There is something sort of dingy about the dining room of Happy Garden. Perhaps it's the bones of the Fog City Diner that cast an air of slackness to the restaurant, but it definitely still reads like a bit of a dive. Tables are jammed in sloppy rows, the worn edges of chairs almost bumping against one another, the glass-topped tables decorated with Chinese zodiac placemats tucked between the glass and worn tablecloths. There's a slight stickiness to surfaces. Yep, it's definitely still a diner.
There is also hominess to the space that, perhaps, comes hand-in-hand with the diner feel. When my two companions and I tuck into a table, under the glow of a TV broadcasting some Chinese programming, a kid is finishing his dinner. The woman who turns out to be our server is chatting with another young guy behind the counter.
After a few minutes, she casually wanders over with menus. She takes our order for water and a pot of tea. When she returns with them, we place our food order.
We start with a few egg rolls ($1.65), and a bowl of wonton soup ($4.25). One of my companions is a less adventurous sort with an aversion to heat, so we mostly stick to milder Cantonese specialties and a few of the basic take-out items. I am, however, unable to resist the quick-fried pork intestines with chili ($14.99) found in the restaurant's Sichuan specialties.
Our server asks if I'm sure. I am. She asks if I've eaten intestines before. I have. She laughs appreciatively and says it's a good dish and goes off to get our food together.
When she returns with the egg rolls, she lays out three Corelle plates with cutlery, the type of plates that make you feel more like you're at your aunt's house than you are at a restaurant. The egg rolls are crispy and quite oily. In a word: fine. My only complaint is that nobody asked how I would like them rolled. (RIP Mr. Chang's!)
The wonton soup is also pretty good. It's full of bok choy and green onion, along with a few strips of slightly sweet, very tender BBQ pork and, of course, a couple of small dumplings. It's a nice, light soup—mild, not too salty.
Our server brings pork intestine first, and delivers it to us in a way that suggests she's wishing us luck. We are lucky, it's very good. There is a tough crispness to the chitlings that is almost addictive. They are tossed with julienned carrot, onion and green pepper, cooked in a slightly sweet sauce that burns brightly with chili oil and chili peppers.
From the Cantonese menu we order the fried beef with Chinese broccoli ($12.99), which is, in a word, tender. There is still some slight crispness in the stalk of the broccoli, but it's mostly a mild, steamy dish. It's good.
The sweet and sour pork with pineapple ($12.45) has a slightly smoky taste to it, tasting closer to a sweet BBQ sauce than the classic sweet and sour sauce. Onion, green pepper and pineapple add some texture. It goes well with the Happy Garden Special Fried Rice ($8.25), which itself is a bit of a shrug.
Also unmemorable is the chicken chow mein ($7.95). (To be fair, unmemorable is chow mein's natural resting state.) There is still a good snap to the veggies when they arrive at the table, though, and that's really all you can really ask of a pile of bean sprouts.
While the food isn't perfect, Happy Garden is, in a way, a perfect Chinese restaurant. They are covering all of the bases when it comes to American-style take-out, but they are also offering some more exciting, authentic dishes: they are a happy medium
Happy Garden Chinese Cuisine
1304 Birmingham Street , 423-8882
Mon-Fri, 11am-11pm, Sat-Sun, 12am-11pm