Tasty Garden: Denny's By Way of Hong Kong

When I tell you the new Tasty Garden in Irvine has everything, I mean it. You can slurp on turtle soup, eat a Caesar salad, twirl a forkful of spaghetti, chase it with honey-glazed walnut shrimp and a stir-fry of bitter melon, then wash it all down with a smoothie. When you sit down, you're given two menus. One is pink; the other is red. And on these spiral-bound pages, expertly laid out and splashed with food glamour shots, are about 200 things you never knew one kitchen could cook without teleportation devices to other restaurants and a chef who's a little crazy in the head. Tasty Garden is a mini-chain of Hong Kong-style cafés that has become one of the most popular and successful of its genre in San Gabriel Valley (there's also one in Little Saigon).

The defining specialty of a Hong Kong-style café, or cha chaan teng (literally “tea restaurant”), like Tasty Garden is that it doesn't have one. Western food (or rather the Eastern idea of Western food) such as a club sandwich and baked salmon with buttered corn and onion rings can be ordered in the same breath as the kung pao chicken. That, and it's open late, which makes cha chaan tengs the Chinese equivalent of an American diner, where coffee along with something comforting and greasy can be ordered just before you turn in for the night.

The Tasty Garden chain is fast becoming the Denny's of cha chaan tengs, and I mean that in the nicest way. The new Irvine outlet is gleaming, lit bright enough to land planes, and looks as if it has a corporate daddy. All you have to do is embark on the exceedingly complicated endeavor of picking out items that won't clash. For example, there's a peanut butter and coconut pizza, which is listed as an appetizer. Or is it dessert? It's actually báobing, traditional Chinese pan-fried flatbread used to sandwich a filling of red bean, a smear of peanut butter, sesame seeds and coconut. And what are those little balls that resemble Japanese takoyaki that the menu calls “Crab Roe”? Why, they are takoyaki! Complete with squeaky octopus centers.

Menu exploration is made easier with those pictures. You just point, knowing that what you see is what you get. Besides, a few of the waiters don't speak a lick of English. Yet when you venture to the Westernized dishes and find a baked sole filet and chicken steak with spaghetti and mango cheese, you'll think to yourself, “That must be misspelled; they must mean manchego cheese.” Then, when your order comes and you see an all-beige, ugly pile of food and get a whiff of what smells like mango wafting up from it, you're not sure anymore. What you're sure of is that you just encountered the worst thing on the menu—a dish that tastes as bland as it looks. As you're eating, you come to the conclusion that this is what people in Hong Kong still think we Americans eat—a 1950s-era casserole dish that should remain on the dusty pages of your grand-aunt's Joy of Cooking.

But the chicken and fish in that dish are cooked rather well. The chicken skin is rendered crisp to golden flecks, the meat juice-bursting. In fact, Tasty Garden cooks everything well. Green beans are done crisp-tender, and cubes of filet mignon are stir-fried to such tenderness it almost feels unnatural. You can order the latter with mushrooms and a heavy hit of black pepper, or opt for the basic “French-style,” better known as bo luc lac to the Vietnamese. But even something as rudimentary as an egg is executed flawlessly here. In the dish of shrimp with scrambled egg, the shrimp still wiggles, and the egg is as silky and as creamy as you'll ever have this side of a proper French omelet.

There is a list of actual specialties. Among them are clams showered with near-pulverized bits of fried garlic that stick to the shells—and your teeth—in clumps. And I can't decide which noodle dish I liked better: the simplicity of the house special fried chow mein, which uses no meat, or the house special vermicelli, which has squid, shrimp and red bell peppers, all of it snappy.

There is one thing everyone must order at Tasty Garden: the Hong Kong-style waffles. It looks like bubble wrap and tastes as though someone combined the fluffy, eggy interior of a Madeleine, the crispy skin of a cake cone, and the soul of a Nilla wafer—the best interpretation of a Western foodstuff by a culture that thinks we still eat casseroles.



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