Chow-mein challenge

Happy Garden
9081 Elk Grove Boulevard
Old Elk Grove
(916) 686-3933

Happy Garden’s rating:

Nathan’s Chinese Cuisine
9105 Bruceville Road, Suite 2A
Elk Grove
(916) 683-8298

Nathan’s rating:

Sun Flower Chinese Cuisine
8469 Elk Grove Boulevard, Suite 9
Elk Grove
(916) 684-7176

Sun Flower’s rating:

This week I’m pleased to announce the results of recently completed, wildly unscientific survey of three of Elk Grove’s 25 or so Chinese restaurants. The selection of the three—Nathan’s, Sun Flower and Happy Garden—is not based on volume of Yelp reviews. Further weakening the study’s veracity, the same dish was not sampled at each restaurant. Although in each case, a “house special” was selected.

Choices were not based on the size of the menu, either. All are encyclopedic. Happy Garden, for example, comes in last with 21 lunch specials, compared to Nathan’s 24 and Sun Flower’s 25. Indeed, the selection of Nathan’s stems mainly from it not being a name commonly found in conjunction with Chinese cuisine. In bold show of bravado, Sun Flower bills itself as the “Best Chinese Food in Town” and Happy Garden is located in the heart of Old Elk Grove, which from its photo, appears not to be infested with tilt-up strip malls.

That is not the case with Nathan’s or Sun Flower. Nathan’s is tucked into the elbow of a small L-shaped mall with an easily missed entrance. Failure to negotiate the entrance leads to more than 10 minutes of back-and-forth through a seemingly endless sequence of cheesy strip malls, an existential quarter-hour so profound Camus would weep.

Nathan’s is clean and white, although a bit subdued because of gauze curtains over its front windows. A couple at a nearby table wishes the owner happy new year, since it is the first day of the Year of the Rabbit. The house-special chow mein arrives swiftly but can’t be accompanied by a Tsingtao, because the only import available is Heineken. For a little more than $6, it’s a generous pile of noodles, a sordid, usual-suspect Chinese mix of vegetables with chicken, plump shrimp, beef strips and a couple squid cylinders. The shredded jellyfish is chewy but crisp, a refreshing salad that’s yin to the chow mein’s yang.

Sun Flower, like Happy Garden, appears to have taken over space previously occupied by some other type of eatery. There’s a curvy, blue-neon squiggle along the top of the left wall that doesn’t exactly scream feng shui. Unlike Nathan’s, where the efficient waitress occasionally smiles, at Sun Flower the waitress’s face is set in grim determination. Requests for chopsticks and additional napkins are acknowledged with a brusque nod. The cream-cheese filling of crab Rangoons is temporarily forgotten but swiftly remembered after the first bite, putting all the pressure on the chef’s special peach chicken to carry the day. The crisped chicken is cooked in a King Do sauce that is kissin’ cousin to sweet-and-sour, but sweeter with its sugary mix of rice vinegar, ketchup and what tastes like Worcestershire. Peach slices ring the large mound of red shredded chicken. An inspired, out-of-the-ordinary flavor combination, marred by the peaches clearly coming from a can. Couldn’t it be tangerine chicken in the winter? Same dif but fresh.

Happy Garden once was a cowboy joint. The biggest of the three restaurants, in the back there is a wood-paneled room with a wood beam bench whose ends are wagon wheels. Piney wainscoting. Yeehaw!

The waiter brings a massive mug of club soda. Heft is added to the complimentary egg flower soup by the addition of ground pork. The special “Yue Sheung” comes with white rice, as does every other entree.

At a request for fried rice, the waiter says, “I’ll make it work for you.” Good answer. The dish’s hot and spicy sauce is leavened by the pineapple-ish flavor of the beef slices, which are accompanied by large swathes of thinly sliced chicken, shrimp, snow peas, serrated carrots, red and green bell peppers and, as is so rarely the case, plenty of onions. The menu also offers several lamb dishes, something neither Sun Flower nor Nathan’s does.

Not exactly freeway close, at 1.5 miles east of Highway 99 on Elk Grove Boulevard, Happy Garden gets the three stars to its competitors two and a half.