RALEIGH--The tip, from a native of China who raves at length about the authentic fare at Red Palace, sounds promising. Granted, this is the first comment, positive or negative, I've heard about a restaurant that's been open for more than a decade. And the location in east Raleigh -- hardly a noted gourmet Mecca -- isn't encouraging.
But who knows? Maybe I'll discover a hidden gem among the dollar stores and tanning salons of New Bern Avenue. I round up a friend, the stalwart companion I can always count on for iffy dining propositions, and we set out on a treasure hunt.
As we pull into the parking lot in front of the restaurant, one of a small archipelago of shops in a weatherworn strip center that the anchor tenant appears to have abandoned long ago, my doubts multiply. It's Saturday night, and the lot is nearly deserted.
A pair of life-size gilded lions guarding the entrance offer the first glimmer of hope that Red Palace might be more than your run-of-the-mill strip center Chinese eatery. That glimmer brightens to a warm glow as we pass through a small fountain courtyard and enter a dining room decorated in old school Chinese fashion, complete with resplendent painted tile ceiling.
Our eyes take on a greedy gleam as we open our menus and discover that, sure enough, the mostly Chinese-American offering is salted with a small bounty of authentic dishes, from salt and pepper squid to sea cucumber with spring onion. Then we spot two pages, written almost entirely in Chinese, appended to the front of the menu. One turns out to be the map to the Red Palace treasure. There, in the middle of a sea of Chinese characters, is a lone island of English: Peking duck.
I can never resist the lure of this dish, even though in my experience most restaurants foist off a fool's gold imitation of the original multicourse extravaganza, distilling it down to a single course that's little more than a glorified moo shu. I'm suspicious that the dish doesn't require 24 hours' advance notice, usually an indicator of authenticity. But I can't help myself. Hedging our bets with an appetizer round of Chinese pickled cabbage (like Korean kimchee, only sweet) and marinated smoked fish (whose texture and concentrated flavor approach that of a jerky), we order the Peking duck.
A few minutes later, the chef wheels out a cart bearing a whole duck, its skin a burnished nut brown. He carves the skin into little squares and places them neatly on a platter, then does the same with the meat. He returns to the kitchen with the carcass, which is to become the foundation of the following courses. Meanwhile, we roll bits of meat, skin and scallions up in rustic homemade Chinese pancakes we smear with hoisin sauce, and we bite in. Eureka! The first, and most important, course is the real deal. Nothing else in the Triangle comes close.
The remaining two courses are gravy -- mighty tasty gravy. For the second course, the chef has worked his alchemy on the carcass, transforming it into a rich, golden soup with tofu and napa cabbage. Course three is a stir-fry of bean sprouts, scallions and the remaining shreds of duck meat (everything but the quack), served with steamed rice.
None of the dishes I sampled on subsequent visits quite measure up to the gold standard set by the Peking duck, but most compare favorably with the rare authentic Chinese offerings at other local places. Among starters, I especially like five flavor beef, 2-inch medallions subtly tinged with anise. And the meaty texture and darkly delicious flavor of cold black mushrooms belie their somewhat unappetizing name.
The only disappointment I encounter is an entree called sliced fish with rice wine, whose sauce is too cornstarch-thickened. Salt and pepper shrimp, however, are exemplary, their shells so delicate that most can eat them shell and all. Red Palace shredded pork, in a brown sauce with faintly smoky notes, is a winner, too. Likewise Szechwan beef, though probably toned down for American tastes.
Ma P'o tofu serves up plenty of heat in a chile-reddened sauce pebbled with ground pork, one of the dishes listed only in Chinese. Once the wait staff learn you're interested in exploring authentic fare, they're more than willing to translate. And who knows? Maybe you'll find another hidden treasure.
Greg Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org