Photograph by Stephen Laufer
Enlightenment Awaits: In case there's any doubt about it, yes, this is the golden Buddha.
A Golden Beginning
The Chinese New Year makes its auspicious debut at the Golden Buddha
By Selene Latigo
Dave, the dog, was basking in the idea that the next 365 days would be emblematic of his persona, according to the Chinese calendar. We set up a date to ring in the Chinese New Year with a feast of suitably symbolic dishes at the Golden Buddha in Soquel.
One reason we chose the Golden Buddha is because so few places can compete with its warm ambience and unique structural décor. Walking in, you immediately feel transported and sheltered in the little booths, roofed spaces and hutlike rooms adorned with glowing lanterns, banners and rustic wooden walls and floors. Our party of six was seated at the largest table in the whole restaurant, indicative of the intimate and cozy space that makes me want to spend hours here. The restaurant was crowded and buzzing with festive activity; whether this was due to the holiday or just weekend popularity, we couldn't tell.
Hot tea was presented to us as we slowly made our menu selections. We started with some large Tsingtao beers ($5.95) from the beverage list, which also features sake and a few reasonably priced local wines.
To begin, we chose vegetarian potstickers ($5.25) and spring rolls ($2.50 for two), both filled with similar minced cabbage, ginger and carrot. The potstickers were plump and taut, bulging with filling inside the chewy homemade skin; great with our self-created dipping sauce of tamari and chile oil. The spring rolls were deep-fried and crisp, signifying wealth due to their resemblance to gold bars, and a perfect way to start our meal.
Next came our feast. One by one, the hot plates arrived until the table was crammed with the seven dishes we chose, along with fragrant steamed rice. The seafood items are for liveliness and abundance, chicken for happiness, prosperity and marriage, and egg for fertility--selections guaranteed to make us all happy, rich and pregnant!
Kung Bao Three Treasures ($12.95) featured scallops, prawns and Monterey cod with diced bell peppers, green onion, celery and water chestnuts. All of the seafood was skillfully cooked and tender with an even, soy-sauced flavor and tiny red chiles for a hint of spice.
The Szechuan scallops ($12.95) were very similar to the three treasures. Although the menu described a ginger garlic sauce, the preparation seemed almost exact, with the addition of bamboo shoot matchsticks and black seaweed strips, also symbolic of wealth. Andrew, who usually doesn't like scallops because of their often ill-prepared tough texture, was very pleased by these exemplary morsels.
Another fine seafood creation, and one of our favorites, was the firecracker snapper ($10.95). The bright red, sweet and sour fillets of white fish were tender, fresh and delicate, without being cloying or greasy. The sprinkling of green onion on top added a pretty color contrast and refreshing textural bite.
The vegetarian Dragon's Nest ($8.75) was a sauté of mixed vegetables on top of a crunchy tangled noodle "basket" with a gravylike sauce. The menu description was tempting, but I realized while eating this dish that I prefer the chew of fresh noodles.
Our server recommended the General's chicken ($8.75), a heaping plate of deep-fried and breaded nuggets of chicken in the chef's "special" sauce that was somewhat muddled without much complexity.
The Gan Bian string beans ($7.50) were another favorite of the night--fresh green beans fried until they reach a perfect crisp yet wrinkly texture, all coated in chile flakes and garlic. A simple and seductive dish.
And finally, the Mu Shu shrimp rounded out our lucky meal with thin strips of cabbage, big chunks of egg and just a scattering of pink shrimp. The Mu Shu wasn't at all soggy and maintained a crisp bite and subtle, smoky flavor.
We were the last people to leave the warmth of the Golden Buddha, clutching our fortunes and rubbing our bellies. All of us received excellent predictions, except for Kate whose cookie read that she was "a good man." Nevertheless, the Year of the Dog holds promise with such a delicious beginning.
Address: 4610 Soquel Drive, Soquel
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner 4:30-10pm
Price Range: $3-$14.