The key to happiness

The skillful reliability of one of Chico’s premier Asian restaurants

FLOWERING FOOD Happy Garden server Julie Tham, left, keeps the food coming during a recent lunch hour. Anticipating their meal are Cynthia Beuselinck, left, and Melinda Ettle.

FLOWERING FOOD Happy Garden server Julie Tham, left, keeps the food coming during a recent lunch hour. Anticipating their meal are Cynthia Beuselinck, left, and Melinda Ettle.

Photo By Tom Angel

C’mon, get happy: Happy Garden Café, 180 Cohasset Road, is open every day from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Phone: 893-2574

“Happy” and “garden": Both words bring up pleasant images and a nice feeling. Put them together, and you have Happy Garden, one of Chico’s premier Asian restaurants.

Whatever this restaurant does, it does it consistently right, because you just can’t go wrong there. The same family has owned the place for over 10 years now, and it’s obviously gotten the formula down.

A recent week-night dinner there confirmed this. We were immediately greeted and seated. Although the place is generally fairly busy, the servers always manage to seat you in short order.

Once seated, I gazed around. I always appreciate the Oriental dàcor of the place, which is semi-fancy but casual enough to make you feel comfortable and at home. I love the blue and white china and the blue linen tablecloths and napkins, and it’s always fun to look at the Chinese astrology placemat and read about the animal for your year of birth, which in my case is the boar ("noble and chivalrous, but ambitious and honest").

You quickly receive a pot of delicious Asian tea, which we sipped, meditatively, throughout our meal. You can also take a novel approach with alcoholic beverages and order the sake, the plum wine or one of the imported Asian beers (domestic and local also available).

As is the case with most Chinese restaurant menus, you’ll find many choices on Happy Garden’s (which is written in both English and Chinese). There’s the Chef’s Special ($8.75-$11.95), the Family Dinner ($8.25 or $9.25) and the Special Dinner ($10.75/person). And, of course, you’ll find numerous delectable appetizers, such as the egg rolls ($3.50). A vast array of pork, seafood, lamb, vegetable, chicken, beef and tofu dishes also awaits you.

On this particular occasion, my dining partner and I found ourselves especially hungry after a tough day at work, so we opted for the sumptuous Family “B” Dinner, which started off with egg rolls and, happily, the fried shrimp—one of my favorites—and these were well done, not greasy.

Next, our server arrived with a big bowl of wonton soup. Those wontons have got to be one of the most savory items in this world.

I should mention that all courses were served punctually and smoothly, so there weren’t any lag periods or overlap, and our server offered the epitome of professionalism and was quite willing to answer any questions I had about each dish.

I will note that ever-so-slightly “taciturn” might describe all of the servers at Happy Garden, and they could perhaps evoke a little warmer and more conversational presence—but that, perhaps, is simply a cultural difference. Somebody California-born and -raised enjoys a server who’s willing to engage in a conversational exchange.

Following the soup, we delighted in the most glorious lemon chicken, an especially noteworthy dish. It was so savory I will go back one of these days for a take-out of nothing but lemon chicken. We also dug into the broccoli beef in brown sauce, which could put the Great Wall to shame. And we dabbled in the shrimp fried rice and the chow mein, both of which arrived at our table light and fluffy. If the last emperor (of China) had had a meal like ours, he might still be on the throne.

As with most Chinese restaurants, you receive a fortune cookie at the end of the meal. “You will soon find the key to happiness,” mine read. It was a tad late: I had already found it—Happy Garden, any day of the week.