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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

Oriental Palace Adds to Mira Mesa Lineup

February 27, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Mira Mesa Boulevard, which might be said to divide North County from the main body of the city of San Diego, may well develop into a strip of Chinese eateries that will unite lovers of the cuisine from both sides of the line.

There certainly are plenty of Chinese houses already along the boulevard, with more on the way in the commercial centers springing up both near Interstate 15 and, toward the western end of the strip, in the Sorrento Mesa district. By no means are all of them great or even good.

When out on the prowl for something new, a good approach is to read the menu before requesting a table. If the list includes a few dishes that seem novel--many Chinese menus now include "house specialties" pages, some vastly more sincere than others--this may be the place to try.

Oriental Palace, in a generic mall midway between Interstates 805 and 15, has itself the contemporary generic Chinese restaurant look that, among new restaurants, has supplanted the rampant dragons and hanging lanterns of old-style Cantonese cafes.

This is a cool and pleasant enough style, executed in pale peach and turquoise tones that would look more inviting were the lights less insistent. The most attractive feature may be the small tank near the entrance from which Dungeness crabs and Maine lobsters wave their claws at potential consumers. Well-priced at $9.95 and $11.95, respectively (prices and availability of course vary with the market), both of these are happy in either a mild white sauce flavored with ginger or the more robust black bean sauce, to which the kitchen adds a fair amount of garlic. The standing menu suggests lobster "Imperial" in a spicy Szechuan treatment, which, frankly, seems capable of overwhelming this delicate meat, although Oriental Palace generally goes easy on Szechuan flavorings.

The Peking smoked chicken offers a break from the standard choices on the appetizer list. A rather elegant dish that almost resembles crisp, brown confetti, it tastes just faintly smoky. The meat, shredded and quickly browned, is heavily sprinkled with the spiced salt favored in northern China; this is delicious, but if you're watching your salt intake, this definitely would be a dish to avoid. Three elements give the preparation an edge: thick slices of garlic, browned enough to make them slightly bitter and very pungent; chewy lengths of scallion green, and, at either end of the plate, crackling piles of fried seaweed that add a slight taste of parsley.

Among other starters--the list includes the usual dumplings and roast pork slices--the sesame shrimp turns out to be shrimp toast, or triangles of bread covered with shrimp paste and seeds, fried to a deep gold. Oddly enough, these were tough and disagreeable.

The soups, however, are excellent, especially the won ton soup, a popular standby in which most Chinese restaurants invest little to no effort. This one featured a dark, deeply flavored broth, along with well-stuffed pasta packages and a bright garnish of still-crunchy greens that added a good deal of savor. The hot and sour soup had the proper body (this brew often seems like a thin stew), but seemed shy on the strong flavorings that lend it an identity.

The specialties list, shorter than most, includes a Hunan beef different from that served elsewhere. An excellent dish, it finished the thinnest shreds of beef, coated and crisply fried, with a sauce of some heat that contained delicious undertones of sweetness. Chinese food is capable of great complexity, not often encountered at local restaurants and always welcome when found. Also on the specials page, the Peking spareribs actually are pork chops, highly seasoned and fried. Other offerings seem fairly standard.

Every Chinese restaurant serves moo shu dishes because everybody likes them; as with won ton soup and other popular items, these preparations frequently get little attention from the kitchen. Oriental Palace served a beef moo shu that seemed too generously sauced but rather pallid in flavor.

The Mandarin pan-fried noodles, on the other hand, seemed to have been cooked attentively and contained juicy shrimp and moist chunks of chicken and beef. The flavor was just sufficiently sharp.

The restaurant features many Szechuan dishes but, on the whole, seems to approach seasoning with temerity. This was true of the yu - shiang chicken (the dish is available with other meats or, on the specials list, as the grand-slam yu - shiang san shein , which includes shrimp, chicken and beef), a tasty but mild dish that lacked the robustness associated with Szechuan cooking.

Oriental Palace

6785 Mira Mesa Blvd., San Diego

Calls: 552-8846

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Entrees $4.50 to $12.95; dinner for two, including one glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $18 to $35.

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