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Jul 9, 2012 07:29 PM

Bellingham: Dragon River Restaurant

Anybody eaten here yet? We stopped in and looked at the menu during art walk Friday night, then forgot to return and grab something to eat. By looking at the reviews linked to their webpage, looks like it is good , authentic Chinese food! Hooray! Might not be much selection for vegetarians, but if what they offer is good, we'll eat there!

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  1. Interesting. Looking at the thorough lone review on Urbanspoon, their cuisine hails from the Heilongjiang province (extreme northeast corner of China):

    So I can expect an emphasis of wheat-based carbohydrates (dumplings, buns, noodles, "nian gao", etc), dishes with pickled/preserved/fermented vegetables, lamb, cabbages, but also fresh seafoods done in more rustic methods like hot pots, stewing and braising.

    Here's an good article I found awhile back on "dongbei" (northeastern) Chinese cooking from the NYT:

    We're down to B'ham this weekend (start of "Where's Waldo" at Village Books). Might not be able to check out Dragon River, but who knows ?

    1. We ate dinner here last Friday. Great good and friendly staff. We had the Spicy Chicken $9.99 and Dry Stir Fried Green Beans $8.99. The chicken was wonderfully seasoned and medium spicy. It will be hard to not order it next time. The Green Beans pleased Mrs. Puzzler very much, as she's been looking for years for a place that does these like an old favorite place in Iowa City -- garlicky and medium spice.

      Today I went for lunch and had Gong Bao chicken $6.99 with fried rice (or steamed), hot & sour soup (or egg drop), and fried spring roll. Everything was the best I've found in Bellingham. The Gong Bao seems a cousin of Kung Po chicken in appearance, but different taste. Boneless chicken stirfried with cabbage, carrots, celery and peanuts in a new-to-me sauce that is my new favorite. The hot & sour soup was more like egg drop and missing the "hot" from chile flakes, but nice flavor -- perhaps it's the regional style. The fried rice was a pleasant surprise -- some nice crusty bits from the bottom of the pan and no soy or oyster sauce, so no overall brown color.

      This place is a keeper. I've attached photos of the menu and their description. You'll note several vegetarian choices and "handmade-from-scratch buns, dumplings, wontons."

      1 Reply
      1. re: puzzler

        Well done, and a great review :-) Will add them to our list !

        Actually the real "hotness" from H&S Soup comes from white pepper, and not chile pepper flakes nor chile oil. However I actually prefer some chile oil in mine.

      2. We went last night. Ordered spring rolls, crab/cheese wontons, jalapeno/tofu stirfry, and noodles in thick sauce. I'd say everything was yummy but the wontons and the noodles were the top two dishes at the table.

        The owner presented our jalapeno/tofu stir fry and told us we were "lucky" because the jalapenos were super hot (she was coughing and tearing up from the pepper fumes in the kitchen) and that her family usually needs to add extra spice when she uses jalapenos, but not with this batch. And she was right! Super hot, burning lips and tongues all around. But used the leftovers tonight and added rice noodles, silken tofu, shrimp, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce and a touch of maple syrup...delicious! Just the right amount of heat.

        There was some confusion on the menu about which items were vegetarian. It is color coded, which is really a great idea but they had the crab wontons color coded as vegetarian. When we pointed it out she explained that was because it was imitation crab. We countered with the fact that imitation crab is fish, so still not vegetarian. A minor issue, but causes me to wonder about sauces and other items identified as veggie.

        We'll go back! Best Chinese food we've ever had here in the 'Ham. So many more dishes I can't wait to try.

        9 Replies
        1. re: laurachow

          Crab/cheese wontons ? As in cheddar ? Confused [grin].

          Jalapenos in the tofu stir-fry ...... almost rings of fusion dish.

          Definition of "vegetarian" dishes in Chinese restos can be rather loose. I can count on more than two hands how many times I've seen Szechuan "dried" greenbeans stirfried with minced pork chili listed as a veggie dish. Or even ma-po tofu (cubed soft tofu with ground pork in hot chili brown sauce) as a veggie dish. I think often the proprietors think of these dishes as lacking major amounts of meat (and whatever meats are used are there for mere flavor enhancement so they don't count).

          Not to make you feel paranoid, but unless it's a strict Buddhist veggie resto, there's a good chance even pure veggie dishes in a Chinese resto is prepared and cooked in the same area, with the same equipment, and in the same wok/vessels as non-veggie dishes. If you really want to know for sure, you have to ask in advance and make sure you cover all the bases.

          1. re: LotusRapper

            Crab cheese wontons are usually cream cheese, so called "crab rangoon," a dish invented at Trader Vic's and offered at nearly every pseudo Asian restaurant. Although they can be tasty in their purest form (it was one of the first things I learned to cook with real crab and a scant amount of cream cheese), they are often made with fake crab and tons of cheese. Their appearance on any Asian menu makes me suspicious.
            However, the selection of eateries in Bham being as bleak as it is, I am still willing to give this spot a try.

            1. re: L.Nightshade

              Actually that did cross my mind, but I was afraid to even ask/suggest it is crab rangoon.

              Reminds me of this issue of Saveur, lurking in my cupboards somewhere .....


              1. re: LotusRapper

                That was a sweet article, thanks for linking it. I have only the vaguest memory of Trader Vic's, and even the Beachcomber. Now I have a nostalgic desire to seek out a meal at a Trader Vic's.

                1. re: L.Nightshade

                  And (T Vic's) which is tenuously tied to Trader Joe's in terms of nostalgia and novelty:


                  Which still makes me shake my head in amazement how we can get a pack of those baked green peapod snack thingies at TJ's for about $2/bag, and up here in Lotusland they cost Cdn$5-6 ........

              2. re: L.Nightshade

                Yes, yes. It's cream cheese. I always assume that shared work surfaces are used in most restos, not only Asian. And, also generally assume there is fish sauce and other nonveg ingredients lurking in sauces. What I mostly want to avoid is straight up meat in my food and I try as much as possible to avoid chicken or beef stocks. I'm much more tolerant than my hubby who won't eat anything he suspects of having any meat content. Still, we'll go back to Dragon River.

                I grew up in Chicago and fondly remember going to Trader Vic's downtown in the big city with my family and sharing a Pupu Platter. We loved that place in all of it's kitschy glory!

                1. re: laurachow

                  A what platter ? [grin] That dish would be quite popular with our lil' 'uns, wouldn't it: "Oh Dad, can we order the pupu platter, hahahaha !!!" :-)

                  Well not to digress too much from the original topic, but speaking of the windy city (which I've not been yet), here's one of our local intrepid food bloggers covering her recent visit to Chicago and her dining extravaganza:


                  1. re: LotusRapper

                    It's cool, because it's just made with imitation pupu! Kinda' like our crab. Thanks for the blog post. Going back to Chicago to give my teenager the homeland tour and haven't been there in nearly 20 years, so I need to brush up on where to go. Think we'll skip Trader Vic's.


                    I admit, I Googled pupu platter before posting, just to make sure it wasn't some sort of mistaken childhood remembrance. Yup, the pupu platter. You can't make that one up!

          2. We tried out the Dragon River Restaurant last night. As to the environment, the place was quite empty, and the contrast of the Chinese scrolls on the wall, with the red, white, and blue plastic tablecloths was a bit jarring. Shortly after sitting down, Ting, our cheery and helpful server, brought us a pot of jasmine tea as we perused the menu.

            As there were several of us, and each ordered a desired dish, we fell into the trap of an un-orchestrated and overabundant meal. Proteins were well represented, but vegetables were not. Obviously the fault of the orderers, not the restaurant.

            We started with Salt and Pepper Shrimp, a favorite dish of the person ordering it. The shrimp were crunchy and peppery, well flavored. Shortly thereafter our table filled up with plates of Spicy Chicken, Pork in Yu Xiang Sauce, Spicy Beef, Ma Po Tofu, and steamed rice.

            I will say that the Ma Po Tofu was not typical of others that I've had, but it was quite good in its own way. Everything else was verging on spectacular. The Yu Xiang pork was garlicky and perfectly cooked, with slivers of (wood ear?) mushrooms. I look forward to trying their Yu Xiang Eggplant next time. The spicy beef was almost dry-cooked, not saucy, and so tasty. Someone knows what they are doing back in that kitchen.

            There are things on the menu that are probably there because people expect them in a Chinese restaurant. The table that came in after us ordered a sweet and sour dish and the crab and cheese wontons, which I think are more typical dishes in American Chinese restaurants (no insult there, I could eat an entire plate of well-prepared crab rangoon, traditional or not). I would like to return and get recommendations on dishes that are typical of the Northeastern cuisine in which they specialize. And try a lot of vegetables too.

            Not only do I think this is the best Asian restaurant in Bellingham, but if last night was any indication, this is one of Bellingham's current best restaurants in general. I hope they garner a larger following!

            13 Replies
            1. re: L.Nightshade

              We drove by last Friday night when we were down, but had already decided to eat at AW Asian Bistro (see my post in adjacent thread) simply because they were steps from where we were staying, and also I wanted to give them a second chance.

              DR is sounding better and better. Given my wife is Caucasian, I feel often we get the short end of the stick when ordering in Chinese restos in smaller cities (ie: spices and pungent ingredients scaled back in dishes) because the owners assume we're more into Westernized tastes (we're not). But it sure sounds like DR is not dumbing down its offerings to appeal to the masses :-)

              Great review, LN !

              1. re: LotusRapper

                Thanks LotusRapper. The thing I find in most Asian restaurants (around here especially), is if you request something spicy, they just up the lone hot pepper. It's very one-note. What I liked about Dragon River is that the seasonings were quite complex. I'm eager to eat there again!

              2. re: L.Nightshade

                We're really looking forward to going back again, too. Was there meat in the Ma Po Tofu? As I recall the menu indicated it was vegetarian, but usually it has pork or other meat and the menu classifications have some problems as I mentioned earlier.

                1. re: laurachow

                  There was no apparent meat in the Ma Po Tofu. That is one reason why it did not seem typical to me. Also, apparently no fermented black beans. The sauce was brownish, which could be anything, but I certainly wouldn't vouch for it being vegetarian. Although it was tasty, I think it was the weakest dish on the table, but perhaps that is because I expected a more traditional Ma Po.

                  1. re: L.Nightshade

                    Ah, thanks. I think we'll stick with the many interesting veggie dishes offered. And, maybe another bowl of those noodles with thick sauce. I'm not asking what's in the sauce, because I really don't want to know!

                    1. re: laurachow

                      I'm dying to try that yu xiang eggplant. There wouldn't ordinarily be meat in a yu xiang prep. Maybe we'll run into each other there sometime!

                      1. re: L.Nightshade

                        That'd be fun! I just hope that place catches on. I do not want them to close. Seems like the rent there would be pretty high.

                        1. re: laurachow

                          Yeah, the series of places going in and out there is a bit demoralizing. And it was very empty when we went. Maybe we could do a cash mob?

                          1. re: L.Nightshade

                            I think it's reasonable to request to the owner/server when ordering any dish, that no meats be added (if any were already supposed to be in the dish), and also to ask them the details about ingredients and/or preparation approaches to their dishes, meat or no-meat. You're more likely to get the deets on the ingredients, and if they're able to make substitutions to accommodate non-meat preferences. But I'd be surprised if Chinese restos would go out of their way to make separate processes and facilities for the sole purpose of vegetarian dish preparations.

                            Laura - don't recall if I ever sent you this link, but other than the pure Buddhist/veg Chinese restos here in Vancouver, there's also HON's Wuntun House which prepares a small but separate list of veggie dishes and dim sums:


                            (Robson St. location menu, but more or less same for other locations too)

                            1. re: LotusRapper

                              LotusRapper, yes, Hon's not only does a lot of vegetarian stuff, at the Robson location (and possibly others) they have separate vegetarian kitchens whose workings are all on view from the dining room.

                2. re: L.Nightshade

                  Linda, as told you separately by email, we dined there Saturday night and didn't have a single dish that verged on spectacular. The highest grade we doled out was 2.5 and we're all discerning eaters/graders. The best of our dishes was merely average, and most of our six dishes had more than one fault of flavor and method. Even the rice was poorly made (too much water/overcooked/gummy). We were SOOO disappointed!

                  I'll skip the details, except to mention that when 'potato' is included as an ingredient in a dish it is a fried wide-cut from-frozen french fry, which I found terribly odd, especially in the dish our waitress (Ting) told us is one of the most "authentic" to the northeast. I really don't want to put anyone off as it seems many, like you, had far better experiences than we did. Honestly, if it weren't for glowing reports like yours I wouldn't give it a second try.

                  A big negative if anyone here is into wine: they serve several good bottled beers but on the wine side, only Barefoot brand chardonnay and merlot. YUCK. And they're not planning to allow corkage--they don't understand that it's both legal and to their benefit, and the cultural gap (I'm not Asian) seems too large to get the point across.

                  We laughed at the r/w/b tablecoths too. Probably a holdover from The City Grill that will go away when they can afford more redecorating. As it is, they've done a nice job and the room has a good feel. The fourtops are a bit small for dish-sharing, but we used the wide/flat partition between us and the next set of tables for a shelf, and managed to get by.

                  1. re: Neecies

                    Well Neecies, you know we had a different impression there, and I'm sorry your dinner was so disappointing, as I touted you on to the place. It's possible that we have different tastes (but from our mutual experience, and my knowledge of your extraordinary culinary skills, that seems like the less likely issue), or that the food was different on different nights. I will stand by my impressions, at least until my next visit. But, in general, the Chinese food I've had around here has been so sub par, that I was delighted to find Dragon River.
                    I wouldn't fault what I see as basically a small town hole-in-the-wall restaurant for their wine list. Moderate wine may not be the best drink with most moderate Chinese food, as a rule anyway, and a new and struggling place did better by putting together a good beer menu, in my opinion. (Even though I don't drink beer, alas.) I've had several proprietors in different cities refuse corkage, whether it be for personal preference, or their impression of the law.
                    I'd suggest, in general, staying away from dishes like fried rice (northeastern China is more wheat based anyway), and dishes like your unpleasant General Tsao's Chicken, which is basically an American pseudo-Chinese dish. (I'm sure you know this, and I understand you were with friends and ordering jointly). We dined with our foodie guests from Paris, who have Asian restaurants galore at their feet. They were quite happy there, but our menu still suffered a bit from the each person order something, without an overall vision.

                    I will go again. And I'll come back to report.

                    1. re: L.Nightshade

                      Re wine, a wine like a dry or off-dry reisling--bright, cold, acidic--actually does very well with Chinese food, and would be a pleasure to drink with almost any aspect of a typical Chinese menu. The poor wine options aren't because wine won't work, but because wine is very foreign to Chinese culture--Dragon River's choice of two jug wines to serve to anyone asking for wine is completely typical of nearly every every-day type Asian restaurant in the Los Angeles area that I used to go to. Most, however, accomodated corkage--after all, the purpose is to make money and they got it right away that this was a way to make more money.

                      Agree re the General's chicken--I don't care for that kind of dish and never would have ordered it, but it wasn't my choice. And I don't fault them for offering it--no Chinese restaurant in Bellingham would survive without a number of fried meat dishes. It's what most Hamsters seem to think IS Chinese food. I look forward to giving them another try myself.

                3. Note to self: Dragon River not open on Sundays. <sigh> Ended up at Fiamma Burger. Not equivalent to spicy Chinese food.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: laurachow

                    That's funny, we wanted to go last night too. Went tonight instead.
                    Sad to say, it was a bit of a let down after our first experience. I will now say the quality is a bit uneven, don't know if it's the cook, or the dishes we ordered.

                    1. re: laurachow

                      That's a strange practice, not being open on Sundays !

                      1. re: LotusRapper

                        Well, not really. Bellingham is still rather parochial (unlike Canada, where I believe you are), dnd downtown Bham is absolutely dead on Sundays.

                        1. re: Neecies

                          Hmmm, maybe that's a quality to cherish .... a sleepy Sunday mornin' in B'ham :-)

                          Yuppers, I'm up in YVR.