Thursday, April 12, 2012
According to the trade publication Chinese Restaurant News, there are more Chinese restaurants in the country than Wendy’s, Burger King and McDonald’s franchises combined.
In other words, you could make a compelling case that America’s food is… Chinese food. Or at the very least, adds UC Irvine history Professor Yong Chen, who co-curates The Chinese Restaurant in America at New York City’s Museum of Chinese in the Americas, it’s fundamental to our society’s caloric intake.
“[Chinese food] has become part of our consciousness,” he told the New York Times. “It is quintessentially American.”
Locally, no one does it with quite as much range and value as Happy Dragon. The unassuming spot, quietly located next to a trophy shop and laundromat on Fremont Street in North Monterey, deploys over-the-top Chinese restaurant décor with red lanterns dangling from the ceilings, gold leaf dragons wrapped around a pair of large columns and a statue of Buddha drenched in matching gold. But it’s the bountiful lunchtime menu – offered Monday through Friday from 11am until 2:30pm – that proves to be just as over-the-top, and a major draw for locals-in-the-know. Happy Dragon’s hefty selection of more than 50 lunch specials includes the soup of the day, steamed rice (fried rice or chow mein for an additional $1.75) and fried wontons (dine-in only) for as little as $6.95.
Upon our arrival, a piping-hot cup of egg flower soup is served promptly as a colleague and I peruse the colossal menu and its host of pork, chicken, beef, seafood and vegetarian dishes all less than $10.
I go with the kung pao beef ($6.95), featuring a colorful piles of sliced red and green bell peppers, roasted peanuts, carrots and chili peppers cooked in a cocktail of rice wine, hoisin and oyster sauce. The dish is plenteous in meat and veggies but falls short in the overall heat factor for a dish that usually packs much spice. My buddy goes with a special, asparagus with chicken ($8.95). We agree the dish is unique – and with steamed rice easily enough for two meals – though the overall taste lacks pep.
Vegetarians will like it here: Meat-free delights available every day include Napa cabbage and black mushroom tofu ($9.50) and deep-fried eggplant in fresh lemon or garlic sauce ($8.50). If you’re in the mood for a zesty seafood lunch, Happy Dragon offers squid in black bean sauce ($7.45) and spicy curry prawns ($7.45).
Meanwhile, the restaurant’s dinner menu, which unfolds like a mammoth AAA map of California, features literally hundreds of pork, chicken and beef options, as well as 32 vegetarian plates like spicy Mongolian tofu ($9.25) and curry vegetables ($7.95). The value factor of lunch extends into the dinnertime hours with three $27.95 dinner specials for two – which can easily feed a family of four – and four combo dinners for one ($14.95-$15.45), which all come with an egg roll, fried prawns, two main entrees and fried rice. It’s a lot for a little.
A friend and I go for the $27.95 package that includes hot-and-sour soup, eggrolls, fried prawns, Peking spareribs, Kung pao beef and pork-fried rice. We also order general’s chicken ($9.95), Happy Dragon’s version of General Tso’s chicken, after our waitress informs us that it’s one of the most popular items.
The dish is quintessential East-meets-West cuisine: chicken deep fried in a cakey batter and slathered in rich, sweet-and-spicy sauce. It feels more like a dessert than a main course. The Peking spareribs – miniature pork riblets bathed in sweet and sour sauce – are quite tasty, though they’re a tad sweet. The one part of our meal that stands out above everything else is the hot-and-sour soup (also a la carte at $7.25/medium; $8.95/large), one of the most satisfying takes on the classic dish that I’ve tasted thanks to a beautiful auburn-colored broth of white pepper (the hot) and Chinese black vinegar (the sour). It also shares the strength to combat the nastiest of head colds, and the thin slices of pork, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tofu strips, egg, lily buds and tree ear fungus create a robust orchestra of texture, flavor and color that eats like a meal.
Another Happy Dragon standout is their barbecue sparerib appetizer ($6.95). The four lean, bone-in pork ribs are served on a bed of crisp shredded lettuce. The best part about these ribs: their smoky flavor born of a semi-sweet dry rub, a welcome shift from the usual dousing of heavy sweet-and-sour sauce. The Szechuan-style green beans ($9.45) have also earned a place in my heart. The simple homily of garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes and soy sauce coats – without saturating – each green bean evenly, giving every bite a tangy and spicy personality.
A note on making your exit: Whether you go for lunch or dinner, there’s no way to avoid leaving without an ample-sized bag of leftovers. But leftover Chinese food is often even better. More good news: The joint is family-owned by longtime locals, and their vast array of reasonably priced dishes can also be delivered to your doorstep. It’s Chinese food news like that that makes me proud to be an American.
HAPPY DRAGON 2329 Fremont St., Monterey • 11am-9:30pm Mon-Fri; 11:30am-9:30pm Sat-Sun. • 372-3541