Why hasn’t anyone said it? Chinese is a comfort food. It’s a convivial meal where entrees are shared without ever having to ask, “Can I have a bite?,” and mainstay dishes bring back memories of take-out evenings with Mom and Dad. Flaming po-po platters, egg foo young, wonton soup, and hot-pink umbrellas in Mai Tais have been on Five Happiness’ menu since 1978. The restaurant is a New Orleans Chinese institution, and New Orleans Magazine readers find it in their preferred comfort zone.
In 1978, most people ate Cantonese cuisine. Five Happiness co-owners Sidney and Paggy Lee introduced New Orleanians to what was, in the late ’70s, unique: Hunan and Szechuan, which are spicier. In other words, New Orleanians could stop dolloping Tabasco sauce on their moo shu pork and chicken chow mein (Cantonese) and order the fire already intact in dishes such as kung pao chicken, triple dragons in hot garlic sauce, and the double feature – chicken and shrimp sautéed with dry hot pepper and cashews.
This tactic won over hearts and palates. The restaurant has expanded three times since its opening 26 years ago. The Lees, who came from Taiwan via San Francisco, bought the Chinese restaurant Hoy Toy, changing it to Five Happiness. There were only about 50 seats, and, let’s imagine, a lot less traffic on South Carrollton Avenue. Now there are about 160 seats, the Imperial Room next door for banquets and a beehive of traffic (have you ever tried to make a left turn into Five Happiness?).
Appropriately, Five Happiness’ new façade of royal blue, gold and black employs the same color scheme as the traditional Chinese emperor’s robe. Since the restaurant is such an institution, the architect thought the design should incorporate the shape and colors of the emperor’s robe, of which there is only one, says another co-owner, Rose Lo. Just like Five Happiness.
Other ancient Chinese secrets? Five Happiness never uses frozen vegetables, only fresh, and it uses gulf shrimp in its dishes. Also, for scholars out there, the five happinesses are health, wealth, love, peace and promotion. If you’re in Five Happiness, though, happinesses are pot stickers, pecan shrimp, crispy beef seasoned with black pepper and onions, Gen. Tso’s chicken, and crispy ginger shrimp. Yum.
That customers come, despite the madness of South Carrollton Avenue, attests to their contentment.