Don’t tell me you’ve never said it. I’m talking about what you do after going online to check your favorite Chinese restaurant’s menu. Or, if you’re still living in the 20th Century like I am, pulling the paper menu out of the don’t know where else to put it drawer.
You look at your significant other and say something like, “Let’s not order the same old same old, let’s try something different tonight.”
You start with plans to order three dishes you’ve never tried before, trim it back to two, then cut it back to one, then, when you realize you’re going to have to give up one of the old favorites, you order that “same old same old”.
Nobody’s more guilty than Don Day’s Wife and I.
“We’ll have the potstickers, those dumplings that you call giaozi on the menu, definitely fried not steamed; number eight, the orange chicken; number twelve, the crispy walnut shrimp; and steamed rice, but you don’t need to send so much, there’s just the two of us. How long will that be?”
We had to break away from the routine. I had an idea. Yes I do still have them. Occasionally.
I shared my plan with Don Day’s Wife. Let’s do what we sometimes do when we go to those chef-driven restaurants. Let’s just say “feed us”. Let’s let Dragon Chino make all the decisions. Let’s do dinner at the restaurant. And lets do it family style with a few of our friends.
I shared our plan with Luis Vargas, the owner of Dragon Chino. Luis said, “I’m in.” I shared our plan with 24 other people and 22 said, “We’re in.”
Luis started us off with what he calls Dragón de Fuego and I call Dragon Fire Shrimp. Now I’d seen this dish on the menu and I’d considered it. Except on the menu it has a tiny little red chile pepper below it and Don Day is not allowed to order things with little red chile peppers underneath their name.
But Chinese food is not like Mexican food. Or a lot of other spicy foods. The peppers are never chopped or sliced or ground or diced. They are left whole. So that their heat is gently released, like those first few minutes of a January night on top of that electric blanket. Then, if you are a some like it warm type instead of a some like it hot type, you just push the peppers to the side of the plate and enjoy.
Our friend Lorain, who is definitely in the some like it warm category, said this shrimp, broccoli, onion and bamboo shrimp dish will “be replacing the crispy walnut shrimp” on her next order. One convert down. No make that two when you include Don Day.
Next dish up was Gemas Wuhu. Wuhu is a city in southeastern China. Gemas is Spanish for gems. And these gems were giant pearls stuffed with chicken, cream cheese, carrots, scallions and coconut. They were quite unlike any Chinese dish I’d ever had. They disappeared quickly off the serving plates and then the dinner plates.
Luis Vargas told me, “The reason I chose the dragon fire shrimp and wuhu gems was because these two dishes were created by us. They are our signature dishes. They cannot be found in any other Chinese restaurant.”
I haven’t ordered a beef dish in a Chinese restaurant in at least ten years. Because Chinese restaurants almost always use sodium bicarbonate in their marinades. The baking soda causes a chemical reaction that does a great job of tenderizing the meat but also does awful things to the texture making it spongy and slimy and does nothing to help the taste. Plus Chinese-American restaurants have historically tended to use very cheap and chewy cuts. I’ve had dreams of ordering a beef dish and finding melt in my mouth short ribs piled high over broccoli but that dream has never come true.
Maybe I hadn’t ordered a beef dish in a decade but I wasn’t doing the ordering. Someone who knows a lot more about Chinese food was. Luis Vargas chose Changsha Beef, a dish he said came from “the province of Szechuan with a fusion from America”.
The beef arrived with red pepper (but not enough to scare the some who don’t like it hot away) mushrooms and broccoli, then was stir-fried and sprinkled with roasted sesame seed in what Luis called “a home special sauce”. And how was the beef I know you’re wondering. Tender, very tender. Cut nicely across the grain and I’m guessing most of that tenderness came from being battered with a mallet.
“Don Day’s Wife, remind me to put beef dishes back on the menu when we order from Dragon Chino”.
One more dish to go. Because I’ve always thought four dishes (not including rice, of course) are the complete Chinese meal and which is one of (but not the only) reasons to have children.
Though one look at Luis Vargas will tell you he has Asian in his blood, one look at his name will tell you he’s mostly Mexican. And Mexicans do even better things with pork than the Chinese. For the last dish, Luis chose pork in a black bean sauce with origins in China’s Hunan province. Once again it had lots of crisp, fresh vegetables.
For decades…no make that forever…the only pork I’ve ever ordered is barbecue or Mu Shu Pork when I made that almost weekly phone call. And the Mu Shu had everything to do with the pancakes and hoisin sauce and little or nothing to do with pork. I promise I will never do that again…well, at least without checking down to the bottom of the menu.
My horizons had been widened. I had crossed new borders. I had walked at least a little on the wild side. There was more to Chinese than potstickers and General Tso Chicken. There were new dishes to be discovered and enjoyed.
“We’ll have the Dragon Fire Shrimp, the Changsha Beef and the Orange Chicken…yes, we had to stick with one of the old favorites…and steamed rice, but you don’t need to send so much, there’s just the two of us. How long will that be?”
Dragon Chino is located at Salida de Celaya #71 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open Monday to Saturday, Noon to 10:00 pm; Sunday, Noon to 9:00 pm.