When it comes to Chinese cuisine, it seems that many restaurants fall short of “fine dining” criteria. However, just inside the Monte Carlo Hotel and Casino is a Chinese restaurant that has found a niche for high-quality, traditional Chinese dishes, premium sushi creations, and exceptionally friendly service in a casual atmosphere. Dragon Noodle Co. and Sushi Bar has been catering to the visitors and local inhabitants of Las Vegas for nearly 18 years, offering a relaxing, authentic environment in which diners are able to enjoy a bevy of classic appetizers, diverse entrees, and reasonable prices. Located on the edge of the casino floor at Monte Carlo, across the way from the Blue Man Group Theatre, the restaurant is convenient and easy to find whether you are a guest of the hotel or parked in the public garage. The hostess, who stands at a reception desk out in front of the restaurant, welcomes us with a smile. She quickly verifies our reservation and leads us back into the restaurant, through the lounge and past the bar.
We are given a booth in the back and she immediately offers to fill glasses with water. Though bottles of Evian and Perrier are available, we are just fine with good old ice water. After a few moments, our waitress returns, followed by Dragon Noodle’s general Manager, Helen Cheung. Since it is our first time dining here, she recommends that we try several things from the different sections of the menu to get a good idea of all the diverse flavors and styles that the chef can create. Not being ones to question a suggestion from management, my friend and I plan out a rather large excursion through the different appetizers and main dishes. With our tasting set, we await the first course, a fun creation that I have never tried before.
The Minced Chicken in Lettuce Wraps is actually one of the more popular appetizers on the menu, which surprises me at first. The chicken is stir-fried with carrots, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and black mushrooms then served over crispy, white rice noodles on a white square plate. On a separate, long, rectangular dish, there is a stack of fresh green lettuce leaves and a serving dish full of hoisin sauce for extra flavor. The appetizer is presented build-your-own style, so I get to decide how large or small my portions will be. First, I take a piece of lettuce and spread a generous helping of hoisin, followed by a couple scoops of the sizzling chicken mixture. I wrap the leaf like I would a tortilla for a burrito, and I take my first bite, which is bursting with a medley of various tastes and textures. The lettuce is crisp and clears my palate before the bold filling takes center stage. The hoisin is slightly tangy, and it pairs well with the mixture of veggies and the salty, tender chicken. It’s fun to prepare one wrap after another, all the while eating with my fingers, being careful not to drop anything. Luckily, the process is actually much less messy than it sounds, and I give the dish two definite thumbs up for flavor and overall enjoyment.
In addition to the lettuce wraps, we also indulge in the Traditional Pot Sticker appetizer, served with four hand-rolled, pan-seared pork dumplings and a side of the chef’s special sauce for dipping. Pot stickers are a must-have when it comes to dining Chinese, and from the looks of things, Dragon Noodle has the recipe in the bag, creating their own spin on this Cantonese noodle house classic. Our waitress tells us that aside from the lettuce wraps, it’s these hand crafted, golden fried dumplings that the people really love. The outer crust is crunchy at first, then chewy and full of the absorbed meaty flavor. The pork is ground and spiced well, creating a savory, juicy filling for the dumplings, and between two people, four is the perfect serving size after the lettuce wraps. We don’t want to fill up before the first entrée even arrives. But I must say, given the opportunity, I could easily eat ten of these pot stickers without batting an eye.
Other starters on the menu include Pork or Vegetable Spring Rolls, Salt & Pepper Calamari, Fried Wontons, and BBQ Pork Medallions, but at this point, we are ready to move on to some of the main course selections. To really get the ball rolling, we’ve chosen to try the Thai Sweet Prawns, the Salt & Pepper Asparagus, the Lemon Chicken, the Seafood Pan-Fried Noodles, and the house favorite, Mongolian Beef. As our waitress walks away, I wonder whether my eyes are bigger than my stomach, but I soon dismissing the thought and replace it with images of the food to come.
While we wait for the next wave of entrees, I take a moment to soak in my surroundings. I love the atmosphere of Dragon Noodle. The entire space is full of traditional décor, with large original paintings depicting fisherman and farmers at work or chickens scratching in a field. The room is accented by ornate wooden carvings and custom-made wooden trim, adding a tremendous uniqueness to the space. In the center is a large set of shelves that houses a hefty collection of empty barrels, each bearing the emblem of the Gekkeikan sake brand. On the other side of the massive display is the traditional sushi bar, with a good assortment of classic nigiri, sashimi, and hand rolls, as well as several Chefs Specialty Rolls. This is the one section of the restaurant that strays from traditional Chinese cultures, because all of the sushi is prepared in the original Japanese fashion.
Several more shelves with glass displays showcase antique-looking statues along the back wall. Colorful paper lanterns hang above the sushi bar and cast a bright glow over the room that is reflected on the dark hardwood floors. It is a quiet and relaxing scene, the perfect place to enjoy a meal in peace, and they even have a large room at the very back to host private events.
The front section of the restaurant, connected to the casino floor, is dedicated to a full bar and several small lounge tables. This area is enclosed by tall, dark-stained bamboo, with colorful orange and green, plush seating. The bar is a great place to catch up with friends over a few drinks from the eight available Hand Crafted Tiki Cocktails before heading out to greet the night life Vegas. Personally, I like that the main portion of the dining space is set back, away from the noise of the casino floor. For those who’d like to enjoy a good drink amidst the hustle and bustle of the dedicated gamblers, the bar and lounge are perfect.
In addition to the list of specialty drinks, Dragon Noodle’s bar offers 20 different beers from Japanese and American craft beers to several draft beers and bottled ales or lagers. Wine is available by the glass as well, and the varietals on the list span Nevada, California, Italy, Austria, and Germany. But for those seeking a more traditional Chinese beverage, there are many different cold Sakes as well as the house Gekkeikan which is served hot. Back at our table, we opt out of drinks from the bar. Instead, we choose a pot of hot jasmine tea to settle our stomachs after our appetizers.
The tea is light and very fragrant. Jasmine is a very calming, and the longer the tea brews, the stronger it becomes. I usually shy away from tea in general, but it just so happens that I love the smell of jasmine, so I can’t resist. I begin to relax, and I notice that Dragon Noodle offers many different hot herbal teas, from the house oolong tea to Jasmine, Chrysanthemum, Rice flower and Japanese green tea. You just don’t find selections like this at the average eatery, and even many of the very high end restaurants on the strip are lacking in the tea department, with more emphasis on hot espressos and other coffee favorites.
For those seeking something cold and refreshing, Dragon Noodle also provides soft drinks, several different juices, and bottled water. It’s obvious that the menu is designed to please even the pickiest diners, and I’m sure that large parties have no trouble appeasing the tastes of all in the group when they choose to gather here.
Our waitress approaches carrying two dishes, and my mouth begins to water at the sight of the Thai Sweet Prawns (a new addition to the seafood section) along with the tempura battered Salt & Pepper Asparagus from the Vegetable section. One great thing about Dragon Noodle is the entire dinner menu is available all day long, from 11:30 a.m. until late into the evening. The menu covers every food group; there are soups (with or without noodles), chicken and duck entrees, fried rice dishes, seafood, vegetables, beef, pork, and wok-tossed noodles. For those in search of convenience, Dragon Noodle offers great lunch specials until 3:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, which are served with a choice of hot and sour or egg drop soup, steamed or fried rice, and a vegetable spring roll. There are also two family style dinner options called the Phoenix and Dragon menus. Each features three courses for one low price per person, and they are available for a minimum of two people, every day.
The Thai Sweet Prawns look and smell divine. Served with large slices of green and orange bell peppers and topped with large, succulent chunks of fresh pineapple, the entire shrimp concoction is coated in a layer of sweet Thai chili sauce. De-shelled and de-tailed, the prawns are piping hot and ready to be eaten. The bell peppers have infused a distinct flavor throughout the chewy meat of the crustaceans, and the sauce, though sweet and tart at first, has a lingering spice that builds as I continue to eat. I add a chunk of pineapple to every bite for a blast of juicy flavor to accompany the salty shrimp, and the fruit has also absorbed a bit of the subtle spice from the Thai chili sauce. To cool things down, I turn my attention to the Salt & Pepper Asparagus from the Vegetable entrees.
The thick green spears are lightly battered and sautéed with diced jalapeno chilies, minced onions, sweet garlic, and five spice salt. The tempura batter is crispy and overall the jalapeno is surprisingly subtle, as long as you avoid eating the actual pieces of pepper. I, being a lover of all that is spicy, include a piece of jalapeno with every bite, which results in a very nice kick to the taste buds. The asparagus is fresh and pungent, with noticeable hints of garlic and onion flavor that have been soaked up by the crispy outer layer of fried batter. It is always refreshing to find a quality restaurant that caters to the vegetarian lifestyle. I personally love meat, but I date a vegetarian, and you would be amazed how many places fall short of satisfactory when it comes to creative, vegetable entrees. Dragon Noodle offers nine different choices as well as several veggie appetizers and soups, so I’m sure I could bring my girlfriend here with confidence that she will find a dish she can enjoy.
With the first two entrees down, we now delve into one of the poultry dishes from the menu, the Lemon Chicken. At first glance, the vibrant yellow sauce appears very thick and sweet. Dragon Noodle uses all-white chicken breast filets, which are lightly breaded and fried. The filets are then glazed with home-made lemon sauce. The chicken is very tender and cooked all the way through. The sauce, despite its initial appearance, is rather light, and not overpowering. It has a tart zing with a sweet finish, and the flavor soaks into the crispy layer of breading. The plate is garnished with two fresh lemon wedges, just in case you prefer your chicken with a little bit more pizzazz. With two generous slices of chicken breast, the dish is well portioned. Whether you enjoy it alone as a main dish, or you share with a friend for a taste, it is just the right amount of food. Before we can finish, I see our waitress approaching with our next undertaking, the Seafood Pan-Fried Noodles.
Just one of nine different wok-tossed noodle entrees, the Seafood Pan-Fried Noodles is supposed to be the most popular of the bunch. With shrimp, scallops, squid, fish filet, and Chinese vegetables like sliced carrots and bok choy, all served on a bed of fried, crispy egg noodles, this plate is huge. I still have one final dish in mind to try after this round, so for now, I only taste each of the different parts that make up this signature creation.
The actual amount of seafood is impressive. The scallops are large, meaty, and tender, while the squid tentacles offer a more chewy texture and salty flavor. The shrimp is hot and snaps nicely as I bite into it; I especially enjoy adding the fried noodles to each bite. Some noodles are still quite crispy, while others have absorbed the juices and flavors of the different proteins, making them nice and chewy. The fish filet is buttery and flakes apart with my fork, while the vegetables are crisp, clean, and refreshing. Overall, the quality of the ingredients really shines through with the Seafood Pan-Fried Noodles, and I am curious to try one of the other wok-tossed options the next time I visit the friendly folks here at Dragon Noodle.
I have found that dining out is always more enjoyable when I can sense that the servers and chefs value the services they provide and are happy to be a part of my experience. With every new dish, I see a smiling face, and I can’t help but smile along as I enjoy my food. Also, each order arrives in a timely manner, and as we finish one after another, the empty plates are quickly swept away. Another small detail that goes a long way for me is the fact that my water is consistently kept full, and a fresh pot of jasmine tea is offered when our first nears empty. A culmination of seemingly small details can add up to an impressive experience by the end of a meal, and with our final entrée on its way, I have nothing but positive feedback thus far.
Though we are nearly full, having made our way through several different sections of the menu, we have made sure to save room for one last selection from the Beef offerings. This is a dish that the manager, Helen, calls the house specialty. A half-pound of flank steak, sliced onions, and cut green onions are mixed with rice wine, oyster sauce, hoisin, chicken bouillon, a touch of sugar, and chopped, dried red Thai chili peppers, then stir-fried. The meat and vegetable mixture is served atop crispy white rice noodles that act as miniature sponges, absorbing the brown sauce and the spice of the chilies. The beef is sliced thicker than average, which I appreciate very much, and the burn of the chilies is definitely a major contender in this flavor palette. Helen advises that we avoid actually eating the spicy red Thai chilies. She tells us that they are meant to flavor the rest of the dish, and the bright red stands out on the plate against the browns, greens and white backgrounds as if to say, “Beware!”. The beef is cooked medium well, and I love how tender it is. If I was forced to choose, I’d say that the Mongolian Beef is my favorite portion of this meal, and I understand why it is so popular with the regulars who frequent the Monte Carlo.
With a full belly, I ask if my friend is a fan of traditional hot sake. Though he is not very familiar with the drink, I convince him that we ought to try the house special. So, as our waitress removes the final remnants of our delicious meal, I ask her to bring us a jar of the Gekkeikan. Served hot, the drink is very fragrant and potent. The liquid goes down smoothly, with a slight burn as I swallow, and I immediately feel warmth spreading through my chest. After a few shots a piece, our jar is depleted and our stomachs have had a moment to settle down. Before we begin our walk back to the car, Helen graciously thanks us for joining them as we gather our things to leave. I take one last look around, admiring the authentic atmosphere that Dragon Noodle has created to best complement their traditional cuisine. I fight the urge to rub the belly of the Buddha statue, and we take our leave. But after today, I’m sure I’ll be back again to relax at the bar and test out a few signature sushi rolls. Until next time, I will remember the good fun and the good food here at Dragon Noodle inside the Monte Carlo.
Insider’s Tip: Dragon Noodle prepares dishes that are derived from traditional Cantonese and Szechuan recipes. The Szechuan dishes are typically spicy. Be sure look for the small * next to menu items that are especially spicy, just like the Mongolian Beef.