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By Patricia Calhoun
Once is an event, twice is a coincidence, but three times? Three times is the beginning of an addiction, and for the Bush administration, Heaven Dragon Chinese Cuisine and Lounge is starting to look like an unhealthy habit.
It was back in 2002 that President George W. Bush got his first taste of Heaven Dragon. He was in Denver, doing whatever it is he does when he takes his show on the road -- raising funds, campaigning, freeing the world from the tyranny of evildoers and homosexuals -- and he had worked up a powerful hunger. Enter Heaven Dragon.
Why this unassuming little strip-mall outpost in the wilds of big-box suburbia? Well, I'd like to think it was because our commander in chief wanted to see something of the immigrant experience in action, a successful small business owned and operated by one of those fellow Americans he's always going on about -- someone who left school after the fifth grade and made it to Denver by way of a yam farm in Canton, a refugee camp in Macau and then the kitchens of L.A.'s Chinese ex-pat community. I'd like to think that he asked someone on his staff to ask some knowledgeable local to point him in the direction of the best Chinese food in a hundred miles, and that this place in Thornton was the natural choice.
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
According to the official version of the story, it was Senator Wayne Allard (or one of the wonks in his employ) who suggested Heaven Dragon to the Bushies. But there's another possible explanation: Google Dan Tang, owner of Heaven Dragon (and Pearl Wok in Broomfield), and if you look at what he does with his money, what you get is a pretty clear and concise record of the man's politics. Eight thousand dollars to Campbell for Colorado, four grand to both John Thune for U.S. Senate and Bob Beauprez for Congress, another two thousand to Bush/ Cheney '04. So far this year, Tang's donations are by far the biggest in his zip code, and over the years he's thrown tens of thousands of dollars into the Republican Party money machine. But Tang (who says he's "unaffiliated" politically) had more than partisanship as a motivator. The man wanted to cook for a president, and he worked every connection he could until his wish came true.
Tang delivered that first order himself. It was the American dream in action, and not a bad climb for a yam farmer from Canton. Tang says it was one of the most exciting days of his life.
Then, when Bush returned to Colorado in May to speak at the Air Force Academy graduation ceremonies, his people put in a second call to Tang, ordering the exact same thing: Peking duck, sesame chicken, Hunan chicken and fried shrimp. The president and First Lady enjoyed their feast aboard Air Force One, no doubt while bugging the pilot to do repeated flyovers of Kerry/Edwards headquarters.
And when Vice President Dick Cheney stopped in Denver last month to rouse the rabble and watch his boss during the first debate, did he dial room service? No, he ordered in from Heaven Dragon: Peking duck, two kinds of chicken and some crispy shrimp.
Say one thing for these guys, they're consistent. But imagine for a minute that you're the vice president of the United States. You're rich as sin, you're so crooked you need two helpers to screw you into your pajamas every night, and you can eat any damn place you please. You could demand -- under threat of an IRS audit -- that Goose Sorenson personally deliver you a grilled-cheese sandwich or that Bryan Moscatello bring you ribs and then dance for you while you eat. But Cheney ordered in from Heaven Dragon (and tipped well, from what I hear), which tells me that the big dogs in the Bush administration have come to identify food from Heaven Dragon with visiting Denver, the way I do breakfast at Amy's Place with a trip to Buffalo or a richer foodie than me would La Tour D'Argent with spring in Paris.
I was so there.
The exterior of Heaven Dragon looked innocuous enough. No hundred-foot-tall inflatable George Bush balloons on the roof, no Dobermans trained to attack at the smell of patchouli or liberalism. But once I opened the door, I found myself staring at a rogues' gallery of Republican Party bigwigs, both local and national, all staring back, grinning, from big frames on every wall of the lobby. There was Rudy Giuliani with Dan Tang; Dick Cheney looming all huge and crazy-eyed, shaking Tang's hand; the president looking for all the world like a cardboard cutout of himself, standing with his fake smile and his arm around Tang's shoulder. The pictures were everywhere, blown up to gigantic poster size, crowding out smaller publicity snaps and framed letters from important people. Near the grand arch leading from the lobby into the dining room was a thank-you note from the president, complimenting Tang on that second takeout order, saying how much he and the missus enjoyed it, and closing with a quick God bless you and God bless America.
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.
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...
A restaurant owner's politics, no matter how overt, don't matter a damn once the plates hit the table. I don't care if the guy cooking my food is a Democrat, a Republican or a member of the Bull Moose Party. The food is all that counts. I wanted to know what it was about Heaven Dragon that kept the White House coming back for more. I had hoped for a great find -- a suburban gem with perfect traditional fare, or just a novel take on the cuisine of the Mysterious East.
But if this is what Dubya and Cheney eat, it's no wonder our vice president is followed everywhere by a team of crack cardiologists with nitro shots in their speed-draw holsters. Instead of fortune cookies, Heaven Dragon should give away arterial stents and pacemakers at the end of every meal. And if chasing after the president's dining dollars taught me anything about politics, it's this: Don't take any restaurant advice from Wayne Allard.