Metairie: 6415 Airline Highway, 4417 Veterans Boulevard, 3100 17th Street.
From a diner’s standpoint, the Dragon’s Garden was the most important restaurant in the history of Chinese cooking in New Orleans. Its owner Andy Tsai introduced local diners to the spicy dishes of Szechuan, the elaborate creations of the Mandarin cuisine, and many exciting dishes that are now staples on every Chinese restaurant in town.
Imagine going to Chinese eatery and not being able to order hot and sour soup, pot stickers, shrimp toast, kung-pao chicken, Peking duck, or Szechuan beef. That’s how things were before the Dragon’s Garden opened. Every restaurant here cooked more or less the same menu of mild Cantonese dishes and those created by the early Chinese immigrants to America.
Andy Tsai didn’t invent the dishes with which he wowed adventuresome New Orleans palates. Szechuan and Mandarin food was already commonplace in cities with growing Chinese communities with influxes of immigrants. But the New Orleans Chinatown (there was one–near where the main public library is now) was at best static in the 1970s.
The original Golden Dragon was a lunch counter in the Airline Park strip mall. It might well have lived a short time and died there, but Richard Collin–who’d spent enough years in New York to know an adventuresome Chinese menu when he saw one–touted it highly in his Underground Gourmet column. Soon the place was so jammed that Andy moved to a larger, upstairs space with a view of Clearview Mall. After a few years, he moved again to a new building on the corner of 17th Street and Ridgelake. (The previous location almost immediately reopened with a very similar menu as the Golden Dragon, the first of numerous spinoffs of Andy Tsai’s innovation.)
If you didn’t know any better, the Dragon’s Garden was much like all the other Chinese restaurants in your past experience. Most customers of Chinese restaurants hit on one dish they like and order the same thing forever. Andy would cook wonton soup, moo goo gai pan, egg foo yung and fried rice if you asked. But if you started asking about the more unfamiliar dishes, Andy’s face would light up (he was always in the dining room), and the next thing you knew a feast the likes of which you never imagined was coming out.
You’d start with the high-piled shrimp toast, great with plum sauce. Or the pot stickers, or the brilliant hot and sour soup. From there the spicy dishes (stir-fried pork strings with hot garlic sauce, to name a favorite of mine) would alternate with the milder, more elegant ones (like moo shu pork, which you’d assemble yourself on thin “pancakes” and eat like burritos). Every dish was dramatically different from all the others.
A little planning (because it took a full day to prepare) would bring Peking duck to one’s table. The big platter had piles of meat on one side and crisp skin on the other. Again with the pancakes, into which you’d tuck the duck, green onions, and hoisin sauce. People at adjacent tables, their same-old chop suey in front of them, would ask what in the world you were eating. You’d tell them with great enthusiasm, and another convert to the new dishes was made.
Andy delivered not only the food of a gourmet restaurant, but the service, wine, and atmosphere, too. Dining there was as special an event as going to Galatoire’s.
Chinese restaurateurs are nothing if not attuned to the market, and it wasn’t long before other restaurants started adding Szechuan, Mandarin, and Hunan dishes to their menus. Some of these were nearly as good as the Dragon’s Garden. The Peking and Jade East in New Orleans East, the China Doll on the West Bank, and the Five Happiness in Carrollton were especially good.
Then Andy sold the place. The Dragon’s Garden went through a series of owners, and a slow decline set in. It never became bad, but the magic was gone when Katrina closed the place. It reopened after the storm as the China Town Gourmet, but no significant trace of the Dragon’s Garden’s golden era remained–except for a much-enhanced overall Chinese restaurant community. For which we have Andy Tsai to thank.
This is one of 122 reviews of fondly-remembered but extinct restaurants from Lost Restaurants Of New Orleans, just published by Pelican. It’s available in bookstores all around town, and full of photos, graphics, menus, and memorabilia.