Restaurant review: Lucky Dragon is like several restaurants in one

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From the February 20, 2014 edition

Lucky Dragon Chinese Restaurant is a fun puzzle to work on. Paraphrasing Churchill (because big-eating Winnie needs to appear in more food reviews), it’s like a riddle in a mystery wrapped inside a Vietnamese spring roll.

On one hand, Lucky’s is an old-school-style Chinese joint offering white tablecloths, umbrella drinks, a “supper club”-type soundtrack, sports on TV and American Chinese classics such as General Tso’s Chicken. On the other hand, Lucky’s gigantic menu includes tons of no-training-wheels, description-absent, Cantonese-influenced dishes that cater to its large international clientele hungry for authentic homestyle cooking (this had a diner behind me raving “It’s just like eating in Hong Kong!”).

On the third hand (I said it was a puzzler), Lucky’s offers noodle soups with an obvious Vietnamese bent. So what’s a poor glutton to do but dig in and chew a small dent into Lucky’s Sunday Times-big menu?

Naturally this task called for lubrication. There’s a small beer list on which Tsingtaos go for a reasonable $3.50. More amusing sips arrive in the guise of pseudo-tropical cocktails like the two-toned Scorpion ($5.50). Though it took two people about 15 minutes to fix, that not-syrupy-sweet, fruit-juiced, rum-and-gin punch produced a little sting and a slightly bigger smile.

Other giggly Trader Vic-approved fare arrived via the pu pu platter-evoking Combination Appetizer ($11). I loved the hilariously dramatic, built-in-mini-hibachi-starring presentation of this time-tripper. Its multi-chambered lazy-susan set-up contained a huge, not-bad, two-each roundup of: goofy (but good) crab rangoon; good (if could-be-less-greasy) Vietnamese spring rolls, shrimpy egg rolls and pork-nuggeted fried wontons; semi-chewy barbecue ribs; and entertaining-to-reheat-on-the-teeny-grill beef satay skewers.

For a more serious starter, target the Spicy Salted Smelts ($9). A triumph of simplicity and execution, they’re lightly battered, crackly flash-fried, clean-eating whole little fishies garnished with garlic and jalapenos. Just add beer, and fun breaks out.

The perfectly soy-salty Duck Meat with Bean Sprout entree ($13) was another unfussy but accomplished winner, and one of my favorite dinners here. Sorta like a GF pasta dish, it was tender and succulent, skin-on roasted and shredded duck meat with gently pan-crisped sprouts assuming the role of noodles.

Staying in the key of homey were the humble but soulful Beef Short Ribs with Black Pepper Sauce ($13). Smokily stir-fried with lotsa onions, each ginger-kissed, pepper-blasted beef striplet was attached to a bone, so worth-it surgery is required.

No such effort was necessary with the uncommonly tender meat populating Lucky’s Choy Sum with Beef ($10). I also appreciated the pleasantly bitter, broccoli-and-spinach-hybrid-like choy sum fiber counterbalancing this fine, salty and ginger-punctuated dish.

Though its deep, sweet, tangy, five-spicy and insanely rich flavors were great, the not-designed-for-westerners “Pork with Preserved Vegetable” ($13) is a consequence of ordering from Lucky’s no-description, authentic-happy menu. See, it’s a pour-onto-rice-and-share-it preparation that’s approximately 85-percent melted pork belly fat. Just add Lipitor, and girth breaks out.

For something completely different, get the meat-free and nifty Szechuan String Bean ($8). My long and smoky, high-heat-blistered beans were aroused by perky, pickled veggies and jalapeno rings.

Delving into Vietnamese territory, the Curry Chicken Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup ($8) was served with pho-appropriate garnishes. This kindly allows slurpers to add more oomph to that satisfying, vat-huge bowl of comforting and mildly sweet broth generously bobbing with bone-on poultry and noodles. Finishing that off, I wondered what even better dishes I might find as I worked to decode Lucky’s confoundingly uncommunicative and gargantuan menu.

Photos by Tim Johnson