Chinese quackers

Joe Chow's May Dragon serves first-rate Peking Duck in stylish surroundings

I am always asked where to get good Chinese food in Dallas, and I always say New York or San Francisco.

That's still true if you're looking for one of those deeply "authentic" Chinese restaurants with the ducks (geo and otherwise) hanging in the window. But there are a few places that serve first-rate high-end Chinese food in Dallas, and I recently revisited one of the best.

Joe Chow's May Dragon is hidden in the Dallas equivalent of those winding, unnamed up-and-down alleys that pass for streets in old-time Chinatown: a strip mall in Addison. What could be more anonymous or harder to find? Those strip malls all look alike.

The inside, though, is a different story. You enter a photographer's gallery featuring portraits of incredible Chinese food. You might be disappointed to find that most of the elaborately carved, garnished, and dyed dishes will not be offered on the menu but are available only by special order and not always even then. The awe-inspiring May Dragon, for instance, is not something the chef can produce. Still, you'll be impressed that it was ever prepared for anyone, anywhere. And it's encouraging to know the role models from which the kitchen is working.

Inside, May Dragon is stylish without implying a dress code. One room opens out of another; the mirrors, dim lighting, and cinnabar-red gridwork separating one space from the other make it hard to tell just how large this place is. (It's bigger than you think.) There's a bar in the front, a smaller, nearly private dining room in the back, and a big mirrored room off to the side with a giant TV screen--that's where the families with small children seemed to be eating. Since we had rented ours out for the evening, we were seated in a regular dining room with other grown-ups and no TV.

About the food: The menu is bewilderingly extensive and divided into as many subheadings as you'd expect from a Chinese menu. If I ate out for pleasure and not for work, I'd eat at May Dragon every week for a long time so I'd really get to know the menu. Since I probably won't get back there for months, I had to satisfy myself with overeating.

From the "Roll Your Own" section, we ordered the "Ming Lettuce Rolls." Single leaves of iceberg lettuce formed big, crisp, cool cups the size of cereal bowls, which our waiter filled with a mouth-watering mixture of chicken, carrots, mushrooms, onions, and noodles, all diced the same size and sauced. You couldn't exactly roll it, but you kind of bundle it up, lean over your plate, and hope that 1) the juices would drip into it and not down your shirt (not a chance), or 2) the lights were dim enough so the drips wouldn't show (Bingo!).

From the "For the Authentically Inclined" section, we ordered (not very adventurously, but with the same foolish optimism that keeps us ordering Key lime pie) fried dumplings, and for once, were not disappointed. There were three of us, so technically we might have been justified in ordering three main dishes, but not really, not if one was going to be Peking Duck, which it was. The salmon steak (from the "Sizzling Plates House Specialties" section) was also good, its crispy fat flavor offset by pungent ginger and scallion; the sesame beef from the "Beef House specialties" section was not, being nearly unchewable inside its fried coating.

But the Peking Duck, properly presented first, then served in two courses--once with just-crisp vegetables and once in thin elastic moo-shi pancakes--was dark and velvety in texture with the mouth-coating flavor to which every duck should aspire.

--Mary Brown Malouf

May Dragon, 4848 Beltline Road at Inwood, 392-9998. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday noon-11 p.m., Sunday noon-10:30 p.m.

May Dragon:
Dan Dan Noodles $4.95
Ming Lettuce Roll $7.95
Salmon Steak $13.95
Hong Kong Steak $15.95
Peking Duck $23.

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