How does one get wind of a first-rate Chinese restaurant off-Strip? You probably won’t know it from the décor, which is generally bright, garish and basic. And you can’t tell from looking at the menu, either—often an encyclopedic document with more than 200 dishes.
I have a simpler method for decoding this world of live seafood, dishes with names I don’t understand, and musical-chair chefs I’ve never heard of: I ask a Chinese friend.
That’s how I found Hong Kong Garden. My friend Kenny, who owned two Chinese restaurants in Rapid City, S.D., recently sold his business and retired here. He has his finger firmly on the pulse of the Chinese-restaurant community, so when he got excited about Hong Kong Garden, I snapped to attention.
Hong Kong Garden is, at first glance, an unassuming place characterized by a giant barbecue counter with hanging ducks, and a sign advertising a whole roast suckling pig for $180. (Later, I found out they sell half-orders for $90—crisp skin, juicy perfumed flesh redolent of exotic spicing and all, but, alas, it was too late. I will be back.)
The owners have taken pains, anyway, to make the dedicated dining area more comfy, putting in an LED TV, draping tables with cloth, and even hiring a waitress named YoYo to communicate with non-Chinese speaking guests. YoYo may register surprise should you order spicy goose kidney with preserved vegetable (good) or duck tongue with XO sauce (even better), but unless you’re the adventurous type, you probably will not.
Tread a more familiar path, though, and you’ll be delighted with the result. Peking duck with steamed buns, plum sauce and scallions, served in two courses for $25, is the best in the city. The buns, filled with skin, sauce and scallions, come first. A platter of already sliced meat follows, enough to feed a family of four.
Whole Dungeness crab run about $15 apiece, prepared in a variety of ways, but my favorite one here is fried crab with XO sauce, a spicy sauce based on dried scallops. It is somewhat of a hassle to pick the meat out of the shells, but it’s worth it. Mix what you get with steamed white rice, and you’ll be in crab Nirvana.
I’m also a fan of salt and pepper shrimp, again served in the shells. The spicing is spot-on, and the meat is sweet, succulent and firm. It would be a shame to dine here without ordering a seasonal Chinese green. Ong choy, literally “hollow vegetable,” a reedy spinach relative, is especially worth the effort. Ask to have it sautéed simply in oil and garlic.
One of the menu’s greatest offerings is a Cantonese comfort food—rice in a clay pot with chicken and Chinese sausage. Even the kids will fight over the rice that clings to the side of the pot, caramelizing from the rich sauce. Eggplant hot pot is a more grown-up dish, fiery hot, and filled to the brim with skin-on chunked eggplant and triangles of freshly cut tofu.
If you aren’t served complimentary house soup, ask for it. It’s probably going to be a clear pork broth with winter melon, and it’s delicious. And if you do, you’ll almost always get a complimentary dessert, such as orange slices or a bowl of warm, sweet red beans. It’s what’s for dinner, and you’re going to eat it all.