winds during winter and heat blasts from the Gobi Desert during the summer, western Sichuan’s hot, humid climate yields foods like chili peppers and eggplants in abundance. Sichuan is famous for the eggplants in the Yu Shiang sauce I ordered, although it is usually prepared with ground pork or beef. I thought this vegetarian dish would be light, but the minute I tasted the sweetly tart sauce I knew that stir-fried vegetables can pack in the calories, too. Happy Dragon’s version of this dish is mild, so I added some of the chili paste that was on the table to give it some kick. The traditional recipe calls for a generous dose of chili paste—hot, spicy food is a trademark of Sichuan cuisine.
Laurent’s Shrimp in Lobster Sauce typifies the haute cuisine of southern Cantonese cooking. The shrimp were sweet and the sauce, full of peas, corn, green peppers, carrots, and many crunchy water chestnuts, was so rich that Laurent could not finish it. (Personally I think the crab rangoons dunked in plum sauce had something to do with this.)
There are some insider techniques and ingredients that make this such a great dish. The shrimp are coated in egg white and refrigerated before they are stir-fried. This gives them the beautiful sheen I always associate with Chinese food. Also, ground pork usually gets stir-fried into the sauce, which is thickened with egg. Often the pork flavor is the taste you just cannot place when eating Chinese soups.
Laurent and I both like the Japanese Kirin Ichiban beer with Happy Dragon’s food. The beer’s crisp flavor cuts the rich sauces that seem to be the restaurant’s specialty.
Rich sauces don’t keep away the customers; the place was packed with
families on a Sunday night. Our bill for $55
quickly made me understand why.
Happy Dragon Restaurant
2329 N. Fremont St., Monterey 372-1906
Open Mon-Fri 11am-9:30pm;