Double happiness equals romance

“Romance” isn’t the first word that pops into my mind when I hear the phrase “Chinese food.” “Economical,” maybe. “Chopsticks,” perhaps. But not romance.

Yet that’s exactly what’s in the air at Ming Garden, a dark, cozy little alcove on Freeport Boulevard near Sacramento Executive Airport. It’s in the cool jazz playing on the sound system. It’s in the sensuously shaped fresh oysters, clams and mussels on the seafood buffet. It’s literally in the place itself, carved into the ceiling—an ornate gold-inlaid wood engraving depicting an intertwined phoenix and dragon that spans the main dining room—a form that is replicated in a series of smaller, one-foot-square panels placed throughout the restaurant.

The phoenix and dragon is a traditional Chinese symbol displayed at weddings, a busboy explained on my first visit. The phoenix represents the woman, the dragon represents the man. The symbol, phoenix and dragon together, represents happiness. As it so happened, it was happiness, if not romance, that had led me back to Ming Garden.

I just can’t get enough of their walnut prawns.

Pink, plentiful, succulent prawns the size of a man’s thumb, each glazed with caramelized sugar, served with toasted walnuts that have received similar treatment. People in the know will tell you that Ming Garden has the best walnut prawns in town. I am not one of those people. I think Fat’s downtown location has the best. The glaze is crispier. But Ming Garden’s are close—and at $9.25, they’re a bargain that can’t be passed up. So I’ve been raiding the place at least once a week for the past month, sampling the buffet and other menu items with my Styrofoam clamshell stuffed full of walnut prawns to go.

“Enticing” and “Chinese buffet” are two words you don’t often hear together, but they apply here. Besides the aforementioned seafood, the buffet includes several varieties of steamed and salted shrimp, staples like broccoli chicken and Mongolian beef that are replenished often, sushi rolls, long green beans in garlic sauce, chewy coconut cake and a full section devoted to fruit and Jell-O. The stainless steel steam tables have been spotless on every occasion I have visited. Many of the patrons come strictly for the buffet.

It’s a multicultural clientele, with guys from the nearby South Land Park neighborhood hanging at the small bar in the restaurant foyer, and attractive couples sitting at the well-spaced tables in the dining area. A first-rate selection of Asian art, including a large, intricate three-dimensional painting depicting a Chinese city scene, adds to the romantic atmosphere, as do the dimmed chandeliers in the ceiling.

Ordering off the menu has turned out to be a hit-and-miss affair. The dishes that don’t hit at Ming Garden, such as the egg rolls, aren’t necessarily bad. The four crispy cigars we were served were packed with shredded cabbage and pork and weren’t too greasy. There was just nothing that distinguished them from the egg rolls you can get anywhere else. No reason to order them again.

There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to this pattern. A vegetarian combination featured Chinese broccoli and long green beans stir-fried to perfect tenderness and encouraged us to try another selection, braised tofu with vegetables, which featured soggy, overcooked broccoli and mushrooms and tofu that was rather limp. Chicken chow mein, a mass of brown noodles large enough to serve four people, was served with a plentiful supply of white chicken breast slices; it was a surprise favorite. On the other hand, pepper-salted spare ribs were breaded, oddly shaped hunks of meat, gristle and bone that were practically tasteless.

Given my newfound love for Ming Garden’s walnut prawns, I’ll probably get the chance to hit-and-miss my way through the entire menu. With surroundings as pleasant as these, that won’t be a problem.