I used to like Sea Dragon back in the day. It was one of the first Viet restaurants in town, and we used to frequent the place regularly. I loved the ginger duck (which isn’t especially Vietnamese), and the soups. Never, ever would I eat the buffet; it was the same sad American-Chinese crappy fare that can be had at any Asian buffet restaurant, but the Vietnamese portion of their Chino-Viet menu still held promise. As late as a year ago it was still cranking out decently good grub, but a recent visit on my pilgrimage of local Viet joints left me seriously glum and cranky.
It started with a waiter that might have been 19 years old; one of a small herd huddled around the football game being shown on the flat screens. He came by to take our order 4 times in a span of 6 to 7 minutes, even after being told to leave us alone and let me decide what we wanted. I started with Cahn Chua, Viet Hot and Sour Soup, which for many years I ordered there with chicken. I know that it is a traditional catfish or seafood soup; I understand that. I’m not the one that put a chicken version on their menu in the past; they are.
But this waiter tells me that it is no longer offered with chicken “because it is a seafood soup”. I say okay, I can live with that, and that I’ll get it with shrimp. I also order spicy chicken with chile and lemongrass, some fried eggrolls, and Bo Luc Lac (Shaking Beef). I had requested that we get it in two deliveries: rolls and soup, then chicken and beef. In typical fashion, it all came at once (sort of). First out of the gate was the chicken, half of which was onion and the chicken was overcooked. It wasn't especially spicy, or blessed with much lemongrass velocity either. The accompanying steamed rice was a no-show.
Next to arrive was the Shaking Beef. I’m a huge fan of Bo Luc Lac and have been for years. This plate, though attractively arranged, was a real dud. The quality of the beef had plummeted, and a third of the dish’s volume was inexplicably mushrooms. Mushrooms. Not mentioned on the menu, and never in my decades of eating the dish and cooking the dish, have I ever seen mushrooms in Bo Luc Lac. Ever. What we have here is a disturbing trend that was to show its ugly face once more before the meal was over: adding mass volumes of a cheap ingredient into an Asian dish to stretch the perceived volume. Mushrooms are cheaper than beef, even shitty beef. The sauce was nothing like any Shaking Beef I have ever eaten; it literally had very little flavor (maybe washed-out from the liquid cooked out of the mushrooms?). Dunno, but a complete failure as a dish, and not a cheap dish at that.
Anyway, the rice arrived with the beef, and was immediately followed by the eggrolls, that had obviously been fried, then sliced on the diagonal, the re-fried to heat them back up before service. They almost seemed to have been dipped in a thin batter before the last fry; certainly not brushed with sugar water to caramelize the exterior. No nuoc cham dipping sauce was brought with; I had to ask for that. There was a very meager lettuce and herb plate provided, to wrap the rolls before dipping, and the filling texture was way too finely ground; almost pasty. Nothing about these fried rolls said fresh, from exterior, all the way to the filling.
Last to arrive, and with great ceremony, was the soup. Boiling hot, yet for some bizarre reason, on a propane burner, which was perched precariously on the edge of the crowded table. After several attempts to light it, waiter instructed me to leave it on “until it boiled”. The shrimp were cooked from what I could tell, so I asked him how to turn it off (info he had not provided me with). Once I turned it off, and he came back with a ladle, two bowls and spoons so we could actually eat the stuff, we gave it a taste.
Let me describe the disappointment. Almost absent was the balance and interplay between the sweet of the pineapple and the fruity sour of the tamarind. Lacking was the spiciness from the chile. Gone were the slices of spongy bac ha (elephant ear stem) and our old friend, the okra slice. Shrimp were there, as promised, but the dominant ingredient in the soup? Shudder; I get the heebie-jeebies just saying it……celery! Not a few minced leaves or stems of the more petite Chinese celery, opr the subtle sweetness of lovage, but honest-to-gawd American, stringy, bitter-ass, dominatingly assertive celery; and BUTTloads of it. If I had to guess, I’d estimate 35% of the total volume was celery. The bowl sat 3/4’s unfinished. What a bummer.
To sum it up: obnoxious and crappy service, shortcuts taken in food preparation, and most grievous of all, adding gobs of cheap ingredients to dishes that screw up the overall taste and don’t belong there in the first place. Scratch Seadragon from my list. Too bad.
Mick Vann ©