In the last few years the San Gabriel Valley, in particular areas like Alhambra and Monterey Park, has emerged as a culinary mecca of provincial Chinese specialities. Whether it’s the mouth-numbingly spicy Sichuan eats at Chengdu Taste, or the delicate soup-filled xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung, there isn’t a better area in Southern California for satisfying serious cravings for authentic Chinese food. Sometimes though, all I want is the westernized Chinese eats of my youth, in which case LA’s Chinatown is happy to oblige my nostalgic taste buds.
New Dragon Seafood Restaurant is a “hole-in-the-wall” in every sense of the term. In order to reach the front door you first walk through a narrow, circular entrance and down a carpeted corridor lined with boxes and banners boasting “Top 100 Speciality.” The interior is basic, about what you’d expect from most Chinatown eateries, with worn tables and chairs and a carpet that looked like it belonged in a college dorm room, mysterious stains and all. In addition to the plastic menu waiting on the table, the walls are covered with daily specials and family combo dinners that look like they haven’t changed since the restaurant opened in 2007. As tempting as the house recommendations were, I already knew what I wanted, and wasted no time ordering (with leftovers in mind).
A sizable portion of Mongolian beef reached the table first, the strips of meat slicked in a savory brown sauce and stir-fried with scallions and onions. The taste was fine, but the quality of the beef was an issue as it seemed every other bite was chewy to the point of being inedible. Easily the most disappointing dish of the evening.
With a meal like this you have to have something green on the table, if only to pretend that it somehow cancels the greasy noodles and pieces of fried pork in a sticky neon-red sauce across the table. After a quick glance at the “specials” section on the wall, an order of morning glory was an obvious choice. The soft, wilted leaves resembled spinach, while the stalks were crunchy and light. Plenty of garlic helped to mediate the ong choy’s natural bitterness.
House Special Chow Mein
Nothing particularly “special” about this chow mein. It was about what you’d find at a neighborhood takeout spot (especially those that are half donut shops), with the beef, chicken, and shrimp providing very little in the flavor department. I ended up mostly picking at the noodles hoping to leave semi-full.
Sweet & Sour Pork
I’ve long been a fan of this Chinese-American staple, and I have to say that the sweet and sour sauce at New Dragon is some of the best around. A lot of restaurants end up going way too sweet with the syrupy red sauce, but that wasn’t at all the case here. The tandem of sweet and sour transitioned in exactly that order with each bite; sugary upon first contact with a tart, vinegary finish, like a good hot wing. Unfortunately, about half of the pork was over-fried, resulting in a brittle texture and tasted of burnt oil. I found the pieces that were cooked right to be highly enjoyable, particularly when paired with a side of steamed rice.
It would be unfair to categorize this meal as a disappointing one, if only because my expectation were low going in. The quality of the beef in the one dish was a major detractor (I also overheard a nearby table complaining about a similar issue), but on the whole there wasn’t much to complain about. The lone waiter on this particular evening was cheerful and friendly, and the food arrived hot and quickly. I’m not in any hurry to return to New Dragon anytime soon, but it’s a place I’ll keep in the back of my mind anytime the wait at places like Yang Chow, Hop Woo, or any of the basic cable-themed dim sum houses grows too long.
New Dragon Seafood Restaurant
934 N Hill St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dine date: Thur 12.26.13