Not all Chinese restaurants are created equal, and the proof is in the po po platter at Coal Mine Dragon in Fountain.
The Asian equivalent of tapas combines savory with sweet, creamy with crunchy for a blend of textures and tastes. In some restaurants, the assortment is known as a pu-pu platter; in others, it's poo poo. At Coal Mine, it's a plus plus.
No matter what it's called, the po po platter ($6.95 per person) is a good way to sample a variety of appetizers beyond egg rolls and fried wontons. Those were part of the medley, but it's worth moving past the conventional. Battered fried shrimp, fried chicken wings along with skewers of thinly sliced beef and spare ribs made this almost a meal itself. Served on a lazy Susan with a mini-hibachi fueled by Sterno, it has a fun wow factor. The ribs were slightly sweet, and every messy bite was a treat.
Despite enjoying such a large appetizer, we also ordered soup ($1.95 each per cup). My hot and sour could have more easily been called sweet and sour. The flavor was nice, but nothing caused my eyes to water or made me repeatedly and quickly reach for my water glass. The wonton soup contained a single, large dumpling in a simple broth. It was soothing comfort food.
Entrees are meant to be shared, with leftovers taken home to be reheated the next day, and Coal Mine Dragon honors this unspoken expectation in its considerable serving portions.
Sesame chicken ($11.95) is among the House Specials, as is Happy Family ($11.95). Ordinarily these come with steamed or fried rice, but we opted for combination fried rice ($9.95), which is practically another entrée in itself. This is fried rice loaded with pieces of shrimp, beef and chicken. This may sound like a variation of Happy Family, and in a way it is, but without the gravy so it wasn't quite a redundant order.
Happy Family has two possible interpretations. First, that any number of ingredients can mesh well together in a harmonious dish that emphasizes individuals flavors. Or second, it's made up of elements sure to please everyone in the family. It's packed with pieces of plump shrimp, thinly cut slices of chicken and beef, bits of pork and a garden of vegetables from baby corn to bamboo, from sliced carrots to mushrooms, from broccoli to onions. Everything is coated with that rich, thick soy sauce-based brown sauce.
Sesame Chicken glistens with specks of sesame seeds. The menu indicated this was a hot and spicy dish, but it wasn't. Despite the lack of piquancy, the bite-sized pieces of chicken were battered, fried and coated with a sweet sauce. Next time, I know to request more heat.
Coal Mine Dragon has been a presence in Fountain for 29 years. Our server said it is not affiliated with other restaurants of the same name in Colorado Springs.
The décor features numerous gold-lacquered dragons of various sizes mounted on the walls. There were no chopsticks or placemats explaining the animals of the Chinese calendar. The menu offers a wide selection of house specialties and familiar entrees.
On our visit, the restaurant never came close to reaching its maximum capacity, but a constant flow of take-out orders exited the kitchen. This, to me, is always a good sign.
The meal ended with the predictable fortune cookies. Nowadays, they're more about outlook than foretelling the future, and my traditional, folded half-moon-shaped dessert was unmemorable. The meal made a more lasting impression.