A gem at the foot of the mountain

Restaurant review - China Palace

Restaurant review - China Palace

January 18, 2009|By OMNI VORE

I arranged to meet my friends from the city at Gabby's in Smithsburg, but I looked in vain in the Village Square Shopping Center. The wind blew and I stumbled into China Palace, tucked into the corner next to the Food Lion.

"Gabby's closed," I was told. So I sniffed, liked the aroma and decided that Omni Vore and friends would eat here. The place was small, lodged between the Food Lion and the empty Gabby's next door. The menu, in pictures and words, was up on the wall above the counter. The printed menu distinguished between hot offerings in red ink and mild dishes in green ink.

My friends were driving over the mountains to meet me and they were late. So I ordered a pot of tea and looked around. The walls were lavender; the floor was tiled in huge maroon tiles. The lighting was recessed fluorescent. There was a picture of a river in a gorge on one wall and a rendering of seven golden horses on a red background with six Chinese pictographs on another wall.


A chill wind came in each time the door opened. There was no music. On my table was a stainless steel rack holding napkins, sugar, salt and pepper. Utensils - without chopsticks - were wrapped in a napkin. Two large calendars with smiling Asian women were in the corner. The swinging door to the kitchen had a diamond-shaped window and the door itself was flanked with hanging red lanterns, tassels and red paper.

The scene reminded me of something. And then I remembered.

Other than the arctic breeze and the silence, I could have been in Chinatown in San Francisco where restaurants like this abound. These restaurants understand that the heart of the restaurant business is ample, fresh, good food, reasonably priced, served hot. Ambience was minimal. Staff was family. Cleanliness was not paramount. But the food was downright delicious.

When my friends came, we ordered happily, striving for variety so we could taste different foods. I ordered shrimp in tea sauce. Amy ordered beef in garlic sauce, Beth ordered chicken with cashews and Meg ordered dry-sauted, shredded beef. Along with each of these lunch specials came soup or egg roll and white or fried rice.

Our host served the appetizers immediately. My pork egg roll was delicious, just fried, very hot, filled with steaming cabbage and bits of red pork, served with a duck sauce and mustard. Heaven! I shared with no one.

My friends ordered soup - hot-and-sour, egg drop and wonton. Amy exclaimed over the fresh mushrooms in her hot-and-sour soup; she also liked the scallions, carrots, onions and little bits of tofu.

Beth liked her won ton soup. This was a clear broth, mild and slightly sweet. Beth was from the city and did not recognize that local slippery pot pie noodles replaced won ton wrappers. Adaptation is a survival technique. Indeed, serving soup as an initial course is not traditional for a Chinese meal, but it is expected in these parts and so it is. The bland egg drop soup which Meg ate was made with real eggs and thickened with cornstarch.

None of the soups were salty. I am sensitive to MSG and did not get any reaction so I assume the food was free of MSG.

Our entres arrived. My Cantonese shrimp dish with hot-spicy tea sauce was a mounded plate of carrots, snow peas, broccoli, mushrooms, baby corn, carrot strips, onion strips and five enormous shrimp. An underlying luscious flavor I recognized: star anise. I offered to share my entre, but my heart wasn't in it and no one took me up on my offer. I wanted this for myself. The meal was fresh and flavorful.

Amy ordered Cantonese beef with garlic sauce. She said it was sweet and very garlicky, a combination of beef, carrots, celery, cabbage and just the right amount of heat. Beth ordered the cashew chicken, usually a favorite of mine. But in this case, the chicken was gristly and fried in a batter. It was served with chunks of carrots, celery, baby corn, onion, bok choy and cashews.

Meg's dry-sauted, shredded beef was everyone's favorite. The beef was julienned. The carrots were shredded. This hot dish also included onions, green peppers and celery.

There were no mystery ingredients in any of the dishes. Carrots, celery, onions, peas and broccoli were all recognizable. The spicy food was not too hot. Amy reported that the heat did not burn her tongue, but created a pleasant heat sensation in the back of her mouth.

Our waiter, the son of the owner, liked to talk. He told us about their first restaurant in the Bronx and their second in the former Ames Shopping Center in Hagerstown. He told of their happiness with their move to Smithsburg three years ago. They liked the people and the beauty of the hills and the safety of the community. He said he intends to open several more Chinese restaurants in the county.

More good restaurants like China Palace would be a good thing. Their very substantial meals gave good quality for the money. Our overall conclusion: China Palace is a tiny gem of a restaurant tucked into a corner of the mountain fastness of Washington County.

We finished our tea and opened our fortune cookies. Longevity. Happiness. Friends. Warmth.

China Palace

3 stars (out of 5)

Food: 4 stars
Service: 2 stars
Ambience: 1 star
Value: 5 stars

Address: 22405 Jefferson Blvd., Village Square Shopping Center in Smithsburg.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednedsays through Mondays.

Phone: 301-824-7300

Style: Chinese food

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