What’s not to love about General Tso’s chicken? It is the sticky, saucy, crunchy, salty and sweet epitome of Chinese restaurants in America. You might call it a second-generation dish, the sort that doesn’t resemble the food served in Hunan Province, the historical home of the namesake Tso Tsung-t’ang, as much as it appeals to the American taste for sweet, fried things. It is the dish that, when sitting down to dinner at Double Dragon in Oakhurst, I knew I had to order.
When it arrived, I was glad it did: The sauce was sticky and lightly sweet, the batter crunchy, the chicken salty and chewy. It is, in other words, more or less the thing I’ve been ordering from cheap-o strip mall Chinese delivery joints and steam table buffets all my life. Maybe with a touch less sugar.
Double Dragon is the latest restaurant from Michael Lo and George Yu, a restaurateur and chef pair behind several restaurants in Atlanta, including Taiyo Ramen in Decatur and Suzy Siu’s Baos in Krog Street Market. In interviews about their plans for this restaurant, they’ve explained how they grew up in Americanized Chinese restaurants, the children of immigrant restaurateurs, and how the dishes on this menu are the ones they really crave from their childhood.
At dinners with friends here, I’ve made a habit of explaining that little biographical tidbit before we order. Inevitably, we all agree that this is a great concept: authentically inauthentic American Chinese food. More often than not, though, by the time we’ve paid the tab and walked out the door, we’ve been scratching our heads, certainly full but wondering why the meal didn’t quite live up to the pitch.
Not that Double Dragon is a bad place to kill an hour or two with friends. The booths are comfortable, well-lit. The bar offers some reasonably priced, generously portioned Tiki drinks, including the Formidable Dragon, a towering concoction of two rums, amaro, lemon, lime and angostura bitters. The cocktails I’ve enjoyed haven’t been especially playful or carefully balanced, but they do the trick and run only $6 on Tuesday nights.
The menu is built around the classic, family-style approach that has endeared American Chinese food to so many families. On every visit, I’ve happily ordered enough plates to fill our table. We passed them around, each of us scooping big piles of fried rice and kung pao chicken onto our plates. It’s a fun way to eat. Or at least it can be.
On one not particularly busy night, our order took so long to arrive that one of my tablemates, hungry and anxious, began looking aimlessly around the restaurant and hoping aloud he wasn’t entirely forgotten. By the time the moo shu pork arrived, he took one look and said, “Oh, come on. Maybe I’ve spent too much time on Buford Highway, but 13 bucks for that?”
My first instinct was to disagree, to tell him it was his hangry attitude talking. After all, Lo and Yu have made a point of sourcing better ingredients than the ones that tend to keep cheap Chinese food cheap. In theory, I’m all in favor of restaurateurs passing along those costs to diners. But as we loaded up our thin pancakes with spoonfuls of sauteed pork and plum sauce, I started to feel like he had a point. The flavors were middling, an indistinct plate of shredded pork and wilted veggies, and the portion was rather small.
We were more impressed by a dish of wok-fried long beans. In a perfectly inauthentic touch, the plate that arrived was green beans, not long beans, and they’d been sauteed in numbing Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, salt and pepper. This was a plate with kick and pop. We greedily passed it around.
Other dishes fell somewhere in the middle. A bowl of shrimp fried rice was overflowing, but needed something spicier than the mild chile oil that Double Dragon keeps on the table. The kung pao chicken doesn’t pack the bam-pow punch you want. The eggplant in oyster sauce is just too salty. Chongqing chicken wings had a nice depth of flavor and a little heat, but the breading and skin was mushy and unappetizing. I’ve ordered them on two different nights, thinking that insufficient frying was a one-off mistake. No such luck. The wings here just don’t have any crunch.
By far, the best fried item I’ve tasted out of this kitchen is the salt and pepper squid, which sports a crisp, light crunch and a wallop of bright salt and pepper flavor. On the night I ordered it with another group of friends, we left plenty of eggplant and kung pao chicken on our plates, but the squid evaporated in mere moments. A plate of that, some General Tso’s chicken, and those numbing green beans is what I’ll order if I do come back. After all, I like the idea. I just wish the plates here lived up to it.