Dragon sighted on Wilmington Avenue!
Though the Chinese lunar year officially began a few weeks ago, Shawn and Danielle Xiong are celebrating it on this long holiday weekend. More and more diners make the February pilgrimage to the annual New Year’s buffet at Confucius Chinese Cuisine (300 in one day last year!), so the fabled pig-out is now dished up on both Sunday and Monday. I strongly advise reservations. It’s quite an event.
This lunar year is particularly auspicious because it symbolizes the Year of the Dragon. The colorful serpent is the most legendary of the 12 signs in Chinese astrology. Though Westerners associate dragons with violence and malevolence (except for the magical Puff, of course), the Chinese variety are kind, powerful and linked to a happy afterlife.
Those born under the sign are said to share the traits of the mythical creature: authority, ambition and a lust for success and happiness. Shawn and his 12-year-old son Jason were both born under the lucky symbol. I’m by no means superstitious, but I can’t help but wonder if that might have something to do with the continued success of the modest little eatery.
Of course, it could also have something to do with hard work and a love for their culinary heritage. Both Shawn and Danielle were born in Hunan Province, China, and were brought up on the spicy foods indigenous to the area. They have a profound respect for meticulous preparation and quality ingredients. “I’m a perfectionist,” Shawn tells me. “We don’t serve anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves.”
“Our recipes are for those who want to go a step further in their enjoyment of Chinese food,” says Shawn. And this unassuming guy is no stranger to high achievement! He was accepted into college at 14, and was teaching university-level English at the tender age of 18. In 1986, he traveled to the United States to further his studies and never left.
Some of that dragon dust apparently rubbed off onto his beautiful wife. She was a bronze medalist in the 100-meter dash (ranked No. 3 in all of China at 13 years old!), and also taught college athletics. The statuesque Danielle smiles, “I married him for his brain.” And the apple doesn’t fall far: Young Jason already excels in baseball, and plays both the violin and the saxophone.
Xiong tells me that there are 44,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, and that most people associate them with the same dishes. From his vantage point behind the steaming woks, there’s a lot more to it than just sweet-and-sour this and egg-foo that. “I try to provide a wider selection of interesting dishes.” In fact, Danielle regularly returns to China to purchase teas and dried peppers that they skillfully match to each dish.
For those who like their food on the fiery side, blends like Sambal Oelek and ground chilis add heat without changing the taste. The floral notes of Shuyouhuajiao hover in the background while pickled peppers with soybeans and the ubiquitous Sriracha convey garlic and onion. Each dish is crafted with a spice that complements everything from tofu to sea bass to crispy pork.
The servers know that not everybody appreciates a nice hot pepper. That’s why Shawn insists that each dish is perfect before the heat is added. “It has to be tasty before it’s spicy! We make everything to order, so we can be flexible: gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, without MSG, and, of course, as hot - or not - as the guest desires."
The success that the dragon has bestowed on Confucius is not measured just in dollars. The many-hued creature also embodies happiness and fulfillment. I’ll give Shawn the last word: “The reward is not just financial. It’s emotional. If Danielle and I just wanted to make a lot of money, there are jobs that are a lot less work and a lot less stressful. I admire the consistency and longevity of Rehoboth restaurants like the Back Porch and the Blue Moon, and I want to be around for as long as they have. I’m never satisfied.”