Regular travelers along Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard have gotten used to the changes in the sign over the entrance at number 2505. The building has been home to a string of Asian restaurants over the past decade, including four in just the past four years.
Recently, though, even those who had become inured to the changes must have done a double take. Min Zhu, who opened Happy China & Sushi Bar in the space in July, changed the sign yet again in November. She dropped the "& Sushi Bar." And she painted the entire building - including the pavement near the entrance and on the patio - a vivid Chinese lacquer-red.
Zhu didn't choose the color as much for its eye-catching quality as its symbolism. In China, red is the color of happiness and good fortune. And, after the first two of what I hope will be many visits to Happy China, I can emphatically say that the choice is a fitting one.
Certainly, anyone who has the good fortune to pass through the restaurant's doors should be happy about the cheery welcome and eager-to-please service. You may even find yourself being greeted by the owner, if she isn't busy in the kitchen.
Foodies in particular will be pleased to discover that Happy China is one of only a handful of area restaurants specializing in authentic Szechwan cuisine. And they'll be delighted at the renditions prepared by Zhu and her husband, Bao Ling, both natives of China's Szechwan province.
The cuisine is well-represented by an offering that includes most of the classic dishes, from ma po tofu to dan dan noodles. There's an ample selection of Chinese-American favorites, too, but it would be a shame not to try at least one of the Szechwan specialties.
You don't have to throw caution to the wind and order, say, the cold appetizer of ox tongue and tripe in Szechwan spices (though it is superb). Homemade pork dumplings, served in a shallow pool of red chile oil-laced "soup," will get your meal off to a start that's every bit as rewarding without straying too far from familiar comforts.
If you like the dumplings, you'll love dan dan noodles. Sauced with a chile-infused broth whose heat is tempered by peanut butter and punctuated with minced pork, Zhu's version of the Szechwan classic is a perfect introduction to the cuisine.
Double cooked pork is a bolder choice, starring chopstick-size pieces of pork belly with a vibrant backup chorus of julienne red and green bell peppers, fresh jalapeños, black soybeans and scallions. So is kung pao chicken, which is listed among the Chinese-American dishes but is in fact the classic Szechwan rendition: spice-dusted nuggets of meat, dry-fried with peanuts and whole red chiles.
Hot enough for you?
If none of these dishes delivers Scoville units in sufficient quantity for your taste, then fish fillet in spicy Szechwan sauce ought to do the trick. The dish arrives piping hot in a fiery broth shot through with a profusion of red chiles and tongue-numbing Szechwan peppercorns. A wire strainer is provided to help you fish out the goodies - fillet pieces of swai (a mild fish with a texture resembling catfish), napa cabbage and bean sprouts - and leave the "soup," which is not intended to be eaten. But if you're like me, you won't be able to resist dipping a spoon in for a sip or two.
You'll find a number of tantalizing options under the "Casserole/Sizzling" heading, too, though the list isn't confined to Szechwan fare. Among the temptations are eggplant with garlic sauce, sizzling teriyaki veal ribs, and a boldly spiced Chinese curry that serves up petals of lean, tender beef and a cornucopia of vegetables in a rustic earthenware casserole.
Even if you're not in the mood for a vegetarian entree, you should consider ordering one as a side dish for the table. Dry-sautéed string beans, say, or Chinese cabbage with vinegar sauce if you're feeling adventurous. And if pea shoots are on offer, by no means should you pass them up.
Happy China's decor is, thankfully, more restrained than the building's exterior. In the dining room and lounge, the color red serves as an accent - woodwork, paper lanterns, and linen napkins on white tablecloths - against a backdrop of black and white woodcut prints on khaki walls.
The sushi bar is gone, victim of a competitive market and the owners' desire to focus on their native cuisine. "Some of our early customers were sad when we stopped serving sushi," says general manager Jamie Crilley. But it's a good bet that the overwhelming majority of Happy China's customers have been, well, happy