Vietnamese food has caught on big in New Orleans, but it wasn't too long ago when the first-generation of local Vietnamese restaurateurs were compelled to pad menus of their native dishes with the kind of Americanized Chinese food so many of their customers broadly associated with Asian cooking. Many still operate like that, including Three Happiness, which the Tran family opened in a Gretna strip mall in 1993. On any given weekday, the orders of Mandarin chicken and crab Rangoon can outnumber the bowls of pho and jellyfish salads coming out of the restaurant's prodigiously diverse kitchen.
On the weekends, however, a different sort of Chinese food becomes the most adventurous and appealing fare at Three Happiness. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, the restaurant offers dim sum, the Chinese teahouse service of dumplings, savory buns, pastries and other small dishes.
If you've never tried dim sum but have had a dose of the recently raging tapas trend, then you already know the essence of this traditional Chinese dining style. The selection of small, inexpensive dishes are best enjoyed with a group of people interested in sharing and not easily miffed by elbows and forearms reaching for sauces and dishes across the table.
Many dim sum restaurants in other cities use rolling carts to both display and deliver their selections around the dining room. This is useful, since not everyone intuitively knows that 'eight treasure sweet rice" translates to a brick of sticky rice bulging with pork, ham and hard Chinese sausage all wrapped up in a leathery lotus leaf. With the carts, you get at least a cursory visual inspection of what's coming your way.
This isn't the case at Three Happiness, nor at any of the city's slim roster of other dim sum purveyors. So for the uninitiated, what you get is a checklist, a pencil and a guessing game.
The menu has eight different types of dumpling alone, and the simple two- or three-word English translations don't give the neophyte much to judge by. Fortunately, there's not a bad dumpling in the stable here. They arrive in batches of three or four, some in the lidded metal pots in which they were cooked, a thin braid of dough just barely holding them together and emitting pork- and ginger-scented steam. The xui mai were superlative examples, with the filling of ground shrimp and pork erupting from the top of the thin dumpling noodle like a flower bud just peeling open. The bao, or buns, cradle chunks of roasted pork or chicken deep inside sweet, doughy, bone-white mounds.
However varied the fillings, at least the dumpling shape is generally familiar. Less clear was what to expect when we ordered the turnip cake and pan-fried tar cake. They were fairly similar to each other, like slices of firm custard studded with bits of roasted pork. The turnip version was deep-fried while the 'tar cake" only crisped at the edges.
Vegetarians must be on their guard. Tofu, the traditional safe haven of meatless dining, is just a delivery system for more pork, as we discovered with an order of the delicious 'bean curd rolls." No one could really claim false advertising, as if that would be possible on this menu, since paper-thin layers of creamy, nutty bean curd were indeed used as wrappers for the meaty chunks inside.
Another surprise turned up with what was simply identified as stuffed eggplant. Why, at this point, was I still envisioning something that might resemble the eggplant pirogue from Copeland's? The eggplant was of the narrow, sweet, soft Chinese variety, and it was sliced into rounds, each crowned with a 'stuffing" of minced shrimp and garlic, all sitting in a pool of sesame-flavored broth.
The beef tripe confirmed that no amount of window dressing, not even the heavy cloak of black bean sauce used here, can overcome my distaste for offal. And no matter how ardently the waitress promised the chicken feet would be 'just like" the tougher edges of Buffalo-style wings, shaking a bird's disembodied claw and chiseling off its cartilage with my teeth just isn't my thing.
Shrimp toasts were quite different from the minced, molded, deep-fried specimens that usually goes by that name on any number of conventional American-Chinese restaurant appetizer lists. An order turned out to be three slices of airy po-boy bread, each holding a small pad of ground shrimp, shellacked with sesame seeds and absolutely dripping with oily butter. The effect in the mouth was saturating.
It was enough to deploy the chopsticks clawing after the steamed cai lan, fresh, vividly green Chinese broccoli. It provided a good vegetable contrast to all the meat and noodle of the dumplings. Similarly, there was nothing exotic about the stir-fried egg noodles but, topped with strips of chicken and onion, it provided a comfortingly familiar and straightforward way to bulk up the meal. I'm not sure egg noodles and steamed Chinese broccoli were ever intended to be palate cleansers, but these dishes certainly filled that role for me before I reached for the next lidded pot of steaming mystery.