Saturday, March 1, 2008

Dragon House

Dragon House
512 W. Appleway,
Coeur d'Alene.
(208) 664-5495.

The waitress was a cartoonish black, white and purple blur, bouncing at breakneck speed from table to table, from the cash register to the kitchen, from the silverware bin to the hot tea and soup station. I’m not sure if her co-workers had called in sick with a fake case of the croup and went snowboarding, or if fate had been cruel enough to schedule her as the solitary server in charge of the mad lunch rush at the Dragon House that Saturday.

Last month, the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Rat was ushered in on the heels of the new moon. In the west, rats rank pretty low on the totem pole of respect, but in Asian cultures, they’re admired for their charm, perseverance and hardworking nature. I’d bet 20 Yuan that this waitress was born proudly under the sign of the rat, for she never paused for even a half-a- moment to slack, her determined brow betraying her tousled salt-and-pepper hair and general air of near-exhaustion.

I walked in solo and was a little surprised to see the place as busy as it was; the last couple of times I’d been in the it was nearly deserted. The crowd was a promising thing since I’d never really rated the place tremendously high on my personal favorite Chinese places list. Maybe it had somehow improved; maybe we finally had a workably decent Chinese joint in town. I peered into the open kitchen and the chef winked and smiled slyly back. Like the waitress, he seemed to be the only one holding the kitchen side of things together, but his demeanor was calm and seasoned with experience as he expertly sizzled and swooshed someone’s meal around in a huge ancient wok.

“Be with you in a minute, dear” chirped the waitress as she breezed past. Looking around, I noticed that with the exception of a couple of younger nurse types, the median age of the twenty-or-so diners hovered somewhere well beyond 75. Some were enjoying loud conversations with themselves while others seemed like they were about to land face first in their Chow Mein. I’m trying to respectfully tread lightly here, but basically these folks were about as old as the Great Wall and under enough medication to run a pharmaceutical opium den.
The waitress approached the counter from out of nowhere and paused for just a slight moment, hovering like a hummingbird: “Just one?” She managed to work up a brief smile despite her state of breathlessness.

I was actually relieved when she sat me in a peaceful, otherwise unoccupied section separated by a tall wall away from the chaos. Parked right across the lot from my window was a large courtesy bus for a local nursing home, which finally explained the current clientele. “Hot tea?” she proposed and for the first time she stopped moving long enough for me to notice that her eyelids were coated with very bright sparkly purple makeup the same shade as her Dragon House work shirt. Wow. Suddenly mystified and a little confused, I had trouble wrapping my tongue around the words “Yes, please.” She was gone again in a puff of lavender smoke.

All the usual suspects are featured on the Dragon House menu including the ubiquitous Grilled Cheese Sandwich, which are wonderfully made by Chinese chefs, or so I hear. I’ve never been able to pass up a good choose-your-own-lunch combo and here it’s the Weekend Lunch Special, which is a choice of four of thirteen possible entrĂ©e and side options. On the menu, each item was represented boldly by the letters A-M so I wanted to choose four items that would spell a word and maybe inject some lame humor into the waitress’s busy shift when she came to take my order. I decided easily on M (Hot & Spicy Chicken), I (Egg Foo Young), and L (Beef Broccoli). It’s a good thing I don’t like F (Sweet & Sour Pork), since the forty-something waitress likely wouldn’t have found much humor in that recently popular rude acronym. K (Egg Roll) was also a little weird, so I decided to go with D (Almond Chicken). “I’ll have M-I-L-D. Mild.” I announced oh-so cleverly when she lit back to my table to take my order. It went straight over her head; “Well, the Hot & Spicy Chicken only comes in one mildness, it’s really not too bad…” she offered. “That’s fine…” I sighed defeatedly as she sped off in a vapor trail.

I was just enjoying my second cup of fragrant tea when the soup arrived, landing with a flash on my table, not a drop spilled. I often wonder why these places include pre-wrapped packets of Saltines. It seems so unauthentic, and since I never even open mine, I wonder do they end up being recycled for the next person? Is that morally right? I don’t know, but the soup was hot and tasty. Normally, the unnecessary presence of frozen mixed veggies in egg flower soup is enough to make my eyes roll with disdain, but I was just hungry enough to inhale it, evil lima beans included.

The waitress buzzed by with my main dish so fast I didn’t even have time to ask for chopsticks. No matter, I was famished enough to go with a fuss-free fork. I have to say my meal actually tasted better than it looked. It arrived seeming a little visually washed-up; slightly dull with faded shades of green and brown rather than colorfully appetizing. The Beef Broccoli and Hot Spicy Chicken were served in separate soup bowls, which made for an awkward presentation. However, once I dug in I was surprised how really great everything tasted.

The brown almond gravy was thick and the flavor was savory atop the tender fried chicken hunks and it made the Egg Foo Young explode with personality, lending a necessary salty kick to the oniony scrambled eggs. The Beef Broccoli was nicely rich and garlicky and devoid of the mysterious fishy flavor that can sometimes take hold of the broccoli and ruin the dish. The Hot and Spicy Chicken didn’t hold much fire, but it was pleasantly tangy and certainly extremely edible, complete with my favorite baby corncobs and crunchy bamboo shoots.

I wouldn’t assert that Dragon House is anywhere on par with the best Chinese places I’ve tried, and surely I still think this town needs really top-notch one. However, my experience there was favorably adequate, pleasantly not-bad, completely super okay. At the very least, I have to give mad respect to the bare-bones staff that runs place without missing a beat no matter how many senior care facilities decide to show up. I’ve never seen a waitress literally running quite like that, and I hope at the end of the day she earns enough tips to afford endless purple sparkly eye makeup.


Unknown said...

Have not tried Dragon House for a while.

I noticed that the Chinese Gardens on 4th st. is closed.

Tried King Buffet near Wal-Mart last week, as I heard some positive reviews. Sorry to say, it was not up to par. The hot & sour soup was good, but just barely above room temperature, as was every other dish.

Yes, Kootenai County could use a really good Chinese restaurant.
We drive to King's in Greenacres when we have a Chinese food craving.

Anonymous said...

Pau Pau's on Government Way in Hayden is a great place for really good Chinese food. The decor is nothing to rave about, but the food makes up for it!

Anonymous said...

Pau Pau?....oh barf
Chung King in a can is better.

Anonymous said...

@The poster on Feb 3rd, 2014:

I wouldn't call Pau Pau's "barf". I've only done take out there once but I did like the food overall, all the ingredients seemed to be fresh. If I had any complaint, it's that everything was a bit on the mild side. Not when it comes to being spicy, but flavor. I had to add a bit of soy sauce to every item. It could be she's using less soy sauce or salt then some other places, I don't know. But yes, it was a bit bland but not so much so that I'd call her cooking "barf". :P

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