September 20, 2001

Cookies should be soft, lettuce should be cold, tea should be hot, and

Chinese food should be . . . well, Chinese-tasting.

I have my rules about how things should be, which makes the Golden

Dragon an unfair taste target. I need to first say -- I didn't think the

food there was good or bad. More accurately, I thought things were wrong.

Last time I checked, the Costa Mesa restaurant doesn't tout itself as

fusion fare, which wouldn't excuse much anyway for me. Of the three


dipping sauces provided us, one was ketchup. The main flavor in a kong

pao chicken dish seemed to be soy sauce. And I've tasted more authentic

egg rolls at Jack in the Box.

Hidden away in the back corner of a narrow shop complex that is

cloaked in a boring beige concrete, the Golden Dragon offers a burst of

Asian decor once you step inside. The style is authentic, with folding

Japanese walls, Asian artwork and a palatial elegance that drips from the

ceiling's ornate lights and onto the maroon floors.

But the taste isn't as true.

We started with egg rolls ($3.25), which is when the waiter brought

out a dish of mustard, a dish of sweet and sour sauce and some ketchup.

They were heavily fried and greasy to hold, which was fine. But it tasted

like a fried burrito -- no distinctly Chinese spices, just a medley of

shredded cabbage wrapped in deep-fried batter.

The kong pao chicken ($8.50) wasn't sweet or spicy enough. The main

ingredient tasted like soy sauce instead of hot sauce, and my friend

commented that the dish seemed westernized -- tempered in its Chinese

glory. There were no onions, no peanuts, no scary shriveled peppers that

you try to avoid because they're really, really hot. Normally, a dish of

kong pao chicken includes these ingredients.

The hot bean curd ($7.50), also known as ma-po tofu -- a traditionally

spicy poached batch of tofu mixed in hot bean paste, soy sauce and ground

meat -- also tasted mainly of soy sauce. If there were traces of ginger

and sesame oil in there, I couldn't recognize them. This is one of my

all-time favorite dishes. But at the Golden Dragon, I couldn't swallow

very much of the unfamiliar, unauthentic taste.

Finally, we shared an aromatic shrimp plate ($13.95), which got our

highest ratings. Shrimp covered with a soft, fried batter and sauteed in

a sweet, red sauce. Again, it didn't boast a taste I'm accustomed to. But

we enjoyed the foreign flavor anyway.

All around me, I noticed patrons enjoying themselves -- businessmen

with their jackets off, parents and children, a few dining alone. No one

seemed to dislike the taste, so maybe this harsh review is unique to me.

My recommendation: If you're used to real Chinese food and looking for

an authentic dining experience, even Panda Express would fare better than

the Golden Dragon.

If you're a novice to the Chinese taste and don't expect the real

deal, the decor and ambience might make up for the average taste.

* YOUNG CHANG is a features writer at the Daily Pilot. Dining reviewer

STEPHEN SANTACROCE is on vacation. His reviews appear every other week.


* What: The Golden Dragon

* Where: 2023 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa

* Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. 7 days a week

* Cost: Moderate

* Call: (949) 642-7162

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