Writer Calvin Trillin's vision of purgatory is one in which he spends an eternity eating at the best Chinese restaurant that has ever existed, but his dining partners, "strictly meat-and-potatoes men," do all the ordering for the table. "Maybe we should have some of that chop-suey stuff," one of them suggests. "Too gooey," says another. "You think they have any plain chicken?"
The extent to which we enjoy a restaurant often depends as much upon the company of those seated around us as on the quality of cuisine, but never more so than at Chinese establishments, where the tradition of sharing can lead to one diner's poor taste being inflicted upon many innocents. That's the reason I announced to my dinner companions, on the drive over to Pembroke Pines's Dragon Gate Chinese Restaurant, that the evening's ordering would not be democratic -- they'd have to suffer my yen for mao po bean curd and the like.
Turns out that it didn't really matter which dishes showed up at our table, as Dragon Gate exhibited equal aplomb in preparing just about everything -- and just about everything is precisely what it serves. As soon as we were seated, a waiter brought over hot tea, glasses of ice water, a bowl of crispy fried noodles, dishes of hot mustard and sweet and sour sauce, and two menus: one extensive listing of more than 150 items and a second, shorter compendium of "authentic" dishes. The amiable manager explained that the main menu has, over 11 years of operation, integrated most of the authentic components from the second; I get the impression there won't be two menus for long.
No matter how extensive the array of offerings, it can't begin to touch upon the full range of Chinese provincial cooking that stretches from Honan (famous for sweet and sour preparations) to Fukien (soups and seafoods) to Canton (fried rice, shark's fin soup) to Peking-Shantung (renowned for duck) to Szechuan-Hunan (hot and spicy) and encompasses nonregional Mandarin (aristocratic) and Shanghai (cosmopolitan) specialties. Dragon Gate draws from all of the above, but, like most Chinese-American restaurants, doesn't delve too deeply into any.
The spacious, 100-seat dining room looks much like the prototype strip-mall Chinese restaurant -- curtained storefront windows facing out on a parking lot, Oriental doodads on the walls, a tank of koi fish by the entrance, and lots of large, circular, black tables.
A bowl of exemplary hot and sour soup, generously plumped with fresh vegetables, tofu, and pork and exuding perfect notes of piquancy, would have supplied us with all the confidence we'd need in the meal to come. Wonton soup was well-prepared too, as was a wonton/egg drop blend that solved the dilemma of those who have difficulty choosing between the two and was tasty enough to make us wonder why this combination isn't seen more often.
Familiar appetizer favorites such as egg rolls, spring rolls, spare ribs, and pork dumplings were all first-rate, the rolls greaseless, the meaty ribs almost fatless, the dumplings scrumptiously seasoned. Main courses succeeded beyond expectations, as well. A two-course Peking duck specialty for two was available, but I, dictator of the table, determined that the $38 charge would have an adverse budgetary effect, so we all ate the regular roast duck instead. There was, alas, nothing regular about the bird, which sported crisp, mahogany-colored skin, dark meat bursting with juiciness, and the full aromatic flavors of five-spice mix (cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel seeds, and Szechuan peppercorns). The menu says "served at room temperature," but our order was well-heated -- why is it that Chinese restaurants consistently manage to serve their food piping hot, while far more expensive dining establishments tend toward the lukewarm? (Answer: less fussy, time-consuming presentations.) And why are waiters in Chinese restaurants so much more efficient than their more nattily costumed "professional" colleagues in high-class joints? (I can't answer that one, but there's no question that the staff at Dragon Gate was particularly quick.)
I selected a number of "spicy" dishes from the "authentic" menu and the Szechuan category of the regular menu. Diners are asked their preferences regarding degree of heat: mild, medium, hot, or extra hot. I requested "hot" for our "spicy beef with eggplant," but the tender strips of steak and melting wedges of purple Chinese eggplant offered only a mild kick. My mao po bean curd, on the other hand, was inarguably piquant, the soft cubes of tofu tossed with peas, carrots, mushrooms, and minced pork in a shiny sauce sweet with hoisin, tart with vinegar, and sizzling with hot peppers.
My strategy was to offset spicy dishes with a mild steamed Maine lobster with ginger and chives, but the best-laid plans of mice and men mean nothing if the restaurant is out of lobster. I shifted instead to an order of sea scallops steamed with vegetables, selected from the menu's "health-conscious" listing (I ignored audible sighs around the table). The bivalves were cooked to a sweet, moist consistency, with crunchy snow peas, carrots, baby corn, straw mushrooms, and water chestnuts canned as always. One could quibble that the extreme whiteness of the scallops suggests their having been presoaked in water to increase weight (a common ploy of the crafty fishmonger), but a more demoralizing problem was the lack of any seasoning on the food -- I found myself swiping sauces from other platters to drizzle over the bland shellfish. I recommend this dish only for very unhealthy people who eat this way out of necessity. Get a nutritional boost instead from Chinese mustard greens, which come snappy and bright, with oyster sauce on the side.
Even the egg foo young excelled: three pan-seared omelet cakes that weren't greasy, as is often the case, but fresh, fluffy, and rife with carrots, water chestnuts, mushrooms, and scallions. They were bathed in a dull-looking but effectively complementary sauce.
Our meal was neatly capped with complimentary orange sections and fortune cookies. My fortune foresaw future travel adventures, but a more prescient forecast would have stated that I am not likely to eat in a better Chinese restaurant anytime soon. 11232 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines, 954-438-9982. Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.
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