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Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004 02:20 pm

Every year is Golden

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Chung In Oh and Hee Jung Oh of The Golden Dragon Restaurant

On the Chinese calendar, we're now in year 4702, the Year of the Monkey. Fifteen days of celebration kicked off on Jan. 22. Of course, naming it a "monkey" year isn't a commentary on current fashion trends or the fact that we're in an election year. Chinese lunar years are named for animals; the next "monkey" year arrives in 12 years (see sidebar).

Chinese restaurants here don't make a big fuss over the holiday, but it was good enough a reason as any to visit one of my favorites.

The Golden Dragon Restaurant, located near the Enos Park neighborhood, has been a mainstay on the East Side for 16 years. Owner Chung In Oh, a native of Korea, moved to Springfield in 1972 and worked as a mechanic for more than a decade at Gietl Brothers before opening a restaurant with his wife, Hee Jung Oh.

Golden Dragon features special recipes for Chinese standards, including soups and seafood, beef, pork, chicken, and vegetarian dishes. Chung In Oh also made sure the menu included chop suey, chow mein, egg fu young, fried rice and lo mein, dishes familiar to American customers.

The atmosphere at Golden Dragon is warm and comfortable. The dining room is decorated with dark red fabric walls, globe lantern lights hanging from the vaulted ceiling, and bamboo window shades. White cloth tablecloths add a classic touch.

The best way to enjoy Chinese food is to dine with several people and share. On a recent evening, our group skipped the tempting Polynesian drinks and chose to stick with the complimentary hot tea because of the frigid temperatures outside. We began our meal with an order of crab rangoon. The fried wontons filled with crabmeat, minced vegetables and cream cheese were light and crispy. They were served with a mild hot mustard sauce and sweet and sour sauce for dipping. Other menu options include barbecue ribs, egg rolls, pot stickers, rumaki, and spicy chicken wings.

The entrées we tried included the sampler platter, which includes smaller portions of honey-spiced chicken, Mongolian beef and shrimp and broccoli, green pepper beef, General Tso's chicken, a seafood combination and pork subgum. The honey-spiced chicken and Mongolian beef are customer favorites. The chicken was definitely a stand-out. The deep-fried pieces of chicken were crunchy and topped with just the right amount of a mixture of honey and spicy brown sauce. What was nice about this dish was that the chicken wasn't floating in the sauce, which was full of flavor but not overwhelming. It would be at the top of my list of entrées to order during my next visit.

The pork subgum was full of large slivers of pork and vegetables in a red wine sauce. My companions declared the green pepper beef a success. They liked the large beef chunks mixed with green peppers, onions and hoi-san sauce. The seafood combination -- a blend of shrimp, scallops, calamari, crab and vegetables in wine sauce -- was served on a sizzling hot plate. It was the blandest of the dishes we sampled, but not unlike most white sauces I've tried in other Chinese restaurants. But I was impressed with the number of seafood options offering shrimp, scallops, lobster and fish.

You can also order family dinners, which feed from two to seven people and include appetizers, sizzling rice soup and an entrée.

The Golden Dragon is located at Fifth Street and North Grand Avenue East. Phone: 217-753-2996. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Closed Sundays. Carry-out is available.

Monkey shines

Legend holds that Lord Buddha, the religious philosopher and teacher who lived several centuries before Jesus, summoned all the animals to meet him at the start of the new year. A dozen came, and Buddha named a year after each. Tradition holds that people born in a given animal's year share some of that creature's traits. Those born in monkey years tend to be creative, intelligent, energetic, and often the life of the party.

Celebrate the Chinese New Year with a traditional Chinese dish:

Jin Dui (Chinese sesame cookies)

Ingredients:
6 oz sweet potatoes
10 oz red bean paste
1 1/2 cups glutinous rice flour
1/3 cup plain flour
2/3 cup white sesame seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup hot water

Peel the sweet potatoes and boil them until tender, then mash them. Sift the glutinous rice flour and flour together, and then blend together with the sugar and mashed sweet potato. Knead the mixture well and sprinkle in the hot water.

Knead the dough into small balls and then roll each ball into a flat round shape. Spoon on some red bean paste onto each as stuffing and knead back into balls. Coat the balls with cold water, then coat thoroughly with sesame seeds.

Deep fry on a low heat until the balls are golden and swollen. Drain and serve.

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