Don’t say you weren’t warned. When you first step into Lucky Dragon in the far corner of Storke Plaza in Goleta, you’ll get a menu dropped onto your table with a front page clearly explaining what you’re having: Sichuan cuisine. It is flavorful, spicy, and full of chili oil, garlic, and that famous mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn that gives a whole new sensation to your palate.
“We don’t have beef and broccoli here,” proclaims owner Alex Qian, whose American-raised clientele occasionally asks for such dishes common to other Chinese restaurants. But more than 70 percent of his customers are UCSB students originally from China, which is a demographic that Qian knows well: He was raised near Shanghai and recently graduated from UCSB with a degree in mathematics.
When Lucky Dragon opened in 2015, Qian hired a chef from the Sichuan region who previously ran his own restaurant in Los Angeles. In fact, this authentic type of Chengdu-style Sichuan restaurant is very similar to what you’d see in the San Gabriel Valley. There are no frills, but tons of fantastic flavors on a menu that may scare off less-adventurous eaters, with spicy bullfrog, duck tongues, goose, and pig intestines listed. No matter your penchant for obscure meats, though, it’s worth taking one of the fewer than 40 seats and ordering around until you find a favorite dish.
Take, for instance, the wonton in red chili ($8.99), loaded with hunks of garlic and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The neon-orange-hued sauce gives these delicate boiled dumplings a whole bunch of additional flavor. Each bundle of joy packs a serious punch.
Another must-try is one of the two boiled fish options, called bashu fish ($19.99) and served in an enormous punch bowl. The massive dish is doused in chili oil with bean sprouts and chilies dropped in. Use your spoon to fish for the tender pieces of fish filet floating in the bowl.
Both the ma po tofu ($10.99) and the Chengdu dandan noodle (8.99), with their sprinkling of ground pork, are gems. The tofu is soft as can be, the noodles perfectly chewy, and the rough cuts of green onion bring the dishes to life.
Here are some pro tips for your future visit: If the heat is too much for you, order a milk tea so that you can subside the heat level in your mouth, and if you get it with boba, you can distract your mouth from the numbing it is experiencing.
If you’re looking for a veggie dish, I’d recommend the sautéed string beans, eggplant in garlic sauce, or the baby bok choy with mushrooms. But the ultimate veggie dish is the sugar pea leaves ($13.99), which can be sautéed, stir-fried, or served with garlic. But beware: That one does sell out. Qian’s team drives down to Los Angeles once a week to get the leaves, but they don’t keep well and are quite popular. The best chance to try them is on Tuesday or Wednesday.
There are also plenty of more options for traditional Sichuan cuisine, even for dishes whose names might sound familiar. Said Qian, “We do have Kung Pao chicken, because it’s from the region, but not in the same way Americans are used to it.”
6831 Hollister Ave., Ste. B, Goleta; (805) 770-5651; luckydragongoleta.com