Nobody ever said that life in New Jersey was easy—people who just called the super when they had trouble in their NYC apartments now have to deal with contractors. Back in the city you hopped on the subway, here you first have to figure out where you´re going and then drive there yourself. You're responsible for auto ownership, driving skills, navigation, and even the choice of background music. Often times it´s the same when you´re trying to find a good meal. In the big city, you just head over to Chinatown or Flushing where the restaurants leap out at you, begging you to come in. On Oak Tree Road the food might be there, but it´s you the customer that does the begging.
More often than not, I find myself begging, nagging, cajoling, and whining at the Dragon Palace at the corner of Wood Avenue and Oak Tree Road in Edison. I´m not sure whether this restaurant is more famous for its remarkable Sichuan food or the obstacle course they place in front of non-Chinese diners trying to order it. Both are legend. I wish that I could report that I´ve battled so you don´t have to, but it´s not quite that straightforward.
If you can, go for a weekday lunch. They have a single sheet of translated Chinese specialties on the back of the gringo lunch menu (marked "Authentic Chinese Dishes") and a free soup and pancake bar. This doesn´t mean that the staff wouldn´t prefer to serve you chop suey and a pu pu platter, but it does give you a choice of great dishes at reasonable prices. Try the Bacon with Leeks, the Three Pepper Chicken, the Spicy Cumin Beef, or the Sautéed Squid with Chinese Celery. All are consistently excellent.
Yes, there is a four page Chinese-only lunch menu, but if you let it bother you, you´ll never eat. I don´t know if the staff thinks you deserve General Tso or just wants to punish you for not studying the language of the Middle Kingdom back in junior high—they´ll keep steering you towards Chow Mein though.
Otherwise, go only when at least one person in your party is fluent in Chinese and knows their stuff. Any small excerpt of the extensive Chinese dinner menu will blow you away. I have pocketed and scanned the "Small Sichuan Dishes" (I think?) section. The Cold Rabbit with Chili Sauce may well be the single best dish at a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey; of course getting it if you don´t speak Chinese requires the persistence of a CIA Interrogator.
And, if you are the sort of person who likes to argue about these things, this is the perfect place to go. The owner and staff get a perverse pleasure out of keeping non-Chinese people away from the menu, but the great food somehow heals all the wounds of battle and leaves you feeling great.
BTW—the worst experience I ever had at an Edison Chinese restaurant wasn´t at Dragon Palace, it was at Wonder Seafood on Route 27. I was one of two non-Chinese people in a party of ten or twelve at a large table and among us was a crying, teething baby. The mom (one of my wife´s co-workers) had a great idea; why not get a bowl of fried crispy noodles for him to teethe on? "No!" the waiter insisted, "they´re for Americans only!" Soon everybody at the table was pleading (except for the other children who thought this was hilarious) in a chorus of Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and even a bit of Italian, but the waiter stood fast. Eventually, a manager brought us a bowl of noodles and the baby quieted down, but not before we started
wondering if we wouldn´t have been better off at the Cheesecake Factory.
The Wonder doesn´t need a strategy though; on any weekend late morning, you´ll find the best Dim Sum for miles around. Head down and enjoy that unique central NJ combination of authentic Asian food and free parking.
About the author: Brian Yarvin is an educator, photographer, and author of three cookbooks; Farms and Foods of the Garden State, Cucina Piemontese, and A World of Dumplings. He lives in New Jersey, and every week will share with us another food discovery from the "sixth borough" of New York City.
1635 Oak Tree Rd, Edison NJ 08820 (map)
Wonder Seafood Restaurant
1984 Route 27, Edison NJ 08817 (map)