Revisting a Seventies standout
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., Aug. 11, 2006
6605 Airport, 451-7104
Daily, 11am-2:30pm (buffet); 4:30-9:30pm
Back in the Seventies, China Palace was a regular weekly dining venue for my close group of friends. The Palace, as we called it, had a solid reputation for serving the best Chinese food in town. At the front desk presided the no-nonsense proprietress, the inimitable Mrs. Chang. She ran the place with an iron fist but always treated us like gold (we spent money and tipped well). The Palace's status remained constant through the Eighties, and over time, we lost track of them in our regular rotation, as more and more quality Chinese restaurants opened in Austin. Such is the fate of many restaurants with longevity.
Cut to the year 1999, when the Palace was purchased by Kelly Lee. Although Rocky Chang is no longer at the helm in the kitchen (contrary to what the menu says) they wisely retained his basic offerings, cooked superbly by a pair of chefs. The restaurant looks exactly as it did back in the Seventies, with the exception of a seating section near the front now devoted to the lunch-buffet setup.
Several friends had recommended we revisit China Palace, paying special attention to the "Chinese menu." This is important: Caucasians are not generally offered this menu when they arrive, so it must be requested. The dishes are all described in English, although some of the translations can be puzzling. With this in mind, we set out to step back in time.
Of the appetizers listed on the Chinese menu, we have tried four. Hot and Spicy Wonton ($3.95) consists of 10 delectable shrimp- and pork-filled wontons in a bowl covered with a spicy red oil sauce with a hint of vinegar and lots of garlic. The Scallion Pancake ($2.50) is one of the best in town: golden brown and flaky, with plenty of green-onion flavor, and nary a trace of oiliness.
Pan Fried Dumplings ($4.50) are 10 seasoned minced-pork packets wrapped in a thin pastry, perfectly browned on the bottom, and served with a well-balanced gingery sauce. A buffet lunch item intrigued us, and the chef offered to whip one out: Cold Noodle Salad ($3.95) is a platter of thick, perfectly cooked lo mein noodles lightly tossed with garlic, shreds of cucumber, bean sprouts, scallion, chile, sesame seeds, and minced peanuts, all in a soy-vinegar dressing simple yet brimming with rich flavors. We loved the starters, and the chile oil was outstanding.
Our Vinegar Pepper and Fish Fillet Soup ($5.25) was delicate and had trouble competing with the strong flavors we had matched it with. As a starter, with no other conflicting flavors, it would have been stronger, but we found it delicious: a large bowl of rich stock lightly seasoned with white pepper and rice vinegar, loaded with chunks of fresh fish, soft tofu squares, minced garlic, and shredded scallion.
Ma Po Dofu (Spicy Sichuan Tofu With Pork, $6.95) was the only minor disappointment. Although it is spicy from the bean paste, composed of chile, a hint of vinegar, and lots of garlic and minced pork surrounding tofu cubes, it has a sweet finish that is out of balance. This is a dish that should be assertive, tangy, and piquant; overbearing sugar has no place. Still, we ate it all, and with no sweetness, it would have been very nice indeed.
Sautéed Mustard Green, Tofu Knot, and Shredded Pork ($7.95) is spectacular. "Tofu knot" is made from a strip of dry tofu, made from the skin layer that forms on the top when tofu is being made; the sheets are removed as they form and are sun-dried. The strips are softened in boiling stock until pliable and then tied in a knot. Tossed with mild pickled mustard greens, slices of garlic, and strips of sweet pork, it lends a nutty taste and crunchy texture to the dish. Superb.
The winner within the group is a massive bowl of Bean Curd Wrap With Roasted Duck ($8.50). What arrives is a thick duck stock with copious pieces of incredible roasted duck, with chunks of nutty and chewy dry tofu, garlic, sweet snow peas, and just a hint of five-spice powder. The marriage is ambrosial.
Shredded Pork and Squids With Mustard Green ($8.50) is fantastic. Pork and squid are a perfect match for each other in all ways: taste and texture. When you add a rich, garlicky stock, bamboo shoots, crunchy squares of celery, and tangy mustard greens, you get a well-balanced dish loaded with big taste.
China Palace also features a typical menu, with all of the standard favorites. They do a lunch buffet and also offer 33 different lunch specials and 33 dinner specials ($4.50-$5.50, lunch/$6.50-$7.50, dinner) every day. But the Chinese menu is the real treasure; it holds many mysteries that require much further exploration. It's high time that Austin reintroduced itself to China Palace. Its legacy of big, authentic flavors, ample portions, and great prices lives on, and we can't wait to go back.