Peking Dragon's Sweet-and-Sour Splendor
It was Sunday night at Peking Dragon Restaurant in Dana Point, one of only three Chinese eateries in the seaside city, and every Naugahyde booth was taken. You had to wait at least 15 minutes if you didn't have a reservation. Standing there in the lobby, you watched as plates of glistening sweet-and-sour chicken were marched out of the kitchen and noodles in swamps of soy sauce-spiked gravies landed on tables with a thud. Customers twirled up the latter with forks as though they were slurping spaghetti.
This is Chinese as most Americans know it—cuisine that might be more familiar to someone from Canton, Ohio, than Canton Province. It's the kind of place that still has chop suey, egg foo young and rumaki on the menu, where a request for crispy noodles means a big plate of dun-colored, bite-sized lengths instead of a rare Sichuanese speciality. You dip the deep-fried twigs in the orange-colored sweet-and-sour sauce poured from a trio of carafes supplied on every table. Another carafe holds hot mustard; the third, a vinegar-soy blend you'd presumably use on rice.
The waiters, Chinese men in their 50s wearing vests and shiny nametags, are seasoned pros and look as though they've worked here forever. They go about their duties efficiently and with few words, doing what most waiters don't these days: perform actual service. They'll clear out the dirty plates before you even ask. Order a mu shu anything, and they'll take two spoons to assemble it tableside, stuffing thin crepes with the stir-fried hash consisting of meat strips and eggs, forming four fat burritos you're supposed to pick up with your hands after you dab on a little more hoisin sauce to taste. If you thought ahead and ordered the Peking duck a day in advance, they'll carve the bird and debone it, shaving off the skin to be bundled up with the pancakes into stogies. If you opt for the barbecue sparerib, one of Peking Dragon's best appetizers—ruddy, roasted bones shellacked with a sticky glaze—your waiter will portion out one rib per person at your table, each in its own saucer.
But perhaps the most impressive thing he'll do tableside happens when you order the sizzling rice soup. He'll take the plate of crisped rice and dump it into a vessel containing the soup, making the bowl violently hiss and sputter as though a just-forged crowbar was dunked in water. The sound—more exciting than the actual soup itself, as it's just bits of meat and micro-diced vegetables in a clear broth that slowly turns the nutty, crispy rice soggy—will turn heads and inspire the next table who hasn't yet ordered it to do so.
Second to the soup, you'll want the Shan Hi pork, a meaty mountain of sweetness consisting of nothing but batter-fried pieces of pig that are wok-tossed in a brown, syrupy sauce, coating it not unlike the orange chicken everyone gets at Panda Express. Eat it fast, though. The longer you wait, the more its tenuous airy-yet-crispy texture disappears into the dampness. After this happens, it will become merely okay instead of great. If you opt for this dish, it's wise to order the mayo-dressed, honey-glazed walnut shrimp instead of the Mandarin prawns, which also turn out batter-coated, deep-fried, then lubed up in a sauce with a similar flavor profile to the pork.
There is, of course, kung pao everything. The beef variant is kind of gloppy and greasy, with a thin veneer of the cooking oil slicking every piece of meat, onion and green pepper. It is, however, spicier than you anticipated. The dried chile- pepper pods will have leeched their hotness into the gravy. Gravy, by the way, is par for the course here. The snow peas with water chestnuts is drowned in so much of its neutral-flavored cornstarched gravy it veers dangerously close to the territory of soup. But in other dishes, such as the hot braised tofu, their version of ma-po with curdles of ground pork, the gravy—here adorned with bits of pickled vegetables and flecks of chile—makes the dish.
Everything else you order here you've probably eaten a thousand times before. You know, for instance, that it's better to ask for the house special fried rice than the chicken, beef or shrimp by itself because for the same price, you get all three. And you know that the crispy chow mein is, in fact, going to use the same fried noodles you ate earlier, this time as the base of a stir-fry that's actually just the chop suey. It's the closest you ever need to get to ordering the latter. Because even here in Dana Point, where the Asian demographic hovers in the single-digit percentile, no one orders the chop suey.
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