When Judy and Jason Lai opened a Chinese restaurant on the northwest side, they had no plans to serve their own regional cuisine. “We opened Dragon Palace in December 1984,” Jason Lai says, “but we did not serve only Hakka food. We served mainly Cantonese and Szechuan dishes because Americans are more familiar with these.”

But Lai’s mother developed a Taiwanese and Hakkanese menu for her large family and for the tiny Hakkanese community of about 20 people in the Chicago area. The Hakkanese-Taiwanese menu was initially written in Chinese and available only on weekends. But as word of it spread, more and more American patrons requested “that special menu.”

“Americans love to try new food,” Lai says, “and when they discover new restaurants or new styles of cooking, they feel like pioneers finding a new land.” Lai finally had the list translated and printed in English, and began serving the exotic items every night.

Today the Dragon Palace is known primarily for its Hakkanese and Taiwanese cooking, and may be the only restaurant in Chicago–and probably the Midwest–that serves these cuisines.

Lai’s Hakkanese ancestors moved all over Asia for centuries. They were originally a poor people who lived in northern China who were forced to flee when the Tatars invaded. Since that time, the Hakkanese have lived primarily in the south, most of them in the mountains around Canton and Fukien. “In Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, there are many Hakkas living,” says Lai. “Hakka means ‘guest people,’ because we have moved so often.”

Lai is the maitre d’ and manager of his restaurant. His brother, sister, and brother-in-law all cook; his wife and another sister wait tables.

The restaurant’s Hakkanese-Taiwanese menu features 69 items that are roughly divided between the two styles of cooking. “Hakka cooking is spicier than Taiwan or Canton styles,” says Lai. “Taiwan food is bland and has more sauces than Hakka.”

Hakkanese cooking is also distinguished by its use of organ meats. Eight items on the menu consist of tripe (cow stomach) or intestines. This style of cooking also uses more parts of animals than other Chinese cuisines. Pig’s feet, chicken feet, fish heads, cow sinews (tendons) are used in Hakkanese dishes, and recipes using all of them are prepared at the Dragon Palace.

Naturally, some of these dishes are more popular than others. “Our fish head stew is most popular among Chinese customers,” Lai says, “because they are familiar with it. Every Chinese customer orders this dish, but only two Americans order it [regularly].”

More popular with American patrons are the seaweed salad (made of thin strips of chewy seaweed that are boiled, chilled, and tossed with a sesame oil, garlic, and ginger dressing), fried Chinese sausage (made on the premises), turnip cake, hot and sour jellyfish, taro cake, crispy chicken, cold squid, and crispy baked prawns.

The Dragon Palace’s Taiwanese dishes are also distinct from Cantonese and Szechuan dishes. Sauteed clams with black-bean sauce, dry onion lo mein, chicken cooked with wine and pan-fried pomfret (a white-meat fish) are among the dishes most often ordered. Chicken cooked with wine is traditionally served in Taiwan after a baby has been delivered. There are also several Taiwanese clam and seafood dishes that are quite tasty (though not spicy hot): clear-steamed crab, dry-cooked lobster, steamed clams with garlic sauce, deep-fried soft-shell crabs (seasonal), and clear-steamed goby (another white-meat fish).

Other items on the Hakkanese-Taiwanese menu include: water-crystal dumplings, which are sticky, translucent dough balls filled with seasoned, minced pork; crispy chicken and crispy duck, which are prepared much like Peking duck; pork-sheet wonton soup, which is ground pork balls wrapped in thin pork “sheets”; Taiwanese-style herb soup, a clear broth with chunks of tripe and lotus nuts, which have a pleasant, woody flavor; and dried bean curd stir-fried with shredded pork that has a wonderful smoky flavor.

Lai is more than the manager of his restaurant. He also considers himself an unofficial cultural ambassador from Taiwan. Every Friday and Saturday night he presents a family floor show. His wife, daughter, and nieces perform traditional Taiwanese dances and songs, and he sings a few songs and harmonizes on other numbers. The show is unaffected and quite charming.

The Dragon Palace is at 3357 W. Peterson, and is open Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 AM to 10 PM, Friday and Saturday, 11:30 Am to midnight, and Sunday, 11:30 AM to 10. Dinner for two is about $34, which includes appetizers, entrees, desserts, drinks, tea, tax, and tip. Call 588-2726 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.