Author’s note: This article is reprinted with permission from Central Coast Magazine.
You’ve probably driven past the China Dragon Restaurant in Morro Bay dozens of times without giving it a second glance. Sitting just yards from the buzz of Highway 1, a non-descript yellow building wears a faded sign announcing “Fine Chinese Cuisine.” It could be any family-owned Chinese restaurant in any small American town. What makes this particular place special are the people – and the decidedly fresh and delicious food – inside.
Kevin Lu is no stranger to the kitchen. Owning a restaurant in Taipei for 10 years, he learned the ropes early and brought his experience Stateside when the opportunity presented itself. While living and working in the Bay Area, he met Sophie Sun, a native of northern China who was managing the revered Ming Villa Restaurant in Palo Alto. They fell in love with each other around the same time they fell in love with Northern California, eating in myriad restaurants specializing in various cuisines from all over China. “San Francisco is my favorite city,” says Sophie, whistfully. “The food – oh, the food.”
The couple would often drive south to Morro Bay to see Kevin’s father, Lu Chi Fa, owner of the Embarcadero’s stalwart Coffee Pot Restaurant for over 20 years and author of the triumphant autobiography Double Luck: Memoirs of a Chinese Orphan (required reading in many Central Coast schools). Over the course of several visits, Sophie and Kevin discovered a gaping hole in the local restaurant scene that had yet to be filled: fine Chinese dining. What began as a passing observation quickly became personal when friends of the family announced that their small restaurant on Main Street was up for sale.
“We have always liked this area,” says Sophie, “And we really liked the idea of bringing good food here.”
The couple decided to purchase the restaurant in 2007 and quickly developed a menu that would bring together the garlic-rich noodle dishes of northern China and gently spicy dishes of southern China using fresh, tender ingredients. Sophie’s experience at Ming Villa informed several of the menu offerings – including decadent cream cheese fried wontons – and Kevin’s creativity inspired many of the house-made sauces, such as his specialty: sweet and sour sauce.
“Too much of Chinese food in America is based on sugar as the main ingredient,” says Sophie. “Kevin likes to create sauces with a lot of flavor and not so much sugar. For example, two of the main ingredients in the sweet and sour sauce are tomato juice and orange juice. It’s a customer favorite.”
Attention to detail is an obvious principle of Sophie and Kevin’s work in the kitchen. The potsticker dumpling appetizer is toasty – rather than oily – served beside a light, tangy dipping sauce. A colorful eggplant and chicken entree features the long, slender Asian eggplant, which has a more delicate, authentic flavor than that of the American eggplant. A flavorful wonton soup consists of crisp broccoli, snow peas, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and chicken dumplings in an aromatic leek broth. Perhaps the most refreshing of all dishes is the Mongolian Beef. A different species entirely from the syrupy goop served in most other restaurants, this Mongolian Beef is a light, simple and piquant dish of spice-rubbed ribbons of beef, crisp grilled onions and crunchy rice noodles.
The food is a delight, to be sure.
But just as appealing is the warmth of hospitality found beneath China Dragon’s mandarin-tiled ceiling. Since opening the restaurant three years ago, Sophie and Kevin have developed a following of locals that belies their somewhat recent transition to the Central Coast. On a weeknight in January (a notoriously slow month for business), most of the restaurant’s booths and tables are occupied with regulars, all of whom Sophie knows by name. Kevin emerges from the kitchen, smiling, to shake hands with a couple enjoying Kung Pao shrimp. A group of four patrons arrives and, after hugs and offers to see the latest photos of her 16-month old son, Edward, Sophie seats them and asks, “Do you want menus?”
“Oh no,” they bellow. “We know exactly what we want.”
China Dragon Restaurant
2780 Main Street
Morro Bay, CA 93442