Meditations in Red
This is your father's bad toupee. It's a leisure suit, lovingly tended and preserved and worn regularly by a guy who still thinks he looks good. It's an old Volvo kept running by unconditional love and duct tape, the ABBA record you listen to when no one else is home, a Mork & Mindy re-run caught on cable at three in the morning, your grandma's collection of Hummel figurines.
Located in a nondescript storefront pressed up tight against Broadway for the past thirty years, surrounded by nothing in particular, Twin Dragon is a restaurant you either love or have never heard of. It's the kind of place you find accidentally (at any rate, it's a place I found accidentally) and become irrationally attached to for no easily definable reason -- returning sporadically until one day, years later, you realize you've become a regular, a part of the slow stream of commerce that keeps neighborhood restaurants like this open and operating through the decades, your history with it recorded in credit-card receipts, crumpled to-go menus shoved in junk drawers and yellowing fortune cookie messages kept because maybe they meant something at the time and because throwing away a fortune cookie fortune always seems like asking for bad luck.
I keep mine. Not all of them, but some. "You will live to see interesting times" stuck to the computer monitor in my office and "Be moderate where pleasure is concerned" stashed in my wallet, probably because it's solid advice that I've never been able to take.
I don't remember when I first wandered into Twin Dragon, but I remember where I sat -- at an oversized table pressed up against the wall, big enough for a party of six, but given to Laura and me because we were the only customers there -- and I remember what we ate. So that we didn't feel lonely with all that space between us and around us, we filled our table with food. Egg rolls and fat barbecued pork ribs with little bowls of hot Chinese mustard; a pupu platter with a Sterno fire flickering blue in the middle; sesame chicken so guiltlessly honey-sweet and sticky that the overkill Americanization was almost admirable, and tea-smoked duck that was actually duck served Beijing-style -- deeply earthy and faintly bittergreen in flavor, hacked up into big, rude chunks, brought to the table on a platter with scallions and rice flour pancakes.
I don't remember the date, but I do remember what I drank: Mai Tais, several of them, served in chipped ceramic pineapples like the kind you sometimes find on a high shelf in the less reputable thrift stores if you're very lucky, with orange slices and unnaturally red maraschino cherries speared on the end of a toothpick umbrella. Twin Dragon's bar sells these umbrellas, at 25 cents each. I remember that, too.
And while I don't remember how we first landed at Twin Dragon, I know why I keep going back. It's the same reason why I hang onto the picture of the girl I took to my senior prom, why Laura and I can never seem to throw away even our most embarrassing cassette tapes (Bananarama, two copies of the Repo Man soundtrack, Duran Duran's View to a Kill recorded off the radio, complete with part of a clipped weather report for Philadelphia predicting snow), and why we move with Laura's Millennium Falcon and Han Solo action figure packed away in a box labeled "decorations." We keep these things because they are important in ways that go far beyond their physical, material value (though I swear, if we hang onto that Millennium Falcon long enough, it'll put our kids through college) and because they remind us of a time -- however brief -- when such things were the most important things in the world. I keep going back to Twin Dragon because it reminds me of five or ten or a dozen places just like it that were once important to me, because it's comfortable to me in a way that has nothing to do with actual comfort and because I love tiki bars and Twin Dragon is the closest thing I've found to one in Colorado.
The space is colored red, imperial red, that hyper-saturated, electric red you only find in porn stores and Chinese restaurants of a certain age. Red lamps, red tiles carved with filigreed dragons on the ceiling, wooden chairs covered in candy-apple lacquer so thick it seems like it would crack if tapped just right, slashes of red in the art on the walls like blood from a fresh wound, red cherries in the drinks and garnishing the plates. Our first time through the dining room, Laura and I reminisced about another place we'd loved together, another Chinese storefront like Twin Dragon, a place we'd go sometimes on Mondays -- my one day off -- when we were living in sin back in Rochester. The food was awful and neither of us could remember the name, but we would sit at a table crammed up against the window and drink Mai Tais and Zombies and Suffering Bastards that all tasted the same, our table lit by the red glow of the neon over the door. And on really good nights, we would stagger home drunk in the rain -- just like in the movies.
There was another place in Albuquerque -- Golden China, I think it was called -- that was a real tiki bar. Outrigger canoe hung from the ceiling. Sculpted waterfall in the lobby. Don Ho cover band on the weekends -- a three-piece ensemble whose combined age was about six hundred, kicking out the jams on "Girl from Ipanema" and "My Way." Every drink came with an umbrella in it. Even the beers. And the cocktails all tasted like they were made with moonshine and jet fuel.
We spent our first night at Twin Dragon remembering other nights, immediately liking the place because it reminded us of other places we liked. And I go back now because, inexplicably, that night instantly became one that I know I'm going to be reminded of at some other time long after I've moved on from here, in another red-on-red Chinese restaurant-slash-tiki bar, on some night when I least expect it.
I sit in the smoking section and am often the only one there, so the restaurant has to turn on the ventilator fans just for me. But no one complains. The staff at Twin Dragon include some of the most friendly, accommodating people I've ever had the pleasure of being served by. When I'm in a rush, they'll pile up course upon course, flights colliding on the table with no pause between. And when I'm not, the servers come in quiet as geishas, delivering and removing plates at a stately pace. Beside the door, near the cash register, there is a sign with thirteen rules for service carefully printed in multicolored marker. My guess is that everyone on the floor knows them by heart. Between tasks, the servers cluster in the back of the restaurant, watching the room -- and the slightest, unconsidered action will draw them to your side. It's like being a tourist at an auction house and accidentally buying a Picasso while brushing a bit of lint from your lapel, but that's okay, because it means I never have to wait for another Tsing Tao -- served in a short pilsner glass curved like a 1940's pin-up girl -- or another course when I'm ready.
I almost always order the same things at Twin Dragon. First, egg drop soup so thick it's almost an aspic or a Jell-O mold, set with sticks of tofu in suspension and fresh carrots, peas and mushrooms -- the Chinese mirepoix. Shao mai dumplings are next, served with tongs and placed on a plate doodled with salty-sweet soy sauce, the little bundles manipulated in such a way that they have four pockets on top, holding a single pea, a sliver of mushroom, a flake of carrot, a kernel of corn. The pockets are pretty, but I start by biting the bottom of each dumpling, where the filling is stiff and chunky with shrimp. The aftertaste is slightly fishy, like eating ramen soup. And I eat "Strange Aromatic Chicken" because when you see something like that on a menu, you just have to order it. The dish is neither strange nor particularly aromatic, but rather a huge portion of shredded chicken breast in a reddish-orange sauce gentler than most Szechuan, but still spicy, served with a tangle of scallions, rice noodles, bean sprouts and dry, raw vegetables.
The kitchen here is talented, and takes lots of time on every dish. The crew cuts lovely garnishes -- flowered stalks of lemongrass, basil leaves and cherries assembled to look like fruit and branch -- and every ingredient is high quality and obsessively fresh. The pea pods snap when I bite them; there isn't a limp bean sprout in the bunch. When I order pork fried rice, rather than getting white rice stained with soy, studded with cubes of that pre-fab pork product so common at most Chinese restaurants, I get wok-fried rice, browned in the dry heat, cooked perfectly and shot through with shreds of tender meat cut off the chop.
Last week, I realized how much I'd missed Twin Dragon and all the other places it makes me miss. Drawn into its irresistible Szechuan orbit, I headed straight down Broadway to the nearly empty dining room, and sat at a table with its plastic cloth and glass top, tea pot and ceramic pineapple full of rum and fruit juice in front of me, surrounded by curling dragons and pictures of cranes. I ordered mango chicken -- a special -- with chicken and slices of yellow-green mango swimming in a creamy sauce of lime and lemongrass and coconut milk and red pepper. It was perfect for the tiki lover in me, because it's not like any tiki restaurant ever really survived on Polynesian food. Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Balinese -- that's what tiki kitchens always cooked, plus one or two vaguely Hawaiian-sounding things. Aloha chicken with pineapple chunks. Kahlua pork. Poi.
And duck. When I find myself sitting alone, a hundred dragons looking down on me, I almost always order duck, because duck is what Twin Dragon does best. My apologies to the French, but the Chinese have forgotten more about the art of cooking duck than Michelin's finest ever knew. The Peking duck (described on the menu as coming from a "1,000 year tradition" and tasting like every century) is wonderful finger-food, served (like that original tea-smoked duck special) with pancakes and shredded scallions. This night, I ate roast duck -- half a bird, skin on, fat retained, deeply and completely redolent of clove and cinnamon and smoke, chopped into huge pieces, bones and all. It was like a Chinese duck-slasher movie -- leg and thigh and rib and breast all jumbled together. I could have reassembled half a duck from the pieces laid out on the platter. The meat was meltingly tender, fatty and greasy and wonderful, with crisp edges like good barbecue. There was so much, I couldn't possibly eat it all.
We all have restaurants like Twin Dragon, restaurants we go to again and again simply because we can't help it. The gravity of memory draws us back, the power of certain unlikely addresses to fill our most unconsidered needs. These are the places we go when we're hungry for more than just dinner.
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