Dragon Gate Does Street-style Taiwanese
Karaoke meets bold decor and plentiful portions in Jack London Square restaurant.
Dragon Gate owner Johnny Chang.
Deep in Dragon Gate Bar & Grille’s multisection menu, I found the dish that called my name: Idiot Noodle. It also brought to mind my friend Tim Ware’s composition, "Idiot Glee," and held out the irresistible promise of "street-style" dry noodles with braised ground pork. Robin and I had eaten one previous dinner at Dragon Gate, happening upon some great dishes-doughy but scrumptious shrimp and pork dumplings ($11), water celery with garlic ($10), three-cup sauce vegetable and tofu ($10), black pepper shrimp ($14)-by ordering mostly what was least familiar. During that meal, our server, Ada, a Taipei native, tutored us in some of the home cooking and street food inspirations of the restaurant’s Taiwanese offerings. We went home with enough leftovers for another dinner and a half and an eagerness to return-to try some of Ada’s personal favorites and probe deeper into the secrets of a cuisine woefully underrepresented in the East Bay dining scene.
Chef/owner Johnny Chang opened Dragon Gate as a bar last February, taking over the space that once housed Soizic Bistro (which closed in 2010 when its proprietor, Hi-Suk Dong, turned his full attention to Mua). The full restaurant blossomed in April, and it resembles Soizic about as much as the new Levi’s Stadium recalls a Zen monastery. The gaudy interior is quite literally stunning: all old-school Chinese-eatery red and gold paint, paper globe lanterns, rococo carvings, enormous dark wood booths, female servers in traditional silky, one-piece qipao dresses, an almost psychedelic bar, and humongous TV screens mounted high on two walls. At some point, multicolor laser beams started dancing around the dining room from a balcony corner, in and out of time with the American and Chinese pop music in the background. We didn’t experience the karaoke culture directly, but Chang, who ran a karaoke spot in San Francisco, has fashioned a popular sing-along gathering place, with large private rooms in the back, liquor "bottle service," and food-and-drink minimums that give you access to thousands of English and Chinese songs in the couch-laden parlors for an hour ($100) or a night ($300).
The overstimulation continues with the menu, page upon page of dizzying choices gathered under more than a dozen headings like five spicy slow-braised cold dishes or three cup-sauce-style iron pot concoctions. In shorthand, there are bites like hand-made dumplings; mains such as street-style sautéed dishes; plus salads, and rice and bento boxes. We were also handed a separate skewer menu with 31 variations ($4-$12) ranging from chicken meat and whole shrimp to lamb kidney, chicken heart, Taiwanese sausage, and quail with bacon. Much of the menu seems targeted to the karaoke crowd-appetizer-style dishes and small plates for sharing while drinking and singing and drinking some more.
But we had already learned from our first dinner that you can’t judge a restaurant by its décor, its devotion to karaoke, or the seeming overreach of its menu. Our second meal-after Robin and I dueled with our chopsticks over two small plates of complimentary pickled vegetables ("Taiwanese kimchi")-consisted of two skewers of bacon-wrapped shrimp ($5.95), fried green beans ($6), water celery with shrimp paste ($10), three cup-sauce chicken ($11), and the aforementioned Idiot Noodle ($8). It was all we could do not to reprise the black pepper shrimp ($18 with sweet prawns), a devastatingly addictive concoction.
The huge portions (at reasonable prices) provided another teachable moment: Come to Dragon Gate very hungry or with a large party of friends to share in the bounty. That was certainly the lesson of the water celery ($10), a steaming mound of vivid al dente greens (Robin preferred the version with copious chopped garlic over the shrimp paste rendition, which had a strong, fishy scent but a splendid rounded taste). Ditto for the savory three cup-sauce dishes, named for the equal parts of rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Robin might steer you away from the iconic chicken version and toward the vegetable and tofu option ($10), but I have no problem with what she calls "mystery meat" clinging to small shards of bone. And the Idiot Noodle? I benefited again by Robin’s reticence, and ate as much as I could of the beautifully presented chewy noodles, chunky meat sauce (pork belly, ground pork, soy sauce, brown sugar), pickled vegetables, dried fish, herbs, julienne cucumbers, and half a braised egg. I finished it the next day at work. Another of Ada’s favorites ("Everyone knows how to cook it in Taiwan."), it joined my list of Dragon Gate must-orders.
Custom cocktails are unavoidable these days, and Dragon Gate scores high for its Dragon Summer (made with St. George Spirits gin, Cointreau, lavender bitters, and orange, $10) and its Dragon Lord (a margarita with hibiscus-infused tequila, $9). But ultimately, Ada was right: The dishes you might find on the street in Taipei-such as the black pepper shrimp (a full dozen perched on the rim of a cast iron skillet, coated in spices and herbs that Ada muddled with lemon in the middle of the pan) and the lightly battered fried green beans (dusted with Japanese togarashi chili spice)-beg for an icy cold beer, such as a large Tsing Tao ($9).
As I write this and scan the Dragon Gate takeout menu, I’m hungry again, hankering to graze around another table of too much food-a dried radish omelet ($7), perhaps, salt and pepper grilled smelt ($7), sautéed oysters and tofu with black bean sauce ($14), street-style grilled pork sausage ($8), and maybe a rice wine-sweet prawn hot pot ($30). I’m also envisioning a trip to Taiwan, to check out the culinary capital Tainan, where Chang worked in restaurant kitchens as a teenager, to visit the countryside and small towns where Ada says everyone is friendly and no one locks their doors, and to be further surprised by how much I don’t know about the world.
Dragon Gate Bar & Grille. Chinese. 300 Broadway, Oakland, 510-922-8032. Serves lunch and dinner, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Fri. and 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Sat.-Sun. www.DragonGateBar.com. CC Full Bar Reservations Wheelchair Accessible $$