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In the dining room, the GOP cheerleading ended and the red-lacquer-and-dragons motif took over. The space screamed "I am a Chinese restaurant" the way small-town Asian joints had to back in the days of the first President Bush, before Asian cuisines became so ubiquitous, when restaurants had to employ some kind of delicate symbology to let customers know not to expect cheeseburgers and French fries -- like tiling the ceiling with a thousand curling golden dragons, for example, or drenching the room in enough red paint and gold flake that it could only be a Chinese restaurant or a whorehouse. Above the windows, sketched into the trim, were Chinese characters that I assume spelled out something fitting, like No New Taxesor Republicans Do It Aloneor maybe just Eat More Wontons. On Heaven Dragon's menu were the same kind of blurry, neon-bright pictures that you still sometimes see hanging above the counters in struggling storefront Chinese wok-and-a-dream delivery joints. It had been years since I'd last seen subgum soup on a menu. Or so much San Francisco-style immigrant egg foo yong. Or those flashy sizzle-platter rice dishes that were once the highlight of any Chinese dinner in the American heartland. Obviously, subtlety is not Heaven Dragon's strong suit.
A friendly, smiling waiter brought my cold Tsingtao beer, crispy noodles and hot mustard, and then Tang himself -- who still puts in twelve-hour days, every day, whether he's cooking for presidents or peasants -- took my order. The room was slowly filling with families and kids (lots of kids). Seated in one of the deep booths and looking around at these neighborhood types, at the soft-footed and accommodating staff, the throwback decor, the back-lit pictures of rural China along the far wall, I found myself rather liking the place, so comforting and conservative, so unashamedly retro in this age of Asian fusions and neo-traditionalism. And I was fully prepared for a culinary time capsule of my non-gourmet youth -- a conservative expression of immigrant cuisine capable of charming a conservative White House that hates immigrants.
3730 E. 120th Ave.
Denver, CO 80233
Region: North Denver
Pu-pu platter: $4.95 (for two)
Wonton soup: $1
Egg drop soup: $1
Sizzling rice chicken: $7.95
Peking duck: $28
Shrimp in lobster sauce: $8.95
Fried rice: $6.95
Sesame chicken: $8.75
The soups seemed to stay the course. The wonton version was a little salty, but the wontons were good. And the egg drop was exactly what I expected -- its smooth, rounded broth thick with ropy streamers of egg white, almost a sodium aperitif that made for an excellent (if somewhat white-trash) pairing with my bitter Chinese beer. But when the entrees arrived, I began to suspect that Tang -- for all his generosity and glad-handing -- was actually a deep-cover Democratic operative working to slowly cripple the Republican ticket (Cheney especially) with bloat and cardiac arrhythmia.
I'd ordered (as I'm subconsciously compelled to in such surroundings) shrimp with lobster sauce, that most decadent-sounding of dishes in all of Sino-American cooking. What I got was salt with salt sauce and a salt garnish. The lobster sauce was egg-thick and viscous like thinned Vaseline, studded with wrinkled peas and bits of mushroom. The shrimp (jumbo spot prawns, actually) were as murderously tart and puckering as a mouthful of SnoMelt. I'd managed to get through about five bites -- with two glasses of water and an extra beer as backup -- when the headache set in.
I'd ordered the "sizzling rice chicken" for the pure theater of watching Tang bring it tableside and pour the concoction right onto a super-heated black platter, filling the room with the smell of flash-searing chicken, garlic and a sound like Rice Krispies in milk amplified through a stack of stadium speakers. But after the show was over, the dish was a disappointment -- chicken in a seawater gelee delicately accented with cornstarch and rock salt.
After an hour at the salt lick, I waddled out into the fading daylight with a hot wire running from the back of my neck to my left eye, with every cell in my body desperately clutching its water and a pain in my ribs like I'd been kidney-punched. But two days later, I was back for more. This time, I went for the full George W. Bush Presidential Happy Meal, adding a gallon of water stashed in my car for dessert and a pu-pu platter to start.
The appetizers were the best part of my meal: The teriyaki beef was sweet, nicely flavored with smoke and just a soupçon of Sterno from the tiny hibachi flickering in the center of the platter; the ribs were huge and meaty and not overly slathered with sugar and red food dye; and the crab rangoons were golden-brown and stuffed with (imitation) crab and cream cheese in an evenly balanced mix just barely melted (rather than clotted) by the heat of the fryer.
But the duck was nothing I'd go out of my way to eat again without someone first donating $2,000 to my Jason Sheehan for City Ombudsman campaign (I'm running as a Whig). The bird was an over-fat specimen, and the subdermal fat cap was still solid, not having been cooked long or hot enough to loosen up and melt a little into the meat. So the meat was decent but dry, and the skin was dry but not crunchy. And while the Peking duck came with surprisingly light rice-flour pancakes, the plum sauce might as well have been squeezed out of those little to-go packets. The rest of Bush's picks were no better. The fried shrimp were tough and chewy and flavorless, like they'd been cut from the sole of the sneaker of the guy who mops up at Sea World. The sesame chicken tasted like honey-dipped fat, the fried rice was as dull as a C-Span debate on tort reform, and even my fortune cookie was lame. It said I did well at organized sports. Oh, how it knew me...
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