Fireworks, red lanterns and fantastic food are all festive features that annually commemorate festivities for the Chinese New Year. Since the swine symbolizes the 2007 Chinese New Year, which began Feb. 18, feel free to experience a taste of the Orient by pigging out at any of these Asian fine-dining facilities. From Peking duck to dim sum, good fortune and great food are merely a short trip down the 101.

Fit for a Queen

An ancient Chinese proverb says if you give a man a fish, you will feed him for a day. However, if you give a man directions to Empress Palace, located at 2251 Las Positas Rd., he may have enough food to eat until the next Chinese New Year. Seven years in the making, and festooned with deep plum tablecloths and rose embroidered lanterns, the restaurant’s elegant interior accents its rich and delectable cuisine. So if you have a hankering for something fresh from the deep blue sea, this royal residence offers tasty luxuries that will have you hooked, line and sinker.

Manager Ken Toi Futongxie recommends the Palace’s lobster and fish entrees such as fresh sea bass and rock codfish.

“You can do lobster with a special sauce like ginger … and steamed whole fish with green onion,” Futongxie said.

He also suggested deep fried shrimp and walnuts with mayonnaise sauce.

“[The sauce] is like lemon, sugar with some special things inside,” Futongxie said.

However, if you are not craving something from the sea, Empress Palace also offers a variety of other options such as mango chicken coated in a tropical glaze, crispy fried and served with fresh mango for $13.99. Also available is sesame chicken, also served crispy, with a sweet glaze for $12.99.

As an added bonus, Futongxie said UCSB students get 15 percent off their meal when they show their I.D. card. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., you’ll find that at the Empress Palace every meal begins with jasmine tea and ends with good fortune.

A Delectable Dynasty

Tucked away in the Five Points Shopping Center off La Cumbre Drive, the Mandarin Palace at 3955 State St. just may be the best-kept Chinese secret in Santa Barbara. Situated in the center for about 20 years, waiter Anthony Chan said celebrities such as John Travolta have frequented this eatery.

“He bought the pot stickers; he came here for this,” Chan said.

Two fish hang in the entrance, adding a little glitz and glamour to the restaurant’s soothing pastel pink hues. Chan said the fish have inhabited the restaurant’s entryway for a year as a sign of wealth.

This richness is carried over into the food, offering customers an abundance of flavor. Chan said his favorite dishes include the Mandarin walnut honey shrimp for $14.50 and the Thai basil chicken and beef served with onion, green pepper and a special sake sauce for $12.

First-time visitor Sylvia Paolella raved about her honey walnut shrimp.

“I’ve never seen any other restaurant that has anything like this,” Paolella said. “Very unique, not super sweet.”

Chan said customers should sample other popular dishes including beef with broccoli, kung-pao chicken, shrimp and chicken soft noodle and vegetarian egg rolls.

Like the spirit of John Travolta, whose picture hangs by the front door, the Mandarin marinades of the Mandarin Palace are stayin’ alive. The restaurant is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Friday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

New Year, New Specials

From bamboo piths sautŽed with gourd squash to spicy basil calamari in a clay pot, the China Pavilion Fine Chinese Cuisine offers unique and appetizing Mandarin cuisine with a touch of modern style.

At 1202 Chapala St., the China Pavilion’s contemporary atmosphere, decked with crimson colored walls, golden table cloths and comfortable ebony chairs, is perfect for any outing, be it a date, family gathering or large party.

“[China Pavilion] is the best in town because we have the best food,” manager Patrick Mu said. “Especially the presentation and decoration.”

Mu said the restaurant will offer seven appetizing Chinese New Year entrees for the rest of the month, but may choose to make the entrees part of the main menu depending on their popularity.

The Chinese New Year specials include Fire Cracker Chicken sautŽed with vegetables in a spicy sauce served in an edible noodle basket for $13.95, Prosperity Prawns sautŽed in a tomato sauce served over sizzling rice for $15.95 and Longevity Noodles with assorted seafood in the Chef’s special sauce for $13.95.

However, if these entrees do not fully satisfy your craving, China Pavilion also offers a variety of other affordable, yet equally delicious, lunch specials. For example, before you hit the State Street shops, sample the sweet and sour chicken for only $6.95. The lunch specials include your choice of fried or steamed rice, hot and sour or egg drop soup and a salad.

At the end of the meal, no one can resist the symbolic and delicious homemade sweet rice cake for $6.95, served in honor of the New Year to represent prosperity.

Even without dessert, expect to leave the China Pavilion feeling fulfilled in both appetite and existence.

Head downtown for the New Year’s specials before the celebration ends – the restaurant is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner.

Oodles of Noodles and Spicy Selections

Recommended by the Santa Barbara News-Press for six out of nine years of its operation, Madam Lu Chinese Restaurant caters to all tastes whether you are there for the daily lunch buffet – a 30-item spread offered from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. seven days a week – or the variety of noodle soups.

The extra spicy specialties at Madam Lu are like a karate kick in your mouth. Restaurant owner Lu Gaffney said she recommends two zesty dishes that would make your taste buds burst with flavor like fireworks on the New Year: the fish fillet crispy bean sauce for $13.95 and the beef or fish tofu in a hot pot for $11.95.

Traditional favorites like these are a major draw for some hungry guests.

“This restaurant always has a lot of Chinese students because they know we make a lot of traditional food,” Gaffney said of the eatery’s cuisine.

Gaffney said the restaurant is offering – as a new year’s specialty for a limited time – a decadent rice cake made with red bean paste that is fried in oil to make a crispy coating and soft center.

“Usually the Chinese New Year keeps in celebration for two weeks,” Gaffney said. “You still have that kind of feeling.”

You can enjoy that festive feeling and calm your cravings for outstanding Chinese food at Madam Lu’s Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Although the Chinese New Year has already begun, the atmosphere and cuisine of these appealing restaurants preserve the spirit of celebration. So if you are in the mood for something sweet or something sour, follow your senses down the road to find delicious Chinese cuisine that is closer to campus than your last fortune may have foretold.