Z: For several days we were looking forward to our special vegetarian lunch at Happy Family Restaurant. Our friend, Shirley, who is Chinese, told us that most Chinese restaurants cater to American customers and alter their dishes to suit American palates. With pride she expressed that Happy Family has retained its Chinese roots to the core. We were ripe with anticipation.
R: The first telling sign was a very packed parking lot. The second was a foyer filled with waiting customers. Every table was filled, while serving attendants were bustling around, some carrying full plates, some were removing empty dishes. We even noticed a couple of doggie bags ready to be taken home.
Z: I took a peek around the restaurant to get the feel of the place. The dining room was a square area and very brightly lit. How different this was from American restaurants that are dimly lit and feature candle lighting. The room decor was simple but very warming with dark green carpeting, faintly tinted walls in a delicate pink, white framed chairs with green cloth coverings, and white tablecloths.
R: Thank goodness we didn't have to wait long to be seated. I was starving. Within six or seven minutes we were sitting at our table and listening to Shirley order our food in rapid Chinese exchanges with our serving attendant. From the aromas around us I knew we were in for a great meal.
Z: Shirley told us that most Chinese people don't go to a restaurant for the atmosphere. They go for the food. Food is so important to the Chinese people that those with little money will do without material things but will not sacrifice food. That explains the extensive menus we often encounter when we go to Chinese restaurants.
R: First, the rice arrived, piled high in a covered lacquer bowl that was orange with black designs incised into it. I felt a little disappointment that there was no brown rice available, only the white. My spirits were quickly lifted though, when our vegetarian duck arrived. The taste was superb! I went for more. The second piece of thinly sliced, Smoked Bean Curd Skin, simply garnished with cilantro, was as tasty as the first.
Z: We all loved it and can say in harmonic unison, "You must try it." It's number 101 on the menu. Next to arrive was the Vegetarian Shredded Pork with Dry Bean Curd. No, it doesn't sound in the least bit tempting, and if Shirley hadn't been with us, we probably would have overlooked this excellent dish of thinly slivered vegetarian pork about 1 1/2" long made from wheat gluten and combined with baked tofu that is also cut into thin julienne and stir fried with slivered red hot chiles. The dish has a hint of sweet and sour flavor and is lightly spiced. I must warn you, though, don't chew into one of those little slivers of red chile unless you're used to extreme heat. This tasty prep is number 421.
R: Since you're into the numbers, our next extravaganza was number 440, Chop Mustard Green with Bean Curd Sheet. To the uninitiated, reading the menu may not provide many temptations. One certainly has to be adventurous to discover the subtle treasures of this menu. This unique dish never appears on any ordinary Chinese menu, but here it is a requested favorite. Diced mustard greens which are preserved in a brine provide a deep green accent to the dish that is heaping with chunks of bean curd sheets that appear to be folded this way and that. Cooked fresh soy beans were plentiful in this dish that had a light, but very flavorful sauce. Shirley showed us how to spoon the mixture over the rice and enjoy it together.
Z: While Reuben swoons in ecstasy I'll tell you about the Pancake that we ordered to accompany our meal. Made from wheat flour, this "pancake" has a texture that is reminiscent of a croissant that has been formed into a flat circle. Like a croissant, it's baked and lightly browned on the top, but definitely does not have the lightness or richness of a croissant. Since I noticed many other people ordering the pancake, I didn't want to miss out on anything. This was the only thing that was not to die for.
R: We mustn't forget to mention the tea that was served in an attractive ceramic teapot. The tea was light and plentiful. Shirley showed us how to turn the teapot cover sideways when we were ready for more. As soon as we did, our serving attendant picked up the pot and quickly returned with a full pot of steaming hot tea.
Z: As I looked around the room at the other diners, I became aware that we were the only people in the room who were not Chinese. This place is authentic, not some imitation of what Americans think Chinese food ought to be. None of the foods was smothered in heavy sauces. In fact, there was hardly any sauce at all, yet none of our dishes lacked savory flavors.
R: Our meal was very satisfying and we all ate hearty. Still there was plenty of food to take home for another meal. As I was sipping my last cup of tea, I noticed an unusual painting on the wall. It was a framed work no more than 14" high, but it stretched and stretched along the wall and must have measured about 25 to 30 feet in length. I was fascinated not only by the length of the painting but also by the skilled, fine brush strokes done in black ink with such intricate detail.
Z: You were so into your meal, I'll bet you didn't even notice the Chinese music that was softly playing in the background. At 2 o'clock, when we finished our lunch, the restaurant was just beginning to clear out. We enjoyed every morsel and look forward to our leftovers. We've heard other people comment that this restaurant serves bland food, but that certainly was not our experience.
R: Old Skinflint here has to watch the pennies. I was amazed that the three of us ate for under $25. We'll be back.
Happy Family Restaurant Vegetarian Food
Reviewed March 2000