Chinese banquet facilities are notorious for their gaudy decor. With gold-accented trimmings, velvet-lined walls, and a forest of shimmery chandeliers, the atmosphere tends to be so ghastly that only The Real Housewives of New Jersey could find it appealing.
During its heyday in the late-eighties, Lee’s Garden was one of San Diego’s most popular Chinese banquets, as evident by the bevy of weddings booked each weekend. These days, the restaurant’s aging facade and dated interior make it difficult for it to compete with newer and more lavish restaurants. Even though Lee’s Garden isn’t as shiny as it used to be, it has remained a favorite of my family’s because the kitchen continues to churn out high-quality food.
With The Astronomer and I in San Diego the week after his 25th birthday, my mom invited my large extended family to Lee’s Garden for a belated birthday celebration. I haven’t feasted at Lee’s Garden since the day I graduated from high school, so I was beyond stoked to not only reacquaint myself with their wares, but to introduce The Astronomer to the goodness as well.
The Saturday evening of our party unfortunately coincided with a large gathering featuring loud music and God-awful singing. With full reign over the microphone, speakers, and amps, the dangerously unselfconscious herd went to town all evening long. The reveling was so obnoxious that The Astronomer and I swore we were back in Asia again. Nope, just Lee’s Garden.
Lee’s Garden has an extensive a la carte menu, but my family almost always orders one of the multi-course banquets. Our favorite is the seven-course feast ($120) that easily feeds twelve to fifteen eaters but is intended only for ten.
The concept of a properly paced meal is completely foreign when it comes to Chinese banquets. As soon as a dish has finished cooking in the kitchen, it’s haphazardly plopped onto the crowded Lazy Susan.
Minutes after placing our order, the first course arrived. Tom rang muoi, prawns with garlic and salt, arrived toasty from the deep-fryer. Brushed with umami-fied seasonings and heaps of garlic, the enticingly crisp shrimps were a delight. One bite of the shrimp’s juicy head and I was instantly reminded of why I adore Lee’s Garden.
My all-time favorite dish at Lee’s Garden is canh chua—sour soup with fillets of fish, upright elephant ears, tomatoes, pineapples, and chilies. Canh chua is a fairly standard Vietnamese dish, but Lee’s Garden rendition tastes extra special due to the abundance of fresh basil (and MSG). One of these days I’m going to ask Mr. Lee if I can hangout in his garden and learn how this soup is made.
The crab course (cua rang muoi) was prepared in a similar fashion to the shrimp one. I love crab meat but dislike how fussy it is to extract. After struggling with one leg, I abandoned it and ate the bits of fried garlic with rice. This simple combination was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and it still holds up after all these years.
Morning glory sauteed with garlic was the lone vegetable course of the evening. This dish was a substitution; the normal banquet menu lists bok choy in oyster sauce in its place.
Following the canh chua, the steamed clams are my second favorite dish at Lee’s Garden. Scallions, dried chili pods, and the clams’ natural goodness are the dish’s major flavoring components. The meaty clams and their flavorful sauce rarely fail to please.
My fellow diners really enjoyed the chicken course, but I didn’t waste any precious space on it because the white meat usually bores me. Pass the clams!
And last but not least, tender slices of beef sauteed with broccoli, carrots, and bamboo shoots. This dish was a hair underseasoned, but still very pleasant nosh.
If Lee’s Garden weren’t so hideous, I’d so have my wedding there.
4055 54th Street
San Diego, CA 92105