I've just discovered one of the best Chinese restaurants in the Triangle, and I'm kicking myself.
Why? Because, well, I didn't really discover China Palace. The restaurant has been open since 1997, but I didn't sit down to a meal there until February of this year. That's more than a decade of lost opportunity, suffering through mediocre kung pao chicken when I could have been eating superb kung pao squid. Not to mention all the other stellar dishes I've been devouring in the past few weeks like a buzz saw cutting through balsa wood. Worst of all, I'd gotten more than one tip about China Palace over the years, suggesting that I check the place out.
Oh, I could make excuses for taking so long to follow up on those tips. That the Triangle is home to scores of Chinese restaurants, for instance, and there's no way I could get to them all. That the location, across a busy intersection from a BP station, is hardly an after-hours hot spot. That I thought China Palace's "Special Chinese Menu," a supplemental bill of authentic fare -- and according to reports, the restaurant's claim to fame -- was offered only during weekend lunch hours.
Turns out that manager/head cook Alice Huang, who has worked at China Palace for most of the restaurant's existence, has been offering the special menu, along with the regular menu of familiar Chinese-American fare, every night for nearly five years.
OK, so that's just five years that I could have been enjoying tender squid in a kung pao dish that isn't diluted with a surfeit of cheap celery but instead bursting with the glorious toasted bird chiles and peanuts that are hallmarks of the classic dish. Not a whole decade, but only half that time that I could have been savoring steamed whole flounder so fresh that even its skin sparkles with the clean taste of the sea, served in a delicate soy broth and carpeted with threads of ginger and scallion. A mere 250 weeks that I've missed out on sweet, purple-skinned Chinese eggplant with ground pork in a spicy Szechwan garlic sauce. Gee, I feel much better.
On the bright side, Alice Huang tells me that the season for ohn choy, the delicate leafy green that goes by the English name of water spinach -- and a dish I have sought in vain since last enjoying it in San Francisco, a lifetime ago -- is just around the corner. In the meantime, I'll find ample consolation in emerald green, snap-tender stalks of Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. I wouldn't mind an encore presentation of the wide rice noodles (ha fun) with beef I had recently, either, or the "special spiced duck" braised in a blend of soy, ginger, garlic and aromatic spices. Same goes for the spicy dry bean curd with pork, a dish that's far more appetizing than its name.
As for the Chinese-American menu, I'm afraid the appetizers are as far as my sampling got. That's as far as it's likely to get, too, as long as locally rare authentic fare such as hot peppercorn shrimp, stir-fried live lobster with ginger and garlic, and shredded pork with preserved radish beckon. I can at least vouch for the fried dumplings and shrimp toast, as well as a hot and sour soup that lives up to its name for a change. And, judging by the kitchen's overall performance, it's a good educated guess that those seeking a moo goo gai pan fix won't be disappointed.
China Palace is a small, cheerfully but modestly furnished restaurant with a correspondingly streamlined staff. Huang and her crew are experienced and solicitous, and they've never missed a beat when I've dined there. Still, I wouldn't recommend rushing over for a meal this weekend, when experience has proved that a small restaurant can get overwhelmed in the wake of a positive review. But I wouldn't let too many weeks go by before checking the place out. If you do, you'll just kick yourself.