Dragon Express at first glance seems like your average Wichita Chinese restaurant. Upon entering, you see a menu that is stocked with dishes such as Moo Goo Gai Pan and Kung Pao shrimp sold by the pint.
That’s not the one you want. The menu you want is by the register and reveals Dragon Express to be far more than just an American Chinese restaurant.
When Chinese food was first popularized in the United States, it found success through adaptation and homogenizing its flavors to suit American tastes. Celebrity chef Ming Tsai bluntly refers to it as “dumbed down” and “fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce,” which I think is fairly accurate.
While Chinese immigrants were finding success with these simplified dishes, they still had a desire to serve the food of their homeland to their fellow expatriates, and thus the secret menu was born. There are several secret Chinese menus in town, and Dragon Express has offered one for the 15 years that Jan and Mon Wong have owned the place. Their Cantonese heritage is strongly communicated through their food, though with more than 75 items on the Chinese menu and even more on the American Chinese menu, their enthusiasm is met with the limitations of the kitchen.
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Even on the Chinese menu, some dishes heavily rely on that protein-vegetable-sauce stereotype. “Pork with dried tofu” sounds more interesting than the bright red char siu it turned out to be. In the “braised mushrooms with bok choy and tofu,” the undercooked cruciferous vegetables created a thin and watery sauce. The sweet and sour fish was just the opposite: the tender and lightly fried pieces of fish were suffocated by a sickly sweet sauce that was clearly more influenced by American palates.
Even in a dish with a name like “braised pork with pickled veg,” the promised veg was hardly to be found, though it did seem to add a little bit of acidity to the sauce. But the true star of that dish, as it was in every dish in which it was featured, was the pork belly.
Pork belly is what bacon would eat if it could. It’s tragically underutilized in Wichita, though it’s a fickle thing to execute well. Heat has to be applied in such a way that the alternating layers of fat render properly while the meat cooks to the crispness that makes bacon so satisfying. At Dragon Express, the fat is not only rendered beautifully, but the top layer of meat also is broiled to be so crunchy as to have the texture of hard candy.
There are other delights to be found on the menu, too, such as the barbecue pork buns, the sesame balls and the roast duck. The restaurant sells whole duck, chicken and fish preparations for a surprisingly small amount of money, and if you want something more challenging, it also offers pork trotters, squid, and shark’s fin soup. It’s frustrating; sometimes the restaurant’s preparations are so excitingly different that it makes me a little giddy when I first open that takeout container and view my spoils. Other times it’s simply Chinese food with American preparations. Even the rice is medium grained and difficult to pick up with chopsticks, though the restaurant is certainly not stingy with the portions.
The dining room is small and clean and is centered around a buffet line. Seating can get cramped when it’s busy. The Wongs are the only two people working the restaurant, so service can take 15-20 minutes depending on the size of the order and the number of call-in orders being worked.
There’s a lot to like about to like about Dragon Express: its deceptive facade, the Chinese menu, the pork belly, the way Jan is always sure to thank me when I give her my money. Many restaurants labor under a too-large menu, and this one is no different. But with a style of cooking that’s difficult to find in Wichita, you can’t help but be enamored by the treasures that can be found. Sometimes finding them is half the fun.