In 2014, after 30 years of building Mandarin Palace into one of Santa Barbara’s most beloved Chinese restaurants, Jerry and Jennifer Hong sold their business in the Five Points Shopping Center and retired. But it wasn’t long before fans of their fresh, authentic, creative food were demanding they come back, especially many loyal customers of Chinese descent who craved the flavors of their homeland.
So in November 2015, the Hongs opened China King on Calle Real near their Goleta home. Today, the small restaurant — formerly home to Los Tarascos Mexican restaurant/bakery and in the same lot as Zodo’s bowling — is abuzz most nights of the week, a steady flow of dishes emerging from the tight kitchen to serve both in-house diners and those hungry at home, who can either pick up their food or have it delivered.
“Mr. Hong is a very picky guy,” explained their friend Janice Wang, who joined me for lunch recently to explain the Hongs’ history and serve as their translator. “He is like an artist. He serves very elegant food.”
Like the Hongs, Wang is originally from Taiwan and says that China King serves food that is less oily and never canned or frozen, a contrast to many other Chinese restaurants in the States. “We care about quality,” explained Jennifer through Wang. “We cut our vegetables fresh every day. We don’t use frozen shrimp. We really peel the shells.”
The Hongs met in Taiwan, where Jerry worked under a famous chef at the Grand Hotel Taipei. Originally built in the 1950s because Chiang Kai-Shek needed a nicer place to host foreign dignitaries upon fleeing mainland China, it was also the hotel featured in the film Eat Drink Man Woman, whose director Ang Lee ate at Mandarin Palace in 2012 when in town for the film festival. Jerry Hong gained quite a reputation as a chef there, so he opened two restaurants of his own in Taiwan, as well.
But despite that success, the couple wanted to come to the United States. “They had the American dream like everyone else,” said Wang. They also had a cousin in Santa Barbara, so in 1985, Jerry began working at Mandarin Palace. Given his Grand Hotel résumé, he became a partner in the business just six months later.
At China King, they are following a similar formula as at Mandarin Palace. Drawing from Cantonese, Szechuan, and Taiwanese cooking styles, they offer dishes Americans are used to (like orange peel chicken, sweet and sour pork, and beef with broccoli), but they also up the ante with creative twists such as mango shrimp with asparagus, kung pao lamb, and pan-Asian dishes like Thai basil chicken. Almost every dish can be turned vegetarian with a soy chicken, and they also serve a more traditional Chinese cuisine, as well, including a full menu in Mandarin, featuring such specialties as the delicate Shui-Zhu, or “water cooked,” fish.
The Hongs’ lifelong dedication shows: The flavors are crisper and noticeably fresher, with much more distinctive combinations than what you’d expect from the usual Chinese restaurant.
Specialties to Savor
Here are some of my favorite China King dishes:
Hot & Sour Soup: Unlike many other places that thicken their version with cornstarch, this one doesn’t, and comes with either pork or chicken or as a vegetarian soup.
Mandarin Walnut Honey Shrimp: My 3-year-old daughter loves this sticky, crunchy dish, and so does the rest of the family.
China Clay Pot Chicken: Known as “three-cup chicken” in China, because it uses one cup of soy, one cup of rice wine, and one cup of sesame oil, this one is set off by adding ginger and basil, too.
General Tao’s Chicken: Perhaps the best way to judge a Chinese joint since they all have this dish, China King’s chicken is excellently plump and nicely spiced.
Vegetarian Orange Peel Chicken: Almost all of the dishes can get a soy substitute, and this one is a winner; you might not even be able to tell it isn’t chicken.
5915 Calle Real, Goleta; (805) 967-1838; chinakingsb.com