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Happy Garden

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Happy Garden proves a tasty timewarp

Growing up, one of my fondest culinary adventures began with our whole
family piling into the car: doors slammed and faces glowed while our
jittery, unseatbelted bodies tried in vain to maintain some sort of contact
with the seats. As my Dad backed out of the driveway, we kids tried our
very best to control our typical rambunctious behavior. Errant elbows and
teasing remarks were painstakingly restrained until the car had stopped at
our destination and the threat of turning back no longer loomed over our
heads. Spilling out of the car, we all jostled to be the first one through
the plain little door into what, in our small world, was paradise.
 

That was the scenario when our family, the one that rarely went out for
dinner, descended upon our favourite (and possibly only) restaurant for a
memorable feast. It was in a part of town that we didn’t usually
frequent and it served up some of the most delicious food that I had ever
tasted. The best part—it was food that we could never imagine gracing
our table at home: crispy egg rolls and deep-fried shrimp, gooey pork ribs,
special fried rice full of everything imaginable and, the much anticipated
finale that always instigated a mad scramble, the mystifying fortune
cookie. Ah, Chinese food. (Editor’s Note: Or westernized Chinese
food, anyway: check out our story on Jennifer 8 Lee’s Fortune Cookie
Chronicles on page 13 for more info.)
 

Happy Garden Mandarin Cuisine is not the restaurant from my childhood
memories, but the night I ventured through its doors, I was transported
back in time.  The actual layout and location (quietly nestled in the
midst of Parkallen) are different, but one look at the tacky, rundown
interior brought a wistful smile to my face. Functional square tables
dominated the room, but the big round tables that are so well-suited for
feeding large groups of hungry people also claimed spots on the faded brown
carpet. Elaborate Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling, and vivid wall
hangings adorned the worn grey wallpaper in an attempt to brighten up the
interior. There were even the same yellow water glasses, plastic chopsticks
and little bottles of soy sauce sitting neatly on the purple plastic
tablecloths. The 21st-century strand of white icicle lights strung between
pillars in the centre of the room was the one fruitless attempt at
modernizing the décor. 

 

Only three tables were occupied when we plunked ourselves at a table near
the edge of the room, but they were large, happy, boisterous tables filled
with almost every generation. Happy Garden was like a communal meeting
place for friends, families, even business associates: people who knew that
Chinese food is best when shared amongst large groups, best when you could
sample little bits of several different dishes. Unfortunately, I could only
round up one other hungry Chinese food fan on last-minute notice, so my
sampling ability was going to be somewhat limited that night.
 

After spotting Tsingtao ($3.35 each) on the small but adequate drink menu,
we didn’t need to look any further. It’s a light, refreshing
beer that pairs well with spicy ethnic food. Sometimes a little too well,
but I had my dated yellow water glass handy just in case. With it we
ordered the green onion cake ($2) and some spring rolls ($2.50) to take the
edge off our hunger as we waded through the rest of the rather hefty menu.
Happy Garden’s menu serves dishes from the regions of northern China:
Peking (think sweet & sour pork), Szechuan (Szechuan beef), Shanghai
and Young Chow (pork dumplings, green onion cake) are all
represented.
 

While trying to narrow our must-haves down to a manageable amount, a few of
the dishes for one of the larger groups began to float past our table.
Although the glimpses I managed were brief, it was the tantalizing,
lingering smell that began to drive my stomach crazy. Thankfully, just as
we made up our minds on Pea and Egg Drop Soup ($), Curry Chicken ($8),
Broccoli Beef ($8) and a bowl of Steamed Rice ($1.25), our appetizers
arrived.

 

Although the presentation was not elaborate—the green onion cake
simply came on a small, round, white plate with a side plate of chili paste
and vinegar—both dishes looked delicious and smelled amazing. The two
spring rolls were the longest spring rolls I have ever seen. Each was cut
in half so that our order of two actually looked like four. Although they
came unadorned, I requested a side of plum sauce, a throw back to my
childhood. A nibble without plum sauce proved to be tasty: crispy without
being greasy, they were stuffed full of the requisite pork, cabbage, bean
sprouts and carrots. The plum sauce added a much-appreciated zing. As good
as they were, I thought the green onion cake was even better: crispy on the
outside, soft yet chewy on the inside. The gentle bite from the green
onions wasn’t overwhelming and again, there was a refreshing absence
of grease. 
 

Partway through the appetizers, the rest of our dishes began to arrive and
our table seemed to disappear. Our manageable must-haves had gotten out of
control. Surveying my options while chewing on the last bite of green onion
cake, I decided the only way I was going to be able to walk out the door
instead of roll was to carefully sample. A spoonful of Pea and Egg Drop
Soup found its way to my mouth, even with one of those spoons I find
impossible to manage without the inevitable spills and dribbles. It was a
large bowl, consisting mostly of broth. A few peas, mushrooms, tomatoes,
green onions and strands of eggs floated delicately. Light and kind of
bland, a dash of soy sauce spruced it up.
 

Both the Broccoli Beef and Curry Chicken came on large, heaped, oval
plates. The Broccoli Beef consisted of tender slices of beef, crisp
broccoli and a few wedges of carrots and onions, all mingled together with
a generous amount of ginger garlic sauce. Good and fresh, it was hard to
merely sample, but I’m glad I showed a bit of restraint. The sauce
coating the Curry Chicken was lively and invigorating and every bite tasted
better than the last. I thought it could have been a tad hotter, but
I’m a heat freak.

Happy Garden is all about the food and the company. Go with a very empty
stomach and be prepared to take a step back in time. Tant and his wife Luc
were cooking at the restaurant before they bought it 20 years ago and are
still cooking today. I daresay they won’t let you down. V 

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