This is an ongoing series in which I, your intrepid explorer, check out San Diego's "mystery spots" - places that you may have driven by hundreds of times but have never thought to visit, long-forgotten dives, places that only tourists dare venture, or just under-appreciated gems. Onward into obscurity!
We don't often venture into East County (some would argue that La Mesa is not really East County, but everything East of San Diego State is East County to me OK). The whole area is almost one big mystery spot. However, once a year we visit our tax lady at her office in the far reaches of University Ave. We've passed several alluringly retro bars on the way to these visits, and Wong's is the most alluringly retro of them all. OBVIOUSLY we had to check it out.
During the day, the building looks like this...
After dark it becomes bathed in sexy, beckoning neon.
One side is a Chinese Restaurant (Golden Palace) and the other side is a dive bar (The Dragon Room). There is crossover between the split personalities in that you can order food from the restaurant while you visit the bar side, even though the bar has its own menu of American bar staples. We decided to experience the full crossover effect with our faithful companions Kim & Charlie, who are quite possibly the only people who could appreciate the time capsule nature of this place as much as we can.
Before settling down in the bar, we took a quick peek at the restaurant portion. The classic red and gold decor scheme is perfectly preserved. For some reason, they have an ancient display case where dusty Chinese bric-a-brac is for sale.
There is also a hidden indoor/outdoor area in the back for smokers. It has A KOI POND FOUNTAIN. Smokers at Wong's are the luckiest smokers and must be very zen (the smokers I interrupted by coming into their little hideaway to take these pictures were probably not very zen though).
After our exploratory mission, we settled down in the darkness of the bar for drinks and dinner. There are some flourishes of Chinese decor (like red lanterns), though the overall look is just classic dive bar.
They have an extensive list of tiki drinks and I went with a classic...
Blue Hawaiian: Malibu Rum, Blue Curacao, and Pineapple Juice
This might look like toilet bowl cleaner, but it didn't taste like it. No, it tasted like a drink that had no rum in it! It was a poor choice. None of us were particularly fond of any one of our tiki drinks, so we switched to something far more reliable for our next round: a $10 bucket o'Buds.
The bucket calls upon us to "Rise As One". They mean "overthrow the government", right? I'll just go ahead and assume that.
We all split this as an appetizer. It's not often seen on menus these days, though it was very popular at the height of tiki culture. It's made out of chicken liver, water chestnuts, and bacon, all in a soy-based sauce. This version was deep fried, though you more often see it on a skewer (Charlie makes it that way based on a recipe from Beachbum Berry). It was not good, oddly dry for something deep fried. It tasted like they had been freezer burned before being cooked for us, which is probable because... how much Rumaki can this place possibly be serving on a regular basis?
Princess' Beef Sizzling: "tender beef, black & white mushrooms & fresh vegetables"
Yes, I got this partially because the name made me giggle (WHY IS THE PRINCESS' BEEF SIZZLING? Poor princess.) It was also on the Chef's Suggestions list. I don't know why the chef suggested it, because it was not good. I love mushrooms, but the ones on this were flavorless. The sauce's main flavor was cornstarch. The baby corn was most certainly not "fresh", as it still had a strong taste of the liquid that it's canned in. It neither came out hot nor was at all spicy, so I'm not sure where the "sizzling" comes from. The beef WAS fairly tender though.
Magic Kingdom Bowl: cooked with fresh vegetables, mixed with a variety of meats, served in a delicious crispy bowl
Jason ordered this, also from the Chef's Suggestions list. It was similar to my choice in that it came out cold and odd tasting, but with a slightly different lifeless sauce. The crispy bowl was pretty interesting though. I had expected it to be made of something like wonton paper or the like, but it was made out of hash browns. He enjoyed the bottom part once the sauce had soaked in a little.
Salt & Pepper Calamari
Kim picked the winning dish. This was actually decent- the calamari had a nice consistency and the green onions paired well with it. It was nothing special, but was by leaps and bounds a better dish than anything else we ordered.
I feel somewhat bad panning the food here because the staff is great. Our waitress had to run back and forth to the restaurant portion and she did it with a smile. I think they key is to just not attempt to eat from the restaurant while hanging out at the bar. Drinking at the bar is a delight that should not be bespoiled by sub-par Chinese food.
We will have to return to partake of...
Verdict: awesome bar! Not-so-awesome Chinese food.
Wong's Dragon Room Cocktail Lounge
7126 University Ave.
La Mesa, CA 91941