Happy Garden has a dim sum menu. And we ordered from it. We were hungry. Only after we ordered and began paying attention to what everyone around us was eating did we realize our mistake.
The interior of Happy Garden isn't impressive unless you've been to Beijing, where it might fit in, except for the language. It's dingy, not superclean, and the staff at first seems aloof and not very English-friendly, though we eventually learned that wasn't true. But they speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, so that destroyed the Beijing illusion and left us wondering about the restaurant's roots -- a question that only intensified the more attention we paid.
The dim sum menu has 80 items, but if an 80-item menu can be said to stick to the standards, this one does. Pork blood/pork skin with chives ($3.50) was the most intriguing, but we'd never make it on HBO because we've never developed a taste for blood, so we didn't order it.
There's also a 188-item non-dim sum menu, which we barely glanced at. We're looking at it right now, though, and even these 268 items listed in English don't get to the reason Happy Garden clearly draws regular customers.
You have to read Chinese, because the good stuff is in Chinese only, posted on the wall, again like in Beijing. First we realized the restaurant has an unusually large number of frog dishes. Then we saw a lot of lamb dishes; we think it might have hidden Mongolian roots.
We saw a delicious-looking platter of fish go by, and we just had to ask about it. A manager came out from the kitchen and explained in perfect English that it was the two-item rock cod ($15.50); you get salt-and-pepper rock cod from the fillets, along with a big bowl of soup from the bones. We really wish we had noticed this deal before we ordered our fill of dim sum.
But done is done. Of what we did order, we best liked the steam Shanghai dumplings ($2), bursting with soup and good meaty flavor. We also liked the bake pork bun ($2). We got three large ones, big as hamburger buns, not very sweet or glazed, with competent filling. It's mostly bun, but they're good value.
Less successful were the shrimp dumplings ($2.80), which didn't taste entirely fresh; the shark's fin dumplings ($2), which were apparently complying with the ban early by not including any shark's fin; the yellow chive and scallop steamed soft rice noodle ($2.80), which had silky texture but little scallop flavor and were slightly too sweet; and the sweet rice with chicken wrapped in lotus leaf ($2.80), which was bland.
We saw a nearby table order pea sprouts ($8) that looked good, so we asked for them. The only vegetable on the dim sum menu was seaweed salad ($4.50), which we didn't feel like. Perhaps in contrast to the disappointing dim sum, the pea sprouts were a huge hit: crunchy and fresh, with garlic, a hint of fish sauce, and at least one bracing large slice of sautéed ginger.
The staff is gruff, but eventually showed a sense of humor. A stern server came over to ask, "Are you finish?" We said we were, but she picked up a steam box with one dumpling in it and said, "No, one more." We also noticed the staff having friendly conversations with several regulars in the corner.
We would return to Happy Garden, but with an entirely different game plan. We might have a couple of fast dim sum items (Shanghai dumpling, bake pork bun) while taking our time to read and order the Chinese menu items on the wall. Steamed fish, we learned too late, is only $10 a pound.