When Dragon Inn changed hands three years ago, returning regulars were no doubt reassured by what hadn’t changed.
Sure, the new owner had spruced up the place with a fresh coat of ivory paint trimmed in Chinese lacquer red. But the traditional decor – paper lanterns, ink calligraphy paintings, an ornate divider screen inlaid with mother-of-pearl – preserved the feel of a place that had been around for more than two decades. Even the dignified waiter of a certain age who had been working for years at the little strip mall restaurant still greeted you at the door.
You could still get your pork fried rice fix, too. Or General Tso’s chicken, or Mongolian beef, or any of the scores of other dishes listed on Dragon Inn’s menu of Chinese-American favorites.
But owner/chef David Ren, who has been cooking at home since he was a boy in China some 50 years ago (he came to the States as a visiting scholar at Duke in the ’90s and liked the area so much that he stayed) wants you to know about another menu. It’s this menu that elevates Dragon Inn from an ordinary neighborhood eatery to a destination worth a drive to North Durham.
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Actually, if you accept the invitation written on the dry erase board just inside the door (“Ask for our authentic Chinese menu plz!”), you’ll be handed two menus. The larger one is a bilingual list of more than four dozen dishes, mostly Szechwan.
If beef tripe in chili oil, served cold, sounds a little daunting for a starter, chicken in chili oil is just as effective at revving up your taste buds. Chicken in scallion oil dials the heat back a few notches without sacrificing flavor.
By all means, don’t overlook the “steamed pork burger” appended to the bottom of the page. “Chinese sloppy Joe” might be a more accurate name for this Xi’an specialty, which packs juicy shreds of slow-cooked pork belly into a griddled bun (made by Ren’s wife, Jun) whose airy interior evokes the steamed buns familiar from dim sum carts. One bite, and I’m betting you won’t be inclined to quibble about the name.
After two visits to Dragon Inn, I’ve only scratched the surface of the authentic menu’s extensive entree offering, but it’s enough to convince me that you’re probably safe in following your whim when it comes to ordering. If you’re a fan of kung pao chicken, Ren’s authentic streamlined rendition – wok-crisped nuggets tossed with peanuts and red chiles – will spoil you for the bland Chinese-American version.
I can also vouch for salt and pepper fish, a variation on the more familiar shrimp theme that replaces the shellfish with filets of swai in an exemplary light, crisp batter – and for Szechwan green beans, properly wok-blistered and spangled with a confetti of toasted red chiles and garlic.
At the other end of the Scoville spectrum, a hot pot of fatty beef brisket and turnips is a comfort food jackpot. Just as soothing, and probably more tempting when the weather turns hot, are noodles with soybean paste: a toss-it-yourself composition of wheat noodles, soybeans in a thick, dark umami-laden sauce, and julienne cucumbers for cooling contrast.
If the larger menu of authentic fare qualifies Dragon Inn as a rarity in these parts – the list is loaded with exotica such as Chinese cabbage with sweet chestnuts, and osmanthus flavor cultured sticky congee – it’s the smaller menu that makes it unique. Rikki Ren, the owner’s daughter who runs the front of the house, will proudly tell you that Dragon Inn is the only restaurant in North Carolina to offer it.
“It” is spicy pot (sometimes called dry hot pot), a single dish with countless variations that you can tailor to your taste by marking your choices on a sushi-style menu. The foundation of the dish consists of 13 default vegetables, any of which you can remove by crossing them off the list. Add whatever you like by checking off your selections on an a la carte list of meats and additional vegetables. Finally, specify a sauce (peppercorn, peanut or sesame) and a degree of spiciness (one to three chiles).
You might, for instance, opt to delete the cabbage and mushroom and replace them with Chinese cabbage and shiitake. Add pork belly, squid and a quail egg. Make the sauce peppercorn, two chiles (they’re fairly conservative with the Szechwan peppercorns here). In 15 minutes or so, your shareable feast will arrive, showered with cilantro (unless you opted out of that one) and accompanied by steamed rice – served, somewhat startlingly, in a large Kellogg’s Corn Flakes bowl.
Then again, maybe the bowl shouldn’t come as a surprise in a restaurant named for the sign of the Chinese zodiac which – as the paper placemat points out – signifies an eccentric personality.
3823 Guess Road, Durham; 919-477-6310
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: strip mall casual, traditional Chinese
Noise level: low
Service: reserved, attentive
Recommended: stewed pork burger, noodles with soybean paste, salt and pepper fish, spicy pot
Open: lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.