In Phoenix, 19th Avenue might be the street of long pauses. The light rail extension from Montebello to Dunlap was on hiatus from 2009 until 2012 due to funding shortfalls. Work on the line resumed only after several years of uncertainty. Likewise, Silver Dragon, one of the region’s best Chinese restaurants, took a seven-year break before re-emerging. The restaurant’s original building near Dunlap was sacrificed to light rail construction, but Silver Dragon has resurfaced nearby, just two blocks east of the Glendale / 19th Avenue light rail station.
The new location is situated not on 19th Avenue per se, but instead along Glendale Avenue. Just past the large Fry’s supermarket on the southwest corner, Silver Dragon’s new space is a standalone suburban building. There’s no actual bike rack, but a railing that separates the restaurant from a neighboring animal hospital works well for lock-ups. The interior is sparse but clean. Large groups gather at big round tables where up to a dozen dining companions can spin dishes around the lazy Susan. Booths and a few square tables accommodate smaller groups.
Silver Dragon’s strong suit is Cantonese cuisine, the food of Hong Kong and southern China, but that may not be obvious from the Americanized menu presented to most visitors who don’t appears to be of Chinese heritage. That’s why anyone with the slightest sense of adventure should request the Chinese menu. Its English translations leave a bit to be desired, and sometimes the congenial staff can’t explain a “milk puff” in terms understandable to a non-Chinese speaker. Nevertheless, risk taking is rewarded here with vibrant flavors.
Of course, the American-Chinese classics on the standard menu are all capably prepared, so there’s nothing wrong with mixing and matching from the authentic menu and its gringo counterpart. In fact, some popular items such as pot stickers, cross over into both menus. The pan-fried dumplings are both chewy and crisp in just the right proportions. The accompanying sauce mixes black vinegar, soy, and chili flavors in an assertive mix for dipping. The same sauce comes with the egg rolls, and their vegetarian counterpart, the buddha rolls.
As tempting as fried appetizers might be, it’s wise to leave room for a bowl of soup at Silver Dragon. The American menu has familiar standbys like sizzling rice, creamed corn with chicken, and hot and sour soup. The Chinese menu, on the other hand, opens up vast new territory with big, shareable bowls of soup containing winter melon, a mild, soft vegetable that absorbs the flavor of whatever broth it floats in. Noodle soups come in varieties containing Chinese greens, beef stew, or soup dumplings filled with a mixture of ground shrimp and pork.
Without broth, the stir-fried noodle dishes showcase the Cantonese tradition of wok hei, or “breath of the wok,” a note of complex smokiness imparted by a well-seasoned cooking vessel. This nuanced flavor is present not only in the chow fun dishes from the Chinese menu, but also makes its presence known in shrimp lo mein from the American side. Noodles appear alongside head-on prawns in several of the hot pots. These are served in ceramic dishes and generally have darker, more robust flavors than the lighter touches associated with most Cantonese food.
Most of the stir-fries here have nearly clear sauces with garlic and ginger as their predominant notes. This approach succeeds with dishes such as fish fillets with snow peas and mushrooms or shrimp with Chinese vegetables (mostly ong choy, also known as water spinach). The same flavors are present, albeit muted, in dishes from the American menu such as shrimp and scallops with broccoli. Whatever the flavor intensity, the ingredient quality is high. The prawns are plump and pleasantly briny, the scallops are supple, and the vegetables are crisp and fresh.
While almost all the wok dishes contain some vegetables, there are numerous dishes on the menu that put produce front and center. Spicy string beans are not in fact all that spicy, but they’re nicely blistered from fast cooking over high heat with plenty of garlic. Chinese greens such as gai lan, choy sum, and bok choy are served, and eggplant is the main ingredient in several dishes — not all of them completely meatless. The spicy eggplant hot pot has a little bit of pork for flavor mixed in with the dark, pulpy flesh of the aubergines in the circular vessel.
For a break from the pattern of stir-fry dishes and hot pots, the whole poultry selections are worth ordering. The crispy Hong Kong style chicken is as exactly as it sounds: a whole or half bird with crisp, lightly seasoned skin; tender meat on the inside; and a small bowl of a salt-and-pepper mx on the side for seasoning. The soy sauce chicken is a cold preparation, also served in its entirety. Roast or salted duck is usually available, as are “alive” lobster and crab prepared with simple sauces such as black bean or ginger and green onion.
Silver Dragon has no liquor license and sells only soda and juice as alternatives to water and tea. It also has no dessert other than the obligatory fortune cookies presented with the check. Those deliberate omissions should leave plenty of appetite and funds available for shared platters of Cantonese food, most of which can be readily taken home for enjoyment as leftovers. Last decade, the pause button was pushed on 19th Avenue, both in terms of rail construction and Silver Dragon. Now the play button has been pressed again for the train and the restaurant.
July 7, 2016 update: Silver Dragon is now open only during daytime hours, from 11 AM to 5 PM, every day except Wednesday.
1739 W. Glendale Ave., Phoenix AZ 85021
19th Avenue / Glendale Station