Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q fires up in East meets South style
With menu items like smoked lamb heart and pig snout, Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q will appeal to adventurous, carnivorous foodies everywhere—except, maybe, those who happen to be hungover. Internal organs and hogs’ heads just aren’t the thing to soothe a lethargy-inducing headache. Well-executed fried chicken, on the other hand, has some healing power. Add in the eatery’s housemade Korean barbecue sauce that kickstarts a sweat and you’re well on your way to succulent relief.
Fat Dragon, which opened in April, is situated near Oppenheimer Park on one of those increasingly rare blocks where you don’t have to plug a meter to park. It’s owned by Robert Belcham and Tom Doughty, the folks behind Italian restaurants Campagnolo and Campagnolo Roma (the latter being one of my favourite local spots) and the now-defunct ReFuel. Executive chef Ted Anderson is also a partner. It’s based on a cool culinary concept: East meets South. Robust flavours of China, Japan, India, Thailand, and other Asian nations share leaf-shaped plates with the deep hits of smoke that define Southern comfort.
The fried chicken was an add-on to Fat Dragon’s original menu after so many requests from ReFuel customers wanting their former favourite dish recreated. What they get from Anderson and chef de cuisine Adam Johnson is the same crackly coating that comes from the bird being brined in smoked water and then double–deep-fried. Then there’s the ultratender flesh—an entire half of Yarrow-based Polderside Farms chicken, a heritage breed raised on a natural, antibiotic-free diet of grains and vegetables. But it’s the Korean-style barbecue sauce that really makes this dish score. Made with fermented soybeans, it’s nearly as sweet as jam but has a potent kick thanks to the infusion of red chili paste. The more you eat, the more napkins you need, not just for your sticky fingers but also for your runny nose—and that’s a compliment. (Next to a jar of chopsticks, big stacks of paper towels sit on every table. Our waiter forgot to bring us wet napkins, but that’s not a complaint, because he was so attentive and sweet otherwise. I especially appreciated a tumbler full of lemon and lime wedges to go with our sparkling water.)
The fried chicken is one of the costlier menu items, ringing in at $28, but don’t be alarmed by the prices at first glance because dishes are meant to be shared, and other small plates run more in the $7-to-$15 range.
This is a brazen menu to be sure. Aside from that lamb heart and pig snout, offerings include half of a smoked and roasted pig’s head and smoked pork trotter crispy pata style, referring to a deep-fried Filipino dish.
But there’s plenty for those looking for more straight-ahead fare. Take the bao buns, for example, with fillings such as pulled pork, crunchy squid, crispy tofu, and my top pick, smoked kabocha squash with radish sprouts and a unique smoked, tangy Japanese mayonnaise. There are also spicy chicken wings, dry beef ribs, and vermicelli noodles that are stir-fried in smoky meat drippings. The pork belly is the best I’ve ever had. Szechuan-peppercorn cured, smoked, baked, then deep-fried, it’s a little crunchy, six thick slabs served with a couple of slices of white bread. From the sea are a whole steamed sea bass in banana leaf and smoked and fried cracked Dungeness crab with cilantro and chiles.
Two salads stand out. Gangly pea shoots (which are a little hard to eat graciously) are the star in a dish with chilled, sautéed spinach as well as chunks of eggplant and zucchini in a simple yet piquant dressing of vinegar, garlic, lemon, and mint. The green papaya and cabbage salad, which also benefits from whole mint leaves, is topped with supercrispy shallots and dressed with vinegar, lime, mint, and chiles. Either of those veggie dishes would offset nicely any of the menu’s mightier, meatier dishes.
The restaurant’s interior is more Asian than Southern, with lanterns hanging from the ceiling and a gorgeous piece of art that runs along it: the undulating body of a dragon with scales made from overlapping pieces of wood. (The dragon’s tail forms the outdoor sign.) Bright red fabric covers a rebar archway at the entrance while tea lights rest on little sconces high up along the exposed brick wall to pretty effect.
A highlight from the sweet side is soft-serve ice cream, with flavours changing daily. I still prefer kaffir-lime leaves in soup rather than ice cream, but it was a fun flavour to experience. The best presentation of the whole meal is the housemade chocolate bar, which comes in its own clear wrapper with a Fat Dragon label. The dark version is topped with smoked peanuts, sea salt, and a teeny bit of candied ginger. (A milk version comes with Rice Krispies, cinnamon, and coconut.) Tea figures prominently on the drinks menu, and if you happen to be hungover, a pot of Japanese sencha just might cure what ails you.
Dinner for two with leftovers but without alcohol came to $75 before tax and tip.