Dragon 21 is now closed. The restaurant closed days after our visit after losing an eminent domain battle against the county and the borough of Fleetwood. Read below for the story of a lost local business.
It’s never a good thing to see a restaurant close.
Restaurants are more than just a business venture, they’re employers, economic drivers and most importantly, a part of the community. When one closes, a piece of a community is lost.
Dragon 21 has been a part of the community in Fleetwood and beyond for 15 years, but it’s time is almost up.
As reported here, the borough of Fleetwood and the Berks County Redevelopment Authority have taken the property via eminent domain. The building that houses the restaurant will be razed in order to redesign the intersection of Main and Franklin Streets, leaving Dragon 21 without a home.
And according to the owners, the government’s compensation is not enough to enable them to reopen in a new location.
While I had never been there before last week, several of my closest friends grew up in the area and were practically raised on Dragon 21. The news of the imminent closing hit my friend Mike especially hard as he took to social media to voice his displeasure.
Anybody that knows me understands that it’s nearly impossible for me to get super angry. However, I just found out that Dragon 21, run by an insanely hard-working Chinese family in Fleetwood, is getting thrown out of their building and shut down by the Berks County Redevelopment Authority (to decrease “truck traffic”)…It’s disgusting how the government can take something away so easily, while offering unfair compensation (way, way less than professional appraisal) for the business to get a new start in another location…At the end of the day, my heart breaks for this caring, diligent, respectful family following the American Dream.
A faded mural graces the west side of the building, a leftover from the Fire and Ice Cafe that operated there in the late 90s. Paint is peeling, and in other places, is gone completely.
There’s no denying that the building has become an eyesore, but according to the owners, that falls on the borough. Fleetwood officials told them to stop all repairs nearly a decade ago.
Built in 1860, the three story building is old, but the former general store lacks historical or architectural significance that could save it from the wrecking ball.
The entrance to Dragon 21 faces away from the street. It’s tucked away in the back corner of the building, hidden from view to anyone not travelling west along Main Street.
Inside, it’s your typical Americanized Chinese restaurant: a handful of tables that no one is using surrounded by stereotypical dragon motif. It’s a place that was built for takeout and little else.
One thing that is clear immediately is a sense of community. The takeout counter is littered with cards and flyers for other Fleetwood businesses and organizations. For as many supporters as Dragon 21 has, the restaurant gives back equally to its community.
I invited Mike to join us for what would be our first—and likely, only—visit to Dragon 21, and he talked us into sharing an order of fried wontons to start. Crispy outer shells held a piping-hot mixture of meat and vegetables. There was nothing extraordinary about them, but once I started, I couldn’t stop popping them in my mouth.
While we were chomping down on the wontons, Mike was doubling up with a bowl of wonton soup. He packed away an extra five or six dumplings before his dinner actually arrived.
Knowing that this was likely my only visit to Dragon 21, I decided to be boring with my main course and order the old stand-by, General Tso’s chicken.
It’s amazing how much variation there is between different restaurants in their interpretation of the sweet and spicy classic. Dragon 21’s version had a teriyaki base with enough heat to keep me going back to my bottle of water throughout. The fried rice—the darkest I have ever seen—probably wouldn’t stand on its own, but it went really well with everything.
Mike went with another staple of Chinese fast food: sweet and sour chicken. The fried nuggets were served with a side of blood red sweet and sour sauce that had no nutritional value but was delicious nonetheless.
It was so good that I also used it to top my egg roll which I really did not need to eat, but still polished off anyway.
Julie at least ordered something a little different, opting for shrimp lo mein. It was a little odd that it was also served with fried rice, but the flavors were different enough to not compete with each other. The soy based lo mein was good, especially with the choice of shrimp over chicken.
Of the three of us, I was the only one who didn’t leave any for the next day’s lunch so between the three of us, we got five meals for less than $30.
To most, Dragon 21 is not unlike any other Chinese restaurant in Berks County. The menu, the ambiance, the to-go containers: all basically the same as anywhere else.
But that’s not the point. Dragon 21 was never meant as a place for someone like me living in Wyomissing.
As Mike said, “Yes, this is just a little Chinese restaurant. But it is MY little Chinese restaurant.”
Dragon 21 is Fleetwood’s little Chinese restaurant. And when it closes, a little piece of Fleetwood will be lost.