When it comes to Taiwanese cuisine, I'm like a bitter old widower who can't stop comparing every woman he meets to his late wife. Yes, there was a Taiwanese restaurant I loved and lost and nothing will replace her. Yet Taiwanese food is an important subset of Chinese cuisine and when word of a restaurant reaches me, I wipe my tears and check it out.
This one's called China Palace, and as all New Jersey food fans know, any place called "palace" is going to be a bit less than palatial. This lack of palatial-ness didn't quite prepare me for reality; China Palace is the dark former bar of a dismal, beige bowling alley. Park in the lot by the pickup trucks and if you've come when they're open, you take a seat near the bar and check out the biggest surprise on Route 35: a complete and well-translated Taiwanese menu. Just when you thought you'd be lucky to get a stale eggroll and an umbrella drink, you realize you can choose from mushroom sticky rice, stir-fried oysters, and thickened Taiwanese-style potages.
I ordered the squid and mushroom potage and the mushroom sticky rice and was overwhelmed by memories. There was that rich, acidic broth that was as thick as oatmeal when it was put in front of you and thin as water by the time it cooled. The sticky rice was like fried rice, but an idealized fried rice without the grease.
In the time-honored New Jersey Chinese menu tradition, Deep Fry Meatball wasn't deep fried, nor was it a meatball. Instead, it was a bun made from starch filled with pieces of pork with a rich, French-looking and Taiwanese-tasting gravy. Braised beef noodle soup was accurately described and well worth trying, but this doesn't even scratch the surface—there were at least twenty more noodle soups to get through. Besides these noodle soups, the menu lists a pretty interesting selection of stir-fry dishes, but I have yet to be able to bring a group here in order to try them.
One Sunday night at 7 p.m., I was the only customer. I sat at my booth, bowling noises in the background, and wondered, "What's going on here?" Here's one of the very few outposts of Taiwan food in the state and nobody's here. The food is good, the menu is unique, but the place was all but abandoned. How many people from this area spent thirty bucks a pop on train fare and parking to visit Chinatown today? How much better would their meal have been had they come here instead?
China Palace Restaurant
1815 State Route 35, Middletown NJ 07748 (map) 732-957-0554 Dinner is served only once a week; from 5:30 to 8:15 P.M on Sundays, and on Weekdays, you can get lunch from 11:45 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. so plan you cravings for Taiwan cuisine carefully.
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