Double Dragon's is an unassuming dining room, spare of embellishment save for a few back-lighted, washed-out travel photographs depicting rivers, waterfalls and the requisite Great Wall. There's an aquarium of bubble-like goldfish near the entrance, emptied pistachio shells underfoot, red tablecloths and chairs upholstered in aquamarine vinyl. When the whole Hunan Fish arrives, a red snapper's metallic pink and white skin cutting through a golden film of batter, it makes a gorgeous centerpiece. It's also the only thing worth looking at in the room.
This Hunan Fish is scored crosswise before it's fried, creating thick mounds of flesh that come loose from the skeleton at the wave of a chopstick. Its Hunan-ness derives from a cascade of sauce that's got everything going on: fistfuls of black pepper, ginger, garlic, green onion and enough thickening power that it resembles a congealing chicken stock. Each invigorating spoonful (everyone is moved to eat this sauce by the spoonful) highlights another flavor profile -- sweet, spicy, salty, tart.
You're never far from a fish at Double Dragon. Those of us who hold the Hunan Fish close to our hearts also relish the impossibly moist Steamed Fish. Its damp flesh heavy with the perfume of ginger and green onion, the whole Steamed Fish comes garlanded with cilantro stems and basted in a salty bronze sauce that's wonderful spooned over fluffed short grain rice. A medium Hunan or Steamed Fish -- the only size available during my visits -- will stuff two people ordering nothing else.
Double Dragon's tome-like menu, with descriptions in Chinese, Vietnamese and English, offers just about everything you've ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant, though it's the Chef's Suggestions that prove Chinese food needn't be as humdrum as the average Friday night take-out order. (I saw a man exiting the restaurant with the fried fin of a red snapper protruding from his take-out box.) Both aforementioned whole fish preparations fall under the Chef's Suggestions, as does the signature dish, Twin Lobster, which is advertised on a lighted sign outside. Two appropriately chewy lobsters, snatched from a holding tank and hacked to manageable pieces, appear as if there's a machete-skilled chef in the kitchen. The lobsters come with a choice of sauce, such as the distinctly Asian, country gravy-thick "garlic sauce" redolent of garlic, chile peppers and soy sauce.
The roughly 20 other Chef's Suggestions include meaty softshell crabs (seasonal), deep-fried until they balloon and swathed in a pungent fermented black bean sauce; and the oddly delicious Double Dragon Beef Filet, a scorched version of crispy orange beef, the beef fried hard to resemble bacon strips in appearance and taste, and the orange blackened and bittersweet.
Don't confuse the Chef's Suggestions with the Chef's Specialties, which consist mostly of quantity-obsessed combinations, like Seven Wonder and Four Ocean. One Specialty that sounded promising, Seafood in Bird Nest, wasn't. The seafood's bed of fried wontons and lettuce resembled a taco salad, and its white sauce tasted pasty.
The menu goes on and on, from boneless spare ribs to shrimp lo mein to fried tofu. While none of the appetizers scream uniqueness, it's impossible to eat just one ginger-spiked Peking Dumpling, and the cabbage-fattened egg rolls are mined with delightful bits of spicy meat. Out of 10 soup options, the Hot & Sour soup tasted burnt but unfortunately not hot, and the egg drop Velvet Chicken Corn Soup tasted exactly as its elegant name implies.
If green beans in oyster sauce and stir-fried pea tips were any indication, the vegetable selections are of unusually high caliber; the former could have been snapped from the vine hours before, and the latter tasted pure green.
You can try ordering from the long list of Trader Vic's-style Polynesian cocktails with names like Dr. Funk and Navy Grog, but the bartender seems to have a life beyond the restaurant, and no one else knows how to mix them. Settle for pots of Chinese green tea.
It's common to feel helpless at restaurants like this one, where the menu seems limitless and where Asian diners sit at large, round tables sharing dishes you might be dying to try but can't identify. One night Double Dragon's white-clad kitchen army gathered with bowls of raw meat and vegetables around a cauldron of bubbling liquid; when I asked how to order such a meal for myself, an employee directed me to another restaurant.
Ordering well here is a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff, the chef's masterful Suggestions from the chef's pretty good accommodations. There's a time and a place for predictable Chinese food; Double Dragon is neither.