The "New" face of Hong Kong Palace 7 Corners (report)
Guess I hadda do it - try out the results of the new Szechuan management of Hong Kong Palace for Saturday late lunch (2:30pm). Arrived just as the staff were beginning their own lunch - a couple other tables occupied as well.
Waiter couldn't disguise his own eagerness as an owner, and said this management took over 10 days ago. I don't know if he does it to everyone but before I said a word he handed me a binder and said "real Chinese Food" and offered me the takeout flier saying "fake Chinese food." You know which one I wanted. The Chinese menu is in Chinese and English - no problem for anyone. The wall board holds several red cards listing specials in Chinese only - I'd be more inclined to reach across the language barrier if there were prices listed (I avoid even asking about the >$15 items and I can bring myself to try the <$5 items whether I get a clear description or not). Throughout the meal the waiter was very attentive (alone and with my walker preceding me, I do tend to get extra attention) - when I said that "I had friends who posted online that there was a new management here," he said he'd email the menu if I'd leave my email address, and I saw that others had left theirs as well. I should forward it to my friends, he suggested (and I'll post a link for you when it comes).
I wanted to sample a couple of things at least, and having no adventurous family members to share dishes, I opted for a couple of appetizers. The previous poster recommended the Chengdu Spicy Cold Noodles (about $4.95) and when asked for a complement, the waiter suggested (this is approximate) Szechuan Spicy Chicken ($6.95). He asked once whether I liked spicy, and I said "yes, ma la", which got the message across.
I was first brought a generous little dish of "five spice soybeans", cold and five-spice flavored with a hint of Szechuan peppercorn. To my own tastes, one bite was enough - nothing wrong with them, but nothing compelling either.
The chicken was cold hacked bone-in chicken in a roomy pie-plate sitting in a liquidy sauce with a julienne of celery and fresh bamboo shoots along with a peanut or two. Delivered with a bowl of rice and a small bowl to put the bones in. Can't say whether the meat was spiced or not, the sauce was salty and mildly szechuan-peppercorny (I think) with a sprinkle of hot chili oil. The cut of the meat is very traditional, but I have never come to like it (I hate picking around splinters of bone end fishing them out of my mouth) - other people don't mind it. I could have eaten an entire plate of just the bamboo shoots seasoned that way. This dish would be very good as one of several for a group, I got tired of it after a while.
The noodles were also cold, perfectly seasoned with a tang of vinegar, a hint of sesame, and a gentle spiciness, all absorbed mostly into the noodles (only a hint of sauce remained on the plate, not a drippy bath) - again, something I'd eat a whole bowl of gladly.
Like many dishes in my recent experience with "authentic Chinese", each of these (off the appetizer menu, remember) would be an adequate appetizer serving for two. Passing into the place, I saw a plate of Ma Po Tofu on a table, also sized to serve more than one - I'm guessing that many of the entrees are of a similar size (you may care to order a couple of appetizers and one entree for two diners). I could have looked harder, but the girl at the table was tough to take my eyes off (sorry, sorry, some sights are still more compelling to me than food)
AND NOW THE SPICE QUESTION YOU'VE BEEN WAITING TO HAVE ANSWERED:
After I finished, I asked as plainly as I could about the degree of seasoning I had experienced. I wasn't sure if he apprehended my preference - at first I got a couple of answers "spun" along the lines of "we can make it not spicy" and "we can start mild and make more spicy later" (which I understand is indeed a traditional sequence when successive dishes are being presented). When I asked directly how these dishes would be seasoned if he was eating them himself, he said "the same," and I felt that we had communicated.
On the whole, the heat level was milder than we have come to expect from the "Szechuan New Wave", but on reflection, I think it may be simply a result of this chef's personal style. We can accept that sort of variation from every other cuisine and still call it "authentic", and I'm not sure that a Szechuan dish that fails to burn out our mouths is necessarily being "dumbed down" for American palates. Remember that Peter Cheng had a bold and adventurous flair with many aspects of his spicing, not just the heat level, and his style was impressed dramatically on the tastes of Washingtonians unused to anything like his cooking.
I felt quite satisfied with the quality of the cooking, and I will definitely go back again soon.
Sorry about that, guys. Let me try to clarify:
I liked the noodles a lot. The chicken I wouldn't have again, but only because it doesn't fit my own taste (not because it is a bad dish or poorly prepared).
I remember, summer before last, having an almost identical chicken dish and a very similar rabbit dish when Peter Cheng was at TemptAsian (and a group of 'hounds was meeting for weekly eat-through-the-menu lunches) and almost everybody but me was delighted with them.
That said, I will be back eagerly, but I won't be expecting the "never had anything like this before and wow it's so spicy even the water tastes fizzy" thrill we've been exulting in since "authentic Szechuan" came to town. I will be expecting a more moderate approach to spicing, slightly restrained instead of exuberant.
I am trying not to describe the thrilling spicing of China Star / TemptAsian / Sichuan Village as "heavy handed" - I love it, and those more knowledgeable than I have pronounced it authentic. But sometimes, to me, that approach does feel a bit like a choice between "do I want a blast out of this spice jar or that spice jar, or both of them together?" I suspect that, as I visit Hong Kong Palace again, I may find nuance and subtlety there that one can't quite appreciate under the very broad strokes that excited us all elsewhere. I might even be able to taste some of the ingredients other than the spices (I could ALMOST do that with Cheng's cumin-iferous signature 'fish chunks in a basket', but not with many other dishes).
If I want "the hottest thing I ever ate" (as some days I do) I will go back to one of those other places (or indulge my newfound taste for Korean Soon Dubu). If I want an equally warm welcome and a menu seasoned with a lighter hand (and perhaps some subtle variations a chef can't convey when the 'amplifier goes to 11' all the time) I will go back to Hong Kong Palace. It's not GUARANTEED, mind you, that excellence across the menu is what I will find, but the possibility is there and it will be exciting to see if further exploration pays off.
I can't figure out from your wonderful post - thank you for checking it out - if you liked the food or not. I get the impression you were less than excited about it, but willing to give it another shot. Am I getting that right?
I'm going to head over there in the near future - yes, even before we go to the Green Olive - for lunch, purely on the basis of your post. Thanks.
And, further down that strip mall, there's a sweet little Vietnamese place (or there used to be) that bears re-visiting. Remarkable food, as I recall, but that was a couple of years ago. I'll check that out, too.
Again, thanks for the reconnoiter.