Where to go for really good Chinese food? Oddly enough, it might be Koreatown.
Koreans know and appreciate the food of their big neighbor, but they like to enliven it a bit, serving kimchi and spicy condiments alongside.
Located on Vermont Avenue just north of Olympic Boulevard, the Dragon may be one of the best Chinese restaurants in Koreatown. Owner T.J. Wang was born in Seoul to restaurateur parents from Shandong province in China, and has been involved with Chinese cuisine all his life.
The restaurant, though large, is serene. Big prints of startlingly pink flowers hang on the back wall near a pair of stone lions, the only decorations. Waitresses wear headsets to handle the dining and banquet rooms, which can hold hundreds.
Much of the menu is familiar, with its wonton soup, almond chicken and sweet-and-sour pork, but also included are more rarefied dishes such as sea cucumber with roast pork and cold jellyfish in garlic sauce. Large as it is, the menu can’t accommodate all the dishes that the kitchen can prepare, so it’s wise to ask the servers for suggestions.
One of the best off-menu dishes is the unbelievably tender lion’s head meatballs, giant pork meatballs that are browned, then steamed for hours, arriving draped with spinach in a bowl of rich brown sauce. It’s on hand most of the time.
The stuffed mushrooms, regal enough for a banquet, are filled with shrimp and sliced shiitake, forming a ring around shredded cabbage and tomato slices. A thicket of parsley on top supports a chrysanthemum carved from a turnip, as pink as the flowers on the wall.
Lightly fried mandarin-style noodles are barely visible under a generous topping of beef, shrimp, chicken and vegetables too numerous to list. Chachiang mein, the most popular noodle in Korean-Chinese restaurants, is cooked with a jet-black sauce that includes zucchini, onion and pork or beef. The Dragon pairs it with a variety of dishes as lunch specials.
Noodles turn up again in minced chicken with lettuce leaves. The leaves are spread with hoisin sauce and topped with diced chicken, sweet peppers, slivers of black fungus and slim-fried noodles, which add an appealing crunch. Roll the leaf around the filling, then pick it up like a burrito. Fish with hot chile bean sauce has a crunchy crumb coating. Usually a whole fish is prepared this way, but the restaurant will substitute filets.
The northern Chinese influence that dominates the cuisine shows up in sweet-and-sour shrimp, which are not as sweet and brightly colored as Cantonese versions -- the usual sweet pepper and pineapple are missing. Chicken (or beef) with orange sauce is also less sweet and cloying than you’d find in Cantonese restaurants.
“Sauteed happy family” combines a mass of seafood with many kinds of vegetables. Before ordering, ask what is included. If gelatinous, dark-gray sea cucumber doesn’t make you happy, the restaurant will leave it out.
Shrimp in hot garlic sauce is equally complex, adding more vegetables than you would expect. It’s not exceptionally hot, nor is Sichuan shredded pork with hot sauce as spicy as you’d expect.
The Dragon knows the value of simplicity. What could be more beautiful in spring than a stack of crisp, barely cooked asparagus, or a heap of emerald shreds that turn out to be pea sprouts, so lightly cooked they’re still chewy? The only additions are a spoonful of oyster sauce in one and garlic and enoki mushrooms in the other.
Rice comes with meals, but the restaurant also makes northern Chinese-style steamed breads, good for dipping into the sauces. They’re small, light and delicately sweet, and you may find you prefer them to rice.
Northern starters include hot-and-sour soup with a nice vinegary edge and plenty of black pepper. Loaded with tofu, this spicy soup comes with lunch specials.
Spicy shrimp soup with noodles is popular, possibly because the blend of seasonings seems more Korean than Chinese.
The drink list is another indicator that you are in a Korean-Chinese restaurant. You might see people passing around a bottle of soju, the clear Korean spirit, and others drinking Korean beer.
Dishes can be pricey, except for lunch specials and family dinners. But the Dragon does offer a bargain -- the cheapest valet parking in town: 50 cents at lunch, $1 at night.
The restaurant has been around for years, but is little known outside the Korean community. It’s a real discovery if you’ve always thought the only destinations for great Chinese food were Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley.
Location: 966 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 387-8833
Price: Main dishes, $9.75 to $35.95; lunch specials, $6.25 to $10.75; family dinners, $14.95 and $16.95
Best dishes: Lion’s head pork meatballs, chicken in lettuce leaves, fish with hot chile bean sauce, stuffed mushrooms, chachiang mein
Details: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards.