New Jersey Dispatch: Back to the Dragon Palace

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[Photos: Brian Yarvin]

The other day, I received a breathless message from Eric Eisenbud, as knowledgeable a food enthusiast as there is here in Central New Jersey, and what he said left me in deep shock: the Dragon Palace—the state´s best Sichuan restaurant—had translated its renowned four page lunch menu into English. We agreed to eat there a few days later.

Ten minutes before we were supposed to meet, I stood at the entrance and noticed that there were no English language lunch menus at all. Not that there was any need for one. Two-thirds of the tables were taken and, to my ear, Chinese was being cheerfully spoken at each one. The only non-Chinese people besides myself were in large parties. From past eavesdropping, I suspected that they were all from the same workplaces.

Soon Eric and I were seated—a nice table right by the free scallion pancakes. (He has some pull here. When he sent back the tea made from a bag and asked for the real stuff, they cheerfully gave it to him.) But when the menu was put in front of us, I saw that it wasn't quite right. It practically began with General Tso's Chicken, a dish as American as apple pie. (My own, completely unsubstantiated, hypothesis is that General Tso served in the New Jersey National Guard.) I was crushed.

20091106blog_noodlemenu.jpgYes, there were lots of great dishes on the menu, but now they were commingled with the sorts of things you find on Chinese menus anywhere in the country. I took a few deep breaths—and ordered a meal. Pork With Potato, Long Squash, Spicy Fish Fillet With Chopped Chili, and Bacon With Leeks. And as always, there´s a buffet with three soups and scallion pancakes included in the deal.

Here´s the rundown: Pork With Potato had bits of minced pork stir fried with thin strips of potato. Chinese dishes with potato are common enough, but finding them on New Jersey English menus are a rare thrill. Long Squash was the vegetable that some people call "Chinese Okra." Spicy Fish Fillet With Chopped Chili was classic Sichuan, seasoned and bright red with oil. Finally, there was Bacon With Leeks, the signature lunchtime dish. I've raved about it before on Serious Eats and undoubtedly will rave about it again.

We cleaned our plates.

I left puzzled, though. What exactly was it that I expected? A linguistic tour de force from an overworked suburban restaurant owner? It's no secret that the Dragon Palace is one of a handful of New Jersey restaurants with stellar cooking and almost no accommodation for non-Chinese speaking food enthusiasts. If you've ever spent a few hours with a dictionary, you'll know that rendering a few hundred Chinese dish names in English is no easy task. You'd also quickly find out that many ingredients have no name in English at all, even though they´re commonly served in all sorts of New Jersey cuisines—chayote, for example. What do you call them?

Then, you've got to ask, "Who's going to care?" Just how many non-Chinese reading Chinese food enthusiasts are there here? Isn´t it enough to have fifteen or twenty dishes available for them? And finally, what about the majority of English speaking customers? The people who work in the big office buildings at Metropark, the eighty percent (at least) of the neighborhood that doesn't consider Chinese to be its first language?

In the mind of the owner, in the comments of Serious Eats readers, and based on the behavior of too many people that I know well, non-Chinese Americans go to Manhattan for "real" Chinese anyway. It's their loss. The dishes coming out of Edison Chinese kitchens—meant for a well-to-do, suburban Chinese audience—are some of the best in the New York area. Of course, without some serious coaching, those of us who don't read Chinese will never know just how good their meals can be.

Dragon Palace

1635 Oak Tree Road, Edison NJ 08820 (map) 732-549-7554