”One damned thing after another”. This is a well-known phrase quoted by various writers to describe everything from life itself to history, time and foreign policy, and which I am now abusing to describe the interior design of China Garden, the latest addition to the sad bunch of Chinese restaurants in Riga. Taking a closer look at the details in the restaurant's decor, it really is just one damned thing after another. I have never scribbled down as many notes in preparation for a review as I've done for this one, but it can be boiled down to this: China Garden is fugly.
”really bringing out the worst in this torture chamber”
Let me paint you a picture.
The interior was clearly designed by a sadomasochist. Wherever you sit you're surrounded by the most grotesque details: large plastic swords and battle axes obviously purchased from the Cheap and Ugly Fantasy Toys store, moose horns (how many moose are there in China? Two?), the ugliest digital wall clock you'll hopefully ever encounter, plastic flowerpots still sporting the price stickers (China Garden also seems proud of the fact that they were bought on sale!), a horrendously ugly TV/audio system occupying a prime spot on the wall, the floor looking like a puke fest, everything painted in the ugliest of colors and the much too bright lighting really bringing out the worst in this torture chamber. And since the name of the restaurant is China Garden, what's up with the Korean text decorating parts of the restaurant? Some of us do know the difference, you see.
”must... kill... flute... man...”
And speaking of torture, reverberating around this dungeon of madness is pop music from the farthermost cave in China, complete with out-of-key flutes and a state-of-the-art drum machine with the most life-like, convincing drum sounds you ever heard. At least in 1962, when it was introduced on the market. And this 30 minute record goes on repeat every single time you go there. I'm just waiting for a headline in Diena reading ”Waiter at oriental restaurant kills manager with chopsticks, chants 'must... kill... flute... man...'”.
So far the interior, now on to the service. Again, I will try to compress pages of notes into one short paragraph. If you only speak English, I wish you luck. Our waiter seemed to understand even less words than he could speak (an achievement in itself), but he also didn't seem to understand our Latvian. Math wasn't his strong point either. Me and my friend ordered one beer each. The waiter stood there for some time, puzzled, and finally said: ”one... one... two beers?”. After that he came by several times, saying ”five minutes” which, we found out, meant anything from five to twenty-five minutes.
After that it was the chefs' turn to show inexperience. In China, the traditional way of serving food is all at once, then everyone around the table will help themselves to all the dishes. This is also the case at China Garden, but I believe it's rather because they haven't yet gotten their timing right in the kitchen. Me and my friend ordered a soup and a main dish, and my dishes arrived simultaneously. Okay, that's fine, I have no problems with that. But what is not really acceptable is that my friend had to wait for his food until I had almost finished my entire dinner. Also, to top things off that time, when my friend finally got his soup, he realized that he didn't get a spoon and therefore asked the waiter for one. When he then started eating he discovered the original spoon in the soup, at the bottom of the bowl...
”one... one... two beers?”
Now on to the most important part, the one which could make you forget all the criticism above: the food. At China Garden, this is a mixed bag. The sizzling chicken (which I ordered very spicy) came in dead silent. Also, it didn't have the least hint of spiciness*... Any 2-year-old would be able to eat this without frowning. However, it was quite tasty, I must admit. The dumpling soup was also okay, although you need to really like coriander to appreciate it. The squirrel fish was no favorite of mine, but my friend liked it. And so the list goes on: the fried dumplings, the Gong Bao chicken, the beef with onion etc. are all alright dishes, but don't make any lasting impression. We also encountered some huge no-nos: the fried chicken wings came with... ketchup. Sigh... And even worse – the fried rice with vegetables surprisingly wasn't vegetarian at all, but came with pieces of doktora desa. No, you didn't misread. In a dish that might possibly be served with ham, this one came with the lowest quality Latvian sausage so slimy and with a meat content so low that it almost qualifies as bread spread. Embarrassing, China Garden.
However, in case you're more into quantity than quality, this is the place to go. You don't have to spend a lot of money to wobble out of there like a penguin (starters are €2,50 – €5, main courses are typically €5,50 – €12, except for duck dishes and a few others which are more expensive), and the portions are large. The most bang for your buck is the large all-you-can-eat buffet, which is €5 during lunch hours and €8 in the evenings.
Finally, the weirdest thing... Are all the Chinese places in town run by the same big Chinese family? I'm starting to wonder... Why else would the menus at Pekina, Ķīniešu Bistro and now China Garden be virtually identical, even down to the misspelled ”Freid chicken balls” on the menus of all three places, or the ”delicious pork YuXian”? I actually asked at Ķīniešu Bistro, but they claimed to not know what I was talking about.
Congratulations, Riga. You now have yet another Chinese restaurant which serves exactly the same stuff as the other ones, without doing it any better. It seems obvious that the right people don't read (or care for) my website, otherwise Chinese restaurant owners would know that they should go for something more exclusive to stand out in the competition. Right now they are all tripping over each other in the same overcrowded room.
* possibly some of you are now thinking ”what's the deal with this guy always nagging about spicy Chinese food? Chinese food isn't supposed to be spicy!” Sorry, but you're wrong. This is a sentiment typical of Westerners, just like the notion that no Thai food is authentic unless it gives you third degree burns in your mouth (and your cornhole). Sichuan and Hunan are two major regions in China where spicy dishes are legion. For example, google images of ”la zi ji” and you'll have an example of what I mean.