Happy, happy, joy, joy
Family-owned Happy Garden is a Chico fave when it comes to Chinese food
“Love, happiness and success often blossom where they’re least expected.”
It may sound like a trite piece of fortune-cookie wisdom, but it’s the essence of the story behind Happy Garden Restaurant, many a Chico local’s favorite spot for Chinese chow, as the CN&R’s Best of Chico Readers’ Poll has shown time and time again.
“Does it get any better than Happy Garden?” the CN&R wrote last year. “Not in Chico, say our readers, who have voted the authentic Chinese restaurant Best Asian Cuisine for eight years now. Whether you’re craving the egg rolls, walnut prawns or mushroom chicken, you’re sure to be satisfied at Happy Garden. The staff is always friendly and attentive, and the dining room gives patrons a little taste of China in the décor as well as the dishes.”
The story of what led to Happy Garden’s present-day success goes like this:
Twenty years ago, Happy Garden opened and Hong Tham, an immigrant from Guangdong Province, China, took a job washing dishes for his cousin, the restaurant’s original proprietor. He and waitress Julie Heng, a transplant from Vietnam, took a liking to one another and—contrary to cautionary tales taught in many a poorly acted employee training video—a successful relationship was born.
Tham and Heng married a few years later, and in 1996 bought the restaurant themselves. Soon after, annual awards for Best Chinese Food and Best Takeout started pouring in from this paper’s readers and other outlets, a winning streak that continues today.
“We try to keep reasonable prices, and keep the quality good and quantity [serving portions] of the dishes high,” Heng said of Happy Garden’s ongoing success.
“It’s all family members who work here,” she explained further, noting the staff over the years has included nephews, nieces, cousins and siblings. Those who aren’t directly related are often family friends.
Indeed, a friendly, familial vibe echoes through every aspect of the building, from dishes steeped in age-old tradition to friendly service to the regular patronage representing a cross-section of the surrounding community. “We have lots of regular, return customers here—a lot of college students, families and elderly people,” Heng said.
Looking around Happy Garden’s interior, it’s unsurprising the place is so popular. After navigating the notoriously tight parking lot (the restaurant’s only notable drawback), visitors step into a comforting environment—meticulously clean but not overly sterile, not too loud for an intimate dinner for two and not too quiet to bring the kids. The prerequisite Eastern accoutrements—paper lanterns, a painting of koi fish—are present, but not in overwhelming abundance like some establishments more concerned with kitsch than cuisine.
And the cuisine is what really keeps Chicoans coming back.
I visited Happy Garden recently with my girlfriend and two friends. Our meal started quite literally with an explosion and a plume of steam as our Sizzling Rice Soup—hot rice dropped into steamed broth with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, carrots, peas, shrimp and hearty chunks of delectable chicken—was prepared at the table. The exotic mixture of meats and vegetables in this soup is packed with flavor and tantalizes the palate, each bite varying in consistency—a crunch here, a soft chewiness there. The soup can also be made vegetarian-style and is available in small and large portions ($4.95 and $9.95, respectively). Even the small soup we ordered was enough for four people to sample a bowl and have some left over.
Happy Garden offers a range of appetizers. The best way to sample a variety of these is to order the Po Po Tray for two ($10.95), which includes paper-wrapped chicken, barbecued pork spare-ribs, fried prawns, egg rolls, cream cheese wontons and a teriyaki beef skewer. Everything is cooked in the kitchen, but served around a flaming pot at the table, allowing diners to add their own touch of cooked crispiness to the meat. All of it was excellent, with the light and fluffy breaded shrimp and deliciously seasoned ribs standing out in my mind. Many Chinese restaurants serve smaller spare-ribs, but Happy Garden’s are full-sized and delicious, confirming a suspicion the king-sized cuts of chicken in my soup had started: Not only are the portions huge, but the best bits of each dish are also designed for American-sized appetites.
The Pork Fried Rice ($5.75) provided further evidence of this, with the generous, bite-sized bits of roast pork.
To best experience the expansive selection of dishes offered at Happy Garden, however, whole dinners are the way to go at Happy Garden. For prices ranging from $8.95 to $12.95 per person, diners can get a full meal including soup, appetizers, fried rice, chow mein and a variety of entrées.
Heng’s personal favorite dish is the Happy Family Chef Special ($12.95). An amazing dish for the price, it includes tender beef, roast pork, white chicken, scallops, shrimp and calamari steak and vegetables.
For dessert, Happy Garden offers chilled lychee or longyan fruit ($3.95) and ice cream ($1.35).
The large portions prompt the question of how Happy Garden can remain so inexpensive. “Competitively priced” understates the value, both in quality and quantity, of the servings.
“We try to look [for items] on sale,” Heng explained. “When we find good prices on fresh vegetables, we buy extra. My husband is very good at working with sellers and knowing when the price on certain vegetables is going to increase a lot more, so we buy ahead of time.”
Heng offered asparagus as an example—the restaurant recently acquired a particularly good batch of asparagus and the specials when I visited included a variety of asparagus dishes for less than $10.
Though a native of Canton—Guangdong’s capitol—Tham’s repertoire of dishes has expanded through the years to include Mandarin, Szechuan, Hunan and Peking styles.
Happy Garden is here to stay, as is Tham and Heng’s family, which has expanded since those fateful first days to include three boys, ages 7, 15 and 16.
“Chico is a great town, very clean, pretty and safe, a good place to raise a family,” said Heng. “We really appreciate the city and all of our customers. They are what makes this place so good.”