Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wang's Place

Long, long before I went to places like Din Tai Fung and Luscious Dumplings, back before I would eat at Yang Chow or Yujean Kang, and even before I ate at Panda Express, Chinese food meant one thing to me: Wang's Palace in Monrovia. I could not begin to estimate how many meals I ate from that place over the years. My parents had their credit card on file and my brother and I could call, give their customer number, and 25 minutes later the food would arrive at the door.

I never ordered anything other than Americanized Chinese food. I'm not sure if anyone in my family did. Hell, I'm not sure if they serve anything but such food. Though once, when my mom's step-sister, an avid lover of ducks, was visiting from Holland, my dad sarcastically asked if the waiter if they served duck. The poor guy - English was certainly not his first language - did not get the joke and brought out a dead duck, complete with head, for our inspection. Marie screamed. I laughed.

Then, when I got into my late teens and started trying different kinds of Chinese food, not to mention started eating at dim sum places in Monterey Park and San Gabriel, Wang's Palace all but vanished from my mind. I can't recall a single meal there during my adult life.

A few years back, when I read that Wang's Palace changed its name to Wang's Place and moved around the corner, from Myrtle Avenue to Lemon, my reaction was similar to hearing that Allen Iverson was finishing his career in Turkey: Who cares?

Yesterday, however, my brother wanted to take me out for lunch. Our original plan had been to go to one of two places out in the Inland Empire. But something came up and I had to be in Burbank in the afternoon; not wanting to drive 150 miles in one day, I suggested we meet somewhere in the Arcadia/Monrovia area. Just for the hell of it I suggested Wang's Place.

There were only two other tables occupied when we walked in (at 12:15; by the time we left an hour later most of the tables were taken) and we were given our choice of several tables. We took one by the window.

The placemats bring you up to speed on Chinese astrology.

Wang's Place has an extensive menu but at lunch it's much simpler, and that's the menu we were given. My brother appreciated the brevity. "It makes it easier for me to order," he explained.

We were given a pot of tea to start, which did not surprise us, and salads, which did - we had not yet ordered anything. What if all we wanted was tea and an order of egg rolls? Would they still have given us salads? At any rate, it was tasty. The dressing was slightly sweet and, while the lettuce and noodles had nothing going on, they were crisp and crunchy.

The sweet and sour sauce was one of the best I have ever had at a restaurant. It was sweet but actually sour as well. I know that's what the sauce is called, but it's extremely rare that a sweet and sour sauce tastes of anything other than sweetness.

I was excited when the waiter gave me something called a hot-cold towel. Was it both? Would it decide which I needed and give me that sensation? Was it like IcyHot where it would change from cold to hot?

Oh. It means if you put it in the microwave it gets hot and if you put it in the fridge it gets cold. In other words, it's like every other f**king towel in the world. I don't know why I ever get my hopes up.

We started with the "Mixed Of Hot Appetizers (For 2)" - an item as impressive looking as it is awkwardly named. There were spareribs, rumaki, egg rolls, fried wontons, paper-wrapped chicken, and skewers of teriyaki beef. All centered around a flaming bowl.

"Do you heat things up with this?" I asked my brother.

"Yes!" he replied incredulously. "You don't remember this? This was the only thing I liked about this restaurant."

"The only thing? What about the time they brought out the dead duck for Aunt Marie?"

"Well, yeah, that was cool, too."

I did not remember the flames, nor did I understand it: the food was already really hot. It required no additional cooking.

The rumaki was liver wrapped in bacon, so I didn't take any of that, but I took some of the rest, and they were all quite tasty, with the exception of the pork.

The pork was chewy, fatty, and just plain gross. I took one little nibble and said "No more."

For those of you who like action shots, here is my brother grilling his kabob of beef over the flame. He was disappointed that the skewer did not have cherries on it, as he remembered from twenty years ago.

He also briefly kissed his egg roll to the flame, though I think that was more to get a grill line or two on it, as they were already really hot.

And delicious. Maybe not as good as the egg rolls at Golden China in South Pasadena that I eat about once a week, but really good.

My brother expressed disappointment that the paper-wrapped chicken was not the solid mass of formed chicken that it used to be, but rather several small pieces of chicken sealed in the foil. I guess I preferred it the way it used to be, but this chicken was so damn good that I didn't really care that much. Especially since...

... I requested some hot mustard, which turned out to be the sinus-clearing stuff that I love. 

The juicy chicken with the spicy mustard was a wonderful combination. 

"I don't really see what that's going to accomplish," my brother commented when I put my fried wonton on the flame and left it there. 

You know, I don't really eat enough meals these days where I have the opportunity to set my food on fire. 

My brother also ordered a bowl of wonton soup, large enough to bathe in - you know, if he bathed. He really liked the soup. I mean, I didn't ask him, but just assumed since he finished the bowl...

... except for the shrimp, which he still doesn't like. No big deal. If I hadn't already recognized that I was going to have too much food for this lunch, I would have eaten them. But we had already started to put together a to-go box for our dad, who was taking the day off work.

I received a cup of hot and sour soup before my lunch special. It was fine - hot and tasty, but indistinguishable from hundreds of similar soups I have had over the years. 

The sweet and sour shrimp were a dish I used to frequently eat... 20 years ago. I didn't remember too much about them, but decided to try them again. I both loved and hated them. The shrimp were juicy, perfectly cooked and very crispy. They were great.

But the sauce, besides being a color not of this world, was sickeningly sweet. Most sweet and sour sauces, as I mentioned earlier, skew towards the sweet and not so much the sour. But this was just too much. If you mixed honey and ketchup, you would not be far off. I could handle eating the shrimp, since they were so tasty, but the vegetables (onion and bell pepper) were inedible. I wish I'd gotten to eat these shrimp in a better sauce; they certainly deserved better.

My brother ordered the Hot Szechuan Beef and gave me a few bites. I liked it very much - just salty enough, a touch spicy, and the veggies complemented the beef nicely.

This is what we assembled to take by my parents' house for our dad - the rumaki, one wonton, one rib, the shrimp from my brother's wonton soup, and my fried rice, which I hadn't much cared for. He loved the rumaki, thought the rib was just bone and gristle (which it was) and didn't bother trying the rice.

Well, you can judge that for yourself tomorrow, dear reader. It is something I put a fair amount of effort into...

It was a lot of fun being back at Wang's Palace Place with my brother. We spent so many meals here together when we were young. If you had asked us 20 years ago if there would ever be a better Chinese restaurant, we might not have even considered the answer.

But I realize now that it's only average. There is nothing wrong with it and some of the appetizers were quite good, but off the top of my head I can think of dozens of places in the San Gabriel Valley that serve comparable food (for less money; Wang's Place is by no means expensive but neither would I call it a particularly good value). Like Shakey's or Tony Roma's or Bob's Big Boy, Wang's Place is a restaurant that used to mean a lot to me and now means nothing. I don't see any reason I will ever eat there again, and I'm okay with that.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

Fritos and Foie Gras said...

awww you really can't revisit an old favorite the same way, hunh? I will say that there is nothing like a good ole fashioned retro pu-pu platter!

Michelle said...

I had a Powershot too and I never liked the macro shots. Some of these photos are flat out amazing, especially the one of yo bro grilling the beef.

Anonymous said...

ended on a wistful note.

JustinM said...

Anon: Thanks.

Fritos: Nope, you can't step in same river twice.

Michelle: I had two Powershots, the first was primitive by today's technology (though still great); the second was great at outdoor photos, but macro and anything with the flash was lacking.

Anon: I would have said accepting that this is how life goes, particularly with the last five words... but your interpretation belongs to you and is thus no less valid.

Liz said...

You are more critical of places on return trips than most people. But that is what makes your comparisons so great!