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May 17, 2010 10:07 PM

You drive by this random strip mall somewhere in America...

And there is this little Chinese place. You think, American Chinese, serving your standard General's chicken, walnut shrimp, plate lunches. King Palace may just be that place. They have the usual American Chinese dishes. But look deeper, and you'll find a pretty good little Cantonese place. Not all their dishes are good, but pay attention to waitress Anna, and she'll tell you exactly what dishes to order. They roast their own roast duck. Their macau roast pork is excellent. Fish fillet with three kinds of mushroom is also excellent. When you are deep in suburbia, finding a little gem in a strip mall is worth the drive.

King Palace
11040 Bollinger Canyon Rd, San Ramon, CA 94582

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  1. You're either very, very lucky or very, very good. I don't know how many dozens of strip-mall Chinese places I've tried blind. But only one - count 'em, one - has yielded a pleasant surprise. And that place went out of business.

    You, on the other hand, have pointed me and other hounds toward CF Cheng's (Natomas), Golden Dragon (Rocklin), and probably other places I can't remember at the moment.

    Is there some magic formula for getting Anna (or whoever the waitress is) to recommend the good stuff? Do you have to be of East Asian descent to get her to tell you the truth and stop pushing the sweet-and-sour chicken?

    Tell a man which Chinese restaurant has good food and he'll eat well for a few meals. Teach him to figure out which places have good food and he'll eat well for a lifetime...

    3 Replies
    1. re: alanbarnes

      Just to underline a fundamental point, PeterL took a crucial approach that many diners (even ones who consider themselves serious about food) don't. He didn't try to order his own favorite dishes, but rather the _restaurant's_ favorite dishes.

      Granted, some Chinese restaurants make this harder for non-Chinese-looking diners, pushing things they assume non-Chinese patrons "like." (I'm unsure which is more striking, the fact that they do that, or the fact that it works -- which is why they do it, for good business reasons. Statistically, many non-Chinese diners DO like General's chicken, won ton soup, etc. One very successful Pensinsula Chinese restaurateur, "Chef" Lawrence C. C. Chu, said in a recent interview that he more or less founded his restaurant on that business principle.) But unlike many diners, PeterL DID show interest in the kitchen's own specialties, and it paid off. I find this approach helpful in many restaurants, everywhere, including internationally.

      1. re: eatzalot

        I have no problem with giving the customers what they want. In most of the US, a strip-mall Chinese place would go out of business if it didn't serve General's chicken and won ton soup. And if the kitchen staff is only trained to produce Americanized Chinese food, I'll eat my Mongolian beef and like it.

        But plenty of places prepare dishes beyond - and better than - the typical stuff. And for somebody who's not Chinese and doesn't speak the language, getting information about these dishes is too often like pulling teeth. I want to order the restaurant's favorite dishes; I just wish somebody would just tell me what they are!

        1. re: alanbarnes

          "for somebody who's not Chinese and doesn't speak the language, getting information about these dishes is too often like pulling teeth." I agree.

          For what it's worth, when that proves to be true, I've found that showing, early in the contact, an above-average willingness to spread around some "tips" (to use the customary US language) can sharply enhance both English fluency and openness.

      1. re: rworange

        That translates as Toishan style savory (salty) meat zhongzhi (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf). Judging by the use of shorthand characters, the chefs/owners may be from China (or Southern China).

      2. I wonder how many more of these gems exist in the "far east bay". It's pretty easy to find great regional Chinese in Fremont or Oakland, where the menus are less Americanized. Much harder to get underneath the suburban Americanization.

        Whenever I go to Lily's House, I see the other tables with general's chicken and the like and I cringe. The Shanghainese food is SO GOOD... why, oh why, must you order the bad stuff? I wouldn't care, but it makes it that much harder for some of us pale folks to convince the staff we want the good stuff!

        Anyway, I'm wondering what other Chinese restaurants from Lamorinda to San Ramon have hidden gem regional dishes. Ideas?

        Lily's House
        3555 Mt Diablo Blvd, Lafayette, CA 94549

        1. Nice report. Vetting a mom and pop Cantonese place can take time and patience...and a few bummer dishes. If a place has 182 menu items, not all can be good...probably more like 35-50. The secret of course is figuring which ones. Sounds like PeterL has more insight into this then just asking the waitress however, although no doubt her attitude helped out.