When I had moved back to New York in 1990, I had a Chinese room mate. And the summer that we had started at Eastman Kodak, his parents had come to visit. His father was a chef at a Chinese restaurant in Hempstead, New York. Okay. We let his parents have a free reign of the kitchen and oh what a glorious decision that was. I cannot begin to tell you all that his parents cooked. All of it was lip-smacking, finger-licking, I-gotta-have-a-cigarette delicious. I can’t describe it any other way other than you could actually taste the food. What made it bad was that afterwards I went to Chinese restaurants — rather Chinese restaurants that pander to the American palate — and I was nonplussed to say the least. Ben’s parents had spoiled me by whipping up authentic Chinese dishes from the mainland. Beef and broccoli? Kung pao chicken? Szecheuan pork? No, it was none of that stuff that you can find in the frozen section at your local grocer. It was the good stuff and I had then sworn off eating any Chinese food until Ben’s parents came to visit. The last time I had them in my kitchen was 1994.
Fast forward to the present. My restaurant adventurous friend and a few others were racking our minds trying to find another restaurant representing ethnicity C that we had not tried. Chinese was always in the back of our minds, but you can find a Chinese restaurant in Chicago on basically every other corner that there isn’t a McDonald’s or Starbucks. My friend knew someone who has cousins who own a Chinese restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown. The best way to get authentic Chinese cuisine in Chinatown is to go with a Chinese. I always thought that was an inappropriate joke, but my belly can vouch for the fact that going to a Chinatown restaurant with another Chinese and getting the best food is not a joke. So, it was off to Chinatown to meet with Chi and her husband for the real deal.
Dragon Court. Located at 2414 S. Wentworth Ave., we all met up and entered into the restaurant that looks more like a store front with seating for perhaps a few people at most. Once you go in and go around the corner, you soon discover otherwise. The dining room was huge and filled with Chinese dining family style. Yet again, an indication of the authenticity of a dining establishment is the representation of those of the culture and Dragon Court had plenty of it. Having gone with Chi, who was our spokesperson and translator, and there being eight of us in tow, we received preferential treatment — we got the upstairs dining room all to ourselves. That’s service.
Having come in from the outside where it was blisteringly hot, we needed something to cool off. So, we started off with water and rounds of smoothies — mango and pineapple, some with tapioca pearls, some without. Delicious. Refreshing. They hit the spot. Then the good stuff started coming to the table. We didn’t get menus, as the meal had already been prepared in anticipation of our coming.
First to the table was a serving bowl of bamboo and seafood soup. Soup usually goes over well with me during winter months, and Chicago gets eight months of winter. Three staple soups you get at Chinese restaurants are egg drop, wonton, and hot and sour. This was the first time I had bamboo and seafood soup, and let me be the first to tell you that I will learn Chinese so that I get it authentic style when I go back to Dragon Court. The bamboo has a texture that may seem a little different to some, but it’s balanced out nicely by the clams and the thick broth. Because we had the soup served family style, we all spooned from the common bowl until it was all gone.
With the soup finished, it was on then. The waiter brought out broiled and fried fish served over Chinese broccoli. Hello! Not heavy on spices, but incredible on taste, this dish proved that you don’t have to laden food with seasoning to make it tasty. Let the natural taste come through. Next up was a plate of crab and lobster. Oh happy day! Baltimore is known for crabs, but the crab we had was so huge and tasty that we can truly say that we’ve had the best crabs ever. And the last time I had really good lobster was when I was in Montreal and when I used to go to Maine. The lobster was absolutely meaty and basted just enough not to hide the taste, but to bring it out more and into our mouths to which we delighted. The plate of shrimp served over Chinese broccoli was fantastic. Plump. Succulent. Yummy. We swirled the spinner in the centre of the table, spooning something from each entrée so that we could then spoon the good stuff into our mouths to devour.
And if that wasn’t enough, the waiter brought out a plate of pork chops with stuffed vegetables and chopped shrimp in a fried batter. Oh my god! You’d think that at some point something would come to the table and we’d all wince because certainly at least one dish would taste nasty. No. No. No. It’s wasn’t beef with broccoli, orange chicken, kung pao chicken, or something schezeuan. While we were still handling our business of enjoying great food and great conversation, the waiter came back to the table to fill our water, to get us some more smoothies, and then he came back with another dish. This time, it was abalone. Uh oh! This may not be a dish for all people and it’s probably one that you’d want to tell someone months after they’ve eaten it if they’re only accustomed to being safe with the food they eat. Abalone is a large sea snail. Cooked just right and served with huge mushrooms in a tasty brown gravy over boiled cabbage, you’d would think you were in heaven. We were and if there is food to be had in heaven, I won’t turn my nose up at a dish of abalone.
Now, we had been eating like kings and queens all this time. The spinning board in the centre of the table got a lot of use as we served ourselves and ate of all the good things that the waiter had brought to the table from the kitchen. All along, I kept thinking that I had denounced Chinese food all this time when I could have gone to a Chinese restaurant with someone from China and gotten the real experience. You live and you learn. And you watch in amazement as another dish comes to your table. The waiter brought out our final dish, which was Singapore noodles with shrimp. Hello! We didn’t think it could be possible to put any more food into our bellies and after we had finished the plate of Singapore noodles, we couldn’t believe we had eaten all the food that we did. This presented a problem because we always have to have room for dessert. Fortunately, the Chinese dessert that we had was not one of those heavy eats that put you in a state of comatose. The waiter brought to us individual servings of sweet beans in a rich gravy. After a few spoons of it, we placed our cups on the table with complete satisfaction.
This experience taught me a few things that I will never forget. The best dining experiences are in a community setting, which has become commonplace in our dinner clique. Trying something that you’ve never had before won’t kill you. Not having a little adventure can be a bore, though. And Dragon Court has spoiled me even more than my room mate’s parents did when they had come to visit years ago. For all that we ate, it’s surprising that the bill had not come out way more than what it did. With filled bellies, happy faces, and a full appreciation for the fact that enjoying good food is an indication of enjoying life, we knew one thing for certain — we will go back.