If Drs. Humphrey Ho and May Chen ever run out of Novocaine at their Northwest Austin dental practice, the couple could always skip across Spicewood Springs Road to their restaurant, Fat Dragon, for some dry pot cabbage. Two bites of the crunchy and oily vegetable dish, and your mouth goes numb with the floral buzz of Sichuan peppers that zap you with a tingle, not a singe.
The dish is one of about 20 Sichuan specialties on the menu at their Chinese restaurant located in the same strip mall that’s home to stand-outs Himalaya Kosheli, Asia Market, Chen’s Noodle House and Asia Cafe. The married dentists opened their restaurant in the summer of 2018, taking over the space previously occupied by Dynasty, a restaurant that specialized in Sichuan cuisine. While Fat Dragon has expanded its breadth to encompass dishes ranging from Korea to Thailand, the Sichuan specialties that recall the previous tenant are the strongest options on the expansive, picture-laden menu that includes about 150 dishes.
Despite the numbness brought on by the crimson peppers and oil, you can still sense the crackle of potato-flour dredged filets of fried fish (swai) in a Sichuan dry pot studded with knobs of cauliflower and rings of jalapeno peppers ($16.95). The woody funk of fermented black beans subdues the chile’s electricity in mapo tofu, packed with silken cubes of tofu and bits of ground pork ($10.95). And the pepper on an order of dry sautéed green beans doesn’t overshadow the vegetable flavor of the abundant snappy spears ($10.95).
Chen is a native of Shanghai, and Fat Dragon’s Cantonese chef uses the Chen family recipe for an array of dumplings that serve as one of the spartan restaurant’s main draws. Plump, steamed soup dumplings squirt porky broth from their pinched crowns when pierced with chopsticks ($6). Other selections have more dynamic flavors, with cilantro enlivening a tray of eight lamb dumplings ($10) and leeks doing likewise for six tender beef dumplings ($9).
The dumplings were met with consistency issues at one lunch, providing a gummy struggle, but they’ve generally been crowd-pleasers, even if they don’t quite live up to those a few doors down at the eatery in the back of the Asia Market. One thing you probably won’t find at any other restaurant in town is the order of chocolate fudge dumplings served at Fat Dragon. Inspired by a customer who loved the dessert dumplings at world-famous dumpling house Din Tai Fung, the tiny quartet of pert cups are colored with chocolate woven into the dough and, when popped, released a hot chocolate rush that tastes like a melted Hershey’s Kiss ($6.50).
In addition to the Cantonese and Sichuan specialties, Fat Dragon delivers some of the best flavors from other styles of Chinese and Americanized Chinese cooking. One could consider the beef dish of Ho’s native Hong Kong an early example of a fusion dish, with ketchup introduced by the British used to give the tender steak — stir-fried with onions — a sweet-and-sour caramelized sheen ($15.95). The cumin lamb dish familiar in Xinjiang cuisine feels right at home in the land of Tex-Mex, with its taco spice and jalapeno peppers ($15.95). While I didn’t spend much energy exploring the more Americanized offerings, I found the tangy citrus lacquer on the fried dark meat chicken enticing, though the breading revealed nominal bites of actual meat ($11.50). An aside: For more on a sibling of the popular chicken dish, head to a streaming service and check out Ian Cheney’s informative and entertaining documentary "The Search for General Tso."
Chen and Ho, who met while studying at the University of Southern California and moved to Austin in 2010, have expanded the restaurant’s menu to include flavors from other parts of Asia. The star of the mildly sweet miso ramen dish, its noodles reminiscent of the popular bagged college snack, was a thin slice of pork belly that Ho cooks sous vide before the kitchen applies a quick torch blast to give the meat a toasty finish ($10.50). The other pan-Asian dishes needed more oomph. The Korean-inspired kimchi fried rice could’ve used a little more fermented punch ($11.95), and while the dish of slippery rounds of udon noodles advertised Thai flavors, the chile and basil were mostly lost to the smoky taste of the wok. Luckily, the vibrant dry pot of fried fish remained, giving us a chance to end on a vibrant high note.
The counter-service Fat Dragon hums with the good-natured energy of a family-run business, and diners will often encounter at least one, if not three, of Ho and Chen’s parents working the register, busing tables and chatting with guests. At one lunch, I mentioned to Ho (who was working the register on a weekend lunch shift) that his dad (who was clearing plates from a table) was a funny guy. His response: "Yeah, but it’s pretty much the same joke every time."
Sure beats a root canal.